Gola Rainforest National Park is Sierra Leone’s largest area of lowland rainforest and its second largest National Park. Depending on what you read, there are 49 mammal species, including the pygmy hippo and forest elephant, 327 bird species, and over 200 species of tree.
There are three main entrances, and we entered at Lalehun, where a large roadside sign said, ‘Don’t touch dead bodies to prevent Ebola’: a sobering reminder of the two-year outbreak which only ended in 2016.
We stayed in Gola for two nights and enjoyed various activities.
Community visit – having arrived at 5pm after a long drive, a walk around the nearby community was ideal to stretch our legs. This felt more authentic than Rogbonko, a village we’d visited on route, which was being run as a project aiming to provide an escape route from poverty. The men had returned from the fields and were sat chatting, women had lit fires outside their mud homes and had pots bubbling away, and runny-nosed children with ragged clothes and bare feet ran up to us shouting ‘pumoi’, the name for a white person in the local Mende language. Other women were separating beans from their pods, by beating them with a big stick, or pounding various grains with a huge version of a pestle and mortar. Chickens and ducks ran wild, dogs slept in the late afternoon sun, and it was a pleasant way to finish our day.
The following morning, we set off at 6am for a walk to a viewpoint and as it was still dark, our head torches were essential. Mustafa our local guide, set an excellent pace in his bright blue flip flops: we wore hiking boots. After 15 minutes of relatively easy walking, a sign told us it was 5km to the viewpoint, whilst another pointed to a spot where colonies of white-necked picatharthes could be found, and a third highlighted the route to ancient graves. The narrow path through the trees had vines and branches creating trip hazards, boulders to clamber over and eventually, steep inclines to puff up. After an hour we reached a clearing and continued until we arrived at a large outcrop of rock where, despite the somewhat misty views, we could see Liberia in the distance. Mustafa tried to point out a tree with Diana monkeys in, but we couldn’t even see the tree moving let alone monkeys. Despite its promises of birds and wildlife, our only spot was two yellow crested hornbills making a sound like a helicopter. As always, the return journey seemed easier and shorter, and we arrived back for a well-earned late breakfast.
On what was billed as the coffee and cocoa experience, we met up with our local guide Ansou for the short drive to his community. Ansou took the front seat, and it was interesting to see he had to be shown how to clip and unclip the seatbelt. On arrival, we walked around two small areas growing both cocoa and coffee plants, and saw the nurseries with the young saplings. Perhaps the most unusual thing we saw, was a termite mound in the shape of a mushroom, and we heard the tale of Solomon who stood leaning on his stick for nearly a year, without anyone realising he was dead, until the termites ate his stick and he fell to the ground. However, I’m not quite sure of the connection to unusual mounds or something got lost in translation.
As well as our scheduled activities, it was pleasant reading and enjoying the peace and tranquillity. At one point I decided to climb the wooden tower and for tree top views from the platform, until I spotted a dangling rung half way up the ladder. Not one to miss a photo opportunity, I put my foot on the first rung as though beginning to climb, and it collapsed beneath me.
One of the highlights was the Gola Masked Devil Dance performed by the community. Along with a couple of visiting RSPB representatives, we were guests of honour and given front row seats. The whole community of men, women and children were out in force. To the beat from two drummers, individual women and men performed energetic dances, before the devil came out dressed in a layered straw outfit from head to foot, with a multi coloured felt hat which covered the face. When the devil bowed in front of us, we were told to stroke his back. His four performances were interspersed with more individual dances, and a couple of children who obviously inherit the moves at birth. At the end of the devil’s final performance, we were invited to put money on the ground in front of him, which I was more than happy to do so as a thank you for not being invited to participate. However, we weren’t expecting the total scrum down when we were quickly surrounded.
Tourism in Sierra Leone is very much in its infancy as a result of the civil war during the 1990s and subsequent Ebola outbreak. So if you manage your expectations about animal and bird sightings, Gola certainly makes a peaceful retreat for a few nights.
See also the review of Gola Rainforest Conservation Centre.