IN 1838, the Medical Gazette reported: 'No statistical writer has yet tried to give the minutest fraction representing the chance of even a surgeon's return from Sierra Leone.' Aeons ago - tosh, meaningless. The current issue of the Rough Guide to West Africa is harder to explain away: 'The only country in the world where life expectancy has been on the decrease over the last 15 years,' it says. .

Hovering between them is Graham Greene, who set The Heart of the Matter in a sordid, sweaty Sierra Leone afflicted with corruption and cockroaches, blackwater fever and blue mould in your shoes.

No place for a Martini drinker, I thought. All right for a Dervla Murphy travelling with threadbare pack-horse and one spare pair of knickers, but not the right spot for a fan of Badedas and crisp linen sheets. 'Africa gets into your blood,' people kept purring, but it seemed as if this small chunk of it would get directly into the bloodstream and do something nasty. Was this journey really necessary? Was it even wise?

It was thrilling, let me tell you. In a week, Sierra Leone worked some benign but powerful kind of juju on a sceptic. I wake up at night imagining I am swimming again towards the empty palm-fringed beach at Kun Kun, through waves warmer than the water that occasionally splutters from the taps of an dollars 80-a-night hotel in Freetown.

I see myself hurtling up-country in a Jeep through an emerald forest of banana, eucalyptus, frangipani trees, paying no heed to the pot-holes on the laterite roads where dust flies up in puffs like peach-coloured dry ice. Why have the gloom-merchants written so little about the extreme beauty of this small round country on the bulge of Africa, where flowers flourish even after five dry months, and forested mountains sweep right down to the sea?

And why has so little been written about the people: handsome, friendly and funny? Krio, the language of the freed Creole slaves who settled in Sierra Leone in 1787, has something to do with the appeal. 'How di body?' the customary greeting runs, to which you reply: 'Body good.' You are a wetman. A roundabout is a turntable and aweful is the name of a dubious sort of fish.

It is mainly around Freetown that the Krios survive, together with a few 18th- century clapboard Creole houses in an extravagant state of decay. You have to travel east and south to immerse yourself in Sierra Leone's two other main tribes, the Temne and the Mande, with their infinitely more esoteric languages. Yet chaotic, steamy Freetown, bursting with new arrivals, is as good a place as any to observe the ethnic mix.

It may once have been elegant, this city with the third-largest natural harbour in the world. When the British established their colony in 1808 they built their club and colonial-style bungalows up at Leicester, high above mosquito level, before repeating the exercise at Hill Station when the railway came.

Other grandiose buildings were erected down in the town. The City Hotel, model for the Bedford in The Heart of the Matter, still stands, deserted by all but its manager, Mr Ferrari, who can remember young Graham Greene in residence about 50 years ago. Overlooking the sea is a fine terrace of 19th- century houses, designed by some London architect who provided them all with fireplaces and chimneys.

But these relics of the colonial past are barely noticeable in a teeming city that seems to have turned itself inside out on to the streets. Everywhere there are traders, many of them Temne from up-country trying to make a few leone selling baskets, buckets, cut-up oranges, anything. 'They see white colour, they charge heavy,' somebody warns.

'Give me money] You take snap, now give me money]' a woman with banknotes rolled into a fold of bright batik at her waist shouts - scowling first, then shaking with laughter. She is neatly positioned halfway down the steps where King Jimmy Market spills into the sea. If you almost close your eyes it is like looking at the blocks of colour in a paintbox - green cassava leaves, scarlet palm oil like greasy tomato ketchup, pig's trotters curiously dyed lipstick pink.

The frenzy of Freetown is easy to escape. A few tourist hotels are clumped together at Aberdeen near Lumley Beach, linked to the airport with a new 20-minute, dollars 50-return hovercraft service. It's quicker than the old ferry, which jostles and crushes you for hours and then lands you at the wrong end of town. And safer, surely, than the helicopter service of a year or two ago, several of whose aircraft crashed. At Lumley you can play holidaymaker, collecting cuttlefish bones on the clean sand, buying a necklace made of coffee beans for less than the cost of a cup of coffee at home, and letting the warm West African waves wash around you.

Some of the visitors who constitute Sierra Leone's fledgling tourist industry never get beyond The Venue on the beach, where grilled barracuda and Star beer cost half nothing. (The same is true, it seems, of the ladies of the night who blossom around the bar towards midnight.) But to savour the country fully you have to go farther. Perhaps to Goderich, where the BBC World Service booms its 6 o'clock news out across the sand as the fishing boats come in, landing glistening sea booty: small 'Spanish ladies' packed in sacks like silver coins. Then bump on farther down the Freetown peninsula to Tokey, where some French entrepreneur has built a stylish holiday village on sands as fine and white as cooking salt.

From here, boats travel to a less tamed landscape: Banana Island, whose 'capital' - a few small houses scattered among avocado and papaw trees - was named Dublin in the 1820s by an Irish governor of Sierra Leone called McCarthy. If you are lucky, your guided tour through bougainvillaea thickets and over rusty cannon may be conducted by his wholly black descendant, Cilla McCarthy, who knows how to say 'Donne-moi de l'argent]' winningly (most visitors from Tokey are French), even though she is only four.

