SENEGAL, GAMBIA, GUINEA BISSAU, GUINEA CONAKRY, SIERRA LEONE, LIBERIA, IVORY COAST
Starting from Cap d’Almadine in Dakar, the western point of African continent, going South and East: The Gambia and its birds, Casamance and the animistic mask dances, ending with a navigation to the remote Bijagos Archipelago, discovering the less known part of Guinea Bissau with a “tribal concert” of the Griot: descendent of traditional musician and story tellers lineage from 12th century. Following the coast and inland of Guinea Gulf, between pristine shores and islands. Experience remotes forests where foreigners don’t arrive, mountains, liana bridges, isolated villages house of Bird Men initiates, dancing masks and secrete animistic rituals…
Be part of the contemporary African vibe: stroll in the intense city life of Dakar, Freetown, Monrovia, and Abidjan, feel the exciting balance between modernity, culture, music and fusion cuisine.
The itinerary, a leg of the Grand Expedition across West Africa, will be adventurous and enjoyable. Transport in in comfortable air-conditioned 4WD vehicles and minibuses. On Ocean and lagoons: speed boats for major navigations and local boat for short sails.
Accommodations: in the capitals, 4 stars hotels with possibility to upgrade to 5 stars. In the inland the best available: mainly new 3 stars hotels with en-suite and air-conditioned rooms. One night at a fix and cosy camp in the luxuriant vegetation of an island.
Day 1: LAC ROSE Senegal
Dinner and transfer to Lac Rose, overnigh in the hotel facing lac rose.
Day 2: DAKAR, AFRICAN METROPOLIS Senegal
Lac Rose, also known as Lac Retba, is a shallow saltwater lake surrounded by dunes. Due to the high concentration of salt, the lake often shimmers in pink; swimming in the lake gives the sensation of floating. More than 600 people work collecting salt from the lake, in the traditional way.
Arrival to Dakar, start the visit of the town: Dakar became an important centre of political, artistic and intellectual “renouveau” during the independence, and is still a lively African metropolis. Visit to the “Plateau” district, the Presidential Palace a typical market and an interesting museum.
Ferry to Gorée Island: the right times to enjoy Gorée is at sunset when all tourists are gone or in the morning before the crowd arrival.
Day 3: GOREE ISLAND Senegal
In Gorée island slaves were crammed, waiting to be shipped to the Americas. The island is totally restored to bear witness of those times. Today its breezy climate, history and ancient architecture, together with nice restaurants and boutiques, make Gorée an interesting and trendy destination for local and foreign visitors. Ferry to Dakar and visit of the town.
Day 4: GAMBIA, BETWEEN ARCHEOLOGY AND CONTEMPORANEITY Senegal / the Gambia
Early departure, the region between the north bank of Gambia River and Senegal have hosted one of the largest megalithic civilisations on earth . Sine Ngayene is the richest Megalithic site with 1102 erected stones. Border of Gambia and a “very local” ferry crossing of the large Gambia River estuary to reach Banjul, the capital. Visit of the town centre, and the interesting national museum. Optional: music in town.
Day 5: DANCING MASKS The Gambia / Senegal
Morning, brief but intense guided bird watching experience.
Departure for the border with Casamance, the southern region of Senegal.
Late afternoon we will join the ritual dances of Diola sacred mask. The masks belong to a secret society and the identity of the dancers cannot be revealed as it is said that the mask is animated by the spirits. Drums, dances and a colourful crowd will enliven the tiny village in the shade of larges kapok trees.
Day 6: ANCESTORS’ CULT Senegal / Guinea Bissau
Crossing the Guinea Bissau border. The Manjaco ethnic group calls the traditions “Gendiman”. We will visit tiny villages hidden in the forest to discover the sculptured wooden poles called “Pecab” that represent the spirits of their ancestors, in a sanctuary known as “Cab Balugun”. After asking permission to the villagers, we will have the opportunity to see different generations and styles of sacred wooden sculptures; one of the last chances to enjoy tribal art in its original cultural context. Arrival at Bissau.
