Archives for posts with tag: tribewanted

A lot of the projects I work on tend to be online. This has big upsides: mobility of work, flexibility of work, cross-pollination of work. But the downside is I often spend a disproportionate amount of time with my battery-inefficient macbook. What this means is that each month I make sure I have at least one offline project (more than just an event or meeting) that I’m committed to doing. Ideally two or three.

Here’s what I’ve got in the pipeline this Spring. See you there!

1. THNK Accelerator Festival

Why am I going? To re-connect with friends and THNKrs on projects we’re all working on, to discover new great projects and people and to enjoy fine Dutch hospitality.


2. Tribewanted Monestevole Season 2 Opening & Digital Detox

Why am I going? To join my Umbrian family for the celebration of a new season and all the good things Monestevole brings, and to discuss with tribe members and visiting guests how best to manage our tech diets.


3. Hunter Gather Cook Treehouse HQ Opening

Why am I going? I love treehouses and I’m working with Nick Weston and friends on building a community around getting more people into trees. If our kickstarter goes well we’ll be building the foraging school’s new HQ and hosting a bunch of the backers for a wild cocktails party in the woods.




This has been on my mind for a while. Jo Confino’s blog today about communicating the reality of climate change might be best done not through facts and figures but by telling people – as artist Stephen Fairey suggests – ‘to stop being dicks.’ In other words if you don’t connect with people emotionally they won’t pay any attention. Or as Fairey says: “Sometimes the most powerful weapon against propaganda is absurdity, creating images that are funny.”

Looking from a start-up point-of-view it seems to me that there is some truth in this, not so much in ‘selling climate change’, but in getting people engaged in tackling abstract, distant (for most us) problems, the best approach is to try and get authentic emotional buy-in.

Thinking about the projects I’ve worked on over the last few years reflects this and why I continue to drawn to the storytelling, positive visioning, what-makes-me-care, approach to insurmountable problems over the ‘I’m going to drown you in a tsunami of data and then tell you buying a different detergent will solve the problem.’ No it won’t.

THNK: Creative Leadership school in Amsterdam. After being given a challenge (what do we do with big data, solve climate change, provide clean water for everyone etc…?) participants are encouraged to go on a ‘wild safari’ to gather inspiration, stories and facts about the subject before a ‘visioning’ phase of generating ideas concludes with the sentence: ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if…(big data ended malaria etc…)?’ before prototyping these ideas. By reframing a huge challenge as an amazing opportunity that matters personally a whole new raft of ideas surface.

Tribewanted: eco-tourism and community experiences. We’ve learnt by going slowly the ups and downs of building ‘sustainable’ communities. The open-minded spaces at Tribewanted projects free people up to think differently and creatively about big issues. The solar panels are really just the backdrop to what really matters: the cross-cultural living experience.

Escape the City: Inspiring frustrated corporates to ‘do something different’ is a brilliant way to get a talented resource (clever graduates) to move into careers they really care about. No wonder the community is 100,000 strong already. 

Right to Dream: Africa needs more role models. A sporting leadership academy in Ghana recruits talented, young people and gives them a world-class education. The graduates with a golden ticket then spend their next 15 years ‘giving back’ credits to their community and country in the form of fundraising, business start-ups, and international representation. The future Black Stars (Ghana’s national team) will likely be loaded with talented, smart, leaders.

Projects I’m a fan of that aren’t writing strategies but doing…

Hunter Gather Cook: Adventures in Wild Food. I took my brother on this for his stag do. Going wild in the woods topped any embarrassing night out on the town.

Project Wild Thing: Taking on the small challenge of getting kids off their iPads and into nature because it’s more fun. See also Camp Kernow

Jamie’s Farm: (Not *that* Jamie) Sharing wonders like where the ‘egg’ comes from by getting city kids down on the farm, often for the first time.

Roost: on a mission to get people into trees by showcasing the amazing treehouses of the world.

Microadventures: No more time-money excuses for going on adventures – you can have one between 5pm and 9am. I tried this.


Excellent few days of coverage since our launch of Tribewanted Monestevole.

‘Tweet Retreat’ – my thoughts on online/offline balance in Huff Post

‘Earthy Delights’ – Emine’s experience at Monestevole in The Guardian

‘In the name of Mother Nature’ – Enrico’s story, pics and video in La Stampa

Happy Easter!

