Tiwai Island is a wildlife sanctuary in the heart of Sierra Leone’s Southern Province.

It sits right in the middle of the Moa River and is part of the Gola Rainforest National Park, the largest remaining block of the Upper Guinean rainforest, right along the eastern border with Liberia.

The island is reached by a motorised canoe ride from the small village of Kambama. Once your boatman drops you off and returns to his village, it feels as though the rest of the world has left along with him.

In the local Mende language, Tiwai means ‘Big Island’ but that is something of a misnomer. The island is only 1,200 hectares (12 sq km) in total but criss-crossed with jungle paths, ideal for wildlife walks.

Tiwai Trees (Peter Moore)
Tiwai Boatman (Peter Moore)

Accommodation is rudimentary, but right in the forest. 

The river is always just a short walk away, so most evenings are spent on its banks watching the sunset over giant cotton trees and tracking the silhouettes of birds flying across the face of the sinking sun.

The soundtrack to your stay will be a cacophony of bird calls and the chattering of red colobus monkeys. That noise that sounds like a helicopter hovering? That’s just the sound of Hornbills flying overhead. 

There are chimps here, but they keep their distance. There are pygmy hippos too, but they are even more difficult to see. 

Tiwai Canoe Trip (Peter Moore)
Javier on Canoe Trip on Tiwai (Peter Moore)

I met a Belgian vet who had been in the area for two months searching for pygmy hippos.

He had set up camera traps all along the river. And while he had hundreds of photos of green-tinged night vision pigmy hippos, he’d only seen one in real life. 

The highlight of my stay was a canoe trip at dawn, paddling with my guide through tunnels of low hanging trees and vines, mist rising from the river, still and silent. 

Once we’d negotiated a set of gentle rapids the only noise was the dip of my oar in the water and then, as the sun peaked above the treeline, the magical sound of the forest coming to life.

If I could only use one word to describe Tiwai Island it would be serenity.

So much serenity.

Tiwai sunset (Peter Moore)

Main image: Pirogue at sunset on the Moa River (Peter Moore)