The River Gambia Expedition story continues…
Saturday 8th December – Mali Ville, Guinea-Conakry, Fouta Djallon Highlands, West Africa
Yesterday morning we were up at 6am, waiting for the driver of a Land Cruiser. The previous day, we had arranged for local transport, at the gare routiere – bus station – to take us down from the Fouta Djallon Highlands and back to Kedougou, Senegal. Once there, we would pick up ‘The Twins’ – our two 811 Ally canoes – where we had left them a week or so ago, at a friends compound. The driver had assured us that he already had ‘4-6 passengers…no problem, the vehicle will be full by 8pm tonight’. Visions of Kedougou and waiting three days for a vehicle to fill up, before it could leave the bus station, instantly sprang to mind. However, the driver was adamant that he would be at our hotel in Mali Ville, the Auberge Indigo, to pick us and have us on the road back to Kedougou by 8am, latest.
So, it was with no real surprise to us, when the driver turned up – sans vehicle – to tell us that he now had ‘no passengers booked’, apart from us. S&*$! We really didn’t have the luxury of time on our side, or the budget to pay for more nights at the hotel, to hang around Mali Ville. We needed to move forwards, on with the next, very important, stage of the River Gambia Expedition: getting ‘The Twins’ into the River Gambia.
‘Moto-taxis’ – as passenger motorcycles are known in Guinea – was suggested by Saif, our Guinea guide from Galissa Voyage Trekking. “NO, NO, NO!!”, much to Saif and the rest of the teams bemusement, was my immediate response. And if they didn’t hear that clearly enough: “NO FRICKIN’ WAY!!”. Also, Saif didn’t have to worry as he was leaving us to go back home to Labé – in a car!
It had only taken me ten years to get back on a motorcycle! – and that was with Florio and only after lengthy cajoling and promises to ‘go slow’ – after having suffered a particularly bad accident in Thailand. Whilst travelling on a motorbike at 40km per hour, myself, and the person I was with, were pushed off the side of the road by a lorry. My friend went hurtling over the handlebars and I was thrown off the side of the motorcycle – my right knee connecting with a concrete post in the process. The result was a puncture wound and a patella – kneecap – shattered into 13 pieces; a badly busted eye and broken teeth where, on impact, my face had connected with the back of my friend’s head – one tooth broke clean in half, the other half embedded in my friend’s head! Of course, we weren’t wearing helmets. I will never. Ever. Think that I am invincible just because I’m travelling in a foreign country, the hot sun shining brightly…erm…at least not until Guinea-Conakry, that is.
As you can see, I was eventually ‘convinced’ – made to feel guilty is more like it. The rest of the team cajoling me and conniving together – i.e. I would be holding the next stage of the expedition up if I didn’t agree. No pressure then! ‘The roads are so bad here, that the motorcycles can’t go that fast anyway’; ‘you can pick which bike you think looks in the best condition’ (gee, thanks); ‘we take it small, small’ – where just a few of the wheedling words, used by the boys, to try to convince me. Finally, ‘It will be cheaper than taking the vehicle!’ said Florio – pulling at my expedition budget purse-strings – clinched the deal!
After the usual to-ing and fro-ing about the price, with the main moto rider, called Ebu, for hiring four motorcycles, we assumed a reasonable price had been reached. Meanwhile, I muttered a mantra to myself: ‘ok, I’m terrified but I will overcome this fear’ , ‘ok, I’m terrified but I will overcome this fear’… – Ebu (who, to me, had the ‘best bike’. Guess who I’m going with then) went off to get the bikes fuelled up. However, when he returned, with all four moto riders revving to go, he announced the words we had heard already, and would continue to hear throughout the entire expedition wherever taking local transport was concerned: ‘the price is too small’. WHAT?!! We have a deal – which had already taken over two hours to negotiate! We then spent until 2pm – four hours in total – re-negotiating with Ebu. We even checked around town to see what other moto-taxis were charging. They all confirmed that the amount charged was to cover expensive fuel costs and the price of laissez passé – a permit to allow them to take their motos over the border from Guinea into Senegal. Ironically though, despite thinking we would be saving money by taking the moto’s, it turned out more expensive per person than taking the vehicle option. It seemed like an extortionate amount to us for what would be a ‘two-three hour motorcycle ride’. According our main moto main, Ebu, when we were trying to make the initial, lengthy, deal with him: “Come, we go now, now! We will get to Kedougou in two hours” he assured us – compared to 6-7 hours in the vehicle. In the end, we haggled a deal for roughly $28 per person – down from $35 per person. Hey, when on an expedition, every single dollar saved counts.
