A West Africa Cruise, by Ted Cookson

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A WEST AFRICA CRUISE

by Ted Cookson
Published in January 2007

"Grass dancer" on dock at Banjul, The Gambia, 32-second video clip
 

Between 19 October and 11 November 2006 I visited twelve ports in ten African countries during a 46-day cruise from Lisbon to Ft. Lauderdale via Cape Town.  In this article I will touch on some of the highlights of that cruise in Africa.

Our first African port was Casablanca.  With a population of four million, Casablanca is Morocco's largest city and one of the chief commercial cities in North Africa.  Most of Morocco's exports flow through Casablanca, which has one of the world's largest artificial harbors.  Morocco's exports include cereals, leather, wool and phosphates.  Casablanca is also Morocco's largest industrial center.  Casablanca is known for its faded Art Deco and Art Nouveau architecture.  The fantastic Mosque of Hassan II, constructed in 1989 on a promontory on the city's Atlantic shoreline, is the largest mosque in the world.  Its 168-meter-high minaret is the world's highest.  It is said that this beautiful mosque, which has a retractable roof, took some 30,000 workers six years to build!     

Agadir in southern Morocco boasts a good natural harbor from which lead, manganese and zinc are shipped.  The primary industries in the city are fishing and fish canning.  Visitors will be interested in the colorful handmade Moroccan pottery and jewelry which can be found in the authentic-looking souk.  However, most of the buildings in Agadir date only to 1960 as in that year the city was devastated by an earthquake which killed 15,000 inhabitants.  With good beaches, Agadir now welcomes many package tourists from Europe.

Built on the southern tip of Cape Vert, Africa's westernmost point, cosmopolitan Dakar, the capital of Senegal, has been dubbed the Marseille of West Africa.  Dakar is probably one of West Africa's most expensive cities.  For tourists the most interesting site is Goree Island.  Situated some 3 km offshore, Goree is best known for its connections to the slave trade.  Once a fortified slaving station, Goree is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.  It is said that slaves were held on the island in the so-called Slave House until they could be transferred to the ships which would carry them to America.  A historical museum on the island provides information about the practice of slavery.  

Completely surrounded by Senegal except on its short Atlantic coastline, The Gambia consists of only a narrow strip of land on either side of the Gambia River.  Incredibly, the country's width varies only from 24 km to 48 km on either river bank.  The primary industries of The Gambia are peanut and fish processing.  Known as Bathurst until 1973, Banjul was founded by the British on a peninsula at the mouth of the Gambia River in 1816 as a base for suppression of the slave trade.  Today Banjul is a sleepy little town laid out on a grid pattern.  The city's chief tourist attractions are the national museum and the marketplace.  The Gambia mainly attracts tourists on charters from Europe, and the lovely beaches are situated only about 6 km away from the capital.  

By the late seventeenth century the region of Ghana in which the port of Takoradi is located was a major slave trading center.  After abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the British built up the Gold Coast economy through the promotion of various commodity crops such as palm oil, cocoa, rubber and timber.  Over three dozen slave castles once dotted this coast.  Today only twenty or so castles remain, but many of these are still in good condition.  In a day trip from Takoradi one can easily visit Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle, both of which are well-preserved.  The castle built in 1482 by the Portuguese at Elmina is said to be the oldest European building in the tropics.  The large Cape Coast castle built by the Swedes in the seventeenth century was the British colonial administrative headquarters until the capital was shifted to Accra in 1876.  In these castles tourists can view the dark, airless dungeons where slaves were once crowded and held for weeks prior to shipment across the Atlantic.

Lome, situated on the border with Ghana, is the capital, chief port and largest city in Togo.  The main products exported through the port of Lome are cotton, coffee, cacao and palm nuts; and textiles and processed food are Lome's primary manufactured goods.  Tourists will be most interested in the Grand Market, where lengths of colorful woven Ghanaian kente cloth can be purchased, and in the city's fetish market where one can find a staggering variety of bones, teeth and skins of various animals and birds.  A local would use these items in an attempt to cure an illness or to invoke a spell.  Interestingly, some of the traditional costumed dancers in Togo employ stilts.

Cotonou, with a population of one million, is the major seaport and center of business in the West African republic of Benin.  Benin was known as Dahomey from the time of its independence from France in 1960 until 1975.  Even though officially Porto Novo is the capital of Benin, most government functions take place in Cotonou.  The major place of interest to visitors in Cotonou is the lively central market, which includes a fetish section.  The unique stilt village of Ganvie, situated just northwest of Cotonou, is one of Benin's primary tourist attractions.  Built in the middle of Lake Nokoue, picturesque Ganvie is only accessible by boat.  The village was formed in the eighteenth century by the Tofinu as that tribe sought to flee from tribal wars to the north.  Today many of the inhabitants of Ganvie still earn their living by fishing.   

