Discovering Africa's hidden treasures: Lonely Planet meets Dr Gus Casely-Hayford

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As anyone lucky enough to have travelled to the most intoxicating of continents will testify, Africa ain’t nothing but a name. Underneath it are dozens of countries, thousands of tribes and an endlessly rich history. But few travellers visit Africa in search of the past. Wildlife, beaches and music are all far more powerful draws, even if the hidden history of the continent comes as a pleasant surprise for many visitors.

Dr Gus Casely-Hayford: time-traveller

Enter Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, presenter of the BBC TV series The Lost Kingdoms of Africa and author of the book of the same name. The title trips off the tongue like an H Rider Haggard novel, conjuring images of long-lost civilisations, far-flung courts of impossible grandeur and tales of treasure to fire the imagination of the keenest schoolboy archaeologist.

During the filming of The Lost Kingdoms of Africa, Casely-Hayford visited eight of Africa’s greatest historical sights, from Ethiopia’s astonishing rock-hewn churches and clifftop monasteries to the remains of Morocco’s Berber kingdoms, as well as Swahili settlements still harbouring secrets down the east coast of Tanzania and Mozambique. Lonely Planet caught up with him just as the second series of Lost Kingdoms aired in the UK and the accompanying book was released. What was it like, I asked him, to immerse yourself in such varied parts of the African continent?

‘It wasn’t like travelling in first class,’ he confides. ‘Most of the time we were living on archaeological sites and working with local historians so it’s very immersive.’

During filming on the Berber Kingdom, Casely-Hayford and the crew drove between eight and ten thousand miles, often sleeping outdoors to be on location at first light. Illness struck every member of the team except Dr Gus, who put his immunity down to eating ‘what’s popular with locals, cutting down on meat and making sure it’s hot’. His best meal? A desert campfire-baked feast of fresh bread made with camel’s milk in a remote part of Sudan.

Dr Gus balances on the equator in Uganda

The result is often gripping viewing (or reading), and not just for those with historical leanings. The Lost Kingdoms of Africa is a feast for the eyes, whether venturing into the ancient tanneries of Fès or exploring Ethiopia’s mountaintop holy places. Dr Gus is a genial host, bringing his passion for place and topic to the fore, often by the simple device of sitting and sketching the wonder he’s looking at.

Of Ethiopia, a place he describes as ‘absolutely incredible’, Casely-Hayford notes being struck by the ‘idea of a rich and long history of Christianity that could inspire anyone.’ He recalls ‘smelling the tapers, seeing the mead used in communion and getting a sense of how deeply people believe.’ Also striking is the description of Djenné in Mali, where ‘you can’t walk for thousand-year-old pottery on the ground.’

What motivated him to delve deep into the history of Nubia (modern-day Sudan) or Buganda (Uganda)? While one glimpse at the astonishing pyramids of Meroe should answer the question, Casely-Hayford admitted ‘trying to trace history that has been lost’. He added, ‘We aren’t getting a sense that this is culture with the longest narrative, and it’s a privilege to learn more of it.’

The Lost Kingdoms of Africa is a great starting point for an imaginative exploration of an under-valued side of the continent.

The Lost Kingdoms of Africa is available now from Bantam Press.