We drove into Guinea-Bissau, a small archipelago of a country with a Portuguese heritage and a population of 1.7million – approximately a third of the Republic of Ireland. One of the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP per capita of $600, we were quick to fall in love with it. It’s had repeated trouble with coups, and has famously not managed to keep a president for a full term in decades. As we drove on pretty good asphalt road, we were one of a handful of personal cars, with most transport being buses or old blue Mercedes, acting as taxis. We drove to Bissau, the capital city, and set up camp in the car park of a hotel/restaurant. The hotel was well populated with UN staff and NGO staff, the only other westerners here, and got a bus into the city. By bus I mean a Mercedes van which has been emptied out of seats and then has benches put in in order to accommodate as many people as possible, with a driver and a boy who hangs off the back collecting passengers and payment. As bus stops don’t really exist we experimented with a few locations until eventually one stopped. We got on and went in the direction of town, much to surprise of the already very full bus. Being that the official language of Guinea Bissau is Portugese, and only 14 % of the population speak that, the chances of us communicating with the bus boy were very low. We gave him some money, 1000CFA, approximately 1.50 Euro, and he gave us our change – 800 CFA. This was checked by all the passengers on the bus and they seemed happy we hadn’t been shortchanged. The bus boy told us to get off when he thought we’d got somewhere white people would like – a shopping centre, and we obliged as we weren’t particularly sure where we were going. After checking Maps.me, we realized we were still a mile and a half off the city centre and flagged down the next bus.
Bissau is sleepy. That is an understatement but the best I can do. The Lonely Planet sings its praises, as in fact do I, but it certainly oversold the night life and party atmosphere within the capital. We went to the main restaurant and had a few beers and a nice dinner, and there were a few internationals but most people went home long before us. We tried to find the “night clubs which got started at 1 and kept going to dawn” but the best we managed was an empty, seedy bar where Total Eclipse of the Heart seemed to be on repeat. We walked around the main roundabout, and found a few other internationals doing the same – it’s possible that this is all there is to do in Bissau. But we were still quite charmed. The roads in the centre, outside the President’s Palace, and the political Ministries , resemble a choppy sea more than the smooth roads you would expect in the political centre of a capital. The police have a much quirkier method of asking for bribes. One asked if he could have my sunglasses after I got him to apply our Guinea Bissau flag to the car, another mentioned he needed more credit for his phone. When we pretended to not understand, he acted this out for us. We explained we had no money and we needed to go to Bissau to get some, he accepted this understandably. To be fair, there are only ATMs in the capital city.
We thought another day in Bissau might kill us, so we headed to Quinhammel. Other than a tiny town, this is a hotel run by two Italians. Apparently, they sailed here in their catamaran seven years ago on the way to Brazil, and have never quite managed to leave. And you can understand why. It was stunningly beautiful and peaceful, and we had a lunch of grilled oysters and white wine. They did however have to teach me how to get in to them, as my current experience with oysters did not stretch to the 30 that sat before me. Just as we were getting used to another night on our own, camped out in their car park, a boat arrived carrying 10 Polish fishermen. What followed was the most panicked shopping I have ever witnessed, as they all realized they had bought their wives and children nothing and were heading home tomorrow. “How much is this wooden fish?” in Polish then English, then Italian, then Crioulo– one of the many local dialects. We went over and had some drinks with them and found they had been fishing in one of the tiny islands off the coast for 10 days, hooking fish weighing up to 88kg. It’s amazing what conversations you’ll have when you’ve been on your own for weeks…
We drove the whole length of Guinea Bissau and then back up into Senegal. The roads remained pretty good until we got to a small town just before the border. We had been told by the Italians that this route was passable and quicker then heading back on ourselves, but it was on no map we had. We got to the town and the roads fell apart, almost requiring us to go into low gear to get down the high street. A man on a bike directed us through to the piste that would lead to the border and we headed on to Tambaconda in Senegal. We spent a few days and nights, just driving and camping in hotel car parks. We pulled into the last one in Kedougou, western Senegal and walked into paradise. A beautiful lodge overlooking the Gambian river, exquisite internet and cool beer. This was not what we had been expecting so far off the tourist trail. Of course there was a catch – after swimming in the pool, having lunch and downing a few cold beers we realized we had decided to spend the night in a hunting lodge. It did seem odd that everyone other than us thought military fatigues and guns were the height of fashion. It was the blackboard depicted the price of every animal that finally made it click, and the room full of trophies. With a national park, classed by the Unesco as “in trouble”, down the road I’m sure this is helping. Well if nothing else, I destroyed their download limit.
We got up crazy early to make our way to Mali. We had no intention of driving late at night in this notorious country and had broken camp and were on our way by 7. The border was charming, with extremely polite and friendly border officials on both side. We arrived at the Senegalese border at breakfast time and all the police were having breakfast. We told them not to worry and finish their breakfast and were invited to join them. The Malians were no different, in full uniform, extremely professional and polite. We battled through with our dodgy French and just as we were leaving customs, the captain asked James, in perfect English, where he was from in Ireland. When he replied Dublin he responded, “Ah that’s where I lived for many years and my family still are.” There can’t be that many Malians than have done a stint in the Emerald Isle.
We drove along the newly constructed road until we got to a turn off up to Cool Camp – a well-known overlander spot. After 100km on rough piste, which took three hours, we arrived at the most beautiful camp. Set just below a dam, with crystal clear water and hippos and a crocodile, allegedly, living in the river this was where we met Casper. Casper bought this land and set up a campsite here 3 and a half years ago, two weeks before the troubles started. Needless to say it’s not been plain sailing for him, and he has had to diversify into banana farming, along with many other vegetables. He was an extremely interesting man and prided himself in doing so much for the local villages. Thirty years ago, the World Bank had given over 200 villages a water pump, and maintained it for 5 years. For whatever reason, the locals had been unable to maintain them since then, either not knowing how, or forgetting, or unable to get the parts. So for decades, the villages had no clean water. He had made it is his mission to repair every one. Originally, he explained he used adult labour and encouraged the boys to go to school. After finding boys who had been in Madrassa schools for five years and were unable to speak French, read or write he stopped encouraging them to go to school and asked them to work for him so he could teach them the basics of farming. I liked him a lot and had a lot of respect for him, but as we were the first campers he had had in a month, I know for a fact I could never do what he does. We stayed there happily in complete isolation, with fresh papaya and bread delivered daily to the bonnet of our car, camped on the banks of the river, and swimming daily in the heat of the day, listening out for hippos. One night we were convinced we could hear a pod, however, in retrospect I’m sure it was a donkey. We even had one of his truly free range chickens for dinner, which one of the boys took pleasure in delivering to us ready to barbeque.
I write the blog this week from The Sleeping Camel in Bamako. It’s a bit of a culture shock as we watch the Six Nations in a bar surrounded by UN police and military, with Malian artists DJing for the evening. Bamako was a joy to drive into, driving over the river Niger with sweeping tree lined boulevards, a beautiful cathedral and a national museum that marvels those in European capitals. It’s difficult to know what else Bamako offers as it’s so far off the tourist trail, especially of recent years. The south of the country feels very safe and comfortable although I would be lying if I said we hadn’t checked the hotel out from a security point of view on arrival. I feel truly sorry for Mali, as it seems to have so much to offer but has been destroyed by Islamic fundamentalism. We struggle to see how it will improve. There are things in Mali we would love to see from Timbuktu to the Dogon region, and we keep saying next time. Sadly, I’m just not sure there will be a time when it is safe in our lifetime.