A Travellerspoint blog

A Surprising Land of Waterfalls and Natural Wonders

Sometimes Africa does offer some wonderful surprises

all seasons in one day 24 °C
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Go see it yourself

Go see it yourself

Mostly know for Ebola, civil war and corruption, Guinea have shown a very different side of itself during my first ten days here.

I’d have to admit that I didn’t know much about Guinea before I arrived here. Other than the usual news stories, what I’ve heard was that the locals are very friendly (even for West Africa) and that the corruption, terrible roads and crazy humidity often make up for that. That is also why, when travellers talk about West Africa being one of the hardest regions in the world to travel in, they often think of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. However, I do thrive on poor reputations, and the fundamental reason for all my weird and uncommon destinations is an innate need to “go and see unknown places for myself” – especially countries that have been unlucky enough to get a ride in the circle of bad news stories.

Fouta Djalon Valley

Fouta Djalon Valley

Due to my lack of information, and the not-too-encouraging snip-bits I did know, imagine my surprise when Dan (my Jeep-driving ride) and I suddenly found ourselves in an adventure land of mountainous rainforest, rocky plateaus, endless waterfalls and world class hiking. Dan had flashbacks of Bolivia and, to be honest, I have found one of those rare places that doesn't remind me of anywhere I’ve been before. We had arrived in Guinea’s Fouta Djallon region.

Chute de Ditinn

Chute de Ditinn

Granted, the Fouta Djallon region only comprises a quarter of Guinea, so other parts could be less fantastic (the capital Conakry sure has a poor reputation). Granted, the horror stories about ridiculously bad roads, an endless number of officials wanting “cadeau” and a rainy season where Guinea gets more rain in August than London gets in a year are all true. But right now the travelling life seems to be trouble free.

Don't Slip

Don't Slip

We have spent a week, driving from one 60+ metre high waterfall to the next, and the excitement of exploring nature here is next to nothing. There are no guides to tell you where it’s safe to put your feet. No marked trails to follow. Safety railings is a thing of the colonial past. And there has been nothing stopping us from plummeting dramatically to our deaths, should we slip on the wet rocks atop of the falls. When the wet rocks have not been out to get us, rickety swing bridges have kept our hearts pumping and legs trembling.

Testing the Ropes

Testing the Ropes

When our poor souls need a break from the excitement, it’s possible to spot monkeys from our campsites, swing in vines and lianas in the rain forests, or climbing rocky hills for sweeping panorama views of the region's valleys. Best of all, we got it all to ourselves. The one campsite that does do official guided hikes, yes there is only one, is based in a small, isolated village in the top of a cliff offering sweeping views over the Fouta Valley. On the ‘Coca-Cola Scale of Isolation’ it’s so remote that here are neither products, commercials or merchandise for that otherwise ever-present evil empire – sorry, I meant fresh drinks company. Exploration here feels as being part of an Indiana Jones movie (the hat’s finally home) scrambling through dark caves, climbing up vertical cliff sides on liana ladders, and crawling through dense jungle.

Climbing Vines

Climbing Vines

Having no other visitors around might be a blessing for us. But for the locals, it’s hurting an already weak economy. Guinea picked up tourists interest back 2005. A small private tourist office, which was also running a campement (campground with associated small huts), had its statistic posted. More than 1300 visitors in a little village out in nowhere back in 2008. A coup-attempt in late 2009 and the presidents following crackdown scared a lot of visitors away. Recently Ebola have gotten rid of the rest. Only 28 people visited last year, and Dan and I were visitor number 21 and 22, respectively, this year. In another campement that also kept a record, only six people had stayed there in 2016 before our arrival.

Tourist Statistic

Tourist Statistic

This is too bad for a destination that offers such prime natural wonders. While corruption (not a big problem if you aren’t driving your own vehicle) and poor infrastructure will keep many from going, for those who find themselves in the neighbourhood, a visit to Guinea will – surprisingly – offer great rewards!

