For several years I’ve been promoting the Casa-trek, a route I’ve devised myself and one I’ve not seen anyone else doing. To date, no one had taken me up on it. I’d walked around many of the areas and undertaken plenty of research, although this is always difficult when boat times are subject to tides and everyone gives you a different answer to the same question.
This all changed last month when I received a message from a Dutch lady* wishing to trek in the rainy season. Brilliant, no problem pour moi. She arrived via public transport from Banjul and after one days acclimatisation, where we celebrated her birthday with a cake in our mud oven, off we went.
*she wishes to remain anonymous and so I won’t be mentioning her too much but she was fantastic company and a pleasure to trek with.
Leaving about 8am whilst still relatively cool, we walked down the beach to Kafountine about 7km away. After buying a few supplies we headed further south where boats leave for the island of Boune. After a little wandering through the forest to see charcoal makers and cow herders (definitely not because, 2 or 3 hours in I’d gotten us lost…), we stumbled across some dried up rice paddies and found the port. It was mid day and the boat left at 4pm, so we had time to relax. 4pm came and went and we actually all waded out to the pirogue about 5.30. We puttered gently through the mangroves with their plentiful birdlife and to my surprise a crocodile basking in the sun. It was medium sized – about three meters in length – and I thought back to the times I’d been swimming nearby.
For some reason, every time I take this boat, it crashes and this was no exception. The boat was having engine problems and it cut out. The driver lifted it out of the water and we drifted, quite fast and straight into the mangrove roots, with no apparent effort to use the rudder. As we crashed, a troop of monkeys hooted and jumped up into the very tree we’d hit.
We continued into larger channels, past pristine white beaches with little huts, arriving as the sun set at the island of Boune. We strolled through the sandy street, greeting people – a girl handed us cashews, bats swooped overhead from a mango tree and boys played football in the sand. There is a small campement there and its owner, Moise, remembered me – I’d been before and picked him up once when he was hitching to Diouloulou. Small glasses of cana, the local rum, were poured and we tucked into a large bowl of rice with oyster stew.
I also tried something I would never have thought of doing – a mixture of red wine and coke. It tasted like cough mixture and although palatable, I’m not sure I’ll go out of my way to retry it. The islands are of the karoninke tribe – Christians converted by a Dutch missionary; related to the Diola but with a different language. Beyond saying Kassumay (Hello, but here it’s Kassumay Lama versus Khady’s Kassumaye Kep), I don’t follow this language.
Leaving Boune proved slightly problematic. There was a boat due to our next destination the following morning, but it was cancelled, so we spent the day exploring the village, checking out local fetishes and a walk through a forest with a palm wine tapper, who let us sample his wares.
“The boat will definitely leave at 10am tomorrow” said the boat man. We packed up and wandered down to the jetty, a little early but happy to sit and watch village life. By about 3pm, we’d had enough of village life. I was racing through Tim Butcher’s “Blood River” – an account of his journey across war torn DR Congo ten years ago – a reread for me, something I’d been meaning to do since returning to Africa and having some correspondence with the author. The problems he encountered certainly put our minor delays into perspective.
Eventually the boat was ready – a group of young people were travelling to the village of Haere (pronounced Hiya!) for a celebration. The people of Haere had come to Boune the year before and I presume it was some kind of match making opportunity for these remote communities. They travelled equipped with a full set of drums, which were set up in the back of the pirogue.
As we set off, they started up and played for the next hour or so, increasing the speed of the rhythm every time we past habitation. We left the main river which was a kilometer or so in width and turned down a small channel which wound it’s way, sometimes so narrow that the mangrove trees formed a tunnel. On the banks were piles of shucked oyster shells, sometimes as high as ten or fifteen meters. We reached another river, the Kallisaye, and alighted on the opposite bank. The boat was continuing to Haere, our destination, but we wanted to walk as much as possible.
