“Sierra Leone” has a ring about it for all the wrong reasons. It’s not generally heard in the same breath as “relaxing weekend away”. But the civil war finished in 2002, four years before Hollywood went to town with the Leonardo DiCaprio film Blood Diamond. In doing so, it arguably undermined the tourism industry; it’s a shame, given that the real jewels of Sierra Leone may just be the miles of stunning coastline draped around its capital, Freetown, bathed in tropical sunshine in the depths of Europe’s winter and less than seven hours from London.
For expending physical energy, it’s as good as a mid-African Cape Town, with mountains and sandy beaches but no history of great whites or crowds of tourists.
I’m taking on a packed weekend: first a deep-sea angling challenge in some of the world’s most fertile fishing waters, then surfing the formidable waves at Bureh Beach, perhaps the most accessible left-hand break in west Africa. It’s hard to know what to expect. This is still a land of enormous fish and pygmy hippos, though I’m hoping that for a guaranteed sun and water adventure, there’s no better place within a weekend’s reach of home.
We switch from rod to line so we can feel the nibbles around the sardine bait to yank and secure the hook. There are fish everywhere: red (tastiest), white and stripy black snapper, large mackerel… Suddenly my line is pulling – hard. I pull back; blood lines appear on my fingers as I reel it in. I’m thinking big grouper, but I bring it up to find it has colourful wings – it’s a flying fish. “I’ve never caught one of those before,” Daniel says. Although it is supposed to have a sweet flavour, I’m told it’s endangered, so we return it quickly.
The Italian-owned Franco’s resort sits behind a lagoon on the deserted beach – not a hint of the city close by. As I walk down the sand, hundreds of big pink sand crabs scurry into the surf around my toes before boarding.
I finish work early and jump on a flight to Freetown via Brussels, my mind straying to thoughts of fishing pirates and rip currents before I relax into a snooze.
I open my eyes briefly, to dizzying sandy swaths of Sahara reaching endlessly on.
The next time I lift my lids, it’s all luxuriant green as the sun sets. We’re above the expansive delta of the Sierra Leone river, where its meandering waterways flow out into the mighty Atlantic; Lungi airport is almost surrounded by it on the landward side.
I take a bumpy 30-minute water taxi across to Freetown to meet my guide, Abdulai, in Aberdeen, the port where I will start my fishing trip tomorrow. From there it’s only a few more minutes’ drive past Lumley Beach to the Hotel Barmoi, an enclave where life slows down in the tropical heat (though occasionally the staff strike me as more laid-back than the guests).
I drink a gin and tonic and enjoy red snapper and chips on the terrace. The sky is a wild, brooding purple over the Atlantic rollers, as I take a postprandial swim in the pool before bed.
It’s still lightly cool at breakfast, consisting of fresh Kailahun coffee, pineapple, mango and an omelette with hot-pepper sauce by the pool. On our way to the Aqua Sports Club, Freetown feels like a rejuvenated city. We pass an amputee heading to football practice, the old grammar school, and a mosque and a church in very close proximity to one another. Women stroll down the road carrying giant baskets of fruit on their heads as I inhale the acridly pleasant smell of smoked fish. It feels like a place with an appetite for the future.
We meet two local fishermen, Daniel Conteh and Mano Uma, and head out in their speedboat under Aberdeen Bridge as a troupe of schoolgirls in green uniforms sing their way across just above us. We leave the looming mountains, half-constructed houses and mosquitoes in our wake (though Freetown suffers from malaria and yellow fever, there are no mozzies on the windy coast). We start by trolling at 5.2 knots with three rods out the back, aiming to catch yellowfin tuna, barracuda and grouper. We’re fishing with lures; no sooner have we put the lines in than there’s a whirr and we haul in a small barracuda. Catches here tend to be huge and varied. There’s a pronounced air of excitement about the day ahead.
We pass a Chinese iron-ore tanker stationed out to sea. The water starts to get rougher and mini rainbows shine though the sun and spray until we reach Alex Rock, the reef where we start bottom fishing. Though sharks are uncommon here – the waters are full of dolphins and porpoises – a huge hammerhead was apparently hooked recently.
