Sunday 18 March 2018

Set your clock to Africa time

Pol O Conghaile

It's almost a month now since the World Cup finished, when a late goal handed victory to Spain, and a final fanfare of vuvuzela horns rang out in the Jo'burg sky.

Sport's greatest show was held, of course, in South Africa. But for one glorious month, the spotlight shone on an entire continent.

Countries that usually make the news with stories of hunger, conflict and poor governance suddenly burst from our TVs in a riot of colour and flair.

Africa has never fitted easily into the travel mix. We have package holidays to Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, sure. And direct charters throughout the Celtic Tiger allowed tens of thousands of Irish people to acquaint themselves with Cape Town and Kruger Park in South Africa.

What lies between, however, has always been something of a mystery. We may have cheered countries such as Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Cameroon through the World Cup, but few of us have ever dream of travelling to these places, or could point them out on a map.

One reason for this is that Africa is hard work. You can't generalise about a continent, but travel to sub-Saharan countries in particular can involve expensive flights, vaccinations and visas, health risks such as malaria... and that's not even starting on the red tape and waist-deep potholes.

Once you make the effort, however, a momentum starts to build. Africa can be expensive to get to, but the rewards of going off-brochure can genuinely be unforgettable.

I first travelled to Africa in the early Noughties, covering the eruption of a volcano in the Congo for this magazine. I flew into Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, with a shipment of aid. When we landed, the pilot pushed the door of the plane open, only to find no steps and no ground attendants.

"You're on Africa time now, mate," he sighed.

After the steps eventually arrived, we set off driving across this tiny, genocide-scarred country.

Thin roads wound through lush hills, and the streets were lined with stalls selling everything from bananas to buttons, with women carrying impossible loads on their heads and babies on their backs.

Before, I had known nothing about Rwanda. After, I wanted to know everything. I've since been to Ethiopia, Kenya, Angola and, as I write, I am in the Ghanaian capital of Accra -- where World Cup matches are still replaying 24/7 on TV, the traffic is horrific, and beaches are almost deserted.

Imagine for once trading Santa Ponsa for Senegal, or Andalucía for Addis Ababa.

Imagine browsing through the ancient libraries of Timbuktu, swimming in the Indian Ocean off Mozambique, or coming face to face with endangered mountain gorillas in Uganda.

You don't have to stress it, either. Companies such as Trailfinders and Explore! have package guided tours throughout Africa, with trips ranging from safaris in Malawi to treks in Morocco's Atlas Mountains.

Then there's upmarket Africa -- the water villas of northern Mozambique, the honeymoon hideaways of Mauritius, the high-end safaris of Botswana and Tanzania (where Brian O'Driscoll and Amy Huberman were recently snapped passing through the airport at Dar es Salaam).

Sub-Saharan and West Africa are tough treasures. They are home to some of the world's best wildlife and some of its most ancient culture, but also its worst roads and poorest people. Countries such as Ethiopia or Kenya can blow your mind, test your patience and wrench your heart.

The World Cup is over. But our African adventure could just be beginning.

Irish Independent

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