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Africa [i] Some things you might want to know in the way of backpacking, budget travel country specific advice, tips and info for: West Africa - Benin/Togo, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, The Gambia, Ghana, Mali and Senegal.

You can also see East, Southern and North Africa in other sections.

» It is worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based on - or for other travel advice and sites head for travelindependent.info. Thanks to Piers Newberry for his excellent insights and information. Some of which you will find republishing below.


[book] What follows are only basis snap shot summaries. If you have decided these are some of the countries you want to visit and need more planning information then you are strongly recommended to complement what you find here with a planning guide. Trust us it will make life much easier. If you are set on going and need a guidebook or reading material please see a list of recommended guides/books here (go on have a look!). All guides/books can be viewed in more detail and click-through purchased with Amazon in the UK, US or Canada. Plus shopping through the site is a big thank you (if you have been helped out), to see why click here.



* West Africa

 * Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region

Editorial / author's note:

Travelling for the sake of travelling and seeing as much of this kaleidoscope of a world we all live in is about the only reason most of us ever need to travel. Variation is always the inspiration. It's amazing at just how different (and of course similar) life is across the globe. It's a great feeling to know this first hand and at least get a foot on each of the world's major regions. With this in mind, West Africa with all its mystic, alluring place names and sense of adventure is somewhere ignored... or perhaps just forgotten, tucked away in a corner, way off any round-the-world ticket and just waiting to be explored. For most English speaking travellers it's way down the list. Let's be fair it's hot, on the whole comparably expensive (certainly to fly to) and with few noteworthy attractions. What you'll read about West Africa - the crime, disease, conflicts, poverty and lack of infrastructure - might also worry you to a certain extent. Having noted all this, many are still very much attracted to the region and what they imagine will be a lot of virgin ground, few travellers and many of those friendly African smiles encountered so many other places on this dark continent.

This intro is here because it is felt in the case of West Africa some general impressions needed to be summarised, rather than just 'country-by-country': certainly considering how little there is to write from a mainstream traveller's point of view about each country and how reasonably similar most of them are.

West Africa - GlobeAs mentioned, many will have feelings of slight trepidation before setting off to West Africa, but most will probably on the whole be looking forwards to going after hearing or reading many second-hand glowing reports. A large proportion of these reports don't perhaps paint a full picture, focusing on individual instances or reflection rather than travel in general/reality and this is a useful point to communicate some of the reality without any - for want of a better phrase - 'hardcore smug retrospect backpacker coolness'.

Okay where to start? Firstly, and taking nothing away from the fact everyone should visit this incredible (for many of the wrong reasons) region - French West Africa from a budget independent travel perspective is on the whole not fun, not easy, not cheap and certainly no picnic. Whatever the complications of getting around, basic facilities, lack of tourist infrastructure, etc., anywhere else in the world they are magnified ten-fold in French West Africa to a point that experiences under the hot African sun can go beyond enjoyable, particularly if your knowledge of French is not good enough to get the best from the region which is often the people. Add this to some pretty unforgiving weather and you have a real challenge of a trip on your hands and no 'holiday'. A good sense of humour and attitude helps immensely, but at times you'll need at extraordinary sense of humour as routine situations like getting around, sleeping or crossing a border can go way beyond funny.

A great if somewhat circumstantial example, is that when travelling worldwide and socialising with other travellers, stories always get shared or re-told. Tales of funny, dangerous or unbelievable experiences. These are almost always second hand, normally third hand and occasionally you'll recognise them as directly out of the Lonely Planet! When in West Africa you'll have the same conversations with the other travellers you'll meet, yet almost all of the stories are told about first hand recent experiences. Stories such as a one day bush taxi journey taking three, being kept for a day incorrectly at an airport in the hope of a bribe, being dumped on the road side at one AM, waiting two hours for a sandy omelette in a restaurant, waiting endlessly for a bush taxi to fill up... the list goes on. It's very much West Africa - for every good experience there are a thousand complications and when sitting in the midday heat, on a hard bench, covered with flies surrounded by children in an awful state and waiting for those three bush taxi seats to fill up having been there at seven that morning - it makes you think hmmm, this is past an experience and really not that much fun. But of course it is an experience and whereas these experiences are more frequent and less pleasant than travel in other parts of the world you just need to see it in retrospect and understand they make up as much of a part of travel as seeing any famous monument. It's West Africa - just be prepared, have a healthy budget and don't under-estimate the fact you are in the world's poorest region where things are done differently and life is very, very different to the rest of the world - only parts of the Asian Subcontinent even come close, but at least they are fairly well set up for tourists and cheap - French West Africa comparatively speaking is not.

A few notes to keep in mind... French West Africa is constantly referred to, Ghana on the other hand which is English speaking in compared to the former French territories is a real joy - but more about this later. Cameroon (part English speaking), which is still pending a write-up also comes recommended in many parts.

Please remember, what is presented here is only an opinion and a reflection of other travellers interviewed. The core principle of this website, guide, call it what you will, is not to shy away from or pour 'tourist brochure' gloss over any subject. Nevertheless, the only opinion that really matters is yours and the only way you can accurately gauge it is to go for yourself (you certainly won't regret it and will likely rank the time as some of the most 'interesting' you'll have spent abroad.)

