UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Africa
Location, location, location. The first European settlement in the tropics is set beautifully between the rugged coastline and the mountainous interior at a steep valley cutting inland. This former Portuguese capital of the Cabo Verde islands used to bear the name Ribeira Grande, but today it's just known as Cidade Vehla meaning "Old City". These days life move slowly, and the town is mainly inhabited by local fishermen and farmers who live among the ruins of sixteen and seventeen century Portugal. Most notable the ruined cathedral; the Pelourinho on the praça, where criminals and slaves were shackled and exposed; and Rue Banana, the ironically named first European street in the tropics – now lined with the restored houses from when the island was first colonized. More historical evidence can be found among the palm trees and the farms in the valley. Cidade Vehla is Cabo Verde's only entry on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.
11,500 km2 of plain, savanna and rainforest bisected by the Comoé River, with inselbergs on its northern rim reaching 600 metres in height. In other words, Comoé National Park has a lot to offer. A lot, except tourist infrastructure, that is. This means that most of the park is strictly do-it-yourself. However, there's hope should you lack your own 4x4, tent and provisions. A research station in the southern part of the park, near the village of Kakpin, can help organise pirogue trips on the river, and a lodge in Kafolo, on the park's northern fringes, arranges safari drives. As for animals, the park is home to hippos, elephants, lions and African wild dogs, but due to poaching in the 90s chances are that you'll have to settle for the bird life, antelopes and maybe the park's dwarf crocodiles if you're sailing the river. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its plant diversity, rather than its animals.
Corrugated iron gates and streets of thick dust dominate Grand Bassam's Quartier Colonial – France's first colonial outpost in Côte d'Ivoire. Founded in 1842 and functioning as the primary French settlement until independence (though the capital was moved to Bingerville in 1899), Grand Bassam is the clearest evidence of Côte d'Ivoire's colonial history and therefor also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Life is quiet here, dominated by the town's sandy boulevards and romantic French buildings that are falling slowly apart. Some restoration work has begun, and buildings such as the old post office and the Palais du Gouverneur (now a museum) have been saved from ruin, while a few pillars are all that remains of the old courthouse across from the Palais. Other buildings, such as the former headquarter of the French West Africa Company (CFAO), seems undecided in whether or not they will be willing to stand the test of time. Situated on a small strip of land between the ocean and a lagoon, Grand Bassam is also a first class beach location should you need a break from all the crumbling evidence of colonialism.
The only primary forest left in West Africa. That neatly sums up why Taï National Park has earned an inscription on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites. Nowhere else in the region is a forest where humans haven't logged or introduced new plants – such as coffee or cocoa trees – on such a scale that the original Eco-system has remained intact. Today, a French-run research and conservation NGO administrates visits to the park. A campsite in the middle of the forest ensures easy access to ranger-guided walks to see flora and fauna, which includes mangabey and red colobus monkeys as well as some very elusive pygmy hippos. Here are also chimpanzees, but these will not be ready for tourist visits until 2019, at the earliest. As a bonus, the NGO is also able to arrange other activities, including homestays in the villages surrounding Taï.
Most people – even those who have gorilla tracking on their bucket lists – have never heard of Kahuzi-Biega. It’s a real shame, because it’s a beautiful park. Most of it is closed to visitors due to security concerns, but the area around park headquarters is open and safe. This is the only place to get close and personal with eastern lowland gorillas, with terrain varying from thick forest to tea plantations. A nearby primate sanctuary houses chimpanzees and monkeys rescued from captivity, and is an interesting afternoon diversion. Park headquarters are a great place to watch the sun rise, and as this coincides with various ranger exercises and the raising of the Congolese flag, getting up early is well worth the effort. The park is accessed through Bukavu, a lively, messy town on the southern shores of Lake Kivu.
Africa’s oldest and most biodiverse national park, Virunga is a true gem – albeit one with a violent recent history. Most of the park is still off-limits to tourists due to rebel activity and illegal charcoal burning, but its mountainous heart is once again open to visitors. The main drawcard here is the park’s mountain gorillas, although the recent habituation of a troop of chimpanzees is a great bonus, as is the glowing lava lake of Mt Nyiragongo. A visit to Virunga is not for the faint-hearted – the terrain is rough, the roads rougher, and this is unchartered territory for any form of mainstream tourism – but that is also part of its charm. Also worth a visit is Senkwekwe, a mountain gorilla orphanage at park headquarters, and its sad but beautiful twin graveyards: one for its murdered gorillas, the other for the rangers that gave their lives to protect them.
The Pyramids at Giza are surprising on so many levels. Besides their mind blowing size (Cheops is 146.5m in height) and age (4500 years old), the thing that surprises most visitors is how close to Cairo they actually are. They lie right on the outskirt of Giza, a suburb of Cairo. You could throw a rock at the Sphinx from one of the roof tops of the apartment buildings. Another surprise is how ordinary this surrounding neighbourhood is. You would think pyramid views were in high demand, but it seems the Egyptians don't care much. Then the number of pyramids surprise you, there are three big ones along with a number of smaller Queen pyramids in addition to the Sphinx statue. And yes, there is a Pizza Hut slash Kentucky Fried Chicken right in front of the Sphinx gate, but it's very small and low key.
Ethiopia has a long history of empires coming and empires going. But during the 16th and 17th centuries, one of the mightiest empires placed their capital in Gondar. The result is the UNESCO-listed walled fortress of Fasil Ghebbi. With palaces, churches, monasteries and various other buildings all crammed into a square kilometre, the old fortress has tremendous bang for the buck. Wandering the grounds from building to building, you might think you're in some scene from Lord of the Rings. The buildings run anything from expertly restored to crumbling to the ground. Although the actual town of Gondar ain't much, Fasil Ghebbi is a major highlight, not only of the country, but of the entire region.
There are few sites on Earth like the rock-hewn churches of the UNESCO listed Lalibela. The magnificent religious buildings were actually carved into the stone, almost like a negative impression. Arguably the biggest attraction in the country, this is one of those sites that does NOT disappoint. But beyond the magnificent churches, including the iconic St. George's with its cross roof, the brilliance of Lalibela is the way the whole area is managed. Actually a collection of 7 villages (of which only 1 has the churches), revenues are shared among them all. Guides must be licensed by local authorities and anyone trying to scam tourists is quickly chased off. It is a surprisingly stress-free visit so one can actually enjoy the spiritual sensation the place was built for.
The region north of the Gambia River is dotted with thousands of stone circles. Dating from between 400 AD to 700 AD these circles are one of West Africa's most intriguing archaeological and historical mysteries and of course an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The sites are numerous and cover an area of 35000 km2 in both the Gambia and Senegal. However, no-one knows exactly why the stone circles have been raised or who did it. They are raised on even older grave sites, which suggest that they are connected to the worship of ancestors. Further, as the area's current population moved into the region after the circles had been created, their oral tradition does not provide any clues as to why the stones were raised. The biggest sites are in Senegal, but they are mostly ignored by the authorities. Contrary, does the circles at Wassu have a small, informative museum, while the most interesting formations are at Ker Batch twenty kilometres further afield.