Heartlands of West Africa


Heartlands of West Africa

Style: PioneerGroundbreaking tours to unique destinations
Duration: 23 days
Type: GroupTravel with a small group of other travellers

Dossier

Join this great expedition across West Africa. An exploratory journey taking you south east from the former Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau to the voodoo heartlands of Benin. Starting in Bissau we immediately descend into traditional West African culture, visiting a community of ‘griots’ – traditional storytellers – where we learn about a custom that is unique to this part of the world, then travel through the lands of the Fulani, stopping in small villages until we reach Conakry. Moving on to Sierra Leone we stay on lush tropical islands and discover delightful fishing villages, gorgeous beaches and the troubling history of the slave trade, as well as meeting chimpanzees at Tacugama. From here we head the diamond belt of Sierra Leone, meeting those who seek their fortune and learning how diamonds have played such a fateful role in the country’s history. In Liberia we explore the heritage of this unusual country, ‘founded’ by freed Afro-American slaves in the 19th century and quite different to others in the region.

Ivory Coast offers us the opportunity to witness the incredible ‘living bridges’ of the rainforest and see the amazing mask dances of the Dan and Guere people, as well as the rather bizarre ‘cathedral in the forest’ - the vast and opulent basilica at Yamoussoukro. As we hit the coast again we travel through old colonial settlements dotted with European forts and charming colonial buildings, on our way to Accra. Our final two countries, Togo and Benin, are home to the followers of voodoo and we have excellent opportunities to learn about this much misunderstood religion, seeing traditional ceremonies and dances that are among the most fascinating spectacles in West Africa.

This is an exploratory tour that often travels through remote parts of West Africa, allowing you see a number of different countries in a short space of time, and where the visit of a ‘foreigner’ is often an exceptional event. Perfect for those that are big on ambition but short on time, this trip delves into the magic and mystery of an ever-enchanting region. West Africa rarely fails to cast a spell on those who visit.


Tour Rating 

Fitness ●●●○○ | Off the Beaten Track ●●●●● | Culture ●●●●● | History ●●●○○ | Wildlife ●●○○○

Tour Pace

Busy

Tour Highlights

  • Discover tiny Guinea-Bissau, one of Africa's least visited nations
  • Observe chimpanzees at Tacugama Sanctuary in Sierra Leone, as well as historical monuments and ruins which bear history of Sierra Leone
  • Fascinating cultural interaction with different ethnic groups such as the Guere, Dozo & Senoufo
  • Colourful ritualistic mask dances of the Dan and the Senoufo
  • Witness a traditional voodoo festival
  • Visit the fishing village of Elmina, home to an imposing slave castle

Tour Essentials

Accommodation: Mix of hotels
Included Meals: Daily breakfast (B), plus lunches (L) and dinners (D) as shown in the itinerary
Group Size: Maximum 16 (On this tour you may be joined by travellers from companies other than Undiscovered Destinations) 
Start Point: Bissau - 10 February 2019
End Point: Cotonou - 4 March 2019 - evening departure
Transport: 4WD, minibus and boats
Countries: Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Benin 

Tour Itinerary Notes

While our intention is to adhere to the day-by-day itinerary as printed below, a degree of flexibility is built in. Overnight stops may vary from those suggested and on occasions alternative accommodation, of a similar standard to that named below, will be used.

Please note: This is a pioneering trip that will be run as a recce tour and so you must be prepared for flexibility and changes to the itinerary if necessary. We most definitely do not recommend this trip if you like rigid plans, 4 star hotels, good roads and well defined ‘tourist sites’ – this is a very adventurous trip through a remote part of the continent, where infrastructure is not great, things change frequently and you can expect a certain amount of discomfort at times. However the rewards more than balance these out – the chance to travel through lands that rarely see western visitors, experience the truly authentic and go to places that few have gone before, in one of the most interesting corners of Africa.

Tour Guide

This tour is generally led by Italian Alberto Nicheli who has been living in West Africa since 1985, although it was back in 1972 that he organised his first trans-Saharan expedition.

Alberto’s sense of adventure and huge amount of experience makes him ideal to lead this tour. He has a profound knowledge and understanding of African art and of the many traditions and customs of the people who inhabit these remote territories.

Alberto has worked with and handled the logistics for leading companies such as National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. He has worked on archaeological and ethnological expeditions to investigate customs and traditions of the Tuareg people and pre-historic rock art in the Sahara.

Without doubt to travel with Alberto will only add to the experience of what is a unique expedition.

