Difference between revisions of "Freetown"
Revision as of 16:26, 1 February 2013
Freetown is the capital city of Sierra Leone and is the heart of the Western region. It is on a peninsula on the south bank of the estuary of the Sierra Leone River. The city lies at the foot of the peninsula mountains and faces one of the best natural harbours on the west coast of Africa. The peninsula is home to some of the finest beaches in Africa - Lumley beach, Lakka beach, No. 2 river beach and Toke beach are some examples.
Freetown, like the rest of Sierra Leone has endured some very difficult times during the civil war. It was occupied by rebels twice and the resident population and infrastructure suffered badly. As stability returned to Freetown, many Sierra Leoneans fled the rural areas to the city to escape the carnage. Though the country has been peaceful since 2002, the population of the city is still much higher than it was prior to the war. This has put pressure on land and local services. Many areas of jungle have been cleared to house the new residents. Some claim that the US government has not helped the situation with their new embassy development at Leicester. Some blame the new developments for severe flooding of the city during the rainy season. Deforestation has also been blamed for a shortage of water in the city.
Freetown International Airport (IATA: FNA) (ICAO: GFLL), in Lungi (on the other side of the estuary from Freetown), Tel: (232-22)-338405,. Getting from the airport to Freetown can be a challenge and the safety of the various operators has been questioned. There are a number of fast boat services that cross the estuary, and most foreign visitors use this option for roughly US$40. To pick them up, just walk to the right after exiting the airport building. Sea Coach Express (Pelican Water Taxis) operate small boats, some covered, some not, from Mahera Hotel to the Aberdeen bridge for Le180,000 (40USD). The hovercraft service has resumed under the Helog name. It arrives/departs from Man of War Bay, Aberdeen. The crossing can be unpleasant if the sea is rough. The Pelican and hovercraft are convenient for most foreign travellers as they avoid the slow route through the crowded east end of Freetown. The helicopter now only operates a charter service.
Another possibility is on the overloaded ferry which runs to the main part of Freetown. A seat on a bus which uses the ferry costs Le60,000. The bus takes passengers to Rawdon Street in the center of Freetown. This trip can take 3+ hours and has been known to take 8 hours. By road it is 4+ hours to the city, via Port Loko using some poor roads.
Finally, some private boats cross the estuary. This is not recommended at night.
Unfortunately, thefts from hold baggage are very common at the airport, especially on the way out of the country. Carry anything of value in your cabin luggage. Having your checked baggage wrapped in cellophane at your point of origin is another good tactic.
If arriving at night, as many flights from Europe do, it is highly advisable to get a room at one of the Lungi hotels, which exist purely for this purpose. Book in advance.
Sierra Leone's public railway service was closed in 1974. A railway museum has been opened at Cline Town and is well worth a visit. Many of the original railway buildings and signs can still be seen in and around Freetown, particularly at Hill Station and Congo Cross. It is also possible to walk along much of the track bed, starting near the Hill Station Club  and dropping down the hill via Congo Cross into Freetown.
Roads in Freetown are being reconstructed and a bypass road is also being built to link the western part of Freetown to the rest of the country, cutting out the congested eastern part of town. The roads via Leicester and along the coastal part of the Freetown peninsular are also due for reconstruction.
The road works affect many roads. Unfortunately, the Sierra Leone Roads Authority have given up maintaining other roads, which means they are increasingly in poor condition.
Local taxis run fixed routes and are shared rides. For the uninitiated, there is no real way to figure out where they are going, and they're busy making a living rather than trying to explain everything to foreigners. But they're so cheap (1,000 leones), you can just hail one and see how long it takes you the right way before making a turn! Empty taxis will assume that foreigners want to charter a taxi (see below) and not share it. To let them know you prefer a shared ride, just declare "no cha cha" when you get on board.
Poda-podas are a more miserable shared ride option, but are more straightforward for longer trips, as they display their start and end points on the front of the vehicle. If only you knew what those landmarks meant! "Lumley" will take you to Lumley Beach via the southern bridge, "Aberdeen" will take you to Aberdeen via the north bridge from Murray Town, "Eastern Police" will take you to the big clock tower at Kissy Road on the East Side (this is a good place to get dropped off to find a poda-poda to Waterloo), and there are others that hopefully other Wikitravellers will figure out and write about here. If you are looking for downtown, locals call it "Tong."