However with the above in mind, the reality of travel is that to do/go everything/everywhere we want, more than often requires more time and money than at any normal person's disposal. This site is about making informed choices - knowing before you go and getting the best from your time and money.

Read on, ask around and make your own mind up.

The real West Africa, the music, age old traditions, dances, mystique are hard to track down and for this reason planning your trip around a festival or at the very least a major market makes a big difference to your impressions. Please note that because of the limited time able to be spent in each country (there are very few if any places to 'hang-out', and not so many places that are worthy of the extreme effort it takes to get there) these summaries are admittedly quite brief. Okay enough said... still want to go? - good for you, now read on for the good bits.


 15 'Must Knows for West Africa'

1). Speak French well - Very few people in the Francophone countries speak English. Now, even with reasonable French, it can be quite hard to get a bottle of water! Why because the enunciation is often not clear, and you may have to haggle. You will manage with poor French but there is a big difference between managing and enjoying your trip.

2). Probably the hardest area in the world to travel. - Bus services are getting better, but if getting a little off the beaten track you can be sitting in a small beat up van for a few hours before departure and driven very slowly around roads of variable quality. You are packed in like no where else. There are big comfortable buses now on most routes, and it worth working out how to avoid small buses as much as possible. Guidebooks are useless compared to good French in finding them!

3). Few other travellers to meet. - There are very few people travelling in West Africa. Not a great place to go if you want to meet other people.

4). Guides/touts everywhere. - Don't let them put you off, as by and large they are a minor irritation, and sometimes you enjoy the challenge of getting rid of them. Basically someone comes up to you in the street, pretends to be chatty, asks you lots of questions about your age, name, nationality, and generally befriends you. After which they will finally mention that they have a shop "just around the corner".

5). Working cashpoints - There are plenty of working ATMs, but don't rely on everyone in every town to work. Take Euros and an ATM card on the visa network. The CEFA currency is used almost everywhere and it really cuts down hassle.

6). Rip off - The problem in some countries/areas is that everyone wants to rip you off. Behind this is the culture of 'the rich SHOULD give to the poor'. It's their tradition. So if they ask for 2 dollars for water, they don't see it as a rip off, just rebalancing the money distribution. If you are on a tight budget you will have to work pretty hard to get the right price on things.

Two examples of West Africa money 'distribution' - sitting down under a deserted hut roof (not even any walls) in the middle of no where. Woman appears and says it will cost you to use this shade. Or in the middle of nowhere, at a very small waterfall, you will find some guy who has waited all day just for your US 20 cents? Someone will follow you into a shop and speak in the local dialect to the shop keeper - 'Hey shopkeeper I brought this tourist here, charge him double and give half to me'.

7.) Cost of Water -Water is between 40 and 60 Euros per person per month, or for two people for three months that is about 300 Euros! It works out much cheaper and much more convenient to buy a filter, and take some purification tabs as well just in case. It is also much better for the environment.

On your bike! Add Many thanks to Piers Newberry for allowing this (slightly edited) republishing of advice from his trip through West Africa.


8.) Best place to Go? - Best - Benin - easily the best - plenty to see. People delightful, cheap and clean! A world traveller begged me not to tell anyone, but hey Benin deserves more than zero tourism. Go there. A close rival: Cameroon. Not so exciting - Burkina Faso. Hard work: Mali

9). Visa Entente - You can get them within a Visa Entente country usually at the Togolese embassy or the Burkina embassy and definitely at the TOGO EMBASSY IN GHANA. They deal them out in four hours. Cool. This visa covers Burkina, Togo, Benin, Niger, and the Ivory coast, so long as you just go from one to the other and do not leave the entente area. It saves some money and lots of time and hassle.

10). Oh that's what you said. - Even if you speak perfect French you will have trouble with the numbers. They do not use your French teacher's clear tones. Phonetically 100 = ss-on; 500 = ss-on ss-on; 600 = see ss-on; 700 = sai ss-on

11). Always find out the price - Annoyingly many places to eat often do not have a price list. Always check the prices of anything you order or they will, about 50% of the time, try and charge a huge amount of money.

12). Rise and Shine - The air is much cooler in the morning and it is a good idea to do what the locals do and get up at sunrise. Most of the buses leave extremely early as well so it becomes a natural habit to embrace. They may often use the worst minibus for the last bus (often mid-morning) of the day as people don't have a choice to wait for a better one later.

13). Almost no where to buy books - There are a few book exchanges in Mali, but elsewhere you will be hard pushed to find English books outside Ghana/Nigeria.

14). Take breakfast with you - Sometimes it is inconvenient to have breakfast as some buses leave extremely early, and it can also be irritating to find yourself in a restaurant for an hour at that time of day. For what you get, bread and coffee it is also a bit of a waste of money. Recommend is a small heating element, tea/coffee, powdered milk and a mug. This doesn't weigh very much and will pay for itself very quickly.

15). Consider Overlanding - If feasible and you feel confident enough to bring your own car or buy one locally you will get to see a lot more and experience less hassle.