Day 1 – Bissau

Arrive in Bissau and transfer to your hotel. Overnight Hotel Azalai or similar

Day 2 – Malinke region

Morning drive to a small village in the Malinke region. The Malinke are descendants of the ancient empire of Mali and we visit a community of ‘griots’ – traditional musicians and story tellers who play an important part in conserving the traditions of West Africa. We learn about their history and customs, and witness a traditional griot performance. Overnight simple hotel. (BLD)

Days 3-4 – En route to Conakry

A small track takes us to the border of Guinea, through an area inhabited by Malinke and Fulani tribes, and we stop in villages where the arrival of western visitors is a rare event. Arrive in Conakry on Day 4. Overnight tourist class hotels. (BLD)

Conakry

Built on a promontory stretching into the Atlantic Ocean, Conakry is a busy, noisy, lively city that shows few traces of its former nickname of the ‘Paris of Africa’, but an interesting place to see modern urban life on the continent. The region was first ‘discovered’ by the Portuguese in the 15th century and was once a haven for slavers and traders, and over the years it was occupied by Dutch, English and French settlers involved on the slave trade. Conakry was originally settled on the small Tombo Island and later spread to the neighbouring Kaloum Peninsula, a 22 mile long stretch of land. The city was essentially founded after Britain ceded the island to France in 1887. In 1885 the two island villages of Conakry and Boubinet had fewer than 500 inhabitants, but today it is home to about 2 million – around a quarter of Guinea’s population.

Days 5-6 – Bunce Island – Tasso Island

Drive through a region of forests and lagoons, to the border with Sierra Leone. In the Lungi region we take a boat to visit the islands of Bunce and Tasso to discover wild beaches, remote fishing villages and a fort dating back to the time of the slave trade. Overnight simple hotels. (BLD)

Day 7 – Freetown

Arrive in Freetown and spedn the day visiting its lively markets, seeing examples of old colonial architecture, and heading out to its beaches. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)

Freetown

Sierra Leone’s capital is set between hills and ocean, a chaotic jumble of buildings and streets packed with the life and colour of West Africa. Freetown’s name derives from its original raison d’etre – in the late 18<sup>th</sup> century the abolitionist movement launched a programme to send freed African slaves back to the continent, settling on this part of West Africa as a likely spot. The last twenty years or so have not been kind to the city – it was utterly devastated during the vicious civil war which raged through the country, with many gutted and half destroyed buildings to be found, but like the rest of Sierra Leone it is now moving on and increased development bears witness to a growing confidence in the city. Like most African capitals Freetown is fairly devoid of formal tourist sights, but the real joy comes from experiencing the hustle and bustle of a city finding its feet again, wandering through busy markets – including the imaginatively titled ‘Big Market’, or discovering some of the fading remnants of Freetown’s heritage

Day 8 – Banana Islands - Tacugama

Travel the archipelago of the Banana Islands, with its stunning beaches and fishing villages. We then return to the mainland head to Tacugama. Overnight Tacugama Lodge. (BLD)

Day 9 – Tacugama - Kenema

Spend the morning at Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, home to a large number of chimps that have either been orphaned or rescued from captivity, and are in the process of re-acclimatising to community life. Afterwards head to Kenema, the diamond capital of Sierra Leone. Overnight simple hotel. (BLD)

Chimpanzees

Humans’ closest living relatives, chimpanzees are spread among 22 Afrcian countries, from Senegal in the west to Tanzania in the east, and have become extinct in four countries where they once lived. they are among the largest-brained, and most intelligent of primates; they use a variety of sophisticated tools and construct elaborate sleeping nests each night from branches and foliage. They live in large social groups of several males, females, juveniles and infants, dominated by an alpha male usually between 20 and 25 years old.

Day 10 – Kenema – Bo

Explore the Kenema region, meeting diamond panners and learning how this precious stone has played an important – and all too often tragic – role in the country’s history. We then continue to the town of Bo, in the west of the country. Overnight Dohas Hotel or similar. (BLD)

Day 11 – Robertsport

Drive to the border with Liberia – expect bumpy and difficult tracks at times as we drive through the rainforest. We then head to Robertsport, founded by freed Afro-American slaves in the 19th century. Overnight Nana’s Lodge. (BLD)

Day 12 - Monrovia

Spend the morning exploring Roberstport, then continue to Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. We visit the National Museum and the impressive Masonic Temple of Liberia, that has played an important part in Liberian history over the years. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)

Monrovia

Monrovia has a close association with both the slave trade and the return of emancipated slaves to Africa; it is named after James Monroe, the US president who was instrumental in the latter campaign. It was ravaged by war in the 1990s and is today a rather ramshackle capital, albeit rather atmospheric in the right light.