Both Dan and I know that we can’t stay here in Fouta Djallon forever, though we’d like to. I have to get down to dreadful Conakry to arrange visas and Dan need to continue east. But right now, we really don’t want to, and we are certainly not in any hurry to get out of here.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 03:55 Archived in Guinea Tagged waterfalls mountains rainforest hiking travel adventure africa guinea hikes west_africa adventure_travel guided_tours guinea_conakry fouta_djalon doucki Comments (0)

“Want a Ride for the Next 10 Days?”

Okay, that wasn’t precisely the way the offer was phrased, but it might well be the most accurate description of what has happened.

rain 22 °C
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Overlanding Africa

Overlanding Africa

So, apparently, I’ve been an overlander for the past few days. You know, one of those people who’ve spent a little too much time and money on their fancy car, then decides to drive around a continent or from the northern tip of Europe to the most southern point of Africa in it. Let’s just say, that the luxury of home brewed morning coffee and a nice leather seat in a 4x4 (which I don’t have to share with fellow passengers) is a big step up from what I’m used to. Even though it does require a bit of camping. “Backpacking” – if you can call it that in West Africa – is usually a matter of catching overcrowded public transportation and sleeping in damp, dirty and very basic accommodation. Running water and 24h electricity are luxuries I usually can’t afford – both are now installed in the Jeep I’m currently travelling in.

The main(!) border into Guinea

The main(!) border into Guinea

It all started with a bit of bad luck. Leaving Guinea-Bissau and heading to Guinea, I arrived in the border town of Gabu in the early afternoon. I knew it would be a longshot, but I hoped to find a car heading into Guinea on that same day. I did manage to locate the shared taxi, but even after three hours of waiting no other passengers heading in my direction had shown up. Instead, I had to wait another day and head to a hotel. Here, someone had parked a very nice Jeep out front. Clearly another Western traveller. My initial thought was straight out of low-budget travel’s A-B-C: “Sweet, I might be able to get a ride across the border for free and save €15.”

The Jeep

The Jeep

I got up early the next morning, primarily so I could hover around not too far from the Jeep. I definitely didn’t want it to leave before I had a chance to talk with the vehicle’s owner… To my luck, the owner was a cool Australian named Dan, who started the morning offering me coffee – and about 2 seconds before I could ask if he would possibly give me a ride across the border, he asked if I needed a lift. It almost – almost – makes me a bit ashamed looking back of how cynical I approached the situation.

Making friends

Making friends

Anyway, we crossed the border. We got asked for a few bribes. Got asked for a few more bribes. Didn’t pay any of them and were finally stamped in and cross the border. Overlanders and Westerners travelling by their cars, in general, get a lot more hassle from officials than I normally do. Being on public transportation, it’s the drivers' job to pay bribes, not mine. If asked, I can always just refer the police/military/militia/customs officer to my driver. Then it’s his job to pay the bribe for getting through the checkpoint. For overlanders, there are a few tactics to avoid paying. Not understanding the languish and playing dumb is one, which works if you're sure all your paperwork is good. In that way officers can't get money out of you by imaginary offenses like driving in sandals, passports that are not valid at night, having no permit to be on a specific road, or what else their imagination comes up with. Another tactic is to make friends by offering coffee, tea, cigarettes, etc.

The map's getting useless

The map's getting useless

After getting through the border, the roads deteriorated drastically. It’s no coincident that Guinea is notorious for having some of the worst roads in West Africa (that’s saying something). So we didn’t get all that far and had to overnight in the first larger town we reached on the Guinea side of the border before we could continue the next day. During those two day’s of travelling, we got along very well, and just agreed that move on together. First to a town called Mali (yes, it’s different from the country), then to the next place and so on travelling further and further. The days went past and we kind of just figure out where we would go from day to day. So far we have done so for a week, and we’re currently heading further into the rain forests, mountain plateaus and waterfalls of northern Guinea. So it’s going to be a few more days before we part ways.