Here’s my favourite picture of life at Monestevole so far – Andrea in his apron, on his vespa, doing his thing.Image


Q&A with Emma about importance of community…

Emma:  Community is at the heart of Tribewanted, but what does it mean to you?

Ben:  It means looking out for each other and learning about how to live in a certain way. It means what comes naturally to most of us but we don’t necessarily focus on or make time for. It means leave no trace, getting off-grid, off-line and indulging in nature, ideas, health, good food and creativity.

Emma:  How do you work with local communities in Tribewanted locations to ensure that their interests are at the heart of the project?

Ben:  It’s a partnership, both in Sierra Leone and Italy. We’re dependent on each other – for jobs, for food, education, for development. We try to let the local culture lead the way we operate. We meet regularly in open forums.

Emma:  Why is it important for Tribewanted communities to be 100% sustainable?

Ben:  Sustainability as a word has been twisted and regurgitated in so many different ways. Our goal is to show that living within our means, sharing success and failure, and being closer to nature – wherever we are in the world – is better for ourselves, our communities and society. We want to kick-start livelihoods and experiences that last because they prioritise the well-being of the people involved (local team and visitors). To achieve that we need to make sure that we make a financial profit, create and sustain jobs, and protect and enhance the local environment and biodiversity as much as we can. If we do, we can flourish – as an organisation, as individuals and as a way of living. 

Emma:  What can tribe members learn about ‘community living’ from spending time on the projects? Can this be incorporated into their own lives?

Ben:  This is what we really want to develop. The feedback we get is that people are often inspired by their experience, especially around food (importance of local and seasonal), waste (composting), water (catchment and re-use) and local cultural traditions. Our plan is to develop an incentive model that help members ‘earn’ Tribe Credits through green actions and therefore get more time staying at our communities. To build this model will take quite a few more members to join…

Emma:  When Tribewanted first started, it was pre-facebook in the UK (!)  How have the developments in social networks affected the tribe?

Ben:  Big-time. It was almost easier pre-facebook, definitely simpler. Now your story and content is competing with so much noise. Standing out and connecting with people takes a lot of effort and creative thinking, but when it clicks it’s great. We’re working hard at our social media and love feedback.

Emma:  How will the new Community Interest Company (CIC) model enhance the community aspect of Tribewanted?

Ben:  The idea is that it will give our members and communities a leadership stake in the organisation, not through shares, but being able to vote on where we go next, how we spend surpluses and by building Tribe Credit. With momentum it can become a genuinely sustainable finance growth model and we can start to partner with communities all over the world.

Emma:  What role does community have to play in our future as a world?

Ben:  Big question Emma! Clearly cross-cultural or global communities are going to be crucial in tackling the big challenges this century. Without real collaboration between start-up networks, big organisations and governments we can’t change things like over-fishing, deforestation or un-fair trade. What most of us probably miss in our day to day lives is that connection to projects, people and ideas where we feel like we can take on these challenges and improve our own well-being. Personally what matters is that we act, and act positively. That’s what we’ve been trying to do at Tribewanted for the last few years and if we can get the CIC model to click, we’ll be able to scale our actions and adventures as a community which would then become really exciting.

What do you think?

IMG_3272Music is at the centre of life at Monestevole

Daan Veldhuizen’s ‘Stories from Lakka Beach’ is a soulful and thoughtful collection of human stories and serene cinematography of life in a small fishing village at a time of change in post conflict Sierra Leone.

Following the half dozen characters as they describe their challenging livelihoods and the change going on around them, you get a strong sense of a peaceful country rebuilding and the lessons learnt from a dark past.

Having spent time over the last few years down the coast at John Obey Beach building a sustainable tourism community, the empathy I felt watching was significant; especially in terms of the aspirations of Isaac, Aminata, Alpha and co. We also know that there are threats to the rebuilding process of these communities – the road may bring business but takes sand from the beaches to build; the new housing may bring better quality of life – but will destroy parts of the forested hills behind the village bringing erosion and flooding. It is a fragile time in terms of resource management. At least it is a peaceful one.

The pace of the story telling in the film is slow – almost frustratingly at times – and as a result the viewer gets an authentic sense of of life on Lakka Beach. It is ‘small small’, tough, beautiful, hopeful and a scrap for every last Leone. For all these things Daan, his team and stars of Lakka should be congratulated – this is an honest and rewarding portrayal of a place and people with an opportunity to finally choose their future.

