Mart and Frederik, my Dutch guests, arrived a couple of days early to relax into Baobab time before the trip to Guinea. It was Mart’s third time in Abene having been with me to see the chimps in the Gambia and then a Casa-trek last year. Frederik, a keen bird photographer, had spent a couple of weeks at the Little Baobab last spring.
I’d spent months planning the trip and – this ain’t going to surprise long term blog reader – it all went tits up a week or two before the departure date. I’d arranged a 4wd with a local guy who’d assured me it could very comfortably carry seven people but had proved elusive when asked to see the vehicle. I’d also arranged to use him for the ballooning trip and it transpired then that his vehicle was being fixed and we wouldn’t be able to use it. So upon return I sat down for a good chat and he assured me everything would be fine for this bigger Guinea trip. I have people flying in from Holland and the US just for this, I can’t let them down, I explained. Despite his reassurance, I wasn’t convinced and thought I’d better make a plan B. Plan B turned out to be twice the price and I was getting nervous – I didn’t want to have that conversation with the guests. The guy eventually brought his car round for me to see and I noticed a problem – we were 7 people and there were seats for 5 (where 3 would be on the back seat which wasn’t that roomy). “What about the other two and luggage?” I asked – there was no roof rack. He showed me a couple of stools that were about 3 inches tall that he planned to stick in the boot. Unable to picture Jeremy and Mart crouched in the trunk, I laughed him away. Then I panicked.
Thankfully, help came in the form of a Senegalese friend in Djembering who gave me a sturdy minibus with reasonable ground clearance, along with a good driver, all for the original price. Phew.
So, Khadri arrived, we all got on well and headed out early one morning en route to Ziguinchor where we’d pick up the Americans who were arriving on the ferry from Dakar. We were early, so took coffee at the Perroquet, an attractive hotel overlooking the river. I was quite astonished to bump into a friend Paul from London, who later that day headed up to spend a week at our place in Abene.
We watched the ferry arriving, then greeted Jeremy and Carol – who’d both trekked with myself and Mart last year, along with their niece Tess who was here for the first time. Tess turned out to be great fun and had a habit of singing everything – a habit I picked up.
After getting our Guinea Bissau visas and cash from the ATM, we took a snack lunch and then headed down the 20 km or so to the Guinea Bissau border. The route to Bissau city is attractive, crossing farm land, mangrove areas, a couple of large rivers, cashew forests and several villages. We stopped after an hour or two for ice cold Guinean super-bok beers, hitting Bissau in the late afternoon golden sun, passing crowds that were lining the streets to cheer as we arrived. Then they hung around to cheer at the national football team who were returning after their performance at the Africa Cup in Gabon.
We’d made a reservation at the Hotel Jordani, an adequate place near the old town. As everywhere in Bissau, it was expensive for what it is – most power is run by generators which ramps up the costs – but we were only there for a night. After some rest, we strolled out into the dark rutted streets, had a draught beer at an outdoor seated bar then went to a restaurant that Jeremy – a former food critic – had been informed was the best in Bissau. It didn’t look it, but the women running it were friendly and the ambience good. We ate well cooked plates of pork, fish, chips and salad before retiring early.
I drank a couple of thimbles of strong coffee from a cart with Mart as the sun rose, took breakfast, argued with the hotel who added breakfast to the bill despite us paying for B&B and then led the group on a tour of the city. I have a soft spot for Bissau, but it’s charms can be elusive and are often reserved for party animals – it’s definitely a night town. So, unless future guests have a firm desire to go, the consensus was that it could be skipped. The old town is pretty and crumbling in the colonial Portuguese way that reminds me of parts of Goa and Maputo. We looked at the docks, some old crumbling statues, past a market with massive fish and then hit the road.
Back to the country with it’s rice paddies and cashew forests. Cashews is the biggest crop in Guinea Bissau and they’re everywhere. As always, I’d tried to make it more interesting for myself by adding in a new destination – Salthino falls. We turned off down a road and through villages full of various handicrafts (whicker furniture and wood carved pestle and mortars) before someone noticed a commotion. We stopped, reversed and saw there was a party happening.
Lots of happy dancing people were pleased to see us and then two Kankurang’s appeared – a traditional one made of wood bark, and a red synthetic newer edition. They were dancing and chasing children, but didn’t seem nearly as dangerous as those in Abene which strike genuine fear and physically attack people with machetes. The villagers were of the Manjak tribe and they explained it was a boys initiation ceremony. I had thought Kankurang’s were a purely Mandinka tradition, but apparently not.
After that excitement, we continued to Salthino, reaching a large attractive bridge that crossed the river at a point where there are many rapids.
It was a beautiful spot and many locals were washing clothes and their naked bodies in the river. We parked up, found a shady rocky spot by the river and made up our packed lunch – fresh baguettes, tinned fish, mayonnaise, tomatoes and oranges.
I’d purposely kept the itinerary fairly loose, so we could adapt according to peoples interests. It was a beautiful spot with lots of jungle and a decent looking guesthouse overlooking the river, so everyone was happy to stop and spend the night here. We booked into the rooms and spent the afternoon reading and exploring. The birdwatchers disappeared into the forest and I went for a swim.
There’s a legend that a mermaid lives at Salthino. I clambered down the rocks beneath the main bridge and discovered an old bridge that’s partly submerged. Many people were washing pots and clothes and there was a constant slap as they swung the washing through the air, bashing it against rocks – does that really make much difference and get clothes cleaner? I’ll tell you one thing, my clothes really take a battering from Senegalese washerwomen and often come back with broken buttons. I’m not complaining though, as having washerwomen beats doing it myself!
Anyway, I found a secluded spot and slipped into the pleasantly warm water, swimming out above a large rapid before finding a small one that crashed over me and gave a jacuzzi like effect. Then I spotted a girl approaching with a large cauldron balanced on her head, full of other cooking implements. She was around twenty, strikingly pretty and dressed in a Islamic style scarlet dress and head scarf. She smiled shyly at me, turned but kept glancing back, then unwrapped her dress, standing nude with her back to me, bent in double like a pair of compasses and started scrubbing the pans. Washing up was never so interesting and I tried not to stare, but wanted to ensure she didn’t miss any dirt.