West Africa Discovery website

Please visit the West Africa Discovery website to learn more about West Africa and our selection of sustainable tourism tours, accommodations and voluteer projects.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Adventure travel in West Africa – Part 1: Senegal

Adventure travel has to be the most invigorating form of travel out there, combining the thrills of physical exercise and adrenaline rushes with the beauty of local scenery and the immersion in the destination. We all know of Australia as an adventure destination with the many possibilities to stimulate those rushes of adrenaline such as bungee jumping or skydiving, or Chile for its white water rafting and trekking possibilities, but what do we know about West Africa as an adventure destination? Not much I suspect. That is why I decided to explore, bycountry over a four part series’, the opportunities for a good old escapade in a few of the 16 countries of this little known part of the World.

For those of you who are in to exploration, you may well have heard of Scottish born Mungo Park who made it his life mission to go where no man had gone before on the African continent. He concentrated his efforts on the West African countries of Senegal, The Gambia and Mali, and was said to be the first Westerner to encounter the Niger River and set up residence in the fabled city of Timbuktu. Well, following in his footsteps, I am going to concentrate on a more modern timeline and will attempt to give you a breakdown of ‘adventure travel’ opportunities and cover the possibilities for the development of activities which reflect the adventure ethos and aim to cause less damage to the environment they operate in.

Let’s start in Senegal which is a diverse country in many ways. It has a variety of ethnicities and a climate that changes dramatically from North to South. This country has been nicknamed ‘Le pays de la Teranga’ (Teranga, in Wolof, can be approximately translated as ‘The art of hospitality’) due to the overwhelming thoughtfulness of its inhabitants and their willingness to share, even though most have nothing. The coast in the West, stretching 531km (330mi), is our starting point for our ‘adventure discovery’.

An Atlantic coastline means waves, and waves mean body-boarding or surfing! In the capital, Dakar, there are several surf camps that make it possible to ride on the longest swell window in the World. Not only do these camps provide you with expert knowledge of the areas surf spots, but they also aim to give employment to local people by training them in hospitality and surf instruction. They also boost the local economy by bringing tourists to the destination and encouraging them to live ‘local’. Check out this surf camp near the Island of N’Gor for an example of what you can expect.

If you fancy taking a break from the Ocean breeze and prefer discovering the hinterland of Senegal, bike tours are possible on which it is possible to stay in homestays and immerse yourself in the local life whilst appreciating the awe-inspiring, baobab dotted, landscapes. Visits to the Lac Rose (the pink lake) or the Lac de Guièr near the Sénégalo-Mauritanian border are a great way to discover the rural culture on Northern Senegal and appreciate the beauties of the semi-arid Sahel region. For more information contact us.

Moving down south to the Siné-Saloum, dotted with mangroves and small tropical-like islands, there are possibilities to go powerchuting to discover the splendours of scenery where land intertwines with the Ocean, or take a pirogue (traditional fishing boat) with a guide to go fishing in the maze of waterways which a variety of birds, butterflies and monkeys call their home. Obviously, you will need a place to rest, and there is no lack of accommodation in idyllic spots to recover from the day’s thrills and spills. Many an eco-lodge are available for your needs to be pampered, and other budget accommodation is also available (enquire with us to learn more). So why not kick back and relax in a traditional hammock with a glass (or bucket) of palm wine and listen to the sounds of nature. You might even catch sight of a mischievous monkey or two.

Moving to the complete opposite on the map, we find ourselves in the South-East of the country, also nicknamed Bassari Country after the mysterious tribe of the same name linked to the Dogon people in Mali. Here, lies the Senegalo-Guinean border dominated by the Fouta Djallon, a granite and sandstone formation with the highest elevation of 1,515m dominated by tropical-like forests and home to the headwaters of three major rivers, the Niger River, the Gambia River and the Senegal River. This is an ideal place to get your hiking boots out and take on a medium-hard trek up to the highest point, Mount Loura. Along the way you will encounter a number of species of monkeys including green colobus and patas, and even chimps are known to dwell in the depths of the jungle. At the foot of the Fouta Djallon, on the Senegal side, lies the sleepy eco-village of Dindéfélo which you could call your base, and is the location of one of the only two waterfalls in Senegal.

