East Africa especially Tanzania, Kenya and now Rwanda are blessed by nature with game reserves, mountains and lakes. However, the game reserves are the most attractive for the millions of tourists who visit these country every year. We can learn from them if we want to tap into this sector which has huge potentials and benefit. These countries have strict laws on their game reserves. In the face of man made threat such as pouching and struggle for farm land, the governments in these countries are doing their best to protect the game reserves. Arusha in Tanzania for example is a city to one 1.5 million people. 70% of its work force are in the tourism and tourism related branches. Kilimanjaro Airport is busy with international flights like KLM, Dubai Air, Ethiopia , Kenya , Rwanda and many other flights. this is an indication of the many people who flock here regularly to enjoy animals in their natural habitat. Arusha has hotels that cost $300 dollars a night for affluent people, and believe you me many affluent people come to these place especially during the great migration that occurs every June to October. They also have big and some hotels that caters for millionaires and ordinary people who wants to see nature.
Granted Sierra Leone does not have Lions. But we can if we have the determination to develop and protect our local game reserves, improve our infrastructure. This can help us attract some of these tourists who head every day, week and months to places like Tanzania.To visit Manyara game reserve for a day is $250 per person. as a family you can be discounted. Serengethy is even more expensive.
In 2007, a report was compiled by some bird lovers and numerous problems were highlighted especially with our infrastructure. 12 years down the line, the problems are still prominent. In fact the potential areas areas visited by the author and his team was the most neglected in the so called infrastructural development that the last government claimed the did in Sierra Leone.
The current government got almost 100% support from the south East especially Kenema and pujehun in the last general election. Investing to improve the the infrastructure in these areas and injecting some seriousness in the protection and development of the game reserves will bring serious return on Investment for the country. No Westerner is leaving the west, north Africa or the Caribbean to go to Freetown for Aberdeen or Lumley beach. We have to offer what they do not have, that is natural beauty and game reserve in their natural habitat.
Sierra Leone Dec 27, 2006- Jan 8, 2007
I visited Sierra Leone with Joan Clark to see her very last family in the Clements list of 204 bird families, represented here by the White-necked Picathartes, and in addition to see as many of the West African specialities as possible. 16 of the 17 Upper Guinea endemics occur (not Liberian Greenbul), and a few other hard to get West African species as well. Sierra Leone has had a traumatic recent past and was long off-limits due to 10 years of civil war. However the various warlords are now dead, in prison awaiting war crimes trials, or exiled, and it is at the moment a safe, if very under-developed, country. It is also now the best place to see these birds since Ivory Coast is currently unsafe to visit. Very few birders or tourists have been to Sierra Leone, other than aid workers, UN personnel, a handful of South African tour-leaders and some RSPB workers doing surveys of Gola Forest and Rockfowl sites, a highly commendable extension to RSPB activities.
A visa must be obtained before departure for £50. See slhc-uk.org.uk. The application requires a "letter of invitation", but a copy of an email will do. I got mine in one day by going to the embassy in London.
There are a few Internet cafes in Freetown, and there is amazingly wide mobile phone coverage. The unit of currency is the Leone, the exchange rate in Dec 2006 being 5,200 to the £ at the airport. Hotel accommodation is usually of a good standard but quite expensive in the cities, basic elsewhere; restaurants are basic outside of the cities. Bottled water, soft drinks and local beer are fairly cheap and widely available.
Tourists are very much still a novelty and this is one of the poorest countries I have ever been to, though the people are very friendly, many speaking English, the official language. Birding was damn difficult, the toughest I’ve known in Africa, being mostly in tall rain forest where trapping is rife, density of birds low and with not much in the way of vocalization or feeding flocks. Insects were surprisingly and mercifully scarce, especially mosquitoes.
We flew to Lagos with Virgin Atlantic, and then transferred to the curiously named Bellview Airlines for the 3-hour flight to Freetown. Transfer in Nigeria is of course problematic, you don’t need a visa but have to get through immigration to get your bags by paying a policeman to walk you through customs and immigration and then to the nearby departure lounge. They like to have donations “for a big breakfast”, and there is always the risk of getting delayed by someone having a bad day, so this is not a recommended route, it’s all way too nerve-wracking! A friend of mine spent US$500 on a night in Lagos in transit to Sierra Leone. British Airways, Bellview Airlines and something called Astraeus also fly to Freetown, and vary in price.
