Sierra Leone is on the West Coast of Africa between 7 and 10 degrees N, and longitudes 10.5 and 13 degrees W. The Republic of Guinea is to the north and northeast; Liberia is to the east and southeast, and the Atlantic Ocean on the west and south. It has 402 km of coastline.
From an approximate 100km coastal belt of low-lying land, the country rises to a mountain plateau near the eastern frontier rising 1200m to 2000m with a rich timber forest region.
The peninsula, on which the capital and main commercial centre of Freetown stands, is 40km long and 17km wide with a mountainous interior.
Sierra Leone will celebrate its 50th anniversary of independence from Britain in 2011. Since the end of its civil war in 2002, the government, with considerable international assistance, has made modest improvements in the country's infrastructure which should help the tourism sector: the highway linking Freetown and Bo is now tarred from start to finish and Bumbuna hydroelectric dam supplies electricity when water levels are high enough (both completed in 2009). While the government sector still suffers from chronic shortage of resources, the private sector is booming. The potential for tourism is vast, but largely unrealised. Tourists are starting to return and tour operators are looking closely at what the country has to offer. Sierra Leone is rich in natural resources. It has some of the best beaches in the world, a rich colonial heritage, and some stunning scenery, but its greatest asset is its welcoming, friendly populace, most of whom will go out of their way to make a foreigner comfortable.
Sierra Leone has a tropical climate, typified by warm temperatures and high humidity. Night time temperatures rarely drop below 24C and daytime temperatures reach 30C throughout the year. From October to March the weather is generally dry with many fine, hot, sunny days. From April to September, is the rainy season. The rainfall increases to a peak in July and August and then decreases until rain has almost ceased by November.
Coastal belt of mangrove swamps, wooded hill country, upland plateau, mountains in east.
Lowest point: Atlantic Ocean 0 m
Highest point: Loma Mansa (Bintimani) 1,948 m
Electricity is officially 220V/50Hz. Sockets are British standard. Supplies are unreliable, but improving - parts of Freetown do now get a reasonable supply. The Bumbuna Dam hydro-electric project is now operational (6 November 2009), which provides 50MW of electricity to the capital, with more power expected on-line during 2010. Mains electricity is only available in Freetown, Bo and Kenema, and comes and goes unpredictably. Makeni is promised a supply by Christmas 2010.
Please note that Yellow Fever vaccination certificates are required for most nationalities. Proof of vaccination might be required to get a visa!
All persons entering Sierra Leone must have a valid passport or travel document. Citizens of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) do not require a visa to enter the country. All other nationalities will require a visa, which are issued at Sierra Leone's overseas missions and at the land borders. Visas are not too hard to get, it is unlikely that anyone will be refused unless there is a very good reason for the government not to want them in the country. Visa prices vary considerably based on your citizenship: US citizens need to fork out around US$130 for one, a 3 month visa for UK citizens is £50, while most others can get away with as little as $40. Contact the local embassy for current prices (UK , USA ).
The international airport is at Lungi, the other side of the estuary from Freetown. The quickest way into the capital is via a short helicopter ride (US$80). A hovercraft operated erratically until 2008, but since 2009 there has been a proliferation of "water taxis," small yacht-like boats that cost around $40, offer free bus connections from the airport terminal, and serve various destinations in Freetown, including Aberdeen, Murray Town, and Kissy. Three often-overloaded car ferries run to the east end of Freetown from Tagrin at the southern tip of Lungi, docking at Kissy Ferry Terminal, which cross the water in 45-70 minutes, but can take several hours including waiting/loading times. For those with a light load, local speedboats (US$1.25) and larger, slower "pampa" boats (US$0.50) are by far the most affordable, if not safest, option. They run fairly frequently, when full, on the same route as the car ferries. The landing in Lungi is wet, but porters wait to carry you in or out of the boats for a small fee (US$0.25).
By road it is 5+ hours to the city, via Port Loko using some poor roads. Safety concerns have been expressed over all of the different transport options from the airport to Freetown.
BMI is well established, with four direct flights per week to London Heathrow. Brussels Airlines flies to Brussels. Flights to Nairobi (Kenya Airways), Casablanca (Royal Air Maroc), Lagos, Banjul (Arik Air) and many Western African countries are available. Air France will re-introduce flights from Paris in 2011.
Currently Sierra Leone can be accessed by road from Guinea(Conakry) and Liberia. Special permits are required if transiting the border with a private vehicle. Private taxis, buses and trucks commute daily to and from Conakry/Freetown.
The Sierra Leone Road Transport Authority has some buses which link the major cities. There are minibuses which can be used in Sierra Leone called poda poda. They are run by private individuals with some of the worst driving skills in the country and can cost between 2500 and 5000 Leones (£0.50-£1). There are no designated bus stops and so one can stand on a street and wave to get it to stop. However, be careful with personal belongings as petty theft is common on these buses. They are also usually dangerously overloaded.
Sierra Leone has the 3rd largest natural harbour in the world and is looking forward to the arrival of cruise ships. Cargo and Passenger ships berth at the Queen Elizabeth II quay, while some passenger/Cargo and private crafts can land at the Government Wharf in central Freetown, arriving most times from Conakry and Banjul. Enquiries should be made to Cargo Shipping Agencies.
