What we know:
Dictators, Bauxite, Diamonds, Gold.
Fanny at the wheel, formalities over, we drive off into the unknown. Even though Guinea Conakry is home to West Africa’s greatest rivers – the Gambia, the Niger, and Senegal, Guinea only beats Mauritania by four pages in our bible.
It has lingered far removed from tourism – France dumped it on the 2nd October 1958. It’s then-dictator Sekou Toures plunged the country into a period of widespread terror and isolationism well into the late eighties.
We arrive at Segou another police check. “How far is it to the Guinea border?” Is met with blank black faces. “Which way?” gets a pointed finger to a dirt track running behind the police station but first it’s the Douane (customs) to get Williwaws Carnet stamped out. Form filling and book entries show that we are the first thing on four wheels to pass this way in some considerable time, certainly this season, we are on the way again.
According to our map Michelin 953, we are entering Guinea over the Fouta Djalon highlands. Described in the Bible > as only needing time and average determination to explore they are Guinea’s major attraction.
With the driving becoming more difficult due to many deep pools full of grey water the track narrows. The larger of these pools often have tracks that lead off to one side or the other. They generally show where the locals preferred to cross, rather than take a chance on getting stuck in the middle.
The girls are silent when entering these quagmires. Visions of biting snakes piranha and the like have them hoping we won’t get stuck. To tell you the honest truth I am also scared of having to wade in them so I ignored the advice of walking and poking with a stick. Some of these pools are more than intimidating taking several minutes cross. The way I figured it is if tracks go in they have to come out somewhere. The gods are with us we emerging on each occasion into the daylight without getting our feet wet.
Passing a village Fanny reads from the bible that Michelin Map 953 isn’t enough and that four-wheeled vehicle are a must, and that will run into repeated difficulties, with minimal levels of survivability. Too late there is only one way to go and that is in front over mires off hills and valleys as far as the eye can see.
Halfway through the village a chain stops us. The last police check. The arm of the law is sound asleep. Walking into courtyard a Canari – traditional water container looks cool an inviting. A young lady with nipples still erect is sitting outside the cop’s door. She looks hot and bothered as she rearranges her dress in a hurry. He wakes with a start.
Before his curiosity can become over inquisitive we thank him for his help pull the chain clear and are on our way.
Watched by the locals we pass up through the middle of the village. The quality of the housing is a far cry better than most of those in the shantytowns that lead into Dakar. Their large round thatched roofs are in complete harmony with the cotton and cornfields that surround them. Grouped in threes and fours they are mirrored along with the tree-covered hills behind them in the water-filled ruts.
With tongues of water here and there the bush track turns sandy.
Its midday and we are looking up the dry rocky bed of a small river just a little wider than Williwaw with high banks on either side. According to our disturbed sex-smelling siesta policeman, there is no other route. It’s up and over or back through the shark-infested pools.
This time I walk up the track. Except for a few nasty rocky steps, I feel sure we can make it. The sun is shining the birds are singing, and male menopause is out the window.
All goes well we making steady slow progress in low dif. I have marked some of the tricky spots with leading rocks (Markers to show the best route). After an hour of bouncing, crawling, stones tumbling, undercarriage pinging, with the shocks and coil suspension flexing to breaking point we come to terminator number one the first step up on to a smooth rock surface.
Three attempts later, we are out building two ramps of stone. The small trickle of water down the middle of the riverbed is getting stronger – it has rained higher up. The trickle is fast becoming a flow I realising the danger. I walk further up the riverbed. Some four hundred meters away from us I find a cut into high grass. The cut is steep covered with tall grass and has obviously not been used for some time. From what I can see before we are to gain flat ground it cuts out the last bends of our Rocky River bed road.
By the time I am back the girls are looking more than anxious. They are standing under that Lotto brolly and it is now raining heavily. “This time the brolly is saying we are not amused,” I explain to Fanny the danger of a flash flood. The water is eroding the grip of the tyres. To reverse the whole way back down is not an option.
