When I mentioned to people in Freetown, and even Sierra Leoneans in London that I had been to Bonthe, the first reaction is ‘You nor dae frade de wata?’ I cannot understand this fear of the sea from a people who were mostly born within the sound of the waves of the sea. There must be a physiological reason for this. Although Bonthe can be reached by a long and not too comfortable road, yet the easiest way is by boat, and we choose a speed boat. Anyway the boat ride from the Freetown Aqua Sports Club was smooth, and we were able to pick out various beaches on the peninsular as we speed along, passing Kent, the southern most tip of the Peninsular, Banana Island, Plaintain Island and Shenge. The approach to Bonthe was rather spectacular with the low laying mangrove swamp forming a spectacular foreground to the low laying chalets of the Bonthe Holliday Village which came into sight as we approached the small jetty.
The sight of an old PZ warehouse on the seafront reminded us of the long and profitable economic place that Bonthe, which is situated on Sherbro Island, has in the development of Sierra Leone. This was at a time when the produce of the interior of the country such as piassava (for those who don’t know what piassava is used for, it is in the making of brushes and bristles, and at one time Bonthe exported two thirds of the worlds piassava) palm oil, palm kernel, ginger and above all, rice, passed through Bonthe on to the worlds markets. Large ships from around the world came to Bonthe to carry these produces to a world hungry for these produces, and one can imagine the hustle and bustle as this island, the same size as Jamaica, became the centre of the export trade of Sierra Leone. The coming of the railways and building of roads into the hinterland of the country killed Bonthe as an economic and vibrant export heart of the country. The piassava trade was also devastated when the world discovered that plastic made cheaper brushes. Today all this is left are the old warehouses of such illustrious trading companies as SCOA, CFAO, PZ and several other companies whose names are no more recognised today by younger Sierra Leoneans.
As we approached the group of chalets that make up the Bonthe Holiday Village, one immediately saw the hands of Joy Samake, owner of Balmaya restaurant at Congo Cross, one of the partners in the project, stamped all over the place. The other partners in the project is the eminent Sierra Leonean and Bonthe resident, Dr Peter Tucker, who had the first holiday camp on the site and indeed owns the land he has leased to the partnership. The third partner is Englishman Martyn Marriott, who has had a long association with Sierra Leone in the diamond business, and has had a credible desire to invest and give something back to the country. The layout, the manicured lawn, shell gravel path and the design of the chalets shows the care and devotion that she has put into making the place the island of haven it has become. Her hands can also be seen in the layout, design and construction of the chalets, and what is more important, the high quality of the materials used and the high quality of the fittings and furnishings. The bedrooms and bathrooms are of a standard comparable ( and in some cases, better) to anything found in the so called five star hotels in Freetown. And what is more, everything worked...the toilets flushed, hot and cold water came at the turn of taps, good quality bath towels (changed daily) and the floors were cleaned each day. I understand that most of the material used in the construction of the chalets and public buildings were imported from Italy. Now one could see, understand and admire the hard work put in by Joy in transporting everything by road from Freetown to the Mattru or Yargoi, the nearest point to Bonthe. From there everything (including tomatoes) has to be put on boats and ferried across to the Bonthe. One must admire the drive and tenacity of Joy for making it all possible despite having to do the weekly drive from Freetown on unpaved and potholed roads, taking building materials and supplies for the building of what I can only describe as world class complex of chalets.
The attraction of the Bonthe Holiday Village is the game-fishing which attracts sports anglers from around the world. When the largest tarpon was caught off the waters of Bonthe in the early 1990s, it made headlines in international sports-angling circles, and game-fishing mad men from around the world wanted to visit Bonthe to see whether they could beat the record. Since then 12 world records in various line classes, and weighing between 166kg and 283kg, have been caught in the area. A days fishing trip from the village is a must and can be arranged, if you are so inclined. But not being so inclined, I spent most of the time laying by the pool and cooling off either by jumping into the pool or sipping gin and tonic complete with lime and lots of ice. But there are other type of fish to be caught in the area such barracuda, yellow jack, grouper and giant mackerel.
One other speciality of the Bonthe Holiday Village is the food. Prepared in the open plan kitchen, another trade mark of Joy, it is up to international standards and prepared by a chef from Benin, the former French African country, and who learned his culinary skills in some of the best hotels along the West African coast. Breakfast of bacon and eggs and tomatoes, lots of toasted baguettes and masses of local coffee. Lunch consists of fish caught locally and from the sea to the table in a few hours, which tasted like fish never tasted before. As we spent Christmas at the village, we were treated to turkey with all the trimmings, followed by Christmas pudding, something to remind us of home in the UK were most of the guests came from.
Visiting the Bonthe Holiday Village is a must for anyone visiting Sierra Leone and especially Sierra Leoneans who, putting away their fears of ‘wata’ would find it an unsual experience visiting an upmarket holiday concept partly owned, designed and managed by a Sierra Leonean.