Africa, Travel

Myth-Busting West & Central Africa

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Keita Fodeba Acrobatic Centre, Guinea

In December 2018, my partner Oscar and I set off on a ten month long journey from Ireland to South Africa (although we didn’t know we would get that far at the time). This is just some of what we learned.

When it comes to long-term traveling through West and Central Africa, there are a few things that will almost certainly happen to you. You will get used to waiting for things, you will see big red sunsets, you will come to view Laughing Cow Cheese as an exquisite delicacy rather than the assault on cheese that it really is, and you will never, ever, be bored. 

But there are plenty of other things that aren’t so certain, things that people who’ve never stepped foot on the continent might have you believe. The journey my partner and I recently finished from Ireland to South Africa took us through many little-explored countries like Mauritania, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Before we left we were informed, often and passionately of the unspeakable dangers that awaited us upon our arrival. 

Speaking of the Congo, a colleague imparted these sage words over the top of a cup-a-soup:

“They don’t value human life in those parts of the world.”

And then,

“They’ll just kill you.”

People don’t tell you things like this if you’re planning a trip to Italy or the Rocky Mountains, so hearing enough of it from enough people is all it takes to turn even the most level-headed individual into a paranoid racist. 

Since finishing the trip, we’ve received heaps of questions from anxious travellers, ranging from the perfectly reasonable to the ridiculous: “should I cut my trip short to avoid getting a disease?”, “how much should I pay in bribes?” and ,”should I bring a gun?”.

If you’re planning a trip to West/Central Africa or even just lightly penciling it on the bucketlist, it might help to know which commonly-held opinions have a nugget of truth in them, and what is unapologetic bollocks. Here are just a few commonly perceived  myths about traveling in Africa which deserve to be challenged:

You will get very sick 

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Fetching facial mozzie nets, Northern Congo

It’s true that a flick through your Health Guide for International Travelers brochure will reveal a dearth of alarming ailments commonly contracted in Africa. Your travel doctor will probably want to immunize you against every single one of these alarming ailments. Your travel doctor may even let out a theatrical sigh for each new country you point out on your itinerary, but that doesn’t mean you need to wrap yourself in an anti-bacterial poncho and tiptoe your way through the continent. 

While it might seem like every second person who’s been to Africa has a harrowing malaria story, it’s entirely possible to travel the length of the continent without so much as a symptom. Neither my partner or I took malaria pills for the length of our journey, and despite being bitten literally thousands of times, we were totally fine. My legs are permanently scarred from mosquito bites, at one point my feet were so swollen with bites they looked like infected Christmas hams with toenails, and still, no malaria. Many Africans who’ve lived their whole lives there have only contracted malaria once or twice.

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Infected Christmas Hams

That’s not to say you shouldn’t take precautions, malaria can be incredibly serious if you get it, and you should cover up, wear mosquito repellant and bring enough anti-malarial pills for a few emergency doses* but it’s by no means a given that you’ll get it.

Same goes for bilharzia, dengue fever and other scary illnesses, take precautions and you’ll be fine. You’re only likely to get Ebola if you deliberately go to to the heart of an outbreak zone, which is a) silly, and b) very easily avoided. 

Your travel doctor may advise you not to eat street food in Africa to avoid diarrhea and hepatitis. This is ridiculous. To cut out street food is to deprive yourself of the tastiest and most authentic fare in West Africa, not to mention the price and the fact that it’s literally all that’s available in many places. We ate street food almost everyday for most of our trip and got moderately sick once each in ten months. In comparison, we were sick much more often and more violently during a not particularly intrepid five week trip in Thailand and Vietnam. 

*all of the African-based doctors we met advised against taking our Malarone pills long-term as they are so hard on the body. An emergency dose is four pills a day for three days. 