Day 7: BIJAGOS SACRED ARCHIPELAGO: THE GHOST CAPITAL Guinea Bissau
We will start a spectacular three-days navigation on a speedboat to discover the Bijagos Archipelago, its fascinating nature and isolated tribes. The Archipelago, composed by 88 islands and islets, is located at an average of 40 miles from the coastline. Bijagos is a “geographical jewel”.
Bolama was the former capital of the Portuguese Guinea from 1871. In 1941 the capital was moved to Bissau. When the Portuguese left, native people came to live in this town which is now falling apart, partly invaded by tropical vegetation. Built according to the plans of a «Castrum Romane» (roman citadel), the town is made of straight large avenues, sunny and lethargic empty squares, dry fountains, bush-like gardens, imposing administrative buildings in neo Palladian style. In the shade of the columns at the former governor palace goats graze peacefully. Although inhabited, this capital town is plunged in the fairy-tale atmosphere of a ghost town.
Day 8: VACA BRUTO DANCING CEREMONY Guinea Bissau
Short navigation to Bubaque island, the “capital” of Bijagos Archipelago, its market and the tiny museum.
Afternoon: due to the remoteness, the lack of transports and the deep attachment of the locals to their traditions, the Bijagos tribes have been little influenced by the external world. Life in the villages is characterized by initiations rites and secret ceremonies. In some villages, the young men must go through a seven-year initiation rite living in a “convent” with no contact with women. With its wild and idyllic landscapes, and a genuine tribal culture, Bijagos Archipelago is a “geographical jewel”. In Bijagos Archipelago life is still ruled by the “cycle of seasons”. During the long dry season, when the harvest is over, the main ceremonies take place. Vaca Bruto (wild bull) is the most spectacular mask in the islands, the dancers convey the mask a realistic presence by bowing and facing the ground. With eyes of frosted glass, real horns, leather ears and a rope through the nostril. All convey the idea of a real untamed animal, representing a man in full possession of his physical strength but still with an immature behaviour as he has not yet undergone the final initiations. All the villagers attend this fascinating ceremony.
Day 9: ISLANDER LIFE Guinea Bissau
Morning relax on wild beaches and swimming pool, or walking excursion in the island.
Afternoon navigation to Bissau.
A vehicle will be waiting us for a brief city tour. Bissau is a tiny but intriguing capital town with old Portuguese architecture and a huge fort, a reminder of the slave trade era. Speed boat sailing to Bissau, short visit of this tiny capital with the old Portuguese quarters, and the artisans market.
On request (not included) Early morning departure for an excursion to Orango Island in search of a residual fauna of Hippos that has acclimatised with the life on islands. Mainly living is fresh-water swamps, some time they could swim in the ocean. Local guide will lead the visitors, hippos are not granted.
Day 10: THE GRIOT: THE AFRICAN TROBADORS Guinea Bissau
Early morning departure. After lunch we leave the main road for a small village in the Malinké region.
The Malinké are the descendants of the ancient Mali Empire and are spread on the current territory of Mali, Guinea Conakry, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Guinea Bissau. Griots are a cast of musician-storytellers dating back tothe Mali Empire. The village we visit is known for the Griot families that have maintained these traditions from the time of the Empire. They are well-known also for their skills in producing musical instruments, they will perform a concert for us. Arrival at Gabu.
DAY 11: THE LARGEST MOUNTAIN MASSIF Guinea Bissau / Guinea Conakry
A human-made barge will allow us to cross Rio Corubal, the natural border between the two Guineas and bring us to the small border posts of Guinea Conakry, in a region inhabited by the Malinké and the Fulla (Peul) tribes; stopover in the villages where the arrival of foreigners is a very rare event.
