West African Countries

October-november 2007


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The highlights of this trip were the natural wonders of the West African Countries.
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Itinerary

  1. Senegal:
  2. Dakar
  3. Ile de Goree (3km from Dakar)
  4. Lac Retba/ Lac Rose at Malika (25 km from Dakar)
  5. Parc National du Niokolo-Koba
  6. Grance Mosque de Touba of 1926 (200 km from Dakar)
  7. Parc National des Oiseaux du Djoudj (one of the world's largest bird sanctuaries)
  8. Saint-Louis, old colonial capital, 300 kms north of Dakar, 10 kms south of the border with Mauritania
  9. Gambia:
  10. Bus from Dakar to Banjul (8 hrs)
  11. Banjul: Albert Market (main bazaar)
  12. Wassu Stone Circles (burial sites of 500-1,000 A.D.)
  13. Kachikaly Crocodile Pool of Bakau village
  14. Abuko Natural Reserve (mainly snakes)
  15. Bissau:
  16. Bissau: Portuguese slave-trading centre since 1687
  17. Bubaque: Ilha de Orango (birds, turtles, hippos, crocodiles)
  18. Mali:
  19. Dakar-Bamako by train (35 hours, WE and SA, $120)
  20. Bamako: Musee National (Tue-Sun 9:00am-6:00pm)
  21. Bamako: visa for Burkina Faso
  22. Bus Bamako-Mopti seven hours
  23. +Mopti 50kms, entry point to Dogon country
  24. Dogon country: Trekking in the Falaise de Bandiagara
  25. Mopti to Djenne (by bache/ pick-up truck from Mopti)
  26. +Djenne: ++Grande Mosquee (the largest mud-built structure in the world), Monday mosque market,
  27. Fly between Mopti and Tombouchtou/ Timbuktu ($70)
  28. +Tombouchtou/ Timbuktu: +Dyingerey Ber mosque (14th c)
  29. Burkina Faso:
  30. Ouagadougou: Grande Mosquee of 1893 (a racist place: entry forbidden to non-Muslims)
  31. Bobo and Banfora: Cascades de Karfiguela, Lake Tengrela
  32. +Gorom-Gorom's thursday market
  33. Gaoua: Lobi villages, Tiebele near Po
  34. Parc National d'Arli, same as the Parc National de Pendjari in Benin (lions, leopards, elephants, baboons, hippos)
  35. Express bus from Ouagadougou to Niamey (12 hrs, 500 kms, $15)
  36. Ghana:
  37. Accra: Makola Market, Kaneshie Market
  38. Atlantic Coast: 15 old slave-trading forts and castles, notably Elmina (first European settlement in black Africa) and Cape Coast
  39. Kumasi, ancient Ashanti capital
  40. Aburi Botanic Gardens
  41. +Kakum National Park (elephants, monkeys, birds, 600 species of butterfly, canopy walkway suspended 30m above the forest floor) (note: must get there early in the morning)
  42. Mole National Park, Ghana's largest (elephants, baboons, antelopes)
  43. Togo:
  44. Lome (not much to see)
  45. Tamberma Valley's fortified villages of the 17th century of the Kande region
  46. Lake Togo
  47. Benin:
  48. Porto Novo: colonial architecture
  49. Cotonou: Grand Marche' du Danktokpa
  50. Abomey: Musee Historique (palaces of the ancient kings)
  51. +Ganvie (a city built in the middle of the ocean)
  52. Ouidah (a center of voodoo)
  53. Parc National de Pendjari, same as the Parc National d'Arli in Burkina Faso (lions, leopards, elephants, baboons, hippos)

Notes

Trip difficulty: difficult to strenuous
Length: 30 days
Season: Oct-Apr
  • The rain season in west Africa is June to September
  • West Africa is the easiest part of Africa to explore. There are annoyances in Dakar and (reportedly) Lagos, and, generally speaking, all capitals, but mostly people are quiet, friendly and polite. The roads are good, there are very few mosquitoes, hotel rooms are clean. Most of my complaints will be about governments not ordinary people. Even hustlers rarely follow you for more than two blocks. Usually, the ones who speak really good English are the ones to be wary of.
