Monday, January 17, 2011
From Angola to Chad - my fascination with Africa from a distance
Africa is surely the world's most fascinating but unpredictable and dangerous continent.
I missed out in my youth on the chance to hang out with a group of hippies in an Old Land Rover on the obligatory six month-long crossing of the continent so as I could bore my friends down the pub about how I was almost decapitated by a hippo in the Zambia.
"I could see the whites of the blighter's teeth and smell his breath. Of course, I lived."
But I'd like to make it to Africa one day; the dark heart, as opposed to North Africa, a region I I have visited which owes more culturally to the Middle East than the vast brooding, forested land mass to the south.
I'm particularly fascinated with those little known nations that the tourist people tell us to steer clear of. I have always been a fan of the Lonely Planet guides but I find it amusing how the authors try to put a positive spin on the most inhospitable of locations.
Take Angola, a big country on the west coast. After the obligatory warning about travel outside the capital of Luanda, the guide states: "Despite widespread poverty, inbred corruption and an infrastructure devastated by decades of indiscriminate fighting, Angola holds a lure that few other countries can match."
Or at least it does if you avoid stepping on a land mine.
OK, if Angola isn't bad enough how about the original heart of darkness, the Congo?
Even Lonely Planet is reticent on this one. The bizarrely named Democratic Republic of Congo is "remains closed to all but the most brave-hearted travellers," it states.
The Congo is, in fact, a barely living and breathing denunciation of colonialism. While British rule could be harsh in places like India and French rule indiscriminate, Belgium's one attempt to run a colony was downright horrific, as King Leopold II turned the Congo into a vast labor camp, devoted to the production of rubber.
Mark Twain in King Leopold's Soliloquy wrote: "They remark that "if the innocent blood shed in the Congo State by King Leopold were put in buckets and the buckets placed side by side, the line would stretch 2,000 miles; if the skeletons of his ten millions of starved and butchered dead could rise up and march in single file, it would take them seven months and four days to pass a given point."
The days of Leopold perhaps confirm that little good ever came from Belgium, except chocolate.
There aren't too many chocolate shops in the Central African Republic, a nation that gets a semi positive write up from Lonely Planet, after the obligatory warning about rebel activity.
I'm somewhat skeptical about a country that can't even get itself a real name, just as I would be a state that was called the Central US State.
"If it’s the 'real' Africa you’re looking for, Central African Republic (CAR) may be it. A country of staggering rare natural beauty, with some of the world’s most amazing wildlife, it nonetheless remains underdeveloped, fragmented and poverty-stricken," the guide says.
Personally I'd rather visit Burkina Faso so as I can tell folks down the pub: "Hey, I'm just back from Burkina Faso" and they can respond "uh?"
You know, it used to be Upper Volta. OK - none the wiser.
Lonely Planer says; "How many of your friends back home even know that Burkina Faso exists? – and wins the hearts of travellers with its relaxed pace of life, friendly people and wealth of interesting sights. From the deserts and unrivalled Gorom-Gorom market in the north, to the green countryside and strange rock formations of the country’s southwest, Burkina spans a rich variety of landscapes."
Great. But we really need somewhere with a travel warning. How about Somalia?
Sure enough Somalia doesn't fail to disappoint. Lonely Planet says it's "extremely dangerous." We saw a few scenic shots of downtown Mogadishu in Black Hawk Down and it looked seriously badass, even if this was filmed somewhere in Morocco. Apparently Mogadishu isn't so bad if you can pre-arrange a party of at least 12 mercenaries to meet you at the airport. I know - you'd rather spend the afternoon in Basingstoke, which is saying something.
But the good old Lonely Planet guide finds a silver lining in the form of Somaliland, a nation, I confess I didn't know existed.
"Amid chaos, there is a success story: Somaliland, which, like a phoenix, has risen from ashes. Discreetly. So discreetly that nobody knows that it has a parliament, a capital, a flag, a currency, a university and multiparty elections! But Somaliland remains in limbo, with very few diplomatic supporters and little media coverage to voice its achievements. "
Safer these days is Rwanda, the scene of horrific massacres in the 1990s. But neighboring Burundi remains iffy to say the least.
And what about Sudan, one of the largest countries in Africa, a place where Bin Laden used to hang out? "Although various ongoing conflicts mean much of this vast nation remains off limits, travel is possible in the northeast, and in parts of the south, where Africa transitions into the tropics," the Lonely Planet guide states.
"The pyramids and other ancient sites littering the northern deserts may pale compared to the best Egypt has on offer, but you can usually experience these without another person in sight," the guide states.
So great, the place may not be very impressive, but at least you won't bump into any Germans in terrible leather shorts. Probably worth sticking with Egypt, all in all, as they'll throw a couple of spinxes into the mix, too.
All of this makes Nigeria, where there were a few unpleasant riots over a beauty contest a few years ago and Kenya whose capital Nairobi is known as Nia-robbery, seem rather tame.
"Long seen by travellers as a place to get through rather than visit, few visitors in Chad do more than spend a couple of days in N’Djaména, the busy, broken-down capital, on their way between Niger and Cameroon," the guide says.
The roads are unpaved, it's scorching and even NGO workers dread this assignment. Even the cost of living is high.
But there are a few surprises, apparently, like like boat rides on Lake Chad or "strolling the shady streets of southern towns where the dusty landscape, fed by small rivers, is interspersed with incongruously green scenes providing a quasi-tropical break from the rigours of the road."
I think I may give that one a miss. It sounds about as interesting as New Jersey.