We woke up to the crashing of monkeys through the trees. It was chilly and we huddled over our coffee as tens of monkeys played and a troop of baboons wandered past. Then we drove back up to the main hotel – a sorry decaying type of place who’s high point is the magnificent location – high up on a bend in the River Gambia. A huge crocodile basked in the sun on a sandbank. Then a gazelle sauntered down for a drink – I was hoping the croc had its eye on the ball and sat with the camera ready, but it wasn’t hungry. Had I seen a vine and brought my loin cloth, you may never have heard from me again.
We decided a boat trip along the river for a couple of hours was in order. Huge crocodiles basked in the sun, more hippos wallowed and other animals popped along for a drink. Electric blue kingfishers skimmed across the water and it was another wow experience. I can’t get enough of African rivers.
Then we drove back to the park entrance via a scenic loop, stopping at some view points and seeing more gazelle, wart hog and even some mongoose. Over the course of two days we only saw three or four other tourists and this is the busy season.
In the afternoon we drove the 150km to Kedegou in the far south eastern “mountainous” region. The highest is about 300 meters, but it’s a good sight after hundreds of miles of flat bush. After Niokolokoba, we reached bush land, countless villages of circular thatched mud huts and distant gold fields. Kedegou is a sprawling junction frontier type of a town where we topped up the petrol, water and funds. Toute suite, we carried on into Bassari country, down a dusty orange track, heading back east between Niokolokoba and Guinea Conakry, following a 300 meter, or so, high escarpment. We stopped at a charming campement in the first village, where a lovely Bedik tribal woman, Leontine, hosted us, served cold drinks and explained a little about the local region. She introduced her brother, Benoit, who she’d paid through school and to go to university in Dakar – he’s now a qualified film camera man, but doesn’t have a camera. With his corn rows, diamond ear stud and baseball top he kind of looked out of place, but spoke lovingly about his culture and the need to maintain it alongside modern development. We all sat laid back in comfy bamboo chairs under the starry sky and full moon. No light or noise pollution – paradise.
We set our alarms and rose at 6am – Benoit had agreed to lead us up the mountain to see the sunrise and then visit a traditional Bedik village. The story is that the Bedik’s hid in the mountains and caves a few hundred years ago when invaders from the great Mali empire arrived and tried to convert them to Islam. They were having none of it and have managed to cling onto their traditional animist beliefs, although some have now become catholic. As all over Senegal, this is a thin veneer over a deeply imbedded traditional belief.
We trudged through the darkness up a rocky track to the top of the escarpment and then clambered over large boulders to sit and await the sun. I sat on top of a little outcrop where I was attacked by an angry bee that stung my forehead. The sun appeared around 7am and we had fine views down across the plains.
The village was a small collection of mud houses with round thatched roofs. Only two families remain (although, this being Africa, means there were a fair few people there). They have to walk two kilometers for water and after May when the well dries up, trudge down to the bottom of the mountain and then back up with 20 litres on their heads. But they’re so keen to preserve their traditional life, they do it. We went to the Chief’s hut to gain permission to enter and then had a brief look around as women pounded millet, an old man gathered children around and rattled some kola nuts as he told them a story and old women sat smiling. We were shown a couple of ceremonial huts that only circumcised men can enter and the sacred drums that are only played during ceremonies.
After a return walk and leisurely breakfast, we set of, heading further west down between Niokolokoba and the Guinea Conakry border, along miles of red dusty corrugated roads, dry grassland, baobabs and villages. Children rode donkeys and women walked with pots and buckets on their heads. At 80 km from Kedegou we reached the final regional hub village, Salamata. There we turned off onto a rocky track, deep into the mountain Bassari village of Ethiolo. Possibly the worst road I’ve ever driven on, but we took it slow, up ravines, through ditches and across scree. The landscape was dry, dusty, grassy, sometimes burnt and with countless idyllic villages.
The campement at Ethiolo was run by the charismatic Balingho, an old Bassari guy who infused the surrounding atmosphere with the reek of palm wine whenever he was around. He was very welcoming and showed us to very simple but immaculately clean round stone huts. They were traditional in the Bassari style, built like an English dry stone wall with red laterite rock.
I was invited to drink attaya with some people who turned out to be the village teachers. Mr Diallo and Mr Ba were from Dakar and had been posted here by the government. To me, passing through for a few days, it felt like heaven. They weren’t so convinced.
“I’ve been here three years. There’s no electricity, no fridge, no nothing. The only thing to enjoy is palm wine, but I’m Muslim and can’t drink it,” said Mr Ba, looking downcast.
The writer for the French travel guide book, Routard, was there and we were invited to accompany him on a trip to the sacred male initiation sites. It was some distance, so we set off in a convoy of jeeps, once again traversing the rocky slopes, ditches and bumps. When we could drive no further, we started walking across the iron ore gravel like surface through forests that are home to some of the last remaining chimpanzees in the country. The initiation site was a dramatic cave – like a slit in the earth beneath a plateau of rock, with gnarled old trees growing out of it. We then visited the sacred huts perched high above Ethiolo itself. That night, Balingho explained the complicated initiation ceremony, where boys pass through a series of huts at different ages and are beaten if they fail to attend or sometimes to reach the next level. After ceremonies in the hut, the boys dance from village to village for seven days before going to live in the cave. Bata, a lad that helped translate some of the trickier bits, told me that he needed to be beaten twice next year – “does it hurt?” I asked, wondering if it was symbolic. He laughed nervously and said yes.
We were sat under the nearly full moon, with Balingho pouring tasty, but slightly rancid, palm wine that was passed around the circle. He told the stories with a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous grin as he topped up his alcohol levels and heartily chewed on his food.
The next morning, I awoke to find my myself half blind in my left eye. No, I hadn’t over done it on the palm wine, but the bee sting from 24 hours earlier seemed to be having a delayed reaction. My forehead was swollen making me look like the Elephant man.
Vowing to return soon, to learn more about the intriguing customs of these remote people and to hike in the surrounding countryside, I made my goodbyes and we started our drive back. We’d reached the furthest point of travel on the trip and for the next week, we’d be slowly returning back.