One can approach a taxi and charter it (cha cha) for a few hours, a day, or even days if one wishes. A decent price per hour is about $5, for a day around $50. Taxis can be hired for a complete journey, which really should not exceed the equivalent of $4 for a trip within Freetown. The drivers do expect to be negotiated with, so don't be scared—be cheeky and negotiate! A very convincing bargaining tactic is to let the driver know that, if he gives you a good price and you like his service, you will keep him on your speed dial for longer chartered rides. Having a trusted taxi driver on your phone shortlist is generally a very good idea for female travelers, anyway.
However, if you feel this isn't the route for you, hotel taxis are usually available in much better condition; and they are regulated. These will also cost up to around $10.
Car hire is possible and can normally be arranged through the hotels or local car dealerships. They will normally come with a driver. Journeys outside of Freetown often may require a 4-wheel drive vehicle and will cost more, typically $150 plus fuel per day, including driver.
However, if you wish to mingle with the locals—which is encouraged, as it creates more social inclusion—you may be surprised. Local people can help you find your way around town, hire taxis for you, and introduce you to their friends and families and, in some cases, ceremonies taking place. They can also cook for you, as Sierra Leoneans are very hospitable people. Many tourists tend to fall in a trap where they visit and hang around with only familiar people. It's better to see visiting Sierra Leone as a social/cultural holiday, allowing visitors and locals to exchange customs and at the same time experience the "diamond in the rough." Seeing the good and bad parts is what makes visiting Sierra Leone an experience to remember.
Many of Freetown's attractions are underdeveloped and not well publicised. The relatively low numbers of tourists visiting has meant there was not adequate incentive or financial reward for developing them. However, there are many hidden gems that can be well worth finding. It is not unusual to be the only visitor to some of them.
The beaches are beautiful and unspoilt. Most popular places like Lakka Beach, No. 2 River Beach and Bureh Beach offer simple but descent accommodations. Poda's (minibuses) will only take you until Lakka junction. If you want to continue with public transportation you'll need to go by okada (motorbike). If you're driving yourself a good vehicle will be required as the road conditions are pretty bad. The peninsular-road is currently being reconstructed. The tarmac is complete as far as Goderich in October 2012. The beaches are often not well sign-posted, so watch carefully or use GPS.
The following beaches are listed counter clockwise around the peninsular, starting at Aberdeen.
As from Tokeh junction you'll find yourself driving on an excellent, modern and smooth paved road. However, the following beaches are also well reached driving around the other side of the mountains (Bai Bureh Rd), depending on your starting point from Freetown.
Lungi (where the airport is located) also has some excellent beaches, which are often missed by visitors because of the limited accommodation available.
Bunce Island is arguably the most important historical site in Africa with regards to the history of the United States. Attempts by African Americans to find their ancestry via DNA testing have shown more ties to Sierra Leone than to any other country, and the slave forts of Bunce Island were the busiest in the then-called Rice Coast of Africa, sending countless numbers of captured slaves to the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida.
While the ruins are fairly large, they are completely overrun with vegetation, and long-awaiting restoration. There is no development of tourist infrastructure here whatsoever, unless you count the guestbook.
Getting to Bunce Island is simple enough if you are willing to drop at a minimum $150 to charter one of the long wooden fastboats from Kissy Ferry Terminal. For a nice speedboat from Aberdeen, where the speedboats leave for Lungi Airport, you'll need about $300.
Neither option guarantees much guidance when you actually arrive, though. The 75-some-odd-year-old caretaker, Pa Braima Bangura, retired in 2011, but will still join you if you pick him up in Pepel, the village across the narrow on the north side of the river. He does not, however, speak English, so you'll need a Krio translator. Interestingly, his guidance diverges pretty strongly from the information available on the internet, so you can decide who knows what's what! The fact is that while some visitors regard Pa Braima as a traditional griot representing the authentic oral traditions of his village, he did not grow up in the area, and doesn't know the local oral traditions regarding Bunce Island. His story of the castle and its buildings derives mainly from what he has learned from the historians and archaeologists who have done research there, except that Pa Braima never fully understood what they told him.
If you want the actual story of Bunce Island, you should go to the Sierra Leone National Museum before you leave for Bunce Island. The museum is located just next to the Cotton Tree in downtown Freetown. The museum has a permanent exhibit on Bunce Island that was produced by an American historian who has been doing research on that subject for many years. While you're in the museum, don't miss the model of the Bunce Island ruins commissioned in 1947 by Dr. MCF Easmon, the founder of the museum. Moving back and forth between the model and the section of the exhibit that explains the ruins will give you a lot of information on what the ruins look like today, what those buildings originally looked like, and what their various functions were. And make sure you take a good look in the exhibit at the computer-generated images of the slave castle as it appeared in the year 1805. Studying those images before you go to Bunce Island will make your trip to the old slave castle a much richer experience.
