It takes more than their good news to elevate my anxiety as I ease Williwaw around a most difficult bend which I had marked out on my early morning walk. Once more the girls have to watch as I mount one bank to the point of capsizing before swinging the wheel in a downward direction to cross the riverbed like a wall of death rider building up enough speed to mount the opposite wall.
For most of the morning, every inch forward is gained with the building of steps or using our tracks. Progress is slow a few hundred meters per hour. By midday we are hot. Sunstroke is only avoided by Fanny’s assistance that we wear hats.
Eventually, we emerge onto rocky level ground. There are no track or tyre tracks to follow. On we go using dead reckoning navigation till we come upon a lighthouse in the form of a young good-looking chap walking in our direction with a suitcase. It is the first time that Fanny offers a lift. She gives up her front seat comfort in exchange for his local knowledge. All we learn about our glamour boy is that he is returning home from Dakar. He must have been in a rush as after an hour or so he has figured out he can walk faster. He leaves us pointing over the sparkling water of a cascading river to the track on the opposite side. To our horror, it is another dry but trickling riverbed. With his scent still lingering in the cab, we strip and plunge into the first pool of water.
Refreshed and fed, I cross over the river by foot. There is no other route than up the riverbed. Returning I break the news to the girls “Another walk and mark the route with four major rock steps to be overcome. The good news is at the top the dirt track awaits us.”
Four hours later, four stone lighter, sweating more than any beer could quench we have broken the camel’s back the smooth ground even if it is deeply rutted is manna from heaven.
Leaving no man’s land we cross the frontier into Guinea. Eight miles further on Fanny lifts a bamboo pole for Williwaw to pass under. Four army dressed men direct us to a round hut with no walls where we present ourselves. Greetings are courteous.
Unbelievably we are required to explain where we had come from and where we are going and why.
As the saying goes “The frog at the bottom of the well believes that the sky is as small as the lid of a cooking pot.” Anonymous Vietnamese proverb.
A jotter is produced for record purposes. Passport numbers, names, professions, colour of eyes, date of birth are all entered. Sitting in a circle we wait. “Have you any firearms, radios, what is in that box, where is your visa, why is your driving permit, not signed.” A few music CDs bribes and we on our way, with instructions to stop at the customs but we are not told where they are.
Pitch number 42 is in long grass; the day’s work and the heat had taken its toll. Overtiredness gives Fanny and I a fidgety nights sleep on our platform under the stars. Florence sleeps soundly to the gentle murmur of the grass a rustling in the balmy night airs.
The girls awake to a roaring fire and breakfast. There is a welcome chill in the air. Above us, the forest-covered hills promise a less tormented day than yesterday. Our first visitor arrives at eight am. A girl of eighteen or so, she takes a look and departs as we do an hour later.
Nothing so far in our travels had quite prepared us for the intense feeling of liberation we are now experiencing. Without any target to achieve we are moving without difficulty. Simply just letting time go by has us bewitched. Our route is marked on the distant hills. A ribbon of red soil cut into the frantic greenness that surrounds us. Three river crossings and some thirty kilometres later we arrive at a police check > its mid-afternoon prayer time.
We are waved through to Pitch number 43.
Enclosed on all sides by endless hills and valleys we pull Williwaw off our red track into an alcove of long golden grass. The sky rumblings warn of rain to come from the southwest. Our chosen campsite is in a setting one would dream for. Intense physical wild beauty, unspoiled, uncontaminated. All is touch with a gracefulness that nature is only capable of delivering, polluted only by our human presence.
Darkness is arriving at speed so the pleasures of our surroundings will have to wait until morning. We rush to set up the platform, to cook dinner, and make ourselves ship-shape for the night before the promised rain.
I have just erected our tent secure it into position on the platform when we are hit by a hurricane blast of warm wind. These gusts of wind seem to always materialise in front of a serious downpour and within seconds we are battling to get the tent off the roof.
