Among one of the last pristine rainforests in West Africa, this jungle is home to more than 333 bird species.
Gola holds up to 30 nesting sites for the white-necked picathartes © feathercollector, Shutterstock
Parliament’s 2011 legislation that created the 71,000ha Gola Rainforest National Park came as a relief to conservation groups that had for years been calling for action to try to safeguard Sierra Leone’s last truly untouched patch of tropical evergreen rainforest.
Ravaged by rebel groups during the war, logged extensively between the 1960s and mid 1980s, and exploited in pursuit of the lucrative and well-established bushmeat trade with Liberia, the forest has finally earned the protected status that it has so long and so sorely needed. Among the last pristine rainforest in West Africa, the forest was given a clean bill of health during a 2008 flyover by wildlife-lovers, when a helicopter set off from British ship HMS Endurance, which was surveying the state of conservation along the coast. This is a boon for a country with fast-disappearing forests. Once upon a time, up to 70% of Sierra Leone was covered in forest; at the time of independence in 1961, it was 40%, while today only 5% of this original cover remains. A further 33% of the country is covered in secondary growth forests, and 11% of the total land area is now under some form of protection.
Across its 750km², Gola has one of the most diverse wildlife populations in the country. The most recent surveys available show the presence of 50 mammal species, 2,000 different plants – including 77 orchids – and a staggering 333 species of birds.
To experience the majesty of the place, you can’t explore it in a few hours – you need to take your time, and camp. From north to south, at a speed of about 3–4km/h (which is a rush, requiring fitness and no stopping) through dense vegetation, you might walk the whole thing in 15 days. Alternatively, you can cross sections of Gola from west to east in two days. A good two-day trip involves getting to Joru, equipping yourself with camping gear, heading off to Belebu, Lalehun or Sileti and then penetrating into the heart of the forest.
Below the canopy, the air is close but cool, and little light penetrates. Guides can show you restful spots in the forest, such as waterfalls and cascades into natural swimming pools. The odd basolith (an exposed hill empty of trees), sometimes three days’ hiking into the wild, gives fantastic views of the surrounding treetops.