If you fancy a bit of exploration, you can retrace your steps to the Gambian border and cross over to some of the least visited parts of that region where you can find some hidden eco-lodges which have purposely been built for those in need of a getaway from mass tourism. To the South is Casamance, one of the most beautiful parts of Senegal but least touristy due to the lack of marketing and the occasional news about rebel activity. However, I have been there and take it from me, there is nothing to worry about, in fact it is probably the best place I have visited in my life.

When in Casamance there are plenty of adventure activities to partake in, although less organised. From mangrove exploration in canoes, scuba diving or snorkelling on the coast, beach hiking or mountain biking, there are plenty of options for those open enough to approach the locals for a bit of advice.

There are many other activities that can be found in Senegal to quench your thirst for adventure; however I would probably need another thousand words to describe the entirety of the possibilities, but needless to say that if the adventure travel industry was developed to a higher level, whilst taking into consideration the local communities and local heritage of course, then Senegal’s relief and different climates could open a number of doors for those seeking new locations and new alternative ways of getting that all important adrenaline rush.

Imagine kite surfing near the South’s deserted beaches or paragliding from the Fouta Djallon plateau, canoeing down the whole length of the Gambia River or hot air ballooning over the sand dunes in the North. Only imagination is the limit!

But until then, why not visit the West Africa Discovery website for more information on unique and exciting holiday ideas that will tickle your explorer glands or provide you with your next hit of adrenaline. Alternatively, email our dedicated team of West African Manatees who will be delighted to help you!

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Discovering Gambia and Senegal independently

Andrew, a traveller who has recently booked a responsible tourism holiday to Cameroon through the West Africa Discovery website, suggested that we post his story about his journey through Senegal and the Gambia in order to raise awareness to the rich experiences that can be had in West Africa. Of course,without hesitation, we agreed! So, without further ado, sit back with a cup of tea (or coffee, as you prefer) and enjoy the following recount of what seems like an unforgettable experience.

Every time I plan a trip abroad I weigh up the benefits of travelling as part of a group and going myself. Group travel certainly makes things easier, probably more secure, and doesn’t require so much planning.

Travelling entirely on your own can, of course, bring you into much closer contact with the people in the country you have chosen to visit, and every penny you spend ends up in the local economy. I have enjoyed both, many times, but when my partner Sheila and I decided to visit Senegal and The Gambia earlier this year, we decided that we would do this one ourselves.

Both Senegal and the Gambia have relatively well developed transport networks. In Senegal fleets of Peugeot estate cars connect major towns regularly, smaller destinations less often, making travel quick and trouble free. We rarely had to wait longer than half an hour for the seven seater ‘sept-places’ to fill up travelling between major towns, and it seemed that the seven seat rule was strictly enforced preventing overcrowding. For the price of all seven seats it would usually be possible to hire the whole car if extra comfort or a quick departure to a less popular destination was required. French, at least at basic survival level, is really essential to communicate with local drivers - they are not going to speak English. Because of the quite large number of French tourists who visit Senegal, individual travellers are not that unusual.

There are lots of high quality hotels in larger towns, as well as more basic options, and finding food in markets, shops or restaurants was never a problem - as long as you have enough French to ask for what you want and understand the price.In (English speaking) Gambia, transport is by minibus - much more cramped as extra bodies are crammed in - with much less frequent connections once the coast was left behind. Public transport did seem, however, more easy than some of the popular guidebooks suggested, not to mention one UK based tour operator who tried his best to suggest that individual travel would be a totally miserable experience.

Gambia has a huge variety of hotels and restaurants on the coast, including many hotels catering to western package tours, and finding good accommodation and good food is not a problem - a much more limited range of options exists inland, but we always managed to find somewhere reasonabe to sleep. Electricity in most inland towns is not constant, and most hotels will only run a generator for a limited number of hours. We met many friendly people, working hard to make a living from the small number of foreigners who venture away from the coastal resorts.

