At a Glance
Dates: February 22nd - March 8th, 2023
Extension: We do not currently offer any extensions to this itinerary.
Prices: £3,275 pp sharing (with a £270 single supplement), excluding international flights.
In a sentence: Amongst the most enigmatic and mysterious mammals on the continent, Pygmy Hippos are one of the most highly sought-after quarries for seasoned wildlife-watchers - and this itinerary offers one of the few chances to see these extraordinary animals, and much more.
Sierra Leone is perhaps better associated by many with blood diamonds and political turbulence than with world-class wildlife-watching. And, in the core the country, it is a sad fact that much of this country's native wildlife has disappeared. However, in the far east of Sierra Leone, a tract of wilderness has escaped this fate and is, in fact, home to some of the best mammal-watching in all of West Africa.
Gola Forest is the primary destination for this adventurous itinerary, and offers perhaps the best chance of a Pygmy Hippo sighting in the world. The Moa River is home to an elusive population of these wonderful animals, although their nocturnal habits and extreme shyness do make sightings uncommon. Gola also offers good ungulate-watching, including a wide variety of duikers, although poaching has reduced these populations in recent years. Visitors may be lucky enough to spy Maxwell's, Zebra, Yellow-Backed, Black, Ogilby's and Bay Duiker from the network of trails dotted around Sileti. Royal Antelope, Jentink's Duiker and Royal Antelope are also rarely encountered, although our likelihood of success with these species depends on how often we venture into the forest in lieu of staking out Pygmy Hippo.
Tiwai Island is a primate-lover's paradise with around a dozen species relatively easily located on floats down the river. Western Red Colobus and Diana Monkey are perhaps most commonly encountered, although visitors might also expect to see King Colobus, Sooty Mangabeys, Chimpanzee and Campbell's Monkeys. Green Monkeys are also occasionally seen, as are Lesser Spot-Nosed Monkey and Olive Colobus. Tiwai also offers a number of other mammals, including several species of Galago and Anomalure, and a thriving local population of Red River Hogs.
It is worth noting that tourist infrastructure in Sierra Leone is largely non-existent, and this itinerary is therefore not for the faint-hearted. Many nights will be spent camping on riverbanks scanning for signs of Pygmy Hippo. Other nights will be spent walking through dense forest for extended periods, or staking out salt-licks for rare ungulates. This trip is sure to be rewarding for serious mammal-watchers, but be sure to pack a good sense of humour and a can-do attitude!
Upon arrival into Lungi Airport, you will be met by your Pictus Safaris representative and transferred to your accommodation, a 30-minute boat journey away. This unorthodox entry into the capital is certainly a memorable one! There will be a pre-tour briefing in the hotel this evening, with the remainder of the day at leisure.
We have an early start today, as a long drive lies ahead. We will be on the road for around seven hours, excluding a stop for lunch en route, and our destination is one of the most diverse national parks in West Africa. Straddling two ecosystems (Outamba and Kilimi), this park protects both savanna and rainforest areas. The biodiversity here is impressive, although sightings of large mammals are rare, with several primate species easily seen, including a booming population of chimpanzees. On arrival into our basic but comfortable camp, there will be a chance to settle in before a late afternoon river cruise to view the local pod of hippo (common, rather than pygmy!). After this, dinner will be served in camp before a chance to get some well-earned rest.
Days Three to Four
The next two full days allow us to explore several areas of Outamba-Kilimi. The park protects both forest and savanna elephants, as well as a reasonable head of leopards, and night walks give us a decent chance of encountering these iconic species. Primates and forest duikers abound here, and several savanna species endemic to West Africa may also make an appearance.
Much of today is spent on the road, reaching Tiwai itself by boat just before sunset. There will be time for a short boat trip upriver this evening, and we will pause some distance upstream as the sun sets. Once fully dark, we will float downstream, without engine assistance, hoping to come across one the shiest and most elusive mammals in Africa - the pygmy hippo. In truth, sightings of this species on Tiwai are now extremely rare (we stand a much better chance of a sighting in Gola), but keep your eyes peeled. On our return to our camp, dinner will again be served before bed.
