(Joliba Fila – Joliba meaning ‘Great River’ and Fila meaning ‘2’ in Manding)
Travels down the Niger River – 350km, Faranah to Kouroussa (Guinea)
6th – 22nd February 2010
The idea of a boat trip came about during discussions with Lars, way back in the early days of cycling through the Western Sahara. Several long days riding in the desert, gave me plenty of time to convince myself that paddling down one of the rivers somewhere in West Africa was do-able. Indeed, it’s as the saying goes... ‘it is those who dream by the day who are dangerous, for they are the ones who turn those dreams into reality‘. All I had to do, was do some research and choose the best river.
There is one river in West Africa that is as famous as the Nile or the Congo, and that river, being the third longest in Africa, is the Niger river.
My original route for cycling through West Africa was to include passing through Faranah in Guinea, just 150km from the river’s source, and then travelling the section of road following the Niger river from Kouroussa in Guinea to Bamako in Mali. Perhaps it would be possible to swap the pedals for some paddles for this part of the journey?
While recuperating in Nouadhibou, after crossing the Sahara by bike, I had plenty of time to do some research and yes, it looked like it would be possible to buy or have built a pirogue (the typical style of wooden boat used by locals is this region) in Faranah, which I could then paddle down the mighty river into Mali. I mentioned this to Lars and it wasn’t long before he was changing his plan of paddling on the Moa River in Sierra Leone to join me.
Three more months of adventure from the bike saddle; passing through the arid acacia-dotted sahel and mangrove swamps of Senegal, along the Gambia river, detouring through little known Guinea-Bissau, on through the green highlands of Guinea’s Fouta Djalon and down into the humid, tropical forests of Sierra Leone; and we arrived in Faranah.
For those three months, the dream of paddling down the Niger river was alive, but always in the hazy future, further down the road. And then we were in Faranah – looking across the Niger River from the bridge as you enter the town. Yes; this is possible, I thought – so close to the source, the river at Faranah is only about 20m wide with a gentle, barely visible current.
The River and Mungo Park
The year prior to leaving England on the bike, I had read lots of literature on Africa; it’s history, geography and people, including several accounts from early European explorers to the continent. One of those explorers was Mungo Park and his book, ‘Travels in the Interior of West Africa’, is based on his diary.
Mungo Park, a Scottish physician, offered his services to the African Association, who were looking for someone to discover the course Niger River. On his second expedition to the Niger River, on arrival in 1805 he converted two canoes into a 40 foot long boat and set sail downstream from Segou (in present day Mali) in his boat, christened ‘Joliba’ after the local name for the Niger River.
The section of river that Mungo Park travelled was significantly further downstream than the part I was planning to paddle. I also hoped that I wouldn’t meet the same fatal end to my expedition, to hostile tribes along the river.
Not seriously worried about hostile tribes, I was however somewhat apprehensive about a number of potential problems. For 350km between Faranah and Kouroussa, we would need to be entirely self-sufficient – no villages or roads nearby in case of a problem.
We would have to make sure we didn’t capsize and lose food, sink the boat or get seriously injured – we would have to cope with an emergency ourselves, evacuation could take days and could soon become a life-or-death scenario in the event of a serious problem. We would be paddling through the Haut Niger National Park of Guinea, uninhabited except by abundant wildlife. Not only would we have to be on the lookout for snakes and spiders, but also crocodiles and more worringly, hippos. Contrary to popular belief, hippos are dangerous animals and kill far more people each year than lions, elephants or any other large animal in Africa.
But before I need worry further about a more detailed assessment of risks involved or indeed my mental health, we first would need a boat…
After some enquiring in town as to where we could purchase a boat or indeed speak to someone who could build one for us, the manager, Boh, of the Hotel Firya situated by the river, arranged a meeting with a local fisherman for the following morning.
The following morning, back at the hotel, we met fisherman Daman Camara. After much discussion, which took an inordinate amount of time due to the need to translate from Fula through to French and then into English for full clarification (which is not always clear, much being lost in translation), we agreed that Daman would build our boat.