There is only one-way out the cut or get washed back down to the bottom.
Not for the first time, the girls have to watch as I reverse Williwaw lining her up with our now submerged stone ramp. Slipping her into second gear I take as much of a run as possible hoping that her momentum will push her over the step. She hits the ramp with a crunch of metal on a rock that sounds like some serious damage is being sustained I am over the crest of the step, but have ripped off two of my Jerry cans against the high bank.
I tell the girls that it is better if they walk.
Throwing the cans in the back, I once again gingerly start to climb. Slipping into second with full power I enter the cut. All goes well until there is a loud bang. I floor the clutch and brake, slamming her into reverse. There is a dull thud on the rear door. Saved by a tree from disappearing over the edge I cut the engine and struggle to push the door forward to get out.
The girls come running out of the tall grass. I must have looked shocked. We are all trembling > a little pathetic shivering group in the middle of nowhere. Fanny has the common sense not to say I told you so, or the bible said so.
My first concern is to stop Williwaw from slipping over the edge. Frantically we unload as much weight as possible. Opening the back door, toolboxes, Jerry cans, food, the lot, fall out on the ground.
I secure our webbing-towing strap to her front tow ball/pin jaw mounting, (Top TIP: Mount your front towing hitch off centre to the passenger side.) tying it to the nearest sturdy looking tree. Removing the high jack I vice the strap taut, shackling it closed.
(Top TIP: Stitched loops Straps are the best.)
For added protection, I hammer two steel stakes that sub up as my two main tent pegs when pitched on the roof. To these with a few good bowline knots, I secure two further ropes with snatch blocks.
(TOP TIP: Learn how to tie a bowline, and a double sheet bend. Buy two snatch blocks, as they are extremely useful to alter the angle of pull. Bow shackles rather than D shackles.)
Wet through, tried to the point of exhaustion, we cover our pile of offloaded boxes, equipment etc with our roof tarpaulin. With darkness approaching, we trudge up the cut to Pitch number 40. There is nothing more that can be achieved. Fanny erects the tent while I go back to Williwaw to collect our army camp beds, sleeping bags, cooker, torches, and a machete.
(Top TIP: Don’t go without a good pocket knife and a jungle Coup, Coup, also a Mag-Lite/ Coleman broad beam torch with a small solar panel for recharging batteries.)
A pretty miserable night is had by all, wet, full of wild dangerous imaginary animals with the odd snake thrown in for good measure. Florence sleeps soundly while Fanny lays awake listing for passing traffic, snapping teeth, hissing, and distant drums. I get soaked and uptight having to go out and check out every imagined or not sound till she eventually falls asleep.
We’re all up at the first flicker of light none the worse but no better off. The first job is to examine the damage. The bang I thought to be a burst tyre turns out to be the front half shaft snapped in two. It is the least of Fanny worries or mine. If it had not been for the tree Williwaw and I would have ended up as scrambled egg at the bottom of the cliff. It has to be a very narrow escape.
“There is nothing for it but to take the shaft off and go back down to look for help.”
To my better half, great credit tired as she was from the night swirling tide of fear she, like I knew there is no good in crying over spilt milk.
It takes most of the morning to remove the half shaft.
Standing down the cut, out of the tall grass in purple trousers, a flimsy rain Mack is our first visitor. We are the last things he expected to see. The sight of our blue tent, I covered in oil, Florence’s blond hair and Fanny’s gre gre has him standing like a rabbit paralysed in headlights. He stares at us in total disbelief. It is as if all the superstitions that infest his mind have come home to roost His ju-ju will not let him speak. Mamadou our paralysed savour is returning from guarding his cattle.
It appears that Fanny’s imaginary prowling animals of the night were not to be laughed at. Mamadou watchtower which he points out is well off the ground.
It turns out that he is from the village we had passed at the start of our ascent.
The half shaft on my shoulder, I promise the girls that I will find porters to take them and the baggage back down to the village.