Oh, and I’ll promise that the next blog entry is going to be more about those rain forests, plateaus and waterfalls...

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Posted by askgudmundsen 02:20 Archived in Guinea Tagged waterfalls military travel overland 4x4 police africa border backpacking travelling jeep guinea west_africa overlanding conakry bribery guinea_conakry overlander bribes fouta_djalon mountrains Comments (1)

Travelling with a Friend vs. Travelling Solo

The pros and cons of travelling alone

all seasons in one day 28 °C
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Astrid not happy to leave

Astrid not happy to leave

Astrid has left me and returned to Denmark. I am, once again, “alone” in West Africa. All that time not spent drinking beer and laughing with Astrid has given me some hours to reflect on the differences between travelling alone and going together with a friend.

The biggest difference is, of course, the company that a travel companion brings. Since people are different, that is a very individual quality. So, it’s naturally difficult to say anything very specific about. Astrid, in particular, is well-travelled and no stranger to roughing it, having lived with rural families in both Nepal and Kenya on previous adventures. So I didn’t have to worry about complaints of roughing it too much here in Africa. On the contrary. Astrid actually noted, on a couple of occasions, that it was surprisingly nice and civilised to travel with me. (She had heard some horror stories from common friends).

4am departure - better with company

4am departure - better with company

Further, Astrid seemed to have taken a very casual approach to travelling with me – almost along the lines of just ‘following along’ wherever I went. Since I tend to over-plan (and then continuously change those plans), Astrid’s casual approach simply meant that we wouldn’t crash over different wishes or ideas. Apparently making everything a lot easy. Having somewhat designated roles between two people makes more of a team – making it a whole lot easier to travel together.

The one big con about company is that I suddenly lacked the privacy of travelling alone. Solo travelling means that I can always take a step back from the world. Just spend a night reading a book behind a closed door. And solo travellers are often loners, who like to make it on their own. Asking Astrid to leave me alone for a night would not have been a problem, but my expectations for myself would be to keep company. Since Astrid was only down here for a month it wasn’t a big problem at all, but had it been, say, two months; it might have come up. Simply because I don’t really travel for extended periods of time with other people.

Brunch - African style

Brunch - African style

Back on the pro-side of things, travelling with a friend is certainly more fun and less boring that travelling solo. There’s always someone there to chat with, play cards with or laugh at (sorry, Astrid). It’s also possible to mirror your own style of travelling with your companion’s. All those things I might want to do different (be more engaging with local kids, be less in control all the time, etc.) is easier to see when travelling with someone who approaches travel in those ways. It shows you that it can actually be done.

However, boredom isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Yes, back home in the West, boredom is probably one of the worst feelings someone of my generation (or younger generations) can experience. Just think back to last time your internet connection failed. Boredom on the road, however, leads to reflections and often a better understanding of oneself. Only because the mind tends to wonder when there’s nothing else to do. The ritual of thinking, finally have time to flourish when boredom sets in – and since there’s nothing else to do, why not welcome it.

Company does has its upsides

Company does has its upsides

After the give-and-take of the company itself, it’s time to look at the biggest con of not travelling alone: the lack of local interaction. There are some reasons that explain this. First, when you’re by yourself, you’re simply more approachable for locals who want to have a chat. Because we were travelling in a pair, there would simply be fewer people who started conversations with us. Secondly, those local people who did engage with us, it is hard to keep our attention. Astrid doesn't speak any French, so I did a bit of translation. Breaking up the conversation constantly to talk to Astrid in Danish makes it a lot less fun for the poor person who engage with us. Not surprisingly, conversations end quicker as they would otherwise have done. Thirdly, sometimes it’s a matter of competition. When an interested local, say in a shared taxi, starts a conversation with one of us, the other could easily take attention away from that conversation by starting a new one (or just pointing to something interesting outside the window). That is a competition the locals will almost always loose. If for no other reason, that travel companions have to pay attention to each other.