Joining the main road, we will start penetrating the Fouta Djalon massif. Thanks to the fresh and salubrious climate, this area was the favourite holiday place by the French during the colonial time. Wood of conifers is left as memory of that time. Considered the most spectacular area of Guinea: mountains, plateau and savannah are alternated with deep humid valleys.
This large mountain massif is the “water reservoir”, as a matter of fact, three rivers start from Guinea which give name to four nations: Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Gambia. This territory are populated by the Fulani, famous for their beauty and considered the greatest stockbreeders of cow of the West Africa. We will visit isolated villages, composed of large clay houses decorated with bas relief, high conical roofs with several layers of straw.
Day 12: FOUTA DJALON Guinea Conakry
Full day dedicated to discovering Fouta Djalon, where the mountains meet the savannah, deep valleys and the highest waterfalls framed by the forest. Peul ethnic group, (called also Fula’s) come from this area. In the XVII century the Fula’s (Peul) Jihad started from these mountains, the Peul conquered the majority of the savannah till Cameroun and became the largest group in sub-Saharan savannas. A very large clay round hut with a decorated grass roof is where the main council sits and where the traditional chiefs were nominated, thanks to our connections we will ask to be received by chiefs and dignitaries siting in council….
Arrival at Dalaba at 1200 m. ( 3900 Ft.) altitude.
Day 13: AFRICAN BAS-RELIEF Guinea Conakry
Visit to Dalaba small and quiet town. Of a particular interest is the “casa a palabra” (the house of words) with fine bas-relief in a pure Peul architectonical style. Here the chiefs used to gather to meet the colonial administration.
Visit to the villa built by the colonial governor and later used by the first president of independent Guinea. The leader of the independence was Sekou Touré, one of the most radical anti-colonials; he refused any cooperation with French, he made a connection with the Soviet Union bloc and tied friendly relationship with Ceausescu. Under Sekou Touré, the country became more and more isolated and the government turned into a dictatorship. Some villas used by the ministers and by the guests of Sekou Touré are reminiscences of that time. In a ruined villa, Miriam Makeba met and married Stokley Carmichael, an exile from the US who was among the inspirators of the armed wing of Black Panter.
We will live Dalaba following the southern slope of the massif to reach Mamou, an interesting trading town and its market.
Days 14 & 15 MASKS IN THE FOREST Guinea Conakry / Sierra Leone
A tiny small track will bring us to a small border with a remote area of Sierra Leone, arrival at the village of Kamakwie, in this region, where foreigners are rare, if we are lucky, we will attend the traditional dances and the exit of sacred masks, called here “devils”.
Next day drive in the direction of Freetown peninsula.
Day 16: FREETOWN PENINSULA Sierra Leone
Freetown origins: in 1786 the first 308 freed slaves came to Sierra Leone from America where they have fought in the independence war on the side of the British, after having lost the war the British sent them to Sierra Leone. Few months after their arrival, the newcomers were starving, got new and unknown diseases and fight with the locals, who hardly stand them. Few years after during a Napoleonic war, Freetown has been attacked by seven vessels of the French navy and destroyed. Few survivors escape on the pirogues sent by… the slaves’ traders… From 1807, due to the abolition of the slave trade by the British Empire, the ships of the slave’s traders caught by the British navy freed the slaves in Sierra Leone.
In 1808 Freetown became the capital45 of the first British colony in tropical Africa. At that time Krio, or ex slaves, were more than 50.000 creating an elite who put pressure on the colonial administration for a better education. In 1845 was built Fourah Bay the first University in west Africa. During Colonial time Freetown was known as the “Athens of West Africa”. Drive along the coast at the slopes of the Freetown peninsula mountains… only the yellow of the beaches divide the green of the lush vegetation from the blue of the ocean. The country has been named after these mountains, the mountains of lion. A local boat will bring us to Banana island.