» General/Generic Info

Bush taxis are normally Peugeot 504s (that have been made in Nigeria or driven from France), or at least the main type anyone with any sense/money would take, over mini-buses or pick-ups. The quality of these vehicles ranges from whimsically forlorn to past belief. In fact the state of bush taxis in West Africa will probably be your most entertaining experience each day.

A Peugeot 504 or cent-quatre as they are known have three rows of seats and are designed to take seven plus the driver, but in many countries this is flagrantly flaunted. Mali springs to mind where the driver plus nine is the norm and even worse in Guinea they go for ten plus! Normally the wealthier the country the fewer people they squeeze in. The quality of the car will affect the comfort, but on the whole even with seven in the car (three in each row and one in the front) long trips are very uncomfortable and the front seat even if shared is the best place. If you worry about safety perhaps just don't go to West Africa, doors won't open, tyres are bald, and there is normally a hole in the floor somewhere. Drivers vary, some dangerous, some okay.

To see for yourself please view photos of a mini-bus and bâchés.

Sometimes mini-buses are used as big bush taxis, these are cheaper and sometimes more comfortable, but take longer and are rarer. Much more common are pick-ups (bâchés). With wooden seats, these are so past 2nd class that after a few hours you would rather be walking (you sometimes figure you would get there faster - bâchés are slow and take a lot of time at road blocks). They take about 16 passengers and a lot of luggage. Without beating around the bush: travelling on all the above is pretty unpleasant, but none more so that a bâchés and sometimes they are the only option. Best advice, just remember a bad day travelling is better than a good day at work! (or so they say). Remember you're in Africa, get in to the local humour and as your arse slams onto the hard wooden bench, as your pick-up hits a huge pot hole, a chicken bites your leg and a bag of millet land on you just think.......



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» Benin/Togo A bus journey in Mali

  • Typical tourist trail: From Ghana to Lomé then across to Aného, then Benin (Ouidah, Cotonou & Abomey)

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: Like Ghana the best time to go is probably over the summer. Most of the rain comes in June and May. It's pretty hot all year round, but March/April are the worst.

  • Costs: Can be ultra-cheap or quite expensive. Accommodation seems to be better value in Togo. There is good food to tempt you at twice the price of Ghanaian eating out. From €20-30 per day.

  • Money: ATM's in Lomé and Cotonou. TCs change in bigger cities, otherwise have cash (CFA or Euros)

  • Getting around: In both countries bush taxis are the de-facto methods of getting around. These however in the south are quite fast (good roads), fill up quickly, okay vehicles and not unreasonably priced. However, the very south of these two countries is very different than the north where the population is scarcer, bush taxis take much longer to fill up and roads wind through hills. Either way, by West African standards getting around is fairly easy. In Cotonou, motto-taxis can be used for short trips as in Asian cities. Great fun.

  • Guide book: Lonely Planet or Rough Guide - West Africa

  • Media: Only French language publications.

  • People vibe:

    • Locals: Many report the Togolese to be friendly, however neither of the two countries inhabitants are over-friendly (especially the Beninese), however as elsewhere in Africa it is not uncommon to meet ultra-friendly individuals. Still a long way to go to get to Ghanaian standards.

    • Other travellers: Fine (not too many of them, many French/Belgium or Peace Corps.)

  • Tourist factor: 5/10 (2/10 in the north)

  • Communications: Internet in Lomé and Cotonou and others. Not bad standard, forget it away from the biggest cities.

  • Accommodation: An okay range to be found in most southern towns, much more basic and harder to find in the north.

    • Average cost: Under CFA10,000 for a basic room CFA10-20,000 for a nice one.

Visa Strategy

Benin visa strategy: Time on a Benin visa is a little tighter than a Togo one, but is easy to get at the border. However try as you might you will only get a transit visa with 48 hours on it when crossing from Togo or Nigeria (although you could probably get away with leaving at any time on your day of expiration - thus giving you up to 59 hours). If crossing from Niger or Burkina Faso then, first of all good luck, these are tough routes, but you will get a 7 day visa. The cost of an on the border visa is about CFA10-15,000. If you do have a Benin embassy in your home country (note there are few Benin embassies in Africa) you could get a longer visa there in advance at a cost of about US$15-30. We have heard reports that it is possible and also reports it is not possible to get a visa at the airport. If flying from outside of Africa you will probably not be let on the plane without a visa anyway.

All this said, to avoid the hassle and cost of getting a visa extension you can fit in most of Benin's highlights as listed above (apart from a national park) on a transit visa. Benin is not instantly the most appealing of places (certainly not Cotonou where most hit first) and for many the 50 odd hours you can get on a visa coming from Togo is plenty of time to see a few sights (in the south distances are not so great) and leave. Just taking a little look and spending most of your time in Ghana is probably good advice, we are sure there are those who rave about Benin out there.

Togo visa strategy: Unless you are African you will need a visa. Luckily these are available at all major border-crossings: Ghana: Aflao/Lomé, Benin: Hilla-Condji, Burkina Faso: Sinkasse and the international airport. You should get a week visa, (if not ask for it) which is extendable and costs about CFA10-15,000. For tourist purposes it is unlikely you will need more than a week and many choose to leave to Benin and re-enter within the seven days without needing another visa. This is very handy in a region where visa costs really mount up and when few backpackers will continue onto Nigeria, most head back to Ghana and just check-out Benin.