Freetown’s Lungi Airport lies on the far side of the bay, a long way by road from the town. Occasional and erratically scheduled ferries cross the bay cheaply; helicopter ($40 or $50) is quicker and best when arriving in late evening / early morning, but the huge and ancient chopper looks like a Vietnam veteran and is I reckon a high risk venture.
The ground arrangements were organised by Kenneth Gbenga, who has worked in Gambia and Senegal in tourism but recently returned home. It is important to agree a fair price first and stick to it. He is sporadically contactable on firstname.lastname@example.org when he is in Freetown. He accompanied us throughout and worked very hard (albeit idiosyncratically). He had taken Ian Sinclair recently, and Jon Hornbuckle, Trevor Ford and Eric Decker on 3 separate tours about 2 weeks before us. Be aware that he is not a bird guide per se, and does not really know the calls, but he does knows where the key sites are and can generally sort logistics out. A nice guy called Alhaji out at Gola seems to really know his birds and would be an invaluable contact, Kenneth knows him but he (Alhaji) is often away on survey work.
Our problems arose with a seriously problematic vehicle, seemingly all that was available at the price Kenneth wanted to pay, and we were plagued with endlessly frustrating daily breakdowns, which cut seriously into time in the field and our enjoyment of the trip. Kabba the driver was a super field mechanic and worked wonders keeping the bloody heap of junk running, though he must have drunk loads of diesel clearing the fuel pump each time. The other problem was we had no a/c and the roads were mostly very dusty and bumpy, so open windows were a necessity, and we were usually covered in red dust when travelling. Vehicle-hire is very expensive due to the UN and aid agencies, the main renters, paying high rates. Locals travel in over-crowded vans or on the back of motorbikes. Back-country roads are badly pot-holed, and it takes a very long time to get anywhere. It is best to not be in a hurry and abandon all western concepts of timetables, welcome to the land of rubber time. Kenneth is also addicted to mobile phone use and had to be banned from shouting into one when we were trying to bird nearby!
The weather was sunny but surprisingly cool, not at all humid, with a strong harmattan effect this year and much atmospheric dust on some days. It was dry throughout, the rainy season being April to mid-November. December to February is the best time to visit as regards climate, but may not be the best time for bird vocalization. September-October may be better for that, but is risky as it can still be pretty wet at this time.
We had a successful trip for the Picathartes but were very frustrated by the vehicle problems, my feeling is that 3 days around the Freetown area would be good, then 2 nights up to Bumbuna with the option of a Tiwai extension (which adds a day’s travel each way to the itinerary). Gola was very hard, we did badly there and it probably requires lots more time than we had. It is not a country for the faint-hearted, it is desperately impoverished and reconciliation is fragile, go while you can but be prepared, it ain’t easy.
Jon Hornbuckle has a useful trip report on Worldtwitch, and visitsierraleone.org has quite a lot of useful info. Take both Birds of Western Africa (Borrow and Demy) and Birds of Africa South of the Sahara(Sinclair and Ryan), as taxonomy varies and some illustrations differ greatly for the same species!
We would like to thank Jon Hornbuckle, Trevor Ford and Eric Decker who had recently done trips there for their help and advice, and for sharing their experiences. My thanks to the indefatigable trouper Joan Clark, who put up with all this for the 12 days, and got her final bird family, the Picathartes. Cameroon next Joan?
- December 26 2006 Dep. Heathrow 2300 Virgin Atlantic
- Day 1 Dec. 27 Lagos 0530-0830, Bellview Airlines 3 hours to Freetown 1030 local time – Mariam Hotel, Aberdeen; to Guma Valley Dam road, Western Peninsula 1500-1930. Overnight Hotel Mariam.
- Day 2 Dec. 28- Guma Dam catchment area 0700-1100. Guma # 2 Beach 1130-1530; Guma # 2 Trail then boat trip 1700-1900 coinciding with low tide, which made for a fraught landing. Overnight Hotel Mariam.