As the boat pulled away, the drumming increased in ferocity and a woman started diola dancing – very brave in such a wobbly vessel. We were next to a shack for fishermen who were busy drying fish and one of them – Jean – was walking to Bankesouk, so accompanied us. We walked across dried up sand plains, then through shallow water, sometimes sinking into mud.
One mangrove channel was thigh deep and my mind wandered back to the crocodile. After a pretty palm grove, we’d reached Bankesouk, an open sandy village that resembles the kind of town you’d see in a cowboy film. After refilling water bottles at the chiefs house, we continued to Haere, an hour or so through forest.
I’d met a Belgian guy living in Haere a couple of months ago in Ziguinchor, so thought we could visit, but were told it was a few kilometres further and darkness was falling as we arrived. Outside the first house were the youths from the boat, all playing away and looking surprised to see us. We were led to the house of an elder, Dominique, who was the chiefs brother. He sent out for 2 cartons of red wine, poured us glasses and it seemed there was no question of where we’d stay. They made up rooms, showed us the shower, then poured more wine. This time it was mixed with fanta. Yum (?).
After some surprisingly tasty tinned beef and onions, we wandered over to the party. By this point, the women had formed a circle and were clapping their bits of wood together whilst many entered the circle, dimly lit by a fire, and diola danced. We crouched for further rice and small boiled river fish, drank some rather rank palm wine and then returned to the house for the night.
We were up with the roosters and it’s always a pleasure to watch the animals rooting around whilst women sweep and fetch water (my guest also managed this with a big bucket on her head) as the sun rises.
Dominique led us to Yves house as it was off the main path. What a stunning little place – there were well built mud bricked buildings with thatched roofs, huge trees and a well tended garden, all on the banks of a beautiful river where a couple of sailing boats were moored off shore. And all several miles from the nearest village, themselves 20 or 30 miles from the nearest place resembling a town. Yves was rousing, but soon made us coffee and told us about life there – a slightly lonely life by all accounts and he’s not sure how much longer he’ll stay. Without internet promotion and with virtually no chance of passing traffic, he’s not much chance of customers now that the French sailors and fishermen have stopped coming due to the recession.
He also had a collection of crocodile skins and other animal parts hanging on his wall. He sighed and explained the environmental protection work with which he was involved.
“It’s the local preacher – every night he goes out in a canoe shooting crocs. We’re trying to stop him.”
“Are there ever crocodile attacks?” I asked
“I’ve only heard of one – a French guy, a crazy guy – he’d go out swimming alone around the mangroves at night. He came face to face with a big ‘un and it took a chunk out of his bicep.”
We made our way onwards, walking through cute palm groves, across swamps, grassy plains and alongside rice paddies. We were certainly seeing different environments, sometimes all within one hour. By now, the villagers were Diola-Cassa – speaking a different language to Khady (this time they greet with Kassumay Ballet), although I was still able to impress and raise laughs with my Diola-Fogny.
Hitou was a small village on the edge of mangrove and virtually impossible to leave except on boat (or via the route we’d marched in on). In Haere everyone had assured me getting a boat would be easy. Approaching Hitou, folk were looking concerned, saying there’s actually only one boat and it had left that morning to Ziguinchor. We asked at the house of the boatman and they confirmed the story before pulling us up chairs, asking whether we wanted lunch and then providing mangos, boiled eggs, rice and fish.
A familiar story: the boat would arrive at 2pm, then we could go. 4pm arrived, then 5, then 6. We were a little frustrated – every time we’d gotten on a roll with walking, we were stopped, through no fault of our own. The annoying thing was we could have taken it a bit slower and relaxed en route from Haere. We went for a stroll around the village, out into the mangroves and past a group of boys hacking up coconuts – they loaded us up with some and we later drank the water and ate the fruit. As we’d seen throughout the islands, there were kind of figures made from palm leaves and mounted on stakes, like scarecrows, all around the village. I’d figured it was some kind of protective gris-gris. On return, when Khady saw this photo, she confirmed it was actually a far more powerful gris gris, a jalang, for protection – mainly to keep the police out. As I’ve mentioned in the past, these islands are full of marijuana plantations. I’d often wondered why the police didn’t raid them and here was the answer – “they’d never dare, they’ll die and they know it” said Khady.