  • Each country is a melting pot of ethnic groups. They speak their own dialects among themselves. This is the most linguistically complex region in africa. It is amazing how these countries stick to colonial borders that split nations in two and sometimes three.
  • The biggest problems for us traveling in West Africa are: money and visas (and French if youae nota frenchspeaker). Each country requires a visa, and most of them don't hand them at the border. You have to go to the embassy during the few hours when they are open, bring photographs and money and then wait. This is annoying and counterproductive, but that's it. It gets worse: each country basically takes up two pages of your passport. I am rapidly running out of pages. The embassy puts a colossal visa on one page (the more underdeveloped the country, the bigger and the moer colorful the visa) and the border police stamps in and out another page. There is a five-coutry visa: Visa commun des pays de l'Entente (visa for Burkina, B‚nin, Togo, Niger, Cote d'Ivoire) but not easy to get. Getting your visas before departure in Europe or USA is expensive and requires an infinite amount of time (or money). senegal is the only country that does not rquire a visa and therefore the best one to land into. The French speaking countries haev a common currency, the CFA, but the eastern ones don't accept CFAs from the western ones. The CFA is a strong currency (unlike the USA dollar). It is not easy to get rid of USA dollars in French speaking Africa. You have to try several banks before you find one willing to cash dollars. Each of the English speaking countries has its own money. Some currencies are strong some are weak. If they are weak, you may be able to use the dollar and the euro. There are plans to introduce a common currency for English speaking West Africa, the Eco, but for the time being money changers at the borders make a lot of money. Border formalities have always been very easy and relatively fast. The waste of time and money is only at the embassy to get the visa.
  • Transportation is still slow and painful, but all the roads are being paved. Buses leave when full. The real African experience is always the "bush taxi" (taxi brousse in French). It can be comfortable and fast but it invariably requires a lot of patience: it leaves when it's full, and only we westerners show up at the time that we would like to leave. The other African experience is the multitude of vendors that surround your vehicle every time it stops. Again, it's impressive that these include children selling cellphone cards even in the most remote places.
  • As a general rule, French Africa has French habits: three hours of lunch break, and nothing open on sunday. Since days are short (sunrise is afetr 6 and sunrise is before 6), and you don't want to be around in the dark, you have only a few useful hours to do your business.
  • There are many hotels. An interesting option in French Africa is the guesthouse run by the cathedral or by the various protestant churches. This is usually very cheap, clean and safe. So it has become my first choice whenever i arrive to a large city. I think it's a great invention. They should do it everywhere in the world.
  • Football rules. You don't go anywhere without signs of football. Just about everybody wears the shirts of their favorite champions (Ronaldinho being the favorite,followed by the various African stars). This is a big plus for me, since Italy won the last world cup, so i am technically champion of the world.
  • Music is one of he highlights of Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso.
  • Safety. Except for downtown Dakar, safety is generally ok. Just avoid being an easy target (a group of white tourists in a chartered bus is an easy target, a westerner traveling in a local bus is not an easy target). Hotels seem to be beyond the reach of thugs, if there are any. The worst annoyance (anywhere in Africa) is the fluent English speaker who follows you and insults you and accuses you of being racist. I am not sure what they want. Once they upset the tourist, the tourist obviously will run away. They are just trying to provoke a violent reaction but i am not sure for which purpose. They will insult you in English but then accuse you of being a racist in French, so that the people around you understand only the last part. People who sell tickets (whether for parks or monuments) are a nuisance because they always want to sell you something else, and they expect you to buy something. They probably don't make much money out of their jobs and milking tourists like cows is probably the main reason they keep that job. When the tourist doesn't buy anything but the ticket, the smiles disappear and all sorts of strange regulations appear. You have to get used to it. Guides are a mixed blessing. There are places (from palaces to jungles) where a guide would be indeed useful. It's not just that guides always ask for ridiculous amounts of money (once they learn that there is at least one silly tourist willing to pay that amount they will keep asking for the same amount) but they invariably end up being a huge waste of time. Their goal is to take you to their family's store and to the nearby restaurant, where they can further milk you. Their motivation to show you what you paid for is very low. The main stop of their tour is always a souvenir shop or a erstaurant. You see more (and in peace) if you visit alone. Tourists sometimes hire guides simply to get rid of all the other self-appointed guides and assorted hustlers. When you have a "guide", nobody else bothers you. Note that airplanes, ships and buses have a passion for arriving in the middle of the night.
