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Sierra Leone - Travel and visas
Citizens of the 15 West African Economic Community (ECOWAS) countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo) do not need a visa or entry permit to enter Sierra Leone if staying for 90 days or fewer. Everybody else does. These can usually be issued within a few days, and your application must come with the letter of invitation described above.
Some bodies, such as Visit Sierra Leone and IPC travel agency, offer fast-tracked tourist board-approved services to skip this archaic letter-writing hurdle. Visit http://www.visitsierraleone.org/visiting-sierra-leone/before-you-travel/Visa-Application-Information.html for an up-to-date list of visa prices, as well as information on how to secure your visa in advance without visiting your local Sierra Leone high commission or embassy – scan the relevant passport page, provide your name and dates of travel, and let Visit Sierra Leone do the hard work, for an admin fee of US$30. It’ll be a single-entry, one-month visa, and you pick up a scan of it via email and carry it in your passport.
Several international airlines have added Freetown to their routes in the last few years, as well as a clutch of regional airlines linking the capital to the rest of west Africa. In 2006, the EU banned many west African carriers from landing in Europe, although that obviously doesn’t stop airlines that don’t meet European safety standards from flying within their own region – something to bear in mind when you book your tickets. You can check the updated list at http://ec.europa.eu/transport/air-ban/list_en.htm.
You can generally pick up a return from the UK for about £700, although deals at certain times of the year can see them drop below that – for example, a month-long return from Freetown at Christmas might go for as little as £400 – while in summer months prices can rocket.
Most international flight tickets already include US$40 departure tax, but local flights tend not to, so be prepared to stump up the extra cash at the airport.
Direct flight time between the UK and Sierra Leone is only about six hours, but flights are rarely direct. Not the most favoured of worldwide destinations, many planes depart Freetown horribly late at night, leading many a confused ticket-holder to arrive a day late for their 02.00 flight. Be prepared too for lengthy delays.
Flight information was correct at the time of writing, but schedules and frequencies are of course subject to change. Many flights require reconfirmation 72 hours before travelling – forget and you could be bumped. Sierra Leone numbers below do not have international dialling codes – all other non-UK ones do.
For the time being it’s unlikely that you will enter Sierra Leone by road. It bears the dubious distinction of being bordered by arguably the only two west African countries that are in a worse state – Guinea and Liberia: not names that light up the hearts of the hundreds of dust-hungry road-trippers who usually make it as far as Dakar in Senegal before heading east into Mali rather than plunging south into the Mano River countries.
This is a shame, because getting to Sierra Leone by road makes for a pretty spectacular journey, whether you are bouncing through the pretty hills and mountains of rural Guinea, or grinding along the steaming swamps and jungle of Liberia.
While the state of the roads and the sheer unpredictability of the environment mean it’s no picnic, a road trip to Sierra Leone is certainly not impossible. Make sure you possess Job-like reserves of patience (and charm) to deal with ubiquitous police checkpoints, the only thing south of Tangiers more prominent than Premiership football shirts. Driving down from Europe, hugging the coast via Morocco and Mauritania on tarmac roads to Dakar, takes about three weeks. The Bradt Africa Overland guide has some good advice about kit and other essentials.
Border crossings and checkpoints
Crossing into Sierra Leone itself is relatively straightforward. From the Guinean capital Conakry the border is a couple of hours away at Pamelap, on a decent tarred road, which meets the Sierra Leone town of Kambia.
There’s also a great route into the northeast of Sierra Leone from Guinea, east of Falaba – good if you’re sweeping down south from Mali. Border officials at Gberia Fotombu (also known as Koindu) are courteous and keep the post open 06.00–18.00, with fairly hassle-free paperwork.
Heading into the east of Sierra Leone, there are two border crossings from Liberia near each other. The reopening of the Mano River Bridge, at Jendema, has greatly improved road links between Sierra Leone and Liberia, particularly since there is a lot of cross-country movement of families and traders. The main crossing point is at Bo-Waterside, and from here the road to Monrovia is tarred and in a good state of repair, and you can reach the capital in a couple of hours.