Day 17: BANANA ISLAND Sierra Leone
Full day spent circumnavigating, exploring, walking and discovering this pristine island with mountains in large primary forests, villages and remote beaches. For the more adventurous of us, a half day walk to explore the forest or continue the circumnavigation of the island.
Day 18: BUNDO: FEMALE MASKS Sierra Leone
Brief navigation, to reach our vehicles and departure northbound.
In most parts of Africa, the masks are male’s prerogative, however among the Mende people and neighbours populations the masks Bundo are a female’s domain and they have a crucial role in the initiation rites. We reach a tiny village to assist at the exit of these masks, an event that calls for the participation of a colourful crowd.
Day 19: DIAMONDS Sierra Leone / Liberia
Diamond seekers: the possibility of finding a “fortune” can become true just for the few lucky ones. Diamonds have played an important role in the recent troubled history of the country. We will follow a track to reach a village with huts made by clay and straw.
After asking the permission to the chief, some villagers will take us to the site where we can meet the diamonds’ seekers. The local person will explain us the technics of artisanal mining and “sand washing”. A spectacular road in the forest will bring us to the Mano River, the natural border with Liberia. After the border formalities, we will continue to reach Monrovia in the evening.
Day 20: LIBERIA: THE LAND OF FREEMEN Liberia
Liberia is the only African country which has never been either a colony or a protectorate; Liberia was founded by Krio, the freed slaves who came back to Africa from America, for this reason was named “Liberia”. Krio are 5% of the population and they are the main actors of the economy and politics, they are considered the creator of the Nation and of the modern economy . 80% of the population speaks the Krio language, a sort of American English “Pidgin”.
Our ocean-view hotel is the best starting point to visit town. Freemasonry had a great impact on the history of Liberia and Krio culture, visit of the Grand Masonic Temple imposing building. A symbol of Monrovia is what left of the Ducor Palace Hotel, inaugurated in 1960 was one of the first five stars in Africa. Located on a rocky hill in the highest point of Monrovia, dominate the whole town and the gulf. The hotel hosted social events and parties of the African political elite at the time of independence. In the large swimming pool facing the ocean Idi Amin used to swim caring his gun at the belt while his friend Miriam Makeba was singing. After the civil war the building was looted several times, the hotel is now abandoned and closed, but seeking the right permission, we may be able to visit it.
In 2008 the government made a deal with Ghaddafi to rebuild this hotel, however the project, as many other Libyan development projects, never came to conclusion thanks to the war that Europe and America made to overthrow Ghaddafi.
The building of the National Museum his himself a display of Krio traditional architecture, inside we discover a large collection of ancient masks and ritual objects and a photographic show about the civil war which took place between 1989 and 2003. Old colonial buildings, stone Krio churches will be also part of this intriguing town visit.
Day 21: AFRICAN WILD FORESTS Liberia / Guinea Conakry
Early morning departure for a long day of driving to the northern part of Liberia and to the greatest forest region in Guinea Conakry. Crossed the border we will drive through larges rubber plantation (hevea) to reach Nzerekore and Macenta in a hilly and luxuriant landscape. After dinner we live the hotel to join a village and participate to a spectacular dance: the masks will live the forest and dance at the light of a large fire….
Day 22: BIRD MEN, TOMA MASKS & LIANA BRIDGE Guinea Conakry
A small track in the lush vegetation will bring us to a remote village to assist to one of the more spectacular, and less known, sacred dances of West African forests: the Bird Men. With the face painted in Kaolin and totally dressed in feathers, the Bird Men belong to a special initiation that the fathers has secretly passed on to their sons over the centuries. The Bird Men are believed to have magical powers that can make them invisible, thus they are the best messengers during tribal wars, able to cross the enemy lines. Tom-tom drummers and all the village will participate to the dances. Toma, locally called Loma, have also different masks living in the sacred forest…
This region hides many secrets. The liana bridges are masterpiece of an authentic “tribal technology” and can measure 70-meter length. They are built exclusively with vegetal materials, as wood and lianas without the use of nails or rope nor other materials foreign to the forest. Only the initiated can harvest the liana and wood and leave it in the forest, is believed that a powerful spirit will build the bridge in one night. During the preparation of a new bridge needier women nor not initiated are allowed in the forest, to guarantee the secrecy of this “magic technology.