Days 13-15 – Man

Drive through the north east of Liberia to reach the border with Ivory Coast. The rainforest here is known for its liana bridges, made from living vines and an astonishing example of ‘tribal technology’. We visit these bridges and then drive to remote villages to meet the Guere and Dan people. We spend a full day exploring their complex cultures and customs and seeing impressive mask dances. One night simple guesthouse, two nights Hotel Les Cascades or similar. (BLD)

Day 16 – Yamoussoukro

Drive to Yamoussoukro, once just a village but now Cote d’Ivoire’s bizarre administrative capital. Yamoussoukro is dominated by the gigantic Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, reputedly the largest Christian place of worship on earth, and we spend time exploring this vast complex. Overnight Hotel President or similar. (BLD)

Yamoussokro

The city of Yamoussoukro, rising out of the jungle, was little more than a village fifty years ago, but its status as the birthplace of Cote d’Ivoire’s first president has led to a dramatic transformation. Felix Houphouet-Boigny began his ambitious construction project in the 1960s, with the intention of creating a model city. Today Yamoussoukro is home to grandiose government buildings that seem rather out of place given the overall conditions of the country, and has become the administrative capital of the country. It is not however the hiub of economic activity – Abidjan, the previous capital, retains this honour. Compared to most African cities Yamoussoukro can seem rather sterile and devoid of the chaos that makes African travel fun, but it is nevertheless a fascinating place to explore and muse on the dreams of the former president. The most impressive building is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, reputedly the largest church in the world and bigger than St Peter’s in Rome. A controversial project, the basilica cost $300 million to build and prompted questions as to whether the money would have been better spent improving the lot of the general population rather than on what many see as a vanity project – there is an image of Houphouet-Boigny next to Jesus in one of the stained glass windows.

Day 17 – Abdijan

Head to Abidjan, the country’s capital and a modern and glitzy contrast to the trip so far. Spend the rest of the day exploring the city, with a boat trip through the lagoon, a visit to its lively market and the National Museum to gain an insight into the different ethnic groups that live here. Overnight Hotel Azalai or similar. (BLD)

Abidjan

Cote d’Ivoire’s largest city, Abidjan is a sizeable metropolis that some say is the third largest French speaking city in the world, after Paris and Kinshasa. A cultural hub of West Africa, it is a busy and vibrant city, with glitzy skyscrapers a testament to the fact that this is the economic capital of the country. It wasn’t always so – Abdijan was originally a small fishing village until it became the capital of the French colony in 1900. Since then it has grown enormously, and only Lagos is larger in the region. Like many African cities it is not especially endowed with traditional tourist sights, but is great for people watching and soaking up the atmosphere.

Days 18-19 – Grand Bassam – Axim – Elmina

Drive to the city of Grand Bassam with its old colonial buildings and atmosphere of yesteryear, to explore and learn about the history of the country. From here cross into Ghana and visit the coastal town of Axim, with its 16<sup>th</sup> century Portuguese fort. The following day we drive to the fishing town of Elmina, best known for St George’s Castle, the oldest European building in Africa and once used as holding centre for slaves. In the town itself we explore the old quarter with its unique Posuban shrines, made by the traditional ‘asafo’ societies which were once responsible for local defence. Overnight Axim Resort (Day 18) and Anomabu Resort (Day 19) or similar. (BLD)

Grand Bassam

The historic town of Grand Bassam was a former French colonial capital, but not for long. Having attained this status in 1893 it was promptly evacuated three years later after an outbreak of Yellow Fever. The shipping industry on which the town depended gradually declined, and eventually the population diminished to such a level that virtually the only inhabitants were squatters, although now about five thousand people live here. Today the place has the aura of a ghost town, with grandiose abandoned buildings lining the streets, and in 2012 the town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in light of its special historic value.

Elmina

The pretty town of Elmina is dominated by the whitewashed St George’s Castle, which dates back to the 15th century. The fort is a rather sombre place when you realise that this is where slaves were held awaiting transportation to the new world, and the cells which they were held in still remain. Elmina is also home to the smaller Fort St Jago, perched on a hill and overlooking the town, as well as a 19<sup>th</sup> century Dutch cemetery, and the fishing harbour is a delight to explore, with colourful boats and fishermen bringing in their daily catch.

Day 20 – Accra

Continue to Accra, visiting the National Museum and the old quarter of Jamestown, as well as the quarter where craftsmen design flamboyant coffins for the deceased – a uniquely Ghanaian experience. Overnight Accra City Hotel or similar. (BLD)

Accra

Ghana’s capital is one of Africa’s biggest cities, with the inevitable traffic, noise and mayhem. Despite being a fast growing, lively city, the people are friendly and welcoming and maintain many aspects of their tribal African roots. The National Museum houses one of West Africa’s best ethnographic, historical and art collections, which gives a good introduction to Ghana and surrounding areas. The old quarter of Jamestown is the heart of the old colonial town and is inhabited by the Ga people, who founded Accra in the 16th century. There are numerous bustling markets to explore where you can discover everything from food, clothing and household goods to traditional crafts. Most interesting is the area where coffins are made – here they make them with the most outlandish designs, in the shape of fish, aeroplanes, or just about anything else you can think of.

