A remote island in Sierra Leone all to ourselves

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Date of travel

January, 2023

Product name

Tiwai Island

Product country

Sierra Leone

Product city


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Reasons for trip


We stayed on Sierra Leone’s Tiwai Island for two nights to hike, and hopefully spot animals and birds associated with what our guide book described as ‘one of the countries wildlife highlights’. Early morning and late afternoon walks were planned to increase our chances of sightings.

Whilst the word Tiwai means ‘big’ in the local Mende language, at only 12km square, it’s easily walked. Although researchers are said to have created a grid system of numbered and lettered tracks for ease of navigation, most had worn away and without a guide, we’d definitely have got lost in the dense forest where all the tracks looked the same to me.

Whilst the walking was flat, we had to keep eyes downward for the proliferation of roots and fallen trees, whilst at the same time, trying to dodge hanging vines that threatened to decapitate us. Whilst we wore hiking boots, our guide Kenewa was sure footed in his flip flops, using his machete to chop down anything in his way. The tall trees provided a wonderfully shaded canopy but also made it very dark and when there was a clearing above, it was amazing how light it still was. The trees were impressive: particularly the large wall-like roots of the kapok tree and cathedral-like splays of bamboo.

Tiwai has a high density of primates and our sightings, albeit high in the treetops, included four of the eleven species found on the island: Campbell’s monkey, black-and-white colobus, red colobus and more importantly, the globally threatened Diana monkey.

We also enjoyed an afternoon boat trip in a canoe designed for three, with our guide at the back for poling purposes. Rocks had created small rapids, whilst in other areas the water was clear and very shallow. Branches hung down into the water, but our guide proved to be extremely skilful negotiating us through spaces we wouldn’t have thought we could fit and powerful when poling against the tide. The boat felt very flimsy and there was obviously a leak near the back as our guide kept stopping to bail out. Whilst there’s said to be over 135 bird species, the sightings on our 70-minute trip were limited to the yellow hornbill, cormorant, pied and malekite kingfishers. Whilst I was worried about disembarking, particularly after being sat so low for so long, I managed it with aplomb thanks to our guide and having seen him work so hard, we doubled the tip we’d intended to give him.

As well as activities on the island, we returned to the mainland village of Kambama, to visit warrior graves. We heard a convoluted story about how anyone wishing to get on in life, had to visit the graves of a15-foot-tall warrior and his triplet sons and leave food for them. If drums were heard, and one of the plates magically reappeared back home, wishes would be granted. Our first stop was to greet and offer money to the village elder, before setting off on what was a 30-minute walk. Although the beginning of the path was reasonable, eventually our guide’s machete was needed once again, to hack away at the undergrowth. It was hot and humid and having arrived all we found were three small headstones. Back at the village we sat under the shade of the ‘welcome centre’, ate bananas and wondered whether it had been worth the trek.

We also had free time and it was pleasant to sit in the communal area and read.

Whilst the island is most associated with the solitary, reclusive and nocturnal pygmy hippo we figured that if Romesh Ranganathan and his BBC TV crew had been unsuccessful in spotting one, we stood no chance. We were right.

See also the review of Tiwai Island Rest Camp for details of how to get to the island and our accommodation.

Helen Jackson

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