Meet the latest traveller in our series Interviews on Off the Radar Travel Destinations!
We have with us Ian Oliver from Barefoot backpacker – a British traveller, writer, and lover of culture and history, especially the darker and bleaker side of human nature. Originally from Liverpool, he now lives halfway between Sherwood Forest and the beautiful Peak District, and has travelled to roughly 60 countries. Today he will be talking to us about his travels in West Africa
Tell us a bit about yourselves and your travels
I’ve always been fascinated by the world. It started with maps – as a child I would voraciously consume maps of all kinds, from street plans of my own area to large world maps depicting borders and topography of places I’d otherwise never heard of. In my teenage years, I discovered the joys of penpalling – at one point having around 50 people I’d write to across the UK and the world – so it was but a short step from there to going to meet them.
As a natural introvert, I’ve tended to travel solo most of the time; I also love the freedom and flexibility it brings. This, coupled with my ‘vague’ approach to planning, leads to situations where I’ll wake up in the morning and not know which country I’d be sleeping in that night. When it comes to arranging travel, I’ll thoroughly research a place to the nth degree beforehand… and then not book anything until the last possible moment.
Although I’ve been travelling for much of my life (not counting Ireland, my first solo trip was when I was 19, crossing Europe by coach and train to visit my penpal in Belgrade, who I’d only written three letters to at that point, and at the time it was the height of the Balkan wars – evidently I’ve never made it easy for myself!), it’s not until the last couple of years that I’ve really started to travel more. My ‘breakthrough’ trip, as it were, was to SE Asia in Spring 2012. Since then I’ve been to the Levant, the Balkans, and North America, before starting a year-long career break that’s seen me in Eastern Europe, Chile, Australia, Timor-Leste, Bali, Central Asia, and West Africa.
When it comes to choosing destinations, I tend to look at history and culture, with environment close behind. I’m fascinated by not just physical remains of historical sites but also the concept of standing somewhere like Samarkand and seeing where important people once stood and pivotal events unfolded. The feel of a place is often more important to me than what’s actually there. As such, I’m naturally attracted to the dark, the bloody, the notorious – the places where the mere name instils a sense of dread or sadness, but which have also left an indelible mark on history, from the trenches of WW1 to the Killing Fields of Cambodia, via Chernobyl and the Aral Sea.
Why did you chose to travel to West Africa?
It’s a part of the world I only had a vague idea about, but the few people I’d come across who’d either been there or come from there all thought it was an interesting, if slightly difficult, region. Ghana had always been on my list anyway – the combination of the ancient Ashanti kingdom, and the role the region played in the slave trade, meant it was definitely a place I wanted to see. When researching elsewhere in the region, I was drawn to Benin for similar reasons – plus Benin is the spiritual home of Voodoo. My initial plan was to journey from Benin all the way to Senegal, but Ebola got in the way and I ended up just sticking to the East of the region.
It’s also a place I knew I’d find a little ‘challenging’, to put me out my comfort zone, mainly because I’m an introvert and I knew culturally the people are far more ‘forward’. Apart from a couple of places in the Arab North, I’d never really been to Africa; I wanted to explore it more but chose the West over the East/South because I felt there was more here to interest me.
Where did you stay?
Mainly in cheap hotels/guesthouses/B&Bs.
One thing I quickly noticed is the lack of backpacker accommodation – hostels are incredibly rare; in my whole five weeks I only stayed in three dorms: one at Mole National Park which doesn’t really count, and two in Benin where for all the nights I was the only guest in my room. Some of the places I stayed were potentially quite ‘sociable’ – especially in Burkina Faso – but overall there were very few other travellers to meet with.
On this trip I’d also been not pre-booking accommodation at all – usually I make sure I have a place to stay, even if I only end up booking it a few hours in advance, but in West Africa most places aren’t bookable online and as I was using a 5-year-old guidebook to the whole region as reference material, many of the towns I went to had only fleeting mentions, so I figured it was easier to just turn up and hope. Mostly this served me well … in Tamale (Ghana) all the places I tried were full, and quite spread out from each other, so I ended up asking one of the many moto-taxi drivers to just take me somewhere. I ended up sleeping in his parents’ house, on a fold-out bed.
In the border village of Hamile (Ghana), to sleep in the only hotel in town, I had to get someone walking past to call the owner to let me in. The hotel itself was a one-storey rectangle surrounding a central courtyard; it looked a bit like stables and the room resembled a large prison cell, with one small light and concrete floors.
