Tracing the West Coast of Africa
Published on Monday, June 11, 2012
Sunday, April 8, 2012 - En route / Douala, Cameroon: We converged on the city of Douala from distant reaches of the planet for the same reason: to experience the culture, wildlife, and landscapes of West Africa. We gathered at the Akwa Palace Hotel, where we bumped into some old friends and made some new ones at the welcome cocktail party, followed by dinner. It was exciting to meet the group with whom we would be sharing this magnificent adventure.
Monday, April 9 - Douala / Embark Clipper Odyssey: After a leisurely breakfast we headed out to tour Douala, the largest city in Cameroon, and also the site of its largest port. The first Europeans to visit the area were the Portuguese in 1472, who also named the country. When they first arrived at the river mouth off what is now Douala, they couldn’t help but notice large numbers of shrimp or, as they call them, camarones.
Our exploration of the city included passing the bustling and chaotic central market. Sprawling, crowded hubs of commerce like this one are certain to be a common sight during our journey through West Africa. We also visited the main cathedral, and passed by the very architecturally-interesting presidential palace. After a stop at a craft market we headed to the port to board our ship, the Clipper Odyssey.
After settling in and a break for lunch, the lounge filled for a Safety Briefing, conducted by Captain Peter Fielding. Our cruise director Lynne Greig gave us an overview of the ship and life onboard, and our expedition leader Mike Messick introduced us to the rest of the staff, as well as to the expedition.
After a Zodiac briefing conducted by John Yersin and a wonderful dinner served in the dining room, we were ready for a good night’s sleep aboard our new home.
Tuesday, April 10 - Príncipe Island, São Tomé & Príncipe: The pouring rain outside our cabin windows helped explain the incredible, lush forest covering every inch of the island of Príncipe. As luck would have it, the rain tapered off before our Zodiac ride ashore and didn’t return the rest of the day. We stepped onto a float, and walked up onto the wooden pier of the Bom Bom Resort, with its rocky shoreline, sandy beaches, and huge trees camouflaging the few buildings of this sleepy outpost.
São Tomé & Príncipe is the smallest Portuguese-speaking nation in the world and the second smallest African nation, after the Seychelles. We spent the day exploring the resort at the northern tip of Príncipe, as well as venturing inland by vehicle to the island’s only real town, Santo António. There, we wandered the streets passing lovely Portuguese architecture and explored the fruit and vegetable market.
From the resort we set off on our respective hikes into the rain forest, the common thread of all the hikes being the spectacular trees, abundant birdlife—including an endemic species of brilliant blue kingfisher—and the mud that had caked onto our shoes by the end of it all. A walk along the gentle breakers at the beach easily washed our shoes for us.
Cold beer and a barbeque of chicken and octopus awaited us. After lunch, activities included swimming in the pool, relaxing on a lounge chair, and admiring the life beneath the waves with our masks and snorkels. Purple sponges and scattered golden coral heads decorated the rocky outcroppings, while a variety of fish darted about. Back onshore, a habituated African gray parrot gave the photographers quite a show, as did a pair of weavers building a nest in a palm next to the bar. It was a challenge to pull ourselves away from this peaceful oasis situated in Africa’s Gulf of Guinea.
Wednesday, April 11- São Tomé: We dropped anchor off São Tomé, the capital city of the island of the same name, where we headed out to explore this fascinating island. While the birders went in search of some of the island’s endemic species, the majority of us drove up into the cooler air of the mountains to visit the Monte Café Coffee Plantation. After sampling some of the locally grown coffee, we headed to the Sao Nicolau Waterfall, which plunged down into a rocky pool surrounded by moss, ferns, and beautiful rain forest trees.
Those who toured the city center saw the pink-and-white presidential palace and a 16th-century cathedral, as well as Fort São Sebastião, which now houses the São Tomé National Museum. Everywhere we went we had a chance to visit with the local people, including opportunities to be swarmed by local children hoping to have their photos taken. A stop to listen to a church choir was a highlight, but perhaps the talk of the day was the island’s chocolate! Most of us stopped to pick up locally made chocolate to sample, and some of us visited the chocolate factory.
Thursday, April 12 - At Sea: As the Clipper Odyssey steamed across the Gulf of Guinea through calm seas, many of us enjoyed a leisurely morning after two busy days. David Conrad kicked off the day’s lecture series with Abomey Kings and Vodun Spirits: Power, Art, and Religion in the Old Kingdom of Dahomey. Jonathan Rossouw followed with Biodiversity and the Bucket List: West Africa’s Wildlife in a Global Context.
