It had been a great day and we gathered to eat a chicken stew along with some very drinkable Portuguese wine at the hotel near Salthino falls. The next morning, swirling mists floated on the water as the sun rose above the jungle. The plan was to reach Koundara today, in the Republic of Guinea, with a stop at Bafata, Guinea Bissau’s second largest town.
Bafata was an attractive vibrant town upon entry. There were markets, crowds and plenty of bustling activity. Then we drove along a potholed street down a hill into the old Portuguese quarter which was a different story.
As always, the building were beautiful in the abandoned crumbling colonial way but you expected to see a tumbleweed blow along the empty streets. When the Portuguese moved out after a long independence struggle, the Africans didn’t really move in.
We parked up by the river, strolled around and visited a women’s batik project where I bought a crazy shirt.
Reaching the very busy market town of Gabu for lunch, I found us a restaurant that served very tasty and generous portions of fish, rice and salad. Moving on, for today was a travel day, we past the site of a balloon trip exactly 3 weeks earlier, then continued to the border, spotting a couple of monkeys en route.
The road hadn’t been upgraded since three weeks earlier, and we crawled slowly through potholes and ruts into the republic of Guinea. After the border incident mentioned in a previous blog, it was nearly dark by the time we’d arrived in Koundara and sorted out our paperwork. I stocked up on Guinea francs from the one working ATM. The largest note is 20,000 GF’s which is 2 euros. The maximum I could take out was 500,000 GF which is 50 euros. Should have brought euros, I thought, as I made about ten withdrawals to cover the groups costs.
Baks, our fixer, rang up Lamaran, a young guy living here who’d helped an Irish buddy of mine out a year or so earlier. Although I was meeting me for the first time, he greeted me with a hug like a long lost brother and proceeded to be incredibly helpful, bar one incident. He knew the way to a bar (first things first….) and climbed in the front with Baks to direct us. As I climbed in the back, I gripped the inside frame of the open passenger door to yank myself up. At the same time, Lamaran slammed the door shut on my hand – a gently slam would have stung, but a forceful thud…well, I’m surprised he didn’t amputate my fingers. For a few seconds, I didn’t feel anything. Then I did so I screamed. Everyone thought I’d been attacked by a dog, then saw my hand trapped in the closed door, opened it and I retreated to whimper. Astonishingly, aside from a hole in one finger and a black mark, all seemed fine. Nothing broken even.
I distracted myself from the pain by watching thousands of fruit bats flutter about and a tree full of herons.
We then went to the bar which was bordering on brothel (cheap concrete rooms out back) and as the beers were warm, they rustled up an ice bucket into which I plunged my hand. It was a pretty tacky place decorated with murals of Tom & Jerry and other cartoon characters. A smoking girl walked around rubbing the shoulders of the local drinkers and we enjoyed our slowly chilling beers. Frederik and Mart were sat next to a huge speaker. The old lady running the bar, obviously decided we weren’t enjoying our conversations so she flicked some switches and the speaker rumbled into life, hissing, vibrating and crackling, before ear blisteringly loud auto-tuned Afro-pop blasted straight into Frederik and Mart causing them to levitate. Mart flapped his arms like a crazy bird screaming “off, off, off!!!” and the granny turned it down, looking confused. It always astonishes me how old people will happily sit next to a speaker so hideously loud and distorted that it would send your typical westerner crazy.
According to the lonely planet, the hotels in Koundara require a sense of humour, so I’d arranged a homestay with Lamaran. It was going to be basic, but clean and (relatively) comfortable. We clambered back into the minibus and he directed us back onto the dusty dirt track, a few miles out of town and into an idyllic compound of round thatched huts.
Chairs were pulled up and we sat in the dark with a few dim torches whilst someone quickly prepared the rooms. There was a lovely image of about ten or twelve fula girls in traditional dress just floated out of the dark and stood before us, tall and elegant, greeting us, smiling and asking questions. Everyone had a roundhouse except Mart and I who took a room each in a concrete structure, apparently built with money sent over by their brother who lives in Madrid. There was some confusion over the toilet situation, as the bathrooms had no hole, but we managed. In the morning, we watched the village stirring, women sweeping, cocks crowing, goats and cows wandering about. There was also some bird activity keeping the twitchers occupied.
After a few chores in Koundara, we were on our way. The land was quite empty – bush, the occasional village (noticeably poorer than Senegal) and rocky escarpments shimmering in the distance.
All was good for a couple of hundred kilometres with a brand new road that twisted and turned into the mountains. Then it ended and we were back on the dirt. For a few miles it was fine and we stopped next to a river for our packed lunch. Gradually as the route became steeper, it turned to rock and potholes and for 25 km we trundled slowly, consoling ourselves with incredible views down below.
Gradually as the route became steeper, it turned to rock and potholes and for 25 km we trundled slowly, consoling ourselves with incredible views down below.
We stopped to take in the scenery a few times, notably one time next to a colony of red throated bee eaters. There were lots of small holes in a cliff face of orange rock and the small colourful birds flitted in and out.The road returned and then we spent the final hour or so to Labe crossing high plains of green fields which, aside from the occasional palm tree, wasn’t dissimilar to much of Europe. Labe is the administrative capital of the mountainous Fouta Djalon region. I directed us to what is reckoned to be it’s best hotel, Tata. Baks and I entered to make enquiries and a sleepy boy shook his head and said no, there were no rooms available.
“That’s because we’re a house and the hotel is next door” he explained when I asked where he’d recommend we go. Hotel Tata was lovely and had rooms. We all gathered in the communal area with African chairs, cold Guiluxe beer and ordered pizzas for later that night. It’s run by an Italian guy and his Guinean wife and they’re reckoned to be the best pizzas in Labe.
The bill required a huge brick of Guinean francs and I thought it safest to take out a further supply so in the morning we found a bank that was thankfully working – the Italian had laughed knowingly when I’d asked directions to the bank, then wished me good luck.
The market was a large area of seemingly unorganised chaos, with hundreds of motorcycle boys sitting on their machines waiting for business. We bought trekking supplies and then drove south to Pita before turning off the main road onto another dirt track for the final 45 km.
It was lovely scenery but the best was yet to come. Often I ask overlanding guests what their high points are of trips across West Africa and the Fouta Djalon ranks high, so I was highly anticipating this, my first visit, to the region. The Fouta Djalon is home to the Fula people, a tribe present across West Africa from Senegal to Cameroon. There are many Fula’s living in Abene, usually running shops, usually hailing from Guinea and usually with the surname: Diallo (pronounced Jallo). We stopped in a few small ramshackle villages, crossed high pastures and eventually reached the village of Douki where there was a sign to our destination: Mr Hassan Bah.