What were your favourite and most difficult parts on this journey?
The most difficult parts were some of the travelling, slow cramped minivans over rough terrain in scorching temperatures. In NW Ghana (Wa, Hamile) this was coupled with my feeling truly alone due to no other travellers at all, and virtually no Internet access to catch up with friends, and about to cross the border into Burkina Faso -an unknown country where the language was completely different, and which had recently experienced a revolution –I did question why I was doing this at all, why I was here, putting myself through this.
Mostly the trip was enjoyable though. And the sense of accomplishment of having been to some of these places well off the beaten track, visiting obscure places where I was the only foreigner, was pretty thrilling. As often happens, the darkest hours are followed by the happiest moments, and once I was in Burkina Faso, I found it to be a lovely, welcoming place.
Favourite spot might have been Mole National Park in Ghana – I’m not really one for animal-spotting but there’s something fundamentally appealing about being 100 metres from an elephant in the wild, or eating lunch surrounded by lazing warthogs and interested monkeys.
Highlights of your stay
- The moto-taxi driver in Tamale took me around random building sites in the city, then into the countryside to visit a a few local villages.
- I crossed illegally into Burkina Faso without realising and had to backtrack 6km, to cross illegally back into Ghana
- On the border of Benin and Togo I lost my shared taxi with my luggage
- Had my own voodoo ceremony in Benin
- On the border of Togo and Ghana (very remote border) I saw the locals use 1,000 CFA notes in lieu of passports
- On my very first day of the trip I had my phone pickpocketed.
- The shops in Ghana (and, to an extent, in Benin) have religious-type names.
- Got propositioned by a couple of fifty-something ladies in a café in Benin
- Everyone seemed to want to sell me their art
What were some of your favourite dishes/food there?
I’ll admit, you don’t go to West Africa for the food! Standard street food I had tended to fall into one of two camps. Rice-type dishes and Fufu-type dishes, both usually served with a sauce and either chicken of fish (invariably tilapia), both served with bones.
The sauces tend to be quite watery, and are designed to be dipped into rather than poured on. Certainly with fufu – pounded cassava and formed into balls of dough, which you then rip off with your fingers and dip into the sauce/meat combo. Very messy, but cheap and filling, and available pretty much everywhere (except between 12-3pm when everything closed for ‘siestas’) Banku is the same, but using corn dough rather than cassava dough. I tended to favour the ‘arachide’, a spicy peanut sauce.
I wanted to try the agouti (a kind of rodent), which is supposed to be a delicacy in Benin, but couldn’t find anywhere that offered it. Water was ubiquitously sold on the streets, either at stalls from cool-boxes, or by people (often children) walking around with whole baskets of them on their heads; it generally came in small plastic sachets of between 400 and 500ml. Although cheap (each the equivalent of 4p, or 7 cents), it meant that the whole country was pretty much covered in a layer of discarded plastic rubbish.
Would you recommend West Africa to other people? Families? Solo travellers? Backpackers?
Apart from the lack of dorm accommodation, West Africa is made for backpacking. It’s relatively inexpensive, there’s a lot of culture here, it‘s friendly, and it’s pretty easy to get around by public transport (even if you have to wait a few hours). It should be SE Asia but for some reason it isn’t – I guess it does not have that ‘chilled out’ vibe that Thailand and Indonesia has.
With travelling solo, be aware that it’s harder to meet up with other travellers as there’s less focal points where to do so – as such it may end up more expensive for tours.
I’d say that families might be better staying around the coastal regions, where most of the large towns, history, and infrastructure are. I think if I were a parent, I could keep kids easily busy in southern Ghana or in southern Benin, but I think Burkina Faso would be best suited for mid-teens and up – simply because it’s more about people than ‘things to do’. That said, children are everywhere in West Africa, and everyone seems to love them, so I’d imagine travelling with your own would lead to a very immersive experience.
What’s next on the horizon for your travels?
That’s a very good question. After an abortive attempt to enjoy Ethiopia (I came to a slightly unnerving conclusion that I’d maybe done too much travelling in too little time), I’ve come home to relax a bit and return to the ratrace. That said, I do hope to go to South Africa/Zimbabwe in the near future. Could go with friends to both India and Egypt, and once I get round to learning a bit of Spanish, I’ll tackle South America properly – Argentina and Bolivia especially.
To see more of Ian’s travels:
Africa Travels http://barefoot-backpacker.com/category/rtw7-westafrica/