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This time by the back door I give the posse the slip. There is a tangible difference in the stillness of the air, which was not present on my morning walk. I pass through fields of peanuts until once more I am on a track, with high grass on either side. I come upon the first fork. “Keep to the right” …Almo had said, so right I go. Another fork, right again, yet another, right again.
If I am on the right track I should arrive at a three-fingered fork where I am to take the middle finger. I hit it right on the button, onward march. The next junction I am not too sure but right looks good. Subconsciously I take note of a large tree as a reference for the way back. Confronted by and an array of tracks I stick to the M1 until it runs out of well-trodden earth. I halt at the edge of a rocky surface. Straight across looks the natural line. Yes, Yes, You Boy, Captain Cook is nothing on you.
On the right track once more there is a humanoid coming in the opposite direction. I am tempted to inquire if this is the way to Paris. His passing look gives me the feeling that you don’t see many white Cadillac’s passing this way. Oblivious to oncoming traffic he keeps looking in his wing mirrors until I disappear into the trees.
A wall tells me that all is well. Sure enough on the other side of it, there is the rock outcrop. It lies on the opposite side of a steeply studded narrow wild overgrown gorge. Scrambling down > the ever-vigilant lookouts spot my approach. While the troop scatters up the rocky outcrop and out of sight the dominant males in a sudden uproar at my intrusion bear their teeth.
I have a lot to learn about obligatory silence and direction of approach if I am not to be mooned by all African Wildlife. I hang around for a while in the hope of things settling down but to no avail. The troop remains well hidden and I soon lose interest in the odd view courtesy of my field binoculars.
As I walk back the first drops of rain are exploding in puffs of dust, and the grass is stirring. There is a pungent release of vegetation smells and a strong sense of movement all around. Thank Almo I make it back. In his wisdom, he has sent a young lad to find me.
Just after dark the village elders wearing tall coarse woollen fez type hats and their wives begin to arrive. In the flickering candlelight, problem after problem is presented and discussed. Almo displays great untiring patience. He explains to me that the grievances are the same every year.
“You can see here”, he says, “That education is an emptiness – it helps me to escape into the wider world, but I cannot impart it here so that it passes from one age group to the next. Bonding to a school is all jolly fine, but in these people’s case, the only bonding is by making them form a group as you see before you to run their village. To buy their seeds, to sell their crops, to oversee their health, to join with other farming groups, to record and keep records and only then they have something that has a strong chance of surviving.”
“Training children to recite the whole of the Koran is all jolly fine, but to teach them to be more confident in themselves, to take their own decisions, to manage on their own must all be done in their own language. To make them discover themselves is the only way forward.”
“One must know how one is before learning who others are and there is a constant tug of war between tradition and the existing world.”
Our world glistens in the dark eyes of those present during a pause for a cup of Kinkilibar.
The morning news is that Almo has been given more land to build a hospital. The young man with the elephantine upper lip is on the back of a truck and hopefully should arrive tomorrow, that the corrupted pill dispenser has been replaced and that we decide to stay another day and depart in the morning.
The next day has only one more surprise it comes in the form of vet whom I collide into head-on rounding a blind corner in the long tall grass. He has dressed in a full business suit white shirt and tie carrying a briefcase. Our meeting surprises him just as much it surprises me. I had just crossed a tree suspension bridge without falling in when we collided. He was descending the track at speed and I was paying no attention to oncoming traffic. It was weird, to say the least, to see a suit in a jungle setting.
Over the evening meal, Almo shows us some photos of his morning patient prior to his first op a year ago. The young mans’ upper lip hang’s down below his chin. He also tells us he is having a problem with a container of medicine, which is in the docks at Conakry. Apparently, some corrupt customs official won’t release it. I tell him that perhaps I can help. Referring to my list of if in trouble contacts I come up with two contacts for a phone call in the morning.
Early morning Almo is up preparing for ‘Gumdrops’, the phone rings. When Almos patient – ‘Bottom Lip’, drops in, I ring my man Souleymane Souare -Chief du Protocol de la Prefecture de Mali Republique de Guinea Conakry, and. Lieutenant Colonel la Vile Beavogui Directeur General Adjoint des Sevices de Police Conakry République de Guinea. Miracles don’t just happen on the operating table the container is on its way and so are we. (The container arrived ten days later.)