It’s a good two hours before we emerge onto the sandy track leading to the village. Climbing over a foot stile I enter his family compound. Three round thatched houses behind woven fences, a little mud hut also thatched up on stilts with a ladder that is broad at the bottom narrowing to its entrance. In the middle of the compound a large bamboo table under the shade of a baobab tree. Mamadou points to the middle hut – it is to be our home for the next week.
Four hours later while Fanny moves in, I return up the mountain with a list of what will be needed. It is a long haul up in the sun and sticky heat, but by the time I get back Fanny and Florence have swept out the hut and the news has spread that a family of Toubabs has hit town.
I leave Fanny with the gathering mob to pay a visit to our philandering village cop. Somehow he is not surprised to see me. Mamadou explains the problem. He looks perturbed but his smile smells of money. He offers a broken-down horse shed as a place to stay, and says he knows a man in Kedougou who will fix Williwaw.
I tell him we are staying with Mamadou> A traditional hut winning hands down against his corrugated shed. As for his man in Kedougou, I will think about his offer. The disturbing news is that there is only one car a week to Kedougou that is if it can get through in the first place.
The following morning with Mamadou and his brother I make one more trip back to Williwaw. We move most of the unloaded equipment into the tent. Mamadou will sleep in the tent on his night cattle guard duties.
His brother and I arrive back with our camp beds, mosquito nets, food, radio, books, and whatever else we could carry. I rig up our large mosquito net, and hit the sack knackered.
After a restless night due to excessive tiredness, we rise to our new surroundings. The reception committee of Mamadou two wives have brought breakfast. Shy and unsure of themselves they stand outside the entrance till we emerge. Cumba the youngest wife is sweet and of a more gentle disposition than the older first wife. She speaks only Pulaar but is eager to help while the older one looks at us as if to say what next.
The day is spent setting up home playing with the village children. I make another trip up to Williwaw to remove the contents of the safe.
After a good nights sleep, we listen to the early morning sounds of mother
Nature’s alarm clocks. Down from their shelter up on the stilts the cock leads his flock. Young boys and girls are returning from their cornfields night guard duties.
Fanny collects water from the spring after which she fully appreciates the benefits of having a few wives to carry a load. I discover that not all bird calls are of Mother Nature’s origin.
A high grasshopper come skylark sound I had heard on my way up to Williwaw turns out to be the mobile phone of the young. In the wood covered hills the valley corn/cotton fields out of sight of their parents, from their high guard platforms they make this sound to say I am here let’s meet.
After breakfast, I take a wander into Kedougou. There is no sign of any transport. I am however reassured by all that it will come.
Fanny is content to laze away the day in the sunshine. I take our camera, a bottle of water and my trusty coup coup up into the wooded hills behind the village for the Photo of the Year. Luckily I had remembered my Collins SAS Survival advice. No! Not hanging razor blades over a leaf full of water, or placing sewing needles on leaves and floating them in the water captured in the rotten tree trunk to find north. Luckily I had given the odd tree a slash of the coup coup. Without the marks left on the trees, I would not have managed to find my way down before dark.
(Top TIP: Make sure you break into your walking shoes before you set out to preach the Gospel)
Day three a runner arrives to announce the pending arrival of the number 13A to Kedougou. With my half shaft, I squeeze into the last free corner aboard the vehicle.
Our driver is a tall individual in full camouflage gear – red biretta he is not to be messed with. A young lad sits beside him in the cab of the Peugeot. There are six other passengers all men carrying a collection of over the shoulder Chicago Bulls, New York Mets, Nike, Adidas, bags along with the inevitable sack that accompany all. I settle back for a long hot and dusty trip.
It not long before my driving of a few days ago is put to shame. I had given myself seven out of ten on my selection of slip routes around the pools full of water gods. For this driver every bump rock pool, river crossing has been negotiated a hundred times over. Without the slightest hesitation, we plunge headlong in with a splash that covers all surrounding vegetation emerging with an audible bow wave. The only sudden stops are when we pass this bloke or that bloke who is usually on a bicycle selling something such as milk. Spoon by spoon of milk is transferred from one plastic container to another plastic container. The final count of spoons is checked against a small mount of pebbles with ten pebbles representing ten spoons. A price agreed and we on our way again.
