TV presenter and historian Dr Gus Casely-Hayford on the best places to discover Africa's ancient past
When the first series of Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford's Lost Kingdoms of Africa aired on BBC Four it was the channel's highest rated factual programme ever. Now Britain's favourite curator and cultural historian is back with a new series, uncovering more African kingdoms whose history is sadly neglected in the West.
Here are his hints for uncovering Africa's hidden riches.
Many of Africa’s significant archaeological sites are in areas that are today somewhat remote. Over the last couple of years I have driven the equivalent of two circuits of the earth on African roads in search of places that help to reveal the continent’s history. And I must say that driving on African rural roads has been sometimes challenging, but was for the most part completely exhilarating – my favorite drive is the road up into the Ethiopian Highlands to visit Debra Damo.
My second recommendation would be to attend a service at Debra Damo, the sixth century mountain top monastery, in northern Ethiopia. Once you get to the base of the mountain the only way to access the monastery is by a hide rope, which you have to climb the final 30 metres. The secret is to arrive the evening before a service, preferably a saint’s day and ask to stay in one of the disused dormitories – waking at dawn to hear the chanting and to see the sunrise, before squeezing in among the monks for the service, is one of the most magical things you can do.
One of the most memorable afternoons of my life was spent on the Bandiagara escarpment – a 150 kilometre long cliff that rises up to 500 metres from the green valley floor of central Mali. The cliff-face was the 14 century home of the Tellem: a mysterious people whose beautiful adobe grain stores still nestle precariously on cliff ledges and beneath over-hangs.
It is spellbindingly beautiful, but if you descend the cliff towards the town of Ireli on a late summer’s evening, you will not only be met with completely stunning views, but your climb may well be accompanied by the sound of Dogon drumming wafting up from the valley floor. If you seek inspiration while you travel, you will not be disappointed.
Lastly, in two years of travel, often camping, and always eating local foods, I did not have a single day of illness – my simple philosophy was eat fresh food, eat hot food, eat popular food – and do not get too stressed by diet. Armed with that philosophy I enjoyed wonderful tagines in Morocco, unforgettable Injera in Ethiopia and delicious rice dishes in West Africa – but one of my most memorable meals was a supper of edible insects in the Venda region of South Africa.
You do not have to be Bear Grlls, but try not to see diet as a challenge while travelling. Enjoy!
Dr Gus Casely-Hayford is an art historian who, after completing his PhD in African history, went on to run a number of degree and MA courses in international culture. He has presented many programmes on television and radio and written widely on African culture.
The latest series of Lost Kingdoms of Africa can be seen on the BBC from January 30 at 9pm. The accompanying book is published by Bantam and can be pre-ordered on Amazon now. The first series of Lost Kingdoms of Africa is available on DVD, courtesy of Acorn Media.
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