Arrival to Nzerekore after an intense day.
Day 23: PRIMATES Guinea Conakry / Ivory Coast
Early morning departure from Nzerekore, the main settlement of the Forest Region. We reach Bossou village in time for a walk to discover a forest, where a group of chimpanzees (Pan Troglodytes) lives. The inhabitants consider them the reincarnation of their ancestors and therefore hunting them is forbidden. The chimpanzee are constantly monitored by the researchers and therefore they are easy to approach.
The road will bring us to Ivory Coast border. When mount Tonkpi with its pic comes into view, we are close to our destination. The small town of Man, surrounded by 18 green mountains is the capital of the We, Dan and Guéré ethnic groups known for the mask, considered masterpieces of African Art. We will spend two nights at our hotel in Man.
Day 24: DAN MASKS Ivory Coast
Full day dedicated to Man region. In a nearby tiny village, masks will emerge from the forest towards us. In the cosmogony of the Dan people, there is a creator god that communicates with humans only through its intermediaries, the masks: during the mask dance the distance between the human and the spirit worlds disappears, the cosmic and the social orders are restored, and gratitude is expressed to the gods and the ancestors. Dan Masks are one of the finest tribal mask thanks to the delicate balance of shapes that symbolize beauty.
Man, market is an important market with villagers coming from the region and from the neighbours countries. It will be possible to find a wild choice of handicraft and, with some luck, authentic tribal masks and ritual objects.
Day 25: MAGIC TRADITIONS Ivory Coast
Full day dedicated to discovering masks and magic traditions. Only 4×4 vehicles drive to the remote villages in the forest to encounter the Guere ethnic group, where the arrival of foreigners is a rare event. If Dan’s masks are considered among the more refined example of beauty and aesthetic, Guéré masks are known for the powerful and rough aspect. We will discover the powerful Guéré Mask dances, and (if we are lucky) the rare “Jugglers” performances. Girls Juggling is an ancient tradition which is vanishing, nevertheless we have been able to discover one of the last villages where is still practiced. Return to the main road to reach the town of Daloa in the evening.
Day 26: CATHEDRAL IN THE SAVANNAH Ivory Coast
Today we drive southbound, continuing our journey across coffee and cocoa plantations, dotted only by small villages. Ivory Coast is the world’s main cocoa producer, the second is Ghana and, together, they represent more than half of the world production.
In a village we attend the Zaouli dancing masks. Zaouli is a traditional dance of the Guro tribe. The Zaouli mask, was created in the 1950s, probably inspired by a girl named “Djela Lou Zaouli”. However, stories on the origins are varied, and each mask can have its own symbolic history. The uniqueness of Zaouli dance is the fine and sophisticated movement of the legs and the fits.
Afternoon arrival to Yamoussoukro, the country’s formal capital since 1983, is the native village of Houphouët-Boigny, the first President of the Ivory Coast. Here the Ivorian dream of the 1970s and 1980s has come true, the dream of a country that, despite its shortage of major natural resources, has create the largest economy in French west Africa.
We visit the Basilica of the Virgin of Peace, inspired of St Peter’s in Rome, is the largest building of Christianity on earth, unique the high colourful glass windows. We see wide boulevards where the few cars try to avoid the big potholes, Zebus and chickens. The huge government buildings, the lofty hotels up to 14 floors high, and even an artificial lake inhabited by crocodiles have a feeling of abandoned.