The road network fell into disrepair during the civil war. However, recently, there has been a substantial reconstruction programme which means the main roads to regional cities such as Bo, Kenema and Makeni are in excellent condition. The road to Kabala mostly smooth tar, with a few terribly potholed patches. The road to Kono is for three quarters tar, but the remaining quart is in mostly poor condition. It means it takes as much time to cover 3/4 of the distance as it takes for the balance 1/4. Government has planned to upgrade the last stretch in 2011. The peninsular road is good from Eastern Freetown clockwise around the peninsular to Tokeh. Work has started on the remaining section to Lumley. The roads in Freetown are difficult to characterize. In the center of town, the main roads are mostly smooth and pothole-free, having been constructed from high-quality asphalt a long time ago. Side streets are often a mixture of dirt and gravel, sometimes with large protruding stones, deep crevasses, and other potential dangers. Most main feeder roads such as Wilkinson Road, Spur Road and Sir Samuel Lewis road in the Western part of Freetown are in atrocious condition, but work is under way to reconstruct them - expect traffic chaos until July 2011. When walking, always keep your eyes in front of you: most of the sidewalks in Freetown have "death traps," missing blocks of cement that could lead to a nasty fall into an open gutter. For this reason, most Freetown residents choose to walk in the street and avoid sidewalks, a major contributing factor to the city's congestion.
The beaches of the Freetown peninsula are spectacular, and on an average day, deserted. There are at least ten that could be described as world-class.
Bonthe Town, on Sherbro Island, is a former British Colonial Town, with several beautiful stone churches, and a rich culture.
Tiwai Island (in the middle of a river in SE Sierra Leone) is teeming with rare wildlife.
Rural West African villages: experience hospitality and the tranquility of the bush.
English is the official language, but regular use is limited to the literate minority (although most understand and can communicate in English). Krio, an English-based creole, serves as the country's lingua franca and is a first language for the Creoles (minority of descendants of ex-slaves from the Americas and United Kingdom), but it is understood by 95% of the population of the country.
In the provinces, Mende is the principal vernacular in the south and Temne is the principal vernacular in the north; Krio use is mostly limited to provincial cities.
The unit of currency is the Leone, symbol Le. Leone coins have the value Le50, Le100 and Le500. Bank notes are Le1000, Le2000,Le5000 and Le10000. On May 14th 2010, new bank notes were introduced. The new notes are slightly different in size to the originals and are supposedly more durable. The old Le500 note has not been replaced. The designs are very similar to the old notes. The new notes far outnumber the old type as of the end of May 2010, so it can be expected that people will not want to accept the old notes for much longer. The old type can be exchanged at banks for one year after the launch date of the new notes.
Exchanging money is very easy, either through the black market or banks. The small bank at the airport offers reasonable rates. GB£, Euro or US$ are most popular, although others are possible.
Exchange rates (May 2010):
Credit cards are accepted in a few supermarkets, restaurants and hotels (Visa only). The airport duty free shop does take major cards. Some of the other hotels are planning to take cards. It is possible to get money from some banks with a credit card, but the process can be long and rather costly. There are ATMs in Freetown most are not internationally linked. Pro Credit Bank has ATMs that accept international Visa cards.
Money and daily life As much as Sierra Leone is a poor country it will surprise you with the high cost of everything. The lack of a good import system and the high importation tax that the new government has in place and to add 15% service and goods tax that the new government increases this year, every little thing you will find in a supermarket will be around double the cost than what you will find in a U.S. supermarket. Foreigners often pay up to ten times the price quoted to locals when it comes to goods you find on the street so make sure to bargain and lower the price as much as you can. If you are prepared to stay in a cheap guesthouses, and that means not a safe location with bed bugs in the bed ( $35-$50 ) and travel only by local bus ( poda poda ) $0.50 and eat only at street corners ( not recommended to your health ) , you can get by in Freetown on a minimum of around LE 220,000 (about $55) per day. If you want to eat a decent restaurant meal every now and then and stay in mid-range accommodation, a more realistic budget is around LE 440,000 (about $110). If you want to eat and sleep good , you can easily chew through LE 880,000 (about $220)per day.
The main staple of Sierra Leonean food is rice, often accompanied by soup i.e. stews. These stews may include a flavorful and often spicy mix of meat, fish, seasonings, greens, etc., often taking hours to prepare. There are plenty of good quality restaurants offering a variety of local and international dishes.
The diet of Sierra Leoneans like many African country is very healthy. Many tend to eat fresh fruits picked from trees growing in their homes or freshly picked by market vendors that very day. They also eat seafood particularly in the Capital Freetown which seats on the Atlantic. It is common to go to areas such as Lumley Beach where one can find local fishermen pulling in nets from the Atlantic filled with food such as crabs, lobsters, oysters, snappers and many, many more.
The locals of Sierra Leone keep healthy by eating many plant-based dishes which are high in fiber, such as cassava leaves, potato leaves, okra, and more.
