Western Africa

After 2 months at home in Australia we returned to Europe to pick up our truck and to continue our around the world journey. Few things had changed as Tunesia, Libya and Eqypt all became very unstable due to uprising against the regimes at the time. So we decided to travel via Morocco instead.

Enroute we stopped in Brugge in Belgium, Paris in France, Andorra in the Pyrenees, Barcelona, Benidorm and Malaga in Spain. They are all very interesting countries with lively cities, beautiful countryside and friendly inhabitants. Just before crossing into Morocco we visited Gibraltar the British colony also known as the Rock. It sits at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, and is bordered by Spain to the north. The people of Gibraltar are British citizens.

West Africa

West Africa for us was a most interesting place. One of the reasons for this is the huge diversity of cultures that exist in this part of Africa. It is hard to describe the culture and the religion of West Africa. Over the years a lot of people have called the area home and they have had a huge influence on both the culture and the religion. In large part this is why the area has suffered through so many wars and other conflicts with all  the different groups that have moved into the area. The most common group that you will find in West Africa are the black Africans, they come mainly from the Sub-Saharan region. They make up the bulk of the population and they are the ones who have been there the longest.

While there has been some mixing, for the most part the tribes all have different religions and cultures which has made it hard for them to live together. In addition many of the people in this group have been affected by colonial influences. In large part West Africa was colonized by the French hence French is the spoken language for foreigners and tourists. In general the farther north you go in West Africa the larger the Muslim presence will be .In some cases they will represent nearly half the population. There are some exceptions however as the French were more accepting of the Muslims in their colonies than the other European nations so the former French colonies tend to have a larger Muslim influence. The region is home to nearly half of the 300 million poor people reported by the United Nations to be living on less than $1.25 a day. In Africa corruption is pervasive and  wide spread.  Malaria is endemic, and HIV/AIDS remains a threat. Unemployment, especially among the region’s abundant youth population is alarmingly high.  Poverty is a major source of ethnic, religious and resource control tensions.West Africa has become one of the most violent places on earth with a great many wars having been fought. Interestingly very few of the wars have been between the various countries that make up the region. Rather in almost all cases they have been civil wars. Unfortunately these wars have been some of the most brutal on the planet as the various factions seek to completely wipe each other out. The result is that many people have died in these wars. Things have certainly calmed down over the last few years and for us as travelers we have never felt threatened. In fact like our East Africa journey we have always been made welcome.  Morocco we visited twice on our way to West Africa and on our way back. This country has plenty to offer and is pretty well westernized. Next came the Western Sahara which is administered by Morocco. Independent travel in the region is restricted, and while crossing through Western Sahara  travelling overland between Morocco and Mauritania is ok, official entry requirements for SADR-controlled areas are unclear, but in practice the area is entirely off-limits to visitors: you cannot legally cross the heavily guarded and mined Berm from the Moroccan-controlled side, the land border with Algeria is closed, and there are no legal border crossings from Mauritania into SADR-controlled territory either. I hear that some have crossed the border but I am convinced this is illegal and should not be done.

Mauritania is a wonderful country with lots of OFF ROAD opportunities. We visited  the old cities of  Ouadane, Chinguetti, OuLata and Tichitt. They are a vestige of a rich past of the Trans-Saharan trade which made these cities part of the city-relays between North Africa and the Black Africa through the Sahara.

We crossed into Mali from the far South East of Mauritania and visitors mainly visit Mali for the three World Heritage sites, Timbuktu, Djenne and Bandiagara, however our 3 days spent with the locals in the Dogon Area was our highlight to Mali, in  our opinion the number one country to visit in West Africa. We arrived in Burkina Faso while a curfew was in place (6PM till 6AM). The political unrest resulted in shootings between police and army and a fair bit of looting in the 2 major cities, Ouagadougou, also known as Ouaga (pronounced “Wa-Gha” the capital city, located in the center of the country and Bobo-Dioulasso  the country’s second largest city, located in the south-west . Burkina Faso is an impoverished country so several hundred thousand farm workers migrate south every year to Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana in search of paid labour  Probably the thing Burkina Faso is most famous for is its music and drumming culture.

Benin was a surprise; Pendjari National Park: Lions, elephants, and cheetahs are the popular animals here. Unfortunately we never saw any except one lion. Other animals supposedly to  inhabit Pendjari National Park are crocodiles, baboons, and hippos.  Cotonou, is characterized by the same kind of chaos and grit as other large West African metropolises, but it also has one of the finest cultural scenes in the region.  Possibly Benin’s most unusual attraction, the town of Ganvié is built entirely on stilts in the middle of a large lagoon. Its inhabitants are descended from the Tofinu people, who were captured and sold as slaves by the rival Abomey tribe.Although most Beninese nominally practice Catholicism or Islam, the country’s official religion is voodoo, and it wields the most influence over the spiritual lives of Benin’s people. On most open air markets in Benin you will have a fetish section, where buyers can purchase dried animal parts, and potions. A highlight of the city of Ouidah (which itself is steeped in Beninese history and voodoo mythology) is the Route des Esclaves a four-kilometer trail that traces the road from the historical slave auction square to the Door of No Return, where slaves boarded the ships that would carry them to the New World. Royal Palaces of Abomey: From 1625 to 1900, 12 kings of the long-vanished kingdom of Abomey lived in this enclosure, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Route des Pêches, which technically comprises Benin’s entire Atlantic coast, has some of West Africa’s quietest beaches and perfect camp spots.

