A ferry in Freetown, Sierra Leone

A trip to Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone is in the news at the moment for the wrong reasons, with the Ebola outbreak making headlines around the world. I thought it would be a good time therefore to write about a trip to Sierra Leone which was altogether more positive, in this West African state that I have found to be friendly and fun.

Anyone who has travelled to Sierra Leone and arrived by air has probably landed at Freetown Airport, which is actually in nearby Lungi, on a peninsula separated from the city by the mouth of the Sierra Leone river and Tagrin bay. Lungi itself is relaxed, and the airport hotel has a bar a short walk from the rooms and restaurants where guests can watch the sun go down over the very pleasant beach whilst sipping a cocktail. It could be a scene from the Caribbean or the Indian Ocean. Lungi was an RAF base, and the port was used during World War II as a Royal Navy base.

There are a few options to get to the city itself. You could drive, but it’s a very long way. There is a helicopter service, and there are a series of ferries, from large vessels to water taxis that cross back and forth. The larger ferries are filled with people taking all sorts of things to sell, or with items that they have bought, back and forward, and the ships are packed with passengers.

On this particular trip, we sat in the passenger lounge upstairs, where a karaoke DVD was playing. I have written previously about the journey, because the slightly unusual choice of music for this ferry crossing was Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On, the love theme from the film Titanic. Thankfully, this turned out not to be a bad omen, and the Freetown shore was soon in sight.

The ferry was soon in harbour, and the passengers disembarked as quickly as they had got on board, and headed into the city, with the Libyan registered ferries preparing for their return journey.

Freetown was set up as a colony for freed slaves in 1792 by John Clarkson, hence its name. The city is diverse, and filled with people from various ethnic groups and religions.

For a capital city, Freetown has plenty of quiet little back streets, which certainly give a more rural feel than you might expect.

Some of these narrow little streets are a challenge to drive along, with vehicles coming the other way, and often large drops at the side of the street. Although they look like back streets, some of these are relatively busy thoroughfares across the city.

The city’s rural feel is further accentuated by the large number of trees that grow in the area, with some of the suburbs made up of houses among the trees in the hills.

The city is located where a series of hills meet the sea, and views of the Atlantic ocean are never far away, whether in the distance from the top of a hill, or at the end of a nearby street where the pleasant beaches can be seen.

There are, of course, busier parts of the city, but even these have a relatively relaxed feel that differs from my experience of other West African cities like Lagos, Abuja or Accra.

I did note the large number of places of worship through the city. Religious buildings never seemed to be far away, and many had a familiar European look, in keeping of the names of many of the streets and districts.

We headed back to Lungi, on a fast but small ferry, and watched the sun go down. It was very pleasant, although I was surprised when walking along the quiet road from the ferry to the hotel to hear a voice call out a cheery greeting in a broad Belfast accent. It turns out that a company from Northern Ireland were working at the airport at the time.

We were joined by some local children at the beach, who were keen to learn some new skills when they found out that one of the people with me was a drummer. An upturned bucket and a couple of sticks stood in for a professional drum kit, and the next generation of Lungi learned to be noisier if not more melodic.

I have spent quite a bit of time in West Africa over the years, and Freetown seemed to me to be one of the most relaxed of the capital cities that I have visited in the area. Let’s hope that the Ebola outbreak there will be relatively short lived.