It’s dangerous 

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Not very dangerous dudes, Ghana

Many people’s ideas of Africa are still heavily influenced by the World Vision ads of yore, movies about endless civil war, and bleak news stories about famine and disease. It’s the images of Blood Diamond’s camo-clad warlords and people dying of Ebola that stick in people’s minds. For many foreigners, Africa represents an amorphous blob of violence and poverty rather than 54 unique countries with distinctly different cultures and ways of life. Given the amount of negative verses positive media coverage of most African nations, that’s somewhat understandable. What’s important to remember is that, if you go, your lasting impression of any West/Central African country is unlikely to be linked to poverty or war or disease. There’ll be colour and noise and intensity, but not nearly as many forest-dwelling guerrillas as you might expect.

Think abut the amount of danger you might face walking around Paris, London, or Berlin. Statistically, it’s higher, it’s just that those cities are so large, populated and full of tourists, not much gets in the way of day to day business. Just days after deadly terror attacks in major European cities, things are generally back to normal – tourists wander the streets, workers dodge cordons to get back into the office. Compare that to the deaths of four French tourists in Mauritania in 2007, which led to Air France cancelling its flights from Paris to Atar, crippling tourism in the Adrar region for no less than seven years. 

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The Mauritanian desert, a tourist-free zone for ages

The amount of ‘danger’ in Africa is hard to quantify because the idea is so vague. What I can tell you is that the only time we felt genuinely unsafe was in our dealings with law and order officials. The everyday people we met were – like people at home – far too busy living their lives to bother with hassling us. On the contrary, in places like Guinea and Nigeria, people are so pleased to see foreign visitors, they go out of their way to make you feel welcome. We were helped out of ditches and welcomed into homes all the way down the continent. Many people are also hyper-aware of the consequences of messing with tourists in countries which are trying desperately to attract tourists. Our pockets weren’t picked, we weren’t threatened by civilians (not sober ones anyway), and the only sour patch was a break-in of our truck in Senegal, which looked to have been carried out by a bunch of kids. 

Africa is super cheap

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Luanda, Angola

One thing people traveling through Africa consistently underestimate is the amount of money they’ll spend – low wages = low cost right? Not always. This is the exact attitude that results in dreadlocked white tourists coming to Africa and living off $1 a day as a ‘challenge’. You should do this under zero circumstances because you won’t last long and you will also look like an absolute dick.

As a New Zealander, visa prices for various West African countries vary wildly and seemingly without reason ($2USD per person for Nigeria and $106 pp for Angola. WTF.) You’ll have to pay for visas in almost every West/Central African country you pass through, and because there are so many small countries along the West Coast, the cost racks up quickly. 

Desperate to get online? Internet prices will also hit you a lot harder than you might expect. Mobile data is insanely expensive in a lot of countries, and with next to no free WiFi options, you can pay up to $10NZD/€6 per gb of data, depending on which country you’re in.

And then there’s your Pringles addiction. While street market shopping is wonderfully cheap, practically everything in African supermarkets is imported, and a big shop of packaged goods and Western treats will likely cost an absolute bomb. The key, always, is to buy local. Buy local food, stay at African-owned establishments, use local services. It’s good for the people and it’s good for you. Win bloody win.

Which brings me to:

Everyone in Africa is poorer than people in ‘the West’

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Good looking people in good looking clothes, Benin

While there are plenty of people in Africa who live on next to nothing, extreme poverty of nineties NGO commercial proportions is now largely limited to inland, drought-stricken countries like Niger and the Central African Republic. The vast majority of people you’ll meet in West/Central Africa will be well fed, and dressed much more sharply than you. 

Presentation is important in Africa, and even people in remote villages won’t drive their motorbikes or battered late model cars unless they’re gleaming. You’ll regularly spot people trudging down orange dirt roads in immaculate white outfits. How do they keep them so clean? It’s one of the great mysteries of our time. 

And that’s just in the regions, you’ll be staggered by the amount of glamour and wealth in cities like Lagos, Abidjan, Brazzaville and Luanda. We’re talking cigar cases and $200NZD Pictionary sets in the supermarket wealth. Ferrari, Lamborghini and Sunday brunch at the yacht club wealth. That’s not to say that the money always trickles down, but once you add in West Africa’s growing middle class, you can see why ‘the poor African’ stereotype is starting to become a lot less relevant. 