From Benin we crossed into Togo and our first stop was the capital of Lome and the Le Grand Marché: Lomé’s central market is the commercial hub of the capital. Here one can find anything and everything, from shoes and motorcycle parts to fresh fruit and vegetables. As elsewhere in West Africa, women dominate market life. We visited Aného on the easternmost end of Togo’s short coast, the spiritual center of the Guin-Mina people.

Next was Ghana, often hailed as one of Africa’s post-colonial success stories. We found the police to be very corrupt and a hassle. However its people, atmosphere and music make up for it. The Cape coast has superb beaches and castles.  In Elmina you go back in time and gain a greater understanding of the African slave trade. If you like chilling on the beach, you’ll love Ghana. With 530 kilometers of coastline, Ghana has every type of beach you could imagine and it’s relatively easy to hop down or up the coast from one beach to another. We visited Mole National Park, Ghana’s largest national park that is home to 90 species of mammals, including elephants, baboons, antelope ( according to the locals). I am not sure this is the case as we hardly saw any. In fact West Africa is the place to see wild life!  Ghana is the home of the Ashanti people and the so-called spiritual capital of Ghana, Kumasi has one of Africa’s largest central markets. Traders from all across Africa descend on the market to sell their wares. The Volta Region, Ghana’s most easterly region, is a virtual paradise of scenic beauty, notably the Wli waterfalls, the monkey sanctuaries of Tafi Atome and the ancestral limestone caves of Lipke and the Volta dam. Kakum National Park is situated in one of the last living rain forests in the world. We took a round tour via Canopy Walkway which is as much as 40 meters above the rainforest.

Due to civil war in Ivory coast we had to change our plans and backtrack to Burkina Faso and Mali to continue our journey to Senegal. Senegal offers a broad variety of crafts and textiles, and the country’s six major game parks and reserves have great opportunities for hunting, bird watching, and ecotourism. Tourism is a major industry here. Most tourists come for the region’s exceptional weather—more than three thousand hours of sunlight per year—and dazzling, sparsely populated beaches. We enjoyed  the Casamance region as there are very few tourists and perfect beaches. One of the most accessible ways to experience Senegal’s natural beauty is to visit the Fathala Reserve, part of the Parc Nationale du Delta du Saloum. The park is known for its forest and wetlands, with hundreds of species of wildlife. Don’t forget to visit the charming village of Missirah.   Wassadu National park on the border with Guinea Bissau was one of the highlights for us in Senegal.  Saint Louis retains much of its colonial-era architecture. It has a perfect beach and great food.

The Gambia is the smallest country on mainland Africa, bordered to the north, east, and south by Senegal, with a small coast on the Atlantic Ocean in the west. The Gambia River runs through the entirety of the country, is 700 miles (1,126.5 kilometers) long and stretches all the way to northern Guinea. Banjul is the capital of Gambia and is located on St. Mary’s Island, at the mouth of the Gambia River. Albert Market is the place for trinkets, including jewelry, local crafts, and clothing. The local ferry across the river is an experience we will not quick forget. To explore the local waterways, hop into one of the small motorboats called pirogues and see the wildlife of Oyster Creek.

We crossed the border back into Mauritania this time at Diama driving through Parc de National Diawling. Mauritania is one of the largest countries in North Africa with a  mix of desert and ocean—but mostly desert. The bulk of Mauritania’s large area is made up of the world famous Sahara Desert, while the country’s west coast hugs the Atlantic Ocean. The country’s many desert mosques are some of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in all of North Africa. Nouakchott the capital city of Mauritania has many souks or markets. The Saharan sand dunes on the edge of Nouakchott are worth checking out for some good Off Road driving, bush camping with perfect scenery at sunrise or sundown.

Next was our last country in Africa, Morocco one of Africa’s most popular destinations. Morocco is a country rich in diverse cities, fantastic cuisine, and spectacular sites. The two main cities, Casablanca and Fès, have different feels and scenes, but they’re both perfect places for strolling aimlessly and getting lost in sights, sounds, and smells. Morocco is the premier tourist enclave in North Africa. Off Road through the Atlas Mountains brings you into close proximity to old Berber villages and stunning mountain environments. The Sahara Desert is the world’s largest desert and covers approximately one-fourth of Africa and is only partly located in Morocco. The landscape is beautiful and dotted with old casbahs, Berber villages, and sand dunes. Marrakesh and the magnificent Draa valley were one of the highlights. Hassan II Mosque is located in Casablanca and is one of the world’s largest mosques. It covers approximately 22 acres, including a section built over the Atlantic Ocean. Other places worth visiting are Djemaa el fna in Marrakesh, Volubilis is the best-preserved Roman town in Morocco. The ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Blue City of Chefchaouen tucked into the Rif Mountains a few hours north of Fes. Aït Benhaddou is Morocco’s best-preserved ksar, a Berber village that consists of connected buildings situated in the side of a hill. To see the fortified city cut out of the hills and made entirely of earthen materials is remarkable; walk through the ancient streets and marvel at the skill necessary to build such a massive and beautiful town.