The national brewer Sierra Leone Breweries Limited produces the high quality Star beer. Many European beers are also imported. As in many African countries Guinness is widely popular. Soft drinks such as Coca Cola and Fanta are locally produced. Wine is available from restaurants and supermarkets, but can be expensive. Local brewed palm wine (called "poyo" in Krio), is very popular throughout Sierra Leone.
There are some hotels/guesthouses in Freetown. Facilities are very limited in other cities, although improvements are being made. Makeni now has at least one good hotel. There is a nice accommodation in Banana Island. average guesthouses are around $35-$50 for a single room average hotels are around $100-$180 for a single room
Sierra Leone is an excellent place to pursue independent research. Possible areas of study are African music, dance, history, politics, as well as zoology, botany, traditional medicine. Krio teachers are easy to find. Unfortunately, the idea of advertising private drum and dance lessons hasn't caught on like it has in other West African countries like Ghana and Senegal, but the possibility exists for those willing to search for a qualified instructor. It's unlikely you'd want to come to Sierra Leone to study at Fourah Bay College or Njala University. These institutions are famous for corrupt practices such awarding of grades in exchange for monetary payment or sexual favors, and the facilities are generally poor. Most Sierra Leoneans with the financial means aspire to attend university abroad.
Many British and American citizens, as well as other Europeans, find short-term volunteer work with international or local NGOs. Finding paid work can be more challenging, but not impossible, especially if you are trained in a field that is lacking qualified locals. A $1500 (+ tip to the officer ) work permit is required whether or not the work is paid.
Sierra Leone is a generally a safe country to visit. Petty crime is fairly common (most non-violent crime involves acts of pick-pocketing and purse-snatching), while armed robbery, muggings, and assaults are not common. Criminals particularly target visitors at the airport and the traditional markets frequented by foreigners. Stay vigilant, and apply common sense if stuck in a certain situation. The Police are somewhat ineffective, despite their good intentions for reducing crime. Low salaries and inadequate training contribute to the lack of professionalism of the police. If you are the victim of a crime consult your embassy if the police will not help. Corruption is widespread - corrupt police sometimes target foreigners for bribes in just about any place in the country. The government is taking measures to reduce corruption and no visitor should attempt to bribe a public official. It it is not recommended to walk around at night as the lack of lighting can be a problem. Many roads are in horrible condition and Driving standards and vehicle safety are often poor. Care is required as a pedestrian or as a passenger.
Water-borne diseases, malaria and other tropical diseases are prevalent. You should consider taking medication to protect against malaria and using insect repellent. Vaccination against yellow fever is now required and against rabies might be recommended. HIV/AIDS is prevalent. Lassa fever can be contracted in Kenema and the east. In 2010, it has also spread to the North, resulting in 48 deaths between the start of the year and November. If you have travelled in these regions you should seek urgent medical advice for any fever not positively identified as malaria.
Medical facilities are very poor. You should carry basic medical supplies. You should take medical advice before travelling and ensure that all appropriate vaccinations are up to date. Drink only bottled water and be aware of what you eat and how well cooked it is.
Sierra Leone has a long history of religious harmony. Both Muslims and Christians live and worship side by side. Same goes for members of different tribes; the country is known for having relative tribal harmony as well.
Contact information for government offices, consulates and embassies, and local businesses nationwide can be found in the Sierra Leone Business Directory
The country code is 232. Sierra Leone has fixed line phone service in Freetown, Bo and Kenema. The mobile phone network uses the GSM technology (as in Europe) and use is widespread. The format for dialling is: +232-##-######, where the first "##" designates the area code. Key area codes include Freetown (22) and Bo (32). Calls to mobile phones use the operator's area codes: (77/88/30) for Africell, (76/78) for Airtel/Zain (Celtel) and (33) for Comium. Tigo was bought by Africell in late 2009, and their 30 prefix was incorporated into the Africell network. Like other countries, when dialling locally, "00" is used to access an international number (and followed by the country code) and "0" is used to access a national number (followed by the area code). The major cities and industrial areas enjoy good coverage as well as some major national roads. Zain is the oldest and has the best nationwide coverage. International roaming is available. International calling is relatively cheap. Some of the mobile networks charge as little as $0.35/minute to all countries with some countries costing just $0.15 per minute.
Zain Sierra Leone is part of the One Network Service. This allows a Zain SIM card from another country to be used in Sierra Leone. Incoming calls are free to receive and local calls are charged at local rates. Remember that calls to the SIM cards home country will be charged at international rates.
Sierra Leone now uses 112 for emergency calls from any phone network. Calls are free and will be directed to the relevant emergency service.
Internet access is generally poor, but improving. The major hotels in Freetown usually have fairly high speed access, some with wireless networks. FGC Wireless covers parts of Freetown with a pay-as-you-go wireless broadband service, although it is fairly slow.
Zain are offering a GPRS service, but it can be a challenge to get it activated and configured on a mobile phone. USB modem wireless internet is also available from Zain, Comium and Sierratel.
Fixed internet service is available from Afcom, Lime Line and IPTEL.