Both Benin and Togo are on the Visa Entente (this visa also covers BF, Niger, and the Ivory coast).

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» Burkina Faso

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* Miss at your peril: Scenery and hiking on [amongst others] Santo Antão - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

» Cape VerdeCape Verde

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»Mali

Where to start other than to say Mali really is not real fun to travel within and - Dogon country and a vibrant music scene aside - the only 'wow' will probably be your thoughts on how the population endures what can seem like such an inhospitable place. This is of course a personal take, no doubt a few hard-core French speaking travellers may disagree, but certainly this is the most consistent opinion of travellers. Why is this then?

Well at the heart of it there are four main issues, all largely endemic to French West Africa, but exaggerated many times in Mali. 1) The country is extremely poor and the traveller infrastructure is very basic, this means a basic lack of good cheap places to eat/sleep or ways to get around. The feeling of adventure you get from travelling with locals or sleeping in very basic hot rooms soon wears off after a few weeks. 2) Malians do vary dramatically through the country, but certainly in tourist areas there is a lot of hassle (Mopti and Timbuktu in particular). This hassle really can get too much at times. 3) The fact that it is quite clearly a desperately poor country (aside from Niger and the Sudan more so than possibly most travellers ever experiences first hand), coupled with the strength of the CFA as a currency means although what you might expect would be cheap travel it can be quite expensive. Transport (private), decent accommodation, imported food (so most decent food) and trekking Dogon country will leave you feeling quite poor. 4) All this on top of seeing 95% of the population living in extreme poverty.

Anything else? To summarise: travellers more than often have expectations way too high of Mali. It's very hard work, relatively crowded, hard to get around, not cheap and more often than not - on first impression - unfriendly. Nevertheless travellers' experiences will vary and it is never encouraged that anyone gives anywhere a miss.

Add Comment: I think you provide a wealth of practical info and great advice on your site, but I think some of your reporting on West Africa is a bit irresponsible. In particular, I was very upset by how you categorically slammed Mali, implying that it is good for a quick visit to a few sites and that's all. I appreciate that you at least included one reader comment to the contrary, but I think the entire section needs to be reworked with a more balanced approach. Malians have become some of my best friends and I have been consistently humbled and astonished by their generosity. Also, I am blown away that nothing is said about the music, which is phenomenal in all regions of the country. Lastly, your accommodation section needs to be updated as there are many affordable and comfortable options in Bamako, Mopti, Sevare and Segou.

  • Dogan Country, Mali Visa strategy: Visas are required by everyone. To get one you need to go to an embassy and apart from Belgium, America and France you are unlikely to have an embassy in your home country. You could travel or post your passport to your nearest embassy and get the visa that way, but the best bet is to get it on the road in a neighbouring country such as Senegal. If you fly direct to Mali you will not be allowed on the plane without a visa, flying from a neighbouring country you might get away with it and get a visa at the airport, but not recommended to take the chance. Two things to remember getting your visa on the ground in West Africa: it can take a few days and costs do vary per country. Last check: Dakar CFA7,500 - Ouagh CFA20,000 (the Lonely Planet is a good reference to check visa prices). You will need a Yellow Fever certificate.

  • Typical tourist trail: Either from Burkina Faso to Dogon Country and Mopti or from Senegal to Bamako to Mopti/Djenne and Dogon Country. Most will wish to get to Timbuktu, but few will actually make it due to cost and impracticability. Even fewer make it to Gao and elsewhere, those who do explore off the beaten track find the going very hard.

  • Tourist factor: Considering the compact circuit taken by most 7/10, outside this 2/10. In December at some of the more picturesque Dogon villages expect 9/10.

  • Costs: €35-45. For a third world, developing country Mali is not cheap and if your want to take a reputable Dogon guide, travel by private car for the odd trip or fly/boat to Timbuktu then a shoestring budget will get you nowhere (you would want to double the first figure given). You can live cheaper in Mali, but with standards being so poor and the climate so hot, basic accommodation and transport can be and often are unbearable even for the most hard-core traveller.

  • Getting around: Tough. Buses ply main routes, but are very basic and take a long time. Always go for the best companies i.e. 'Bittar' - ask locals. But these will make you wonder what the worst companies are like! Bush taxis are plentiful and another way of getting around for shorter trips such as Mopti to Djenne. However, these are more expensive than elsewhere in West Africa, in a worse state and can take forever to fill up unless on a market day. It is possible to book a place on a bush taxi for a return journey or next day trip and worthwhile - still expect to wait though.

The third option is a private car which is offered at every turn. These are pricey even when shared, but the most comfortable way to get around. Refuse payment unless the driver drives with at least some idea of safety, as road accidents are common. Most travellers will need a private car to get at least back from Dogon country, thus adding to the price of such a trip. The same goes with Timbuktu using a bush/private Land Rover.