If time is more important than money, there are plenty of local taxi drivers and guides who can arrange transport. Many advertise on the web, or offer individual fares to any destination in thecountry through tourist agencies in the coastal resort. We took advantage of the services of Moses Coley (http://www.realgambiamoses.com/) who, along with his driver Sheriff, drove us from the coast to the Senegal border in the far East of the country, stopping along the way to see wildlife and birds. You can see some of my photos from the trip on his website.
Travelling with a guide has many advantages. Moses has a great knowledge of his country, and many friends and contacts throughout. He took a real pride in ensuring we enjoyed our trip, we told him where we wanted to go, and then on the way between these main destinations he took us to many out of the way places to see the birds and wildlife that were one of the main reasons for our visit to The Gambia. By arranging local guides from remote villages for a relatively small price we managed to make an impression on local people that the wildlife and wild environment around them did have a value, as well as making sure that local people did benefit from our visit. One young man who took us to the fields round his village (one of the best habitats for viewing birds, monkeys and baboons!) had never seen European visitors in his village before. Moses is an enterprising man, keen to develop eco-tourism as a way of benefiting his village. He has recently financed a local school, as well as arranging inovative cultural tourism opportunities, for example the opportunity to get married in a Gambian village ceremony (try 'googling' his name for more info on this!)

One of the things that stuck me most about both Senegal and The Gambia is the strength of Islam. More than once, our driver would stop at the side of the road, take out his prayer mat, and pray. Driving before sun-up was usually accompanied by Islamic music and prayer on the radio, before the driver changed over to local popular music as day broke. Every town had its mosque, many of them new. I maybe shouldn’t have been surprised by this, but I witnessed a mush greater level of religious devotion than I have even in countries such as Pakistan, Iran and the Middle East. Highlights of our trip were national parks in Senegal - Langue de Berberie and Djoudj near St Louis, and Nikolo Kobo in the East - and the Gambia - Aboko, the Bao Bolon wetland area around Tendaba Lodge, and the River Gambia National Park. We also enjoyed visiting Dakar and St Louis in Senegal, eating good food on the Gambian coast and visiting the small up-river towns in The Gambia.
I think Senegal and the Gambia must be amongst the easiest countries in Africa to visit as individual travellers. Both are relatively well developed, and have established tourist industries, although in both these are concentrated in specific areas and easy to leave behind if that is what you want. With a healthy dose of common sense both seemed secure enough, and in both it was easy to find help if long wait for the next, possibly non-existent, minibus just seemed too much! Why not discover them for yourselves?
To see what unique experiences you can have in Senegal, the Gambia and the rest of West Africa, why not have a browse through our selection of responsible and sustainable holiday ideas on our website. Or if you have a particular query, please contact us on info@westafricadiscovery.co.uk.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Ghana: home to the Black Stars, but also much more than that!

After dispatching the USA in their last game of the World Cup, Ghana made history as being the fourth African team to reach the quarter final when they faced Uruguay tonight. Ghana has already done better than four years ago when they were knocked out in the last 16. It seemed that all of Africa celebrated Ghana's qualification for the quarter finals of the World Cup. And many hoped the Black Stars would beat Uruguay to become the first African team to qualify for a World Cup semi-final. Unfortunately, after an intense game and many heart stopping moments, Ghana lost on penalty shoot-outs but went home heroes to their own country who welcomed them with all the Ghanaian pride you could imagine.

Not only does Ghana have a world class team who represent a whole continent, but closer to home they also are one of the friendliest, most stable countries in West Africa with rich local heritage.

From the pristine sandy beaches in the south to the hilly and rainforest covered north, bordered by Togo to the east, Côte d’Ivoire to the West and Burkina Faso to the North, Ghana is truly a gateway to West Africa. And what a gateway it is! For the beginner to Africa, the traveller who wants to experience the ‘dark continent’ first-hand, the cautious tourist wanting to learn more about West Africa’s culture, this country is a great choice. Here are a few examples of the unique things you can do and see in the Black Stars home country.

For the avid historian
Ghana, unfortunately, is infamously known for being one of the main departure countries from which the slave traders filled their ships with ‘cargo’ to take them to the ‘New World’, and the remnants of this barbaric trade are still present. On cape coast near Accra, the capital, Elmina castle is the oldest European building in sub-Sahara Africa. According to records, thousands of captives passed through the dungeons of both castles to be shipped as commodities.

Museums are also numerous, and you will not be disappointed with the amount of choice. From the ‘National Museum of Ghana’, home to a varied collection of objects relating to the ethnography and culture of Ghana, to the ‘Dubois Memorial Centre for Pan African Culture’, a national historic monument in its own right documenting the life of the influential Du Bois family, passing by ‘Museum of Science and Technology’ displaying and preserving natural history specimens found in Ghana, you will need an entire lifetime to satisfy your curiosity.

