Anatomy of a Trip; Roman Ruins an African Road Trip and Islands You'll Need a Map to Locate

I turned fifty earlier this year and luckily for me a big trip of my choice was the reward. I'd long wanted to travel the Karakoram Highway from China to Pakistan. But when the opportunity arose I was happy to stay still for one of the  first times in my life. We've spent so much time in New York over the last few years that I couldn't think of anything more I'd like to do more than spend the summer at home in California.But by September I was excitedly mulling the possibilities. 

Sometimes a trip comes together and  though you planned it you still feel a sense of surprise and curious childlike delight, as if you had nothing to do with the unlikely choices and  offbeat pairings. Honestly, that's the case on almost all our trips, there's something in me that can't quite believe the whole thing came together, as if I manifested it magically right out of all the planning and dreaming!
Map generated by the wonderful Great Circle Mapper - copyright © Karl L. Swartz.
I think part of the reason I feel this way is that the list of places we'd like to go is incredibly long. When I start planning a trip I consider an enormous number of possibilities,  juggling them around budget, frequent flyer routes and seasons until the disparate elements begin to gel together in a mad assemblage. Our trips often begin with one idea and morph into something quite different. 

This trip started with my ignorance about North Africa. We'd thought about visiting Lepis Magna when things opened up in Libya years ago but missed the chance. Tunisia was always a possibility, but not somewhere we'd made a priority. For some inexplicable reason I hadn't realized there were incredible Roman sites in Algeria. I can't defend my ignorance because it makes no sense at all, clearly I knew the Romans had been in Carthage (Tunisia) as well as Morocco and Libya. It's as if I thought they  just skipped right over Algeria, as foolishly as I had in my own head!

Once I realized my mistake it seemed a necessity to compensate by going to Algeria to see Timgad, Tipasa and Djemila. And while you're in the neighborhood why wouldn't I take a trip to Tunisia to see the coliseum at El Jem and the Unesco site at Dougga?  Traveling to Tunisia and Algeria  also offers the opportunity to learn more about both the expansion of Islam across north Africa, and the bloody history of French colonization. I was glad to make contact with a local agent Expert Algeria who offer specialized archeological itineraries. I was delighted to find we could fly directly  between London Gatwick and Algeria on British Airways miles, transferred from American Express. You can fly one way in Business for only 15,000 Avios miles each (taxes of $40) or 7,500 in economy (taxes of $27.50). On what is known as an off-season reward saver rate. In addition, Amex miles or Membership Rewards were offering a 40% bonus when transferring to British Airways. So we paid only 12,000 miles  for our Business class tickets. I love getting the very best value out of my miles and it's a strategic use of miles  that often make my crazy itineraries feasible.

While I was planning our north African sojourn  I read an article about  environmental and socially conscious hotel projects that had opened in the islands of São Tomé and Principe in the Gulf of Guinea. The islands and the culture there looks fascinating,  isolated, tropical and quite distinctive  to anywhere else we've been. It seemed this could be the perfect place to end up, and even better it was possible to fly there on United miles. I'd patched together a series of one way tickets and booked our return from São Tomé to Dublin for only 45,000 miles in Business. Using a flight ending in the Canary Islands is trick that saves 10,000 miles per ticket and I've explained how to  successfully do this on a previous post.

I understand that the connection between Algeria, Tunisia and São Tomé  may be a stretch but it's exactly the type of illogical itinerary I love. When I asked my best friend if she had heard of São Tomé and Principe, proudly mentioned the possibility of visiting, she laughed and  scoffingly declared, "No I haven't heard of it! Seriously, is this what it's going to be from now on? You're just going to go from one island no-one's ever heard of to the next, because you've run out of places to go!" I was amused because I haven't been to Norway, Denmark or Hungary yet, so I'm not quite qualified  for the obscure islands club !
Map generated by the wonderful Great Circle Mapper - copyright © Karl L. Swartz.
Flights to São Tomé are easiest from the Ghanian capital Accra, somewhere we haven't been since our honeymoon in 2000. The trip is beginning to feel nostalgic as best flights are on the Portuguese airline TAP, which I last took  to and from Namibia as a volunteer in the 1980s!  When I began to look for flights from Tunis to Accra I stumbled upon a  direct flight from Tunis to Cotonou in Benin. Initially I was surprised to find it until I thought about the cultural and economic links  throughout Francophone Africa. Once I found the Cotonou flight it was almost inevitable that I'd suggest a manic road trip across  West Africa taking us from Benin, through Togo to Ghana. There are several agencies that do cross-country West African trips but we decided on Afia Tours a locally run Ghanian company supporting sustainable tourism projects. We'll have our own four-wheel vehicle and Anglophone/Francophone guide. Hopefully will be able to get a good sense for the region we will be driving through. At ten days this part of the trip is far too short, but it's the best we can do and I'm hoping we'll enjoy it.  I'm looking forward to exploring the intersections of Islam, Christianity and traditional religions, including voodoo, which meet in this part of the world. We also hope to see some local architecture including a region described by UNESCO as,
"The Koutammakou landscape in north-eastern Togo, which extends into neighbouring Benin, is home to the Batammariba whose remarkable mud tower-houses (Takienta) have come to be seen as a symbol of Togo. In this landscape, nature is strongly associated with the rituals and beliefs of society. " 

African culture isn't only about tradition, it's also about modern vibrant cities and there is plenty of contemporary art and architecture to see too. I spent a lot of my childhood in neighboring Nigeria so I'm  always excited to be back in the chaos, energy and color of West Africa and I hope you'll be following along! I'll be blogging when I get back or you can see what we are up to on Instagram.

Let me know what part of this journey you'd be most excited by?

Practicalities: A trip like this requires a lot of planning. We've had to get three visas in advance which has been expensive and required a mountain of paperwork, including letters of invitation. Tunisia and São Tomé  don't require visas, Togo allows you to buy a visa at the border and Benin offers an easy online e-Visa system. Luckily we've been able to apply for the Ghanian and Algerian visas in person - at their consulates in New York. We are still waiting for our Algerian visas to come through so keep your fingers crossed for us...


Unknown said…
looking forward your part on Algeria which is on my top list since i saw the movie from the photographer Arthus Bertrand
Do not know if you can somewhat French (i am not sure the movie was translated) but i literally cried of watching some much beauty.
hope you ll enjoy it to prepare your trip:
Thanks so much Bertrand,
I really appreciate you posting the link and I will definitely check the film out, it sound like the perfect thing to get us excited about the trip. I'm reading a book on the Romans in North Africa and another on the war for Algerian Independence so I could use something more visual! Hopefully we will get our Algerian visas back from the consulate tomorrow and we look forward to going there at the end of the month.