Day 27: ABIDJAN, SKYSCRAPERS AND LAGOONS Ivory Coast
Motorway departure for Abidjan, beyond the lagoon, the “plateau” (the City District) is growing very fast, not horizontally as in most African towns but vertically, with its large modern buildings and skyscrapers. Not much land is available and the little available must be continually recovered from the waters of the Ebrié Lagoon. The modern City District is defined to the west by the harbour and its endless queues of people waiting for a public boat, and to the east by the silhouette of Saints Peter & Paul Cathedral. Chaotic traffic is the negative result of the fast-economic development of this country that after the civil war has some time reached the 6% of the GDP.
31st December, great gala dinner and dances at the hotel, celebrating new year in the typical Abidjan’s way!
Day 28: GRAND BASSAM, ABIDJAN OUT Ivory Coast
Drive to Grand Bassam: old town built on a sand bank between the lagoon and the ocean. It was the former capital of the French Ivory Coast colony and now a maritime leisure resort for the Abidjanese. Thanks to its calm avenues shaded by tall trees, large bougainvillea and well-preserved colonial buildings, Grand Bassam has a magic atmosphere. The old post office is a jewel of colonial architecture. The Costume Museum, in the former governor’s palace, with its large outer staircase, is a true architectural gem and its unique collection of tribal costumes, masks, ornaments and ethnographic photographs gives an interesting perception of the country history and culture. Lunch with the group transfer to the hotel, near the airport. Final transfer to the airport.
UNIQUE DEPARTURES: This itinerary is part of West Africa Grand Expedition from Dakar to Cotonou.
EXPEDITION LEADER: Alberto Nicheli, TransAfrica founder, has been travelling in West Africa since 1975. He has led more than a hundred expeditions in West Africa and 64 Sahara expeditions, including solo crossing of the desert, ethnological research on Tuareg and rock art. He has organized the logistics of a documentary film for Discovery Channel on the Caravans of the Niger and has assisted in numerous research projects on West Africa with Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith from National Geographic, as well as in different television programs on West Africa. He is an expert in Tribal Art.
EXPLORATORY ITINERARY: This itinerary is part of an expedition; participants must be flexible and ready to enjoy the unique encounters but also some unexpected situations that are also part of the “African Experience”.
Senegal: not needed for many nationalities including US, Canada and EU countries. For other nationalities the visa is requested, please check. If the visa is needed, it must be a two-entries or a multi-entry visa
Gambia: Visa is not required for some nationalities, for some other nationalities it is required and obtainable at the border, for others invitation letter is required.
Guinea Bissau: single entry visa required, it is possible to obtain the visa upon the arrival in Bissau airport.
Guinea Conakry: e-visa https://www.paf.gov.gn/visa/ ; two entries needed
Liberia, Ivory Coast: single entry visas required from the embassies. The Ivory Coast E-Visa is not valid when crossing the border by land.
Sierra Leone: visa available at the border (cost 100 USD).
VACCINATIONS: Yellow fever – compulsory; malaria prophylaxis highly recommended. Cholera now don’t request, please check prior departure.
LUGGAGE: due to the exploratory itinerary, please to be contained in 20 kg (45 Lbs.) suggested duffle bags.
TRAVEL INSURANCE: Not included. Mandatory for medical assistance, repatriation, material and physical damages.
TRANSPORT: mainly 4×4 vehicles, minibuses, speed boats, local boats.
MEALS: lunches: cold meals (picnics or sandwiches and fruit) or at restaurants. Dinners: at the hotel restaurants (pre-select menu). Included one bottle of water each day during the visits.
NOTICE: The itinerary is designed to discover fascinating places, where the visit of a foreigner sometimes remains an exceptional event. Participants need to be cooperative, tolerant and flexible to fully enjoy their tour and appreciate the unique nature, as well as the spontaneous hospitality of the local populations, African magic and mystery, its metaphysics, ceremonies, life philosophies and religious beliefs that people are willing to share with us.
Itineraries, visits and overnight accommodations are subject to change or modification by the organizer due to force majeure and can be modified or adapted to local conditions.