  • Plastic Economy. Plastic is rapidly invading the developing countries. The first sign that plastic has arrived is the fields of non-biodegradable garbage that welcome you at the entrance of a town: those used to be fields of grass. Plastic bags may eventually disintegrate, but plastic bottles are forever. You can burn, thus producing carbon dioxide and poisonous gases, or just let the rains wash it into the rivers, as they do. Pollution is not the only consequence of the plastic economy. Tools used to be built by artisans, everywhere in the world. Artisans used wood, metal and glass. Plastic tools cannot be made by artisans: they can only be made by big factories, typically in advanced countries. A lot of the plastic tools used in Africa come from China and western Europe. Thus plastic made abroad is taking the jobs of local artisans. They can still survive because they become traders of plastic instead of being makers of tools, but the know-how is lost forever. They children will not be making glass, iron or wooden tools, and exmploying local people as apprentices and assistants: they will be selling plastic tools made in China.
  • Senegal. Dakar is a strange city. A lot of downtown feels European, modern and rich, but it is also one of the most dangerous cities in Africa. The danger decreases exponentially as you move away from downtown. The rest of Senegal is, in fact, quite safe. It is also odd that Dakar seems to have a lively night life. We went to a disco till 2am and walked back to the hotel with no problem (but we had left all valuables in the hotel). There is little of interest in Dakar. The Isle de Goree is (to say the least) overpriced at $10 (the ferry leaves from the Embarcadere near the Gare). The worst experience in Dakar is consistently its airport. When you arrive, you have to survive the crowd of aggressive hustlers. There is actually a back exit that foreigners are not told about and that allows you to skip the whole big mess. When you come out of customs, just walk straight ahead of you instead of turning right towards the main square. This will take you to the road where you can easily flag down a taxi even in the middle of the night. If you turn right as you are directed by the security personnel, you end straight into the jaws of the hustlers. The only reason to do this is if you intend to take public transportation (bus #8 leaves from this square for downtown and takes about one hour to the Sangada market). Corruption at the Dakar airport is unbelievable. The staff itself is annoyingly aggressive in trying to make money out of passengers. An alternative to staying in Dakar is YOff, the town of the airport. There are several hotels in Yoff. Hotel Lumumba (15.000 CFA) and Campement Le Toucan are the closest to the airport. There are several ways to get to Mali. The train runs every saturday and wednesday but takes multiple days. A bus leaves from the square of the train station (near the gas station) and also takes two days to Bamako (25.000 CFA). Finally, taxi brousse to the border town of Kidira (12.000 CFA plus luggage, 12 hours) leave from Gare de Pompiers, which is about 3 km north of the train station. Note that there is only one hotel at the border on the Mali side.
  • Senegal/ Casamanche. Ziginchor is the place to get the visa for Bissau, but it is also worth a visit by itself because it is on the Casamanche river and there are several opportunities to explore the lagoons. The road from Ziginchor to Bissau is excellent, with virtually no traffic and excellent views of jungle and villages. The one ferry though can take hours. Most travel around Bissau involves ferries.
