Fouta Djalon

Trip Start Sep 13, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Guinea  ,
Friday, January 5, 2007

If you jump into a car and drive a couple of hundred kilometres inland from Conakry, you reach the pleasant rolling hills of the Fouta Djalon, altitude 1200 metres.

Having travelled through Guinea but not stopping in the countryside I was looking forwards to escaping the hassles of the city. Dalaba our first stop, had the cheapest hotel at 1.50 euros night, resulting in a total expenditure of 2.80 euros for bed and three meals the first day. This set a new record for the cheapest day. That same day we set off to find the 'Chute de Garaja' (A waterfall), did find it but they don't make it easy, so they can promote local guides. We were walking through some pretty remote villages far away from roads. Tried talking to some of the locals in French but apart from Bonjour, they could only speak Peul, their own language, which seemed to make them all the more African. Instead they all laughed a lot.

After sending another day cruising the local markets, we left Dalaba and headed for a village called Doucki. After a few taxi rides, we were dropped in a one shop village where a guy pointed to a rocky track and we were told to walk in that direction till you reach a village. This we did and fairly soon met a character called Hassan Bah.

Having travelled considerable, Hassan Bah spoke French, Spanish, English plus his African languages and all very well. Of smallish stature, with an abundance of energy Hassan gave us our first walk within an hour of arriving. A couple of hundred meters from the village there is a large canyon with impressive rock sculptures. Hassan had already named a lot of the stranger rocks, still we tried to come up with a few others. In the village were a couple of grass roofed huts that were set aside for visitors where we slept. To wash there was a circular waist high screen made of branches in which you stood and washed by pouring water over your head from a bucket. It's funny saying hello to villagers walking past butt naked. We also ate what the villages were eating and never really lacked for anything.

The next day we had planned a nine hour walk down to the canyon floor following a waterfall, then along the base of the cliff before climbing back up a large fissure in the cliff where ladders made from branches were positioned. Again here like in Sierra Leone, the Harmattan wind had been blowing prior to our arrival so visibility was down to a couple of kilometres. Around lunch time we stopped at a stream and had lunch of fried chopped green bananas in a spicy sauce. Was a great place to swim, then as we were leaving a monkey came along for a photo shoot. Later back on top of the cliff after climbing heaps of ladders we saw a whole family of monkeys playing around, so got them of film. It would have been good to see other animals, but it's impossible because they have all been eaten by the locals. We did however hear baboons earlier in the day.

The morning on our last day was spent doing the 'Indiana Jones World' track which weaved in and around a large rock complex. Weaving in and out of crevasses and squeezing into caves then going for another swim.

I had successfully forgotten about the outside world by the time we needed to leave Doucki and had only seven more days left on my Guinean visa. With which, I was hoping to travel back down to the Sierra Leone border to go see the source of the mighty Niger river, before heading east to Kankan then into the country of Mali. Thomas needed to go in the opposite direction to Dakar for an important rendezvous. We only found out about the nation wide general strike as we were saying goodbye and our lives just got very difficult.

While walking away from the village along the track back to the road, I was thinking this is the third strike in Guinea in the past year. This time the trade unions were asking for a reduction in the cost of living and the transport unionists were demanding a reduction in the bribing system when transporting people. But all these demands were almost trivial compared with what was now being desired. What was different about this strike was now they wanted President Conté out!

Dictator Conté, like a lot of other African presidents in the region has gone a bit nuts. He's been around for 24 years but only because he doesn't let anyone oppose him and because he pays huge amounts of money to the army to not revolt. He genuinely believes that he was put there by god and that he is above the law. Generally untouchable.

I was glad not to be in the capital at the moment, yet it didn't take long to get a ride in the direction of the nearest largish town called Labé. I was eating deep fried donuts in a little village when we found out we couldn't go all the way to Labé because the unionist in charge would confiscate the driver's car upon entering the town. Instead we went to another smaller town 30 kilometres away and waited till evening. It was only after we got the 'all clear' that we successfully sneaked into town at dusk and registered into the first hotel we found.

Palm oil is used here for everything, especially for deep fried donuts. The problem is it's almost impossible to digest. Four months of African travel and I haven't been sick once. Yet that night the vomiting started around 11 and every hour I had to run to the bathroom and turn my stomach inside out. By morning I was pretty weak and strung out on my back thinking this isn't so much fun.