- Day 3 Dec. 29- Stream on edge of Freetown shanty town (Oriole Warbler site); Regent Road Chimp Sanctuary track; drive to Makeni 2 hrs then Magburaka arr. 1830. Overnight Pampana Guest-House.
- Day 4 Dec. 30- Bumbuna 0730-1130. Lunch Magburaka, 3 hrs to Bo on rough road, then 1 hr to Kenema. Overnight at Pastoral Centre.
- Day 5 Dec. 31- Kambui Res. South 0700-1300; wetlands near Kenema 1630-1800. Overnight at Pastoral Centre.
- Day 6 Jan. 1- 2007 Bambuna Village Kambui North 0730-1130; Kambui Res South 1530-1930. Overnight Pastoral Centre.
- Day 7 Jan. 2- Kenema to Zimmi, 3 hrs arr. 1400 after many breakdowns; Gola East FR 1700-1800. Overnight Zimmi Guest House.
- Day 8 Jan. 3- Gola East FR 0700-1230 and 1530-1800. Overnight Zimmi GH.
- Day 9 Jan. 4-Gola East till 1230. Car breakdown, left Zimmi 1800 for Tiwai Is. Overnight Tiwai Is.
- Day 10 Jan. 5- Tiwai Is. Forest trails. Moa River boat trip 1630-1845. Overnight Tiwai Is.
- Day 11 Jan. 6- Tiwai is 0530-1000; Drive to Bo (2 hrs) then to Freetown (5 hrs, multiple breakdowns). Overnight Teacher’s Union Hotel.
- Day 12 Jan. 7- Shambolic final day. Regent Town chimp sanctuary farce, denied access due to escaped and supposedly murderous chimps, Freetown Peninsula circular drive via Guma River # 2, pm brief foray to Guma Dam, then back to hotel. Left hotel 2000, caught ferry at 2200 (due 2100), reached Lungi airport 2230 to find all in darkness. Brief overnight Lungi Hotel nearby, which we paid.
- Day 13 Jan. 8 Left Lungi Hotel 0230, airport opened at 0415 for a 0500 departure on Bellview B241 to Lagos, paying a US$40 departure tax. Bought our way through customs and immigration at Lagos, which was a major hassle, and caught Virgin Atlantic to Heathrow.
We arrived at Freetown almost on time after a brief delay for fog, cleared customs and immigration easily and were met by our guide Kenneth Gbengba who escorted us to the helicopter terminal. We were soon flying across the bay in an ancient relic of a helicopter, with 3 other passengers, and no safety briefing, before safely landing and taking a short taxi ride to the Hotel Mariam. My room had just been nuked with mozzie spry and required a gas mask, but it soon dissipated and we had a rest until mid-afternoon. A beat-up old car arrived and we drove through the outskirts of Freetown on a very rough road to Guma Dam, where the car broke down (the first of many such situations) and we walked on up to the Picathartes site. I saw Johanna’s and Scarlet-tufted Sunbirds, and we heard Yellow-casqued Hornbill and had a fly-by of Yellow-billed Turaco, but the star bird was the White-necked Picathartes. A short steep scramble up a rocky slope led to a 10-minute wait by the colony on a rock face, and sure enough the birds then came hopping through, staying to preen for a time too, just fantastic, but a pity we were so tired! A slow drive through heavy traffic back to the Hotel, a quick dinner and then blessed sleep.
- Next day we did Guma Dam again, seeing Yellow-casqued Hornbill, Yellow-billed Turaco, White-tailed Alethe, Ussher’s Flycatcher etc. and one of the few bird parties we encountered. Then went to Guma Beach #2 resort, complete with surf lifesavers! Royal Terns, and Western Reef Egrets were nice, but a trip up a forest trail was unproductive and an improvised canoe trip downriver on a falling tide gave only Swamp Palm Bulbul and a Mouse-coloured Sunbird, with a problematic landing back by the village!
