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SIERRA LEONE

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Canoes on the shores of Tokeh River

I remember seeing snippets of Sierra Leone from my friend’s Instagram photos with the hashtag #dontcare. The connection, probably none but the point is that I got a glimpse of what Sierra Leone might be like and I dreamed of going there. It was sunset by the beachfront, eating skewered seafood on white sands and a view from the balcony overlooking a very basic scenery seemingly untouched by time. The Instagram collage was a mix of snaps from Freetown and part of the Western Sierra Leonean peninsula. It would be everything I had imagined plus more. That dream had come true when a couple of my friends and I decided we would go to Sierra Leone after winding up our Casablanca excursions.

There wasn’t much left to do in Morocco after attending Amine’s wedding ceremony while we still had a week of vacation time left to exhaust. Luckily, we managed to snug a good deal on flights to Sierra Leone and we grabbed the opportunity with open hands. We bade farewell to Amine and his bride as they set-off for their honeymoon to Paris and we boarded our flight to Freetown.

Bompeto - Turtle Islands

Bompeto – Turtle Islands

Despite having an idea of what to expect to find in Sierra Leone, it was paramount to clear our minds of any assumptions and prepare for anything. I have found that traveling with an open mind removes any mental limitations that the mind might place on enjoying your destination. The flight lasted six hours from Casablanca to Lungi International Airport in Freetown. Lungi is actually the local name of the international airport which otherwise is known as Freetown International Airport and is the only international airport in Sierra Leone. A porter helping us with our bags, even though there was really no need, tells us that the airport recently received a facelift about four or five years ago with assistance from the Chinese. It is located in the coastal town of of Lungi where the Sierra Leone river separated Lungi International Airport from Freetown, the nation’s capital city.

We were directed to where we could catch a water taxi to get us to the peninsula which we were anxious to get to already. We managed to secure passage on the Pelican Sea Coach for $40. The water taxi was actually a speed boat used as public transport for locals and tourists alike. Squished against each other, we sped off to the west. There were other forms of transportation of course, however, after much consultation and prior research, the speed boat water taxi is what we settled for. Alternatively, you could either drive to Aberdeen or fly there using helicopter. A drive would take approximately three hours whereas the flight would be the quickest among the three modes of transport. Going by speed boat was voted and recommended to be the safest option in spite of not being the fastest. Our 45 minutes speed boat right which cost $40 was concluded with a sneak preview of blue water and white sands.

Chateres Canoe rests on the shore of Turtle Island

Chateres Canoe rests on the shore of Turtle Island

It was starting to get late and we were quite tired from being on the plane from Casablanca. We decided that it was best to spend a night in Freetown at Lumley beach to unwind and explore some nearby places by checking out the nightlife. Lumley beach is known as the Beach Bar area because there are lots of bars and restaurants right by the beach and what better way to unwind than to see what happens when people let loose? Although we were enthusiastic about checking out the night spots, our bodies were not willing at all and just wanted to lay down. After all, Lumley beach was not our final destination. So our night out was short lived as we quickly went back to retire for the night at Radisson Blu Mammy Yoko.

Day 1

Bright and early, we were ready to leave by 4:00am even though the taxi was only coming to pick us up at 6:00am. Breakfast was uneventful as we twiddled our thumbs waiting for the taxi, Tokeh was on our minds, the shores of rejuvenation awaited us! The drive to Tokeh Beach Resort took 45 minutes on the beach road. Unfortunately, our hope for a smooth journey was crashed when we ventured onto an unpaved motorway. Although the distance is only 10KMs away, the bad road makes the journey longer. In spite this; we were keen to maintain the positive vibes.

Upon arrival we were welcomed to some freshly squeezed ginger juice. It hit the right spot and provided the much needed refreshment we needed to kickstart the day. Our sinuses flared open by those gingery properties and we were now officially inducted to Sierra Leone. “Aw yu du?” the receptionist greeted us as he handed over the keys to our assigned room. “A wan go for wata,” I mischievously tested my Krio which was derivative of the little Nigerian pidgin I know. Laughter and jibberish chatter ensued which I think was excitement that I could speak the local dialect. I waved my hand while vigoriously shaking my head and emphasised, “a no sabi,” which translates to “I don’t understand.” My friends said I deserved whatever jibberish was thrown my way for showing off. We got to our rooms which were quite basic but functional. The beds looked comfortable enough and that’s all that mattered.

Embraced by white sands, the beach was a sight to behold. Posing against a backdrop of green hilly outcrops, it was a picture right out of a travel magazine. The tide was low enough for us to extensively walk around the pier. We crossed Tokeh beach and walked over to River No. 2. We had managed to secure the best locations to experience the Sierra Leonean peninsula at these two places – Tokeh Beach and River No. 2. Apparently they are simply the best and one must visit there when in Sierra Leone.

Baki - Turtle Islands main village

Baki – Turtle Islands main village

The rest of the day was spent lounging on the beach and soaking in literally everything by the water. The locals walked around selling various items. The best items being sold were fresh fruit from the women. We feasted on the produce like it was the first time we had eaten fruits. The sweetness of the mangoes brought back a bit of Zanzibar nostalgia.