The last option is to use the Niger River to get most famously from Mopti to Timbuktu/Gao. This is a subject in itself as different boats will sail at different times of the year pending on the height of the river. It is the larger boats that travel from around September to Christmas that are the most bearable and worthwhile. The much smaller boats are very basic and can take over a week to make the Mopti - Timbuktu journey. Braving storms, sleeping on the river bank, sound fun - trust us the reality is not!

  • Accommodation: Availability of comfortable budget accommodation has improved dramatically, but off the beaten track expect basic levels or poor vale. Most of it falls at the lower end of mid-range. In centres such as Mopti and Bamako there are plenty of hotels, but expect to pay over €30 for an okay (by basic standards) air-con room. Cheaper sleeps are often very hot stuffy dorms in convents, but newer traveller focuseds establishments (The Sleeping Camel in Bamako) are springing up. Prices are higher still in Timbuktu.

    • Average cost: €15 - €40. If you want a semi-western standard with air-corn expect €35 - €45. Do bargain and don't expect too much. Standards in West Africa really are very different to the rest of the world.



To Timbuktu or not to Timbuktu?

The pros and cons plus how to get there: Almost everyone is going to want to go to Timbuktu. It's almost impossible to put someone off before they realise fully what Mali is like to travel in. Timbuktu is the most expensive place in Mali and eating/sleeping are priced quite high. There is not much to see or do, the town itself takes about an afternoon to get round and see. Trips out to the dessert are not particularly special (not compared to Egypt, Mauritania or elsewhere) and are over-priced. In Timbuktu everything is business - no one is going to help you for free. And just like the rest of Mali, it is very poor which does not make walking around pleasant. Nevertheless it's TIMBUKTU!

How to get there depends on a few factors. How much cash/time you have and what time or year it is. If is September to about Christmas when the water is high enough (this changes each year and the window may be longer or shorter) then the best way is to take a big boat from Mopti. It takes about three days and in one of the higher classes is quite pleasant with some interesting things to see on the way. If you are visiting outside of this window and the river is low and you still want to go by river there a small boat service, but they really are small, slow and very uncomfortable.

The Lonely Planet and Rough Guide have enough written on these two options to save writing too much here. If the river is low taking a Land Rover from Mopti is the better option. This is quite expensive, very bumpy and takes a lot of time and effort to arrange seeing as every seat has to get sold. This should get you there in one long day (if you don't have any problems).

Travellers normally come back with a Land Rover after taking a big boat there. The best option is of course to fly, but prices and flight timings don't make this all that practical. Many services to Timbuktu have gone out of business in recent years, but there is at least one small aircraft that travels weekly from Bamako to Mopti to Timbuktu and back. It flies over the weekend and if you catch the first return back you have little time (less than two days), the next return gives you about five days (way too long). Because it is a small plane it can fill up especially before it gets to Mopti, it can also be cancelled due to limited numbers, weather conditions or other factors like sand on the runway. Expect about US$250+. It's easy to arrange a flight in Bamako or Mopti.

If you want to arrange a boat or Land Rover don't worry: they will find you in Mopti or even Bamako, before you find them. One tip: - as with all third world buses, but more so here) don't believe a word you are told on travel times by those hawking the transport. Find someone who has done it and ask them. Another tip: for those in the know - forget Timbuktu and head for Agadez in Niger. Still a pain to get to, but much more interesting.

Dangers

Like most other big African cities, Bamako has issues with crime (mainly at night), but the country is on the whole safe and the biggest risk comes from bad Dogon guides who can leave you after the first day or spend the whole time drunk. Another 'broad-daylight' risk is paying over the odds for anything and everything as most Malians see white skin as a chance to rip you off blind. The number of people who in Bamako will offer Dogon guides with rates ten or more times over the going rate makes you feel as if you are seen as being born yesterday. Few independent travellers ever get this way, but north of Timbuktu, the western border area with Mauritania and the eastern border with Niger are considered very unsafe.

Trekking Dogon Country:

Trekking in Dogon County is a serious highlight of West Africa and fascinating glance into a culture most of us can only imagine. Remember three things. Firstly, it will only be a glance, secondly you will do limited 'trekking' due to the heat and thirdly Dogon Country has become a bit of a theme or ethnic safari park particularly during the Christmas high/cool season.

Getting a guide: Arranging a trip to Dogon country is a minefield all independent travellers are going to have to tread through. Almost as soon as you cross into Mali you will be quizzed about a Dogon trek. Arranging Dogon guides or guiding is a great source of income for Malians and everyone wants a slice of the pie not just those who are Dogon. Entry towns to Dogon country are some of the most difficult places in Africa in terms of everyone wanting something from you. Getting a good guide is key to a good Dogon Trek. He needs to be a Dogon of course (quite a few aren't - all swear they are) so he can speak the language and maybe let you meet his family and friends and he needs to a friendly, motivated guy. How can you gauge all this - how can you pick out a good guide? Especially when you get off the bus in somewhere like Koro or Bandigara with twenty or so would be guides swarming around you? Most will have bits of paper with written testament to their guiding skills from previous travellers. Some will be more chilled out than others and almost anyone who talks to you will want to be your guide or recommend one. The whole thing is very tough to judge and the only sure fire way is to talk to someone who has already done a trek and get a recommendation from them. Pick a guide who is friendly, chilled out and does not try to joke you with ultra-high prices when first asked. There are many bad guides out there that can really ruin your trip. Don't pay everything up front and go with your intuition. There is a list of approved guides and a black list register, but this is only of limited help and not very accessible. Having said all this you don't need a guide 100%, you can trek without one, but run the risk of limited knowledge and committing cultural errors such as entering sacred places (many Dogons may tell you, you are in a sacred place when even you are not to influence you picking them as a guide). Very few trek without a guide. A guide will cost between 10-20,000CFA per day, but the cost of a private car if coming from Mopti will push this up and a large group will push this figure down. This is a package rate for everything including food and will include the fees to visit villages and sleep at night. Simple guiding rates and porter rates are between CFA5-10,000. A flat rate guide cost system introduced has widely been ignored and good guides will charge as much as they can get away with and because everyone wants a good guide they normally get what they ask.

