I WAKE in the night, clammy with sweat, itchy with insect repellent. A branch cracks suddenly, falling to the forest floor near my tent. Monkeys howl. I gulp warm water, wonder if my bladder will hold until daylight, and pull my damp sarong about me as I toss and turn. This is the side of paradise they don’t tell you about.
But paradise it is and the soothing sounds of the tropical jungle – crickets, rain dripping from leaves – eventually lull me back to sleep. I am on Tiwai Wildlife Reserve in Sierra Leone and it is no surprise to be told the next day that part of the jungle soundtrack for Avatar, James Cameron’s 3D paean to ecology, was recorded here.
This forest-covered island, some 12 sq km in size, holds 11 primate species, some 135 bird species, rare butterflies and more than 700 plant species. To get to it, you drive to the back of beyond, then go on a bit. Five hours on the brand-new smooth highway from Sierra Leon’s capital of Freetown, through the bustling second city of Bo, then another hour on dirt roads past mud and thatch villages to the languid Moa River.
A short boat ride takes me to the island where malaria tablets, insect repellent and long sleeves and trousers are a prerequisite for comfort. In some corners of the world, happily, nature still rules.
However, a sunset river trip reveals little wildlife other than even more insects and birds flitting past in the gloom: a ‘woolly-necked stork’, a ‘woodpecker cormorant’. I do wonder if my guide is just making these names up. I also hear the island is one of the few places in the wild where you can find the pygmy hippopotamus, unique to Sierra Leone and Liberia. This solitary nocturnal animal, related to the whale, is rarely seen. Hmm.
Back at the campsite, another guest is a producer for BBC Wildlife, scouting West Africa for a potential new series. As he talks about filming that mythical pygmy hippopotamus, a faraway look comes into his eyes. Maybe it does exist.
The next day, guide Mohamed Koroma takes me into the jungle. We walk as silently as I can for an hour on paths through thick forest and see a solitary Diana monkey flitting high overhead, then a very noisy group of Red Colobus screaming abuse at us. All the discomforts of clammy heat and insect bites are forgotten for these magical glimpses of the real world, so far from our unreal world of the city.
Back in Freetown a few days later, I visit some even closer relatives at Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Founder Bala Amarasekaran is another man with a passion for wildlife. The former accountant gave up his life in finance after adopting various orphan chimps, many of them abandoned pets, and his refuge now cares for close to 100. They are being rehabilitated into family groups, a difficult task given the abuse many have suffered. With an adult chimp being stronger than five men, they soon outgrow the cute phase.
Watching them being fed, the social interaction and gestures remind one inevitably that we humans share 95 per cent of our DNA sequence with these great apes. One family group is now living wild in the reserve, behind an electric fence but ready to be released elsewhere in Sierra Leone when the right area is found.
When that might be is difficult to say. Like elsewhere in the world, people want all the land for themselves. In a place with such corners of paradise as Sierra Leone, and with such great development needs, you can understand why.
Tourism is one way to make paradise pay – and hence remain unspoiled – and Dan Cockburn, senior manager for Exodus Travel’s Africa product, is upbeat about the potential. ‘One of our product managers went out for a holiday and was so blown away that he went back to set up a trip for us,’ he says. ‘Few countries hold such promise and yet have so little tourism and infrastructure.’
Well, OK, but let’s try to keep it our little secret a little longer. Yes, the war is long over and the country is safe and prospering. And, yes, the people are incredibly welcoming. But maybe we can still put visitors off if we just tell them about the insects, heat and animal noises at night?
Three other places to see in Sierra Leone:
Freetown Peninsula: A series of beaches line the peninsula, with Number 2 being most famous as the setting for a Bounty ‘taste of paradise’ advert. The sea is warm and tropical forest provides a picture perfect backdrop. There are some small fishing communities, while a few beach bars and some basic accommodation attract a few hawkers in places, but mostly you will have the place entirely to yourself. Why not research the different shades of sand on each beach, which varies from golden yellow to pure white?
Banana Islands: Stay in a hut on a deserted beach and enjoy a lobster supper before swimming under the stars in the warm waters of the Atlantic. Go fishing or snorkelling, or tour some of the historic remnants dating back to the slave trade.
Bunce Island: Tens of thousands of slaves passed through this British slave castle from 1670 until the end of the slave trade in 1807. Now a national historic site, you can see the ruins of the slave prison, watchtowers, dormitories, storerooms, and fortifications and take a guided tour that tells its moving history.
More at www.visitsierraleone.org
DID YOU KNOW? Sierra Leone was set up as a utopian community for freed slaves, giving women the vote in the 1790s, 100 years before New Zealand became the first other country to do so.