In general, the main border posts are well signposted, directions are clear, and officials are polite and prompt. While diplomatic plates are likely to be met with a flurry of salutes and smiles, non-diplomatic plates are likely to encounter extreme curiosity and even pride that you are passing through. Resist any requests for bribes with patience.
Both Liberia and Guinea – and to some extent Sierra Leone – have internal police and army checkpoints where bribes are considered the rule rather than the exception. The high-level presence of UN ground troops in Liberia arguably makes it an easier country to travel in than Guinea, where corruption has reached endemic levels. Watch out too for con merchants and petty officials itching to find a ruse to part you from some dollars.
The regular ferry service between Freetown and Conakry has long been out of action, although there are occasional hopes to start it up once again. Cargo and passenger ships berth at the Queen Elizabeth II Quay, while some passenger/cargo and private craft can land at Government Wharf in Central Freetown, arriving most often from Conakry and Banjul. Enquires should be made to cargo shipping agencies via the Sierra Leone Ports Authority (Queen Elizabeth II Quay, Cline Town, Freetown; tel: 022 220 029). Also contact Sea and Land Services (Cline Town, Freetown; tel: 022 223 453; email: firstname.lastname@example.org), Sierra Leone Shipping Agencies (Queen Elizabeth II Quay; Cline Town; tel: 022 229 855) and the Sierra Leone National Shipping Company (45 Cline St, Cline Town; tel: 022 229 287; email: email@example.com).
Traffic drives on the right, a shift made in 1971 to keep pace with neighbours and fellow right-handers Guinea and Liberia, as well as an attempt to shed the yoke of colonialism. Drivers stuck notes all over their cars to remind themselves, and some radio jingles had people so on-the-ball they switched lanes ahead of time, with disastrous results.
Today you could be forgiven for thinking that many people still aren’t quite sure, as cars overtake into oncoming traffic, and hazard lights are switched on by those in a hurry as an apology for doing whatever they like.
Accidents are common, and transport is often in a state of ill-repair – think nothing of vehicles with cracked windscreens, missing mirrors and no seatbelts, with so much paraphernalia piled up on the dashboard (family photos, fake flowers, encouraging cards, plastic toys, totems) that it’s hard to see out anyway. Roads upcountry are often dire and particularly dangerous during and directly after the end of the rainy season.
By poda poda
Poda podas are the backbone of the public transport system. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the phrase is often taken to mean ‘slowly slowly’. These wood-slat-seated minibuses travel on numerous fixed routes, and in central Freetown, this usually means the most congested roads. They pick up and drop off on request, and are easily hailed. Crammed with people, they are also among the best places to find out the latest music hits.
Give your money in advance to the ‘apprentice’, the young chap who yells out the destinations, and opens and closes the sliding door, yanking himself back in just as the vehicle gets going again.
For those without transport, taxis are the easiest way to get around. You can spot them by their yellow sides, although there are a few magnificently incongruous black and red London cabs plying routes too. You can hail one whenever you see it, but bear in mind they are shared and tend to keep to fixed routes. Shout out your destination and be prepared to be refused if it’s not in the right direction. Learn the key routes and in your head combine them in order to reach your destination.
Taxis are priced by the distance you travel. ’One-way’ costs Le1,000 (although this rises in line with petrol price hikes), but is a variable unit of distance (roughly 1–2km). Expect to be overcharged the first few times you use a taxi, and watch how much other passengers pay to get a feel for how far Le1,000 will take you.
Sierra Leone is also home to the motorbike taxi – hop on the back, hold on, and go. Known locally both as Hondas and ocadas, they are most popular in the provincial towns of Bo, Makeni and Kenema, but pop up in other towns such as Kabala and Koidu. In Freetown they are a handy way to dodge the traffic in the east of town, and to head out from Lumley to get to the beaches on the Peninsula.
For travel within Freetown, a car is fine, but beyond it a 4x4 is a prerequisite. That means either having your own, cadging lifts or hiring – a super expensive option. is available in most towns, but often from old pumps, and can be full of impurities. Try to fill up in Freetown and provincial capitals where possible.