Sunday, 14 January 2007

Dakar Arrival

Arriving at the airport I wondered if Gianni would be there, my Italian friend I'd met last year whilst hitching into Mauritania. I wasn't too worried I knew where we were meant to be staying; in Yoff at an auberge run by a Swiss woman, Ruth; - Auberge Keur Diame.

Clearing customs was a nightmare, they decided to investigate the contents of my backpack - most of which was childrens clothes & shoes that I was intending to take down to Guinea Bissau. After a bit of a battle with customs I saw Gianni's face outside against the window. It was great to see my travelling partner again and be back in Africa.

We walked a few hundred metres from the airport to get a taxi at a reasonable price. Quotes of 10,000 CFA were being given to us which we ignored and found one on the road out of the airport at the correct rate of 1,500CFA to Yoff.

We went up onto the roof terrace to catch up on the eight months since Gianni had passed my house with his wife Barbara. Luckily I'd bought some chorizio in Spain a few weeks before and a bottle of Rioja whilst between flights in Madrid earlier. The obligatory bottle of gin was waiting for our trip to start!

I'd done a lot of research into this trip which was to take us down to Guinea Bissau and onto Guinea. Between myself and a Czech traveller we put it all on another blog:

Dakar Station, for trains to Bamako

Decisions, decisions ......

We went to central Dakar the first morning, initially to the port to look at the prices & times of Le Wilis - the new boat to Casamance. I was keen to go by road, Gianni wasn't bothered either way but we had to consider both time & money

Looking at price of 18,500CFA for a couchette each, it made sense to get the boat down to Casamance rather than pay a variety of taxi brousse to Gambia, change currency to Dalasi and find our way out of Gambia and then back into Senegal to Ziguinchor. Added to which we would have had to pay for a night somewhere along the road, an additional expense!

We bought the ticket for the following night's boat and walked into town looking for somewhere to eat and generally milling around. We were both shocked by the amount of small shops owned by Chinese, these small outlets used to be Senegalese owned & run. Now the Chinese have bought them up and have one or two Senegalese working for them.

Boredom & itchy feet

Dakar is expensive. There's no getting away from it and money was literally falling out of our pockets. I was desperate to get going but we had over 24hrs to kill before our ferry left. The auberge was 18,000CFA for the two of us a night, 30euros - well beyond my planned budget and Gianni had an extra 11,000CFA for the night prior to my arrival. But there wasn't any getting away from it.

The following day we wandered around Yoff and walked to Camberene along the coast, not far at all but happily managed to get ourselves lost for a while to kill time.

We went to the port a bit earlier than planned and found a lot of people looking rather grim as they weren't able to get a ticket on Le Wilis. According to a French lady who lives in Zigchuinor this was a bit unusual and she couldn't work out why the boat was fully booked at this time of year. Spending a few hours in the bar with her and a few bottles of Gazelle we waited for the shuttle bus to take us down to the boat.

We boarded the shuttle bus and whilst talking I suddenly realised my little bag was smouldering. I thought initially someone had dropped a cigarette onto it, I tipped out the complete contents onto the floor of the bus to find that my rechargable batteries had made contact with an earring in there, I managed to cover my little finger in hot plastic, my first small injury!!!

Le Wilis

We left Dakar about 2hrs late.

The reason we were fully booked became apparent after we'd all boarded the boat. Suddenly several army trucks turned up and unloaded 250 Senegalese military. The boat was very full and noisy, we spent most of the evening in the bar with the French lady and another French guy who'd thoughtfully bought a lot of beer as the prices on board were astronomical. However the staff were none too thrilled that these 'toubabs' were drinking in their bar having bought the drink elsewhere!

The couchettes were comfortable, as I'd booked with Gianni I was in the mens dorm but managed to persuade someone to change their couchette with me so that I could be between the wall and Gianni. The crew were extremely friendly, to the point that Gianni told one of them that we were married; unbeknown to me. I mistakenly managed to unfortunately dispell that rumour within minutes, as I didn't realise he'd said it!!! We got away from them all and went up on deck to attack the bottle of Fanta mixed with some of the gin whilst deliberating whether we had time & money to get as far as Liberia; somewhere I'd love to see and Gianni needed an English speaker to go there ... we were keen but it never came off!