You have to pay bribes 

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Nigeria: Land of the Bribe

Almost as widespread as the malaria horror story is the exorbitant bribe story, and while it’s true you’ll be asked for money and gifts a lot by police and military in West Africa, that doesn’t mean you have to give them a cent. Answering a request for a bribe with a fistful of cash isn’t doing you, other travellers, or African society at large any favours, so unless you have absolutely no other option (unlikely), don’t pay it. I’d budgeted hundreds of dollars for bribe-paying based on other people’s stories before the trip, but we ended our African adventure having only paid one small bribe to a Congolese cop who had threatened to destroy our car and was in the midst of shuffling Oscar into an overcrowded prison cell when he demanded it. 

All the roads are terrible 

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The shiny new road linking Nouadhibou and Atar, Mauritania

Think of an African road and what comes to mind, a rutted dirt track with potholes bigger than dump trucks, or a shiny and unblemished highway? The reality (on main trunklines at least) is increasingly, the latter. A staggering amount of Chinese investment in West Africa means brand new highways, bridges and other infrastructure are popping up at an astonishing rate. While it’s an awful lot more fun to take the truck-swallowing back roads, you could drive into the depths of the Mauritanian desert or almost the entire length of the Congo without ever leaving brand new tarseal. Tackling the wet season on four wheels, even on the dirt roads, is also totally manageable. You’ll need recovery gear (we had a high-lift jack and sand tracks but no winch) and as long as you don’t mind doing a bit of superficial damage to your wagon, you’ll be fine.

You’ll be killed by a hippo/lion/gorilla/crocodile/snake/rabid dog etc

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Akodessewa Fetish Market: where to find wildlife in West Africa

While Southern and Eastern Africa are the home of many a beautiful and potentially deadly creature, the sad reality is there are so few lions, gorillas and elephants living wild in West and Central, it would practically be a miracle if you were killed by one. Deforestation and illegal hunting have decimated wildlife populations in West Africa, and even snakes are hard to spot outside of sanctuaries. After ten months of barefoot and be-jandled trudging through desert and jungle, neither of us were nibbled, stung or otherwise molested by a scorpion, spider, snake, or anything else. Even in Southern Africa, where big hungry creatures are much more plentiful, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be attacked. We camped metres away from hippos, lions and elephants in Namibia, but generally wild animals are too scared of humans to venture too close. 

To conclude…

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Cuties, Benin

To conclude, the main point here is that travel in general is dangerous. Leaving your house is dangerous, eating three day old leftover chow mein is dangerous, but there’s absolutely no point in writing off an entire continent because it’s a bit unfamiliar. 

In my years of traveling, I’ve been closer to being killed in a terror attack in central Barcelona, more sexually molested in the historic Japanese city of Kyoto and have had more stuff stolen in my home country of New Zealand than during my time in Africa. 

Almost nowhere else in the world offers the opportunity for adventure like West Africa, widely considered one of the last frontiers of travel. The experiences you’ll have there are so genuine and so uninfluenced by mass tourism, you’ll wonder why you ever queued to get into a museum or battled a sea of selfie sticks to get a glimpse at a fountain, statue or ‘gram-friendly landmark. At times it’s bite-your-nails-to-bloody-stumps frustrating, but the rewards outweigh the misery ten to one. 

There are plenty of myths about traveling Africa, but one absolute truth: you’ll have the time of your life. 

If you want to see what West Africa is like with your very own eyeballs, check out our adventure on Youtube here.

Want more tips on visa costs, borders and all that niggly stuff? Check out our guide to West Africa here.

 

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Africa, Travel

What’s it like in: Togo?

‘What’s it like’ is a mini-series of blogs answering the burning questions about African countries which don’t enjoy a huge amount of good publicity in the world of travel and media.

Teeny-tiny Togo is often overlooked because of it’s size, but there’s plenty to do even along the wafer-thin sliver of coastline. The beaches are often postcard-perfect, the mountains serene and the Rasta-infused culture is one of love and laughter.

Where is it?