What to expect: Treks normally range from three days to five plus. Many come a long way just for a Dogon trek and seem to want to get as much from it as they can - often taking treks for a week or longer which is by many standards much longer than needed. A three night four day trek is enough and you can cover a great deal if fit and with a motivated guide. A trek will start with a private car, donkey cart or bush taxi to an entry village such as Djiguibombo (Jigi-bom-bom - what a great name!). As you probably know Dogon country is set along an escarpment, a high cliff which you will weave up a down during your trek so expect some clambering over rocks, nothing too great. From an entry village you walk an hour or so for lunch. Hang around while lunch is being cooked and in the midday heat you shot the breeze with other travellers and your guide talks with other guides. Food is good and this should not be a concern even if you are vegetarian. Your guide might show you around a village and explain any points of interest to you. Then as the day cools off you walk on to another village to stay the night or you might even sleep in the village where you just ate. Eating and sleeping take place in tourist encampments in larger villages. There is a place for you to sleep on the roof of huts or inside - the roof is much nicer (you are given a thin mattress and sometimes a blanket is available). There is water available from a well and a normally very smelly toilet. This water you can purify with iodine or you can buy bottled water, soft drinks and even beer in the village at prices a little higher than in town. If you have a mosquito net bring it.

If you are trekking in cool season it can get a little cold at night, but at all other times of year it is okay and a simple silk sleeping sac is fine. Guides try to aim for the larger better village camps which can get crowded in the high season so get moving early in the day to get a good spot or move on one village further to a smaller camp. You then get up early in the morning, have breakfast and move on before it gets too hot. All in all you do very limited walking during the day and have a very long break during the day. For those who are fit you could happily walk twice the distance each day - just make sure you have a motivated guide - many are not - drink lots of water, carry a very small/light bag and have some shade with you (sun hat or umbrella are great). Don't expect to be made overly welcome in villages, take photos of people without paying something or be welcomed walking around without a guide.

Routes: Dogon country is essentially split in two halves. The split is at a road point trekkers use to leave in about the middle of the escarpment near Dourou and Yawa. Three day treks pick one half, week treks or more do the whole length. In four day you could cover the same if you are keen on walking and visiting in the cool season. For example a simple three day trek will have you dropped at Djiguibombo. You walk for about an hour down the escarpment to Kani-Kombolé (where a bush taxi heading to Koro can drop you). Then to the pretty Endé village. Have lunch and walk one more hour to Yaba-Talu to sleep. Less than two and a half hours walking. Next day walk to Begnimato back up the escarpment which is about two hours walk and that's it for the day. Next day walk an hour to Dourou, have lunch and leave. Hardly a lot of walking and certainly a lot of sitting around with the flies which can be a real pain (take some fly papers or something). That's just an example there are a few other basic routes. See a guidebook for more details or ask around.

AddOne reader adds: 'make sure before you set off you know where you are going. Discuss the actual route very well with your guide. The trek can be a little tough with the climbing, and you may want to discuss how far you want to walk and if you have any experience in hill climbing/walking. Through some misunderstanding you could find yourselves walking tougher routes, the guide is used to walking in the hills, climbing over rocks, but you may not be. Check out beforehand, because there are no telephones etc., so you cannot change your pick-up point. Ask the guide to draw you a small map, so you get an idea of where you're going.'

What to take: Getting to a festival or at least market really makes a trip as does having a very light pack. Good sandals are fine to walk in. No camping equipment is needed. A mosquito net is recommended as malaria is present. Take a basic supply of medicine and water purification iodine plus something like Tang (add to water orange flavour powder) to cover the taste. Trekking is possible all year round, every period of the year has good and bad points. In the rainy, summer season take something to swim in as there are opportunities for a refreshing swim. In the cool winter period have a light fleece. Bringing kola nuts for the 'chef du village' is recommended by most guides. It is unclear what is expected in giving out these nuts so you can just give them to your guide, and he can 'distribute' them.

A final note: You will be amazed by the number of people (particularly French package tourists) who think it is a good idea to give children sweets, bought at the local market, sometimes in exchange for a photo. Please do not do this and, if unsure why, please read the gifts for children text in the on the road section.

