February 17, 2023: Our Closest Relatives
Today was probably the most anticipated day of the trip.
O´Bai picked me up at 8:30 and drove up the hills to the interior of the Freetown Peninsula. In the Regent neighborhood, we pulled onto a dirt road. After 10 minutes on this, we turned onto the steepest road I have maybe ever seen. The keh-keh barely made it up the hill. We had arrived at Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary.
Chimpanzees, a great ape that has 98% of the same DNA as humans, are indigenous to Sierra Leone and specifically the Freetown Peninsula. After seeing a decline in the chimpanzee population, Bala Amarasekaran decided that something needed to be done and in 1995 established Tacugama. Tacugama is both a chimpanzee rescue center as well as a political force to ensure that there are laws and enforcement to protect chimpanzees. To raise both revenue and awareness, Tacugama welcomes tourists to tour the facilities and stay at their ecolodge.
Tours must all be pre-booked and my tour was not until 12:00. So, this gave me a couple hours. Luckily, Tacugama also runs guided nature walks for about $10/person.
After getting my temperature checked, I signed up for a 2 hour guided walk. They had 4 hikes to choose from. I selected the cave hike. My guide met me outside the visitor center and we immediately started walking. He carried a machete to chop through the thick brush.
We crossed some creek beds that were dry. However, the guide mentioned that during the rainy season where it can storm nonstop for a week, these streams become torrential rivers.
After 45 minutes of walking, we reached the cave. As we entered, huge mosquitos poured out. The guide unconvincingly said that these mosquitos cannot bite us. He also said wild chimpanzees often visit the cave, but recently they have been staying away due to the presence of a big black snake that is living in the back.
We then walked towards a large dam that powers not only the sanctuary, but also the surrounding neighborhoods of Freetown. Along the way he mentioned that Tacugama has been a real political force in Sierra Leone. They were responsible for getting chimpanzees named as the national animal, making them illegal to hunt. Still, many people keep them as pets and cook them for food.
He mentioned a recent story where poachers had come to hunt chimpanzees in the forests near Tacugama. After killing a chimpanzee, a man brought it home to cook. Tacugama found out (due to the presence of hidden wildlife cameras) and got the man arrested. When arresting the man, his wife was cooking the chimpanzee. The man died just in prison just 2 months later. While he probably died from malnutrition and the horrible conditions, word on the street is that Tacugama ordered the hit. For this reason, the would-be-poachers are terrified, poaching numbers have gone down drastically, and the animals have begun to reclaim the Freetown Peninsula.
At 12:00, it was time for the chimpanzee sanctuary tour. I decided to also pay for O´Bai to come since he had never seen a chimpanzee before. Because chimpanzees can catch many human diseases, we had to wear facemasks everywhere.
Tacugama has 110 chimpanzees. Most were rescued from abusive situations, but many were also born in the sanctuary. They have 4 levels of facilities to gradually reintroduce the chimpanzees to living self-sufficiently.
The first level is a 90-day quarantine facility that is off-limits to public viewing.
The second stage looks like a zoo with a large open are with toys and man-made structures for them to climb. Here, the chimpanzees are fed 6 times per day by the keepers. Even here, we could see chimpanzees using tools.
The third stage had some forest. The chimpanzees get water from a spigot that they have to unscrew. A few years ago, 33 chimpanzees escaped from this facility after months of watching and mimicking how the keeper unlocked the door. Of those 33 chimps, 23 returned that same day, as they did not realize that food does not just appear in the wild. But a few remained in the wild and are still out there!
The final stage was an 11-acre secure forest. Here, the chimps are only fed 3 times per day. When we arrived, many of the chimps came over to see us. Even thought it was not feeding time, they figured that we might be giving them a special treat. After realizing that was not the case, the chimps dispersed.
One chimp was locked in a cage underneath the viewing platform. The guide explained that this was to keep the chimp social hierarchy intact. The two alpha males – each as strong as 5 humans- must be separated or they will fight to the death. The solution is to share power where the alphas spent alternate days with the females.
The most impressive part of seeing the chimps was their tree climbing abilities. They could climb up or down a tree with amazing speed.