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Togo’s location between Benin and English-speaking Ghana means the locals tend to speak more English than in most Francophone countries. Burkina-Faso is the northern border country, but the rise of terrorism in Burkina, which has recently leaked into Benin, may mean you’ll want to stick to the south.

What can I do there?

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Coco Beach, Lomé

Relax. The Togolese are never in a rush, reggae is a way of life, and ganja, combined with a tasty and potent Awooyo beer, (6.2%!) is the relaxant of choice, so find a beach chair and kick back. Lomé may well be the most relaxed capital city in West Africa, and there are plenty of resorts with private beaches where you’re guaranteed a clean spot to swim and sunbathe. Sunday is the big party day, and huge family groups set up on the beach with their own food, drink and speakers. It’s the perfect way to hear a range of West African music without even leaving your seat, and if you brush up on your French or Ewe you may well be invited to join.

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Mountains of Kpalimé

Kpalimé is the pride of many Togolese, the mountain-ringed city has plenty of character, with art shops, a 1913 German church, a strong rasta culture and gorgeous waterfalls just a short moto-taxi away. A drive or hike through the winding mountain roads and tiny villages is the perfect way to spend an afternoon. 

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Togoville

Further to the east, Togoville is the historic centre of Togo, and you can drive or take a pirogue across Lac Togo to the atmospheric town. Once, there, take a guided wander around the village, bathing in the light of the stained glass windows at the 100-year-old Catholic Church, and learn about voodoo in the area.

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Lion’s head, Akodessewa Fetish Market, Lomé

N.B. Curiosity may lead you the Akodessewa Fetish Market in Lomé, but it’s worth considering the implications before you go. Voodoo is a huge part of the culture in Togo, and many of the animal parts on display are used by locals hoping to fix anything from a stomach ache to fertility problems. The thing is, many of the dead animals on display are critically endangered (think the bodies of pangolins, baby cheetahs, and the heads and feet of lions). Some news articles about the market, and indeed the stallholders themselves will have you believe the critters on display all died of natural causes, but common sense (and a bit of persistent questioning), soon reveals that this is not the case. It costs to visit the market with a guide and take pictures, and it’s believed some stallholders seek out items with more shock value, to attract foreigners and their cameras. Of course Western tourists are in absolutely no position to question the importance of animal sacrifices to this ancient and important religion, but to avoid a case of the traveler guilts, it’s worth considering whether, as a non-believer, you’re willing to contribute to the practice financially.

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Baby cheetahs, Akodessewa Fetish Market, Lomé

Are the people nice?

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Koffi and Angel

Super duper nice. The Togolese love cracking jokes and taking it easy, so even if you don’t  speak French, you’ll make friends quickly. People practise Christianity, Islam and voodoo, sometimes intermingled and many Togolese will be able to tell you about the voodoo vaccinations (small incisions rubbed with animal bone powder) they received as kids. Family is important in Togo, so if you make friends with one person you may well be invited to the family home to meet wives, brothers and sisters, a guaranteed fun and potentially raucous experience. Hand shakes are the same as in Ghana, with a hearty hand clap and finger snap.

Is the food good?

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Lunch at Chez Vivien

Not too bad. Togolese cuisine isn’t the most famous fare in West Africa, but there are plenty of perfectly tasty starch staples like fufu (cassava or yam dough) and ablo (cornmeal bread) available, as well as delicious poulet braise, chicken grilled right on the street-side. The Ivorian dishes attiéké and aloco (granulated cassava and fried plantain) are also popular and delicious with fish. Djekoume is a classic Togolese dish, a polenta like cornmeal cake mixed with tomato and red palm oil. Most of the beach resorts are catering to French expats and offer a fairly uninspiring menu that’s almost entirely European-influenced. To get a real deal Togolese meal, your best bet is to hope you’re invited home to dine with a local. At our friend Vivien’s place we feasted on small fried fish, huge roasted tuna, rice and fufu, delicious!

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Lunch with Kevin, Vivien and Koffi

Is it safe?

Yes. We felt totally safe walking around Lomé at all hours of the day and night, and you’re highly unlikely to come into trouble in villages and regional areas. Police and military are generally helpful and kind. As long as you stay away from the Burkina border, you’ll be 100% sweet as.