We got up at dawn to see the sun rising over the fleuve we had just entered that would lead us down river to Ziguinchor, a gorgeous sight made even better when dolphins started swimming alongside the boat!
Passing lots of small fishing villages, we finally got to Ziguichnor on time at 11am, finally I felt that we'd made progress, Gianni pointed out that we weren't doing the 'Tour of Africa' ... I was just thrilled to be away from Dakar!
Our arrival into Zig, with endless soldiers wanting to pose for the camera once they realised it was digitial and they could see the results!!!


I was enamoured with Zig, generally a friendly town, very laid back in comparison with Dakar. We were immediately picked up by every taxi driver in town but kept walking out of the port area as we weren't sure where to stay and desperately needed a coffee.

Refreshed, we left a cafe and headed for an auberge mentioned in the Italian Lonely Planet, Keur N'dame (? I think). Arriving there we immediately decided against it, filthy and without showers. We hoped to find something a little better at CasaAfrique. Trudging through town with taxi drivers stopping to offer us a lift at ridiculous prices we arrived at CasaAfrique and found a great room having already been enchanted by it's garden coverered in hibiscus.

For 8,000CFA between the two of us it was a great choice. The owner offered us a better rate of 650CFA -1Euro as opposed to 640 in Dakar. As it was a Saturday we were going to have to stay until at least Monday morning so as to organise our Guinea-Bissau visas at the consulate in Zig.

We wandered around town for the rest of the day, got annoyed by touts and made friends with a jewellery selling tout determined to sell us something; we finally had the last laugh as I tried to sell him some of the jewellery I had on ...

Sitting in a cafe wandering where to eat as there didn't seem to be much open, we heard a lot of noise from outside ... a wedding procession.

Unfortunately the light wasn't good, so the pictures are very unclear ...

Killing time in Zig

There isn't too much to do in Zig without getting in a vehicle and exploring the surrounding area which is meant to be beautiful. Being a tightfisted pair, we wandered on foot around town prefering to save money that we might need later on during the trip.

Late afternoon we went off in a different direction towards the church and came across some pigs with their young foraging in the grass beside the road. Gianni noticed them first and as I had the camera out already and took a photo or two ... BAD MOVE.

Suddenly someone came up to us and started yelling at me that he was the pig's owner and demanded 2,000CFA for the photos. I looked at him and asked if he was really the owner, he insisted and wanted the money. I suggested that all 3 of us go to the gendarmerie and discuss it there. He wandered off still protesting that he was entitled to money ... we continued walking chuckling to ourselves ... but the story didn't end there!

Being a Sunday there was a lot of the centre of town shut but we bumped into Antoni, Scicilian working as an architect in Switzerland that Gianni had travelled with from Mauritania to St. Louis a few weeks earlier. Antoni was with 3 others, an Aussie, Korean & Parisien. They knew an excellent restaurant on the other side of town that they'd been to the night before so we all walked over to have the most amazing meal with a waitress that definately hadn't been to 'smile school' who managed to drop a plate of fish ends in my lap!!!

Jacques, the Parisien, was telling us about the drama that had happened 4 days earlier. He was concerned for our safety as we were due to cross to Guinea Bissau the following day once we'd got our visas in the morning. Apparently a German priest's car was ambushed on the road near the border (known for problems) and everything was stolen, to the point that the priest had to strip and walked back to Zig in his underpants; funny, but not so funny!

We left the restaurant and headed back to our hotels, to discover the 4 of them were staying in the place opposite CasaAfrique. They had an early start to get to Tambacounda, we had to be at the Consulate for 9am or so, we weren't sure of the opening times ...

Visas & Borders ...

Arriving back at CasaAfrique I went to bed. Gianni came into the room to tell me that there was a rat in the bathroom. Knowing I am petrified of rats I thought he was winding me up, but then he started hopping around the room and I laughed and said it must be a kangaroo that's managed to get to Africa!!! Eventually I worked out that he didn't know the word for 'frog' in French and it was a frog in the bathroom hopping around!!!