Film Synopsis

In Lakka, a picturesque beach village in post-conflict Sierra Leone, five villagers reveal the deepest and most profound moments of their lives. They tell stories about the ocean and the land, about war, love, hope, religion and about foreigners; tourism on the white heavenly beaches is nothing to what it was in the 1980s. Visitors stay away because of the recent war, a painful memory that the inhabitants are trying to forget. This is a story about life after war.

We have developed 10 indexes that help us measure our impact at Tribewanted, John Obey Beach, Sierra Leone, where we have been living for the past 18 months, in the hope of developing a model sustainable community. Read the manifesto.

We selected these 10 metrics because they provide a comprehensive outline of the three pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental and social. We chose the factors we have direct control over. We believe that a balanced use of these metrics creates a prosperous, healthy and happy community and one that can be replicated.

The 10 metrics in detail and how we plan to improve them. 

Tell us what you think:


Nice to have a chat with some old friends at gapyear. Great to see the community evolving.


“Google ‘islands for lease’. Send some emails. Fly to Fiji. Negotiate lease. Set-up crowd-funding website. Write a compelling press release. Hit send.”

PHOTO: Ben Keene with members of Tribewanted, Sierra Leone.

FOUNDER OF Tribewanted, social entrepreneur, speaker, writer, nomad and described in National Geographic as “the Sergey Brin of the South Pacific,” Ben Keene’s quest in 2006 to create a new cross-cultural and sustainable community on a Fijian island via a social network captured international attention. Five years on Tribewanted and its Fijian partners have built their community, welcomed over 1,000 tribe members and invested over FJ$2m into the local economy. In 2010 Ben launched his second tribe in Sierra Leone. caught up with the tribe-builder to talk social media pre-Facebook, front-line community-founding and why he took the Tribewanted model to Africa…

Hi Ben. So, ‘The Sergey Brin of the South Pacific’. Does this sum you up nicely or is there a better description nowadays?

I think the journalist might have had too much kava when he wrote that! (Kava is the narcotic root that is presented, pounded and drunk from coconut shells by the Fijian islanders).

You captured the zeitgeist of the social media explosion in 2006 with your project Tribewanted. But you also captured the public imagination as we watched you ‘guts and all’ on the BBC programme Paradise or Bust, read the book and followed the blogs. What was it like launching a pure social media business in the days before people were really using Facebook in the way it’s used today?

It was bloody exciting and almost impossible to manage. People loved the idea of participating online in a project that they could visit in the real world – an island in Fiji. But with the engagement came argument and confusion – there were no real rules, it was a genuine experiment in community-building online first and then on the island itself.

If you were to do Tribewanted Fiji again, but in 2011 with social media used how it is now, how would the outcome be different?

I think the model would have to change a lot. BF (Before Facebook) it was much easier to engage a niche community on your bit of digital real estate or dotcom. Now, PF (Post Facebook) we all live in each others virtual back yards and Facebook is our town (for now). So, seeing as the vast majority of our audience are on Facebook, I’d build a large part of the tribe there. Zynga did it.

PHOTO: Tribal huts underconstruction in Sierra Leone.

You were feted at the time by commentators for persuading a real Fijian tribe to lend you an island for what was really a brand new social media experiment. Not bad for someone in their late twenties at the time. Are you an ‘ice to eskimos’ guy, or was there a bit more to it? i.e. How the hell did you do it?!

Google ‘islands for lease’. Send some emails, fly to Fiji, negotiate lease, set-up crowd-funding website, write a compelling press release, get a goodnight sleep and hit send.

It was one of the biggest media sensations of the year in all the major English speaking countries. I gather you even blagged it onto Good Morning America and the Today Show! ‘Eccentric, energetic Englishmen seeks a virtual tribe for a real island’. Did people get it?

I think if people completely got it we wouldn’t have received so much press. Two things got people excited: First it was a genuine experiment mixing trends (travel and social networking), and second, it asked some big questions; Can people live together on an island? Can we really build sustainable communities?

And did such a mass media profile bring instant commercial success?

Not commercial, but that wasn’t the goal. We recruited our tribe, built our village, positively impacted lives and kick-started an exciting conversation. But the business model with a real world community hasn’t turned us (in terms of scale) into the next Twitter or Facebook, but then again, I’m not sure Zuckerberg and co have had the chance to live and learn in the places I have.