Days Six to Seven
Morning and evening walks and boat trips will be the dominant feature of our time in Tiwai Island. Primate viewing is often best from the river, due to the skittishness of many of the species, and with a dose of luck we may catch glimpses of Chimpanzee, Western Red Colobus, King Colobus, Olive Colobus, Sooty Mangabey and Diana Monkey. Lengthy walks into the forest on the island may also reveal a number of unexpected species, including the ever-entertaining Red River Hog. Each evening we will head out once more for a silent 'float' down the Moa, scouring the banks for signs of Pygmy Hippo.
There is an early start for all this morning as we make the lengthy journey by road to Lalehun, in the north of Gola Rainforest National Park. The road network is of poor quality, so be prepared for the occasional bump! We'll stop regularly for breaks, as well as for lunch, so will be aiming to arrive into Lalehun by mid-afternoon. Our accommodation will be basic (as in all of our destinations throughout this tour), and we will be camping or using basic research stations as our base. We will always ensure that bucket showers with hot water, as well as short-drop toilets, are available throughout.
Once settled into our accommodation, we will head out into the forest in the evening light in search of our first mammals of the tour. This area of Gola is not a hotspot for Pygmy Hippo, but is instead perhaps the finest habitat for ungulates in all of Sierra Leone. Numerous duiker species, including Maxwell's, Yellow-Backed, Zebra, Black, Ogilby's and Jentink's can all be seen here and, with the use of a thermal monocular, we aim to get the group good views of many of these species before they melt away into the forest. As the evening gives way to night, our focus will turn to the unusual nocturnal mammals to be found in this surprisingly rocky area, including West African Potto, African Palm Civet, Lord Derby's Anomalure and, perhaps most excitingly, White-Bellied Pangolin. There is even a slim chance that we may even stumble across the extraordinary Giant Pangolin. Our night walk can be as long or short as we wish to make it and, once we have returned to camp and enjoyed our simple dinner, we may choose to head out for another short walk. Be sure to listen out for both Thomas's and Demidoff's Galago, whose shrieks often carry through the forest.
Days Nine to Eleven
We have three full days ahead, focussed on exploring the forests around our base camp as thoroughly as possible. Our target species list is long and varied, ranging from several diurnal species of Duiker to charismatic species including Bongo, forest buffalo and White-Bellied Pangolin. We will head out on our first walk just before dawn each day, returning to camp briefly for breakfast, before a longer walk until midday. After a chance to rest during the sticky heat of the day, we will again head out for an evening and night walk in search of the elusive and striking species that call this forest home. The birding is excellent here, with known picathartes nesting sites nearby, and longer hikes are sure to reveal a rich diversity of bird species each day.
We will make a special effort to visit Mahoi Bridge during our stay, accessed via a long hike. This route, along an old logging trail, is one of the few open areas in Gola, allowing us to quietly approach any species that cross our paths. Duiker species are frequently encountered here, as are Water Chevrotain and Royal Antelope, and these skittish animals can, with luck and skill, be photographed along the trail to Mahoi Bridge.
The bridge itself is a rather uninspiring and dilapidated sight, but it will provide us our first view of the Moa River - the abode of the elusive Pygmy Hippo. Once considered a hotspot for Hippo sightings, this has not recently been a productive site. However, the bridge is home to an awe-inspiring lek of Hammer-Headed Fruit Bats - these huge, striking bats are startlingly vocal, and we will watch from the bridge as they leave their roosts to feed in the late evening. Watching these bats take flight in such large numbers is a truly incredible experience, and one we are sure you will enjoy. Rather than stay the night at Mahoi Bridge, we will instead walk back through the forest for an extended night-walk, aiming to pick up any rare Duiker species we may have missed to this point. Upon our return, we'll have a late dinner and likely head straight to bed for some well-earned rest.
