Freetown And Freedom In Sierra Leone

Ready to go road tripping, canoeing and even sailing on a catamaran (not SY Staatenlos) through a country founded for freed slaves to return to Africa? Let’s go!

On this West African adventure, we left off heading south overland to Sierra Leone after a great three days of traveling through Guinea.

I was permitted to enter Sierra Leone after a shouting match between the immigration official and my guide, which turned out to be all in good fun.

No bribe was necessary in the end.

After crossing the border, we continued to drive for a few more hours until we finally made it to Freetown, the capital and largest city of Sierra Leone.

Freetown is definitely the most scenic capital I’ve seen in West Africa so far.

To provide a brief history of Sierra Leone, it was first founded as a British colony on the West African coast in 1808 for Africans to return to their continent after the abolition of slavery. Although it was originally founded on the coast, it eventually extended inland, as the land was rich in natural resources.

Children running free in Freetown

Sierra Leone established its independence from Britain in 1961 and enjoyed a few good years before a brutal civil war broke out in 1991 that lasted until 2002. During wartime, there were two successful coups d’etat, and over 50,000 people were killed. Today, it is one of the world’s poorest nations, with many locals living on approximately $1.25 a day.

All this cash only adds up to €95. You can imagine it was quite hard carrying all this around. 😉

Despite the somewhat depressing history of this country, I was determined to make the best of my visit to Sierra Leone.

Welcome to Freetown

After driving down from the border, we arrived at the Radisson Hotel where I would stay in Freetown, which was absolute shit. It was the worst Radisson that I had ever stayed at, and I don’t usually stay in Accor properties, but it was the only halfway decent choice in West Africa.

I’d like to use some “colorful” words to describe this hotel.

The room service, in particular, was just horrible. I ordered food from room service three times, and every time, they forgot something that I had ordered. 😡 They overcharged me, and they took three or four hours to actually bring the food to my room.

The building was very rusty and not nice at all, but it was still one of the best hotels in town. Outside of my experience at the hotel, I did still enjoy my three-day visit to Sierra Leone.

At least they had a nice enough pool.

The day I arrived, we took a tour of the city, where there was quite a lot to see of the country’s British colonial past. Freetown was founded in 1792 by an abolitionist as a settlement for formerly enslaved African people that had been born in Great Britain and the Americas. They are known as Creole people, and they mostly speak Krio with each other, although a lot of them speak English as well.

Freetown was bursting with color.

When the formerly enslaved people arrived in Freetown, the women stayed on the ships while the men set to work clearing the land. After a short time, they found a large cotton tree, which became a symbol of their freedom.

Hundreds of years later, I arrived in Freetown and got to see this very large cotton tree for myself, which was set right in the center of town, adjacent to the parliament and the supreme court of the country. The tree still holds a great deal of significance for the local people as it commemorates the enslaved people who returned from overseas to begin a new life in their ancestral land of Africa.

The famous cotton tree

We went to see some different things and viewpoints around Freetown, which was very nicely situated with a big mountain ridge gently sloping down to the Atlantic Ocean.

We went to a train museum where we saw a big school class visiting. There was a train there that you could move with muscle power, so we had some fun trying that out before going to another cool cultural museum that had an exhibit of lots of local costumes.

I think Spiderman may have originated in Sierra Leone 😜

We had lunch at a very good and famous Lebanese restaurant. It may not have been the typical food of the region, but it was very tasty.

After that, we visited some other colonial landmarks. We got to see the Old Fourah Bay College Building, which was the first university built in modern Subsaharan Africa in the year 1827, after the collapse of the one in Timbuktu. It continued to be in use as a university until the civil war broke out in the early 1990s. It still stands today as a fairly modest four-story building with an interesting past.

The (very) old university

Besides that, we got to check out some other buildings from the British colonial rule which were pretty nicely restored.

Life’s a Beach 🏖️

That afternoon, we went to some beaches because Sierra Leone also has some very nice beaches, which I hadn’t known before. One particular beach was amazing, so I spent quite some time there swimming and wading in the water, taking plenty of pictures of the white sand, the lagoon with some fishermen in their pirogues, and the green mountains in the background.