No conversation is possible due to the wind, bumps, and ducking of overhanging branches. A drop off of a passenger is signalled by a good thumping on the roof. After what seems to me to be only half the time it took us to drive the obstacle course we arrive.
We stop on the outskirts of Kedougou. My fellow passengers like stars of the night that twinkled in front of you are no more. They have melted into the passing pedestrian flow of people. Before my karks can hit the ground I stick out like a long-lost soul. Out of nowhere a large hand is guiding me into the house we are parked outside. The grip is bone-crunching. The beaming smile under the red beret says it all. There is no need for words I am a friend for life. It is one of those rare moments which I am sure is similar to the bond of a drowning man’s grip.
We are welcomed into a small courtyard where I am taken under the protection of Dyqui Sidile our chauffeur. According to Mrs Sidile when he loves you, he loves you, and, that’s that.
Even though Dyqui has given me his best blanket I put in a very sleepless night.
At first light, we drive down to his mechanic. A man of Tyson stature who squeezes my already bruised knuckles in another handshake that makes me go to my knees. Tyson Caran lifts an engine block with his free hand offering it to me as a seat under his one hammer tree garage.
As he and Dyqui talk, rusting junk in different stages of disintegration surrounds my engine block seat. There is not a tool to be seen other than the trusty hammer. It is being reshaped by one of the lads on a wheel hub that has long seen better days. The hub is being gently coaxed back onto a truck, which should have gone to the scrap yard when Senegal got its Independence. My first impressions are of deep despair, defeatism, and forlorn hopelessness.
To the background noise of resounding bangs sufficient to blow our eardrum, my problem is explained in detail to Caran. A winch with assorted lengths of chain and cable is laid out on the ground and paced up and down. With some effort, I convince Dyqui that it is not what is required. At least fifty meters of cable in one piece is what we are after to pull Williwaw to safety.
Back we go to his home for more discussion, a bucket shower with his best towel, and a large block of sunlight soap revives my spirits. More discussion on the likely cost of the whole rescue operation produces an agreed price of 24,000 CFA for his services and transportation back up the mountain to do the job.
A runner arrives to say that a cable has been located and that Tyson Caran has just remembered where there is a clapped out land rover that might offer a replacement half shaft.
(Top TIP: When buying your vehicle take into consideration when choosing your vehicle what you want to achieve, where you are going to achieve, and how you are going to achieve. Serious off-road 4 x 4’s are not for posers they are workhorses.)
They say that miracles never cease. Within the next few hours, I have a new half shaft. (A welding job that was to be tested by a further 65000 kilometres of African highways and byways to the point of being totally forgotten until we arrived back in the UK two years later.)
A section of the scavenged shaft is welded by a youth with skills that Dyque swears by. The weld is done by eye weld and for those of you who appreciate the art of welding the above achievement in brackets was indeed a miracle.
Back to Tyson tree garage. It is now up to me to agree on a price for his work. With the odd fainted heart attack > a near broken hand, and a cracked vertebra from his frequent back slapping eventually gets the deal done. We are to pick up everyone and everything in the morning at the crack of dawn.
Mrs Sidile a woman of nine children in the first twelve years of her marriage is awaiting our return with a couscous. I am presented with a bottle of coke, three oranges, two spoons and a small basin. The conversation revolves around my good luck. A black and white telly is placed on the balcony deck we all settling down to Bay Watch and East Enders. In the flittering light of the screen, I cannot help watching their faces and wonder if this is what they aspire too.
The bear bright blue walls of my room with the awaiting horsehair mattress and pillow and diving mosquitoes have no attraction to me so I stay and watch Jack Valance for an hour or two in the hope of nodding off. Back in my room, I lay in a mixture of exhaustion, itching and anticipation of the next mossy bit.
Morning cannot come soon enough.
