Friday, 1 March 2013

Sierra Leone part 3: Paradise

John Obey beach
Sierra Leone’s highest mountain is hard to reach, but its other star attractions are much easier to get to. Running south from Freetown are a string of stunningly beautiful beaches: dark green rain forest runs down steep mountains to meet golden beaches, with the surf crashing a few metres away. Add in a few lagoons, monkeys and palm trees and you have a taste of paradise; no wonder one of these beaches featured in a Bounty advert.

The question is: how long will it remain unspoilt? The Government of Sierra Leone recently reversed a law banning sand mining along the peninsula. Up to 200 trucks a day now leave the beaches loaded with their golden treasure, which is used in the building industry. This is already having a negative impact: one beach has already lost the sand bank that attracted surfers, and others are also under threat.

River Number Two beach
Perhaps a bigger concern is the tourism industry itself. The country’s civil war no doubt affected the country’s popularity as a destination (a small concern amid such atrocities, of course) but as the country develops, it seems inevitable that tourism will increase. Sierra Leone could soon rival the Gambia and Senegal as a West African winter sun hotspot, which will doubtless lead to more roads, more hotels, more people. The forested hills around Freetown are already being felled indiscriminately as the city expands. How long before the hills behind the beaches follow suit?

And yet there are signs that Sierra Leone may be choosing a different path to the mass tourism that has blighted other coastal regions. The few operations that have established themselves already are small-scale, community-run operations rather than ugly tower-block hotels. At River Number Two, the beach halfway along the coast that starred in the Bounty advert, the local community has established small lodges, a bar and restaurant, supported by a German charity, Welthungerhilfe. The development is low-key and does little to affect the scenery. While the pricing is a little ambitious - $60 for a 2-hour canoe trip seems pretty high in this poor country – the community are rightly proud of their achievements.

Another interesting project is Tribewanted, a volun-tourism camp recently established at John Obey beach, a little further south along the peninsula. The camp was set up by Ben Keene, an Englishman, following a successful project in Fiji. The Tribewanted approach is to use the Internet, particularly social networking, to establish a ‘tribe’ of travellers looking for something different. Rather than just laze on the beach, ‘tribe members’ help with community projects, work alongside local people in the garden and kitchen. In short, they share the lifestyle of the local people rather than just popping in as tourists.

Tribewanted's kitchen
In principle at least. It’s perhaps unfair to judge a project based on one night’s stay, but there was little integration during my brief visit. At lunch, a Sierra Leonean woman cooked and served the food, which the (all white) tribe members ate and cleared away. During the day, most visitors sat in the hammocks or swam in the lagoon while the locals worked in the garden. And in the evening, the Leoneans drank and sang in their bar (a few metres away in the village) while the tourists – mostly NGO workers from Freetown who stay at weekends – drank and chatted in theirs.

Maybe that’s how it should be. The villagers of John Obey are happy with the extra income the project has brought to their lives, and probably don’t want to spend their evenings discussing the power cuts in Freetown or where else to visit in ‘Salone’. Maybe not all visitors want to drink palm wine or listen to reggae played on a slowly dying cassette player. And if Sierra Leone can establish more of these community-run, low-impact beach resorts before the chain hotels clear the forest (or the sand miners clear the beaches), then so much the better.

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