We got up earlier than normal to pack and get ready for the Guinea Bissau Consulate & the drive south.

Arriving at the Consulate just before 9am, we were thrilled to find it open already and met Luiz the consul who'd cut off the top of his thumb in an accident. Amazingly he had the visa's ready in 10mins for the cost of 10,000CFA compared to the 20,000CFA normally paid in Dakar. I asked him what he knew about a village called Varela on the coast just the other side of the border from Cap Skirring (Senegal). He knew it and knew the owner of 'Chez Helene' a lady called Fatima and said it would be a great place to see.

We set off immediately for the gare routiere to find a taxi. We got a 7 seater Peugeot for 1,900CFA to Sao Domingos and then had a massive argument about the price of our luggage. He wanted 2,000CFA a piece, I was prepared to pay 250CFA and whilst the baggage guy and Gianni were arguing I pulled both our packs off the roof and started walking. The driver of the car was upset and asked me what I was doing, I told him that the price was ridiculous and I was off to find another vehicle. He told me that he'd accept 500CFA and I agreed to it; Gianni was still mid-argument when I told him and then an argument ensued between the driver and baggage guy. We got into the vehicle whilst they were sorting out their money!

The 19km to the Senegalese border at M'Pack was quick and on a good road. The Senegalese police were remarkably restrained in not asking for any money and we got back into the car which then failed to start. We were pushed by some workmen (who were paid for their small effort) and continued on about 2km to the Guinea Bissau border post. Whilst talking to the police I noticed our packs being moved and realised that we were changing cars too. Leaving the border we drove the final 8km at high speed; I was subsquently told that that piece of road was the most dangerous for ambushes.

Sao Domingos to Varela

Our car pulled into the gare routiere at Sao Domingos and as we were getting out we were greeted by someone who said he saw us the day before.

It was the PIG owner!!!

I couldn't stop laughing, I asked him where his pigs were now and how much he wanted out of us ... he did see the funny side and helped us find transport to Varela as we were now set on heading to the coast and staying at 'Chez Helene'. We now had several confirmations that the bridge between Suzane and Varela was now fixed and we wouldn't have to walk the last 12km.

He found a minibus; we paid 1,500CFA for our tickets and realised we were numbers 3&4. Not a great sign when you realise that the minibus will seat about 18 comfortably which multiplies to about 30 in Africa; we knew we were in for a long wait! We also heard that a minibus had just left ...

We spent 4hrs in the sun from 11am waiting for the minibus to fill up, eventually we set off on tarred road; which lasted about 3km and then it was a fairly rough track. Our Portuguese was non-existant but we met a Gambian on the bus who spoke some English so had a chat with him in between being thrown around in the back. Two hours into the journey the front tyre blew ... Gianni went to investigate and help out; the rest of us waited about 40mins on the side of the road we wondered whether they'd be room at Chez Helene and what kind of place it might be ...

Finally we crossed the bridge, complete with a large truck still in the river which was carrying several tons of rice which had been donated to Varela but never made it and cut the villagers off from the outside world for 10months. Another 12km and it was getting dark as the minibus pulled up outside 'Chez Helene'.


This was home from home. We met Fatima & Franco and realised we were in paradise. Gianni was possibly more at home as Franco is Italian and Fatima has lived there most of her adult life. The main language was French to help me but occasionally they all slipped into Italian which I can almost follow .. the food was Italian and Gianni thought he'd gone to heaven when a massive plate of pasta with parmesan was put in front of us the first night.

We were the first tourists to make it to Varela since the bridge was fixed. It was Fatima & Franco that paid and fixed the bridge for the village as the government weren't really concerned about it. We sat up the first night talking till about 1am, discussing the war in Guinea Bissau in '98 & '99 and the aftermath, including a minibus with 13 from Varela that was blown up by an old landmine 18 months earlier on the road out to Varela from Sao Domingos.