Back at the resort, we were served the ubiquitous Pamay around 5:00pm that was our supper. Sierra Leone’s plasas, or palaver sauces which are also known as Pamay is the name given to a variety of dishes in which green leaves (usually Cassava) are boiled and cooked with red palm oil, hot chillies (called “peppers” pronounced pepe here), onion, meat and/or fish, and ever-present stock cubes (i.e., Maggi), served over rice.

We soon discovered that there was hardly anything like rules at the Resort. Food can be served at any time. The bar is open all day and all night. The most interesting thing we saw were orange flames blazing from the beach front. We ran down there and found people with their drinks while dancing, running and drinking. It was a bonfire beach party!

Day 2

The next day was another early morning. If we were to make the most of our Turtle Island excursion then we had to leave as soon as it was bright enough to get on the boat. The view from the balcony of our room was simply to die for. The expansive blue water stretched beyond the white sands while the green mountains towered over the wharf. Our breakfast was served under one of the red umbrellas that dotted over the landscape of the Resort surroundings. While we ate, fishermen pulled their fishing nets from the river in synchronised motion. The scene looked choreographed as one man dragged the weight of the net and the others pulled. Drag, pull, drag, pull, drag pull! Breakfast was simple consisting scrambled eggs and less than desirable coffee yet the sights we beheld made it taste delicious.

We walked down to the pier hoping to hitch a canoe ride to Turtle Island. The staff advised that if we wanted the most local experience then canoe was our best option. However as we walked around making small talk with the locals at the beach we met Issam and his crew. They had overheard us asking how to get to Turtle Island and invited us to join them. We offered our sack of potatoes as payment to which Issam gladly accepted and said that the potatoes would be handy as a gift to the hospitable locals who awaited us at Turtle island. Armed with our tents and overnight gear we started off in their speed boat.

Tuna Fish -  Turtle Islands

Tuna Fish – Turtle Islands

Thanks to the speed boat, it only took 3 hours to get to Turtle Island as opposed to 6 hours that it would have taken by canoe. “There’s Banana Island,” shouted Issam over the speed boat engine sound. There are about eight smaller islands on Turtle Islands each with its own personality. Rather than immediately go to set camp we ventured 10KMs away from Turtle island were we hit stunning blue water. “Finally!” we unanimously sighed in unison. Issam cut off the engine and got readied the fishing gear –rods, hooks et.al. The ice was also prepped and ready for the big catch. No sooner had Issam cast his line than the rod got weighed down. Something heavy was caught on the hook! It felt instant, it was too fast. It must have been hungry to immediately have been attracted by the bait. Issam was busy pumping and lifting the rod vertically while simultaneously reeling in vain. His crew which included a guy named Big Sam rushed over to the other side of the boat to make sure we didn’t tip over. “It must be a sail fish,” Big Sam predicted. It was the most dramatic fishing experience I have ever seen. “You need a lot of life in you to catch a big fish,” my friends and I were told. After a theatrical half an over maybe even more, the fish got reeled in. It was a blue marlin, a sail fish just as Big Sam had predicted! “Way to go!” We hang out on the boat a few more hours and caught more fish. My friends and I didn’t have quite as dramatic an experience as Issam but to this day we vicariously reminisce about it as if it were our own catch.

Sailfish - Turtle Islands

Sailfish – Turtle Islands

We set camp on a sparsely populated sand back on Turtle Island. Just as our speed boat docked, the locals came over to welcome us with various items for sale. As goodwill, we bought fish from the villagers as a way to support their livelihood. Because we bought so much from them, they gave us a baby shark as a bonus. “It is common practice to buy things from the curious locals even if you don’t need it,” advised Issam. To this, we remembered the sack of potatoes among our possessions. We gave it to Issam who the presented it to the women and children. The ululations that ensued were startling. It was as if the women had received fifty sacks of potatoes instead of one.

Lunchtime consisted of a seafood buffet, roasted potatoes and the baby Shark which the locals had offered us. At first we were hesitant to eat the baby Shark. “If only it wasn’t a baby, it wouldn’t feel so savage eating it,” somebody murmured. But then we found comfort in the fact that even lamb is baby sheep so at the end of the day it was the same difference. It was even more of a relief when we discovered that baby Shark tastes just like crocodile meat, it was like eating chicken with the texture of fish. A fire was lit at night while we shared stories about the weirdest and grossest things we’ve eaten before. It was a disgusting and ridiculously funny conversation, maybe the baby Shark meat has some psychedelic effects, who knows!

No. 2 River - High Tide

No. 2 River – High Tide

Day 3

At Turtle Island, there is always something to do. Waking up to a view of the turquoise water and panoramic picture of the western peninsula wasn’t enough. You just have to go fishing and catch your breakfast. After all fishing is the best form of empowerment right. We caught our breakfast which we roasted over an open fire and quickly had our food. Day three was our last day in Sierra Leone. As a parting gift, Issam invited us to his place which he said was very close to Tokeh Beach Resort.

Upon arrival at the Big Bamboo Inn, the serenity that greeted us made us whish that we had actually stayed there the whole time. It was a missed opportunity not having stayed at the Big Bamboo Inn but still we were happy to get the chance to spend our last evening there with our newly made friends. We watched the sunset with our freshly made ginger juice with rum mixed in a coconut. Sunset by the beachfront, eating skewered seafood on white sands and a view from the balcony overlooking a very basic scenery seemingly untouched by time is exactly what the experience was. You will have one of the best times of your life in Sierra Leone and only know it after you have left.

A LITTLE BIT OF LACE

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