The revolution of the Internet, DNA, Genetic Engineering, Stem Embryology are further away than the Galaxy of stars I sleep under.
I awake with the fragments of a dream still in my head. I had been looking up to the top of a cliff from a valley floor and there is no sign of Fanny or Florence. All I can hear is love songs whistled on the breeze. Young legs stand over me. Hand in hand I see them walk away. This vision of where Williwaw could have ended up sends a shiver down my back.
“Faith, Sir, we are here today, and gone tomorrow” (Aphra Behn 1640-1689)
Breakfast of the milk mixed with sugar and water bread and corn does nothing to improve my ageing body.
By first light, we have collected Tyson and four others. Dyqui’s driving makes no allowances for the early morning nip in the air. He laughs and smiles as we weave and bounce our way back to Segou.
Hanging on for dear life there is just time for a quick holler to Fanny as we speed by. The uncompromising rocky bed river ascent to Williwaw is attacked without any reduction in speed.
Shrills of amazement announce our arrival. With the whole event being described once more to the Woes and Awa’s of all present. The rock on which Williwaw came to a cropper on is inspected with great interest.
While Tyson slides under Williwaw the surrounding bush is hacked down. “Yes I can do the job on site,” he says. The steel cable replaces my towing strap. The winch ratchet is set up in the fork of a tree. The strap is passed through my rear-towing hitch and made secure around another tree trunk.
There is little I can do other than watch. The link axle rods are removed and hammered back as straight as possible.
(TOP TIP: Stubborn track-ends can be removed by soaking them in penetrating oil. Place a heavy hammer on one side of the track-end and give it a sudden wallop on the other side.)
The new driveshaft is fitted just before Cumba with her latest arrival strapped to her back followed by her young daughters and wife number one arrives. All are drenched in so much perspiration that their colourful dresses refused to move an inch as they unloaded the basins from their heads. Lunch has arrived.
After lunch watched by all, rubber-legged me is now sitting behind the wheel awaiting Tyson’s signal. Under the front wheels are my two steel perforated tank tracks projecting side up to get as much grip as possible.
(TOP TIP: There is an argument for and against which type of track/sand ladders one should bring. My preference is for the perforated heavier tank style tracks. Although heavier than sand tracks they are cheap and more versatile in their usage, affording good grip, they are interlocking and more durable than many designer tracks. I had one track cut into two lengths stored under the tent platform on the roof of Williwaw. A few sections of pipe insulation tubing interwoven through the holes in the tracks stopped any roof vibration from the tracks. They have however a habit of bending upwards and sagging under the vehicle.)
I start the engine and let it run for a few minutes. It’s now or never, as the quotation goes, “Here today, gone tomorrow.” My faith hovers near. The tyres spin for a fraction of a second. Frantic hands release chains, straps, and chocks. Williwaw inches forward. Dyqui yells, his eyes expressing all the encouragement he could muster. Before I can breathe a release of adrenaline makes me shiver. I am up and over.
With all the gear loaded a claque of thunder has Dyqui wanting to urgently departure. On arriving back at the village there is only time for a quick coffee before crashing out for the night.
That night not a drop of rain penetrates our round-grassed roof dwelling. We watch the lighting through our arched open doors, which are partially closed by a waterfall of water. Sleep comes in dribs and drabs until the steam from the roof and the dull thudding of the maze being pounded in the courtyard announce morning.
By the time we surface all is in full swing. The cooking huts one for each wife have their fires alight. Breakfast is served under the compound cotton tree. A mixture of rice with a peanut sauce, some Lyons yellow packs tea, with power milk.
(Top TIP: Powdered Milk (with full fat) can be found all over Africa.)
The repack begins. Even with four porters, it is a long and arduous day trudging up the mountain. We decide to stay over for one more day in our village just to enjoy a lazy day without any worries. We tour the fields with their guards each showing us his sentry post with dangling pots to raise the alarm. We visit the bonking cop leaving him some music to make love to.
We shower, dine on pasta and fresh corn on the cob, exchange some gifts and present Amadou with enough money to treat his family to a day out. He never asked for the slightest payment of any kind.