With Fanny driving we descend out of the mountains passing Mount Kavendou on our left arriving out onto savannah land we stop at Dabola for lunch. It is a small village described by some American in the Bible as a town with a Wild West ambience, obviously helped by some local grass. Pushing on we arrive at Kouroussa with one hour to make the ferry crossing fifteen kilometres away. However, the roller coaster ride with the odd thrilling water splashes defeats us. Pitch number forty-six is under a Kinkilibar tree> a good fire, a good meal and a game of rummy named by Florence as the Cricket Chirp Game. We all sleep solidly through heavy rain.
Our first dawn visitor is a dog followed by his owners one of which informs us that the ferry crossing is anything up to five hundred meters or five kilometres down the road. We leisurely break camp and arrive within two bends at the ferry. Six trucks and two cars are waiting to be loaded. Frenetic repairs are in progress to the landing platform, which is a quagmire of oozing mud. With loud encouragement from all in sundry two trucks get aboard with great difficulties.
We are told to wait until the next crossing. In the meantime, a few rock are added to the quagmire. The ferry arrives back within the hour. The first car to disembark sinks to its doors, it eventually arriving on terra firma minus a front bumper. More rocks are added all disappearing after the others into the unknown. Next is a truck, which lands pushing a mudslide. To the amusement of all looking on the foot passengers fair little better.
A few more rocks and it’s our turn to board, which is achieved with a panache deserving a round of applause worthy of a champion rally driver. On board, we emerge from a mud-splattered Williwaw to watch the bizarre scene as one truck after the other takes the plunge engulfing the odd slow foot passenger in a coating of chocolate icing. Fares collected we are on our way. Guinea Conakry has no coins and most of the paper currency has spent its lifetime being handled by muddy fingers till it is almost impossible to read their denominations.
The river crossing as with most river crossings in Africa imparts the impression that time is standing still. The adventures of your travels surround you. There is a mixture of the captivating natural flowing grace of the river a quickening of the heart and a warm feeling of love. It’s a phenomenon, which you can never quite believe in until you experience it yourself.
Our river is the Milo a tributary of the Niger. A resounding thud announces the arrival on the opposite bank. Without much attention to the positioning of his ramp, our captain has to some degree arrived at his disembarkation point.
The car beside us refuses to take the jump ashore. After much-heated discussion, it has no choice but to leap. Leap it does and there right in front of the ramp it stays for the next hour. Williwaw watches the proceedings with disdain and contempt until it is pushed and pulled to dry land in kit form.
Firing Williwaw up I move her to the opposite side of the ramp. She makes mincemeat of it roaring out beside the stuck car whose demented driver is now demanding a refund from Capitano.
We push on towards Kankan some sixty kilometres away. The journey requires circumnavigation of potholes that could swallow a jumbo jet. They almost double the distance to be travel. With Kankan on the horizon, a small army of uniformed men halts us – “Pull over.”
Stopping under the shade of a tree one over-weight dude in blue police garb, sporting the obligatory dark sunglasses smells of trouble. Sure enough, he’s spot on. Passports, Williwaw’s documents followed by the question, “What is the real purpose of your visit?” he demands, I open the back. I feel like telling him that we are here to blow up the Presidents Palace, but instead, while I open Williwaws back door let drop that Lieutenant Colonel la Vile Beavogui Directeur General Adjoint des Sevices de Police Conakry is a personal friend. His face turns ashen, and a small squeaky voice says, “Close please”. We wave goodbye continuing on our way winding in and around and over the mine-crated road to Kankan.
We are now in Kissi country that makes up about five percent of Guineas population of six odd million people. The Kissi says Fanny according to our Bible have a strong respect for witchcraft. According to Florence, she can see no one kissing.
Kankan the second largest town in Guinea is in Malinke country. Populated by the Mandigo group that makes up about thirty-two percent of the southeast highlands population. The Malinke traditionally used cowry shells as a medium of exchange. With the dollar worth about one thousand four hundred to one thousand six hundred Guinean francs (1999) depending on where you exchange – they might be wise to bring back the cowry shell.