So you’ve moved Tribewanted to Sierra Leone. A new beach, a new tribe, in a country with a well-known recent barbaric history that probably wouldn’t feature in the Top 100 tourist destinations for any English-speaking country. I guess the question is: Are you nuts? Or do you simply like tough challenges?

I like being on the front-line. Not of the battlefield, but where positive change is happening. Vorovoro was a remote island in a well-travelled destination. John Obey is an accessible beach in a rarely-travelled destination. Sierra Leone has been at peace for almost 10 years, it needs responsible investment to aid its recovery process and it has some of the beaches I’ve ever seen. That’s why we’re here – for the experience, for the impact and for the moment of change. And the occassional lobster.

So what does success look like for Tribewanted Sierra Leone?

From my view on the solar deck today it looks like a new village of eco-earth domes, fishing boats, and people working and lazing together in the afternoon sun. Online it’s sharing this story – the ups and the downs.

You’re passionate about your social entrepreneur work and involved in a few other live projects here and there. Anything exciting going on at the moment?

Yes, I’m also involved here in West Africa with a brilliant new model of education, sport and leadership at and in Ghana at plus I’ve helped set-up as a movement to do for volunteering what fair trade has done for coffee and chocolate.

PHOTO: Ben relaxes with some challenging literature in Sierra Leone.

Social media is clearly your thing. I’m sure it’s fair to say ‘all-consuming’ as far as you’re concerned. As an expert in this field what’s your view on the future, in particularly a decade on from now. Will improved ‘virtual’ experiences mean we’ll have less need to physically go into shops, meet people and travel the world?

The opposite. Geo-location, augmented reality apps, and smarter smart phones are going to allow a lot more of the big challenges to be tackled socially – by all of us. As consumers and citizens we’re going to have more control, more choice and therefore, more responsibility in shaping our world.

Who is getting social media right just now?

Funny question to ask someone on a beach in Africa but…in travel exodus & kayak – great apps – and @benjilanyado is the best twi-tripper I follow, as well as @escthecity for post-gapyear career networking. There still isn’t a killer gap year app yet, although @gapyah is amusing to follow and without broadband I miss Spotify & TED the most.

And who is getting it wrong?

People who aren’t sharing their story online. The Times paywall may make money but it’s stopped me engaging with good journalism.

Who is inspiring you?

Alaistair Humphries, Amy Carter-James, Ben Saunders, Dale Vince, Tom Vernon, Mark Zuckerberg (if he turns Facebook into the gargantuan force for good it could be).

Lining up this interview you mentioned the view from your hammock. Sounds like quite an office! The best office in the world, maybe?

I tend to find the gentle breeze and rocking sensation perfect for extended periods of concentration.

So where next for Tribewanted? I know you like your challenges – have you considered Afghanistan? Lack of beaches I guess…

I hope that’s a serious question because I have a serious answer that’s not far off… but you’ll have to follow us online to find out.

PHOTO: The beautiful coastline view at sunset, Sierra Leone.

Go further

Ben Keene is currently leading @tribewanted in Sierra Leone. Join him on the beach or, at the very least, by visiting the officialTribewanted website.

Follow Ben on Twitter at @benkeene and @tribewantedsierraleone.

Tribewanted Sierra Leone: 6 months and 4 days have passed since we first camped at John Obey, on the virgin beach.  I now find myself heading back to NYC. Talk about a culture shock.

We have built an eco –tourism cross-cultural community from scratch. 5 expats and 30 locals, solar power, permaculture gardens, water harvesting, compost toilets, bucket showers, earth-bag domes and traditional wood homes. 73 tribemembers and counting have visited us from all over the world and participated in these developments, and we were financially sustainable in February for the first time. More than I would have ever imaged.   It has been the most intense, humbling learning experience of my life. Living and working on the beach with a community of fishermen for 6 months, I am now conversational in krio, I learned to appreciate the culture, I learned about sustainable community living and pushing canoes in the ocean, I learned to make a bonfire and build an environmental home, pump water from a well and make compost. I witnessed firsthand the impact that Tribewanted made on its workers and the larger John Obey community and I learned about patience, the science of peace.  Although I have had them tattooed on my back for 12 years, I finally learned to appreciate the four elements.  The beach and the red earth, the vibrant, untouched forest, the ocean and the lagoon, falling asleep to the sound of the waves every night.  The scorching sun which gave us power and amazing sunsets, the clean air and strong winds bringing in mighty thunderstorms.   I understand why it all used to be holy to our forefathers, and they just might have been right about what to worship.