The next step was getting all of our luggage onto the back of the four bikes – and we had a fair bit of it. Four 60 litre Overboard bags, Florio’s camera backpack and my rucksack. And, just one of the many things that I love about travelling in West Africa – everything is ‘no problem!’. Therefore, within 20 minutes, our bags were tied onto the four motorcycles, with pieces of string and strips of old rubber inner tubing – an ingenious bit of recycling, used for strapping all manner of things onto vehicles, motos, donkey carts, bicycles etc. in West Africa. At long last, almost five hours later, we were ready to hit the road, Ebu, was still adamant we would make Kedougou by dark. So much so, he very convincingly stated: “and I will also return tonight, to Mali, with a passenger from Kedougou too!”. In actual fact, we would not reach Kedougou until 10pm that evening!
If we had had even a hint that we would be on the back of those motorcycles for eight spine-juddering hours, not one of us would have been smiling, and joking, half as much as we did when we set off!
We rattled and bounced out of Mali Ville over the rocky, riverbed-like, roads. And, it continued that way for 99% of the journey. At times, the ‘roads’ were so bad, and/or too steep, that we – the passengers – had to dismount the bikes and walk up or down a hill, as the riders negotiated the roughest of terrian. “This is a new road…I do not know it” Ebu tells me, as he asks me to dismount the bike for the third or fourth time. I looked at him to see if he was joking with me. The ‘new road’ was a steep incline, made up of various-sized boulders – not a smooth spot or patch of tarmac to be seen. When I eventually got back on, Ebu repeated (it would be his mantra throughout the ride) – whilst I desperately hung onto the metal luggage rack for dear life – as he expertly maneuvered the moto over and around the rocks: “the roads are too bad, here in Guinea”. No shit Sherlock! “The government…they do nothing for the people of Guinea” he adds. I tell him that it is such a shame that the roads are so very bad. “More tourists would come to Guinea-Conakry, if it was easier to get from one place to another” I say. “the Fouta Djallon is breathtakingly beautiful”.
Regardless of the bone-juddering, jaw-clenching, ride – and before we realized that we would not be making it to Kedougou before dusk – from the back of the motorcycle, we enjoyed the magnificent scenery of the mountainous region. Its tropical lushness reminded me of parts of Costa Rica. However, it wasn’t too long before the tension in my arms, from gripping the luggage rack, and squeezing my thighs, to avoid being thrown off the back of the moto, the constant bouncing of my coccyx on the hard seat, and my clenched jaw, began to manifest as extremely uncomfortable aches and pains. And…lets not forget the ever=present red road dust – we were all coated in the bloody stuff!
At one point, when we stopped for a break, our man-of-few-words teammate, Abdou, said: “Helen, you are a man!” I looked at him…huh?! “Florio, you marry a strong woman!” he said admiringly. “My Hawa (his wife) would never be on a moto”. More to the point, after his comments on how dangerous speeding motorcycles, with female passengers, in both Guinea and Senegal were, he would probably never allow Hawa on a moto. Abdou is endearingly old-fashioned – and very, very sensible!
Further into the journey, we were speeding down a relatively ‘smooth’ section of road – small rocks as opposed the bigger ones. In reality, we weren’t actually doing much more than 20km an hour, but it felt as if we were hurtling down the hill –even more so because, to my left, we were about a foot from the precipice. Instinctively, I leaned over to the right. “Do not be scared” Ebu said, as he felt me shift in the opposite direction – i.e. away from the sheer drop. “These are my roads…I come here every day”. Well, that’s easy for you to say, I thought. “I hear you, Ebu, but I would rather prefer not to look directly inot the valley below. Thank you very much!”. But, credit to those moto guys, they do seem to know each and every rock, as they adeptly negotiated the motorcycles over and around, up and down, the Fouta’s dire roads; almost as if they had walked the route every single day of their lives. Gradually, as the journey went on, their adroitness began to give me more confidence – to relax my iron grip…somewhat. And, for a while there, from the back of the moto, I felt almost joyful to be able to take in the wondrous surroundings of the Fouta Djallon Highlands. Plus, I felt immensely proud of myself for having overcome my initial abject fear of getting on the back of the motorcycle with a complete stranger. And, despite the pervasive red dust, it was such a freeing feeling – to see the Fouta that way – and a huge contrast from being crammed into a vehicle with 15-20 sweating, smelly, bodies – ours included. That was until, at a river crossing point later on, Ebu, the moto, and I, took a ‘dip’ in said river; when Ebu got a wee bit too cocky – or stoned, is more like it! However, we’ll get to that bit in a minute.
