My first writing assignment for 2018 will be a short trip to the West African state of Liberia in early January. You may have heard of it recently making news with the election of George Weah, once a global soccer star, as Liberia’s new president. But mostly the only stories emerging about Liberia in the media in recent decades have been of bloody civil war and outbreaks of Ebola. I dislike how so easily African countries like Liberia are tainted for decades after a tragedy with the label of being damaged goods and this makes my desire to visit and seek some sort of balance all the greater.
Saying that, very few travellers make it to this Atlantic facing state and I’m not too sure what exactly I will discover. There is a wild coastline with a few coastal beach resorts, which I imagine, going on previous visits to developing African nations emerging from conflict, will be pleasant little boltholes for NGO staff who I am sure will soon be advising President Weah how to run his country.
Certain countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, and The Gambia, dominate the African tourism scene because they are perceived as safe. Others live in the recesses of a war-torn Joseph Conradian nightmare of the so-called ‘Dark Continent’, far too dangerous to visit. Of course some states must indeed be avoided, particularly with the Islamist threat at large in Sub-Saharan Africa. Even so, this is not clear-cut. I spoke recently with a tour operator from Mali who lamented how safe and beautiful Southern Mali is yet she advised me not to travel to the north where a threat of terrorism currently exists.
What Africa still offers is a continent boasting unfettered adventure. Over recent years I have travelled through the oasis of Mauritania,
sought out lowland gorillas in Congo, and moved through the astonishing traditional cultures of Northern Angola. The feeling that somehow I was a trailblazer may be a little egotistical but every day was a new sensory experience and because few guidebooks exist for the outer recesses of the ‘Dark Continent’ I have often travelled with no idea of what lay around the next corner.
To celebrate some of the most adventurous opportunities for 2018 I wrote a piece recently for the terrific Travel Africa magazine. It's a magazine for connoisseurs of this wonderful continent owned and run by the Zimbabwean, Craig Rix. My feature was a prediction of twenty emerging African destinations across the continent and below I have outlined 8 exciting options for those craving off-the-beaten track adventure for this year’s holiday.
Surfing hippos - Loango National Park (Gabon)
70% of Gabon is cloaked in rainforest and within its most accessible national park, called Loango, a peculiar highlight is witnessing hippos splashing around in the surf.
Elephants of the sub-Sahara – Zakouma National Park (Chad)
The conservation NGO, African Parks, made the news recently when Prince Harry was named its patron. The transformation they have undertaken in Zakouma to rebuild what had been a heavily poached elephant population is remarkable. During the rains I have heard it described as Chad's 'Okavango'.
Volcanic apes - Virunga National Park (Democratic Republic of Congo)
There’s still a bit of an edge going into Eastern DRC but a small list of tour operators are taking clients into the global biodiversity hotspot of Virunga National Park to watch mountain gorillas and climb the fiery Nyiragongo volcano.
Gorillas of Dzanga-Sangha National Park - (Central African Republic)
More gorillas but this time the far more elusive lowland species found deep in the tropical forests of the Central African Republic. With a good tour operator Dzanga-Sangha is do-able and guests will be treated to the spectacle of gorillas and forest elephants heading into the bai (glades) to feed and take mud baths.
Climb Africa’s 3rd highest mountain - Rwenzori Mountains (Uganda)
I personally found Kilimanjaro a little dull but climbing the 5109m Mt Stanley last year was one of the finest treks I have ever made. The Afro-moorland vegetation on route to the glacier bound summit was like something from another planet.
More pyramids than Egypt - Sudan
With Egypt’s current woes Sudan is increasingly becoming a stable and enjoyable adventure although we are talking North Sudan here as its southern breakaway neighbour is truly war-torn. Visiting the Nubian Desert pyramids of Meroe is so special I heard one commentator describe it as like seeing ‘Egypt, 60 years ago’.
Real (not blood) diamonds - Sierra Leone
A relatively recent new flight offered by KLM to Freetown should help this Atlantic Ocean country develop a growing tourism sector to help it overcome war-induced poverty. Besides uncrowded beaches it's possible to venture into the forests to find endangered pygmy hippos. I believe it could be the new Gambia in years to come.
Voodoo Magic - Benin
Benin is simply magic! This tiny nation to the west of Nigeria is the only African state where voodoo is recognised as its sole state religion. When I travelled to Ouidah I saw numerous voodoo ceremonies with locals caught in shaking trances.