* Miss at your peril: Dogon Country - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

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» Senegal

  • Intro: Arguably the most 'French', Senegal is also the most visited country in West Africa. This is due to its reasonable stability, beaches, several points of interest and most importantly French tourists. Don't be surprised if whilst driving along the coastline passing wooden fishing shacks set into the palms along long dusty beaches, poverty evident all around, you might come across a Club Med resort or a mini bus of well-heeled tourists. Still that's one side of this vast nation. It can be argued that the other half can be found far, far away from cosmopolitan (by West African standards) Dakar and in small fishing villages (Joal-Fadiout), crumbling towns (St-Louis) and the Kashmir of Africa, Casamance.

    Pick up any guidebook and there will be more than enough to tempt you in such a huge country, but realistically, by international standards there is little of long term interest and facilities are basic (especially in Casamance), added to the fact that getting off the beaten track - which apart from St-Louis and Dakar is anywhere - takes the normal extreme amounts of time and discomfort as any West Africa traveller can come to expect. That's what someone who only has a week or two to spare, has not adjusted to West African travel and has limited French might feel. Speaking French and fully 'tuned into' the region, then Senegal aside from Ghana is often report to be a favourite country in the region. Quite simply the country is huge, with tons to explore and roads that to be fair are not that bad. Spending a few days or even a week on Île de Goree is a well-earned rest from a chaotic nation.

    Senegal probably is 'French West Africa' and very different from the neighbouring Mali and Mauritania. It is cultured, unique, French, frenzied, tropical and hot. Those are the good points. On the flip side it can be dangerous and difficult to find a worthwhile attraction. The overriding message though is Senegal does have something to offer and a few gems for those who are luckily enough to stumble across them. If you don't mind bush taxi's, speak French (great people) and dig West African music you are much more likely to find them than the rest. And the rest? Well they might wonder after a day trip to Île de Goree and a few trips out of Dakar what all the fuss is about.

    • Highlights: Île de Goree, the music/people and Joal-Fadiout

    • Lowlights: Some high prices and tourist pricing. Lack of good cheap accommodation and transport. Some hassle and urban ugliness. Not to mention the train to Bamako.

  • Visa strategy: Visas are not needed by EU, North America, Japanese, South African and Israeli travellers. Australians and Kiwis do however need a visa.

  • Dangers: Like most other big African cities, Dakar has a reputation for muggings at night (and in the day). Be careful with your belonging anywhere in Senegal, particularly in Dakar and on the train to Bamako.

  • Costs: approximately €25-40 a day

  • Money: ATMs in major cities

  • Getting around: Bush taxis are the main source of transport. They fill up pretty quickly for most major routes and are quite fast. However, as with all bush taxi's they are very cramped. If heading on a long journey it is well worth getting the front seat (to yourself) or paying for two seats.

The train to Bamako:

FlagIt seems there is a special place in the heart of most travellers when it comes to trains. It probably stems from the fact that a train is not a bus, you can sleep, relax, go to the toilet, look at the scenery etc. So it comes to no surprise that in a region where getting about is tough and distances vast the train that runs from Dakar to Bamako and vice-versa is appealing and very popular. It is also historic in that much of the track was laid in 1904-12. The problem is it keeps going out of service (2003-2005 and again in 2009). Right now from what we understand it is not running (apart from Kayes-Bamako) It may start again, it may not. We will try and keep you updated.

Before... The train departed Bamako for Dakar on Wednesday. It travels the other way on Saturday and takes (published) 35 hours. Couchettes are available if you have a first-class ticket. At least that is the theory - of late it has been departing every 8-9 days to no real schedule. The reality is this journey is pretty unpleasant. You can spend well over 50 hours completing the journey, the toilets become unusable (god help you if you have food poisoning) and the train does have a theft and heat problem making sleep or the benefit of being able to wander about hard to enjoy. Two things are for sure: only a true masochist would take this train for fun or a second time and it will be a memorable experience with some great scenery (maybe that's the whole appeal of it). There is an options to cover some of the trip by road in Senegal, but the train is best avoided all together. It's often out of service and always late. Tickets are difficult to get, but nowhere near impossible.

First class is okay and seats are large and comfortable. Second class is more crowded and much more unpleasant. The couchettes or sleepers are okay for a nights sleep, but again basic. Malaria can be a problem on the train and not something you should overlook as using a net is very difficult. A torch is handy and so is a supply of food/water, but you can get this on the way in some form.

Alternative options:

As mentioned you can bush taxi as far as Tambacounda in Senegal on okay roads and hope you don't have to wait too long for the train and pick it up there. This is still quite a lot of hassle and the train will be in quite a state by this point of the journey, but is nevertheless preferable to continuing by bush taxi into Mali which is even harder work. Lets look at it realistically, the cost of the train is quite expensive if you take 1st class as most do and considering the risk to your belongings plus the scope for adventure almost anywhere in West Africa the train is best avoided - even when it is running, but you still need to get to Senegal/Bamako.

Flying is by far the best option if you can afford it, with Senegal Airlines, Air Burkina, Air Kenya and ASKY Airlines handling the route. Prices range from about USD200-300 which is expensive, but there is simply little competition on the route with many national airlines in the region now dead. However you will save yourself a good deal of time to relax on say Île de Goree.