On the way back, we stopped at Leiscester Peak, the highest point in Freetown for some spectacular views.
Back at Lumley, I wandered to the beach for a late lunch. I had skewers and they might be the most delicious thing I´ve ever eaten.
A bit further down the beach was a large shipwreck. The “captain” asked for money because I took a picture. I laughed him off.
For dinner, I met the British guy from the hotel at a beach bar. We watch the sun set and drank beers. We ended up chatting for 3 hours! Wow this guy has had quite a life.
February 18, 2023: The Long Wait
This was my final day in Freetown. I felt like I had seen everything that I wanted to see. The problem is that my flight left the next day at 5:00 am.
Freetown´s airport is uniquely inconveniently separated from the city by a giant bay. There is no bridge. There are 3 ways to reach the airport. One could drive, but it’s a 4-hour journey. There is a private ferry that is timed to each flight and costs $45 USD each way. The ferry timed to my flight would leave at midnight. The final way is to take a $1 questionable public ferry to a town 10km from the airport and then get a motorcycle taxi.
I decided that taking the fast ferry would be the safest and most reliable option. But I had to figure out how to pass the time. My first idea was to stay in the hotel for another night and nap but because it was so far from the ferry, I worried about either walking the 10 kilometers or finding a keh keh so late at night. My second idea was to rent an AirBnb close to the ferry. I actually rented one, but they had to cancel on me last minute. So, I decided to take the first previous ferry and see what was on the other side of the bay. The prior flight was the 18:30 pm Air France flight, so the ferry left at 15:00, giving me…14 hours to spend on the far side of the bay.
I checked out of the hotel at 11:00 and wandered the nearby market. There, I saw none other than O´Bai offering me a ride to the ferry. Since my goal was to kill time, I turned down his offer and then proceeded to walk the entirety of Lumley Beach. On the northern end, I walked east until I reached the ferry terminal. The walk took 2 hours, and I was sufficiently hot and tired.
The ferry terminal was surprisingly nice. I paid with credit card and boarded the ferry along with the British school group from the national museum. The ride was very easy and very fast.
On the other side, we disembarked at an outdoor lounge. Music was bumping and the vibes were good. All the other passengers got onto shuttles to take them to the airport. The staff was very confused as to why I did not get on the bus. I assured them that I was okay. I then tried to charge my phone, but was told that they shut off the electricity as soon as the bus leaves. The ferry company theoretically owns a hotel on site too, but that was closed indefinitely for repairs.
With no reason to stay, I began to walk up the coastline. While the landscape was pretty, there was so much trash that it was difficult to walk. Eventually I reached the town of Lungi. From there I headed inland and walked around the edges of the airport until I reached another town where the airport staff probably lives. There were a few hotels here for people in my situation. I decided to see if I could stay at any of the hotels and get even just a couple hours of sleep before my flight.
The first hotel was very nice with air conditioning, reliable electricity and a good scent. However, it cost an outrageous $150. Instead, I opted for another hotel for $50 US and the remaining $4 of my Sierra Leone cash. I rested up there until 1:00 and then walked to the airport. I was sad to leave because the town bars were hopping!
The airport was terrible, but it did the trick. Soon enough I was back in Casablanca and then New York.
Freetown is a wonderful place. The city has a wide range of activities: the central market, museums, the beaches, and chimpanzees. The locals are friendly and speak English. The expats are also very friendly. Because of the expat scene, there are better food and nightlife options than a typical African capital. Did I mention how incredible the beaches are?
3 days is the optimal amount of time here. My final day was a waste. Had I done the trip again, I would have gotten off my initial bus in the suburbs and spent a night at Bureh.
The biggest problem with Freetown is the airport. Having to take the expensive ferry across the bay was extremely annoying. I can only imagine landing here after a long flight and then having to wait hours for the ferry to show. The government´s solution of building a new terminal on the far side of the airport is only exacerbating the problem because now the airport is beyond walking distance of all the amenities and the ferry dock.
If Sierra Leone can figure out the airport problem, I believe they can beat out Senegambia to be the top African beach destination for Europeans.
Oh, and don´t take a motorcycle taxi.