- Day 3 saw us negotiate horrible traffic through the middle of the city, past an amazing huge banyan stranded on a traffic island amidst total chaos, and covered in hundreds of Straw-coloured fruit-bats, clinging onto the trunk amidst the noise and fumes! A stop at a shanty in east Freetown got us very good Oriole Warbler and Crimson Seedcracker, and then our wretched dilapidated 4WD turned up late and our mechanical troubles began- the fuel pump having no cover was a major concern right away! We also collected Adama, Ken’s high school girl cook-cum-concubine, whose culinary skills were to prove a tad limited. We then went over to Regent Town, getting Pied-winged Swallow en route, and saw Melancholy Woodpecker there, and hearing all about the homicidal chimp too, of which more later. We left after lunch at the Teacher’s Union Hotel on the rough dusty road to Makeni then Magburaka, coming in to town as it got dark- I was not anxious to be on the roads in the dark to put it mildly, due to the risk of unlit vehicles and livestock.
- Day 4 We did Bumbuna for Turati’s Boubou and Emerald Starling, being lucky to see just one of the latter and also getting Red-vented Malimbe, Little Green Woodpecker and Guinea Turaco. The Sierra Leone Prinia site was unproductive but we did see Blackcap Babbler there. Then drove to Bo and Kenema, about 4 hours with a couple of breakdowns en route, checking into the Pastoral Centre (which was actually closed for the holidays but they very kindly let us stay.) The only Buff-throated Sunbird of the trip was in the grounds as we arrived. I had thought it would be common, so don’t take anything for granted in Sierra Leone! Forbes’ Plover was on the rice paddies as we neared the town. Kenema is a big diamond centre, full of dubious Lebanese and Russians, and lots of bar girls, to Joan’s amazement.
- Day 5 A disappointing day, with a trip out to Kambui South meaning a long and tedious walk through farm bush to get to good forest, then finding out that this was actually also a Picathartes spot except we had not brought much water or lunch as we’d thought it was at another site. Doh! Still, we did get Blue-headed Wood-Dove, Coppery-tailed Starling and Icterine Greenbul.
- Day 6. I always hate New Year’s Day, the birding is always a let-down and this year was no exception. We got to Kambui South on a very bad track from Bambuna village, with several breakdowns en route. Nice forest but quite hot and few birds, Chestnut-bellied Helmet-Shrike was the star and a sizeable flock of Naked-faced Barbets, with good looks at Sharpe’s Apalis too. PM we walked all the way back up to the Picathartes site at Kambui South, and spent from 1715-1815 at the amazing rock nest site with no sign of the birds, a big disappointment as this was such a great spot. The walk back did get us Black-shouldered Nightjar singing and flying around so that was some compensation for such a trek.
- Day 7 We left for Zimmi, the gateway to Gola East and West, a 3-hour journey, and checked in at the sparsely occupied, comfortable United Nations guesthouse. The girder bridge not too far out of Kenema goes over a nice rocky river and here we had Egyptian Plover, African Skimmer and White-throated Blue-Swallow. Late afternoon on the road through Gola forest was very disappointing. The next day and a half was spent here, concentrating on the RSPB trail in Gola East.
Day 8 Gola East and bad car troubles. Very quiet, highlight Johanna’s Sunbirds, Spotted Greenbul, Blue-crested Flycatcher and a Tit-Hylia. We should have gone a bit further down the trail but we didn’t know that at the time.
White-throated Blue Swallow near Kenema.
Photo: Phil Gregory
- Day 9 Gola East in the UHHCR 4 WD as ours was bagarup, highlight Blue Cuckoo-shrike. Kenneth picked a fight with the immigration guys at the checkpoint on the road to the Liberian border and insisted on driving through without stopping. We then had some ludicrous scenes, I was surprised he wasn’t arrested. I wasted several hours getting it all calmed down and retrieving our passports, the guys were just doing their job and were very polite to me, the whole situation was farcical and totally avoidable-
Long –tailed Nightjar near Tiwai.
Photo: Phil Gregory
just let them inspect your documents, finish. Our vehicle was away being repaired for most of the day and I got to the point of arranging a bush taxi to get us back to Freetown next day as I was so fed up. We were two small pinkish diamonds too, but I was worried about getting killed so declined the offer.......
