Sierra Leone's dazzling beaches, chattering chimps and funky, ramshackle capital lend this hard-edged chunk of West Africa real sparkle
"In case of an emergency, use the life jackets," we were told as the antiquated Russian helicopter shuddered and shook noisily into the ink-black sky.
"That always makes me laugh," fellow passenger Ali shouted above the din. "There aren't any."
There weren't any seatbelts, either, I noted as the helicopter swirled up, the propeller whirring white like a glow stick. Steaming air poured in through the windows, flung open on their rusty hinges. Excitement and mystery hung thick; it was a night-time flight into the unknown.
Helicopters are just one way into Freetown, Sierre Leone's capital, where the airport's separation from the city by a river rules out the simple taxi option. For me it was novel. Ali, however, had made the journey many times before; appropriately in a country known by many only from the film Blood Diamond, my first acquaintance in that chopper was a wealthy diamond dealer.
Not everyone here is so lucky. Sierra Leone's ten-year civil war ended in 2002, and things are now stable. But the brutal conflict left thousands injured, as well as a shattered infrastructure and economy - it's now one of the world's poorest countries. Consequently, locals are desperate for tourism (and tourist dollars) to return to its shores; I'd come to check out the potential.
On the drive to my hotel the roads were potholed and lined with tradespeople sitting in huddles around their flickering lamps and candle-lit street stalls. The hotel itself was above the ragged, seething tumble of Freetown, up in an old British hill station with spectacular views of the city and ocean dipping below. Sierra Leone was formerly a British colony, and it was up here - in the large wooden houses teetering on high stilts, with shuttered windows and latticed stairwells - that the administrators once lived. "This used to be a whites-only area, with its own railway to bring the workers up each day," my driver, Mohamed, explained.
The land on which Freetown languishes was initially called the Province of Freedom, created in 1787 as a settlement for those slaves emancipated after fighting for the British in the American War of Independence. Krio, Sierra Leone's spoken language, is a hybrid tongue, brought over by the slaves. Wherever I walked I was greeted with: "Ow di bodi?"
Freetown is a beautiful and beguiling city to explore, with markets full of carved Picasso-esque wooden masks and twisting hilly streets; with a lucky-dip of sea vistas and colourfully painted Creole houses. It is, however, dilapidated, and walking is hazardous because there are so many holes in the street. As the writer Aminatta Forna wrote: "Falling in love with Freetown requires a different way of seeing. Upcountry men digging for diamonds in the riverbeds train their eyes to find the gems hidden in the mud. So it is with Freetown."
A pivotal spot in the city is the giant Cotton Tree. It's over 400 years old, with hordes of squeaking bats hanging from its boughs - and it's where slaves were once sold. When I visited, the police were on guard - the tree's neighbouring law courts were trying suspects involved in a recent big import of cocaine; it was rumoured that several ministers were connected. The war might be over, but the corruption, it seems, is not.
There are still many signs of the war's destruction. "That was a bad, bad time," Edward, my guide, grimaced. Sierra Leone's savage war was fuelled by diamonds and fought by children, who were given drugs to distort their minds. "It was greed and a desire to control the diamond fields," Edward explained. "The rebels, supported by Charles Taylor and Liberia, sought revenge on the corruption of those in power - yet wreaked their havoc on ordinary people."
As evening approached we wandered up Mount Aureol for views of the town, passing Fourah Bay College, West Africa's first university. "Tony Blair is our hero!" Edward unexpectedly exclaimed. "His father used to live here, and taught at this university in the 60s." It was Britain and the UN's triumphant intervention that finally helped to end the war - for which Blair is venerated.
The following morning we drove along the jaw-shudderingly terrible roads to Sierra Leone's big calling card: its beaches. Just outside Freetown lies a long, sweeping peninsula of unspoilt beaches, sheltered by mountains. I was headed for the prosaically named No 2 Beach, where a community-run-and-owned guesthouse overlooks an immense span of magnificent white sand.
"Everyone who works here is from the local community, and we pool all the money so that it does not go just to one individual," barman Osman explained proudly.
I was, however, disappointed to see that the seven chalets were concrete, with mobile-phone advertising painted on the front - not the perfect sight on this otherwise idyllic beach. Still, it was peaceful: the only other guests were two Jehovah's Witness missionaries and a couple working for Oxfam.
The pristine curve of sand follows palm trees and livid-green forest, and leads to Tokeh Beach, where I decided to head off for a quiet walk. A couple of children appeared, offering to show me crocodiles in the nearby river, which meanders down to the sea. Fishermen sat under the trees fixing nets, while women gathered with buckets of silver fish amid boldly coloured boats; the forest was spreading into the ruins of an old French-owned hotel.
The next morning I was greeted by misty mountains and turquoise waters. A bunch of men were scaling palm trees, tapping sap for palm wine - each with just a liana wrapped around his waist .
I was leaving the beach, however, to set off upriver with George the boatman in a hand-carved pirogue. It was a tranquil way to start the day: eagle wings beat the air and crabs crunched, munching the mangrove shoots - otherwise there was silence. Paddling past emerald mangrove swamps, we arrived at a waterfall, moored the boat and climbed up one of the forest-coated mountains to gaze down over the coastline.
