The River Gambia Expedition story, continued…
Thursday 6th December 2012 – Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon Highlands, Guinea-Conakry
And that is exactly what it felt like – Mali Ville being the highest town, elevation-wise, in the Fouta Djallon Highlands. It looked as if you could take a running jump off the edge of the town, right into thin air. And, the air is definitely thinner up there – we were panting for breath as we walked up the steep, rocky, pathway, back to our lodgings.
Back in the Fouta village – where we paid homage to the source of the River Gambia and the true start of the River Gambia Expedition – we had piled our gear back on top of the very same battered old Peugeot Estate which we had used to get to there. We then made the 3 ½ hour journey to Mali Ville. As we made our way up and around the staggeringly beautiful and verdant mountains of the Fouta, we drove inches away from sheer drops – enough to make you gasp for air, which had little to do with the altitude. I kept thinking to myself: ‘I can’t wait to get into the canoes ‘– i.e. no more hair-raising, heart-in-your-mouth, spine crunching, car rides! Little did we know then that we were to face a much more grueling journey – riding pillion on taxi motorcycles, no less. More on that later…
We arrived in Mali Ville, covered in a thick layer of red road dust – it was in our hair, up our noses, in our ears, coating our clothes. As seems to be par for the course, the car windows would not close, without the use of an itinerant ‘manivelle’ – the window winder. Before we set out from the village of the source of the River Gambia, the driver had made a cursory attempt to find it – scrambling around on the already cluttered floor of his vehicle – before eventually shrugging and giving up.
First impressions of Mali Ville – Florio and I looked at each other: ‘What a bloody dump!’ – We had entered the town smack bang into the middle of the gare routière – bus station – and mechanics workshops area. If you travel to West Africa, then you will know that these sections of a town are not always indicative of the rest of the place. Disused, defunct, rusty vehicles scattered around the dusty streets; greased up boys, in tatty, filthy clothing – that looked as if they could walk away of their own accord – gathered around motorcycles and heads under hoods of cars. Trash was omnipresent – from the ubiquitous plastic bags; bits of greasy newspaper (used by all the street vendors to wrap sandwiches in); old clothing, embedded into the dirt; rusty car parts; piles of refurbished tires…
After dodgy directions, from a group of local boys, to the guest house, the driver had the unenviable task of having to reverse down an impossibly steep rocky ‘road’ – to find the straighter road we should have taken in the first place, which turned out to be only very slightly less rocky and less steep! We eventually arrived at the gates of the Auberge Indigo hotel, overlooking the downtown area of Mali Ville. We were greeted by Souleyman, the very helpful and informative patron (tel: 62.47.08.68 for reservations) and the first ‘porto’ (as Europeans/white people are called in the Fouta) we had seen in a while – Heidi from Finland. She was in Mali for six months, working for an NGO, and doing her thesis for her Masters degree on the cultural and political history (sic) of Guinea-Conakry. At last, I thought, much needed female company.
The Auberge is basic. Consisting of two traditional conical huts – one of which was being used by Souleyman at the time – and five or six rooms in a concrete block, set in a large fenced-off compound. No running water but there was a proper bathing area/bathroom – and a big bucket of cold water. Heidi told us how much she was feeling the cold (and she comes from Finland!). To combat this – to take the edge of the icy cold water – she said that she boiled water to wash in, in the battered old kettle, on a gas canister in the communal kitchen. I have to say, I heeded her advice on that score. It’s definitely cooler up in the Fouta. And, what previously felt like a refreshing bucket wash in the lower climbs of The Gambia and Senegal, did feel as if one was bathing in a pre-central-heating, Victorian house, during the heart of winter.
People in Mali were extremely friendly and welcoming. Everyone we passed, as we walked into the downtown area to find something to eat, greeted us: ‘Bonsoir, ca va?’ , ‘Jarama’ (the Fouta Djallon is predominantly Fula, or Pule, tribe). And, for the first time since starting out, there were streetlights – hi-tech solar powered ones at that – for a section of the walk into town. However, as we got taking to local people, they didn’t seem particularly impressed. ‘The government does nothing for the people of Guinea…they need to spend money on building proper roads – not putting up street lights’. We had heard the very same sentiments in Labé too – especially, with regards to the dire state of the roads in the Fouta Djallon. ‘The government takes the aid money and we see none of it’ another local taxi driver told us. It is such a shame too – if there were proper roads, then more tourists, not just intrepid travelers, would visit the Fouta – surely? It is such a beautiful place but it takes so long to get from one place to another. And, from the ‘roads’ we experienced, it’s extremely physically demanding – bouncing along those ‘roads’ certainly takes its toll on your coccyx!
When in Mali Ville, a visit to the ‘Dame de Mali’ has to be made. After breakfasting on fresh bread, eggs and ripe, luscious avocados – the Fouta Djallon is well-known for its avocados and its freshly baked bread – we set off in a local taxi, and yet another bone-rattling ride, for the short trip up to see the ‘Lady of Mali’
And, what a beauty, she, the Dame, is. A local farmer told us that the story goes that her husband, after finding out that his wife had been cheating on him, cursed her and turned her to stone – all on a Friday too, apparently.
Until next time!
The Florios – H and Flo
P.S. What’s coming next: 8-hour, bone-rattling, taxi-bike rides up and down the Fouta Djallon Highlands; getting the Ally canoes into the River Gambia for the first time on the expedition; hippo encounters of the (very) close-up kind; hanging out with the gold miners of Senegal.
A glimpse of whats coming next…