Around 1700 the temporarily fixed up truck resurfaced and we mucked about buying new plugs before setting off for Tiwai at dusk, a bad and dangerous time to travel. Luckily it’s only an hour or so and we broke down just twice, so a minor triumph really, with fantastic Long-tailed Nightjars as compensation. A very entertaining ferry crossing saw us being pulled over the river on a barge, then the villagers at Tiwai transferred us across to Tiwai Is. Kenneth had upset them earlier and had sworn not to go back here as I later discovered, but it all seemed OK for us and this is a good site. Quite a day really.
- Day 10 Tiwai Is. Lots of trails, few birds, noisy primates. One bird party had a wonderful Black Dwarf Hornbill, Maxwell’s Black Weaver and Yellow-mantled Weaver but birds were quiet and scarce and the guides did not really know where the White- b Guineafowl might be. A boat trip late pm was very nice and got us Egyptian Plover, the chestnut collared liberiae race of Rock Pratincole, White-crowned Lapwing, a brilliant White-crested Hornbill, Red-thighed Sparrowhawk and an unexpected Fraser’s Forest Flycatcher. I was intensely annoyed to find a nocturnal boat trip had been unarranged by Kenneth, as I wanted to look for fish-owls and pygmy hippo, one of his money saving scams. Two amazing distantly calling owls came right in to tape BUT just stayed out of view, I even saw a branch bounce as one took off but we never got a view. Kenneth claimed they were Rufous Fish-Owl and I have a tape to i. d.- in a way I hope they were not!
- Day 11 A dawn foray for me without a sighting of the owls, though what sounds like Olive Ibis were vocal, then a walk along trails and a very nice Forest Robin and Red-billed Dwarf-Hornbill as the highlights. Began the trip back to Freetown about 1000, with multiple breakdowns en route and no birds. Did lunch in Bo and got back to the Teacher’s Union Hotel not long after dark, after some very kind guys helped us out with the dreaded truck. The hotel was OK, not too noisy, but suffered a power-cut, a common occurrence in SL.
- Day 12 Another anticlimactic day, as our foray out to the forest at Regent Town was cut short by paranoia by the park owners about homicidal chimps, and we got asked to leave. This was a shame as there were potentially some good birds awaiting, though we did manage a fine Grey-headed Bristlebill as the last tick of the trip. The desperate over-riding poverty and lack of a future is quite depressing, and the contrast with the brand new US$60 million American Embassy is embarrassing, no doubt lots of government diplomats got rich on those contracts. Guma # 2 was hot and not birdy, and then we found that due to the erratic ferry schedules we had not enough time to farewell the Picathartes as we had hoped.
We left the hotel at 2000 and the ferry went at 2200, an hour late. The wharf area is quite dilapidated and dodgy, it was good to have an escort here and particularly at the other end where lots of drunk and aggressive youths made life tense as Kenneth haggled over getting a vehicle. The airport was of course closed and in darkness, so to cut all the nonsense short we checked into the Lungi Hotel for a brief couple of hours and went out too early at 0230 next day. The airport stayed in total darkness till 0415, with the flight about 10 minutes away! Getting out we got slugged a $40 departure tax, and then the security guys wanted a gift to let us through, ah West Africa, it never changes. In all the confusion and darkness we missed saying farewell to Kenneth, which was a shame as he did work hard on our behalf despite it all.
- The Bellview flight was very good and on time, Lagos a hellhole as ever, and was I ever happy to be on the overcrowded and noisy Virgin Atlantic flight out to Heathrow, smelly and regrettably adjacent babies notwithstanding.
Comments on Localities
There is good forest on the Western Peninsula, most accessible at Guma Dam. Can be birded along a quiet road there and a trail to the coast. A short steep walk up from the road above the dam takes you to a Rockfowl site where we had excellent views at 5:30-45 pm. The Regent Town Chimp Rehab Sanctuary track has good secondary forest) with Forest Scrub-Robin and Capuchin Babbler), although officially closed at present due to a chimp going berserk and killing one of its guards! Pied-winged Swallow occurs near here in the scrub savanna by the refugee camp. A creek by a shantytown in east Freetown has Crimson Seedcracker and Oriole Warbler, well worth a quick stop, and Shining-Blue Kingfisher is a possibility here. White-crested Tiger-Herons can be found in the mangroves along No. 2 River and near the airport according to Ken, but our 2-hour evening boat trip was unproductive. There is also a quite good loop road around the peninsula which gets into some pretty fair forest, which we only did in the heat of the day.