Where can I stay?

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Chez Antoine Coco Beach

Of all the places we stayed in West Africa, Chez Antoine Coco Beach was the hardest to leave (and that was after two weeks), think coconut palms, crashing waves and a super relaxed vibe all for the absurdly low price of 1500cfa pp/pn ($3.90/2.30 euro) for camping. The only potential downside is that you might arrive and find yourself still parked up there 17 years later. In the city of Lomé, Hotel Le Galion offers the best value rooms in the capital with a sophisticated restaurant downstairs.

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Our little pal Eurish, Coco Beach

VERDICT: Should you go? Absolutely. ONE LOVE JAH RESPECT.

PS. You can check out our visual diary from Togo and Benin here.

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Africa, Travel

What’s it like in: Senegal?

‘What’s it like’ is a mini-series of blogs answering the burning questions about African countries which don’t enjoy a huge amount of good publicity in the world of travel and media.

There’s just something about Senegal, it oozes charm and elegance. There’s a wonderfully diverse range of things to see, the food is fantastic and the people are impossibly good-looking. What’s not to love?

Where is it? 

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Senegal is a coastal West African country which shares its borders with Mauritania and Mali to the north and east, and Guinea and Guinea-Bissau to the south. That means it enjoys a bit of the dry heat from the desert in the north, and starts getting greener and steamier the further south you head.

What can I see there?

So much stuff! There’s a lot going on in Senegal, whether you’re a city person, prefer to get amongst untouched nature or sprawl on an empty beach, you’ll find a place you could happily linger for weeks on end.

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Saint Louis

In the former colonial capital of Saint Louis, the pastel paint of the old French-style buildings is peeling, and Saint Louis is ushering in a new era of vibrant African art and music. There are myriad shops selling locally made art, (I particularly loved the women-run La Liane l’atelier des femmes), and wildly painted pirogues cram the river’s edge. There’s an incredibly relaxed vibe in the UNESCO protected old town of Ile de N’Dar, and you can sit down to a delicious traditional Senegalese meal at a cozy restaurant for a ridiculously low price. Taking a lazy stroll down the lanes is a delightful and hassle-free experience, and on the wider streets you’ll dodge yellow taxis, horse drawn carts and the kaleidoscopic local buses called car rapides (rapidity not guaranteed). All things considered, Saint Louis has got to be one of the most atmospheric cities in West Africa.

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Saint Louis

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The Gambia River, Wassadou

The interior of Senegal can be unbearably hot and humid at certain times of year, but it’s time to embrace all the aesthetic problems that come with 38 degrees, because a trip to Wassadou is absolutely worth it. Look for hippos on the edge of The Gambia river, or spend an afternoon watching a 200-strong gang of baboons play in the afternoon sun. There’s a huge array of bird life in Senegal, so you’ve got a perfectly good reason to crack open a glistening La Gazelle beer, sit back and do nothing on the pretext of ‘important wildlife research.’

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The Gambia River, Wassadou

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Cap Skirring

Yes, the town of Cap Skirring is a smidge touristy (by West African standards, forget about battling crowds), but get yourself a kilometre or so away from the fishing boats and you’ve got miles of perfectly clean beach patrolled only by herds of cows who traverse the sand in their hundreds and always seem to know exactly where they’re going. Gaps in the pines provide perfect spaces for wild camping, so you can nod off with the sound of the waves just metres away.

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Cap Skirring

Just a few minutes drive away from Cap Skirring is the tiny village of Diembéring, which boasts a huge and majestic Kapok tree smack bang in the village square, welcoming locals and lively festivals.

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Diembéring

Are the people nice?

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Boys in Diembéring

Yes! They’re also some of the sharpest dressers in West Africa, men strut the streets in traditional-style suits made from the brightest possible prints, while women rock tailor-made dresses and matching head wraps fitted to perfection. Aesthetics is everything in Senegal, they are sport obsessed, with football, basketball and traditional Senegalese wrestling being the most popular, and you can spot Adonis-like figures pounding the pavement or doing endless amounts of crunches on the beach at all hours of the day. A traditional wrestling match is absolutely worth seeing, boys as young as four square off against each other to see who’ll hit the dirt first, but it’s all in good fun and sportsmanship.