The following morning Gianni & Franco 'went missing' but were talking at nineteen to the dozen at one end of the property. Fatima introduced me to Alibu, their monkey that she saved when the villagers killed the mother (we saw several hunters on the road the day before with various forms of bushmeat, including monkey)

At home in Varela

Chez Helene must offer the best accomodation in the region (Casamance, Guinea Bissau & Guinea) at the price; Fatima gave us room & full board for 10,000CFA. The place was up to European standards as Franco used to manage cruise boats and was fastidious about cleaning. They had electricity due to their generator which ran from dusk till midnight. Plus we all managed to dig into their reserve of Portuguese 'Reserva' wine which was a welcome taste after beer in Senegal.
Our day there was spent wandering down to the beach just over a kilometre away, 22km of sand without a soul in sight. The sea was warm enough to swim in. It was a sad walk down to the beach, we passed the old barracks that was used by the rebels during the war. There were a lot of houses down towards the beach, all of a European style but sadly abandoned. Such a gorgeous area of the world, Varela is a remote corner of Guinea Bissau and very isolated with Sao Domingos being the nearest town 3 hours away. Since the war and more recently the demise of the bridge it seems even more remote; but I hope people will start to visit again now it's been fixed!

We had a sumptuous lunch with Fatima & Franco and their family (their daughter from Monaco was there on holiday and they have adopted two girls from the village) which was rudely interuppted by the arrival of the military who sat drinking most of the afternoon. Fatima is someone who is held in high esteem in Guinea Bissau, her mother, Helene, was something of a legend from what we understood. Later in the trip we met many who knew Fatima and went out of their way to help us due to the connection. She and Franco speak a multitude of languages, her father was Portuguese whilst her mother was from Guinea Bissau, Italian, Portuguese, French, English, Creolo are all spoken fluently at home; an incredible couple!
The Varela disco! There's life here!!!

I had brought about 20kg of childrens clothes & shoes with me donated by friends in France. The intention was to drop them off in Guinea Bissau at a orphanage or hospital. But meeting Fatima, seeing the village and knowing that they'd been without any supplies for 10months (the bridge was fixed 4 days before our arrival) I gave them to Fatima. She is the matriach of the village, everyone came to her for medicine, assistance with food donations and clothing. I knew that this was the right place to hand them out and selfishly I was glad to be rid of the weight in my pack.

Anyone reading this with medical experience or studying medicine who would like to go to Guinea Bissau and volunteer please contact me via the 'comments' option; Fatima has asked me to help find an extra pair of expert hands.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the village and down to the fishermans beach a shorter walk from the village. As ever the villagers were incredibly friendly, one was from Guinea and tried to give us advice as to how to cross into Guinea via the southeast of Guinea Bissau.

We had a wonderful final meal with the family, Fatima had arranged for us to get the minibus direct to Bissau for 4,000CFA, the only problem was that it left at 4am! Everyone talking madly, drinking palm wine & beer we didn't get to bed until almost 11pm, but it was sad to even contemplate leaving!

Heading south

We got up just before 4am, Fatima woke us and had hot coffee ready!!

Eventually we left at 4.30am, in the dark with a minibus full of people. It was hard to say goodbye but I wished her luck and I know I'll be back there sometime if the country remains stable. We'd heard several people talk about a coup d'etat happening in the near future ... as long as it's not another war!

We settled ourselves into the front seats Fatima had organised for us and I thought I'd be able to drift back to sleep but then we stopped at the end of the village and horror of horrors someone got on with a cockerel. That was it; we were awake the whole way to Sao Domingos with cockle-doodle-doo going every 30 seconds or so ... had I been in the back with it, the cockerel wouldn't have lasted long!

Sao Domingos was alive with the market, it was just before 9am and we had a bit of a mechanical hitch, I'm not sure what but it needed fixing before we continued onto Bissau. The cockerel & owner got out and the cockerel got loose so we all lent a hand trying to catch it until it managed to fly onto a roof and there was a great gasp, but one of the guys got hold of a wing and dragged it down.

The journey down to Bissau was easy, a well-tarred road until a flueve at Sao Vincente where we waited almost an hour for the ferry. We crossed without incident and continued onto Bissau arriving there about 2pm, not far from the Guinea Conakry Embassy where Fatima had told the driver to drop us.