Gola Forest Reserve is the largest area of Upper Guinea rainforest in Sierra Leone. It occupies the south-eastern edge of the country on the Liberian border and is divided into four sections: Gola North (45,800 ha), Gola East (22,800 ha) and Gola West (6,200 ha) are Forest Reserves, while Tiwai Island (1,300 ha) is a Game Sanctuary. Tiwai Island is situated in the Moa River, 10 km north-west of Gola West. Gola West and East are contiguous, separated only by the Mahoi river and a road, while Gola North lies about 5 km north-east of Gola East. Gola North is fairly hilly, with most land lying above 300 m.
Gola East and West can be birded from the main road north of Zimmi, 30 minutes away. There is only one obvious trail going into the East forest, about 1.5 km from the Reserve boundary. This has been cleared by the RSPB, safely to a shortish swamp crossing, rather dangerously beyond it with numerous saplings cut-off some 30cm above the ground so that a slip could find you impaled on several sharp spikes. This is a good site for W-b Guineafowl and Red-fronted Antpecker has been seen here, also Blue Cuckoo-shrike and Tit-Hylia. The road and a farmbush trail on the right, just after the big swamp before reaching Gola reserve, are sites for Fiery-breasted Bush-shrike, Red-cheeked Wattle-eye and Capuchin Babbler.
We did not do Gola North, which can be accessed by driving to Belebu. The trail up to the ridge holds Brown-cheeked Hornbill and possibly Gola Malimbe and Nimba Flycatcher.
Tiwai Island is a good site, run by a local NGO that can provide camping equipment and a cook. We stayed in tents pitched in the main camp area close to the riverbank. It can be reached by road and ferry and is a couple of hours from Bo. We found the best of the many trails to be one running left from the far left corner of the research station, but birding is still very hard here. White-b Guineafowl occur, African Pitta is possible, Spot-breasted and Olive Ibis are known as are Gola Cuckoo-shrike and Rufous Fishing-Owl, but all are very problematic. It’s also a great spot for primates, with the lovely Diana Monkey, Sooty Mangabey, Western Red Colobus, Western Black & White Colobus and Chimps occurring. Pygmy Hippo is also here but would be a major effort to find, but worth asking the locals.
Situated near the large town of Kenema, Kambui Hills South is accessed at Bambuna village or from the highway just past the army checkpoint as you are coming into Kenema, about 90 minutes walking through farmbush from here. A good trail leads through plantations and farmbush to logged primary forest and eventually to a Rockfowl site on a huge slanting rock by a stream. We found it disappointing; the Picathartes did not appear despite there being six old nests. The forest is quite good though and we had Blue-headed Wood-Dove, Coppery-tailed Starling, Icterine Greenbul, Sharpe’s Apalis and a Black-shouldered Nightjar singing and flying in as we walked back at dusk. The rice paddies just outside Kenema held Forbes’ Plover.
This scrappy hilly area in the north consists of wooded savanna and cultivated land. We saw Guinea Turaco, Little Green Woodpecker, Emerald Starling, Blackcap Babbler, Turati's Boubou and Red-vented Malimbe, also Pearl-spotted Owlet, which is not supposed to be in Salone.
Other sites (courtesy of Jon Hornbuckle)
There is forest near Kono, very good according to Kenneth but a long walk to reach. He says this is the best site for Baumann's Greenbul. The mountainous Loma area in the north is said to be the best for the Prinia, but takes a day to reach and two or more days may be needed to find the bird. Black-capped Rufous-Warbler occurs in a forest patch near the river bridge at Mongeri, west of Bo. A better site for the latter is said to be Kangari Hills.
Sierra Leone is an at times rewarding but extremely challenging country for birding. Expect tough conditions and to do your own bird-finding, my feeling is that 3 days around the Freetown area would be good, then 2 nights up to Bumbuna with the option of a Tiwai extension (which adds a day’s travel each way to the itinerary). Best to go with a tour group, or use Kenneth for logistics if you are happy to find and identify your own birds.