YOU can tell a lot about a country from its airport. Lungi International, stranded a wide river mouth away from Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown, is at first sight a steamy, chaotic mess. The crowded baggage area – much smaller than it seems to need to be – blazes with the colours of bright fabrics and brighter chatter.
Time passes in fits and starts as odd bags arrive erratically from the aircraft sitting a short distance away on the tarmac. In the meantime I am entertained by women hawking sim cards, men selling water taxi rides to Freetown and by my fellow passengers.
‘Comfortably sized’ African ladies are dwarfed by their massive load of suitcases: entrepreneurs with stock? Prim American missionaries wearing their go-to-church hats look bemused at the seeming disorganisation, wondering, perhaps, what they have let themselves in for.
But underneath it all, there is an air of calm and humour. The steamy heat and humidity means people take things slowly but get there in the end. Everyone eventually finds their bag, everyone gets a ride to the ferry or their hotel, and my nervous preconceptions are laid to rest.
Like its airport, I am to find this is a country that is working. Individuals are standing up for themselves, whether it’s the young men hawking sunglasses or the women selling pineapples in the street, or those building the new roads, hotels and mines.
The next day, I drive for five hours on those brand-new highways to the country’s bustling second city, Bo and then off on a rutted dirt road past mud and thatch villages to Tiwai Wildlife Reserve. This forest-covered island in the Moa river is reached by a short boat ride but it feels a very long way past the back of beyond.
Only 12 sq km in size, the island holds 11 primate species, some 135 bird species, rare butterflies and more than 700 plant species. I am also told 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.
A sunset boat ride reveals no hippos – pygmy or otherwise – only fishermen poling dugout canoes silently past on the far bank. The rainy season is on its way.
Back at the campsite, a visiting couple entertain themselves with Travel Scrabble over a bottle of gin, warm Sprite standing in for tonic. A meal of pasta, fried fish, fried chicken, fried plantain. 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.
A head-torch sees me to my tent. The sounds of the tropical forest fill the night and it is no surprise to be told the next day that the jungle soundtrack for James’ Cameron’s Avatar was recorded here. Loud among the sounds are the monkeys high overhead and the island’s senior guide Mohamed Koroma takes me into the jungle to look for them.
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. The discomforts of clammy heat and insect bites are forgotten for these magical moments.
Photos © Kieran Meeke