Recently vestiges from an ancient civilisation were found in a remote part of the country which has questioned many theories that were put forward about the history of the regions people. To read the BBC article on the find, click here.

Or to learn about the possibilities to visit the country to learn about the history of slavery, click here.

For the budding naturalist
The vegetation of Ghana ranges from Evergreen forests and Savannah grasslands, to the lowlands to the highlands which boasts the highest point in the country, Mount Afadjato which is 885 metres high and found in the Volta region. The landscape is very suitable for both hiking and trekking which will allow you to get up-close to the wide variety of flora and fauna species.

For example, Tafi-Atome in the Volta region, is home to 300 endangered Mona and Pata Monkeys and is a traditional conservation area backed by statutory enforcement in co-operation with local communities. These monkeys are found in a remnant patch of forests, which has survived fire and human disturbance around the village.

Agumatsa wildlife sanctuary is another place of interest for those interested in wildlife. The area boasts Ghana’s highest waterfalls. The beauty of the falls is enhanced not only by the towering face of the gorge but most impressively by the several thousands of fruit bats clinging to its sides. At the base of the falls, in the surrounding forest, butterflies of various colours and other wild animals make the area significant for conservation. The falls also plays an important part in the cultural life of the communities around it. The people regard it as a fetish protecting them in all walks of life.

For a holiday idea that will take you to the sites mentioned above, click here.

For the culture enthusiast
Like the rest of West Africa, Ghana has a rich cultural heritage
which has been passed down from generation to generation for millennia, and its origins have been lost in the midst of time. However, being ever present gives the open-minded traveller a glimpse into the various rites, rituals, ceremonies and belief systems which make this country and its people ‘oh so special’.

One of the most important cultural remnants from a bygone era is the Ashanti stemming from a once prosperous Kingdom that ruled the region. There are certain days each year on the Ashanti calendar that are set aside for a celebration at the Royal Palace. This ceremony is called Akwasidae.

During the celebration, the King is seated under a spectacular umbrella of colourful, draped cloth and is adorned in vivid cloth and massive gold jewellery which is centuries old (the Ashanti gold jewellery and masks are considered masterpieces of African art). This traditional ceremony takes place in one of the last African Kingdoms to have kept its ancient rituals alive.

But Ghana is also known for its overwhelming hospitality, and there will be no lack of people who will offer to show you their home, offer you meals or just to have a friendly chat. In the remote villages of the Volta region, you can experience the culture first hand by learning how to cook the various traditional meals, discovering the history of weaving in this area and trying your hands on the weaving process, or visiting some farms in the local communities to learn how to use local farming tools.

There is no lack of educational opportunities in Ghana, and you will surely learn a thing or two from this holiday idea.

For the adventure fiend
For the adrenaline junkie, the exercise addict or for the simple traveller looking for a bit of fun, Ghana offers the possibility to partake in an array of activities including hiking, mountain biking, surfing, canoeing, canopy walking, fishing, and many more.

Let’s take example on the possibilities of surfing. Ghana’s south coast is perfect for those wanting to learn how to ride waves. Constant warm water, no crowds and perfect waves (that’s right, no fighting for waves and no wetsuits) make Ghana’s coasts a great location for beginners and intermediate surfers. To learn more about the surfing possibilities, click here.

Sticking to the water theme, the marshes created by the Volta River, create a rarely visited environment which allows for excellent canoeing where you can observe an exotic collection of birds and a baobab grove.

Or if you fancy something different, in Kakum National Park you can find the only rainforest canopy walk experience in the whole of Africa. Suspended 100 feet above the ground, this offers you what is truly a bird's eye view of the rainforest. At this height, you don't have to be an expert to identify the colourful patterns of tropical birds as they glide through the forest below you.

Unfortunately I could not include all the amazing things available to do and see in Ghana, but I am sure that through the above description you have become curious to know more. So do not hesitate to get in touch with us at info@westafricadiscovery.co.uk with any queries about this beautiful country or any of the other 15 West African countries. Or you can visit our website here to discover all the other unique and awe-inspiring holiday ideas available in one of the most undiscovered parts of the World.