Bonthe is like a sun-bleached photo taken of an exotic island town, where you can see things once were bright and new, but now all that’s left is a vague image of what used to be. And there’s a melancholic beauty to that. Walking along the once booming boulevard you pass by dozens of abandoned buildings, reclaimed by tropical vegetation. Relentless sun and ocean air have stripped these buildings of their vitality, and the result is a poetic pastel of old times.
In the past, Bonthe was a thriving trade hub and economic centre. During the two world wars, the French and English navy used the town as a naval base. In the 80’s, palm products and sea food became major industries. Now, however, a run-down warehouse and some petty trading is all that remains.
In addition, Bonthe has a rich colonial history, and remnants of this past can be found all over town. Telephone booths, rusted street signs and water pumps all stem from this era.
The people of Bonthe are enveloped by island tranquility. Slow walks, a reflection of the sea cemented into their eyes, and broad smiles that indicate that ‘everything is fine’. At first they might look at you with a mixture of curiosity and reservation, but a smile and a greeting will warm them and bring out their welcoming nature. Locals are happy to chat with you, show you around, introduce you to your families and leave you in peace when you prefer that.
Walking around Bonthe is an attraction in itself. A guided tour past the historical sights gives you a peak into the rich past of the town. Old Krio board houses with faded paint stand next to unfinished constructions, overgrown with tropical vegetation. Goats roam around, eating their share of flowers and leaves. As there are barely any motor vehicles on the island, this tour is undisturbed by honking cars and speeding bikes.
For those who prefer water activities, you can go on a fishing trip with local fishermen, or engage in Tarpon fishing through the Bonthe Holiday Village accommodation. It is a costly adventure, but Bonthe is actually famed for its rich estuary. Apart from Tarpon, fish such as mackerel, jack, barracuda and grouper can be found in the waters.
There is not really a beach for swimming in Bonthe. Smaller beaches can be accessed at other parts of Sherbro Island and require you to hire a local ‘kunu’ or motorboat.
If you feel like partying, Bonthe has a multipurpose hall where they sometimes hold functions on the weekend. For sports and cultural activities, you can visit the playfield, an open football field surrounded by palmtrees. A variety of events can take place, such as football matches, athletics, and fashion shows. There is no official calendar, just ask anyone what’s happening when and you’ll find out.
All in all, visiting Bonthe is a mesmerising experience. Strolling down the sandy roads past mud houses and abandoned colonial structures, undisturbed by vehicles and noise, one can experience what life in Sierra Leone must have been like a century ago. Before industry and modernisation and a growing connectedness to the outside world changed the pace of life. There are not many activities or bombastic attractions, but for those who appreciate interactions with the locals, the forest, the sea and wish to remove themselves from the distractions of modern life, Bonthe is an excellent place to visit.
Good to know
How to get there
It takes 5-7 hours to get from Freetown to Yargoi, a coastal village where the local ferry to Bonthe leaves from every day at 4pm. Popularly known as ‘pam pam’, the wooden motorboat can take about 30 people for 15.000 leones. It takes about two hours to reach Bonthe but there are faster alternatives.
Where to stay
Although Bonthe does not offer many options when it comes to accommodation, it is certainly possible to lodge in comfortable and clean rooms. By far the most suitable option is Bonthe Holiday Village. They offer chalets with two or three A/C equipped rooms in a beautifully decorated compound. Rooms can be pricy though, so for a more budget option you can see whether Mam’aa Guesthouse has any availability.