Bissau Arrival

We had a few options for accomodation in Bissau. As the minibus dropped us near the Che Guerva roundabout we headed straight for the Guinea Conakry Embassy behind Casa Creola, a small auberge owned & run by a Swiss/Bissau couple.

The whole way south Gianni had been telling me that we wouldn't arrive in time to get to the Embassy and get our visas. I was determined to see if we could get them done that afternoon giving us more time to see things the following day. With no plan in mind we weren't sure what we were going to do but were thinking about going out to the Bijagos Archipaelogo.

We got to the Embassy, I had noticed a guy looking strangely at us ... but continued into the Embassy and chatted to a member of staff there who could see we were tired and asked us to wait on their sofas. Gianni went back outside to find that the guy I'd seen a few minutes before was still outside and asked Gianni if his name was Gianni?!?! It was Douad, a Malian, Gianni met last year; he'd found a job as a bookkeeper in Bissau and was working nearby. He'd seen Gianni and I disappear into the Embassy and couldn't believe that Gianni would turn up in Bissau a year later! Small world!

Whilst they chatted, I got seen by one of the Embassy staff and got them to process both visas. Mine was 15 days double entry for 15,000CFA and Gianni got 30 days multiple entry for 30,000CFA. The staff were incredibly kind and helpful, giving me the name of a consul in Quebo that we could contact if we needed help prior to crossing the border to Guinea.

Bissau Brothels

Once the visa's were issued we set off for something to eat and to find accomodation.

Initially we dropped into Casa Creola, but at 15,000CFA for the room we felt that we could get cheaper elsewhere, so we moved onto a small restaurant next door and had our first meal of the day. Moving on we explored a few opportunities; 'the auberge with no name' on a street to the right of the restaurant wanted 20,000CFA - the Portuguese guy in the yard wasn't particularly friendly and we had the feeling he wasn't all that keen on renting out his rooms! We'd heard about a hotel being renovated on the roundabout, met the guardian and he showed us the rooms; exquisite bathrooms - only then did we find out that Bissau doesn't have water or electricity. A lot cheaper at 10,000CFA we were very unsure about the security as most of the doors didn't fit or weren't in place. It will be a wonderful place to stay when it's finished I'm sure.
Back to the guide book; the LP came out of my day pack and we saw two places mentioned in the Caracol area of town, one 'Chez Jeanne' I think it was called sounded dubious as the rooms were usually rented on a half hourly basis. Getting into a taxi we headed over and after a bit of asking around found the other, Hotel Caracol for 8,500CFA. The young brothers of 15 or so showed us a room, not wonderful but for somewhere to put your head down for the night, it would do. They went off to the market and bought a new sheet for the bed; well, they were certainly making an effort on our behalf!We ordered a beer each and contemplated what to do next. Suddenly a guy came through and introduced himself, Steve, another Irish traveller ... we sat and chatted together before going out to find supper. There was a bar down the road, as soon as we got there we were in trouble, a guy wanted a cigarette and Gianni didn't have any. The situation soon got a little flared whilst Steve was inside trying to ask for a menu; I had a tap on my shoulder and behind me was Douad again, appeared from nowhere and helped us out of the situation. Dinner came from the shop eventually in the form of a couple of baguettes, a can of tuna and some mayonnaise!
The four of us returned to Hotel Caracol and the front of it had suddenly become a disco; there were Nigerian women everywhere ... Munching on tuna filled baguettes, I was getting a lot of dirty looks and then we noticed that the corridor leading to our rooms had a table in it and the prostitutes were going through to the rooms which the four of us found quite funny!!! I went to bed early, locked the door and slept well, to be woken up by the stench coming from the en-suite (which I wasn't keen to use!).

I got up and went out to the courtyard to see the debris from the night before; three of the women suddenly started yelling and spitting at me .. I worked out that they were rather upset that I appeared to have stolen some business in the form of Gianni & Steve - we had the last laugh!!! Steve has sent me a photo of one of the rooms, the morning after; not a pretty sight!