Don't Go Hippo Spotting Without Your Spectacles

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Africa » Gambia
April 26th 2009
Published: May 18th 2009
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Fifty kilometres; it was an inoffensive distance to travel between the villages of Bintang and Tendaba. On the map, it was a mere wiggle, a jubilant jump eastwards then westwards, passing a handful of small villages. In my head, I had us relaxing beside the Gambia River by lunchtime, eating chicken and chips with our feet propped on garden chairs. We had been camping, badly, for two days and nights now, and were orange with road dust, ready for some R&R. Here’s how the fifty kms treated us:
Phase one - A lift from Bintang village to Sibanor village, where we hope to flag a giri-giri minibus. The lift goes well; we ride alongside a huge basket of ripe red tomatoes and we only break down once.
Phase two - A whole hour by the roadside, in the company of fruit sellers and bored little boys. Every giri-giri going our way is full. We all gather dust in the shade of a tree filled with bats. Finally one that goes only as far as the next village arrives and we jump on board.
Phase three - For two and a half hours we share a bench with some tired looking women who have been waiting all morning to travel to the next town. When a giri-giri that miraculously has space finally pulls over, we discover, after loading our bags onto the roof, that there is not enough room for everyone. The conductor tries to kick off two of the women to make space for us but we protest, and watch miserably as the bus squeals away coating us in sand. For forty five minutes we try to flag down every moving vehicle, from lorries to pickups. At last a bus collects us, taking us just twenty km onwards to tiny Kalagi. Sigh.
Phase four - In Kalagi we quickly board the hottest giri-giri on earth and slowly bake all the way to Kwinella village where…
Phase five - … we are surrounded by children grabbing us as we try, and fail, to locate a cold bottle of Coke for the unavoidable five km walk we will have to make to reach Tendaba Camp.
Phase six - The walk is not so unavoidable; a teenage boy wants to drive us there on his donkey cart for a hundred dalasi. While he fetches the cart, we sit outside his school and chat to his teachers. The cart is slow - slower than walking - but with the weight off our shoulders we can watch hornbills flying from tree to tree, and fend off requests from the driver’s younger brother to relieve us of everything we own. ‘Can I have your hat? Can I have that book? Can I have a football? Give me your watch. A pen? Some sweets?’ We ride on.
Phase seven - Arrival. Down two bottles of Fanta on the spot to the surprise of the bar staff. Shower off a world of grime and stand amazed in equal measure by the great wide Gambia River and the number of hours of the day that have magically vanished. Feel as though I have been submerged in quicksand almost until death then pulled out at the last moment.
Our time in The Gambia was great, but there was certainly a point at which we began to dread moving between places on account of the gaping time and energy vortex that would kick in, inevitably, every time we tried to progress further east into the tiny country's slender belly. It was a situation best explained by Paul Simon; ‘sometimes the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip slidin’ away.’ In Tendaba we walked, talked and relaxed. Seth edited photos, I wrote. The river sunsets were beautiful, cold Julbrew beer in hand, while pied kingfishers fished in the shallow water all around us. We stayed for one day, two days, three… until we knew we were staying because we couldn’t bother leaving. To reach our ‘F’ though, a town called Farafenni, we needed to hit the road. It was forty kilometres away - who knew what the Gambia could hit us with for such a modest sounding distance? Actually, it wasn’t so bad; just a ferry, two buses, one taxi and a lift with some kind birdwatchers.
Farafenni inspired a touch of depression in me. It was another small and dusty town with no distinguishing features. There were the usual kids calling ‘toubab! toubab!’, the usual quiet market stocked with the usual vegetables, meat slabs and dusty fish scales blowing about underfoot. Shops sold the same shampoo, same hair extensions, same soap, same flip flops as ever. As usual none of the buildings were tall. As usual everyone rested until the sun had calmed down. I had known not to expect monuments on every corner in West Africa, yet was missing them, yearning for features beyond the colourful dress of local women shopping in the street, for inspiration outside of everyday life. I suspected that such feelings were pretty lame on my part and grumpily played Nintendo in our cheap hotel room, hoping to kick the mood care of retro gaming. The guidebook mentioned some stone circles in a place called Wassu. Briefly I became excited by the idea.
