The hotel receptionist piped: "Come back when Barack Obama is president, then you'll see some changes." Unlikely, I thought.
And, indeed, when I checked out of Sierra Leone in 2007, the broadness of his smile suggested more than a hint of mischief.
Then, Freetown thrummed to the sound of portable generators, umbilical wires trailing across the pavements, hanging low into open gutters. Water tankers rumbled through the streets, boys pushed curious trolleys laden with tens of gallons of drinking water, and ladies balanced bright yellow plastic cans of it on their heads as they processed along Signal Hill Road. The fighting may have been over for five years but the only foreigners on the streets were soldiers, UN personnel, and aid workers in their shiny white, logoed-up, four-wheel drives.
Later in 2007, around the same time as Kenya plunged from political crisis into inter-tribal violence, elections in Sierra Leone saw a remarkably peaceful transfer of power from the incumbent to the opposition. By November 2009, after 30 years in the making, the switch was finally thrown at the Bumbuna hydroelectric project, sparking a glut in the second-hand generator market. Today, business for Freetown's water haulers, pushers and carriers has dried up. And across the Atlantic, a black man has occupied what was once a resolutely White House.
Passing Freetown's Obama International Bakery, the characteristically moist and fertile morning air mixes with the yeasty sweetness of bread. Traffic erupts in an indignant tumult of blaring horns around a "poda poda" (shared taxi) which halts to simultaneously disgorge and engorge passengers, "White Teeth, Black Heart" emblazoned across its bonnet. A little further, some hundred hopefuls line the roadside expectantly. "They're waiting for medical certificates, so they can go to Iraq," offers Alieya, my guide. "I heard some of these guys are offered $2,000 to work in Baghdad's army kitchens, and then have problems to receive their wages." A cruel irony; having escaped their own civil conflict with limbs intact, these men now risk having them blown off in a foreign land. However, not all opportunities for hard working Sierra Leoneans lie in the field of extreme burger flipping. A resurgence of this country's tourism is under way.
Half an hour by boat from the beaches of the Freetown Peninsula, gently rounded peaks of the Banana Islands are profiled against the dimming auburn of an evening sky. Approaching through sheltered water, cutting the engine before landfall seems only polite and we wade the final few yards through surf to be rewarded by a wave of sudden tranquillity. "For you tonight!" announced a triumphant boatman, holding aloft a fist of lobsters. The Banana Island Guesthouse, operated by and for the benefit of the local youth association, had just six rooms and promised "no vehicles, no noise and no stress".
Having ordered a cold Star beer by torchlight, I took a long draw on the bottle and sank into a seat on the beach, wiggling my toes in the sand – there just might be something in this post-conflict tourism after all. My drinking buddy was Bimbola Carrol a 33-year-old Sierra Leonean entrepreneur who had returned from London in 2007, confident of peace and his country's ecotourism potential. "You know, war does that to you," he says. "It's like an enlightenment. A lot of people have seen what war means and they don't want to go back there." Conflict never came to the Banana Islands, although it wasn't the few rusting English cannon strewn about that kept Revolutionary United Front (RUF) fighters at bay, more likely it was fear and ignorance. Fear of drowning and ignorance of the islands' inhabitants, swollen to more than 10,000 by refugees. "This is a beautiful country with beautiful people. I'd much rather foreigners visit than just put money in an envelope," says Bimbola.
The grilled lobsters arrive as clouds are gathering. We retreat under cover as the lightning begins flashing and rain beats down. The sensible thing would have been to eat and head for an early night, but frankly, life is just too short. So, after dinner I swim in the warm dark water, tracks of green phosphorescence trailing my hands. Near the beach, arcs of electricity briefly illuminate the shore, followed by low elemental rumblings in the hillside, for a few seconds drowning out the deluge. Deeply inhaling ozone-rich air through streaming rivulets of fresh water is a total immersion therapy but one that would never feature on even the most enlightened spa safari, which is just fine by me.
Next morning, the sky has cleared and outside the islands' whitewashed Church of St Luke, a Sheffield steel bell presents itself as a strange fruit hanging low in the branches of an unpromising tree. Patron saint of physicians, Luke had naturally attracted the sick to within the peel of his bell and "second nurse" Valera hung over the village clinic's balu-strade bemoaning the incidence of clubfoot. Completing the trinity, nearby in the porch of a simple shack I watch an elderly gentleman quietly consumed in cleansing his sole of an offending thorn.
Deeper into the undergrowth, beyond the crumbling shell of a Portuguese church, an indistinct outline of foundations became apparent. Pointing to a circular stone-lined depression about two metres across, Alieya, paused. "This is the saddest place on the islands. Some day, when they dig and uncover this pit they'll know." We are standing within a slave fort, the last African soil for the thousands who were en route to the Carolinas and the Caribbean. For those physically or mentally infirm among them, judged goods of little value, the pit marked a final destination. To most western Europeans, slavery is an uncomfortable historical fact, for Sierra Leoneans it's still a raw injustice and like those unfortunates buried nearby, reminders are never far from the surface.