That morning Thomas went to the local taxi stand to see what the situation was like and came back late before lunch. Luckily he had found a ride to Senegal with nine others after meeting a French couple who had been waiting three days to leave.

I resigned to self prescribing a little cocktail of pills (Thanks sister!) and was feeling a bit better so we said goodbye. It's probable that we will meet up again in Mali as we are doing similar countries.

Later that evening I had run out of drinking water so got out of bed and went to ask someone where I could get some, as all the shops were closed because of the strike. Was talking to the guard when I met Nancy, an American Peace Corp volunteer who was getting slightly panicky. She lived in The Gambia but had arrived on holiday here. Because of the situation she reported to the local Peace Corp coordinator who upon seeing her yelled 'How the fuck did you get here!' Turns out all Peace Corp workers in Guinea had been sent out of the country. The co-ordinator had contacts in the army, so we found out that there were big demonstrations planned in two days.

Demonstrations in a country like here often results in violence and death as occurred in previous strikes. Labé however was less likely to be dangerous compared with say Conakry. Afterwards according to the coordinator three days later taxis might start up again, but don't try leaving before, because even if someone takes your money, you'll just end up waiting forever. Nancy had been ordered to stay in a hotel room 100m from the Peace Corp headquarters. I was glad she had an African friend to keep her calm.

As for me, my visa was running out and an expired visa means paying big bribes at checkpoints. Also I thought this time the strike was here to stay, so I was imagining endless card games and recurring conversations waiting it out between 4 walls. Having mourned the end of my Guinean trip, I decided to at least try and leave by heading north back to Senegal. After a good nights' sleep I convinced my stomach to follow me to the taxi stand.

In this part of Africa there aren't buses and people squeeze up to 9-10 people into station wagons called bush taxis. At every town there are unionists who distribute the tickets and who try to ensure the system works smoothly. I waltzed up to the unionist and started talking to him but he effectively said 'Here, we're respecting the general strike. No taxis are leaving today!'. Yet there were people hanging around. Didn't take long to identify and differentiate the striking drivers from potential passengers.

So with the other passengers, being careful not to gather into groups that attracted attention, we managed to organise enough people on a list to justify a trip to Koundara in the north. Ousmane, an old Guinean passenger then found a willing driver and handed over our money. He then proceeded to follow the driver around everywhere to ensure he didn't take off with the dosh. The rest off us had planned to leave the taxi stand one by one, every minute or so in different directions to regroup in someone's back yard a couple of blocks away. Being the only European around, I have to admit to feeling slightly subconscious when it was my turn.

In the backyard we waited the rest of the day and most of the evening while the driver searched for petrol, hamstringed because every gas station was closed. During which time more people kept arriving, obviously more then could physically fit in a taxi. Sometime that night we got the go ahead and lugged our baggage to the meeting point down some ally.

Those with luggage paid an extra fee and it was all loaded on the roof. As soon as the car doors were unlocked, pandemonium broke loose, resulting in a mad rush for seats.

With too many passengers, this inevitably produced some very very angry people who found themselves on the outside when the doors all closed. I, like the angry people was still on the outside, but had remained calm because I didn't know what the hell was going on! The angry folk were flashing around a list of the original passengers, but the driver couldn't have cared less. I was beginning to resign to walking back to the hotel when Ousmane made a special plea for my cause and the driver agreed to share the driver's seat with someone else allowing me to board. I was feeling guilty for hours after thinking I was privileged because I'm white, but realised after that the driver didn't want to have to untie all the luggage to return my sack and luggage money. By some amazing coincidence none of the angry people had any luggage.

Arrived around 8am in Koundara and found a place to sleep away the day and following night. Although only a few kilometres away from the border I had to go through the entire rigmarole again the following day to finally arrive back in Senegal. I was a little sad to leave Guinea because it's a beautiful country and I had met some of the nicest people imaginable.

On my way down the African continent, I had missed going to a little country called The Gambia. Thinking now is my chance to go, I boarded a bus full of Imams and headed for the small town of Basse Santa Su in the eastern most part of The Gambia.
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