So, if you are a solo traveller without $150 to blow, this becomes a grueling adventure. One way to get to Bunce Island is to catch a passenger boat (one of the long roofed motorized boats, called "pampas," that take people and goods up and down the harbor like a floating bus) from Big Wharf to the east of Kissy in East End of Freetown straight to Pepel (~$2). There will in all likelihood be only one of these per day, only on weekdays, and it should leave around 3PM or so, so you would need to be there earlier to make sure you get on it. Try to see Bunce Island upon arrival, so you can catch the fast boat back early in the morning, after staying in Pepel with the permission of the chief (budget a good $15-20 in leones so that you are able to pass 10,000 notes to all the necessary hands). Realistically, this won't work, though. So plan to spend the morning going to the island, then return to Pepel and hire a taxi or motorcycle taxi ("okada") to take you on the 90 minute dust-choked journey back to Tagrin (~$5-10) to catch the Ferry to either Kissy or Government Wharf in Freetown. The boat back and forth to Bunce Island from Pepel, including waiting, is going to run at least $30 in leones. Yeah, budget travel to Bunce Island doesn't really work.
There's another rough travel way to get to Bunce Island,though, that's not quite so grueling. You can take the ferry to Tagrin, then a taxi to Lungi, and then hire a local taxi in Lungi to take you to Pepel. The taxi trip from Lungi to Pepel takes about an hour and a half one-way (or three hours in both directions). Then, you can hire a local fisherman in Pepel to take you by canoe to Bunce Island, which takes about half an hour in a paddle boat or five minutes in a local boat with an outboard engine. Then after you've seen the island, you reverse your steps to return to Freetown. The major expense in this strategy is the taxi. You'll need to negotiate a daily rate with a driver in Lungi, which is probably about $50. But the advantage of this strategy is that if you start off in the morning with the first ferry to Tagrin, you may be able to complete the trip in one day. And if you have to spend the night, there are a number of hotels and guesthouses in Lungi with a range of quality and prices.
On the other hand, you could pay everything at once by hiring a car and driver in Freetown for a day, but then you'll be back to the $150 you'd have paid anyway for a comfortable speedboat trip from Freetown to Bunce Island.
Local crafts are inexpensive, some are unique in that they are made from scrap gathered after the war.
Freetown has a few high-quality restaurants, but very little in the tier below that. Being on the Atlantic coast, some excellent seafood is on offer. Barracuda, grouper, and lobster are readily available. Freetown has a large Lebanese community. Consequently, some very good Lebanese food is available at most restaurants.
Apart from the hotels and restaurants, there are many bars along the beaches, particularly at the Aberdeen end of Lumley Beach. Man of War Bay in Aberdeen has several popular bars and restaurants, all of which have terraces overlooking the bay.
There are countless small bars along every street, often catering for just a handful of customers.
A "must-see" for any visitor is Paddy's on the road into Aberdeen. This bar is famous and was the only place to be consistently open during the war. Get a cold Star and enjoy the atmosphere. Star beer is now available on tap in better bars. Also worthy of a visit is the Hill Station Club  at Hill Station. This old gentleman's drinking club was looted during the war, but the building itself survived and the bar will be opened for visitors. If you are lucky you will be allowed to see the snooker room, where the tables appear untouched for many years and old champions' names are still on the sign boards.
On Sir Samuel Lewis Road (same as Paddy's) there is also a small local pub, called Tribes, with a pool table.
Freetown has some high standard hotels. All in the splurge section will offer air conditioned rooms with power available 24 hours per day. Most will also have Internet access, with some providing wireless access too. Hotels in the Aberdeen area are closest to Lumley beach. There are very few options in the main part of the town itself. During the busiest time of the year (December-March) it can be hard to find a room, especially with the closure of the Cape Sierra Hotel, Solar Hotel and Mammy Yoko Hotel (all in Aberdeen). Booking ahead is advised.
A full list of embassies and consuls can be found here 
Violent crime is rare in Freetown. However, there have been some incidents in Lumley and Aberdeen at night, near to the clubs/bars. Petty crime is common - take care of possessions and be wary of leaving valuables in rooms. Thefts from luggage at the airport on the way out of Sierra Leone are quite common. Do not leave valuable items in luggage.
The unrelenting heat and humidity can make life uncomfortable. For anyone not used to this, an air-conditioned room to sleep in will be almost essential. BBC World Service can be heard on 94.3MHz (FM) and Western style commercial station Capital Radio  on 104.9MHz.