‘Are they old?’ I asked a guy at our hotel.
‘Ye-es,’ he said, uncertain, his face coming over a little misty, ‘maybe eighty years?’
There was a picture of them on the back of one of the Gambian notes. They looked older than eighty but not very inspiring.
‘Actually,’ I admitted, ‘we have some like this in England.’
‘I know you do!’ said a cheery young Gambian, a charity worker, ‘Stonehenge!’
I glanced for the last time at the picture of the modest stone circle of Wassu and decided not to suggest a visit there to Seth when he returned from his photo mission in the sleepy market. Luckily he would discover a very living Farafennian feature come the close of the day.
Earlier, we had been strolling around town in the company of a little group of children. At the sight and sound of revelry up ahead, they stopped dead in their tracks and conversed anxiously amongst themselves in Wolof.
‘Don’t go there,’ translated little Abdullah at last, pointing ahead, where figures seemed to be frolicking in the dust. ‘Come, we will go this way…’
‘What’s wrong with this street?’ asked Seth, ‘It sounds like a festival.’
‘Bad people -criminals. If you don’t give them money, they kill you.’
‘With knives,’ added a little girl clutching a schoolbag, genuinely scared.
To please them and hedge our bets, we returned to Eddy's Hotel Bar and settled in the courtyard beneath a big tree full of bats, the sounds of the festival of terror growing ever closer. A young man in a baseball cap joined us to chat, explaining this was a once a year festival for Farafenni, offering to take us out onto the street to see it. Seth accepted his offer but I opted to drink a Julbrew and hang out with the garden toads and bats. The drumming and shouting drew closer. I looked at the sky and thought about Asia, especially Japan. I realised I was missing it. I had a head full of bamboo groves, lamp lit inns, steaming bowls of udon, the gonging of temple bells, priests in purple robes. That person who walked eight hundred miles, to eighty eight temples - was that really me? For some reason on this day I was having trouble living in the now. The now was boring me. I wasn't interested in what was going on outside; just interested in musing. I knew the writer in me should be out there on the street but plain simple Lu, stripped of any further identity, just wanted to chill and be a little moody and enjoy the beer. Seth burst back onto the scene, wired and hyperactive, as though he had popped around the corner, downed twenty espressos, and popped back.
'Louie, that was such a good one for you to miss!' he told me, breathlessly, 'I'm so glad you didn't come.'
The festival, it transpired, centred on a man dressed in tree root tendrils who ran at people with machetes, brandishing and clashing them in their faces until money was produced. With him were a gang of loud shouting men, adding to the general impression of being attacked.
'I gave 10 dalasi,' explained Seth, 'and 25 extra for a photo.' He showed me the image on his camera screen. It was taken with an unsteady hand and showed a group of mad looking men and an unearthly figure clad in orange foliage, the eyes only just visible, holding sharp machetes aloft. This mythical creature, the Kankaran (spelling and facts here in need of much further research) danced and ran through the streets, causing mayhem. 'If I'd been alone, I wouldn't have had a clue what was going on, I would have just run screaming down the street!'
Seth's guide suggested that you could clap instead of giving money if you wished, but as a foreigner money would be expected. So, we concluded, it was kind of like a festival of mugging. I noticed the guide looked just as flustered as Seth, and both of them drained their first Julbrew notably fast.
'You have to work hard and train to be the Kankaran, ' said the guide.
'Are there always men who follow him like that?' asked Seth
'Yes, but at night, maybe he goes alone.'
I tried to shake the thought of the Kankaran arriving at our door in the night. Clearly there was a lot more to learn about this festival, its significance and the Kankaran, but for now I knew that Farafenni was not so featureless after all; I had just been looking for feature in the wrong places.
90km lay between us and our next destination. I figured it could only take all day. Our minibus was turned back by the police for not having a reflector in its front window. Grumbling, the driver took an hour long detour, bought a big road works sign and stuffed it in the window (obscuring a disturbing amount of his actual view out but hey...) Many hours, two more buses and a boat ride later, we were on the island of Janjanbureh, right in the middle of the Gambia River, a strange dusty place from where we would sail out, come morning, to try to see hippos. (Known locally as heepos, which sounds even better.)