Bounok (palm wine) was being served upon return and we sat chatting to a lad who’d been schooled in the Gambia. “I want to be a father” he told us. He meant a preacher man, not a Dad.
As with everywhere, there was no question that we wouldn’t stay with this family. Can you imagine turning up at a village in Europe and being invited in for multiple meals and to sleep the night? We did pay them something, but nothing was demanded and it’s just normal African hospitality, something that I love about the place. My guest remarked that pretty much every Western expectation had been overturned in Senegal.
It was a weird night – we were sharing a room and woke in the middle of the night with someone sitting on the window sill shining a light around. He quickly ran, then the pigs started fighting. I fell back asleep and my guest reported the next morning that she’d watched tiny lights floating around the room which were definitely not fire flies.
The boatman had returned late in the evening. In the morning, I went and sat out with Grandpa who was tucking into a filthy bucket of bounok. You can’t beat a bounok breakfast. We were presented with a platter of very greasy tough chicken in onion sauce, then sat around waiting for the boatman who’d told us to be quick, then disappeared. The kids played with bow and arrows and we sat sweating – it was approaching 40º at 8am.
He turned up and we waded out through a mangrove channel to his boat, then gently puttered out to the main river Casamance – several kilometres wide at this point. We were crossing over to the island of Karabane, a popular tourist place and old French colonial trading station. As you approach there is a new port to the left and a string of hotels and restaurants lined along the beach, nestled amongst coconut palms, to the right. We briefly strolled through the village and past a big old French church that looks semi ruined and mouldy in the tropical humidity. There was a military checkpoint next to it and a soldier sat with a machine gun – an image that at a glance reminded me of a scene from a Vietnam war movie.
Rains were coming, so we went to a nice looking hotel and ordered first coffee, then an exceedingly cold beer, my first in a week or so. It hit the spot. It was also our first sign of modernity and tourism since leaving Kafountine, and we sat feeling decidedly shabby. We went to another hotel for prawns and chips, then continued along our way, walking across further mangroves to the western edge of the island.
A new house slightly confused me and by skirting around it we left the path we’d been following. It looked wrong and I went on ahead – by the time I was wading to my waist in swamp, feet sinking to my ankles in mud, I decided we should turn around. Asking at the house, they showed us across their garden, where there was a communal boat on a rope, upon which you pull yourself across a channel. Then others can pull the boat back for their crossing. The beaches on the western edge were wide and wild, with cows, pigs, red flowers and plenty of palm trees. We walked to fishing shacks and negotiated a ride across the one kilometre channel back to the mainland and the village of Nikine.
Reaching Nikine, we chatted to some local lads blasting loud music – upon learning my guest was Dutch they offered to introduce to the Dutch lady of the village. We walked up to another local style hut, outside of which a large African lady in a bra pounded millet. I was expecting a blonde, but instead this lady greeted my guest with perfect Dutch – she’d lived there for several years, but her Dutch appeared to deteriorate when asked what she was doing there.
On we went – it was a long day of walking, perhaps the longest. We reached the Atlantic shore and started down the beach past picturesque washed up trees and herds of cows. The Ziguinchor to Dakar ship came out and headed out to sea beneath a huge black storm. Further black clouds were approaching and on we marched, the wind howling, eyes barely open due to the pounding rain and me howling to the heavens. We were drenched to the skins and later decided it was perhaps the most joyful moment of the trip.