Waves all around we once more march out of the village up the riverbed to Williwaw. We’re off. One and a half kilometres passes Mamadou’s cattle my left tracking rod u bends with the axle swinging out of line. The girls are in tears. I let fly a string of language that would have choked the devil himself.
Six hours later I eventually get the axle link rods free. Heat them over a fire I hammer them out straight to the best of my ability.
All efforts to push back the axle to reinstate them fail. I try pulling the axle forward on one side with rope and pushing back on the other side with my feet. Eventually exhausted with every knuckle grazed I quit and settle for a spliff, supper and the calming psalms of Fanny’s support and logic. “It’s Murphy law”.
Luckily wild pitch number forty-one is hacked out of the bush on some raised ground between two rivulets of water. It is a night to remember > crawlers, mosquitoes, barking monkeys, with humour at a premium.
Fanny’s brave face say’s it all next morning as I leave them both to march down once more to Segou. I arrive at eleven am. Mamadou and his brother Boubacar are fetched from the cornfields. Their faces reveal not the slight’s sign of surprise only two large smiles that transcend language and race. We visit Cassanova the cop to see if there is any possibility of a car to Kedougou. As to how he would know is a mystery. He is as helpful as the hot breathless, sticky day. After much discussion most of it blasé and unreassuringly, there is a vague possibility that a car was due later in the day. I deposited myself under a tree to wait.
Here I stayed for the next few hours listing to the solid thuds of the pounding poles of two young girls. The ancient African sound is punctuated by the odd hand clap as the pole is flung an extra inch higher or a yell to scatter the attending audience of chickens, goats and sheep that pounce on any grain seed lucky to escape.
I roll a spliff and all of a sudden remember my knife sharpening man across the street. He has a forge. One hour later my link rods are welded to an old starting handle to give them extra strength and I have learnt that the shopkeeper has a certificate in motor mechanics. With him, in tow, I arrive back to the girls. Some brute force and by chucking the wheels we hammer the axle back inch by inch we are successful. Eureka we are back in business.
(TIP: Your vehicle undercarriage needs lots of tender love and care. Don’t skimp > fit the following. The best shock absorbers you can afford. If leaf springs add an extra leaf. Coil springs carry two compressed spare springs. Fit a heavy metal Sump Protection Plate. Last but not least beef up your axle link rods and fit tracking rod protection plates. O! Yes, don’t forget a bar of sunlight soap it comes in handy if you spring a leak in your fuel tank.)
By the time we are ready to roll it’s too late in the day. A good meal and a game of rummy, which Fanny has taught to Florence whilst I was away, see us asleep pondering the morrow. It’s not long in coming as I am up at six am.
Slipping out of the tent I walk a few kilometres up the riverbed. There is tranquillity to the morning, which I hope and pray will stay with us for the day. The theoretical road our riverbed is now wider and flatter winding through a remoteness of trees and vegetation unknown to me. Bird calls or the barks of a monkey from impenetrable trees are the only sounds that break the silence.
Not a car to be seen, only the undulating plateau of the Fouta Djalon bare and rocky stretches out before us under a freckled clouded sky. .
Packed and ready to go, I tell Fanny that I have walked the track earlier in the morning and as far as I could see once we make the plateau the going should be a lot easier. Starting Williwaw I listen like a father awaiting the cry of a newborn baby to every creek and moan from below. We have only just started when on the far side of an Island of scrub we hear an engine. Through the foliage, a battered cream coloured land rover is making its way from the direction we are trying to go.
For the first time, our route is confirmed as the correct one. We exchange conditions of the slippery slope down to Segou and what lies ahead. According to our first Guineans, we are over the hump with only a few miles to go before we hit a dirt track.
( TO BE CONTINUED)
A quick update on Donations. Still at the magic figure of Zero. Be the first.
R Dillon. Account no 62259189. Ulster Bank 33 College Green Dublin 2.
Sorting Code: 98-50-10. Many thanks.