Our boatman, Sadjo, took us out to what is known as Junction 6, a point in the river where a tributary forks away from the busy thoroughfare, away from ferries and fishermen, and hence a quiet spot perfect for wildlife. The heepos were there, comically elusive, popping their round heads, flapping ears and beady eyes above the water long enough to let out an indignant snort, then plunging under again. Waiting for them to resurface was a bit like that whack-a-mole game you play at retro arcades in places like Scarborough; heepos would pop up where you least expected them and plunge down before you had a moment to collect yourself. All of this led to lots of squinting at riverbanks. Those blessed with the awesome gift of perfect vision will never know what such scenarios are like for those of us who see like bats. Sadjo couldn't get his head around how I could be missing so many hippo surfacings, and seemed to conclude that I had mental difficulties.
'There!' he yelled, annoyed, for the fiftieth time, pointing at a seemingly featureless patch of water on the other side of the river, 'there there there!' He was our boatman, and I liked him, but I don't think he knew how close I was to pushing him in the river in these moments. I resolved never to come heepo spotting without my glasses ever again.
Possibly sensing my frustration, a kind heepo surfaced just a few metres from the boat - snorted - winked? - then descended. Excellent. On the way back, baboons watched us from the river bank, the bigger ones eyeing us as though they would have liked to give us all a big bite. It was a hot ride back, and I thought about contact lenses, but all in all there's nothing quite like your first heepo sighting, however fuzzy round the edges.
Travel by public transport in West Africa; it's totally exhausting, overwhelming, new, strange, and not without its moments of absolute brilliance. I'm sure that in this blog I come off a little serious, and perhaps a little complaining. It is due to being knackered, which is always a sign of good travel. I want to leave you with the ingredients for the epic journey we just completed:
A Recipe for getting from Janjanbureh, The Gambia to Bamako, Mali
1 x taxi to island's south bank
1 x tiny ferry over Gambia River
Wait one hour in a tiny restaurant chatting to locals over a warm Sprite, then add...
1 x minibus to the town of Basse Santa Su
1 x taxi to the appropriate bush taxi depot
Now wait for three and a half hours for fellow passengers to join your party. Read. Get covered in dust. Begin to lose faith until finally...
1 x ride across Gambia-Senegal border in bashed up shell of a car with almost entire upholstery stripped, broken doors, holes in the floor and no glass in the windows, in the company of ten adults, a baby, plus a boy on the roof. Stop twice when bumper and exhaust fall off respectively.
Arrive in Velingara, Senegal, and take...
1 x taxi to bush taxi depot
Wait for one hour in the dark, then add...
1 x slow journey to Tambacounda, stopping at numerous police checks and passing alarming numbers of bush fires
Partake of 11pm steak and beer in tiny bar by cheap hotel where you have
1 x sticky night's sleep
Then, stirring in one more taxi and a mission to the bank, add...
1 x minibus to the Senegal-Mali border, taking a mere six hours and at one stage reversing slowly through a busy market for no reason at all. NB, many live goats being tied to roof racks.
After an hour of police immigration formalities, take...
1 x taxi over border to Diboli, Mali
...where you can indulge in a feast of fishy crunchy rice and a plate of goat parts, including rectum, then stir in...
1 x 18 hour bus journey from hell, stopping randomly for many hours for no reason, while ill woman behind you wails and appears to be suffering from hallucinations, and two babies scream each time the vehicle stops
And there you have it! From Janjanbureh to Bamako; piece of cake.


2nd February 2011

Beware of looking at a Gambian map!
Travelling up the Gambia river by road is bound to be a recipe for hot, tiring, dusty frustration. Compare your experience with that of sailing silently up-river on Africa's first solar-powered boat - the "Solar Queen", thus avoiding the hassles of public ferry crossings and clapped out, dangerous bush taxis. It's like chalk and cheese. One costs a little more, but tastes a good deal better! You already have the ingredients at your fingertips - a quick Google of "Hidden Gambia" will find you the method.
5th February 2011

haha, thanks Mark, your method does sound very different. I do like a good dangerous bush taxi from time to time though... Best wishes, -Lu-

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