It may be here, on the battered fishing boats, that the Sierra Leonean forte for slogans first makes its impact. 'To Be a Man is not Easy', you will see more than once, along with 'God Save the Travel' or 'Poor no Good, God Sorry for We'. Up-country on the poda-podas - open-sided trucks crammed with human beings, luggage and the occasional bit of livestock - it reaches its apogee. 'Master Greeting' is emblazoned across one, 'Don't Surprise' is on the rear of another, and across the bonnet of a vehicle in the ditch you can still just about read 'God is the Driver'.

As God, alas, drives all too rarely and those who do have an idiosyncratic way of weaving around the pot-holes at chilling speed, it is as well to hire both Jeep and driver for the trip up-country.

In Bo, the biggest Mande town, I checked into a rooming house sandwiched between Barclays Bank and the Siesta Video Club. It was reckoned by a local friend, Didi (nickname Sugar Didi), to be a pretty classy place. It had air-conditioning and a bathroom and cost about pounds 8 a night. The only trouble was that three or four power cuts soon raised the night-time temperature, and the bathroom, though intact, seemed to have been without running water since Britain pulled out in 1961.

The strangest thing of all is that I did not care a whit. Sierra Leonean laissez-faire is wonderfully contagious. 'How for do?' you murmur in Krio and shrug your shoulders - then stare in amazement at the boy walking past with four dozen eggs balanced on his head.

In the mist of early morning, and again in the evening when the sun hangs low in the sky like an opalescent light bulb, people are on the move in slow motion along the edges of the dirt roads. Women in brilliantly coloured native dress glide regally by with the washing-up or the makings of the dinner up there on top of flamboyant headgear. If only the same balancing acts could be performed with the economy there might be more electricity, or water, or telephones.

Up around Bo and Kenema, further east, you see the natural riches of Sierra Leone - in rice, palm oil, coffee, cocoa and, above all, diamonds. Since the Thirties the sand-sand boys, who strain the mud of the Sewa river through their shake-shakes, have been discovering some of the biggest gem diamonds in the world, including the record-breaking 328-carat Star of Sierra Leone. With prices ranging from dollars 2,200 ( pounds 1,140) to dollars 27,500 ( pounds 14,250) per carat depending on quality, and the supply far from exhausted, this ribbon of alluvium is the country's richest asset and probably its greatest curse.

'If we didn't have diamonds,' said more than one Freetown businessman, 'the government would have had to get its act together long ago to sort out all the economic problems. And 90 per cent of the diamonds are smuggled out. They have made corruption in this country worse. People have discovered that there is a pocket in their trousers.'

The national psyche flourishes on scams. Street hucksters sell pills of every shape, size, colour and no possible medical benefit. More discreet dealers can arrange to furnish you with your own death certificate.

Whatever the transaction, wads of almost valueless leone change hands. The simple settlement of a restaurant bill can take about 10 minutes. 'And don't lick your finger as you count out the notes,' an ex-pat warned. 'A man we know caught hepatitis doing that.'

'Ah yes,' nodded his colleague with a how-for-do shrug, 'but only type A'

Most business deals of significance in Sierra Leone have Lebanese connections. The Lebanese, who are said to have arrived in the 1890s duped by an unscrupulous ship's captain into believing they had reached San Francisco, have found a niche for themselves in a country of small traders who are too laid back to make a go of big business; they are the hustlers and the fixers, the bankers and diamond merchants, the travel agents and restaurateurs.

Soon, political stability permitting, there will be a significant new business: tourism. With European Community support the government appointed a tourist board with a three-year plan for controlled growth. 'Sierra Leone has the product,' said Jim Flannery, tourism adviser. 'The best beaches in Africa backed by lush green forests. It's exotic yet only six hours from Europe and in the same time zone so there's no jet lag. The people are genuinely friendly, the language is English and the sea is unbelievably clean.'

Weighed against these advantages, the scourges of power cuts and dead telephones and arthritic plumbing he viewed as minor irritants that would eventually be cured and which, in the meantime, need not deter the intelligent, adventurous traveller.

Undoubtedly he is right about the pros outweighing the (mod) cons. I hope he is also right about cautiously nurtured tourist development. Sierra Leone needs to keep some raw edges, to let its visitors loose into landscapes where large black pigs join the evening parade, criss-crossing the road between pastel-coloured houses fragrant with cooking smells.

If it were not the rainy season I would go back tomorrow and arrive in time to wander, in the velvet night, past traders' stalls lit up like roadside shrines. Pray it does not change too much.


Flights Trailfinders (071-938 3366) has return fares from London to Freetown from pounds 605 travelling with Dutch airline KLM via Amsterdam. Sierra Leone Travel Service (071-734 1985) offers a return fare of pounds 450 with Air Gambia via Banjul.

Accommodation Generally agreed to be the best hotel in Freetown is the Hotel Bintumani (010-232 22 37019), built in 1980 on Aberdeen Hill with good views and rooms facing the ocean. Rooms from about pounds 50 per night.

Books: West Africa: a travel survival kit (Lonely Planet, pounds 7.95) has a useful section on Sierra Leone; The Rough Guide to West Africa (Penguin, pounds 10.95) is also helpful.

Further information: Sierra Leone Tourist Office, 375 Upper Richmond Road West, London SW14 7NX (081- 392 9188).

(Photograph omitted)