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Sierra Leone safety guide - the quick fix
Opinions differ about the relative safety of travellers in Sierra Leone. According to the official (government) warnings it's a crime-riddled, corrupt and dangerously un-regulated country. Others attest to it being the friendliest place in West Africa with the most beautiful beaches.
The truth is, it's probably a bit of both, and your view of the place can be coloured by a bad (or good) experience. The chances of either is 50/50.
Other truths: it's one of the poorest nations on earth and until a decade ago was riven by an atrocious civil war. Economic development is only just starting to show gains. Where poverty exists, so do high levels of crime, especially petty crime.
Sierra Leone is an adventure, not a holiday destination (although that may change in the near future as conditions improve and the rest of the world wakes up to Sierra Leone's stunning beauty).
Travel outside the capital Freetown is problematic and dangerous, due to very bad roads, poorly maintained vehicles and bandits.
There are other challenges, too, first among them is reaching your Freetown hotel in one piece!
Airport Transfer Danger
Lungi airport is situated on the far side of a wide estuary from Freetown. Almost all international flights arrive during, or shortly before, the hours of darkness.
There is a range of transfer options: road, helicopter, ferry, Pelican water taxi and local boats/pirogues.
None of them are good.
Especially after dark when you will be on badly made congested roads, or crossing a wide unregulated waterway, in a poorly maintained and dangerously driven/piloted vehicle.
It is advisable to book a room at one of the Lungi Airport hotels for the night of your arrival, but book this well in advance as there's limited availability.
Transfer by Road
Traffic accidents are common. You should arrange in advance to be collected at the airport by a competent driver in a car suitable for travel on badly-rutted, unmade roads. There are no car hire facilities at Lungi airport.
Transfer by Helicopter
Two companies: Helog and UTAir, operate helicopter transfer services.
Helicopters in Sierra Leone are not required to meet the maintenance standards or pass the safety checks that would be required in the developed world.
Schedules are erratic and subject to frequent last-minute cancellations.
Transfer by Sea
Sea-going vessels in Sierra Leone are not required to meet the maintenance standards or pass the safety checks that would be required in the rest of the world. There is no scheduled service with full maintenance records available for public inspection. There will be no public emergency service response to any problems at sea. Independent travellers will find it very difficult to make arrangements for a private emergency response service.
The ferry service terminates in Freetown in the eastern end of the city, which is notorious for civil unrest and crime.
The drive from the ferry terminal to the hotels along Lumley beach (Aberdeen district) takes around an hour, but can take up to two in bad traffic.
You should avoid using the ferry alone or as a foot passenger as pick pocketing and mugging of passengers, especially tourists, is common.
The ferry was warned by the Port Authorities in January 2007 about overloading, and has been known to operate in poor visibility without lights. There is a lack of basic safety equipment on board, including navigational aids, lifeboats and accessible life jackets. Emergency procedures are unclear.
Pelican water taxis provide a service across the estuary. They have some limited safety equipment and rescue capability and have been known to operate in poor visibility without lights.
Pirogues as they are known are frequently over-capacity and regularly capsize.
The commercial hovercraft service was suspended in May 2008 when it crashed into the terminal at Mahera Beach damaging the wall of the building. None of the passengers waiting in the terminal was hurt.
Travel Around Sierra Leone
The main road from Freetown to Makeni and Mile 91 is sealed and suitable for most types of vehicle. The majority of other roads outside Freetown are constructed from rocks and mud, with frequent potholes.
During the rainy season (May to October) rural roads can become difficult to use, even for off-road vehicles.
(Hang on, I'll try it in low range")
Illegal roadblocks are sometimes put up by youths, who will often ask for a small "donation" for mending the road. Occasionally they will be armed.
Roadblocks are most common at the weekend and on roads to tourist beaches in the Western Area. They are easily distinguishable from the legal checkpoints erected by police, who are uniformed and normally use marked barriers or vehicles to indicate where drivers should stop.
The safest response to seeing an illegal roadblock ahead of you is to turn the car around before reaching it and use an alternative route. Stopping at a roadblock and winding down your window could allow someone to reach into your vehicle. Roadblocks will sometimes be lifted if you indicate with your horn that you do not intend to stop.
Use a privately owned or rented vehicle rather than taxis or "poda-podas" (minibuses) theft, pick pocketing and robbery is pretty common on them.
(Have faith in the mechanic too!)
Don't drive outside Freetown after dark. Most roads in Freetown and all roads outside Freetown are unlit; there are no regular police patrols along them and often no traffic for long periods. There are no vehicle breakdown services.
The official warnings say Sierra Leone is a high crime nation, with a significant risk of pick pocketing, theft and also aggravated robbery. This is not the place to flash lots of cash and wear expensive cameras around your neck.
The nightclubs and bars of Lumley Beach and Aberdeen areas of Freetown are favourite haunts of criminals, muggers and pickpockets (The same could be said of just about any town in the world, but it is particularly bad here).
There are occasional riots between rival groups of youths in the central and eastern areas of Freetown around Siaka Stevens Street, Lightfoot Boston Street and Sir Samuel Lewis Road. These disturbances normally disperse quickly, but if you encounter an incident, you should leave the area immediately.
Travellers will tell you Sierra Leone has the most beautiful beaches. One of the reasons many expect it to become the next destination to be developed for mass tourism. Hopefully the high-rise hotels won't spoil it.
But the official warnings say you should not walk barefoot on beaches, particularly Lumley Beach in Freetown, where there can be hospital waste, including needles.
Strong currents are common and there is no life guard / emergency service. In February 2011 two British nationals drowned in separate incidences at beaches along the Freetown peninsula.
Be cautious walking alone on remote beaches, and give them a miss after dark.
Gems and Diamonds
Check the quality of any gems you purchase before legally removing them from the country. All precious stones require an export licence. Diamond and gem smuggling is treated similarly to drug trafficking – expect a lengthy jail term.
Sporting events and concerts at the national stadium pose a high risk to personal security and safety. Pickpocketing is rife. Poor crowd control and overcrowding make the general stands - and sometimes even the VIP area - uncomfortable and unsafe. Rioting has occurred at previous events and could occur again in the future.
You should carry ID (passport or residence permit) at all times, particularly when driving or taking a taxi, when the likelihood of having to produce it is high.
Sierra Leone is predominantly a Muslim and care should be taken not to offend. Homosexual acts are illegal.
Cost of Living
Do not expect SL to be cheap. Import duties mean that everything you want to buy in a supermarket is probably double what you would pay at home. Plus as a tourist you will pay 10 times more than a local would for the same item.
Health & Disease
You will need a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate to enter Sierra Leone. You'll need it to leave, too. Some airlines won't let you board if you can't produce it. You'll certainly need to show it to border control agents at your next destination.
Lassa fever, previously prevalent in Kenema and the east, has spread to northern Sierra Leone. 48 deaths were reported in 2010. If you have travelled in these regions you should seek urgent medical advice if you suffer from any fever not positively identified as malaria.
Speaking of malaria, it is common.
Cholera remains a problem, there are infrequent outbreaks. You should drink or use only boiled or bottled water and avoid ice in drinks. Even bottled water has been shown to be contaminated by bacteria. Check with the local health unit for current safe brands.
There can be water shortages in the Freetown area, especially at the end of the dry season (March to June), which lowers the quality of the drinking water. If you suffer from diarrhoea you should seek immediate medical attention.
Since sanitary conditions are poor and refrigeration is unreliable, use caution when eating uncooked vegetables, salads, seafood, or meats at restaurants and hotels.
Swimming in the ocean is safe, but swimming in rivers is not.