The Bible says Chez Madame Marie is the best place to stay in Kankan > A guesthouse par excellence where woman travellers are especially welcome. The trouble is that no one knows of its whereabouts. We stop at a bar named London down a few cans of Guinness, which have the immediate effect of enlightening our navigation.
Visiting several dead ends we splash our way in and out of many potholes the size of duck ponds. With patience running low we eventually find the place now called the ‘Refuge’. It is up a laneway that subs up as a rubbish dump. We enter a small courtyard surrounded by prison-like rooms with an open-air kitchen backing onto a sheep pen. Whoever stayed here must have been high as a kite or dear Madame God rest her youth was offering some Saigon attractions, not on the menu. It is obvious that the bible has not seen this dump for some years.
With Kankan in total darkness, it is too late for us to go looking for anywhere else. The room is clean, and Williwaw is safe in the courtyard. Madame, a small frail Vietnamese is stretched out under a mosquito net in no mood to move. Only the threat of having her struck off the Bible motivates her to produce a few chips, which we eat to the sound of her generator been whipped and kicked and cursed into action. Resisting all attempts to cast any light, it joins her is a bout of coughing, farting, discharging clouds of smoke, with the odd death wheeze.
The sky opens. We sleep with a thousand Malinkes doing the Cancan on the galvanised roof. In the morning there is no sign of her Ladyship. We pack and move out to find breakfast and new lodgings. Driving past the train station, the university, down a wide long mango-shaded avenue, we once again plough our way through large potholes now all overflowing with dark brown water to hit rush hour Kankan style.
Bicycles, Peugeot, trucks, buses, carts, dogs, donkeys, motorbikes – you name it > stopping and starting to the flow of pedestrians who weave in and out of the traffic with the same suggestive body movements of a real Cancan. Most of who are oblivious to any right of way they risk their lives to well-worn disc pads. We are sucked along with the great unwashed to stop for breakfast at one of the many downtown restaurants.
Drinking large espresso’s with French croissants it is hard to fathom that only a few days ago we were camping in the bush.
At forty-seven thousand guinea francs a room, Bate P’ is our new hotel > Air conditioning, TV, shower, with a large enclosed car park. In fact, everything that Mongo Parks (1771-1806) would have needed on his way down the Niger from Segou a town in southwest Mali. Our first encounter in the hotel is Kadir a Dutch photographer. He is hoping to follow the Niger to its delta a mere four thousand kilometres away. The first part of his journey is by riverboat from Kankan down the Milo to join the Niger, and then on to Bamako in Mali – a five to a seven-day trip.
It sounds mouth-watering to just sit back and enjoy the scenery. Five hundred kilometres of smooth water after our last four weeks of jolting is just what the doctor ordered, we sign on.
A quick foot reconnaissance of town with the girls uncovers the largest pair of denim jeans this side of the Atlantic. Unlike some of its matching African cities that we have visited Kankan so far has a good-natured feel to it. With colour in competition everywhere the bustling streets are hassle-free. After some excellent yoghurt and a large dose of passing carbon dioxide, we return to our hotel.
Kadir suggests we walk down to the bus station after lunch to check on the ferry progress up river and to book our passage. Arriving at the booking office we are assured after a long wait that the ferry is due any day now and there was no problem getting the jeep aboard.
I get back to tell Fanny the good news to find her talking to God on the big white telephone. “It’s the salad she moans “In sympathy, my Mount Vesuvius (the ant bite) explodes. The city is plunged once more into silent darkness. Without a flicker from the air-conditioning or the TV, the night is hot and sultry with Fanny beating a track back and forth to the loo. Our room unlike room 101 across the corridor that has a procession of working ladies to keep its occupying colonel cool late into the night our room is hot and sticky making sleep almost impossible.
Morning brings no satisfaction at the reception desk. “What is the point of paying over the top for an air condition room, when the hotel generator is turned off?” We move to a cheaper room in the old part of the hotel that has ceiling fans.
