With quite a bit of apprehension, and a sinking feeling of sadness as we said goodbye to Becky and Katy we set off to West Africa. With our bike all boxed up, a process we are now quite used to, we were on our way. Plucked from familiarity of home life, with all its comforts, and deposited into a new world, different customs, smells, sounds, and general hussle and bussle that feels alien to us. It feels daunting our journey ahead, but this is how each trip starts. Gradually over the first week this new life becomes familiar and starts to feel normal. Things become easier to understand and we start to enjoy the peculiarities around us. It feels good to be among these people with their bright colours and infectious broad smiles. Familiarities and memories from previous trips to West Africa boosted our bonding with this land and people.
We headed off at first light for the border with Senegal. Almost immediately, one road back from the coastal strip in Gambia you are plunged surprisingly quickly into Africa, that sees little influence from the mainstream tourism.
Once across the border we stop for a second breakfast at a small transport yard. Several beaten up Peugeot 505 estate cars are parked here and there around the dusty rough yard. These shared bush taxis are the back bone of West African public transport, known as “sept place” though they often carry more and always a huge roof load. Brightly dressed ladies, one with a toddler on her back cooked us some eggs, served with French bread and washed down with Lipton’s tea. Both ladies were married to the same man which is very common.
The land was sparsely populated compared with what we had experienced on our last big trip in India and Nepal. We were on our own, the road was quiet, the air hot, and the birds sang in the trees. We passed sleepy villages every so often and sometimes people called out greetings, it was relaxed, and you didn’t get the frenzy of attention we had become used to in India and Nepal. Their houses are surrounded by compounds where people sit lazing under the shade of a tree, chatting and passing the time of day. The compounds around houses were bordered by a palisade of old thick, often burnt, upright tree branches, spikey and knarled, placed in the ground with regular gaps, to form a fence to keep animals out, but lets us see daily life going on as we cycle past in the heat of the day.
By evening we reach Kafountine and stay at a great comfortable place run by Eric, a French guy, married to Justine, a lovely Senegalese lady who is a great cook. We stay in our own round hut set in beautiful gardens. A short walk over a wooden bridge made from salvaged boat planks, that crosses a small lagoon called a belong leads to an empty expanse of beach that goes on for as long as the eye can see. There are quite a few Europeans living here like Eric, in paradise. A lot have been here for twenty years or more.
A little way along the sandy beach near to Kafountine there is an impressive fishing fleet. Hundreds of brightly painted boats moored offshore outside the breaking waves. Long narrow, heavily built craft, with sweeping bows and sterns. The vast keel timber runs the whole length and extends beyond the bow and stern where it is swept upwards.
Boats are anchoring in the surf too, where people wade out with fish boxes on their heads to bring in the catch. The beach is alive with activity. Crates and baskets of fish are being brought ashore on mass. Negotiations and deals are being done on the beach as the catch are being sold and loaded into trucks.
Lighters are bringing the fishing crews, who have been at sea all night, back to the beach. Once they have dropped one lot off, they are back through the breaking waves, throwing their bows in the air, and collecting more fishermen. Small boats are being hauled up the beach on rollers. Boats are being repaired and built in the shade of the trees at the top of the beach. Boat builders with a mixture of power tools and shipwrights adds shape the planks so they fit tightly together. You hear the sound of ships’ nails being driven home as the planks are fitted. Skilful painters decorate the craft with bright patterns and writing. Men sat in the shade of boats on the beach mending their nets. The fine smell of grilled fish on an old metal half barrel grill perched between two beaches craft wafted through the air.
Further back there were whole areas drying and smoking fish. Labourers ran with boxes and baskets of fish to all these different areas. Heavily loaded lorries rolled out along the dusty road, straining with the excessive weight they were carrying. Foul smelling water drained out from the back of the trucks. The air too now was filled with smoke and the smell of dried fish. A bustling market serving food and drinks to the weary fishermen lined the track. Stalls with many sat round, while being served sweet condensed milk coffee and cold bean stew sandwiches.
We need now to head south and cross the Mangroves and the Cassamance river, an area of many creeks and islands.
The next morning we set
along the beach, taking advantage of the hard sand at low tide. It was a quick ride to the fishing village we had visited yesterday. There was a cool breeze coming off the sea. Boats rolled and pitched on their moorings a little offshore. Close in there were boats anchored in the waves. Again people waded out to collect baskets of fish from the nights catch, another frenzied day had started. Soon we were on a red latterite track heading to Kassel where the mangroves start.
Brightly coloured birds, vivid green and blue darted around the forest, and piercing bird song filled the air.
After a short wait for the tide to come up, the bike was loaded into a pirogue and we were on our way along a narrow creek through the mangroves. The lattice of roots perched over the higher mud supported lush dark green mangrove plants.
The winding channel threaded its way through the impenetrable vegetation and eventually lead out into a wider channel which we crossed to reach the island of Hilol.
A narrow path lead across the island through the forest of tall trees and palms to the village of Hilol where we hoped to find a pirogue to take us further south into the Karone islands. Along the path colourful birds and butterflies darted about. Trees tall and wide stood with grand scale, towering above the lower vegetation and scrub, giant folded roots stand high around the trunk. Termite mounds are also on a huge scale, a pinnacle mound of hard baked earth standing tall, normally in the shade of trees. The mounds colour is different depending how close we are to the mangroves. Inland they are orange or red and on the islands they are sand colour.
Is was not long before the forest opened out to the village. A tidy place spread around some central areas that contained large impressive trees for shade.