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Wrestling at the Diembéring Music Festival

The Senegalese, particularly men and boys, love having their photo taken, and if you walk around with a camera for a few minutes you’ll likely be asked to take a few lads pictures while they pose the house down. Women and girls are a bit more shy and might hang around curiously until you ask them yourself. The vast majority of  Senegalese are Muslim (around 92%), but it’s practised in a much more relaxed way than in Morocco or Mauritania, meaning there are still plenty of opportunities for beer and booty-shaking.

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Schoolgirls in Saint Louis

Is the food good?

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Thieboudienne in Ziguinchor, 1000 cfa

Hell. Yes. Senegalese food is straight up delicious. Like a lot of African meals, sometimes it doesn’t look like much, but what you lose in pretentious plating is made up for with delicious flavours. Yassa poulet (braised chicken with lemony onion sauce), mafe (peanut based sauce with rice) and thieboudienne (fish with vegetables and tomato sauce) are all incredible and available at just about every restaurant and local chop shop for as little as 1000 cfa (NZD $2.60/1.50 euro). Other than the local beers, the best way to beat the heat is with a frozen bissap juice, small plastic sachets of icy purple liquid, made from hibiscus leaves, sugar and water. They taste better than just about any ice block on the market, and you can pick them up for next to nothing.

Is it safe?

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Moody evening, Cassamance

 

Yes. Some governments still warn against travel to the Cassamance region, and while the gun mounts and soldiers are still there, the separatist conflict of the 80s seems very much in the past. Senegalese men are charmers, and will invariably try and chat/inquire about your marital status if you are travelling alone as a woman, but they are usually very respectful, and often want nothing more than a selfie with you. Your biggest risk is petty crime in Dakar. 

Full disclosure, our car was broken into while we spent the night in an auberge in Yoff, but judging by the loot that was stolen and the way they cleaned up after themselves, my guess was that it was carried out by a group of nervous and somewhat remorseful teenagers.

Where can I stay?

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River beach at Zebrabar

It’s far from the cheapest camping option in West Africa, but a stay at Zebrabar is an experience in its own right, and you don’t even need to leave the grounds to view pelicans floating on the river Senegal, or cheeky monkeys hovering in the trees. A half hour drive from the centre of Saint Louis, Zebrabar is on the edge of the Parc de la Langue de Barbarie, so you can emerge from your bungalow or tent and head straight to a hammock overlooking the water, or climb to the top of the viewing tower for a 360 degree sunset. For overlanders, it’s the perfect meeting point to hook-up with other travellers, and there’s even a mini-garage with a ramp where you can work on your vehicle. Further down country, it’s super easy to camp just about anywhere, and if you’re daring enough, you can drive almost all the way from Saint Louis to Dakar along the beach at low-tide, and pull over for an idyllic night of wild camping along the way.

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Beach en route from Saint Louis to Dakar

VERDICT: Should you go? Oui, Waaw and Ha (yes, yes and yes in French, Wolof and Mandinka)

PS. You can check out our visual diary from Senegal here.

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Local cutie, Diembéring

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Africa, Travel

Morocco: Something for Nothing

You know that sensation when something happens, just for a moment, but it seems to stretch out for long enough to allow your brain the time to wonder “what the hell is this?”. That was the exact sensation I felt as Ibrahim the Moroccan mechanic leaned in and briefly sucked on my neck. You could not have described it as a kiss, there was too much…ingestion. Kiss verses suck. Even if it only lasts a second, you can tell the difference. It wasn’t so shocking that I recoiled immediately, but jarring enough that, when the mechanic asked for a photo with my boyfriend and I just seconds later, my expression could only be described as that of a bewildered sufferer of chronic hemorrhoids.

As we drove off, I looked back at the workshop.

“That guy just sucked on my neck” I said to my boyfriend, Oscar.