The boat – a wooden pirogue – similar in style to those used by the local fishermen, was to be six metres in length and flat-bottomed since this is more stable than the dug-out varierty. This, Daman assured us, would be big enough for the two of us, our bikes, luggage and food for a couple of weeks. We also made sure that paddles and a long pole were included and most importantly that there were a least a couple of spares. We didn’t want to be stranded up the Niger without a paddle!
With further negiotiations, we agreed a price and more importantly a date that our boat would be completed… in five days time, on Saturday.
Five days gave us plenty of time to buy provisions and think up a name for the boat….
So what exactly were we going to need for the trip?
It mentioned in our guidebook that the 350km stretch between Faranah and the next town, Kouroussa, should take between 10-14 days. We reckoned, since we were fit and willing to paddle hard, it would take nearer 10 days. We asked the locals at the hotel and they reckoned it would take one and a half days, maybe two! Boh, the manager was a little more conservative, and said that if we took it gently with time to enjoy the scenery and take photographs, it may take up to four days….
To be on the safe side, we bought food for 15 days, plus some extra pasta for good measure.
Next we conjured up a shopping list, based loosely on what we wanted and refined it considerably to contain foodstuffs we could actually purchase in this part of Guinea.
Below is a list of all the food we took with us:
4 kg Pasta (9 meals plus 1kg extra)
1 kg Rice (3 meals)
2 kg Potatoes (2 meals)
10 bread (baguettes)
3 kg mayonnaise
30x50g cereal (powdered)
4 tins sardines (125g each)
4 tins canned meat (320g each)
16 cheese triangles (240g total)
6 tins tomato puree (70g each)
salt, garlic, dried chillis, stock cubes, spice sachets
30 sachets jolly juice (powdered fruit drink flavouring)
800g drinking chocolate powder
800g milk powder
1kg sweetened milk concentrate
30 packs glucose biscuits
3 packs bran biscuits
4 packs other biscuits
100 youpi choco (sachets of chocolate spread)
1 kg peanuts
6 bottles soft drinks (500ml each)
1 bottle red wine
3 bottles beer (Guiluxe)
Besides food, there were a number of other items we thought we would need / should take / might be nice to have etc. These included:
Ropes – for tying everything into the boat
Plastic bags – for waterproofing everything we didn’t want to get wet
Stove – a cheap metal one the locals use, in case we needed to cook in the boat
Charcoal – fuel for cooking with the stove when open fires weren’t possible
Nails – for repairs to the boat
Hook and line – for fishing
Batteries – for torches
Jerry cans – for carrying water (used river water but this needed purifying before drinking)
Plastic bowl – for washing
Toilet Paper – fairly obvious
Of course we would have with us everything that we normally carry on our bikes too, including important things such as suncream, hat, flip-flops and sunglasses; pen knife, torch, tent etc…
Five Days in Faranah
Our first meeting with Daman Camara, who agreed to build the boat. By evening, we are told that Daman has bought wood for the boat and will begin work tomorrow.
Today we moved to Hotel Firya to be near river, ready for departure day. We visit Daman’s house, a modest group of round thatch huts situated between the river and the town centre, where the boat is being made. At this stage, our boat is little more than two shaped planks of wood nailed together lying on the floor. Two of Daman’s helpers, one considerably more skilful and careful than the other, are slowly carving out the shape for the side panelling. We are surrounded by the families children as we inspect the work, clueless about whether this is good work or not. What we lack for in knowledge, we make up for in interest and ask if we can return the next day to see how it’s progressing. We continue into town and begin buying some provisions.
We return to Daman’s house, where the men are busy at work inspecting and repairing their nets which are strewn about the house compound. They are preparing to a big fishing trips it seems.To our surprise, the pile of wooden planks has been transformed into a boat-looking structure. It doesn’t seem like there’s much more work needed.
Daman calls on a local with a camera to come and immortalise his work for these two slightly crazy white tourists. Using a 35mm SLR, the likes of which I only see in second hand shops and rarely now used in the UK, the local took some photos of me, Lars, Daman and the boat, together with the 15 or so eager children who cheered loudly and grinned widely every time the camera clicked and flashed.
