Travelling the Western Coast of the African Continent – The Beginning
– travelled April to September 2016 –
In 2011, there was no question that I would go on my first visit to the African continent. Not because I already knew all the other continents, I didn’t, but because I wanted to explore Africa most of all. I had a very enjoyable three-and-a-half months getting from Cape Town to the island of Zanzibar. Africa was wonderful. The landscapes were fantastic, the people friendly, I fell deeply in love with Africa’s wildlife and travelling was easy enough. Communication in the (bar Mozambique) English-speaking countries was a breeze. After leaving beautiful and interesting South Africa behind I also felt safe (and that is where almost all of you guys would happily travel to). I remember walking “home” at night in Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls with two guys I had met at a football game earlier. I followed them into a narrow and dark alleyway. Did I have fear? No, I was certain that they would mean no harm. The alleyway was a perfect shortcut.
In Swaziland (now called Eswatini) I approached wildlife on foot. I had the best snorkelling you can imagine in Mozambique (and got horribly sea-sick another day) and shared a compartment with the amiable George on the most beautiful train I ever rode on in Zimbabwe. Victoria Falls at high water levels, when the falls generate pouring rain on the other side, is an experience I do not want to miss. The cruise on the Chobe river in Botswana was a three-hour extravaganza of wildlife where at one point you had to decide between the elephants on one side and the sunset (probably still the nicest I have ever seen) on the other. I saw my first (second, third, fourth, fifth) leopard in Zambia and came close to Chimpanzees. I hiked Malawi’s highest mountain, beautiful Mount Mulanje, and took the unpleasant two-day ferry across the country’s namesake lake. I was determined to see more wildlife in Tanzania and booked a relatively expensive one-day safari just for myself. Sitting at breakfast, I saw a safari vehicle inching past the window. Pushed by five guys, trying to get it running. Oh, that must be mine. It finally started but was broken after half a day, so that we switched to a normal car. Zanzibar was another highlight. I told everybody who wanted to listen to go to Africa.
My original plan in 2011 had been to go all the way from Cape Town to Cairo but I soon realized that I did not have enough time. I returned in 2014, travelling from Mombasa to Egypt to explore the other part of that journey. Again, memorable experiences.
But why did I decide to go along Africa’s Eastern Coast in 2011. Because it is the easier coast, the Western coast is longer, less safe, more difficult visa-wise, sees less tourists and offers fewer attractions. The Eastern Coast is Africa for beginners, and the Western Coast is Africa for the experienced. It will be a long journey, potentially traversing more than 20 countries, some of them better known for conflict and unrest than anything else. Did you ever want to travel to the Democratic Republic of the Congo?
Things were a bit different 20 years ago when a lot more people travelled Africa overland, crossed the Sahara Desert and some kept on heading south all the way. Conflict was always somewhere in the southern bit, but the northern half offered several routes and safe travels opportunities. That changed with the awakening of Islamic terrorism putting a risk premium on any travel across the Sahara. The vast, uncontrolled desert proved fertile ground for extremists to hide and attack bringing overland travel by foreigners to a near complete stop. Visa regulations have also become harder. Part of that is due to greater scrutiny because of the already mentioned extremists. People started to care who crossed which border. The number of people on this planet has risen, space is tighter, land scarcer and often environmentally degraded. Economic migration is seen with more sceptical eyes, not just in the rich world, but also in poorer countries. Another reason for tighter borders.
Some governments along my route are just harming themselves. To make it harder to get visas (yes, that is the only reason) most rich countries force applicants to apply in their home country. Some African governments follow the same policy, maybe just out of a sense of emulation but mostly because of hurt pride (you make it difficult for us, we make it difficult for you). That makes acquiring visas along the way troublesome and reduces the number of tourists. Between Morocco and Namibia there is only one country (Senegal) which I do not need a visa for and three (The Gambia, Togo, Benin) where I can get the visa on arrival. For all the others I will need to apply at an embassy, the D.R.C. and Angola will be real headaches. Getting a visa for Equatorial Guinea will be next to impossible but that country can be bypassed easily. Maybe others will prove troublesome as well, you never know. I will need to plan carefully and I will spend a lot of time searching for and waiting at and for embassies.
Europe and Africa are actually really close. At the closest point, in the Strait of Gibraltar, the distance between the two continents measures only 14 kilometres. I made it a point to cross this strait by boat and not by plane. I therefore consider the beautiful town of Cádiz as the starting point of my trip. Christopher Columbus sailed from Cádiz on his second and fourth voyages and later the city became the home port of the Spanish treasure fleet with regular voyages to the South American colonies. For me that closes a circle to a previous trip, where I visited many of these former colonies.
I take the bus south to Tarifa and before reaching the town there is the moment. A view opens up and I see the African continent across the sea. That is what I came for!