Beyond the Safari

Award winning columnist cum author Stephanie Nolan has an interesting article at the Globe and Mail about  travel in Africa, and among other things, the impact of civil strife on the Kenyan tourist industry. Beyond Kenya, however, she notes that “there’s a wealth of other vacation options on this vast continent. You can take both wildly opulent and budget safaris in South Africa. You can trek in the ancient cliff villages of Mali. Or sail a dhow in Zanzibar. There is much more to Africa than Kenya, despite what Papa Hemingway may have led you to believe.”

No freaking kidding. Nolan does a great job at painting the popular tourist haunts on the Cape to Cairo trail through South Africa, Zambia, and into Tanzania, and deserves credit for highlighting the legendary music of Mali. But in highlighting the most frequented places on the Continent she misses an opportunity to spread the wealth around, and draw attention to equally tourist-dollar starved locations ever so slightly off the beaten path. Now I’ll admit that any mention of travel to Africa is usually met with blank stares and offers of life insurance but having travelled through 17 countries on the Continent, and having crossed 17 borders by land, I’d like to offer an alternative to Nolan’s list.

But before I get to the list, a few important points that may help convince would-be travellers believe that I’m not alone in pushing these far-off destinations. In December 2007, Delta Airlines officially opened three new routes from the U.S. to the Continent, with flights linking New York and Atlanta to Accra, Dakar and Lagos. Even more exotic was British Midland’s decision in February to take over operations of a London to Freetown, Sierra Leone route.

And so I’ll start with this last destination, a former outpost of mine, Sierra Leone. Now I’m not going to paint a particularly rosy picture of this place. Any country that has witnessed a decade + of civil strife is going to bear the marks and stresses of conflict. Power is intermittent on a good day, the traffic is atrocious, and while crime is not a major issue, being out after dark without a plan is a bit beyond adventuresome. But as I learnt while I lived and travelled throughout the country in 2005/2006, it offers some worthy spots for tourists willing to forego the safari-routes of East and Southern Africa.

With hundreds of kilometres of unspoilt coastline, the country hosts several beaches that easily compete with popular outposts in the Caribbean, all minus the all-inclusive four-star resorts. Instead you’ll stare up at the stars from a cozy thatch roof hut while enjoying the fruits of the sea prepared by friendly local hosts, all too eager to earn a few US dollars in an economy where unemployment exceeds 50%. Once the sun rises, boat trips through the mangroves of coastal islands uncover hundreds of species of birds, monkeys and other wildlife, which while not as exotic as the beasts of the Serengeti, offer a much more serene interaction with nature (i.e. you don’t have to line up to take a picture of the lioness).

Once off the coast the potential for tourism is slightly less evident. Freetown, while charming in its own right with its Krio wood-framed houses, ubiquitous street vendors and never-ending supply of English speaking hosts, offers the usual assortment of nightclubs, restaurants and one-room museums geared towards the hundred of NGO workers in town. But a few hours up the road (and to be honest, I’m talking about a couple of hours to travel a few dozen kilometres) the provincial towns of Bo, Makeni and Kono each offer travellers cheap accommodation, great local food and an opportunity to see the slightly slower pace of life up-country. And while far from glamorous it affords outsiders a glimpse of a country in the mid-stages of a massive renovation effort. One which will require much more than a coat of paint but rather a wholesale reconstruction of the country’s foundation. And just so you know I’m putting my money where my mouth is, I’m taking my lovely girlfriend over in May.

Like Sierra Leone, Mozambique is still dealing with the impacts of conflict that raged for nearly two decades. Maputo, the capital, is still frequently plunged into darkness by power cuts and outside of its expensive four-star hotels, offers little accommodation for budget travellers. But with a little searching it reveals itself to be a paradise in waiting where cold one-litre beers are the perfect companion to spicy piri-piri shrimp. I’ll never forget the day a local friend of mine took me for dinner and after ordering the second cheapest option on the chalkboard menu ($4), being inundated with a literal boatload of the country’s precious sea-borne export.

I spent weeks along the South coast of the country, lazing on beautiful beaches with throngs of South African surfers. I liked the place so much I came back a second time, this time travelling through the much more remote fringes of the country’s far north, bordering Tanzania. Here tourists were close to non-existent – in my month or so in the country’s north I came across two French tourists and one American missionary – but the sights were even more astounding. The beaches were still as beautiful as in the South but completing it were several historical cities, complete with ruins of days long past. La Ilha de Mocambique, which served as the country’s capital until 1898, is as picturesque as they come and easily reached by bus traffic from the busy centre of Pemba.

Less easily accessed, but far more exciting, is Ibo Island. This now 200 year old ghost-town once hosted Vasco de Gama. Today it hosts (a luxury resort and) several smaller guesthouses which serve as great outposts to tour the small island’s ruins which include the remnants of Portuguese army fortifications and a crumbling Indian temple. Ibo has a quiet eeriness to it which is aided by the adventure of getting there. Things change rapidly, and hidden tourist gems get popular even faster, so my experience in getting to Ibo may not be applicable today but the story is great nonetheless. For three days in a row I woke at 3am in order to make my way to the main thoroughfare in Pemba to attempt to find the lone pick-up truck that would head towards the coast where I was told I could find a local fisherman who would take me across to Ibo. And for three days I waited without luck. On the fourth day I thought about staying in bed but dragged myself into town and was rewarded with a seat on the back of decrepit Toyota Hilux with, I’m not kidding, about fifteen others. We literally held onto eachother in order to keep from falling off as the truck bounced along dirt roads towards the coast. After several hours we arrived only to find that we had missed the tides and would have to wait for several hours until the waters were high enough to bring us across. And so for hours I chatted with my fellow group of travellers, only one of whom spoke English, but all of whom were eager to know why I was so far from home.

And while nearly everyone who travels anywhere will tell you that wherever they spent their last vacation had the nicest people on earth, sometimes the people don’t matter. Case in point: Namibia. If you want to see nature at its finest then this is the place. Never have I been so awestruck then amidst the towering sand dunes of the Namib desert. There’s really not much more to say – the ethereal silence amongst the sharp edged dunes, perhaps a result of too much sun and too little water, is as close to nirvana as I’ll ever get. Throw in one of the world’s best national parks, Etosha, and Windhoek’s roaring nightlife and you’ll see why I’m planning a return.

And so while Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and South Africa are all well-deserved spots for a vacation, so too are Sierra Leone, Mozambique and Namibia. I’ve a list of a dozen other countries with similar tourist possibilities – from touring the rubber plantations in Liberia, to lounging on the shores of beautiful Lake Kivu in Rwanda – it’s all a question of preference. Namibia, for example, is quite well set up for individual travellers with decent local transportation, hostels, campsites and great roads for do-it-yourselfers. Sierra Leone and Mozambique are evidently more challenging and require a great deal of patience, keen negotiation skills and a willingness to forego some of the usual comforts.

But just as not long ago travelling to China, India or the South Pacific was considered out of the ordinary, here’s hoping that someday our tourist dollars might soon stretch to help bring light to the 52 countries so often thought to be part of a dark continent.

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