One of the most mesmerizing experiences you can have in Sierra Leone is spending a couple of nights at the Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary. Rise with the sun, learn about the forests’ many medicinal plants, swim in the river and completely detach from the stresses of daily modern life on this uninhabited tropical island.
Not many people embark on this trip because it can be quite a challenge for travellers to get to Tiwai Island. However, with some tips and tricks and some insights that are provided in this articles, you should find yourself ready to embark one of the most invigorating trips Sierra Leone has to offer.
Tiwai Island is located in the Moa river, in the southern region of Sierra Leone. From Bo, it takes two hours by car to reach Potorou, and from there another hour through forests and farmland to arrive to Kamamba. Here you take a 10 minutes boat ride to the island. This means that from Freetown to Tiwai you can easily spend 7 to 8 hours on travel, which is why it is recommended to spend at least one night on the island.
Even though the travel is long, it is worthwhile. The further away from the city you move, the cleaner, quieter and greener the surroundings become. Especially the boat trip to Tiwai Island is rewarding, offering views of lush forests and women in colourful lappa doing their laundry on the rocks of the riverbed. Their greeting; boa, meaning are you there in Mende, echoes over the river, blending in with the songs of tropical birds.
After a short forest walk with one of the guides, you arrive at the campsite, located in a bright and open space in the forest. The campsite has a thatch roofed bamboo ‘kitchen’, a couple of tents, an outdoor parlour, shower facilities and some shaded bamboo benches, where you can relax and breath in the heavy, earthy smell of the forest.
The tents are equipped with a mattress and a pillow, and are protected from rain by a roof. There are no blankets to cover yourself with and no towels provided, so make sure you bring these along. Solar panels offer lights and electricity to charge your phone, but note that there is no reception on the island.
Apart from the astonishing surroundings of tropical rainforest, the absence of man-made noise and the cleanest air you can possibly breathe in, Tiwai Island offers many activities that will elevate your experience into an unforgettable one. The guides, whom are community members from the surrounding villages, can take you on explorations through the island. One example is the downstream boat ride, where a man called Kenawa steers the boat along the surrounding smaller islands. Some of which are used to grow palm oil or rice. Kenawa explains how to build a fish trap and pushes the boat upstream with a thin bamboo stick, which is how he got the nickname Powerbank.
Kenawa can also take you along forest walks, either at during the day, where he identifies medicinal plants and trees, or at night, where you can try and spot the rare pygmy hippo. The day trip, about two hours long, is quite intense and educational. Kenawa teaches you which branches you can cut to provide drinking water, and helps you spot the mysterious viagra tree. It’s up to you to go to Tiwai and explore what that means!
The night walk can take up to four hours, and indeed means that you walk through the jungle at night, trying to get a glimpse of the hippo. At first it can be a bit daunting, moving through dense forest with just a torch, but Kenawa is an excellent guide, and after a while it becomes relaxing to envelop yourself in nightly forest sounds.
Highly recommended is the walk to the island beach, about 1,5 hour from the campsite. The beach, desolate and tranquil, is a perfect place to picnic and go for a swim. Spot primates, listen to the heavy flapping of the wings of the hornbill, and completely envelop yourself in nature.
Ready to go to Tiwai Island? Here are some tips that can come in handy.
– Take along a plastic bag for electronics on forest walks or longer boat rides in case of rain
– Pack an extra pair of shoes in case one gets wet (or slippers)
– Wear long sleeves and trousers on forest walks
– Bring a towel and, if you’re cold at night; a blanket to sleep under
– Pack snacks if you tend to get hangry; there are 3 meals a day, one at 7, one between 12 and 2, and the other around 7pm. Also, meals are local; cassava leaves, potato leaves or groundnut soup for lunch and dinner (your choice) and super sugary pancakes for breakfast.
– Pack mosquito repellent
– Bring a torch/candles
– Bring enough cash and some extra to tip the workers
– Let go of control; take a deep breath and enjoy!
– Expect luxury
– Litter, make noise or in any other way disturb the environment
– Save your phone calls and heavy browsing for two nights in the wild; there is no reception and certainly no Wi-Fi
How to get there: Check out our Tiwai Island Tour package
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Esther Kamara is a Dutch-Sierra Leonean that was born and raised in Amsterdam. After finishing her bachelor Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam she moved to Freetown, where she now works as a freelance writer and artist manager. Her brainchildren are otherworldly short stories and peculiar drawings of non-existing characters.