After we had just crossed a shallow ford, one at a time, on the motos, Florio demanded “is someone smoking a joint?”. “Yes, that will be my rider” I answered. I’d spotted Ebu lighting up whilst we waited for the other riders to blow any excess water out of their exhaust pipes and wipe dry the spark plugs. “Please DO NOT do that” Flo said, angrily, to Ebu “you have my wife on the back of your bike!”. “No, it is no problem…I feel good and strong now” Ebu said. “DON’T! It is a problem for you, if anything happens to her” Flo said, pointing at me. “Sorry, sorry. It is all gone now…look” Ebu said as he took the remainder of the joint – which wasn’t much by then – and threw it into the bush. We all re-mounted the bikes and sped off. By this point, we were riding through the bush and the sandy pathways, which meant that Ebu could speed up – way ahead of the others. I began to wish that I hadn’t gotten back onto the back of his bike, after the joint debacle. We reached another ford, which to me, looked much deeper than the last one. Ebu revved the engine of the moto and announced “we go, now!”. “Are you sure?” It looks deep to me”, I said. “No no…we go”. Oh, what the hell, I thought. It’s all part of the adventure – in for a penny, in for a pound. Holding on tight to Ebu this time, as opposed to the luggage rack, we plunged into the river and promptly got stuck in the mud! The moto toppled sideways and we were both, rather unceremoniously, dumped into the river. As I had suspected, it was much, much deeper than the last ford.
As I squelched out of the river, onto the opposite bank, I heard the other motorcycles approaching. “That’s what you get for smoking weed, you %&*#!!” Florio shouted across the water. Once they all reached our side, he shouted at Ebu “I told you not to smoke, you %$*#&#* stoner!”. After things calmed down, and the motos were once again cleared of water, Flo stated that he would ride with Ebu and I would hop on the back with his rider. I can’t say that I wasn’t relieved…but now I had Flo to worry about, on the back of a motorcycle with the stoned biker!
We had a couple of breakdowns – a flat tire here and there (not surprisingly, considering the state of the roads) – which meant that we didn’t reach the Guinea and Senegalese border until after dark. It was way past the 7pm cold beer we had been promising ourselves when we’d set off from Mali Ville hours earlier. We spent a good hour at the Senegal border post whilst our team mate, Abdou’s, rider tried to get his headlights fixed – as in, he didn’t have any in the first place! The rider had been so convinced that we would reach Kedougou before dusk, that he didn’t think he would need lights. We all watched, exhausted, hungry, filthy, and cold by now, as the bike appeared to be taken apart -– springs, screws, wires were strewn all over the sandy floor. Because we’d been assured by Ebu, back in Mali, that we would reach Kedougou in ‘two hours’, we hadn’t taken much food and our warm clothes were packed deep inside our bags, which were tied tightly onto the back of the motos. It just seemed like too much hassle to untie everything to get them out. We also knew that the Senegalese border post was only about 20km from Kedougou – food, a cold water bucket wash, and a much-needed bed. Forget the cold beers!
Eventually, every single part was reconnected to the moto and, miraculously, it had working headlights! Wearily, re-mounting the bikes, we set off once more, on the final leg of a long journey. And, less than 100 yards into Senegal, Adbou’s moto’s engine spluttered, juddered, and then went silent. Although it the moto now had working lights, the engine no longer did! After some juggling of luggage, between the bikes, our convoy of four motos became three – as Abdou jumped on the back of Ebou’s moto with his rider. It’s not uncommon in Guinea-Conakry, and parts of Senegal, to see three people on one motorcycle. The roads were noticeably and instantly better in Senegal – thankfully, smoother to ride on. This made the last 20km to Kedougou much speedier – and, because we were completely knackered, I was past caring anymore that the speed picked up – zooming through narrow sandy field tracks and along dusty roads; ducking and dodging tree branches as we sped along. We rolled into our host’s (we love you, Peter Stirling, for the sanctuary of your home!), compound at around 10pm – eight hours after we set off from Mali Ville. I could have kissed the ground as I dismounted the moto but then my stiff legs wouldn’t allowed me to.
Suffice to say, it was GREAT to be back in Kedougou!
Getting the ‘The Twins’ into the River Gambia for the first time; close up and personal encounters with hippos…
Stay with us! River Gambia stories coming shortly.
The Florios (H & Flo)