Not as easy as it sounds for when it is erected on the roof platform it is secured to the platform by bolts that are dropped through the peg eye holes and locked under the platform by large wing washers. In addition, the guy ropes are led down to the ground and made secure by tying them to hammering in the ground steel animal halter.
In seconds we suffer a broken suspension tent rod and a large tear under one of the tents department windows. Our tent is a three-department tent, One central department with two sleeping sections on either side each large enough to sleep, two people.
(Top Tip: Tents in Africa take a pounding from the sun. The Ultraviolet light not only weakness the tent material but also the stitching. Make sure your tent has good zippers and a tin of silicon to spray the stitching.)
Almost simultaneously with the first squalls thunder brings large drops of driving rain. In the ensuing downpour and flashes of lighting, the permanence of our surrounding hills are silhouetted in strobe lighting glory. The very ground seems to shake and the outer fringes of our world looks dark and uninviting. While we are struggling to re-erect our damaged tent on the ground we witness an extraordinary lighting performance. Apart from the tongues of forked lightning, at one point of the storm, the lighting looks like it is reconnected to itself in large circles.
Our oasis of natural beauty stands firm against the storm and our damaged tent hangs in for the night.
The coo coco doo chorus of African morning doves competing in their world of never-ending competition announce a new day with a new freshness of life. We emerge blearily eyed into surroundings of breathtaking beauty that would redefine the meaning of earth for most.
Geophysiologists see it as a quasi-living system or a planetary sized Ecosystem called Gaia. Climatologists see it as life and environment loosely coupled, but not self-regulating. Geographers see it as a whole. All of them see it as a large ball of melted and melting rock surrounded by water, where life organisms have adapted to it. They all talk about it in their own worlds of stratospheric ozone holes, oceans and rocks, reflecting working priorities of the scientific community rather than the human race. We see it as home, with too many interior decorators hiding behind the mask of modern science promising a materialist paradise for the worlds unprivileged.
Nature has presented earth we are told to our best estimate for over four billion years to its universe. We all go around within the outer borders of our galaxy that is reported to be 100,000, light years away, never mind other galaxies. Light alone travels at mere 9,500,000,000,000 km (Nine and a half trillion) in a year. Man is only just beginning to see the light and will have to someday follow it to Tir Tairngire- land of promise, to Tir na Mbeo- Land of the living, to Tir nan Og – land of Youth.
This morning above all mornings we are standing in all three lands. Waterfalls glisten in the leaf-covered hills. A carpet of golden grass sparkles in the rising sunshine. Bacon frying. Coffee sending the nostrils wild. Our senses are on fire. So we all notice the silent dark lines weaving its way through the grass our first visitors are about to arrive.
Are they animal or human? A few minutes pass. The line comes to a stop just in the cover of the tall grasses before venturing out onto one of the bare rock surfaces that divide the pools of gold grass. An elderly woman with a large goitre (caused by iodine deficiency) emerges carrying what looks like a triangle on the end of stick made of bamboo. From each corner of the triangle, a length of bamboo about the same height as a thumbstick is lashed together to form a handle. A bizarre walking stick explained to us by our Safari ranger Fanny. “It’s a snake prodder for walking in the long grass.”
The woman stays her distance. No coaxing could make her come any closer. Her Mount Vesuvius has broken nature’s spell. None of us had ever seen goitre least of all Florence. She stays for several minutes eventually disappearing into the long grass. The land of where the hell are we tribe.
It’s not long before the next arrivals two men also carrying the same sort of walking sticks. I marvel at Fanny’s knowledge concerning the snake prodders. They like our previous visitor stay their distance. I walk over to exchange morning salutations; they are from Deara a village nearby. Taking one of their walking sticks I give them an expert’s demonstration of snake clearance. They watch without showing any puzzlement to the new usage of their sticks. Slowly dawning smile spreads across their faces and large smiles burst forth as beautiful as the day that’s in it. With a running of the hand up and down their legs the stick is taken back and it true usage revealed.