We motor into an area known as BBC (Boka Boka – or “plenty” – Catch) and continue racking up the snapper count, as Daniel and Mano tell me – perhaps exaggerating a tad – that local fishermen head out in small wooden channel boats with nets and catch 3,000 or 4,000 fish in a few hours (mostly barracuda and tuna). They often go spear fishing with harpoon guns to catch bonita, and out around the islands there’s game fishing for tarpon and sailfish. But we’re doing it the best way.
We lunch on beers and grilled snapper on the way to the “USA area”, over 8km out, “where all the fish are big”, I’m promised. The movement of the boat lulls us into a doze in the roasting afternoon sun, while we try to keep half an eye on the rods trailing lures behind us.
Suddenly I’m awake; the sea has turned, fast. It’s a 6ft swell and we pitch and roll in the small speedboat on the open Atlantic. Daniel offers me a sea-sickness pill, but I’m too excited to care right now.
Zing. A line fires out; the middle rod is being hit hard. I grab it and wrestle to get it into the waist belt to reel in. But whatever it is, it keeps on swimming out. Could this be my “approaching-middle-aged man and the sea” moment, I wonder, as I wrestle with a swordfish before absinthe cocktails at sunset? Line out, reel in, less line out, more reeling – yup, it’s a proper fighting fish, and I can feel the sweat mixing with the salt on my face as my forearms take the strain. Five eternal minutes of battling later, Daniel grabs a big, hooked gaff. We see a large mass of wriggling white flesh refracted in the sea, metres below – it’s a long, heavy, vicious barracuda. Daniel knocks it dead with the gaff. It seems I’ve landed a USA biggun.
Back on land, we drive down to Sussex Beach, amid radios blaring premiership results.
When they finally arrive, the fresh, creamy lobster pasta and barbecued barracuda complement my day on the high seas perfectly. Then I’m ready to crawl under the mosquito net.
After a snatched coffee and mango, I’m back in the minivan and barrelling down the coast. Amid the coconut trees at the end of one of Africa’s defining surf beaches sits the Bureh Beach Surf Club, a rustic shack looking down on the rollers. It opened in 2012, a project spearheaded by Irish surfer Shane O’Connor. As O’Connor says, “If the surf is good on Freetown beaches, it will always be bigger and better at Bureh.” Its first competition is planned for the end of this year.
There are 20 or so passionate young surfers here. One of them, Charles, 17, is my instructor for the day. January is the best time to learn, as surf is not as big as in the wet season in June/July, although the supreme left-hand break from the reef to the estuary can be surfed all year at high tide. The surf is light today, which allows me to practise popping up. Charles is thrilled to teach me, but seems worried I may drown. After some advice, I take on wave after wave, mostly getting battered by the warm Atlantic surf. But a few times I’m up on my knee, then standing, and unstylishly riding my aircraft carrier right up to the beach.
By lunchtime, the waves are bigger – dauntingly so – as the tide goes out. All the Bureh boys head into the surf, and I go out with them. Then there’s a 6ft wave coming towards us. I turn, feeling the rip, paddle like fury down the wave and jump up. I stumble but hold my nerve on the board. This is my moment. I ride down the wave perfectly balanced and smiling until I think about it, then I come crashing down. I’m underwater for what seems an awfully long time, at one point getting thrown to the bottom so hard that a layer of skin on my lower back is scraped clean off by the rough sand. My board just misses knocking me out as I surface for air. But it was worth it for the few seconds of thrilling possibility.
I decide to lie down outside the line-up and watch their expertise. Some are learning and wipe out like me; a few have great potential, like Charles. One guy zigzags effortlessly again and again down the biggest waves, silhouetted against the mountain range.
A club chef prepares me ginger rice and an omelette on the beach. It’s a rare idyll here. In a few years they hope to have a surfing/fishing eco lodge. Further down the coast there’s apparently real world-class potential, on an 80km stretch of beach that can only be reached by 4x4 or boat. They say it might be the new Biarritz.
To get home by Monday morning, I’ve booked an overnight flight. I catch a grilled creole barracuda and rice in Freetown airport.
My plane lands back in freezing London. It seems like a land of drones and wraiths compared to the colour-saturated beaches in Freetown. I imagine few of those around me have thought about a weekend in Sierra Leone, where wind and surf keep the mosquitoes, and boredom, far away.