  • Mali. We slept at the border town in a hotel where a pop concert was being held. The following morning we took the bus to Kayes, a town on the Niger. The Niger was a big attraction for me. Then we headed for the bus station and we were lucky to find a bus leaving in the afternoon for Bamako (most transportation leaves early in the morning). We found our buddy Michael at the same place: not much else to do in Kayes. The bus ride took forever. We arrived at 2am. Mali is huge. Distances are colossal. It took us two full days and one night of travel to go from Senegal to Bamako. Interesting scenery, but endless trip. Bamako has a good museum (2.500 CFA) but no photography is allowed so skip it. We flew to Mopti, the main city in the east, to explore the villages. Djenne has a world masterpiece (the mosque, possibly the third best mosque i've ever seen) and several nice building in the local architecture. For the Dogon villages you need a guide and hiking shoes. Guides will find you. We were being offered trips to the Dogon villages from the moment we landed in Mopti. Aggressive middlemen approached us in Djenne and Sevare. It is difficult if not impossible to simply tell them "no". They all claim to be guides but they are all middlemen. They have learned that some tourists are willing to pay huge amounts of money so they often start the negotiation with ridiculous prices, ten/twenty times higher than what they actually need to make a profit. The negotiation always takes a long time. As we got closer to Bandiagara (our starting point), the packages got cheaper (from a high of 300.000 CFAs in Djenne to a low of 50.000 in Bandiagara). The prices include all accomodation and food, but accomodation is a mattress on the roof and food is very basic rice staple. I drank the water from the wells of the villages and was fine. It was in fact very good. I also drank from a creek. Valeriane used the tablets (yuck) to purify the water. My opinion is that water in the villages is safer than tap water in cities. Our guide was Abdoulaye Able' Togo, based in Bandiagara but native of one of the Dogon villages (phone 00223 638-68-52, email: abdoulay_togo@yahoo.fr). It is likely that he only got half of what we paid the middleman at the hotel. The villages were extremely interesting, both the landscape, the architecture and the culture. The Dogon villages extend from south to north. The north trips start at Sanga, which is apparently very touristy. That's why we opted for the south, and used Bandiagara as the launching point. From Bandiagara a spectacular road takes you to Kani Kumule, passes below Teli and reaches Ende. We started walking from Ende. The main hike was a loop from the bottom of the canyon (Dundjuru) to the top of the plateau (Begnimato, best views) to another village of the plateau (Endelu) an then down through a narrow steep chute back to Dundjuru. The best village though was the first one: Teli. It's entirely carved in the vertical wall of the canyon. Parts of it are unaccessible. Legend has it that ut was built by pygmies who used magic to climb the walls. The hike is not technically difficult but the sun and the sand of the canyon makes it very challenging. The last ten kms to the town of Bankass (after finishing our loop) the guide hired a ox-driven cart: the soil was just too sandy. Then we took a motorcycle to a minibus and the minibus to a border town (Koro) where we got stuck. The following day we had to wait six hours for transportation to the border with Burkina Faso. That's how remote this area is. The villages are a surprising mixture of animist, muslim and christian religions. They practice very basic agriculture and obviously have not been exposed to western values: the tribal elders expect a "colanut" as a gift, not money (the colanut is just a nut that they think gives them power... we bought a whole bunch for $2 at the Bandiagara market). More seriously, the villagers ask for all sorts of medications, that are clearly not easy to obtain here. We gave a mother two malaria pills for her child. We tried to explain that two malaria pills are useless, but they will take anything hoping in a miracle.
  • Burkina Faso is one of the world's poorest countries but you notice it only when you count the number of cars on the road: they mostly use bicycles and motorcycles. People are friendly and honest, except the occasional hustlers downtown Ouagadougou. Ouagadougou is one huge sprawling market, not much of a city. It has a Museum of Music that could be interesting but no photos are allowed and the staff solicits money from the tourists. In the south of Burkina Faso, near the Lobi villages. People there are unbelievably sweet, gentle and kind. It is almost surreal.
  • Gambia is a good place with more to offer than the beaches. Today i went to the jungle (Abuko Park). The 5km loop is very easy: they put a number every 50 meters so dumb tourists like me don't get lost and eaten by crocodiles. I did not see crocodiles (or better the one crocodile that was around in a pond never put its head up, so i could only see the top of the head) but saw billions of monkeys and i think i have a good picture of a red one. The red ones don't like us and are truly acrobatic. The other kinds are much calmer. Lots of birds. Don't miss the "photo house" behind the Darwin Institute: the birds do not see you and the pond is the place to spot crocodiles.