It is a simple device for pushing down the tall wet grass in front of oneself when walking. They don’t like getting their legs wet.
We return to our dirt road. By twelve pm we are heading south to Mali. The driving is still tricky but navigable with care – that is if one is not distracted by the stunning views. Section after section of the road requires walking in advance. With sheer steep drops covered in deep green vegetation on either side, we corkscrew our way up and up hugging the mountainside. Every now and then we surface on a clear hilltop that overlooks villages dotted deep within the valleys. From on high they give the impression to have no visible way in or out them.
Passing small village after small village of smiling waving people suddenly on our right through the dense foliage one of distant early morning waterfalls appears. Stopping for lunch we are entertained by a column of ants streaming down a trench they had dug across the dirt track to avoid getting crushed by passing traffic. Butterflies and dragonflies dance like crystal prisms of colour flashing on and off amongst the lush vegetation.
An hour later we stop at a small market, its prayer time, all bums are pointing it the opposite direction of Mecca. In a flash of sunlight, we are surrounded by one of those African phenomenons a circle of clambering children. Florence wolf’s down some local sweet cakes; I purchase some unknown packet of fags. Fanny buys some fresh vegetables.
Assured by the locals that the road will improve we press on up to terra rouge. For the first time in weeks, I slip Williwaw out of differential.
(Top Tip: When choosing your vehicle don’t buy for where there is nothing to guide you but the evening star an Automatic transmission. There are no fluids to be had, fuel consumption is considerably higher, oil overheats, and you must carry an extra battery to kick-start. Manual Transmission is for me.)
Seven p.m. we arrive in the town of Mali. At one thousand four hundred odd meters high it is the highest Fouta community. We once more clear another army checkpoint. It’s fresh to somewhat cold. With the passport jotter entries over attention turns to Williwaw. Opening the back door the Tampax ploy (Top Tip A strategically placed packet of Tampax sometimes transmitted a sense of embarrassing modesty against prying eyes and can save a full search.) does not have the desired effect. A box is pointed at for examination.
To Fanny’s protests that this is the third time we have been searched I unload the back. Satisfied that we are not harbouring any Scud missiles we are told to report to the police. Out of the spectators walks Oumar Kana Diallo a friend of the young man returning from Dakar that Fanny had given up her seat too. Apparently, our passenger had made prior arrangement to met Oumar. He had been waiting on his motorbike at the top of the riverbed that we had been crawling up a few days back.
According to him, the police had long gone home so we could leave reporting to them until the morning. “Your best bet is Hotel de Mali.” “I will call in the morning.”
We bumped our way up a rough stone road to the Hotel. After a feed of beefsteak and believe it or not nine cans of Guinness the flea-ridden place turns into the Hilton of Mali.
Breakfast is a very hit and miss affair, coffees, with no hot water, or hot water with no coffee. The old codger running the place runs his hands through Florence’s blond hair every time he passes the table. In doing so he points to a painting behind the bar in which he is seated with two white toubabs (white foreigners) “I have a little girl with the same blue eyes” he says.
We can’t imagine which one of the toubabs accommodated him but she must have to be desperate for a bit or the fleas got the better of her. From the look on her face in the painting, it is more likely the poor devil got into the wrong bed. The joint has no light or running water so if you are caught short during the night one has to venture outside. The chance of finding your room on your return in the dark is down to luck.
Oumar shows up at ten am. Squashed into Williwaw we bounce back down to the main street of Mali. Urban dwellings of galvanised iron sheeting replace conical huts of the last few weeks. The main street is the only smooth surface in the whole town. The three other streets are young goats mountaineering obstacle course.
While I go with Oumar to look for some tender love and care to Williwaw’s exhaust I drop Fanny and Florence with our damaged tent outside a shop with a sewing machine (One of those old Singer models you would die for)
(Top Tip: You will be amazed how usefully you will find a coil of fencing wire.)
