Head off the beaten track in Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and India

Beach in Sierra Leone © Alamy
You get world-class beaches all to yourself in Sierra Leone

Why not have an adventure away from the tourist trail? Stuart Watkins reports.

For the past 30 years, Sierra Leone has been associated with violence and despair, says Will Brown for 1843 magazine. A brutal civil war in the 1990s lasted till 2002. Just as travellers were beginning to trickle back, ebola struck. Its fledgling tourist industry still has not picked up.

That is a waste of potential. A visit to the country will be challenging: the roads are dangerous and you need to be streetwise and organised. While drifting down the Moa river in a canoe to spend a weekend on Tiwai, an island covered in dense rainforest in the south of the country, Brown’s boatman made a sharp turn into the river bank and started to cut two long branches into spears to tackle the crocodiles that lay just ahead. (It turns out the boatman was pulling his leg.)

But lurking crocodiles or not, the country has much to offer. You’ll have the white sands of the country’s world-class beaches to yourself. There are national parks aplenty, from Tiwai to Kangari Hills Forest Reserve. Just outside Freetown is the splendid Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, and an hour south you’ll find the country’s first surf school.

Freetown itself is “fantastically chaotic”, with “gritty bars and churning markets” amid the dilapidated, colonial-era British buildings. Around Freetown’s swankier Aberdeen peninsula and the “picture-perfect” Lumley beach you’ll find some classy bars and restaurants. For travellers prepared to “step outside their comfort zone”, Sierra Leone is “one of the most spellbinding places on the continent”.

Unique draws in Ethiopia

Hand-feeding hyenas; visiting subterranean churches hewn out of rock; wolf-spotting on one of Africa’s highest mountains – Ethiopia’s mix of such “diverse and unique draws” makes it a travel destination unlike any other, says Samuel Gebre on Bloomberg.

Baboons in Ethiopia

Known as “the cradle of humankind” ever since a 3.5-million-year-old hominid skeleton was discovered there, Ethiopia is today a patchwork of ethnic groups, more than 80 in total, whose ancestry in Ethiopia spans at least 3,000 years. “A visit to this incredible land is akin to stepping into the pages of the Old Testament,” says Nicola Shepherd of Explorations, a travel agency.

Legend has it that Lalibela’s 800-year-old monolithic churches, all carved out of solid rock, were built with the help of angels who flew in building materials by night to create a replica of Jerusalem. Lalibela is smaller and more charming, and it’s well worth spending a day roaming the area’s 11 churches.

Ethiopia’s frequent and vibrant festivals, such as Timket in January, during which the Ethiopian Orthodox community plunges into waters to celebrate the baptism of Christ, are surprisingly accessible for visitors and a good way to get to understand the country.

Simien National Park and the Bale mountains in the north are a hiker’s paradise. The mountains are home to the Ethiopian wolf, the gelada baboon and the Walia ibex, a type of goat found nowhere else on earth. See them with the help of guides at Bale Mountain Lodge, one of Ethiopia’s first luxury hotels. Each of its 11 stone-walled suites has a wood-burning stove to warm guests on chilly nights. (See BaleMountainLodge.com.)

Ageless Buddhist kingdom

Lamayuru monastery © iStockphotos

Leh, a town in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir in the far north of India, and once the royal seat of a former Buddhist kingdom, is as seemingly ageless and eternal as the mountains that surround it, says Lucas Peterson in the New York Times. The Ladakh region in the Himalayas has changed noticeably over the last decade, but it remains a “wondrous destination for the adventurous traveller”, with its captivating scenery, generous and friendly people, and abundance of accessible holy places.

In Leh, it’s best to stay within walking distance of the Main Bazaar, the hub of shopping and dining activity And the bazaar is a good destination for your first day – you’ll want to take it easy and drink plenty of water as your body acclimatises to the change in altitude. There you will find good traditional Ladakhi fare, perfect fuel for a mountain trek.

Once you’ve found your feet, it makes sense to hire a car and venture out into the surrounding area, as this is a “good part of the fun of being in Leh”. There are many attractions, but a highlight is Lamayuru, one of the most venerated and ancient monasteries in the region. It is a couple of hours’ drive from Leh. Closer by is the Thikse monastery, about 12 miles west of the town. Both are places of incredible serenity, simplicity and calm in landscapes of stunning beauty. Visit early and observe the young monks blowing into their conch shell horns to mark the start of morning prayers.