I left among a wonderful celebration of rice with groundnut sauce, ginger beer, poyo (palm wine), bongos, singing, and some tears. I was glad to provide microloans for 22 of our workers before leaving, and take applications for 30 more local men and women, which we will shortly begin to promote on  I was happy to see the finished new toilets for the fishing village and help Abu  (our 16 year old apprentice earth dome builder) record his first rap song at a Freetown music studio. (he now goes by “Street Fame” at John Obey).  I was happy to see the pride in Yenken’s eye (widowed, mother of three) when she showed us her new stick/mud/zinc/tarp home that Tribewanted helped her build, and finally see her kids go back school.  This and much more I will miss dearly.

After 6 months being in the thick of it, it is my opinion that Sierra Leone has huge potential to be an example to the world in green energy and agriculture, water harvesting, eco-tourism and more. But it has big weaknesses as well; first and foremost there needs to be a shift of accountability, especially at the government level and in the upper class.   I have seen many of them behave as if they are above the law, which they unfortunately are. Bureaucracy at its worst is everywhere and no one takes responsibility for it. The only time we heard from the government in 6 months was after the BBC World Service did a piece on us, and Immigration came to Tribewanted to confiscate our passports because someone at their immigration office had given us incorrect visa extensions.  We had to pay, again, to get them back.

I have crossed the Liberia-Sierra Leone border and to my surprise, the Sierra Leone border was dusty and corrupt, while Liberia’s was paved and a lot less corrupt.

I have seen outings leave hundreds of kilos of rubbish behind on adjacent beaches and not pay the local community anything. I have seen how cheap life is, with four drownings at these outings in less than a year.

I have seen illegal shipping from Japan, Korea and China destroy the fish life and local fisherman’s canoes, I have seen all kinds of rubbish wash up from the ocean, from broken bottles to syringes from Freetown’s hospitals, as there is absolutely no recycling in the country.

I have seen definitions of “success”  on cell phone advertising boards, and they imitate the worst kind of western materialism- a Hummer, a girl on each side, pimp outfit, cash in one hand, champagne bottle in the other.

I have seen the protected peninsula forest being destroyed to build huge mansions in ever-expending Freetown, as most people invest their money in concrete.  150.000 trees/year are cut just in our neighboring fishing village of Tombo to make charcoal and smoke fish, and a big challenge in the coming years will be to provide these illegal loggers alternative sources of income to bring them out of the forest.

If one wants to invest in Sierra Leone in a for-profit business, the local currency, the leone, would cause huge headaches. I’ve exchanged my dollars for leones at the bank, but the same bank denied us exchanging dollars back to travel out of the country, refusing to take their own currency. I have had our insurance deny one of our workers disability compensation for being unable to work due to tetanus because he didn’t have a receipt from the pharmacy showing he purchased meds.

I have seen apartments and 4×4 vehicles in Freetown charge exorbitant New York prices and ask for one year payment upfront because the owners are used to getting money from big NGO’s that skew market prices, making it impossible for locals to afford leasing such things.

On the beach, we experienced how weak leadership at the village level can lead to lack of development even when the funds are there, with goodwill money going in various pockets but not a dollar being spent on development for the community.

The president seems to be a good man, and it sounds like he is aware of these issues. But he is just one man, and something is left to be desired about the people surrounding him; three ministers of tourism have changed in the last year, each with little experience in tourism.

To me, these and a lot more were daily experiences in Sierra Leone, part of the journey, but for the country to rise above poverty, all of these and other issues need to change, and that change must start with the people.

But back at Tribewanted, most problems ended. I witnessed the beauty of the country and met remarkable tribemembers of all ages, from all walks of life; Sierra Leone tends to bring very interesting and daring individuals.  I discovered how we can live comfortably using only 5% of an average American’s daily water supply and less than 5% of an average American’s energy use, without having concrete between the earth and our feet for 99% of the time.  Most importantly, I witnessed the will of people who never had a full time job before, turn up on time 25 days a month and work hard for 8 hours a day.  I have seen their pride about what they accomplished and have seen them take ownership of the project, I have seen some of them step up as leaders.  After 6 months, I am confident Tribewanted John Obey can be managed locally and can be a source of income and positive change for its workers, their families and John Obey as a whole for years to come.

