Exhilarated after another great balloon flight we went back to the hotel, sorted the gear and went out for dinner where a Cuban trained doctor served us chicken and chips. I guess medicine doesn’t pay enough to live on in Guinea Bissau. I had a stroll around town, got latched onto by the town drunk, made my escape and had an early night. We were up again at dawn, this time heading into Guinea Conakry.
It was just a couple of hours along a relatively smooth dirt track, through cashew forests and field of melons, to the remote border post.
This was just a rag tag collection of huts around a rutted road. The Bissau side was straight forward, then we crossed a bit of rutted no mans land to the even bleaker Conakry side.
The police and military in Conakry have a fierce reputation although the guys here, whilst not smily happy people, seemed reasonable. The usual English football conversations seemed to keep things ticking in the right direction. Aside from some confusion over the carnet de passage for the Enterprise, we were all done in about an hour, and then crawled forwards on our way. By now, the ruts were huge and the going slow. I can’t imagine coming this way in the rainy season. At one point, a couple of guys on bicycles hurtled past us, leaving us spluttering in their wake.
Mile after mile of red dust, rocky outcrops, blooming trees and overloaded public transport coming the other way. In fact, I realised how lucky we are that the Peugeot sept-place taxis in Senegal are quite well regulated with only 7 passengers and a driver. Here I counted 17 in one. There were routinely 4 people in the front row (two in the drivers seat), 4 across the middle, 3 in the back, 2 hanging off the back and the rest on the roof. That’s alongside babies, baggage, chickens and goats.
It must have been market day in the first small town we reached. There was an explosion of colour and activity. Whilst very similar to Senegal, it felt just that slight bit different although I’m hard pressed to explain why.
We stopped for another tailgate picnic lunch and then Paul, Jedabaye and I went on ahead in the pick up as we could go faster and would be able to recce for the final flight. We’d regularly see groups of boys kneeling by the roadside with sticks as if begging. I later discovered they have just been circumcised.
The scenery became even more beautiful and I regretted we wouldn’t be going further into the mountains upon this occasion. Almost every village was a picturesque set of thatched roundhouses against a lovely rocky background.
Koundara was quite a large town and we changed money and had an ice cold Guinea coke. We’d seen that there was an abandoned airfield about halfway between here and the Senegalese border to the north, so went – now on a brand new good road – up to check it out.
It seemed remote enough and set of the main road, so no problem with authorities or villagers noticing. Famous last words. We rested up waiting for the Enterprise to catch up and then a local chap did in fact notice us and came for a chat. He turned out to be a local guide and useful to know, telling us it was no problem to bush camp there. So, when Chris and Sue arrived, we pitched tents, they put a couple of chickens on the barbecue and we set up the gear for an early flight first thing in the morning.
I had a slightly uncomfortable night with a lot of noise of motorbikes. We later found out we were on the edge of the (unfenced) Niokolokoba national park and there are plenty of hyenas around.
We took coffee before the sun arose and then a local guy with a machete turned up. He was on his phone before we had a chance to say hello and a few minutes later a policeman turned up on a moped. Chris and Paul explained and the policeman politely listened then told us we’d need permission form the chief and to register in a nearby town. They explained that there was a tiny window of opportunity for ballooning and we had to fly before it got too hot and there were thermals. He half nodded and agreed for Jedabaye to take our passports, leaving us there, which Chris and Paul took as affirmation that we could fly. More villagers arrived and were looking on curiously, wondering what the hell we were doing.
I was getting used to the launch process and before long, the balloon was ready to go, Chris and Paul jumped in and off they went, soaring over the fields. And this is where they came down, just behind the local village that was a lot closer than we’d realised. Sue and I followed in the enterprise and I was mildly perturbed to see the Guinean army had arrived on the scene. There was a military base within a few hundred metres of the flight path. As I said, the authorities can be vicious in Conakry.
“It’s okay, the police gave us permission” we said. We later told the police the military had given us permission. Everyone was happy. As Chris said, people are so amazed by the spectacle and it does tend to bring out a child like wonder in people, so all was good. We had the usual crowds as we attempted to pack away, but this time the army kept them at bay. Then the police and Jedabaye returned, Chris attempted to swap hats and we all departed on friendly terms.
It was the end of the trip – almost. Chris and Sue were continuing south with Cape town as their final destination. Paul was flying out of Banjul and came back with me in the pick up. After a quick breakfast and farewells, we were off for our very long drive back to Abene, arriving after nightfall exhausted.