The final few kilometres were tiring but exhilarating – the sky lit up every shade of orange, red and purple whilst lightning flashed in distant storm clouds. We were aiming for Eddies beach shack in Djembering and arrived just after dark, the sky still flashing with lightning. He was in the village, but the girl working in his bar called and he soon arrived bearing delicious pork, a crab, fish, chips and beers.
It was good timing – the next day, Eddie had arranged for 150 guys to prepare his land in the traditional manner and to sow rice. He’d arranged a pig, a goat and 400 litres of cashew nut liqueur for the occasion. We were on our fourth and final type of Diola (Kassumay Jang).
Everyone wanted their photo taking and guys started racing each other, forming small groups and chanting and acting out small plays, brandishing knives, as they worked with their traditional diola spades.
We were moving on, but before we left I ate hunks of tender pork with my hands and downed a bit of cadeau.
This was due to be the end of the trip, but my guest was enjoying it so much, despite some foot infections (blisters that got infected with constant immersion and humidity), that we decided to go to Guinea Bissau the back way. The trip to Cap Skirring along the beach is similar to what we’d done the previous day, so – as time was running short – we took a shared taxi, grabbed drink and then went on to Kabrousse from where we walked to the border across about 5 kilometres of paddy field.
We flashed passports at the military guards, jumped in a canoe and before we knew it were in Guinea. It was getting late, so we walked through forest to the first village and then on to my friends village where I’d stayed last year with Eddie. Locals were walking through the jungle tracks and were gobsmacked when they saw us. I managed to communicate in Diola (we were back in Kassumay Kep territory) and asked an old man to lead us to my friends house.
As we started, the heavens opened and we raced into a small house and rested under the verandah drinking cana with a surprised looking family. There was no let up in the rain, so we went for it, sloshing along up to our ankles, through the palms and ferns. It appeared my friend was travelling so we were taken to a neighbour who said we were all one family. It was quite amusing – we entered another verandah and from amidst the equally shocked looking locals came a cheery voice:
“Hey guys, how are you doing?” – it was a Gambian. His name was “Rasta” but he had cropped hair – he’d recently undergone initiation and lived in the forest for 3 months. It seemed he’d been a guide and tourist fisherman in the Gambia and now had come to live here – I asked a few times but never received a reason why – I reckon there must be one. Anyway, they were a friendly bunch and once again we were given a couple of litres of cana, rice and bissap (a slimy green leaf puree – no fish available) and sat playing my harmonica and singing all night. In the night, the dogs went off, howling away for a while – the next morning Rasta told us hyenas come into the village searching for chickens and goats.
I wasn’t expecting much for breakfast, but I have to say it was a disappointment – Rasta brought out a covered bowl, whipped the lid off with a flourish to reveal …plain rice. The shower however, was stunning – a cute little area surrounded by palms and a layer of white shells on the floor. Very clean and refreshing. We walked around the village and an old man showed us the fetishes – sacred areas with big shells and where offerings such as palm wine are given to the spirits. The village could be out of Lord of the Rings and there’s no sign of concrete or metal, just rustic houses, palm leaf fences and barely any litter.
It was time to head back and we returned on a back route through forest, back over to Senegal and on to a little French restaurant. After our breakfast and a morning discussion of favourite foods, it was a joy to have an authentic expresso coffee and a panini stuffed with prawns in béchamel sauce and melted cheese. The trip was nearly over and we planned just one more stop in Oussoueye, a town halfway between Cap Skirring and Ziguinchor. It’s a traditional animist place ruled by a King with whom we hoped for an audience. I’d seen him at a wrestling match the previous year, but sadly he was too busy right now. The start of rains means it’s rice planting time, a busy time. We stopped at the village community guesthouse, a stunning two story mud structure and had a couple of beers to celebrate the completion of our first full Casa-trek.
Aside from my guests foot wounds, we were fairly unscathed – I just had one injury: a burn across my mouth and upper lip where a spider had urinated upon me one night – I hope my mouth had been shut.
Note: I am editing a short video of the trip and will be posting this in the next few weeks.