Historical places 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.
Like other West African countries, the Gambia wasn't exempt from the centuries of slave trading by Europeans. The country's primary site of memorial is Kunta Kinteh Island (formerly St. James Island) located mid-river at the mouth of the Gambia River. Here, Fort James defended the interests of the British, French, Dutch and Latvian ships participating in the trade of gold, ivory and, of course, slaves. The island is just a small pirogue hop from the north bank of the Gambia River, and it's easy to arrange in the twin village of Albadarr/Jufureh. Here is also a small museum, mapping out the crimes of the slave trade and providing an informative introduction to this dark corner of human history. Fort James got to redeem itself in the 19th century when it became part of the British efforts to quell the slave trade.
It was the Portuguese, who first established a trading post in Cape Coast in the early 17th century. Later both Swedish, Danish and Dutch hold the post, but it was the British in late 17th century, who expanded the post to the fort you see today. It played a key role in the transatlantic slave trade and thousands of slaves have been sold here and shipped off to the Americas. There is a fine little exhibition explaining the history of the fort, slavery, and Ghana culture in general. As you explore the fort, you get amazing views over Cape Coast, particularly the two beaches and the small fishing community below. Here high up you can take in life below, a sight that almost rival the one of the fort itself. Together with the other fortified buildings along the Ghanaian coast, they're enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Most visitors to Ghana visit the Castles in Elmina and Cape Coast. But the Ghanaian coast is dotted with gold and slave trade era forts, which together are enlisted as one joint UNESCO World Heritage site. No less than two-thirds of all Western forts built in West Africa are constructed in what is today Ghana. Built by the British, Dutch, Danes, Swedes and Portuguese, the forts ended up in the hands of the former three after power struggles during the 17th century. Most interesting of the 29 forts that are standing today are Fort Metal Cross (in Dixcove), Fort Leydsaemheyt (Apam), Fort Amsterdam (Abanze), Fort William (Anomabo) and Fort Prinzenstein (Keta). Fort Amsterdam doubles as a basic guesthouse.
Not as big as the neighbouring slave fort in Cape Coast, but with an equal grim history. Already in the late 15th century, the Portuguese set up a trading post here to get their hands on the West African gold production. The post eventually turned into to a full-blown slave fort with cannons and dungeons for slaves waiting to be shipped. The Dutch managed to conquer Elmina fort in the mid 17th century, before they sold it off to the British in late 19th century. It's estimated between 12 and 20 millions slaves were shipped from the Gold Coast in West Africa, a five-week journey under so grim conditions that it wasn't unusual that half of the human cargo have died in passage. Walking around the fort not only gives you idea of the past, but it also offers panoramic views over Elmina town and the sea. Elmina is of course a UNESCO World Heritage site along with Cape Coast slave fort.
Not many travellers make it all the way to Keta, though it's a favoured weekend hideout for locals, who are happy to have the town's resorts all to themselves. Beside the peace and quiet, and the long sandy beach, most foreign visitors come out here to visit Keta Lagoon and Fort Prinzenstein. Prinzenstein is the only Danish fort still standing on the Ghanaian coast – though the sea has tried its best to swallow it. The Danes were the third major player (along with the British and the Dutch) during 400 years of gold and slave trade. Until Christiansborg Castle in Accra opens to the public, Prinzenstein is the only Danish-built fortification it's possible to visit. Around the fort is a small colonial town, and further down the coast is an awkward-looking stilt lighthouse that's climbable.
If you enjoyed the movie "Out of Africa" about the world famous Danish author Baroness Karen Blixen, it is recommend that you visit her old coffee farm and house in the Kenyan capital. The house, which in 1986 was converted into a museum on the outskirts of Nairobi, and although houses are now built around the farm, you can still see the beautiful Ngong Hills from the large park of the house. The house / museum itself is not particularly large, but you can definitely "sense history", when you stand in the baroness's office, among her original furniture and look at her books and authentic photos of her, her husband Baron Bror Blixen and her lover Denys Finch Hatton, who died tragically in a plane crash.
Dinosaur footprints are scattered all over Lesotho and there are a few near the village of Roma. They are located at the top of the mountain and are difficult to find by yourself, but, luckily, the local kids are happy to act as guides for a few maloti/rand. It takes about 30 minutes on foot from the village to reach the few footprints. They lie unprotected on a slab of rock and are eroded by weather and tear from the locals, so their condition is thereof. But it's cool to 'explore' something in the real world instead of a museum setup with fences and explanatory texts. The panoramic views from the footprints are equally amazing and worth the walk up, even if you don't give a hoot about a few dinosaur footprints.
Lesotho has more prehistoric sites than just dinosaur footprints, namely rock paintings, also known as bushman paintings. As with the dinosaur footprints, the rock paintings are totally unprotected and difficult to find without help from a local. For the rock paintings at Ha Tjooeng, you first have to walk through the village down to the bottom of the gorge, cross the river, and up to the overhanging on the rock face. Among newer drawings and carvings, you will be able to make out the original rock paintings - some men, a cow and a lion(?) - which surprisingly have survived millenniums of tear, wear, and graffiti. As with most sights in Lesotho, the journey through the breathtaking scenery is half the reward.
Throughout Mali's history, an endless array of small kingdoms have risen and fallen. The Bamana Kingdom of Ségou rose in the 18th century a little down the road from the modern town. Ségoukoro – Old Ségou – was the original seat of power and is one of the best places in Mali to see the remnants of these kingdoms. The old castle has been restored; so has the tomb of the kingdom's founder, Kaladjan Coulibaly. His descendants still rule as the village's chiefs and live in a likewise renovated house nearby the castle. As an additional bonus to its history is Ségoukoro also a study in Saharan mosque designs. The town has four mosques: One predates Islam's arrival in the region and was probably build by a wealthy Moroccan merchant passing through. The second is a dome mosque build in mud, like the ones in Timbuktu and Gao. Finally, the last two are of Sudanese design, found all over the Sahel.