Mellow reggae drifts over from the bar as I stand on Tokeh Beach, tinged gold by a glorious sunset, with G&T in hand and gentle warm waves tickling my feet. It’s an idyllic tropical setting that could easily be mistaken for the Seychelles, but few visitors venture here despite its beauty. Welcome to Sierra Leone.
In the summer of 2014, 12 years after the end of a devastating decade-long civil war, Sierra Leone went into lockdown just when it should have been booming. The cruel and catastrophic Ebola virus was running rampant and the country screeched to a halt. Mining companies, the mainstay of its extraordinary post-conflict recovery, packed up and left; schools closed; airlines stopped flying; farmers abandoned their fields. By March 2016, when the West African nation was finally declared Ebola-free, nearly 4,000 people had died.
Unsurprisingly, travellers stayed away, but Sierra Leone is now very much back in business. And Rob Morley, co-founder of Tailormade Africa and Africa Marathons, is campaigning to revive the country’s tourism industry. Working with British charity Street Child, he’s donating £30 from every booking to help the 12,000 children affected by Ebola and is one of the few tour operators offering trips here.
“Sierra Leone has a negative image, yet it has huge potential,” says Morley. “It’s a work in progress, so it needs travellers with a sense of adventure and patience. People need to see the positives. Their religious tolerance and peaceful elections deserve credit, especially in today’s climate. And there’s the amazing resilience of the country, which was true even before Ebola.”
There are other positives too. KLM started new flights from Amsterdam in March. New roads are improving access to the Western Peninsula’s popular beaches and to Tiwai Island, a 12km2 forested reserve with one of the world’s highest densities of primates. New hotels are springing up around the country, including Radisson Blu and Hilton in the chaotic capital, Freetown. Even cruise ships are returning: once regularly docking in the world’s third largest natural harbour, Silversea visited Freetown in April with a repeat cruise scheduled for 2018.
Sierra Leone’s communities are slowly recovering from Ebola (Will Whitford )
It was slave-trade ships that drew British colonialists here from 1670 to 1807. An hour’s boat-ride from Freetown brings us to Bunce Island, once the country’s biggest slave port. Some…