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» The Gambia

  • Gambia FlagIntro: Where as Senegal is the most visited country in West Africa, The Gambia can seem more like it, particularly when it comes to English and German tourists, many of whom are on packaged holidays in the compact area that passes as a resort. In many, ways The Gambia could be considered as a perfect destination for a taste of West Africa. Where it lacks the wide range of culture and variety of Senegal with it's world heritage sites, it more than makes up for it with beach resorts, spoken English (very useful for many), a compact circuit and friendly, easy-going people.

All this might conjure up the image so often portrayed in glossy brochures as a perfect alternative beach destination to rank with Goa, Dahab or Zanzibar - beaches, wildlife, friendly faces, exotic surroundings. Whereas The Gambia does have all of these, you are warned not to confuse it with the aforementioned destinations, as any one who has been to neighbouring countries would realise: that even in this English speaking democratic corner you are still very much in West Africa. Beaches are not particularly safe to swim off and the sand is crowded with hustlers - many of whom are infact extremely nice - but still won't give you much peace. Wildlife is really bird life and viewed from the muddy river.

The development of package tourism in and around beachy areas outside of Banjul means that in this area there is a good range of accommodation, okay transport, food, supermarkets, excellent bookshops, Wi-Fi and a good chance to chill out.

The downside is a certain amount of hassle is drawn to this areas as well as a big non-backpacker crowd, if that bothers you. Explore further in The Gambia and transport, accommodation and other facilities go down hill so quickly you can be forgiven for running back to the more developed areas. Village life, wildlife and other cultural activities are arguably more interesting and easier elsewhere in the region if you are travelling on. A visit or a night in the capital Banjul is a daunting experience, even though it's quite safe, it's just that run down and with nothing to see. The same goes with even a five hundred meter side step from the slightly developed coastal tourism/expiate areas; life is pretty tough and standards of living are enough to faze many travellers.

Bike Guy in MailiIn fact most of The Gambia you are likely to see has a somewhat forlorn look and feel to it, where a once package tourist boom failed to sustain itself. The only flashes of elegance or prosperity are embassies and expatriate business... still there are some genuinely nice people to meet and learn from - particularly if your French is not that good - and it's a chance to get to know or help people outside of Ghana where most non-French speaking backpackers normally make a bee-line to.

'The' Gambia, is one of only a few in the world where the name includes a definite article. It is Africa’s smallest mainland country.

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» Ghana

  • Woman in MaliIntro: Wonder of wonders, just when you were fed up of West Africa and all that it offers or rather doesn't and wondering why you made the effort to visit, you find Ghana. How different Ghana is from its neighbours or the rest of the region. It's not just that English is spoken. They speak it in Nigeria, fancy a trip there? It goes so much deeper than that almost in ways that can't be explained, but probably most significant is the money factor. The CFA is not used in Ghana and the currency used in its place, the Cedi makes the country outstanding value for money. Only western imported goods approach anything near expensive and the most important commodities for budget travel: great food, beer, transport and accommodation are dirt-cheap.

The country is also somewhat more developed than elsewhere in the rest of the region. It's not anyway near Western standards but reasonable. Buses run on a schedule, eating out is easy, banks have ATMs, Internet is easy. In fact the balance is about right for many since even though certain western factors are present to make life comfortable you are not going to run into a McDonald's or even close. As mentioned transport is fairly easy, frequent, comfortable and cheap - no more bush taxis if you don't want! But what really makes Ghana are two factors. The first being the size and variety of the country. From relatively speaking cosmopolitan Accra to way off the beaten track villages in the North, it seems everywhere you make the effort to visit there is a worthwhile reward.

You won't find a Taj Mahal or other such wonders you might find in a country like India, but compared to the rest of West Africa or even Africa it's a joy.

The second factor that really makes Ghana are the people. If you have read a fair chunk of this site or have been backpacking before you will know that the people factor of travelling is a huge factor in the appeal of going abroad. Not everyone is a joy, but on a whole Ghanaians are perhaps the most friendly, hospitable and welcoming people in the world - even more noticeably so since English is commonly spoken. In fact the whole culture is very soft and you very rarely feel intimidated even in the great poverty that you encounter as a matter of fact each and every day. Strong (even fanatical) Christian beliefs are clearly evident thought-out the country and this love thy neighbour philosophy probably plays a large part in this, but who is to say?

In a nutshell Ghana is everything you may expect West Africa to be (Sahara and Dogon villages aside), with a huge variety, plenty to explore and few tourists. It's easy to spend a month or two if you wished - certainly the highlight of the region and although it has some limitations as a destination it comes highly recommended.

CompassIt is not covered in detail on this site, but if you liked Ghana - we'd also recommend Cameroon. With less tourists, better beaches and a French plus English speaking section, it is a great next stop on any West African trip.

* Miss at your peril: Some of the friendliest easy going people in the world - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'





Remember, this is only a take (an overview if you will); very few get the chance to see every inch of every country or have the time to get everyone's opinion (you are welcome and encouraged to mail in yours). Please, please if you have been anywhere recently send your comments to contribute and help keep all information fresh for future travellers. Or if you are about to head off remember this site when you return and put a few lines in an e-mail to let us know if things have changed.

 

"The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it."

George Kimble




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