The challenge now is to take Tribewanted from a purely eco-tourism project to a wider global sustainable living communities model.  If we are to change this pending environmental disaster we are bringing upon ourselves, we need to change our consciousness; we need to move away from consumerism and greed, constant growth and indebting ourselves to buy things we don’t need. We need to minimize time spent on videogames, tv shows and social networks that dumb us down, we need to fight antagonism and apathy. Rather, we should aspire to live more sustainably, being more in touch with nature, while still enjoying most of the comforts we are accustomed to.  Six months in rural Sierra Leone have profoundly changed me and I hope to be able to take all that I have learned back to the “first” world, in order to change my lifestyle there as well.  I look forward to returning to Tribewanted in another 6 months, time will be a good test of true sustainability.



“Looks like we have a free week in the middle of January”

Filippo was consulting his diary from the deck of the solar tower in Tribewanted’s new eco-tourism village in Sierra Leone.

“Fancy a road trip to Liberia?”

There was no need to answer that question. I had been living in a tent on the beach for 5 months helping establish the project and was
itching to see the country beyond the Freetown peninsula. Both thumbs went up and the plans to drive into Sierra Leone’s provinces, boat to its islands and head over the border to Liberia began.

I’d just started reading war-correspondent turned travel writer, Tim Butcher’s, account of his 2009 trek tracing the footsteps of Graham Greene’s epic journey across the two countries, and although we only had six days –and therefore could not attempt anything nearly as ambitious – I was excited to explore whether you could realistically cross the SL in a short time and still get a strong sense of the places and their people.

In ‘Chasing the Devil’ Butcher paints a picture of a nation still struggling to recover from its brutal civil war in the 1990s despite a
huge influx of foreign aid. My microcosm perspective of ‘Sweet Salone’ in the last few months at John Obey had been less harsh than this: I had found a peaceful, beautiful and so-far safe land with, despite its horrific recent history, an increasing political optimism with innovative development projects in education, entrepreneurship and tourism. True Freetown was chaotic, but life in the village by the sea was pretty good. Whether this would be the same ‘up-line’ as they say in Krio when you head to the country, I was about to discover.

Day one: Freetown to Nyangai Island

Packed full with tents, water, fuel, six guys, three iphones, 5 million leones, a lot tinned sardines and some pinapples, our trusty 250,000ks-on-the-clock-and-going-strong Toyota pick-up, cruised at 100ks an hour out of town, through a bustling Waterloo (poda-poda not eurostar here) and north-east on the only good road off the peninsula.

The smooth-tarmac didn’t last long as we soon turned directly east and began bumping along the dusty clay-coloured dirt roads and tracks that connect the vast majority of Sierra Leone’s villages and towns.

Five hours later we bounce into the small and port of Shenge. Known for its heritage of devil worshippers we didn’t want to hang around too long. Guzzling down a plate of beans, oysters and rice for the princely sum of 50p a plate we began negotiating a price for a boat to take us out to the Turtle Islands and up-river to re-meet our truck two days later.

“How much!”

“3 million, because you will use 90 gallons of fuel.”

90 gallons I thought – calculating roughly from my experiences of
boats, tides and currents island hopping in Fiji – that will get us
halfway to Monoriva!

We managed to chop a million from the cost but two days later we had
learnt two things – one we were right about the 90 gallons, we used 50 and slightly unbelievably we actually got re-imbursed for the difference. And two, travel by boat here – in one without shade or seats – is both glorious and expensive.

The harmatan – the time of year when the Saharan sands rain down across Western Africa creating hazy skies and cool nights – hung on the ocean like a mid-winter mist. Our sunset journey across a flat sea towards the turtle islands was navigated blind. At one point the captain steered us towards a loan fishermen in a small dug-out wooden canoe to ask for directions. As if he were a floating sign-post the man simply raised his paddle and pointed in a different direction. Our boat shouted out its thanks as if this was how all marine navigation has ever been done and ‘turned left’. But sure enough an hour later a scratching of palms and huts on what looked like no more than a sandbank emerged out of the dusk. It was one of the most serene and surreal end of a days travel I’ve experienced – children, men and women greeting us like lost friends as walked along their white sand in moon-shadow-palms to camp under the stars. I couldn’t wait to see this place in daylight.