A stunningly beautiful beach

It was a little paradise, even though the weather could have been nicer. The wind was quite strong, but the reef protected the beach from too many waves.

Enjoying the water

It was a weekday, on top of the bad weather, so the beach was pretty empty and I got to enjoy it practically to myself. We visited some other beaches in the area and just walked around a bit.

Walking around the nice, clean beach

In the evening I didn’t really do much because I was mostly staying in, working at the hotel. There’s not much to do at night anyway in those West African countries, so I would rather enjoy the hotel, even though it wasn’t really that nice.

Driving and Dancing

The next day was kind of a weird day because we had a lot of driving… about 5-6 hours each way, there and back… and the only thing we saw was locals dancing in a remote village. It was nice but nothing special.

Local kids dancing for me

We drove all the way through the country, but there’s not much to see there besides the jungle, with no special animals or sights there, as the landscape is pretty flat. We took some nice photos of the coastal mountains, but driving inland from there was quite flat. It used to be quite dangerous during the civil war, but now it’s fine.

It was nice to meet more local children who were excited to show off their culture

So we went all the way to this remote village, almost back to the border of Guinea but a bit more to the west, and just walked around a bit there and heard about the village life. We went in a local dugout canoe through some of the rainforest before marching a bit through the savannah.

A scenic ride in the dugout canoe

Mainly, we enjoyed the dance of the local children who wanted to show their dances to me. It was pretty cool, and in the end, I danced along with them.

Can you envison me dancing with them? 🤣

I did a lot of reading in the car as we drove, but other than that the ride was pretty uneventful. We went back to Freetown in the evening, so it was a long day with lots of driving. I think we could have probably made better use of the day by seeing some other stuff, but it was still fun.

Bunce Island

The next day I still had one major thing to see, which was Bunce Island, in the Sierra Leone River. On Bunce Island is a castle that was built in 1670 by the Royal Africa Company, which shipped more enslaved Africans to the American colonies than any other company in the entire history of the Atlantic slave trade. It is considered by local people to be their version of Auschwitz. It was kind of a sad story that all the slaves were sent here before being shipped to the English colonies.

More information about the history of the island

It was an old fortress with a lot of decay, but you can still see a lot of the old buildings and the trees and some animals on the island. The main thing to learn there, however, is about the history of the slave trade here and all across Africa.

Ruins of the crumbling former castle

My guide told a convincing story about all the bad things that happened here, like how the Africans were treated by the Europeans, although we know that it was mostly Africans that were selling other Africans and the Europeans were just shipping them to the colonies… but I don’t need to explain all of that.

More decaying ruins

We took a speedboat from a pier near the hotel to get to Bunce Island, and it was great to take a private speedboat. We could see Freetown from the sea there, which was nice because all of those English colonial buildings make for a nice sight, and the mountain ranges in the background are beautiful. The ride was very smooth.

Our transportation to the island across calm waters

We visited the island and heard a lot of explanations about what happened there, and visited some old graves of white people because the black people were basically dumped in the sea and eaten by sharks.

Beautiful nature takes over a place with an ugly past.

A lot of American or English black people go there to see it because they may have had ancestors from there. I had a different perspective as a white man, but it was still pretty interesting to see the scenic location and the mangroves around it.

Imprisoned by an ancient tree on the slave island of Bunce

From there we went back to have lunch, and then it was time to leave Sierra Leone.

Heading to Liberia

Going to the airport was pretty interesting in Freetown. The airport is on the other side of a bay with a big river and estuaries and so on. By car it can easily take three hours to get to the airport through traffic, so a lot of people take a high-speed catamaran from the city pier to the airport in about 20 minutes.

This catamaran is no SY Staatenlos, but it got us to the airport quick enough.

There are also some dugout canoes, which take longer, but I took the catamaran with some other expats and in 15 minutes I was ready to be picked up by a car which took us the last five minutes to the airport. From the airport that afternoon I had a flight continuing to Liberia.

Heading out of Freetown on the catamaran

Join us next time as we travel through Liberia, another poor country built on the backs of liberated slaves.