Back on the mainland, on a six-hour drive from the capital, we pass a one-time redoubt of the West Side Boys' militia, and the diamond town of Bo with its incongruous Hummers, labyrinthine markets, and competing purveyors of industrial gin, to finally arrive in the village of Tiwai. Home to 11 primate species, pygmy hippo, and myriad colourful forest birds, eco-tourism was instigated here in Tiwai, in 1978 by primate anthropologist Dr John Oates. Initially, 20 local villagers trained as guides and rudimentary camping facilities were established. More than 30 years later, it's still pretty basic and crossing the Moa river by small boat, sitting low in the water, it was clear that this get-away-from-it-all experience necessitated taking it all with you.
At a clearing in the forest, where a camp of assorted dome tents surrounds a central dining shelter, I meet up with Mohamed Koroma, one of Tiwai's original guides. "There are usually four of us. A few of the guys, the free-and-single ones are in Liberia looking for diamonds – it's only a day's walk," he laughs. "I have a family here, a wife and a son, when I'm not guiding I grow cocoa and cassava near Kenema." I ask about the war and how it had affected Tiwai. "RUF took all the properties, outboards, generators, money. They thought because we worked with foreigners we were rich," he says. "I ran away into the bush. We spent one year living in the forest. In the morning we took care of our cassava, then back into the forest. The RUF killed primates, duiker [a species of small antelope], anything. Red colobus and black and white colobus [monkeys] were affected the most. But now, we're almost back up to pre-war levels."
Mohamed leads our sweaty band of travellers through the forest, yellow-casqued hornbills flying overhead, our necks aching from constant inclination towards noisy troops of camera-shy monkeys. A few deft slashes of his machete sees Mohamed dispatch entangling creepers and open a trail where none had been, allowing awkwardly tall westerners to stumble ahead. Further, deeper and darker, unseen chimpanzees beat their chests in a wild broadcast to all those tuned in while, in contrast, a solitary sooty mangabey monkey silently sifted the leaf litter for choice nibbles unaware of its notoriety as progenitor of HIV. All the while, just out of sight, imagined ranks of pygmy hippos eye us with disdain.
Back in the hills above Freetown, Tacugama Sanctuary is a tight ship, professionally run for the benefit of some 100 rescued chimpanzees. Dodging stones tossed by truculent juvenile chimps who look you in the eye while taking careful aim, a thoughtful 90-minute guided tour describes the progress of the sanctuary's animals from arrival to pre-release. Visitors' donations and money from Tacugama's three new forest eco-lodges all help cover running costs, approximately $1,000 (£630) per year for each chimp.
Tacugama founder, Bala Amarasekaran is keen to highlight the results of a recent country-wide chimpanzee survey that counted 4,000 wild West African chimps in Sierra Leone, twice that previously estimated and the second highest population in the region. "Chimps are like us, they adapt and learn to live wherever they can and as people took over their habitats, that means around villages and towns."
I ask Bala about changes since my last visit. "It's like Bumbuna, the big [hydroelectric] dam. Nobody could stop that happening because the country needs electricity but we bargained with the World Bank to create an offset, and Loma Mountain is going to be a national park, the World Bank is pumping in $2m to do it. That's the way forward, some sort of balance."
On the peninsula's Atlantic coast again, though the coconut palms have been replanted, Tokey's pristine white-sand beach is still characterised by the blackened chalets shells of former French-managed Tokey African Village. An email address daubed in blue across some remaining walls tempts prospective purchasers. The last "guests" had been the RUF and it is unlikely they'll be invited back any time soon. I tried to imagine a time when chic French mademoiselles in carefully designed swimsuits patrolled the sand, ignored closely by annoyingly cool Frenchmen – it wasn't so hard. Now a few low-key beach cafés, wooden tables and chairs scattered above the line of Atlantic surf, serve a trickle of locals and foreigners.
Sierra Leone's government is aware of the benefits that tourism has brought to states such as Rwanda, and Cecil Williams, head of the tourist board makes a plausible case for stability. "The war was never a political war, it was never tribal, never religious, it was more or less an economic war perpetrated by a few people who misled the ignorant," he explains. "There are a lot of difficulties, we may not be paved in gold and diamonds but it's safe – I feel more secure here than London."
Ten years after British military intervention and almost 50 years since independence, Sierra Leone seems poised to reinvent its taste of paradise through peace, electricity, water, better roads and a genuine welcome for adventurous travellers.
How to get there
Exodus (0845 863 9601; exodus.co.uk) is launching an eight-day Highlights of Sierra Leone adventure, departing 21 January 2011. The tour costs £2,399 per person and includes flights, transfers, accommodation, and activities. BMI (flybmi.com) offers flights from Heathrow to Freetown from £883 return, including taxes.