After lunch, we enjoyed a showing of the movie, The African Queen. Following an ice cream social, Kevin Clement gathered us back in the lounge for his talk, Rainforest Architecture: It’s a Jungle Out There. From the canopy to the forest understory, Kevin took us through the typical arrangement of this spectacular ecosystem, and focused on some of the important relationships that have evolved in this diverse environment.
After such an educational and entertaining day, we relaxed over dinner before heading off early to bed in anticipation of our landing tomorrow in Benin.
Friday, April 13 - Cotonou, Benin: We awoke to the bustling port city of Cotonou, with the sun rising over numerous tanker ships awaiting their opportunity to offload. We drove through morning traffic, dominated by large trucks and motorcycles, including the abundant motorcycle-taxis called Zémidjans. Vegetable stands lined the side of the road, as did vendors selling jugs of smuggled gasoline from Nigeria, a practice accepted by Benin’s government as they cannot supply nearly enough to meet the demands of the country.
We stopped at a Sacred Forest outside the city of Ouidah, where towering trees hosted roosting straw-colored fruit bats, whose screeches carried far across this impressive place. We were led through a series of Vodun (Voodoo) statues representing several of the religion’s spirits, as well as a museum housed in the Fort of São João Baptista de Ajudá, the former center of the Portuguese and African slave trade in this area. We also stopped along an exposed sandy beach at the Door of No Return, the site from which slaves had been shipped across the Atlantic.
After lunch on a beautiful hotel patio along the coast, we drove out to the shore of marshy Lake Nokoué and boarded small covered boats for the ride out to the lake village of Ganvie. The name of this community of 30,000 people, situated far from the shore, translates to “free at last," and refers to the fact that this place was a safe haven from slave traders.
Dugout canoes with sails plied past us with the breeze, while long wooden poles were used to move the canoes back up against the wind. Fish traps and nets were everywhere, and the marsh vegetation seemed to go on forever in all directions. Stilted houses sat perched above the water, and we watched a traditional Voodoo mask dance. As the dancers in bright costumes spun and gyrated to the drumbeats, we had no doubt that we were at the epicenter of West Africa’s Voodoo religion.
Saturday, April 14 - Lomé, Togo: The port city of Lomé is the most important shipping harbor in Togo, and is vital to trade for several landlocked countries to the north. We drove out into the city, passing a wide sandy beach packed with people spending their Saturday playing soccer. While the birders headed out for a full day exploring the countryside, the rest of us made stops at the old colonial administration buildings and the modern-looking Independence Square. We also encountered the cement wall marking the boundary between Lomé and the country of Ghana, a stone’s throw away to the west.
We stopped at a local school where the young students, all dressed in their tan uniforms, sang a number of lively songs upon our arrival. After presenting the school with soccer balls and school supplies, we wandered the school grounds, visited their classrooms, and mingled with the students, who were only too happy to see their own faces on our digital cameras.
A wander through the chaotic Grande Marché gave us an inside look into daily life in Togo, while a tour around the fetish market, with its piles of bones and skins, provided us a better understanding of the Voodoo religion.
Following lunch, we traveled to a local village to witness a Voodoo ceremony in the flesh. With a backdrop of contagious drumbeats and chanting, numerous dancers in assorted costumes moved passionately to the rhythm. A lucky few of us were invited up to partake in the dance, while both adults and children from the community looked on, tapping their feet to the music.
Back on the Clipper Odyssey, a local dance and percussion group performed for us out on the pool deck. Cameras flashed and wine glasses clinked, as we celebrated this exciting day spent in West Africa’s Togo.
Sunday, April 15 - Accra, Ghana: Accra is Ghana’s capital and, with a population of over 2.3 million, the largest city. Some of us headed for nature exploration at the Shai Nature Reserve and a beautiful botanical garden, while the rest of us visited an Accran coffin builder where we learned from our Italian guide that, “Ghanaians spend as much on funerals as Italians do on weddings.” We also learned that people here approach the event with a sense of humor, as the coffins were made into the likeness of everything from Coke bottles to movie projectors to chickens. The owner and chief coffin producer told us that his coffin was going to be the shape of a hand plane, a tool used for sanding wood.
We also visited the mausoleum of one of Ghana’s most important political figures, Kwame Nkrumah, who was the first president of the country and a leading promoter of Pan-Africanism. We wandered through the gardens admiring the sculptures and fountains, and also visited a small museum.
