Since the recent news touching on the chaos that the Icelandic Eyjafjallajokull volcano caused for tens of thousands of air travellers, I decided to look at the possibility of travelling overland to West Africa. It may take much longer, however it also could cost about the same as a flight, be much more rewarding, allow you to explore different elements of African culture along the way and be more environmentally friendly when it comes to your carbon footprint. After all, according to a Chinese proverb, “The journey is the reward.” Overland travel veteran, David Hatter, explains:
"Overlanding through West Africa will allow you to meet many people unaccustomed to seeing travellers, and it is in their nature to offer you their hospitality. You will witness a way of life that has unchanged for centuries, yet one that is rapidly changing as the world around them is developing fast. Local markets scenes, village festivals, and marriage ceremonies will help you understand the cultures of West Africa in a way that the media can only hint at."
Let’s take an example of Sierra Leone as a destination.The Itinerary is simple, and believe it or not, it is not dangerous either. A few people have even cycled the same trail that I will suggest.
Starting from the UK, you would most likely go through France and Spain, then head over the Gibraltar Straight to Morocco for a pit stop. In Morocco, you could relax in a Kasbah in one of the four Imperial cities of Rabat, Meknes, Fez, or Marrakesh. The hustle and bustle of Djemma-El Fna or the tanning pits in Fez will offer a great introduction to the “assault on the senses” that is North Africa, and experience the first signs of African hospitality over a cup of traditional tea and a Narguilé (traditional bubbly pipe with aromatic tobacco).
Continuing on, you will then head in-land to the Atlas Mountains, where the climate changes considerably as the altitudes get higher, with fantastic opportunites for hiking in the famous Todra, Ziz, and Dades Gorge, and have you first glimpse of the majestic Sahara desert.
"The Erg’s around Merzouga and Zagora are not to be missed. Picture postcard sand dune ranges roll for as far as the eye can see and suggest but a small hint as to the vastness of the Sahara desert which stretches out to the east as far as Sudan, with ample opportunity for camel trekking and 4x4 exploration." notes David.
Back to the coast, you will follow the Atlantic Ocean to the Western Sahara, considered as one of the most sparsely populated areas in the World, and in majority composed of desert flatlands. You will no-doubt encounter Tuareg herders on their way to a hidden Oasis or even one or two of the friendly folk that Michael Palin met on his way to Senegal in his ‘Sahara’ series. The true remoteness of the Western Sahara is really appreciated as you bushcamp on the coastline with unspoilt views of the night sky above as the moon shimmers off the hulks of abandoned ships lost long ago to the Atlantic ocean.
Next stop, Mauritania, a transition country between Arabic North Africa and Black Sub-Saharan Africa, largely populated by Berbers and Moors, this country is where you will come face-to-face with ‘true Islam’ and learn about the hospitality of those who practice this misunderstood religion.
David describes some of the wonders of Mauritania: "Witness what many people say is the longest train in the world as it carries iron ore from the mines at Zouarat to the coastal town of Nouadibou, explore the ancient and seventh holiest Islamic city of Chinguetti whose libraries reveal all kinds of clues as to its famous and glorious past, while the beautiful Oasis’ at Terjit and Ouadane allow for some well earned R&R from desert travel."
After staying in a Berber camp overnight, you will head over the Senegalo-Mauritanian border to a busy ‘market town’ called Diama, a hub for all trade coming from North Africa to West Africa. In Senegal, there are loads to do and see. Stop off at the ‘Lac de Guier’ where the desert meets the Savannah, visit St. Louis, the Jazz Capital of West Africa and a wonderful opportunity to watch the fishermen bring in their catch in their elaborately painted boats, go bird-watching in ‘le Parc du Djoudj’ (migratory pit-stop for thousands of birds), get lost in the vibrant sounds and colours of Dakar, explore the natural waterways on a Pirogue (traditional canoe) in the Siné-Saloum Delta, and much more.
From Sénégal, head over the border to The Gambia, home of the Kora instrument, first choice for the traditional musician caste of the region, the ‘Griots’. After a night or two in an eco-retreat on the Atlantic coast, head up the Gambia River for some fishing and experience nature at its best, untouched.
Leaving the ‘Smiling Coast’ behind, cross the border to southern Sénégal, also known as Casamance, where you will notice a huge difference from its northern counterpart. Tropical climate, animistic belief systems and road-sides dotted with Mango trees are some of them. From here, head east along less travelled roads to South-Eastern Sénégal home to the Bedick and Bassari tribes who practice Animism.
A new day, a new border! This time it’s the turn of Guinea-Bissau to welcome you. Once a Portuguese colony, this country is dotted with remnants of old-style colonial towns such as Boloma, former capital of Portuguese Guinea before the capital was moved to Bissau in the 40's. The Atlantic Ocean, which you have followed but not always seen, re-appears like a long lost friend, and this time welcoming you into a paradise like environment known as the Bijagos Islands, beautiful and untouched tropical Islands surrounded by turquoise seas, inhabited by friendly and hospitable tribes. Here you will have the chance to participate in the Bijagos masked carnival, a little known yet colourful and awe-inspiring cultural festival.
Here you will be able to relax for a few days on a Hammock, only disturbed by the sound of birds singing and waves lapping against the beach. After a well deserved rest, you will be back on the adventure trail to cross the last country before arriving at your destination.
Guinea is a tropical, French-speaking country, famous for its Jazz and Latino style music. It is also home to the Fouta Djalon, a beautiful area of waterfalls, mountains, and small villages… many say this area is the highlight of Guinea. After witnessing such beautiful natural scenery, you will arrive in Sierra Leone, and your final destination, Freetown.
Freetown is a coastal town which is surrounded by beautiful scenery. To the East you will find lush tropical hills rolling down to meet you, and to the West beautiful beaches made famous by the 80’s bounty commercial ‘a taste of paradise’. The coast is dotted with Islands, some of which have shacks where you can spend a few relaxing days snorkelling, sun-bathing, swimming and indulging in some of the best fish and seafood in the world.
For this particular journey of a life-time, you would obviously need an adapted vehicle. There are some companies that already do this kind of trip, and we are currently in the process of talking to them. For those of you who do not like flying, are worried about getting stranded at an airport due to unforeseen natural occurrences, or just plainly think that the journey is more important than the destination, then this could be the answer to your prayers.
West Africa is perfectly placed with respects to Europe in order to experience a multitude of different cultures, historical sites and natural habitats of Africa when journeying to your destination.
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