But why are those local conversations so important? Because they are the conversations that lead to home visits, dinners and overnight stays. We had one or two offers of this sort doing the entire month (we declined both because we wanted mosquito proofed sleeping arrangements) of travel. Normally, I would have many more.

All "alone" again

All "alone" again

That isn’t to say that travelling in one way or the other is better. It’s just a different choice that ultimately leads to various experiences on the road. Just like there’s a difference to the experience between dragging a backpack on public transportation trough West Africa or to drive a bike through the same region. Any seasoned traveller should be aware of this, and I’ve made my choice of preferring solo-travel long ago. That doesn’t mean that company wasn’t fantastic. Seeing Astrid leave suprisingly gave me some very real thoughts of going back myself. Back to friends, family and the comfort of life at home. And for a few days, maybe even a week, my travel spirit had taken a severe blow.

I’m back on my feet now, happy to hit the road again. Something that is needed, since I’m getting into Guinea next. From here, the real difficulties starts. Beyond-poor infrastructure, next to no tourist facilities and even more rain than we’ve had previously...

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Posted by askgudmundsen 08:18 Archived in Guinea Bissau Tagged travel best friends travelling alone different guinea con solo companions pro ways travelling_alone guinea-bissau with_company pros_and_cons best_way_to different_ways_to_travel Comments (0)

23 Hours Delay and a Missed Boat

Sometimes I'm surprised that African public transportation have schedules at all. At other times, I'm greatly frustrated. But most times, it - God knows how - all work out. Though rarely without me being put through plenty of trouble first.

all seasons in one day 28 °C
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Pirogues (in Senegal)

Pirogues (in Senegal)

“The pirogue you were written up for departed this morning at 3 am.” I’m paraphrasing here, but that was pretty much what the women told me in a mix of Portuguese, broken French and sign languish. In my rage and disappointment, it was rather difficult to reply in any way that would be understandable for the women. If it had been worth a damn I’d probably yelled at her, “but yesterday I was told to come back here at 10 in the morning!” The reason for my anger. I’d been told my boat was the only boat this week.

My guess is that the languish difficulties between my broken French, their broken French and the sign languish had coursed the misunderstanding. That something along those lines had indeed happened, was made clearer by a guy from Mali, who was able to act as a translator between us – although it took some time since his English also was in the category ‘broken’. To my surprise, there was a pirogue to my destination at 10, but that was not my pirogue. It was simply another pirogue – and it was now full...

The Bijagós Islands

The Bijagós Islands

My trouble had started the day before. Though everything, in the beginning, seemed to go smoothly. I was trying to get to the Bijagós Archipelago – one of the most beautiful, but also most isolated, parts of Guinea-Bissau. I’ve signed up for one of the few weekly pirogues the afternoon before. Signing up was necessary to secure a spot. Even more so because the former Greek ferry, which usually sail a weekly trip between the main island of Bubaque and Bissau, had been sidelined with engine problems for the past month. My name was only the fifth name on that list. Sweet, now I was told that all I had to do was to be at the harbour at noon the following day for the 1 o’clock launch.

Bad Weather

Bad Weather

Arriving at the dock, ready for the six-hour crossing the elements wanted it differently. Heavy winds blew up considerably waves and dark clouds were threatening rain on the horizon. The Bijagós pirogues have a reputation for being rather unsafe due overloading and occasional capsizing, so the port authorities didn’t want to let any pirogues leave the harbour with those conditions roaring. After four hours of waiting, chaos suddenly broke out on the harbour. Everybody quickly packed up their luggage and began moving to another of the port’s piers. A rumour had apparently started that the Greek ferry was ready enough to make the crossing after all. Two hours of screaming between less-than-official looking port officials, the inpatient passengers and the ship’s crew (which were busy relaxing on the deck when I first arrived at the scene) made it clear that the ferry was going nowhere.