Day 21 – Lome

We cross the border into Togo and head to Lome, the only African city to have been colonised by the French, British and Germans. Explore the city including its central markets and the fascinating – if rather gruesome – fetish market, where animal parts are sold for use in traditional medicines. Travel to a remote and hidden village, where we witness a voodoo ceremony – unique to this part of the world, and sure to be one of the highlights of your trip. Overnight Hotel Onomo or similar. (BLD)

Lome

Togo’s capital is a vibrant city situated on the coast, sitting right on the international border with Ghana and with a population of just under a million. Slightly dishevelled, it is quite an atmospheric little city and is now recovering from the civil disturbances suffered by the country in the 1990s. Its origins date back to the 18<sup>th</sup> century, when it was settled by the Ewe people, one of Togo’s largest ethnic groups. Like many African cities it doesn’t have too much in the way of formal sightseeing but there are a few things worth exploring – the Grand Marche with its exuberant businesswomen known as ‘Nana Benz’ who monopolise the sale of cloth in Togo. Not be missed is the fetish market, where animal parts are sold for use in traditional medicines. This is not a great place for animal lovers, with heads and body parts of everything from sharks and crocodiles to gorillas on sale, but offers a fascinating insight into a belief system very different from our own. Lome has a number of buildings which date from the German occupation, most noticeable of which is a rather bizarre looking 19th century Gothic style cathedral which looks rather out of place in a West African city.

Voodoo

Voodoo, or Vodoun as it is known here, is one of the most important religions in this part of West Africa. Forget what you may have seen on TV about it being a form of black magic &#8211; here it has the same legitimacy as any other belief system and has been adopted as an official religion by Benin. Voodoo is a complex and intricate way of seeing of the world, with literally hundreds of different gods responsible for various areas of daily life &#8211; some are benevolent, some less so, and in order to communicate with them and ask for favours local people will seek the assistance of followers, or adepts. There are numerous voodoo temples scattered around the coastal regions of both Benin and Togo, each headed by a priest who for a suitable donation will intercede on your behalf.

Voodoo is not limited to the temples though and traveling around the region it is not likely that you will see some ceremony being carried out. Also worth looking out for are the Egunguns - earthly manifestations of the dead who roam the streets in outlandish costumes, striking fear into the heart of local people. Sacrifice and blood are important within voodoo rituals, and any ceremony worth its salt is likely to involve a chicken being killed, its blood spilled onto a shrine in order to seal the pact. You’re also likely to see fetishes dotted around villages - these are inanimate objects such as rocks or trees in which a spirit is believed to reside, often covered in candle wax, feathers and blood where sacrifices have been made. Gaining some understanding of voodoo allows you a glimpse into a magical world where nothing is quite as it seems, and is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of travelling here.

Day 22 - Ouidah

Meet with the ‘Celestial Church’, a uniquely Togolese phenomenon which belnds aspects of voodoo and Christianity. We then cross into Benin and witness a dance of the Egun masks, a powerful secret society that are both revered and feared in Benin. From here we continue to the coastal town of Ouidah, a stronghold of voodoo and once an important slave port. Overnight Hotel Casa del Papa or similar. (BLD)

Day 23 – Ouidah – Ganvie - Cotonou

We visit the python temple, where snakes are venerated as representations of gods, the old Portuguese fort and finally head to the beach and the sombre ‘Gate of No Return’, the point from which slaves left Africa for the New World. In the afternoon we head out onto Lake Nokwe to visit Ganvie, the largest stilt village in Africa situated in the middle of the water. Continue to Cotonou where the tour ends – day use rooms are available to freshen up before your transfer to the airport to fly home. (BL)

Ganvie

On Lake Nokwe lies the stilt village of Ganvie, a settlement of 25,000 people isolated from the land and only accessible by boat. Legend has it that the Tofinou people fled here in the 18th century to escape the depredation of the more powerful Dahomeyans on the lookout for slaves, and that they were transported to their new home by crocodiles. Whatever the truth behind it, Ganvie is an interesting place to drift through in a boat, watching how people go about their daily lives on the water, stopping at local markets watching the fishermen casting their nets, and is far removed from the busy towns making this a real delight to explore. The market on the mainland is also worth a look, if only for the rather gruesome section dedicated to voodoo.


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