Sun, sea and soul on Africa's West Coast
The fifteenth stop: relief at last as the man sitting half on my lap rose to disembark, taking with him the hen that had been pecking my bicep for the preceding four hours. The bus lurched into motion again and I returned my attention to the fogged-up window.
Beyond the glass the scorched earth and mangrove swamps of the Guinea-Bissauan hinterland turned molten in the heat, and monkey-hunters wearing Premiership football shirts marched the roadside in single file, shotguns slung over teenage shoulders. What on earth, I wondered, would Dave and Sandra have made of all this?
It had been five days since the Lancastrian retirees had inadvertently set my sights on the destination at the end of this laterite road. Back then, by a Banjul hotel poolside – a world away – I had listened aghast as they divulged their secret: that tomorrow, eight days into their tenth Gambian sojourn, they would venture outside the hotel compound for the very first time.
Like them, I had come to The Gambia, with girlfriend Lucy, in search of budget winter sun, attracted by the carousel of charter flights between the UK and Banjul that have made this the cheapest gateway into sub-Saharan West Africa. But something about the place had left me cold. Too often we’d found the sun and sand punctured by the overtures of a hustling bumster or the sight of a corpulent sex tourist hand-in-hand with an embarrassed African Adonis.
After our conversation with Dave and Sandra something snapped. We never found out if they survived their daring sortie, because that afternoon we took a bush-taxi over the border and into a land where fewer tourists venture.
For over a quarter of a century, the region lying south of The Gambia, Basse Casamance, has been in the throes of a low-level rebellion precipitated by separatists seeking independence from Senegal. Today, in the wake of a 2004 ceasefire agreement, a fragile peace exists in most tourist areas, but residual banditry continues to haunt some troubled departments, tarnishing ‘BC’ with a travel advisory from the British Foreign Office and casting long shadows over the Jola tribe who call it home.
“The Gambians say it’s dangerous, to keep the tourists for themselves,” asserted the barman, plundering two bottles of Gazelle from the ice bucket before returning to his suspiciously fragrant roll-up. “This here is the roots – real West Africa.”
From the raised platform of the Esperanto bar, I looked along the beach we’d walked to get here, an empty arc of yellow sand strewn with broken shells and shreds of netting. The bar was as well conceived as a beach bar can be, with furniture made of driftwood and an open-air terrace looking straight down the barrel of sunset. In the near distance, marking the headland, Atlantic rollers exploded over a corroded shipwreck worn down to its hull.
Already this was much better. Real West Africa was Kafountine, a laid-back resort town an hour’s drive south of the Gambia-Senegal border-crossing at Séléti. There were no big hotel compounds here; rather, ecologically minded campements, some of them very salubrious, scattered along a network of lanes north of the main road.
We spent the next few days in kick-back mode: enjoying the beach with no hangers-on, wolfing down fresh seafood at any of the campements’ fine restaurants, or watching the goings-on at the outdoor boatbuilder’s yard, where huge pine planks were turned into bright-coloured pirogues, future additions to the armada moored just offshore.
Beyond lay the fishing beach, at once a dry-dock and a marketplace. In the evenings, a procession of women carrying bowls full of sea creatures on their heads sashayed past young Senegalese wrestlers sparring in the sand.
After three days, feeling quite vindicated by our decision to elope from our tourist compound, we headed inland to Diouloulou before turning south again. We weaved through a landscape of baobabs and termite mounds, and over the sluggish waters of the Casamance River that cleave a lightning bolt of creeks and tributaries across the interior before spilling into the Atlantic. On the opposite bank were the wharves and peanut factories of the regional capital, Ziguinchor.
At the gare routière (share-taxi station) we slopped out of the car and into a bedlam of begging children’s hands and hawkers peddling that developing world knickknackery which nobody ever seems to buy. From the ticket-sellers’ shouts of “Cap? Cap? Cap?”, it was evident that most visitors pass this way en route to the squeaky-white sand of Cap Skirring, the centre of tourism in Casamance. For us, however, a less-travelled road beckoned – further south into the former Portuguese enclave of Guinea-Bissau.
There can be a spontaneous joy in this brand of impromptu travel – armed only with the name of your destination you cram into a shared taxi, wait for it to fill, then away you go, later to emerge in new climes – or, in this case, a whole new country, culture and language.
Sometimes, though, it can be a trial. Getting across the border was straightforward, but the wait for onward transport at the frontier village of São Domingos was never-ending, and saddened by the sight of a begrimed youngster with hooded eyes floating in an intoxicated daze, a victim of an illicit European appetite. In recent years, the unpoliced Bijagós Archipelago has become a staging-post for South American narco-traffickers, and Guinea-Bissau is awash with cocaine, a single Cessna-load of which has a street-value ($50 million) equivalent to all annual exports in this, one of the five poorest countries in the world.
After a four-hour wait, with the minibus deemed full (50 people wedged into a space designed for 20), we rolled out of the dust-bowl terminus and onto the slow road west. For six hours and 70km we bucked and yawed from village to village, each stop prompting the passengers to alight en masse, to unfold crumpled limbs and pilfer refreshment from the cashew fruits dangling by the road. Then the reluctant return to the rustbucket’s muggy innards, a place made more hellish by the rumpus on the roof, where a shackled pig screamed bloody murder.
Finally, in gathering dusk, a corona of promise appeared on the horizon. The purgatory ended next to its source – a tube of fairy lights snaked around the trunk of a palm tree, illuminating the sky-blue sign for ‘Chez Helene’, the only guesthouse for miles around, run by Fatima, a local legend. “While the road is like this only a few people are coming here,” she would tell me later, when asked what had kept the tourist tidal wave at bay. “You have to be a little bit crazy to make it to Varela.”
Early next morning we took in the surroundings. Chez Helene was a gem, spaciously laid out, with small accommodation blocks orbiting a central bar and kitchen. The rooms were bright and simple, set amidst a village of thatched roundhouses where the introduction of anything ostentatious would have seemed offensive. Guinea-Bissau has been in reverse development since the trauma of a short but disruptive civil war in 1998, and Chez Helene is the only place in Varela with electricity and running water. But the whitewashed wall between guests and villagers is low, the gate, seemingly, always open.
We walked through the streets pursued by children, who shouted “brrrrrranco” after us, then turned and fled in fits of giggles. After five minutes the sea reared up behind stands of palms. We settled on a shoulder of orange earth overlooking a small lagoon, its rim patrolled by thousands of skittish crabs.
We sat there all day without seeing a soul until an hour before dusk when a man in underpants waded into the shallows to cast an old net in search of snapper. With the tide at its lowest, we walked out onto the mudflats and round a peninsula where the waves had receded from low cliffs to reveal huge tracts of corrugated sandbars and clusters of volcanic rock.
The sea was Mediterranean calm, the sun’s lick mitigated by the prevailing trade winds that swell into a gust at the hottest time of year to let you know the rains are on their way. It felt like a place of consummate escape. This was what we had come to West Africa for. Poor Dave and Sandra.