Next morning Kadir – the Dutch photographer and I make another visit to the booking office. Fanny’s recovery is helped by a packet of Dioralite. (See Medical list on cd)
(Top TIP: A Water purification is a must. We mounted the purification unit and a shower attachment unit on one wooden board. This board could be hung from the roof rack and plugs into one of the power points positioned on the outside of Williwaw under the back door. A Hand pumped purifiers is too much hard work. We carried one only as a backup. During the whole African trip we used only three replacement filters.)
We are informed that the ferry has been sighted and should arrive shortly, as to exactly when is anyone’s guess. By the look of the depth of Milo River since yesterday, it might be never. It has dropped a good three feet with the dry season approaching.
The afternoon is spent poking our noses in and out of every shop. We visit Issa Traore and Daoudor Traore Antiquaries. According to their owners, some French buyers visit them twice a year and take all they can collect by the container load.
We meet Larry a large Aussi gold miner, and Matthew a retired Canadian geologist who has flown in for a week to do a field survey somewhere nearby, for a different gold mining firm. Unfortunately, Matthew spent most his time stuck in a Guinea pothole until Larry who happened to be passing by rescued him. We meet Leslie another prospector who hails from Fareham just down the road from Winchester, Fanny’s hometown.
Day three in Kankan > There is no sign of Godo the river steamer. From the look of the river, it is high and dry and more than likely will not be seen until next seasons rains. I tell Kadir if he hangs on in Kankan long enough he will be able to walk down the Milo to join the Niger or as it is otherwise known as the Dioliba, the Joliba, the Kworra, and the Timbiko. It is up anchor for us in the morning.
I spend the rest of day with the ice cream man who brings me to his brother a welder for some running repairs to Williwaw’s exhaust. I sell one of my old tyres to one of his many brothers and purchase a new tyre from another brother along with a death mask. The mask is received by the girls with abject horror it being consigned to the toolbox on the roof under lock and key.
Somewhat disappointed that our African Queen voyage had not materialised we set out for Siguiri I getting a lecture about filling Williwaw with junk. The bible consoles us with a description of the riverside route to Siguiri as being one of the most beautiful one can take.
Two river crossings later, mud mires that any decent Hippo would be proud to acquire, and potholes that could be seen from outer space, we pitch number forty-seven under a full moon. Exhausted and in excellent temper all around. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Day breaks grey and overcast the first for some time. Just what we need says Fanny a drop of rain to fill the potholes. We cross the Niger at 11° 03? N – 9º 14? W. arriving in Siguiri some hours later. We push on after a quick tour of the market. We have not gone more than a few nautical miles from its outskirts when a police barrier stops us. We are sent back to have our passports stamped at the customs that we had driven past without noticing. It’s the first clue that we are about to leave Guinea – I turn down flat, a demand for ten thousand GF to stamp our passports.
Eventually clear to continue we drive on expecting the border at every turn. It does not appear for a further seventy miles of dust, bumps, and our first experience of corrugations.
(Top TIP: There is no happy speed driving corrugation. Coil springs or leak springs without shock absorbers make driving them a nightmare. They vary in depth and width depending on what uses the road, (usually heavy trucks). There is a real learning curve to driving them safely and finding a speed suitable to your vehicle. Short wheel vehicles are more inclined to turn over. The chances of a puncture and blowouts are high. They are not long in finding any loose weakness in your vehicle, be it in the inside, the engine, and the electrical, on top, underneath, your passengers’ tolerance.)
Fully conscious that any sudden requirement of the anchors is utterly a ‘no no’ I struggle to find a suitable speed. Eventually settling for sixty to seventy kilometres to avoid the blithers shaking us to death we drive by village after village leaving villagers who are walking home in clouds of dust A few ventures on to sidetracks to avoid the corrugations with one last bump we arrive at the frontier Nafadji.
A small village with its centre in no man lands. Clearing police and customs without too much difficulty, we are sorry to be leaving Guinea a country of unspoiled beauty. Our new hosts Mali at the other end of the village clears us with a pride in their efficiency informing us with glee that from here on it is a smooth ride to Bamako