That night I slept just up that coast at the guesthouse run by Italian-born Franco and his Sierra Leonian wife Florence - a real little oasis. A courtyard of white, Italian-style buildings with arched balconies cloistered a thick tropical garden where bougainvillea and hibiscus flirted. Turtles were swimming in a big stone pond. "We buy them from the fishermen when they are caught in their nets, to save them from being eaten," Franco explained. "Later we'll put them back in the sea."
Franco's faces a parade of coconut trees in front of a lagoon and a meandering river, across which sits a long, wild beach. A couple of boys paddled in the lagoon, and a lone surfer caught a wave. "I first came here to dive and spear fish," Franco said. "We wanted to grill and eat the fish, but there was nowhere to do it, so we built this place."
That evening we dined on delicious fresh lobster and pasta, cooked in an open kitchen. "During the war the rebels came here many times," Florence recalled. "They stole everything - but we refused to leave."
Finally it was time to drag myself away from Sierra Leone's beaches. The following morning Edward and I headed south for the rainforest of Tiwai Island. Bumping along the potholes, antos, my driver, explained with a laugh: "The road digger has a girlfriend here, so he rests more than works!"
As if in response, our car got a puncture. After another two punctures we aborted our quest for Tiwai that day and stayed overnight in a town called Bo.
Arriving at Tiwai early the following morning instead was magical: the trees were shrouded in mist, the air thrumming with the croak of frogs. Tiwai is a 12 sq km rainforested island perched in the middle of the Moa River. It is part of the Upper Guinea Forest and, despite its small size, hosts 11 different species of primates and many rare birds.
Before the war these forests were full of animals and, despite being hunted for food by the rebels, the wildlife has clung on. Here in the depths of Sierra Leone's jungle David Attenborough made his first on-location BBC wildlife documentary and Gerald Durrell collected animals for his zoo - the colobus monkeys he came searching for still swing around Tiwai Island in abundance.
We stopped at Tiwai village, where big cocoa pods hung from the trees and hammocks lolled in front of the thatch-down-to-their-ankles houses - although a few now have corrugated iron roofs. "This is a sign that one of their children has successfully emigrated to the West," Edward commented. Mamadou, one of the locals, dressed in what looked like a bath hat, agreed to ferry us across to the island by boat.
"Sierra Leone was once 70% primary forest, but sadly it is now less than 5%," Edward lamented. "Deforestation is a serious issue, with locals cutting down the trees for charcoal." However, Tiwai is now a protected area, run as a community project, with the hope of earning money from tourists. You can even stay on the island - an appealing clutch of secluded tents on raised platforms hides in the forest.
I had gone to Tiwai hoping to see the elusive pygmy hippos; rare and endangered, they only live in the tropical forests of West Africa. "A US researcher is currently living on the island studying our pygmy hippos and has already captured them on film several times," Mamadou told me. I was not so lucky.
Not to worry: Mamadou took me for an exciting walk in the cool forest, where light ricocheted through the spires of trees and freestanding lianas hung like crazy helter-skelters. Flashes of bright red pierced the forest as red colobus monkeys flew through the trees, while Diana monkeys and chimps shrieked to each other. And often we'd hear a 'chut, chut, chut' as columns of termites trooped across the path, sending out warning sounds each time we approached.
Up ahead, a line of people suddenly appeared on the narrow, overgrown forest trail, led by the village chief - wearing a straw boater. "They are a dancing troupe, hired by the village to dance tonight," Mamadou explained. I was delighted and asked if I could join the party.
That evening, as the sun lowered, Leone and Moussa, two of the performers, danced theatrically on tall stilts; pieces of metal tied around their knees clanked to the drumbeat while their grass skirts pirouetted out as they spun. The rhythm and speed of the other dancers' legs was electrifying: their arms flew out energetically, their bodies following with graceful poise. The 'devil' danced among them, wearing a huge mane of grass and a towering headdress of feathers, shells and wooden talismans. The dancers had taught themselves in their village but were as skilled as any international performers - it was like stumbling across a rural Cirque du Soleil.
The next morning we drove back upcountry to Tacugama, a chimpanzee sanctuary concealed in the hills close to Freetown. Madame Posseh greeted me, two baby chimps clinging to her sides, and introduced us: "These are Banya and Mark."
The sanctuary was founded in 1995 by Bala Amarasekaran and his wife Sharmila who started with two orphaned chimps living in their home; now they have 93, cavorting around 400 sq m of semi-wild rainforest. "Sierra Leone used to be full of chimps but, with the bushmeat trade and forest felling, their numbers are decreasing. We now have only 2,000 left living in the wild," Madame Posseh told me sadly.
All around us chimps were swinging from the trees like a mad circus troupe, demonstrating the strength in their elongated arms. One, Jack, started jumping up and down dramatically. He was huge and tribal, his mouth open in a wide circle as he hollered loudly: "Eee eee eee aah aah aah AAH!" The others simply play-fought and picked their bottoms.
Sierra Leone has a long way to go: the lacerations of war are still visible but, like those hard-fought-for diamonds, the country glistens with unexpected gems. As the sun dipped over Tacugama that evening, I lay in a hammock on the balcony of the lodge, listening to the hooting of the chimps, and could feel the sparkle.