Day two: Nyangai Island to Bonthe

All I can say is google earth: Turtle Islands. Waking on that sandbank
under my tent fly-sheet, I rolled over on one side to see one of the
world’s finer sites. A perfect sweep of the whitest sand, dotted with
sloping palms and cluttered with thatched huts. The dawn lighting up
the set of this truly spectacular place.

Nyangai is one of the dozen or so tiny habited Turtle Islands of Sierra Leone. Home to a surprising 500 people, its chief Mustafa Kong,
who we had visited the night before to pay our respects and kola (money for stay), told me from his hammock that people stay here
despite the poor (and salty) water supply, a lack of island-grown foods (coconuts, that’s it) and zero medical facilities because
fishing is good. Despite appearances it is, of course, far from paradise. One side of the island is peppered with human faeces,
compost toilets don’t exist here. Twenty years ago these people were able to grow cassava and other small crops in the forest, which now has retreated to beach scrub beneath the palms at one end of the kilometer long island. “The sea is coming in slowly to take us,” an exact echo from many people I’ve met in Fiji.

Soon our tents were surrounded by what seemed to be ALL the children on the island. Tourists don’t often come here anymore, they used to and the locals sound like they want them to come again – but our short visit caused plenty of interest on an otherwise silent Sunday.

I was ushered around the southern tip to discover two sets of goalposts under a foot of water. 20 minutes later and the outgoing tide left the pitch playable and we soon were practicing free-kicks on the sand.

“What’s your name?” I asked the small boy who smashed a twenty-yard
ball barefoot (that left my feet stinging in pain from striking it) into the back of the fishing net.


Premier League marketing really does have no boundaries.

Deciding my feet now stung a little too much for it to continue being fun I began jogging away from the pitch and along the sandbanks out to sea. I can safely say it is one of the best runs I’ve ever done. Curving back and forth in an endless s-shape the sand and low tide
allowed me to feel like I was on a running-machine made of water, skimming weightless along tracks opening up in front of me, the
harmattan morning mirage giving a sense of speeding along the curvature of the earth.

Day three: Bonthe to Tiwai Island

Our dream-like experience of the island was tempered by a faulty carborator in the boat engine, a rising sun and little shade.
Engine fixed we had traveled up the wide Shebro river arriving a fews hours later in Bonthe. Once a main port in Sierra Leone before the Province of Freedom was created during the abolition of slavery, this sleep town is one of those places that clearly has lived through different times.

After a night of camping at the rather plush Bonthe Holiday Village –even dining in a restaurant with cold beer – we take a walk around the town. Our friend and guide, Daniel MaCauley, suddenly tells us that his father lives here and he hasn’t been home for 30 years. We follow Daniel past the forlorn churches, telephone boxes, water hydrants, and even airport complete with rusting Cessna – a grown boys climbing frame. The colonial relecks of this town show what happens when its ‘masters’ have departed – trees grow through broken stained-glass windows, goats sleep in archways that wouldn’t be out of place in Durham or Windsor.

Daniel’s father explains that even though Bonthe is not the centre of Salone anymore but the new leadership in the country is bringing good development, a brand new hospital is slowly being built just up the end of the path from his home. Bonthe certainly gets my vote over Freetown.

We continue on in our trusty vessel up the narrowing river, past mud flats, rice paddys, giant mangroves and plenty of bird-life before meeting our vehicle at Yaggo village where the policeman is extremely welcoming. Our drive into the provinces now begins in earnest, and is
much more picturesque than I imagined. Villages appear better kept than, constructed and organized than those on the Freetown peninsula – perhaps a reflection of the capital regions transitory population post-war.

At Mattru Jong, where the infamous boy soldier Ishmael Beah describes secretly witnessing the brutal killing of his family by the RUF, we cross the river on a man-pulled (including us) rickety cargo ferry. As has often been said it is so hard to imagine such brutality in the same place where a few years later the quiet business of these villagers carry on. Beneath the surface there is a huge recovery process only just beginning of course.

After a long dusty drive we reach an incomplete bridge at dusk. Daniel jumps out of the truck, “No problem, the river isn’t far from here”. We wearily pull on our packs on, grab a box of food and head up and over the hill and into the night.

Twenty minutes later we reach a village, negotiate over some things I can’t really recall and head down another hill to the edge of a river. Back on (another) boat we drift out under the moon down-stream where a few minutes later we pull into what looks like a tiny gap between two giant bamboo plants. A short hike into the jungle and we stumble into a clearly and campsite. Shower, bread, mug of wine (yes we packed well), and I’m overly ready for sleep.