A funeral was taking place and we had to wait for the ceremonies to finish before the boatman was ready to go. Jerome, a friendly guy who spoke good English helped us arrange the boat and showed us around his village which included visiting his cannabis fields. He said it was more profitable growing cannabis rather than onions. It could be dried and stored easily, and people came to the island to collect it. Set in one quiet shady corner of the village close to his fields Jerome showed us his family’s graves. One in particular his great great something grandfathers grave, who was quite a local hero as he had killed an important French Captain in 1836. The grave was incredibly basic for such a man with just a few concrete blocks surrounding the plot. Later we visit the grave of the Captain on the island of Carabane, some 80km to the south, an old French trading post. He is buried standing up facing the the man that killed him.
Along with many brightly dressed women from the funeral we waded out through the muddy water and boarded the large wooden pirogue. There was lots of chatter and large sacks of produce were loaded along with our tandem.
Again we wound our way through the labyrinth of channels cutting deep into the mangroves. The women’s chatter continued. They were on real day out and had left the children at home. There was no sadness about the funeral, surprising as the person who had died was a 25 year old girl. It was just a great social outing, and some of these people had travelled a long way.
We dropped the funeral party off at the village of Boun. A tranquil place with a small jetty protruding into the bolong(waterway in the mangroves) and an old church. We headed off to Bankasouk
Is now just us and Abdu, the boatman now heading off along the bolong. He was a friendly guy and quite thick set compared to the other men. We had made a good and fair deal with the help of Jerome for the journey to Bankasouk, and probably rather foolishly paid up front. We were a bit green only being a few days into our trip.
It was not long before we beached at the edge of a forrest on an island, where Abdu informed us we must cross on foot and then get another pirogue from the other side. This was not our arrangement at all and we suddenly felt vulnerable and frightened. We were alone and had to come up with a plan quickly, as it was late and only a couple of hours of daylight remained. Crossing the island at such an early stage of our trip was too much. We were still finding our feet and judging how far to push the adventure. We decided to get him to take us back to Boun where the funeral party had been dropped off. This felt like the safest option. After sometime, with stops for Abdu to eat crabs and rice on another fishing boat and an incident where he managed to dry the boat out on another person’s anchor, on a rapidly falling tide, which then became embedded in the rough timber of the keel of his boat. Along with the help of another guy and the use of our swimming goggles the anchor was eventually released. All this made for a tense situation as we just wanted to get back to Boun and the lovely ladies that had been to the funeral. As always in these situations it all worked out and we were put up in Abdu’s house in the village. People greeted us like old friends and we settled down to cooking our supper outside the house. Children came and joined us, smiled, asked our names, and hung around in a very comfortable friendly way. Things were very relaxed and we enjoyed the evening in this tranquil remote place accessed only by boat. We went to bed early listening to the laughs and animated conversations of the villagers that sat round a fire pit out in the central space of the village. Once silence fell on the village we presumed sound sleep, but then a stubborn rat scurried around our room the rest of the night causing a very fitful night’s sleep.
The next morning the sun rose over the mangroves and the soft morning colour was pleasing on the bolong and the upright posts of the rickety village jetty.
Abdu was prepared to take us onto Bankasouk the correct way this time, through the mangroves, but this early on in our trip we lacked the confidence to continue with him so decided to back track to Kafountine which involved parting with a bit more cash and later we were back in Kafountine where we all parted as friends.
We cycled the road way round the northern Cassamance to Ziguinchor, where after getting our Guinea-Bissau visas sorted in record time, no forms or documents, just the money and a visa in five minutes, we continued back into the southern Cassamance where we would have reached on the original plan.
We were soon on a well made red laterite road heading to the village of Seleke which passed by almost unnoticed. The creeks and mangroves started to reappear and before long we were at the very small village of Etama where we understood we could get a boat across and along the bolongs about 7 km to Djiromait where the road restarted. There was no evidence of any waterway in the simple village of a few mud houses with tin roofs. A couple of dugout canoes lay on some mud next to the village and on talking to a couple of friendly warm villagers they said they could transport us and the tandem in these two carved out tree trunks. We worried about the size of the craft and transporting our precious bicycle, but were reassured by Afred and Malamine who seemed very competent. We were led along a series of paths to a small channel full of water, referred to as the port.
After a little while we could hear the gentle strokes of a paddle through the water as they glided round the corner to meet us. One dugout for us and one for the bike, all loaded up with our bags and the bike was lashed to the central thwart, we squelched down the muddy bank and boarded our pirogue. Memories of trips in Benin and Ghana in these unstable craft came back. Their very rounded profile as you would expect from a tree makes them rock and tip easily, but soon you relax into the motion and avoid any sudden movements. We slipped along the glassy calm water of the narrow bolong winding our way though the mangroves which were teeming with bird life, flashes of bright colour as they darted around the mangrove plants, long legged things too with long thin beaks, and pelicans gathered in the larger expanses of water. Afred and Malamine chatted away and we talked about ours and their families as we worked our way through the waterways. They were really friendly people and we enjoyed their company.
Eventually we were in a large bolong with small wavelets that rocked our boats slightly. It was hot out on the exposed water. Dolphins jumped from the water to our side. The dorsal fin whizzing through the water and then a whole group of them leaping and splashing back into the water.
After about an hour and half we landed on a sandy beach near a well where we got water to wash the mud off our bike. It had been a fabulous experience. A picnic lunch of bread, cheese and sardines under the shade of a tree by the well and we waved fairwell to Afred and Malamine who paddled back to their home village.
We continued cycling to Elinkine, passing villages with old mud houses, where we picked up a public pirogue to the island of Carabane where we stayed in the old mission overlooking the beach with palm trees leaning out over the water. We visited the grave of the French captain that Jerome’s relative had killed in 1836, standing proudly facing the Cassamance river and towards the village of Hilol some 80km away. Along with several graves from a similar date they all lie is this beautiful shaded corner of the island.