UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Africa
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.
The Ashanti Kingdom provided some of the fiercest resistance to European colonisation anywhere in Africa. The British didn't manage to "pacify" this proud kingdom until 1902, when much of ancient Kumasi was burned to the ground and most of the Ashantis' royal family exiled on the Seychelles. And while the royal family has since returned, and still rule the most important traditional chiefdom in Ghana, not many physical traces have been left behind. The exception is a dozen or so sacred Ashanti shines dotting the greater Kumasi region. Built in white and red, with four elevated buildings around a closed courtyard it's easy to mistake the design for something influenced by European architecture. Nothing could be further from the truth, as illustrated by the first European travellers who marvelled about the designs in their journals. Today travellers can to the same.
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.
The Nimba Range is a mountainous ridge right on the point where the borders of Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire and Liberia congregate. The range is also the highest point of all three countries. The tallest peak, Mont Richard Molard marks the border between Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire. Named after a French geologist who died in an accident on the mountain in 1951, it requires a steep six-hour hike to reach the top. In other words, it's a full day's hike and somewhat challenging. However, it's not a technical climb and doable by anyone with a pair of solid hiking shoes and reasonable fitness. It's worth the sweat as the scenery is stunning and the views out over Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire and Liberia are as breathtaking as the hike itself. Hint: The most convenient place to find guides and start the ascend is the village of Séringbara.
Mount Kenya (5,199 m), second only to Kilimanjaro (5,895 m) in Africa, actually consists of several peaks, the third highest (Point Lenana, 4,985 m) of which can be scaled without ropes. The park is stunning, with a wide variety of habitats. There are a number of approaches, with the slightly longer Chogoria being the most beautiful. Sirimon is a good alternative, and the two can be combined for a 5/6-day walk. The walking begins around 3,000 m, and if you are coming from Nairobi (1,500 m), be sure to take the high altitude into account. The summit is best experienced at sunrise; the peak of Mt Kilimanjaro can be seen on clear mornings. The hike is tough, and many visitors have to turn back before they reach the top. Hiring porters and a guide will increase your chances of success, and decrease the risk of getting lost. Also beware of the weather â€“ the top of Mt Kenya has a permanent glacier, and temperatures on the mountains fall well below freezing on most nights. Too much rain or snow can make the experience unpleasant and dangerous. On a clear day, however, there are few places that can claim to be more beautiful.
Madagascar's largest and probably most inaccessible national park combines 2,300 square kilometres of rainforest with three marine parks off the coast, all part of a larger UNESCO World Heritage site. Getting access to the park includes a flight to Maroantsetra where the main park office, that organises guides and porters, is located. Getting there over land requires an adventures two-or-three-day journey from Antananarivo. Visitors who make it are rewarded with pristine rainforest and an abundance of wildlife, mostly undisturbed by human activities. Motorised vehicles are banned in the park, which have no roads, limiting any travel to treks, bicycling or boating around the peninsula. Travelling along Madagascar's east coasts requires a five-day trek between Maroantsetra and Antalaha. The shortest treks are three days long, with the longest being a few weeks, sleeping in basic conditions in villages or tents throughout the park.
Renowned for its Great Mosque, the largest earth-built structure in the world, Djenné offers far more. Build on a small island in the Niger Inland Delta the area has been cultivated since at least 200 BC. While the current town "only" dates back to the 14th century, it's one of the most memorable destinations in Mali. The entire town is built by mud and traditional banco mud houses, two stories high, line the narrow streets. International efforts to stop inhabitants from switching to concrete and other modern building materials have saved the town. A museum, an artisans' house and a library of ancient manuscripts are the most interesting sights beside the mosque. The mosque itself is breathtaking. Rising 18,5 metres above the plateau it's built on, everything is made of mud. Even the roof and the pillars holding it. Non-Muslims are formally forbidden to enter, but the caretaker will openly offer to ignore this rule, should a visitor make the right donation. As the ban is due to historical, rather than religious reasons, we won't judge anyone who accepts the offer.