“What? The mechanic?? Didn’t he kiss your cheek?”

“Nope, it was my neck, and it was a fleeting but definite suck.”

“That’s fucking weird” said Oscar.

I couldn’t help but agree.

Erg Chebbi post-neck slurp

Things are often like this in Morocco, you can go for a long time believing things are one way, in this instance, avoiding physical contact with men, smiling, touching your hand to your heart and feeling incredibly smug and culturally aware, only to have someone greet you not with a polite but distant gesture but by performing an alarmingly accurate garra rufa fish impression right under your left ear.

Maybe Ibrahim was going for a fashionable French cheek kiss and missed the mark? Maybe the neck-suck is an ancient Berber greeting which I should have returned? Probably, it will remain a mystery.

One thing to know about Morocco is that it is almost impossible to be truly alone there. You can drive for miles away from the nearest village, over dunes soft as flour and through near-impassable river beds, to a place where the only sound is that of a fat black beetle dutifully shuffling a ball of camel shit towards its hole. Wait five minutes in that serene and silent spot and a chair salesman with 7 wicker stools strapped to his scooter will appear like a mirage. “Hello my friend! You want chair? English car yes? Lovely jubbly!”

Stool salesman territory, Moroccan Sahara

The other thing to know about Morocco is that people will ask you for things, and demand them in some cases, whether they need them or not, on the offchance that you’ll give it to them anyway. Thousands of French tourists visit Morocco every year. Most of them drive sinfully ugly but expensive campervans, and most of them make a habit of bringing giant bags of sweets with them for every visit so they can toss them out the window to local children like leathery, pétanque-playing Santas. The effect of this well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful gesture (depending on who you talk to) is that almost anywhere you might choose you stop your car, your bike, or linger in a public place, you’ll be swarmed by either children demanding bonbons, or adults inviting you in for a cup of tea and then asking for a tenner.

The third thing to know about Morocco, is that, even if people aren’t simply putting their hands out and begging, they’re probably thinking about getting your money some other way. Indeed, in a lot of places, opportunistic scamming is basically a national sport. We experienced this more on our trip through Morocco’s more cosmopolitan areas in 2017, but found it was still alive and well this time around. Take this story from our friend Hamid (who swears he doesn’t do it anymore) as a shining example. Hamid is a desert guide who lives in Merzouga, on the edge of the vast and glorious dunes of Erg Chebbi. Morocco is pretty strict when it comes to drugs and booze, but according to our entrepreneurial friend Hamid, that doesn’t stop desperate tourists from seeking it out.

Hamid the entrepreneur

“Sometimes I went out to the desert with the tourists, we stop for the night, have some food, watch the stars, have nice time. I pull out my hashish and I smoke. I say nothing. They say, “is that hashish?” I say yea. They say “man, can you get us hashish? We’d love some hashish”. So I say yea I can get it, but it is difficult. There is not much hashish in Merzouga, so it’s expensive and there are problems with police. Same with beer. Then they say “oh man could you get us beer too?” I say yes but will take longer. They say they want beer and hashish. I prepare to go walk and say, if I’m not back in one hour and a half, there are problems with police. So I go over one dune, just one big dune, I sit and smoke for 2 hours, maybe 3 hours. I already had my hashish in my bag, this much”

(He shows half a thumbs worth)

“It cost me twenty dirham”

(approximately €2)

“I go back to camp and get beer from kitchen which is already there. I go to tourists and say ‘I’m sorry there were problems with the police, I got a big fine’ they say, “no problem man” and give me two hundred euro.”

That is a kind of swindling genius you really can’t fault, but all the same it gives a certain insight into the national psyche.

So, keeping in mind those above three points, we headed into the High Atlas Mountains with excitement and a twinge of trepidation gnawing away somewhere deep in our skulls.

The mountains were beautiful – tiny mudbrick settlements with horses grazing in front of towering snow-dusted peaks, crumbling roads being whipped by some of the wildest winds we’d ever experienced. About three hours in, we found ourselves on a winding dirt track overlooking a green valley. Around the bend, a house appeared, and two figures running like hell towards us. We lowered the window and a pair of wrinkled hands clamped onto our door frame with the strength of of a pair of hands that had clamped onto many hundreds of door frames in the past.