  • Bissau is the smallest of the western African countries and also one that speaks Portuguese. the journey from Ziguinchor to Bissau (the capital) is worth it through lagoons and jungle. Bissau itself does not offer much. It is way more expensive than Senegal. The cheapest hotel is a "campement" outside town in the jungle. Charming location (i had my private night walk in the jungle) but the most basic room and unusable toilets for 10.000 CFAs, which in Senegal buys you a midrange room (PontaNeto Aparthotel at the border between PontaNeto and Quelele). English speaker in Bissau: Dauda/ David phone 6870709
  • Ghana. The people of Ghana are definitely the kindest ever with the Syrians and the people of southern Burkina. This is one of the safest countries in the world. There are hundreds of white tourists, including girls traveling with girls. Accra is not the kind of place where you want to get stuck. It feels more like a very very large village with the most basic services. Each block has low humble shacks. Occasionally there is a big government building. There are many European forts to visit on the Gold Coast of Ghana. hese forts were built to trade with the natives (who were ruled by several rich kingdoms) but eventually became famous mainly for one kind of trade: the slave trade. Elmina (the first European building in black Africa) also boasts one of the nicest fishermen villages. In Cape Coast i found a town built on a hill that has a lot of churches of all denominations. Kumasi is the ancient capital of the Ashanti empire, before the British invaded them. It also boasts the largest market in West Africa. A very pretty city. A very friendly "cultural center" (that extends for almost one km) provides an excellent introduction to Ghana.
  • Togo. Crossing the border from Ghana into Togo was one of the coolest border crossings of my life. The road from Accra to Aflao runs first through the savannah and then on a narrow strip of land between the ocean and the Volta Lake. Literally only the asphalt separates the two. The bus ride ends right at the border post. It is as casual as it gets. There are vendors eevn beyond the police checkpoint. The Ghana side is a bit formal but the Togo side has to be seen to be believed: The border post is o the beach and the officers have tables outside. You can hear the waves as you fill the form. It feels more like you are checking in at a beach resort: Then you walk straight into Lome, the capital of Togo. The Togo side of the border is quite decadent between prostitutes and extremely expensive French restaurants with neat only menus run by very French white people:
  • Benin. A small country, but quite a few highlights. The big city, Cotonou, is very spread out very westernized (polluted and congested). Urban transportation here is by motorcycle. Very cheap fast and efficient. Porto Novo, the nearby capital, is a small colonial town, a sleepy town with colonial architecture, friendly people, a much better place to stay than Cotonou. Ganvie is a city built on water, literally in the ocean. Unfortunately, it is quite expensive to take the two-hour tour, and the price is non-negotiable (set by the government). The guide, needless to say, expects his own tip on top of the ticket price (even if it is illegal to ask for one). Ouaidah is the voodoo capital, mostly a ripoff for naive tourists. Anyway i learned that voodoo means god. One voodoo, two voodoos, etc. Abomey was the ancient capital of the place before the French invaded. The palaces are quite disappointing (the most undeserving UNESCO world heritage sites that i haev seen so far) but the town has lots of voodoo activities. I saw men (or women?) completely covered in vegetation walking in the streets as if it was normal (passers by hardly noticed) and every now and then a stone or a tree with strange signs on it. Probably interesting, but the tourist infrastructure does not exist, so no guides or any other type of explanation. I would rank Benin as one of the safest countries in the world. Virtually nobody tried to cheat. Absolutely nobody bothered me. The only glitch came at the very end when an officer at the airport asked for a bribe. I will write to the Benin ambassador to let him know this fact. It was totally inconsistent with the rest of the nation.
  • Prices of 2007:
    • $1 = 450 CFA. 1 euro = 650 CFA.
    • Yoff: Keur Mouna (12.000 CFA)
    • Dakar: Hotel Provencal (13.000 CFA for a double, 10.000 for a single). Internet: $1 per hour. Taxi to the airport: 3.000 CFA. Isle de Goree: 5.000 CFA. Restaurant Le Journal on Avenue Faidherbe between Hotel Faidherbe and Grande Mosque (excellent, also cybercafe).
    • Mali border: only one hotel (12.500 for a double). Minibus to Kayes: 2.500 CFA (one hour plus immigration). BUs from Kayes to Bamako 10.000 CFA (12 hours).
    • Bamako: Catholic Mission across from the cathedral (10.000 CFA for a double). Flight to Mopti: 58.000 CFA.
    • Djenne: Baba House (7.000 CFA for a double, 4.000 for a dinner). Bus to Savare and to Bandiagara (2.500 CFA total)
    • Bandiagara: Hotel Kansaye (8.000 CFA for a double, 3.000 CFA for a dinner). Two day hike in Dogon village: 25.000 per person.
