Those travelling in Ivory Coast up from the low-lying, developed south will be pleasantly surprised by the west’s elevated terrain, chillier climes and eco-tourism opportunities. Mountaineers will relish Tonkoui and other 1,000m-plus peaks, while the more casual hiker can easily conquer Zaala and Le Dent de Man for stirring views of the countries neighbouring Ivory Coast to the west. Although not Niagaran in scale, the cascades at Zadépleu are the biggest in the country and worth a frolic under.
The Dix-Huit Montagnes (literally ‘Eighteen Mountains’) is also the home of the Dan (also known as the Yacouba) ethnic group, famous for its striking masks and sacramental dances. Subsistence farming villages such as Godufu, near the border with Liberia, lay on energetically elaborate masked stilt dances celebrating everything from marriages to harvests. In the regional capital Man, which has the atmosphere of an enlarged hill station, artisans use traditional methods to construct masks and whittle all manner of symbolic objects out of acacia, teak and bois de veine trees.
Situated in the mountainous midwest of Ivory Coast, Man is possibly the prettiest city in the country. For centuries visitors have been wowed by its breathtaking alpine backdrop, richly forested fringes, wild waterfall, inner-city plantations and rose gardens. Its streets rocky and undulating, Man is nestled in the Dix-Huit Montagnes region between the country’s highest mountains, mist-capped Mount Tonkoui (1,223m) and the Toura range, 14 of whose peaks exceed 1,000m in height.
The capital of the Dan people, Man is buzzing with traditional activities nowadays not so popular in the cosmopolitan south of Ivory Coast: fetishist and animist rituals, pre-modern arts and crafts, and partying on palm wine until the sun comes up. The city is also blessed with a wealth of natural resources, from rare kinds of trees you can’t find elsewhere in Ivory Coast to gold, silver, plantains, kola nuts, maize and cocoa. The wider region is the country’s biggest supplier of coffee and home to UNICAFE, the state coffee production company.
While it would be lazy to attach clichés to Man such as ‘this is where the real, authentic Ivory Coast begins’, there’s no denying that its landscape, culture and singular attractions make it markedly different to anywhere else in the country. It’s just a pity that, these days, few foreigners head here due to Man’s reputation during the war (see below) and its distance from the tourist ‘golden triangle’ of Abidjan, Grand-Bassam and Yamoussoukro.
The charming market town of Touba used to be a centre of cotton growing but is now surrounded by cashew plantations. It’s located midway between Odienné and Man, 11km south of the Guinean border. In 1903, the colonial administration deemed Touba important enough to host one of the first 18 French schools to be established in Ivory Coast. Since then Touba has lost its prestige and there’s not a lot to do here now other than admire the hilly environs and multi-coloured architecture (the purple government bureaux and pink clothing boutiques stand out).
Travellers use the town as a base for exploring the Dan villages of Godufu, where you can experience ancient rural ways and watch a frenetic stilt dance, and Zaala, from where you can hike to a magnificent vantage point to see several mountains spanning three different countries.
If you travel 5km south along the A7, then east up a dirt track you reach the 1,000-strong Dan settlement of Godufu. Little about the appearance, customs or activities of the village has changed in centuries. The roofs of the conical huts are made from sewn-together paille (reeds), which can last up to five years if looked after. Some roofs are blackened from cooking, and these abodes usually belong to wives who live separately from their polygamous husbands. The mixture of cow dung and clay used for the walls helps to repel mosquitoes. The huts with many entrances are small courts of justice where minor disputes are resolved. Even in this day and age, doors are left unlocked because everyone knows one another and there are no wealth divisions to cause envy.
The villagers live off the crops they grow; the men tending the cassava, yam and plantain fields, and the women energetically pounding the produce in large pots on a hillock on the south side of the huts. The surplus is sold at the market in Touba for resources the residents can’t generate themselves such as petrol, batteries and gas for light.
A further 2km east of Godufu is the rural community of Zaala, accessible along an uneven and rocky approach. The route zig-zags a good deal and it’s best to travel there with a guide as it’s not easy to navigate. From the village you can take a 2km, mostly uphill hike amid the reeds, paddy fields, manok plantations and re-wilded teak forests, remarkable for their bright yellow flowers (used for paint) and crest-shaped leaves that can preserve meat for up to two weeks.
After about 40 minutes you’ll reach a high point affording a panorama that takes in the overbite- shaped Mount Zaala to the east, Touba to the west and the fog-shrouded mountains of Guinea and Liberia beyond.