Much to the annoyance of another client who had been waiting for Williwaw has her exhaust welded. He turns out to be the head of police. I can only hope his nose is not too out of joint. Unfortunately in the eyes of a lot of Africans, white means money, and money has the habit of jumping queues, rank or number.
By the time I and Oumar get back to our tailor, he has moved his Singer out on to the street. Six hours later he has finished the job for 20,000 Guinean Francs. Of course, we don’t have a Guinean tosser between us. The mighty dollar comes to the rescue at 850gf to the dollar the work comes to about £15.
I change some extra bucks while Fanny fingers some material that is dark blue. Florence chats up our wonderfully kind shy Fula speaking draper into making two outfits for her Barbie out of the material.
We visit the market, where I find some batteries and a new coup coup with a fresh goatskin handle just off the leg. The girls sample an array of peanut paste. Fanny with the negotiation skills of a local buys three spoons full of the deep brown paste. This transaction turns into a great scene of amusement as she ensures with her finger that every last morsel of paste is removed from each spoon onto the brown paper. Just as the local shopper did.
On Oumar’s invitation, we visit his mother. Williwaws welded exhaust is put to the test as we bounce over bare rock to reach his home. Mother treats us like royalty in her spotless clean, gadget-free, un-electrified, unpolluted, simple home.
Through a forest of poverty created by her perception of the western world her eyes shine in her pride for her son. We learn that every last farthing she earns is spent on Oumar’s education in Conakry, which according to our Bible was once the Paris of Africa now to be avoided as one of Africa worst cesspools.
We leave them both we visit Souleymane Souare Chief du Protocale de la Prefecture de Mali Republique de Guinee Conakry, where we receive an invitation to lunch tomorrow. Because I had endeavoured to enforce the right of the queue first come first served the Police visit passed with Bollywood glamour.
On the way back to the dark hole of Guinness our hotel we are once more stopped by the army. Showing them our passports I tell them I am a visiting tourist Irish TD.
(Top Tip: It is easy these days to Scan some official Bureaucratic letter heading, and write yourself a letter. Congratulate yourself on your appointment as the first Lord of the Admiralty, Perfect of St Felix, or the Princess of Javasu, Doctor of Touristicus Africanus, whatever. It can be very useful in the right place.)
My letter of appointment as TD written in Gaelic has the desired effect. Lieutenant Colonel la Vile Beavogui Directeur General Adjoint des Sevices de Police Conakry Republique de Guinee offers the chief of Staff quarters to us.
Accepting his kind offer we arrive back after a long and interesting day to roast chicken and potatoes Hotel Mali style.
The chicken bought early in the market arrives on our plates minus most of its carcass. With a hilarious reconstruction of the scrawny bird in front of the manager, he points to the cooks. They had apparently helped themselves to a large portion of the bird. That night with darkness arriving Florence gives roller-skating lessons outside the hotel to a bunch of shrieking children.
Our new abode is perched on a rock cliff with breathtaking views of the mountains and valleys below. From a flea-ridden bedroom, we now installed in a massive roundhouse with an enormous bedroom, terrace and a lounge area big enough to have a dance in. Oumar arrives at eight am with a look of amazement on his face. As to how we went from tourist fotay (white people) to guests of the Chief of Staff is written all over his lips.
He suggests a trip out-of-town to Madame de Mali a rock face on the escarpment overlooking the jungle is suggested. While Williwaw once more turns into a mule. The girls opt for a lazy day on the terrace.
(Top Tip: A good off-road driver requires very similar characteristic to a good helmsman. A feel for his vehicle, a weather eye, thumbs loose not wrapped around the wheel, and a lookout where necessary with hand signals that are clear and unmistakable.)
With Oumar repeating over and over that it has been many years since he visited the lady of Mali we creep along and up a loose stone track for two hours. I have learnt a lot over the last few weeks driving and I am now well aware of the whereabouts of the lowest elements of my undercarriage. Progress is slow but we eventually arrive without any damage.
Emerging on foot from the trees and scrub we stand on a cliff edge. The reward is engraved on my hard disc.