Fifteenth-century Portuguese explorers named Cameroon's great Wouri estuary "Rio dos Cameroes" for the many prawns that were found there.  This is the origin of the name of the country.  Germany controlled modern-day Cameroon from 1884 until World War I, at which time it was partitioned between Britain and France.  Douala, occupying the left bank of the Wouri River 15 miles upstream from the Atlantic, is Cameroon's largest city and industrial center.  It has been said that, although it contains the sights and smells of a major West African port, the hodge-podge city of Douala lacks the soul of Lagos or the class of Abidjan.  Nevertheless, tourists should expect to find excellent opportunities to shop for masks and wooden carvings in Douala.

Libreville, which is French for "Free Town," was founded in 1849 by 43 freed slaves on the site of a French mission.  Today the population of Gabon is some 1.4 million, one-third of whom live in the capital city, which is also the main port.  Gabon is wealthy due to its mineral resources of uranium, oil, natural gas and manganese.  In addition, the country exports palm oil, rubber, cocoa and hardwoods.  Much of the country is still tropical rain forest.  Expensive Libreville has more of a French feel to it than do other former French colonial cities in Africa.  The main sights of Libreville include the national museum with its African art, musical instruments and masks, and an African craft center.  Most of the articles for sale at the craft center are either imported from other African countries or else made locally by artisans from those countries.  It is also worth driving by the gleaming presidential palace, constructed in the 1970s at a cost reputedly in excess of $800 million.

Although Namibia obtained its independence in 1990, Walvis Bay, Namibia's largest seaport, remained part of South Africa until 1994 when it was returned to Namibia finally.  The port was named by Dutch whalers ("walvis" means "whale" in Dutch) who hunted these sea creatures in the bay during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Today there is a busy fishing fleet based in Walvis Bay.  In addition, salt is manufactured there from evaporated seawater.  The region is popular with tourists who visit in order to view not only seals and whales but also the large flamingo population in the adjacent lagoon.  The quaint German colonial town of Swakopmund, located to the north of Walvis Bay on the coast, is a tourist highlight.

Some excellent examples of German colonial architecture can still be seen in remote and picturesque Luderitz on Namibia's southern coast.  The cool Benguela Current welling up from the Antarctic allows seals and penguins to thrive in these waters.  A fleet of crayfish boats also operates from Luderitz during the Southern Hemisphere summer.  Although Namibia boasts vast mineral wealth including uranium, copper, tin, lead and silver, the country is best known for its diamond industry.  In fact, the diamonds produced by Namibia represent about one-third of total world production.  An interesting tour can be made from Luderitz inland to a nearby diamond ghost town.  Kolmanskop, deserted for the last half century, operates as an open-air museum today.       

Beautiful Cape Town, situated under stunning flat-topped Table Mountain, our twelfth and final port of call in Africa, is South Africa's third largest city after Johannesburg and Durban.  The sail into Cape Town's natural harbor was one of the special delights of our cruise.  Not only was Table Mountain gorgeous, but I also spotted a whale, a penguin and a seal that morning on the way in.  Part of Cape Town's former docks were redeveloped in the 1990s to create a tourist-friendly waterfront.  Now tourists find museums, craft markets, restaurants and even an IMAX theatre right at hand when they arrive by ship.  In downtown Cape Town one of my favorite haunts is Greenmarket Square which boasts a large African handicrafts bazaar.  There one can purchase handmade jewelry, cloth and wooden artifacts, carvings and souvenirs from all over the continent.  It is with good reason that Cape Town is considered the tourist capital of South Africa.   

PRACTICALITIES

While there are no cruise ships which ply the entire coast of West Africa on a regular basis, such cruises are offered from time to time.  Consult your travel agent for current information on cruise schedules.  Morocco is best visited either in April and May or in September and October.  The best time to tour Senegal and The Gambia is from November through February.  March through May would be the second choice.  It is still dry then but a bit hotter.  In general, prime time for visiting the coastal regions of Ghana, Togo and Benin is during one of the two dry seasons.  Those stretch from mid-November through March and from July through September.  The coast of Cameroon is best visited from November through February while the Gabon coast is best experienced from June through September.  The best time to tour Namibia is from April through October whereas the best season for visiting Cape Town, South Africa is between October and March when the days are both drier and longer. 

Having provided all of this climate information, my advice would be that one should not rule out a visit to West Africa on account of seasonality alone.  It may well be that it is not possible to travel during a time when the weather is at its best in every country on one's itinerary.  In any case, rainfall during seasons of high temperature and high humidity can sometimes be a relief.  


ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 307 of the 315 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  ept@link.net.  Web site:  www.eptours.com
 

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