In James Town we wandered on foot through a small-scale fish smoking operation, and ended at a viewpoint that provided spectacular views over the beach and the countless wooden boats lining it. We also watched a musical group drumming and dancing in a small public square under the hot tropical sun. Afterwards we visited a bead-making operation out in the countryside run by Krobo craftsmen. Beads are made from finely ground glass from old bottles or scrap glass. The beads are created in molds made from a local clay, and are fired in an oven and then polished. We were able to watch the production from start to finish, and there was a small shop on the grounds where we could purchase beads to take home with us.
Monday, April 16 - Takoradi: We got an early start this morning, heading out from the city of Takoradi to explore the countryside of southwest Ghana. Some of us drove inland past oil palm plantations and small villages to arrive at what is perhaps Ghana’s most important national park, Kakum. We gathered in a clearing, where agama lizards basked in the sun and countless varieties of butterflies flitted past. Beneath towering rain forest trees decorated in vines and epiphytes, we meandered the forest trails, stopping to admire everything from ants to praying mantises to stranger figs. Soon the trail leveled out and we arrived at the park’s key attraction, a canopy walkway. The construction of rope and cable allowed us to walk along through the very tops of this luxuriant forest, reaching heights 130 feet above the forest floor. Seven bridges ran a length of over 1,000 feet, every step exhilarating both because of the view, and the adventure of exploring so high above the ground.
We also had the opportunity to visit the Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle, both World Heritage Sites. We wandered through the various arched rooms of the castles, learning more about the trade in timber and gold (and later slaves) that went on in these halls. The Atlantic slave trade that took place in this area was a sobering part of West Africa’s history.
We then walked through the nearby village of Elmina, including a local fish market where women gathered the day’s catch from the brightly-colored fishing boats and displayed them in large metal tubs, before re-boarding the buses for the trip back to the Clipper Odyssey.
Tuesday, April 17 - Abidjan, Ivory Coast: During the early morning hours, we passed through the canal that leads into the huge inner harbor where the city of Abidjan is situated. Considered a cultural hub of West Africa, Abidjan is the largest city in the Ivory Coast, and the third largest French-speaking city in the world.
Our first stop was a stretch of river where a large outdoor laundry was taking place. Rocks and truck tires set in the river served as tabletops on which dozens of men scrubbed clothes with a dark gray soap made from palm oil. Clothes were drying on the grass or on shreds of plastic scattered along the river’s edge.
We then drove out to Grand Basam, the first French colonial capital of the country. We wandered the quaint streets admiring the colonial architecture, stopping in a warehouse where artisans were creating batiks. We watched intently as they melted wax on small charcoal fires and applied it with brushes to the fabric. We also visited a local pottery-making operation, and mingled with curious school children we encountered on the street. We stopped at a handicraft market, and judging by the number of batiks and wooden masks being shown around on the bus afterwards, we certainly did our part to support the local community.
For lunch, we dined over lentils, fish, and fried plantains in a magnificent restaurant designed to make it feel like we were eating amidst the large buttress roots of rain forest trees. A drum and dance performance began on stage, and the energy of the show intensified as it went. More than one member of the staff was overhead saying that this dance performance was the best they’d ever seen!
Wednesday, April 18- At Sea: After breakfast, Olga Stavrakis gathered us in the lounge for her presentation, The Sweet Side of Slavery. Kevin followed with his talk, It’s Not Easy Being Beautiful: Tropical Plants of Africa.
Over the lunch hour, large flocks of seabirds and a whale were spotted; Captain Peter maneuvered the ship so we could get an up-close look at a mother and calf sei whale, a species that feeds in high latitudes but comes to the tropics to breed and give birth.
Later in the afternoon, Rich Pagen gave his lecture entitled, West Africa’s Ecological Fringe: A Transect from the Coast to the Blue Water, and David ended the day with The Peoples and Cultures of West Africa. We then donned our most colorful West African attire for a very festive mid-voyage cocktail party out on the pool deck.
Thursday, April 19 - At Sea: We pulled back the curtains on another beautiful day out at sea on the Atlantic Ocean. The day’s lecture program began with Jonathan’s presentation, Africa: The Bird Continent. David followed with his talk, Chasing Spirits Through the Mandé Landscape: Serendipitous Etho-History in Guinea and Mali.
The weather was gorgeous and we all enjoyed a scrumptious barbeque on the pool deck for lunch. With our piano player Jun livening up the event, we mingled under the sun over pasta, grilled chicken, and beer.
During mid-afternoon the expedition team gave a sneak preview of future Zegrahm trips, which was interrupted by a call from the bridge that a huge pod of dolphins had been spotted. As we approached them, this 400+ strong school of long-beaked common dolphins came to the bow and rode right along with us. It was truly a sight to behold!