At the hotel we are told the boat is finished. This is great news! We go to Daman’s house to take a look. Led by the children, we walk down a narrow footpath to the river. Looking down the steep bank we see, for the first time, our boat; our very own water-borne boat…
Rather than excitement and enthusiasm however, a slight disappointment comes over me.- I see our unassuming, unimposing boat, looking quite pathetic and small, floating on the large body of the Niger River being clambered upon by the bathing kids with a non insignificant amount of water sloshing within the boat’s breeches. Is this really the boat that is supposed to take us down the Niger River?
Within minutes however, the children are scarpering and one girl is left to empty the boat of water using a plastic scoop. Led by Boh we climb aboard our pirogue and Daman paddles us proficiently upstream towards the hotel. Once there, we suggest we have a go at paddling. So with careful manoeuvring within the seemingly unstable boat (I’m very glad we didn’t get a dugout canoe), Lars crawls to the back and takes to the helm.
Paddle firmly in hand, Lars cautiously places it in the water and slowly drags it through the still water. Nothing happens. He repeats this manoeuvre several times and we don’t go very far or very straight. In fact, I think we may have been going in a circle, drifting slightly downstream when we were trying to get upstream. Lars, at the back end of the boat, seems unaware, smiling obliviously like a child with a new toy. Me, at the front end facing him, trying to conceal my concerns, am seriously worried – What have I gotten myself into?! We have what appears to be a leaking boat and we can’t steer it let alone propel it forward.
Before Lars has completed an unintended 360-degree turn, Boh takes over and paddles us back to the hotel. At this point I suggest I should have a go. Far from being an expert (more than 350km in fact), having been canoeing a couple of times previously and with some experience punting on the river Cam during my inebriated university years, I suggest I have a go at paddling – somehow we have to figure out how to get this boat down the river and there’s no time like the present. Fortunately, my meagre experience is sufficient to make me look as though I know what I’m doing – I even manage to go in a straightish line up and downstream and steer us to the bank near the hotel. Now that was a huge relief!
My attention then turns to the increasing volume of water inside the boat. I mention this to Boh, who proceeds to explain that this is normal. Hmm. Sceptical, I repeat my concerns. Boh then efficiently scoops the water out of the boat and inspects the seams. There does appear to be a couple of places where the water is slowly flowing in, but once again Boh explains this is normal for this style of boat. I decide I let this issue rest – we can check that the boat is still floating the next day.
With that, we retire to the hotel for a celebratory beer – one step closer.
We are convinced it is only Wednesday and so think we may be able to leave early. We could buy the remaining provisions and have a practise paddle tomorrow and then leave on Friday. Now that would be great!
We go to take a look at state of the boat. Strangely, it’s not where we left it. Perhaps Daman has taken it back for some reason (maybe minimise the leaking). We go to Daman’s house, but it is deserted except for the youngest children and the women. The men are gone, the older boys are absent, the fishing nets have disappeared. We decide to go down the footpath to the river bank – no boat there either. Oh dear. Where’s our boat? A leaking boat is better than no boat at all.
Nothing to be done, so we go into town to buy the remaining supplies, except of course perishables which we intend to buy last minute before we leave. While in town we notice the large number of people leaving the mosque in their Friday-best. This gets us thinking that maybe we have our day’s confused – it’s not Thursday, but Friday. Oh well, not to worry, looks like the boat will still be ready on the day expected – which in Africa is almost unheard of. When Daman had originally said the boat would be ready on Saturday, we fully expected it to be more-or-less ready on Sunday so we may be able to depart the following Monday.
We return to the hotel in the evening and Daman is there waiting for us. He has finished making our paddles and poles. Great. We ask where the boat is (hopefully not sunk already). Boh apparently had moved it upstream, away from playful children. Everything finally ready, we pay Daman for his work and go to our littered room to wrap and pack our belongings in numerous plastic bags in an attempt to waterproof everything.
We leave tomorrow.
One Last Thing…
We still had to name the boat. It seemed only right that, seeing as it was Mungo Park who had inspired my interest in the Niger river, that we name our boat after his. And so, our boat was to be The Joliba II.
Keep posted for the next update on how the trip actually went… Of course, if you haven’t already done so and would like to subscribe and recieve updates by email, please click here