Ancient port discovered in Egypt

Archaeologists working in Egypt have discovered a harbor on the Red Sea that was used for international trade.

The excavation at Mersa Gawasis has revealed traces of an ancient harbor. It’s long been known that the Egyptians traded down the coast of Africa, but the location of their embarkation was unknown. A famous carving at Deir el-Bahari, the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, shows an ocean-going vessel like the one pictured above and scenes a land with thatched huts and exotic items for sale such as ivory and giraffes. Inscriptions identify the land as Punt but don’t mention where it is. Archaeologists have speculated that it was in the Horn of Africa, either in Eritrea or Djibouti, or where the modern unrecognized states of Somaliland or Puntland are today.

The first recorded voyages to Punt started in the reign of the Pharaoh Sahure, who ruled from 2487-2475 BC. Regular trading missions were sent out for centuries to buy exotic items for Egypt’s elite. Queen Hatshepsut’s famous engravings of Punt date to around 1490-1460 BC.

Scholars have traditionally been doubtful of the Egyptians’ ability to make long sea voyages. Further excavation at Mersa Gawasis may change this view and open up new possibilities for Egyptian influence on other ancient cultures. While the excavations at Mersa Gawasis are not yet open to public view, Deir el-Bahari is a popular attraction and you can wonder at the scenes depicting the mysterious land of Punt for yourself.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

“Obama Effect” helps African tourism

Last year was a bad year for travel in most places, but a continent that has generally been overlooked by the majority of travelers is seeing boom times–Africa.

Africa is the only continent to see a rise in tourism last year, up 5 percent when most other places felt the pinch. The UN World Tourism Organization revealed the figures this week and said Africa had “bucked the trend” of the worldwide travel recession. Part of the boom is attributed to the “Obama Effect”, a new curiosity about Africa thanks to the U.S. having its first African-American president. Obama, seen here playing basketball in the African nation of Djibouti, has family in Kenya. The tourist board there says visitors are flocking in to learn more about where the president is from.

The other big factor is the World Cup, due to take place in South Africa this year. Not only will that bring a huge number of visitors to South Africa, but it helps put the entire continent on the map.

Not all countries are doing well. The Gambia has been hit hard, with the usual crowd of beach-loving Europeans tanning closer to home. Meanwhile, Chad and Niger are struggling to expand their tiny tourism industries by protecting and promoting their wildlife. The overall picture, however, looks rosy.

Will this be the decade Africa comes into its own as a tourist destination? There’s no shortage of natural wonders, ancient civilizations, and interesting cultures to explore. Our very own Stephen Greenwood is having an incredible time in Madagascar right now, a friend of mine is crossing the entire continent on a motorcycle, and later next month I’ll be sending dispatches from Ethiopia.

Have you been in Africa? Tell us about it in the comments section!



China discusses naval base to fight pirates

A Rear Admiral of the Chinese navy has suggested the best way to fight Somali pirates attacking travelers and shipping would be for China to have a permanent naval base in the Gulf of Aden.

The Chinese navy has been patrolling the area for several months now but has no foreign naval bases. Pirates captured a Chinese cargo ship recently and released the crew on Monday amid rumors that a $4 million ransom was paid.

While the suggestion was only posted on the defense ministry’s website and does not reflect an official plan of action, it will probably been seen with suspicion by other superpowers.

The U.S. and France both have naval bases in Djibouti and several nations patrol the pirate-ridden waters. All these forces have had limited success in fighting the pirates.

Letting the Khat Out of the Bag

The annals of travel writing are filled with dudes (and dudettes) scouring the deserts, seas and foreset canopies for the next great high. People like William Bourroughs, Hunter Thompson and even Paul Bowles were known for their explorations of both the globe and the mind…pharmacologically speaking. One drug that you don’t hear a lot about, though, is also one of the most popular drugs around in certain regins of the world. The drug is called khat, and while I’eve never tried it, I know some folks who have. It looks to me a bit like a shrub, like something that might grow next to your house. But khat is not a drug in the peyote/marijuana sense. It’s more of a stimulant, although it does have psycho-tropic qualities. Or so, as I say, I’m told.

In this marvelous article from Esquire, writer Kevin Fedarko goes to Djibouti in search of khat and the allure of this extremely popular chewable drug. It is part informative travelogue, part adventure mystery and part, well, drug experimentation saga. It’s rather long, but totally worth it. I wanted to print it out and read it on the subway home tonight, but wouldn’t seem to figure out how to do that so if anyone figures that out, let us know. But read this one for sure.

Africa Travel: Djibouti

Strangely enough Djibouti is probably one of the first African countries I ever learned about. My old sixth grade teacher had a quirky sense of humor and claimed the country as one of his favorites because of the name. While it made most of the other sixth graders giggle, I always wondered if there was something a bit off in his head. Anyhow, Djibouti is an east African country bordering the Red Sea as well as Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Once in, getting around the country seems fairly easy so long as you have patience for long bus waits. Sites of interest include Lac Abbé where Planet of the Apes was filmed years ago and Tadjoura which is the country’s oldest town and good dive spot.

Diving in the Red Sea off the shores of Djibouti is said to be spectacular. Head down below to discover schools of barracuda, batfish, giant reef rays and turtles. The waters are also home to resting migrating whale sharks between mid-September until the end of November. Several dive sites offer detailed information on their underwater tours. is only one of many out there, but has an awesome “Devil’s Caverns” excursion allowing avid divers to follow the tracks of two French adventurers and writers, Arthur Rimbaud and Henri de Monfreid. This world-class dive has some of the most interesting marine life and stunning colorful soft coral. Click here to find out more about their tours.

The photo above comes from Fred and Karen’s 2004 Djibouti dive adventure. Visit their site to get an idea of what dicing in DJ is like.