Days Twelve to Thirteen
We will relocate once more this morning, taking an infrequently-visited trail all the way down to an isolated spot on the Moa River. This area is known as a locale that is heavily used by the local population of Pygmy Hippos, due in part to its shallow banks granting easy egress from the river. Our basic campsite will be set up some way back from the river, allowing us to commence our pursuit of the Pygmy Hippo in earnest.
Pygmy Hippos are typically strictly nocturnal, hiding under overhanging riverbanks (often thickly-knotted with roots) during the day, before leaving the river at night to feed on a network of trails. Prior to our arrival, we will have consulted with park authorities extensively to identify which trails are being used most often by the Hippos, and which entry and exit points on the river's edge they are opting to use. This leaves us with a choice each evening - we can either pick a vantage point from which to scan the river through the night, or walk the trails around camp hoping to intercept a Hippo on its nightly patrol. We choose to have the best of both worlds, splitting the group in the evening, with some remaining on the riverbank to scan for Hippo, and others heading into the forest. Throughout the night, we recommend that both groups spend time in the forest and on the riverbank, staying in touch by walkie-talkie to alert others to the presence of any Pygmy Hippos. We should look to minimise movement and noise in the forest, so we suggest that each group of 2-3 people spends 1-2 hours walking in the forest at a maximum.
After one last night in all-out pursuit of Pygmy Hippos, we will head back to Lalehun today for some rest, food and (limited) creature comforts. An evening and night walk around Sileti is recommended, although guests are more than welcome to relax at camp or spotlight from camp if desired.
An early start for us today, as we drive back to Freetown after our Sierra Leone adventure. Most international flights depart in the evening, so we will drop guests off at the airport in time for check-in. For those wishing to spend an additional night in Freetown, we will gladly arrange this for an extra fee.
Please be aware that whilst we make every effort to follow the above itinerary as closely as possible, circumstances may
occasionally arise that mean the tour deviates from the itinerary.
Dates and Prices
This tour will run in February and March 2023, aiming to take advantage of the dry season when river levels are at their lowest, and Pygmy Hippo sightings are most common. The tour will run from February 22nd to March 8th.
The cost of this trip is £3,275 per person excl. flights. This includes all meals, accommodation and wildlife-focussed activities. Drinks are not included. We regret that we must levy a single supplement of £270 pp for this trip. To secure a booking, a deposit payment of £1,300 must be paid.
Flights and Visas
Pictus Safaris do not offer flight booking services. However, we do recommend the use of travel comparison websites such as skyscanner.net or momondo.com to identify the best fares, and then booking with the airline directly where possible. This will reduce the likelihood of complications and fees should any issues with your booking arise. If you wish to spend an additional night in Freetown at the beginning or end of your tour, we can arrange this for you at an extra cost. We strongly recommend booking flights leaving Freetown after 18.00 on your return, if leaving on the same day that we return to Freetown to avoid disruption to your plans.
British nationals do require a visa to enter Sierra Leone. Clients of other nationalities are advised to check well before travel whether they require an entry visa. Details of the process of obtaining a tourist visa for Sierra Leone will be provided to you upon booking. The cost of a Sierra Leone entry visa for UK citizens is $80 - these must be obtained upon arrival, and paid for in cash.
Weather and What to Bring
The weather in Sierra Leone in March is warm and humid, with maximum temperatures of around 34 degrees Celsius. At night, temperatures will drop to around 22 degrees Celsius.
A full packing list will be circulated at least two months prior to departure. Pictus Safaris will be able to provide one extra set of binoculars and two spotlights per group, and clients are welcome to bring additional camera, videography and scope equipment should they wish to. Please note that the use of drones is not permitted in many protected areas. We strongly recommend bringing comfortable, loose-fitting and neutral-coloured clothing on safari - please do not bring camouflage clothing. We recommend against dark coloured clothing (e.g. black or dark blue) as this attracts biting flies. Worn-in hiking boots with ankle support are a must, as are sunglasses, sun protection and a hat.
Do also remember to budget for any expenses not included in the cost of the trip, including for gratuities and additional activities. We recommend bringing US Dollars.
Safety and Security
There are currently no security concerns in any of the areas visited by this tour.