Low tide

Low tide

By this time low tide had arrived. Something that is clearly visible in these parts of the world. The difference between ebb and flow is more than five metres. As a result, my pirogue was now firmly situated on the wet mud that had been the ocean floor a few hours earlier. So even though the wind had now died down, there would be now boats for the rest of the day. “Demain, demain” [Tomorrow, tomorrow] I was told. Figuring that the officials knew me by now, I had spent plenty of time at their table during the day trying to figure out what was going on, and believing that there was only one pirogue heading for Bubaque, I simply asked what time tomorrow the pirogue would leave for Bubaque and was told “10 in the morning.”

More Bijagós

More Bijagós

With the clarity of hindsight, I should, of course, have found the list with my name on, pointed to that and asked what time mon pirogue was leaving. In that way, I would probably have been given the time for the right boat.

The result, however, was that I stood on the harbour, stranded. With my boat gone and the only other one left booked out. To make matters worse were my visa running out (and I had already arranged my next visa for Guinea) so postponing everything anywhere from a few days to a week didn’t seem like a splendid option.

Ready to jump (on) ship

Ready to jump (on) ship

Again the Malian guy came to my rescue. He asked me to wait for the boat. First, he tried to explain the situation to the guy making the roll-call for the people who had actually be written up for this pirogue – but here he made little headway. So, when everybody had boarded, I was still standing on dry land. However, he had another trick up his sleeve. Once the harbour police (which job it is to make sure that the captains don’t overload the boats past their capacity) had left, the crew started to take off a lot of the heavier goods from the boat. Because extra passengers pay better than goods, as my friend explained. Sacks of flour, sugar and rice, as well as boxes of wine were off-loaded by the scores. Apparently, those could be transferred to the islands by fishermen during the night. While the goods were being thrown off the boat, me and my Malian friend positioned us to jump on it once they had finished off-loading. There would only be room for so many extra people, and it would be first come, first served.

As the last few things were being tossed off the pirogue, we threw our bags in the opposite direction. Luckily, one of the crew members signalled that I could jump aboard just before the last sack was taken off. That gave me that second of a head start that I needed, and I could smoothly jump onto the boat – which was already pulling off the pier to make sure that not too many people jumped on.

Inside the pirogue

Inside the pirogue

My Malian friend also made it, and we were soon on our way to the Bijagós Islands. The clock was a little past noon. I had not only missed my boat and been delayed 23 hours, but I had also gotten a bit more adventure than I’d bargain for. Nonetheless, I was on my way. Then it mattered less that the boat was overcrowded in a way that made me think of the Mediterranean crossings. The mood on this pirogue, though, was a lot better. People chatted and laughed, read and some even played Ludo...

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Posted by askgudmundsen 16:53 Archived in Guinea Bissau Tagged islands boat travel transport ferry travelling guinea pirogue bissau guinea-bissau bijagós bubaque orango Comments (0)

Travelling in the Rainy Season

Roads that are impossible to drive on due to mud and stretches that had turned into small lakes; showers that can keep even the most determined inside for entire days; and shoes that never dry. The challenges in West Africa’s rainy season are many.

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Bissau's main street

Bissau's main street

The room is damp. So are the mattress and the sheets. We’ve been woken up twice when heavy showers started drumming on the tin roof like was it playing at a heavy metal concert. Just to add to a night that was already misery, the hotel’s guard also woke us up in the middle of the night. Okay, “hotel” might be stretching it a bit. We were spending the night in the rooms behind a bar in a suburb to Bissau – the capital of Guinea-Bissau – we the rooms were usually just rented out for an hour or two to couples who wanted to have a good time. The guard who woke us up at 3 am. simply had to check whether we had paid to stay the entire night… Accommodation Bissau is poor value and we had spent too much money living the first few days in Guinea-Bissau nicely – and we were only staying one night anyway. We probably won’t do that again, however.

