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Sweet, Sweet Salone: What It’s Like to Travel in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone Travel Blog“You’re going to Sierra Leone? Why you going there? They kill people there!”

These were the exact words the lady in the bank said (more like shrieked, actually) to me when I went to pay for my Sierra Leone visa.

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” I replied with a smile. It’s not the first time someone has said something like that to me and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

Tribal dancing, Sierra Leone

Little is written about Sierra Leone without references to the Civil War (1991 – 2002), the Ebola Epidemic (2014 – 2016) or the film Blood Diamond.

I am, myself just naming cliches here, but these are the first three things people mention when you tell them about to visit Sierra Leone. Usually preceded by the question “Isn’t it dangerous there?”

I’d wanted to visit Sierra Leone for years and I was due to go in 2014, but of course, that trip was cancelled when the Ebola outbreak happened and I ended up going back to Kenya and Tanzania instead.

Bureh Beach, Sierra Leone.

But Sierra Leone has been on my mind ever since and so I came up with a plan for the first Rock My Sierra Leone Adventure.

It was a ‘pioneer trip’ for Rock My Adventure and I was joined by 6 intrepid ladies.

Three of the girls had travelled with Rock My Adventure before (to Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda & the DRC and South Africa, eSwatini & Mozambique – two were on their third trip with me), so they kind of knew what they were getting themselves in for, one was a pretty seasoned Africa traveller (who dislikes tours) and two had never been to Africa or done anything like this before, talk about jumping in the deep end!

But they put their faith in me to give them an amazing trip and I wasn’t about to let them down.

Group tour in Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone is very different than what most people imagine.

Yes, there are still some issues, but I found the Sierra Leone I visited to be beautiful, vibrant, friendly, unspoilt and full of potential. I felt very safe too.

The locals call it ‘Sweet Salone’ and now, so do I. I think we all fell a little bit in love with this country.

Sierra Leone village.

I’d heard that Sierra Leone wasn’t exactly the easiest place for a solo traveller, and now having travelled to most of the main ‘tourist hot spots’, I’d probably agree to that.

Of course, it is possible to travel independently in Sierra Leone, but you can’t compare it to travelling in East or Southern Africa, in terms of tourist infrastructure. There aren’t many backpacker hostels and I’d say a lot of the hotels are overpriced for what they are.

If you’re looking to meet friends to travel with, then you may struggle.

Bureh Beach, Sierra Leone

Sure, we went in the shoulder season, but I think we only met one other person (a German girl) who was actually on ‘holiday’, in the whole time we were there, and she was visiting with her Sierra Leonian dad (who now lived abroad).

The other people we met were either local Sierra Leonians, expats, business travellers or Sierra Leonians who now lived in elsewhere, returning home to see family (usually recognisable by the huge bags of stuff they were bringing home for ‘Auntie’).

We didn’t meet any other backpackers/tourists, so if that’s what you are looking for, then you might be disappointed.

Even the locals we met seemed a bit confused as to why we were there.

A Sierra Leone welcome.

“You live in Freetown?”

“No, we’re just on holiday.”

“Here on business?”

“No, we’re just on holiday.”

“Which NGO do you work for?”

“No, we’re just on holiday.”

“Holiday in Sierra Leone?”

“Yes.”

I had this conversation, or some variant of it, probably at least a couple of times a day.

Lappa fabric shopping in Sierra Leone

Personally, despite being a pretty well-seasoned solo traveller, I was really glad to have been travelling in a small (and very awesome) group. Not because it was intimidating or anything like that, but because it was more fun and cheaper.

We got to do things that would have been really difficult and expensive if we’d been on our own.

And I couldn’t have asked for better travel companions.

We were all prepared for the fact that the trip might be a bit rough and ready, and in some places, it was, but that was all part of the appeal for all of us.

Turtle Islands, Sierra Leone

Travelling in Sierra Leone felt like a real adventure. An old school, crazy, unpredictable and fun adventure.

I looked as though I’d been dragged through a hedge for half the trip and I remember at one point, after a particularly hot night hike through the jungle, taking off my top to get into bed and finding a pair of termite wings (no termite, just it’s wings) stuck to my sweaty stomach. Lovely.

Things weren’t always perfect, but the best travel adventures never are. And… Oh. My. God. We laughed so much.

Boat trip on the River Moa.

Hands down, one of the best trips of my life.