    • Bankass to Koro: 2.000 CFA (one hour). Koro: Hotel Aventure (9.000 CFA, dinner for 3.000 CFA). Bus from Koro to Ouagadougou: 5.500 CFA (six hours including immigration).
    • Ouagadougou: Fondation Charles DeFour near the cemetery (6.000 CFA for a double), Catholic Mission at the cathedral (5.000 CFA for a single). Internet: $0.75 for one hour. Pizzeria near Place Nation Unies (expensive). Hotel Amiso has a western restaurant (expensive). Cheapest photo shop to make a CD of a memory card: Neb Nooma on Avenue Lumumba. The bus to Gorom-Gorom takes five hours. There is a direct bus to Gaoua (for the Lobi villages). TSR has regular scheduled buses (its bus station is near the protestant church in downtown). Bus from Ouaga to Kumasi in Ghana: 9.000 CFA (20 hours: 5 hours to the border, 1 hour at the border, 4 hours to Tamale, 8-10 hours to Kumasi).
    • $1 = 9.000 cedis of Ghana
    • Kumasi: Guestline Lodge near the STC bus station (80.000 cedis but terrible rooms). Restaurants: Asede House (excellent but expensive), Vic's Cafe (also expensive and less good, popular with the Lonely Planet crowd). Bus from Kumasi to Cape Coast: 65.000 cedis (4 hours).
    • Elmina: taxi from Cape Coast to Elmina 45.000, ticket 65.000, minibus to Cape Coast 3.000 cedis, bus to Accra 32.000 cedis.
    • Accra: Bellview Hotel 170.000 cedis (terrible rooms, most overpriced hotel in town), Date Hotel near Thompson Rd 80.000 cedis. Internet: $0.60 per hour. White Bell restaurant on Thompson Rd near Niagara Hotel: 50.000 cedis and excellent food. Bus from Accra to border town of Aflas 4.500 cedis (4 hours).
    • Lome: Hotel Lily 5.000 CFA with bathroom, three blocks from the border with Ghana. Virtually no restaurants except the wildly overpriced French restaurants of the big hotels. Taxi brousse to Cotonou 3.000 CFA (4 hours).
    • Bus from Cotonou to Porto Novo 300 CFA (1 hour). Porto Novo: Hotel Casa Danza 6.500 CFA with bathroom and good restaurant. Internet $0.65 for one hour. Bus from Cotonou to Cavali 400 CFA (1 hour) and boat to Ganvie 6.000 CFA plus the guide demands a tip (illegal).
    • Ouidah: HOtel Oasis 9.000 CFA with bathroom. Python Temple: 3.000 CFA (biggest rip-off of West Africa). Bus to Cotonou 1.000 CFA (2 hours).
    • Bus from Cotonou to Abomey 2.000 CFA (3.5 hours) or taxi brousse 3.000 CFA (3 hours). Palais 2.500 CFA but no photos allowed. Hotel Gbewedo 5.500 CFA (2 km from town).
    • Flight from Cotonou to Dakar 190.000 CFA.
    • Bus from Dakar (Gare de Pompiers) to the border town of Kandare 3.000 CFA (five hours).
    • $1 = 20 Gambian dalasis.
    • Serrekunda (near Banjul): YMCA 185 dalasis and 150 dalasis. Bus to Abuko D5. Ticket to Abuko 35.
    • Bus from Banjul to Brikama 20D (1 hour). Shared taxi from Brikama to the Senegal border 50D (1 hour). Bus from the border to Zinguichor 1.700 CFA. From Banjul to Zinguichor takes about 6 hours. Lots of police checkpoints.
    • Zinguichor: Campement 3.000 CFA. Restaurant Hotel de Tourisme (expensive). Overnight boat to Dakar 18.500 CFA (3pm to 6am). Taxi brousse to Bissau 4.000 CFA (5 hours). The return costs 4.900 CFA (4 hours).
    • Visas: Mali 15.000 CFA in Dakar, Burkina Faso 28.000 CFA in Bamako, Ghana 15.000 in Ouagadougou, Togo 10.000 CFA at the border, Benin 10.000 CFA at the border (but 15.000 to extend it beyond 2 days at the extremely unfriendly Immigration Office on Jean Paul II), Gambia 350 dalasis (or $20) at the border, Bissau 10.000 CFA in Zinguichor.

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