“Dirham! Dirham!” the old woman barked. Now, we might have been inclined to give the woman some food, but if you give money to everyone who asks for money in Morocco, you’ll barely make it past the border. Besides, she didn’t ask very nicely.

Gently, Oscar pried the old woman’s fingers from our vehicle, and we trundled off to the distant melody of Arabic swearing. It wasn’t for another few minutes, when we heard a metallic clunk and then a dull thud, that we realised we’d forgotten about the second distant figure, and while the woman had diverted us with her vice-like grip, her grandson had climbed onto the boot of our car and begun untying our worldly belongings. If it wasn’t for the fact that aluminum clothes racks make quite a bit of noise when they hit the ground, we might never have noticed. Oscar pumped the brakes, and chased a skinny-jeaned teenager, sans clothes rack, up the road. If the kid hadn’t been laughing and pointing at us, I might have assumed he was in more of a desperate situation.

High Atlas Mountains

On we trundled, down deep into the guts of the mountains, along the valley floor with the light falling and nowhere to camp in the howling wind. We were greeted by a large family who must have heard us coming for miles. They seemed excited, the road had washed out some time ago with no obvious efforts made to replace it. Visitors didn’t pass through often. They spoke over each other in French and Arabic, inviting us in for tea or a meal, we said we had to keep going, but to avoid another attempted clothes rack heist, plonked a perfect round orange into the hands of each family member.

Their reactions were not ones of satisfaction, in fact they looked truly confused. They spoke to each other with unfamiliar words but an entirely recognisable tone. They hadn’t asked for anything, they’d simply wanted to help us out, why are these stupid white people tossing oranges out of the window for no good reason? We left feeling abashed. Onwards into the night in a place we didn’t know the rules for anymore.

The next morning, we came across Omar and his brother, two charismatic young Berber men trying to hillstart their dusty car. We gave them a jumpstart and were invited in to meet the family and have breakfast. The house was toasty warm, with the morning light streaming through the window and a medical reality show playing on the small TV in the living room. After a sleepless night in our tent cowering from the wind, the steaming mint tea and bread with jam was a godsend. As we left, we asked Omar if he wanted anything in return for the hospitality.

Bristling slightly, he replied.

“Porquoi?”

Why indeed, we left reprimanding ourselves again.

Breakfast at Chez Omar

Call it southern hospitality, or luck, but from that point on every single local we met wanted nothing but to talk, and be friends.

In Mirleft, Bokhtar and Ali shared fishing tips and some of their catch. In Dakhla, we spent two days camping next door to Jelili, who kept us topped up to the eyeballs with tea and insisted we join him for a feast of fish tagine, lemony and delicious. At the border of the Western Sahara, a disputed territory and former conflict zone, Abdes, a military police officer, kept us lingering under the blazing afternoon sun as he showed us what seemed to be every picture ever taken of his new wife, a wide eyed beauty with an impressive cake repertoire.

Ali and Oscar with the day’s haul

Morocco is an enigma. The constant clamour of touts and opportunists can make you feel miles from home, desperate for the cool indifference of a Glassons sales assistant. On one hand, people back home aren’t going to mount your moving vehicle to steal your clothes rack (probably), on the other hand, New Zealand Police wouldn’t invite you into the office for breakfast to say sorry after giving you a speeding ticket, and they definitely wouldn’t wave you down to show you pictures of chocolate gateaux.

I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time in Morocco, and travelled many thousands of kilometres within its borders. People sometimes ask me what to expect from the country, and frankly, I wish I knew. You can prepare to be swindled, but you should also prepare to be as surprised by the kindness and humility of the Moroccan people as you would be by a cheeky neck-slurp. Like Forrest Gump’s infamous box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get, and to be honest, that’s at least two thirds of the fun.

Agadir sunset

Etoh’s house, Mid Atlas Mountains

Tata gorge

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