Oh, the things we did…

Sailing across the Atlantic to the remote Turtle Islands, meeting the local people, eating fresh fish and coconuts, camping out on the beach (with no toilets), getting into what we affectionately called ‘Beef With the Chief’ (I’ll explain that another time)…

The Turtle Islands, Sierra Leone

Shakin’ what our mama’s gave us in a local village…

Sierra Leone Group Tour

Getting invited to a boat launch on the Banana Islands, where we said prayers, threw food, whiskey and money into the boat (if you watch my Instagram Stories, you’ll see how bonkers that was), got baptised by the local minister (still not really sure how that even happened)…

Banana Islands, Sierra Leone

Cruising down the beautiful River Moa, in the middle of a rainforest in a dugout canoe (and swimming in there too)…

Sierra Leone Adventure Group Tour

Partying in Freetown…

Partying in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Staying in tree houses and seeing the chimps at the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary…

Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary

Chilling and surfing on the beautiful beaches of the Freetown Peninsular…

Bureh Beach, Sierra Leone

Learning about the history of Freetown, the slave trade and the different tribes of Sierra Leone…

Cotton Tree, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Buying waaaay too many of these baskets then having to carry them around with me…

Basket weaving, Sierra Leone

Taking the world’s (I’m guessing) shortest ‘ferry ride’ – we thought we were being sailed down the river, instead, I swear we went about 10 metres across to the other part of the beach…

River No. 2 FerryHiking through the jungle…

Hiking in Sierra Leone

It was awesome.

Here’s what the girls thought:

“I had an amazing time on the Rock My Adventure, Sierra Leone trip. I generally love to travel solo, but I knew a country with as few tourists as Sierra Leone would be lonely to travel and difficult to plan (especially in a limited time frame). Rock My Adventure was unique because it seemed more like a bunch of adventurous friends traveling together to a place where no one else we know wanted to go, rather than on a strict inflexible tour. Helen made the impossible possible: creating a fun, adventurous itinerary for a small group of people in a country that is not yet ready for tourists. We were not only able to see a lot of the country but also to experience the kind of “unexpected adventures” more common to solo travel – all within a two week period, a feat that would likely have been almost impossible to accomplish alone. I think you really nailed the “Flashpacker” concept. The Rock My Adventure Sierra Leone tour was truly special and I can’t wait to try the next destination. This is a unique tour and I highly recommend it” (Pamela, USA)

“Helen you were a great and organised group leader whilst still immersing yourself as just one of the group. I wanted a trip that would give me new experiences and adventures led by someone committed and trusted to deliver this in a small friendly group. This was exactly what I got. I always felt safe. The fact that several other group members had previously done trips and were back to experience another trip speaks for itself. I am already looking at other trips to go on.” (Sue, UK)

“This trip is a true “off the beaten path” adventure. It was everything I hoped for. I loved absolutely everything we did! I loved the variety of the landscapes we visited, from chaotic and colourful Freetown to the steaming jungles of Tiwai to the glorious warm waters of the shoreline, there is so much to experience in Sierra Leone. Some of the places felt truly remote and due to the lack of tourism, it was a very authentic experience. I will never forget my dance-offs with the Temne women of Rogbonko and the Mende of Tiwai. Without speaking we understood each other and had fun. Those are truly precious moments. Nature was stunning and because we had camping and ecolodge accommodation, I could feel really at one with the world around me. Looking up at a star-strewn sky at Turtle Island whilst going for a nighttime pee was beautiful. I will never forget the glorious full moon lighting up the midnight clouds over Tiwai Island, or the lazy green river Moa snaking its way through the jungle, flanked by yellow sand. Sierra Leone is lucky to have a good amount of untouched nature preserved and I urge everyone to go and see this hidden gem.” (Katja, Germany)

“The trip exceeded my expectations and it was exactly what I had hoped it would be! It’s given me the travelling experience I felt I missed out on by not having a gap year when I was younger and has also given me the confidence to have adventures of my own! I absolutely loved visiting Sierra Leone with Rock My Adventure and I would definitely recommend any of the tours to my friends! Having never done any travel in Africa before and having only ever travelled with people I already knew, to say I was anxious at the start of the trip was a complete understatement. However, within a few hours I couldn’t have been happier and by the end of the trip not only had my confidence grown immeasurably but I had also made 6 friends for life. This trip exceeded all my expectations by far and I have made the most incredible memories that I definitely won’t forget! The hardest thing now is how to decide which tour to book next…” (Debbie, UK) 

“I’ve been on two Rock My Adventure tours previously, but I didn’t really know what to expect from Sierra Leone. But it was absolutely amazing and one of my best ever holidays. It felt like a proper adventure. I loved that it was a bit unknown for all of us – it felt like a genuine adventure with a group of friends.” (Vicki, UK)

“This is the third Rock My Adventure tour I have done. I keep coming back for more because Helen delivers exactly what I want from travel, to immerse myself in local culture and experience what that country has to offer. This isn’t just a holiday it’s a lifetime experience, a chance to challenge yourself and really see the real “Africa” of whatever country you decide to visit. Sierra Leone was my top bucket list destination for personal reasons and what a country to visit. I can not recommend Rock My Adventure more, I’ve met some amazing people, made friends for life, experienced the highs and lows of African travel and loved every second. Don’t think about these trips too long, just book one, I promise you won’t regret it!” (Karen, UK) 

And me? What do I think of Sierra Leone? I bloody love it and can’t wait to go back.

Have any questions about travelling in Sierra Leone? Leave them in the comments below!