Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Into Africa: Shore excursions on the dark continent

Scenes from Togo
Young woman in Togo (R Eime)
from Cruise Weekly
23 April 2013

As we begin the second leg of the inaugural G Adventures West Africa itinerary aboard MS Expedition, we have already ticked off South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Congo, Sao Tome & Principe, Benin, Togo and Ghana. It's a chance to reflect on some of the favourite shore excursions enjoyed so far. From my own impressions and a most unscientific straw poll of passengers, here are the favourites (in no particular order):

Angola: The instant charm of the people and a quaint train ride in historic carriages along seaside from the port of Lobito to the town of Benguela was great kick-off for what was to follow. Professional ground operation from www.ecu-tur.com enhanced the whole experience.

Sao Tome & Principe: Again, a former Portuguese colony and former slave port, opened their arms to us with this tiny coffee and cocoa producing nation delivering a full and enriching day of cultural and historical insight. Decidedly Caribbean in feel, the people smiled broadly as they sang and danced for us. The doe-eyed and cheery children just melted passengers hearts. On nearby Principe we luxuriated at Mark Shuttleworth's Bom Bom Island Resort where I encouraged our Zodiac driver to drop me at the beach to explore some ruins which turned out to be an overgrown 15th century Portuguese church.

Togo: In the true West Africa of legend and fable, Togo is a nation with a balanced and confident persona. Part of the once notorious 'slave coast' it became a model German colony until 1914, after which Togo developed into a Francophone nation comprising several dominant ethnic groups, all of whom still cling to superstition, animalism and voodoun (aka voodoo). The famous Akodessewa fetish market in Lomé was always going to be a highlight and did not disappoint. Chock full of desiccated animals of all sorts and thronging with hucksters eager to make a meal from the goggle-eyed tourists, we snapped up little nail-riddled tourist dolls and talismen for all kinds of ailments, woes and protection. Some of us ventured to the rear stalls for the “good stuff” and readings by oracles. With the valuable assistance of ethno-historian David Conrad, I left with a genuine, blood-stained sacrificial item from one of the darkened and decidedly spooky back booths. Just exactly what it does, we're not sure yet! The afternoon was a village visit with a twist. We were presented to the local 'king' and feted with more robust song and dance. Here the (post-menopausal) 'power women' attend to the serious affairs of the village and they preside over proceedings from a position of undeniable authority.

Ghana: While in itself Ghana may not have offered the most startling assortment of attractions on first impression, who could not be impressed with the quirky concept of fantasy coffins, where you can have made a casket to represent your wildest desire, be it a beer bottle, bible, boat or movie projector. True. The wild hurly-burly of the craft markets kept most to a few hard-fought trinkets, but David excelled again and returned with an exquisite 19th century Benin bronze figurine easily worth four-figures which he acquired for a song.

We continue on to Sierra Leone and Senegal before wrapping up this time next week.

For more information on this itinerary, see www.gadventures.com > West Africa