Taking cover

Taking cover

Miserable nights aside, the rains have arrived in full force. Both Astrid and I have travelled in rainy seasons before, but never in West Africa. Astrid has been to Nepal and Southeast Asia, and I have been to Central America and Madagascar. For all those places, the rainy season is usually limited to something like an hour’s torrential rains during the early evening and then nightly showers. Not here in West Africa. Guinea and Guinea-Bissau are the wettest countries in the region. On average, GB gets 850 mm rain in July alone (900 in August) – Guinea receives 4300 mm (that’s more than four meters) in both those months. To comparison does plenty of European countries not get more than 700 mm – during a whole year!

Rain

Rain

Torrential rains here don’t just last for ten minutes, as they do back home. They last for hours. Just crossing the street will soak you through to the bone. Other days they rain simply does not stop or even pause at all. Thus, Astrid and I have lost days on this trip because we have not been able – or willing – to go outside. Writing this, it does strike me that it sounds ridiculous. We have waterproof clothing with us, so missing buses, wasting half and whole days inside shouldn’t really happen. Right? Right…

Less than 10 min. outside

Less than 10 min. outside

It’s not like we haven’t been out into to rain. In the regional town of Batafá, we went out to check the abandoned market. When the rain intensified, it turned the streets around the market into small rivers and trapped us there for the better par of an hour. At Bolama we went for a full-day hike despite the rain. After 10 minutes, we had to return to our guesthouse with Astrid’s iPhone. Without having taken it out of her raincoat pocket, it had gotten water damaged. It didn’t survive. I’ll repeat that. The rains destroyed Astrid’s phone, even though it was closed off in the pocket of her waterproof coat. When we eventually got back from the walk were every inch of us dripping wet – down to our underwear – despite being dressed for the weather. Well, my hat had actually managed to keep my head somewhat dry…

Flooded Street

Flooded Street

This might not sound too bad. The problem is that it’s impossible to dry wet shoes and clothing. The humidity is rarely below 80 percent, so we need to put it out in the direct sun for it to dry. However, days can quickly pass without the sun being able to shine through the thick clouds. So stuff simply doesn't dry. Astrid had wet shoes for eight consecutive days because fresh rains keep soaking them. An old travellers' advice is to wear any clothes that haven’t dried completely after a wash. It’s icky to wear until the sun dries it (or new rains get it properly wet again), but it’s better than having wet and damp clothing packed into our bags were it would start to smell and make everything else damp. The problem is that the rainy season makes most clothing wet pretty quick if you choose to go out. I do not want to complain, and that’s why I don’t want to go out into the rains too often.

One of the better roads

One of the better roads

As a last side effect, rains ruins the roads down here. Only the biggest roads have tarmac, and the grave roads are transformed into continuous stretches of potholes full of reddish mud and water, making transportation even slower. Upcountry Astrid and I only managed 75 km in 13 hours of travel. That’s less than 6 km/h. Other roads are just washed away or permanently flooded by the extra metres the rivers rises during the rainy season. When I’m heading out of Guinea-Bissau into Guinea, I have to travel in a completely different direction, crossing most of the Guinea-Bissau before I can turn into Guinea. It’s and extra 230 km (hopefully not at a speed of less than 10 km/h) because the direct road is gone…

All this is of cause part of the struggle that is African travel. It’s a greater challenge and therefore also a greater reward every time a new obstacle have been passed. Moreover, if you have ever been to a multi-day music festival where you and your friends had to camp out, you know how much inclement weather brings people together. It’s the same here in Africa. That feeling of comradery because everyone is struggling through the same rains.

Posted by askgudmundsen 03:43 Archived in Guinea Bissau Tagged rain travel travelling problem guinea rains downpour bissau guinea-bissau challenges rainy_season Comments (0)

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