Day four: Tiwai Island to Robertsport, Liberia

A bit like the Ngoragora Crator in Tanzania, Tiwai Island is a natural zoo formed by a break in the Moa river. The monkeys and chimps that live here don’t leave because they can’t. So what seemed like too short sleep, I’m woken by Diani and Red Colobus monkies screeching through the canopy directly above me. Talk about a lazy safari – I didn’t even need to leave my tent!

We take a one-hour trek around the island with a local guide trying to avoid the impressively persistent spider-grass (grass not a spider), which sticks to your leg hair and pulls aggressively. Ouch!

The real stars of Tiwai aren’t the monkies or birds, however, but the trees! What I understood from the guide to be aptly named ‘Monstrousity Africanus’ towered above us at almost every-turn, its roots snaking out above grown like gargantuan mangled railway sleepers finally disappearing back into the earth in the distant jungle undergrowth.

From Tiwai we drove south and started to cross the border into Liberia. My experience of land border crossings in Africa are to expect three things: it will take longer than you think, it will cost more than you think and you can never have all the right paper-work . All three came true and more as we tried to leave Sierra Leone and enter Liberia.  Even with the correct visas in our passports, the return border costs still rocketed to a further $250 between us, at least half of which was how shall I say, sadly well beyond any kind of justifiable bureaucracy.

But at least there was Commander Ada. On the Liberian side at immigration we met a larger than life albino woman with braids who, in her dessert military gear and legs astride, was clearly the boss of this border post.

The first thing I noticed about the country we were entering was the roads – fine tarmac roads. Gloriously smooth, tarmac. Thank you Liberia!

Day five & six: Robersport and back to Freetown

‘One of the best surfing spots in West Africa.’ That’s what the guide books and magazine articles had said about Robertsport, Liberia. We weren’t surfers, but I was inquisitive to see if it lived up to the hype.

Like Bonthe, the town had seen better days, we visited JJ Roberts’ – the first President of Liberia – ‘palace’ at night a deserted shell of a building over-looking the lake and bay. We sat, rather naively perhaps, on the ledge of the balcony that would once have been the Presidents view-point of his nation. The lonestar of Liberia carved in stone above our heads revealing the patriotic and historic links to the United States whose slaves once began great social experiment here.

As for the surf – well this was not quite a scene from point break, both in terms of the surfers; we body-surfed badly and the surf; the shallow break barrels were more like dumpers.  Liberia’s self-proclaimed second best surfer, Benjamin MaCumba, later told me the swell would come next week. Bondi it may not be, but charming people (less aggressive than SL), clean gorgeous beaches, fine seafood and fascinating history makes it a compelling place. We had Nana’s Lodge beach camp to ourselves midweek, at weekends we’re told it’s busy with expats and even hosts weddings!

The long journey back to Freetown started badly with more ‘official’ costs at the border before discovering that we had bought ‘dirty diesel’ in Liberia meaning the engine spluttered and struggled for the next two days, so that we limped back into Freetown in twice the time
it should have taken before we could find a proper mechanic to clean the engine thoroughly. The only way to avoid this kind of debilitating problem is to take your own diesel. Despite this the journey, now beginning to feel like a mini-odyssey was still hugely enjoyable, as camaraderie of being on the road thickens with the dust and
challenges. We stopped over for our last night on the verge of the Gola Forest, hiring a fleet of okadas – motorbikes – to take us from
the mechanics yard to the bush.  Our brief entry into the West African motorcycle diaries delivered us to another beautiful village, where after a negotiation and payment to the chief we hiked back into the jungle, beneath the bamboos to camp again round the fire and under the stars of this awesome African adventure.

Would I recommend it?

Absolutely. But maybe not going into Liberia for such a short time. The border crossing corruption and costs were a big headache for a quick visit. A trip through Eastern and Southern Sierra Leone with your own tents and transport is guarenteed adventure.

Want to go?

If you wanted to budget for an overland and sea camping trip like this with private transport, a driver, a guide and border crossing fees – plan on $100 a day. Tribewanted can organize trips within Sierra Leone.

For an introduction to life on the beach in Sierra Leone > (295GBP a week)

For travel to Freetown from London, BMI fly 4 times a week >