As far as the eye can see the green canopy of the forest spreads before our feet. Small specks of cleared ground mark a network of cobweb tracks from one or more houses to another group. To our left and right, a high cliff face stands immovable against the advancing green.
Madame de Mali turned to stone for being an unfaithful wife juts her Precambrian rock breast from the cliff for all below as leading lights. It is difficult to comprehend that amongst the gallery forests the Gambia, the Senegal and Niger Rivers run. All of them are born in the Fouta Djallon. I spend an hour soaking in the panoramic views. It is difficult to turn one back on such grandeur but go we must back down over a thousand bumps to lunch.
On the way back Oumar shows some entrepreneur-ship suggesting a hotel on top of Madame would make a bomb. He settles for a bush, which has a liquorice pasty taste. “Good for a toothache” “that is if we have any teeth to worry about by the time we get back.”
As if he read my mind, we visit the local medical clinic run by a small white-haired German lady in her late sixties and her Guinean husband, a ringer for ‘ Day O’ (Harry Belafonte.) The clinic is run on their private funds so we only stay for one cold much-appreciated beer.
Back in town over lunch with the Lord Mayor of Mali (rice, tomatoes, aubergines, potatoes, and a Maggi cube, onions, beans, peanut oil, leeks, lemon.) we learn that the day after tomorrow is the big market day not to be missed.
Arriving back we discover that during the night an army captain had moved in. Greetings are exchanged, and an offer to move out on both sides is refused. A lazy rest of the day is in order so we read, write, play rummy, and soak up the sunshine for tomorrow we will move on after the market.
Awake at six am. Market woman are already streaming up out of the valley tracks. Large baskets, pots, live chickens strapped upside down to bikes, fruit, and the enviable baby strapped to the backs of the younger woman accompany all.
Markets in Africa come in all forms, river markets, shantytown markets, roadside markets, and Arms markets. This one is an open air squat on the ground market. Whether you are selling and buying they are the thermoscope of living, a fusion of colour, smells, sounds and movement, and gossip.
Under a clear blue-sky line after line of faded umbrellas mark each vendor’s spot. It is all-embracing with hemp ropes, gunpowder and ball, forest honey, pills, pots, cloth, animals, fruits, nuts, rolled fags, vegetables, writers, and a plaque that claims to cure-all ailments from aids to a common cold cover the hillside.
By the time we leave the market it is late into a deep red sky. After two hours of driving, we are on the lookout for a suitable spot to camp. A football pitch cut into the hillside is our best bet. Lighting flashing in the distance hills more rain is promised. The storm passes to our right. Dining on steak cooked over our campfire we are watched by a group of thirty or more children. Only a wave of my new goats handle machete convinces our admirers that it is time to scarper.
Pitch forty-four is welcome after a long day and for once we all sleep like babes in the wood. Not even the odd monkey squabble disturbs us.
Rubbing our eyes we emerge into the African circle of children. The football pitch should have warned us that a school had to be nearby. In the chill of the morning we all hurry to pull on a pair of drawers. Our circle of grey coloured school uniforms look healthy, dark hair with smiling faces that shine like the sun on the red soil. Only the arrival of the teacher saved us from being swamped by inquisitiveness.
Williwaw presents us with a flat tyre the twentieth of the trip so far.
(Top Tip: Bring a small bottle jack.)
Apart from two more punctures that day, we make good time on a vastly improved road up over the Massif du Tamque to Lebe covering eighty-four kilometres as the crow flies. God how I wish I had invested in good tyres. We are now in the heart of Fouta Djalon passing village after village with names like Yambering, Paraoual, and Sarekal. We arrive in Lebe a much bigger town than Mali. It has little to offer so we press on in search of Pitch number forty-five.
A short distance out of Lebe we suffer a blow out that sends the tyre valve into outer space. My language hits the vernacular. Quite an achievement considering I don’t have a word of Fulfulde or Susu, which is related to Malinke.
(TO BE CONTINUED)