In March/April we experienced an epic voyage along the entire western coast of Africa aboard Lindblad Expeditions’ flagship, the National Geographic Explorer. We visited 17 different countries — though the status of Western Sahara remains in dispute, with Morocco currently controlling that coastal region — maybe it’s only 16. Nevertheless, it was an expansive journey allowing us to visit many fascinating and unusual places. Some countries, like Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone, have only recently stabilized after years of internal war, while others have remained peaceful havens seldom visited by foreigners. Through it all, our most charming memories were woven together by countless welcoming smiles, exuberant children, and concerts by regional performers playing beguiling music. Here are condensed versions of some favorite memories:
South Africa: We spent several days with friends watching penguins at Boulders Beach before joining the ship in Cape Town. Our final “Bon Voyage” event was an energizing concert performed by “Freshlyground,” one of South Africa’s top bands, at an outdoor amphitheater on Cape Town’s waterfront. A hot beaming sun, and pulsing African rhythms sent us on our way.
Namibia: Although we’ve been to Namibia numerous times, this was our first visit to the southern port town of Luderitz. In the nearby ghost town of Kolmanskop, we marveled at the desert sands sweeping into the rooms of the old abandoned buildings. [Read Jack’s Daily Expedition Report from Namibia.]
Angola: The chilly waters of the Benguela Current turned warmer as we sailed northward, encountering scads of flying fish and a rousing throng of hundreds of Clymene dolphins along the way. In the Angolan town of that same name, Benguela, we boarded an historic railway, the “Caminho de Ferro de Benguela” built in 1903-29 and now restored for passenger travel, riding back to the port town of Lobito where our ship was docked. [Read Rikki’s Daily Expedition Report from Angola.]
Republic of the Congo: The eroded clay hills of Diosso Gorge reach like pink clay hands into lush green forests; a strangely beautiful tropical “Badlands.” During the evening at the steamy port town of Pointe Noire we ventured ashore to see a “Tradimoderne” musical stage performance by the local troupe “Lelu Lelu.” [Read our Daily Expedition Report from Congo.]
Equator Crossing: A festive, yet bizarre, event at sea for those land-lubbers who had never crossed the equator by ship. They faced the eccentric jurisdictions of ruling King Neptune, his queen, and their nefarious gang of pirates, courters, chamberlains, and medical technicians. Be Ye Warned!
São Tomé & Príncipe: This small nation is a tropical paradise consisting of two lush volcanic islands rising from the warm waters of the Gulf of Guinea. São Tomé, the larger of the two, is a green and mountainous island with many rural homes surrounded by fruiting and flowering tropical trees. Coffee and cacao (chocolate) are both produced here. Along the sleepy town’s waterfront, fishing canoes line the shores where children frolic in the balmy sea.
The southern end of Príncipe Island has precipitously steep mountains that look as if they were imported from the South Pacific. We spent a leisurely day at a quiet beach resort on the northern end of the island, enjoying the swaying palm trees and lapping waters of the sea.
Cameroon: We had one of the most unusual outings of our entire voyage when we journeyed up the Lobe River by wooden dugout pirogues to a clearing in the forest where we met with a group of the Bagyeli, a forest people often referred to as Pygmies. Smoke rose from behind thatched huts, adding a mystical ambiance to their music and flailing dancers. Singing vocals were backed by the driving rhythms of their drums and percussionists beating rapidly and rhythmically on two long trunks of bamboo. [Read our Daily Expedition Report from this outing in Cameroon, as well as a video of the Bagyeli drumming and dancing with narration by our shipmate, National Geographic Global Luminary, Wade Davis.]Benin: The stilt village of Ganvie rises above the waters of Lake Nokoué just north of Benin’s busy capital. Dugout canoes and wooden pirogues ply the waters around and through the village in a bustle of activity of people fishing or selling housewares. It was a colorful and vibrant scene.
Togo: The Fetish Market abounds with strange and macabre items used in the makings of Vodun (Voodoo) talismans, called fetishes. Some of us found our way into rooms behind the stalls where we were offered an unusual collection of fetishes to protect us during our travels. At the village of Akato Viepe, excited school children gathered around us. The teachers worked to maintain a sense of order, but the children’s glee continued spilling over their cheerful faces. The village had an enormous welcome ceremony for our group, with singing, drumming and great fanfare surrounding the procession of their local chief. That evening, one of the most famous Togolese musicians, King Mensah, and his band played a private concert for us on the ship.
Ghana: The historic theme of slavery was discussed in many presentations on the ship throughout this voyage, but without doubt the most powerful testimony came silently from the darkened rock enclosures of the former slave dungeons that we visited at Cape Coast Castle. It was haunting.
Liberia: Being the first tour ship landing in Liberia, this was an historic visit for Lindblad and National Geographic. But memories are a funny thing, sometimes you most recall the things that might be better forgotten. So it was with Liberia, a country torn by war. There are many nice things we remember, but they don’t jump out in our minds as strongly as these two awkward recollections: 1) The blown out remains of the former luxury Duccor Hotel on the prominent hill overlooking the port and city of Monrovia. 2) Rikki’s blown out shoulder rotator cuff from a fall en route to hear the Vice President speaking in the ship’s lounge. (She worked the remaining 12 days of this trip, and ultimately had it surgically repaired weeks later.) Apparently the Togo traveler’s fetishes didn’t work!
Sierra Leone: The vibrant streets of Freetown offered a mesmerizing show for us as our bus struggled for an hour through the gnarled traffic of crowded downtown. It was an unexpected blessing as we were surrounded by color, movement, and friendly greetings wherever we waved. For a country that has recently suffered through years of war and hardship, it was very encouraging to see so much enterprise and vitality.
In the balmy air on deck after dinner we were treated to a live concert by the famous Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars band. The music lilted out across the pier below, where the night-shift workmen were joyfully dancing too.
The Gambia: We experienced two intriguing and contrasting views in this tiny country. There was the dazzling scene as we walked through a large and busy local market in Serekunda teeming with vendors selling myriad things. The antithesis was strolling leisurely through peaceful woodlands in the nearby Abuko Nature Reserve where birds and monkeys moved tranquilly through the trees.
Senegal: A short boat ride from the port in Dakar took us to nearby Gorée Island, rich in history, and abounding in vivid scenes. Colorful colonial buildings line networks of narrow alleys where goats amble and children play.
We traveled for more days at sea, encountering seabirds, dolphins, and the best views ever of numerous sei whales. (The name “sei” is an old Norse word for pollock fish that were abundant when these whales were sighted.)
Western Sahara: There are no tour busses here, and few people who speak English, so the local agent hired 50 local men with SUVs to caravan us into the desert for a special tented lunch. After visiting so many crowded cities, the sweeping winds across the empty expanses of the Sahara felt like a giant exhalation.
Tenerife, Canary Islands: Who dropped us into Europe? What happened to all of the street vendors, and why is no one carrying anything on their head?
Morocco: We ended our epic voyage, and drove by smooth paved highway to the famed city of Marrakesh. The dizzying liveliness of the enormous, traditional Berber Market, or “Souk,” was captivating, but it was also . . . time to go home.
We’ve tried to whittle-down this long and amazing adventure into a single blog entry, which, however, still ended up being epically long. To see a more of our favorite images, scroll down to the slide show below.