Olga followed up with the final lecture of the day, Land and Food in Sub-Saharan Africa. Before dinner, we tried to sort out the truth from the lies in a hilarious and rowdy game of The Liar’s Club, hosted by MC extraordinaire, Kevin.
Friday, April 20 - Aberdeen, Sierra Leone: We awoke to find the Clipper Odyssey at anchor off the attractive mountainous coastline of Sierra Leone, with Aberdeen, a suburb of the capital city of Freetown, a short Zodiac ride away. Aboard buses, we bounced along past smiling faces and waving arms en route to a stop at a medical clinic run by a non-profit organization called Greatest Goal Ministries. We had the opportunity to hear about the clinic’s work, which includes free medical treatment and exams, as well as raising funds to support the thousands who became amputees or disabled from Sierra Leone’s decade long civil war (1991-2002).
We drove further inland and up into the mountains to visit the rehabilitation program at the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary. The population of wild chimpanzees has gone from an estimated 20,000 in the early 1970s to fewer than 3,000 today. At the sanctuary, we were able to wander between several enclosures to watch these magnificent creatures, while learning more about the rehabilitation process from the Tacugama staff.
Finally, we headed to the beach where two teams in the Amputee Football League were playing a game. Sand was flying in all directions as these incredible athletes gave it everything they had. The game ended in a tie, and the trophy was shared by both teams. We felt very inspired as we met the players and wished them hearty congratulations.
Back on the ship, we had a relaxing lunch that was followed in the late afternoon by a panel discussion on African geo-politics, then recap before dinner.
Saturday, April 21 - At Sea: After embracing the refreshing morning breeze, we listened to David who gave his presentation entitled, D’mba as Matrix of West African Womanhood: Gateway to the Spirit World. Olga followed with a talk on African Cities. Following lunch on deck under glorious sunshine, many of us got comfortable in the lounge to watch Blood Diamond. Afternoon tea led us into the lounge for Rich’s talk, Beyond West Africa’s Big Five: The Charismatic Mammals of West Africa’s Marine Realm. We then donned our finest attire to join Captain Peter at the farewell cocktail party. We mingled over champagne and stories of our time in West Africa, before heading downstairs for a superb gala dinner.
Sunday, April 22 - Banjul, The Gambia: The smallest country on mainland Africa, The Gambia is long and narrow. The birders disembarked before sunrise for a full day excursion out into the wilds of the countryside. The rest of us disembarked later for our respective morning outings. Some of us explored the city of Banjul, stopping at the National Museum, as well as a local market. Others headed to the Makasuto Culture Forest and took a spectacular boat ride through the mangroves. This was followed by a demonstration of the process of making palm wine, and a tasting. Finally, they watched a dance performance while sampling some excellent local African food and drink.
Others took a long boat ride through the mangroves and went for a hike in the Abuko Nature Reserve. Several species of monkeys were spotted, as well as some of Africa’s quintessential birds, hornbills and turacos.
After lunch, we boarded Zodiacs for a ride ashore to the two villages of Albreda and Juffureh. We explored a museum and had a chance to meet the descendents of Kunta Kinte, known from the 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family.
Back on the ship, we gathered for cocktails, and listened to local musicians perform on the back deck. The sun dropped to the horizon, and soon we left the river mouth en route to Senegal.
Monday, April 23 - Dakar, Senegal / Disembark: We awoke in the huge port of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and nearly as far west as one can go on the African continent. The birders left the ship early, but the rest of us had time to pack before boarding a ferry for the ride out to Gorée Island. The sun was shining and a refreshing breeze was blowing as the ferry pulled up alongside a simple pier surrounded by quaint, brightly colored buildings separated by narrow alleyways.
We stopped in at the House of Slaves, with its winding stairways and pink stucco, learning a bit about the role this building played in the slave trade. We then wandered the village, passing massive baobab trees and vendors selling beads, fabric, and woodcarvings. We stopped at a sand-painting operation and the Catholic Church before entering the museum housed in the round stone fort out on the point. From the top of the fort, we could look back across the village, as well as out to sea where several small fishing boats pulled in their nets in the company of thousands of terns and gulls.
After a quick lunch, many of us headed out for an afternoon tour of Dakar, which included a visit to the Grand Mosque and the Presidential Palace, as well as a tour through the university area. Others remained onboard, opting for a quiet afternoon on the ship instead. Following an early dinner, we finished our packing in preparation for our upcoming evening or early morning flights.
We reached the end of our exploration of the West Coast of Africa. The final days of this expedition have been dominated by reflection on all we have seen and experienced, and celebration of the friends, both new and old, with whom we shared this journey.