The Great Niger River Boat Trip – Part 3

Day 7: 12th Feb 2010

Ou tu vas comme ca? – Bee island – Frogs and splashes

Nearly a week into the trip, about 100km downstream of Faranah, getting close to the National Park and the number of people we are seeing has diminished – just the occasional onlooker from a riverbank and lone fishing boats. We exchange the bare essential greetings of ‘bonjour’ or ‘ca va’ but people here know no other French and so after that we usually pass by in silence. One young man stood on the shore today however shouted out, ‘Ou tu vas comme ca?’. A fair question! We’re going to Bamako we reply, we hope. But we are not progressing as fast as expected and neither of us are sure if we’re going to make it. Let’s reach Kouroussa first – that’s still some way downstream!

The day passes uneventfully which makes a surprising change and consequently we cover our longest distance for a day yet.

As the evening draws in, we spot a small, grassy island in the river.

This idyllic, isolated island is not as peaceful as it appears from a distance. As we pull up, we hearing buzzing and seeing hundreds of bees flying above the ground. There have been no rocks or clearings on the river banks for miles though so we decide to camp where we can, on pastures green.

Tents are hastily erected and a fire lit to cook on. Dinner is eaten in the confines of the tent, while the bees become fascinated by Lars’ shoes outside.

Fortunately, the buzzing quickly fades when the bees disappear as the night draws on and the stars appear in the sky. It is about this time though that the croaking of frogs begins. The first deep croak seems to come from near our island, following shortly by another croak in another key and many more, rhythmically returned upstream and echoed back down. But just as suddenly as the cacophony of croaking erupted, the frog-orchestra sounds it’s final note and the silence is filled with the background noise of crickets. The prelude over, it’s time for the main ensemble and once again the croaking fills the darkness.

Occasionally, when the frogs are silent, a loud splash resounds like a large applause. Just a fish we hope, not a crocodile. And it’s with this music of the river in my ears that I drift off to sleep each evening.

Little Voice - Frog Choir on the Niger

Little Voice - Frog Choir on the Niger

Day 8: 13th Feb 2010

Monkey rock coffee – Hippo tracks – No early camp – Fishermen’s warning – Path of least resistance – Fish supper

As the sun comes up, the bees return, so we make a hasty departure and stop for morning coffee further downstream. As we paddle over to an expansive rocky outcrop on the riverbank, we see a small troupe of vervet monkeys scamper off into the bush. Where there’s less people, you find more wildlife. With some relief, we get to enjoy our coffee on this relatively insect-free rock.

By lunchtime it’s getting hot even though the sky is clouded. The air is oppressive, heavy and silent. We reach a section of river that seems to divide around large islands of sand and boulders. We go left, but it’s a dead-end. We walk over to take a look on the other side and come across clear signs that hippos have been here – huge footprints leading to and from the water. We look around carefully but the boulders really are inanimate. We see the main route through and so paddle the boat back around cautiously, on the lookout for hippos. The silence is eerie. The calm before the storm?

For once, there is no storm. No hippos either.

I have to admit I’m mildly disappointed. While I don’t want a close encounter with a hippo (I have a well-founded respect for these creatures, since they are known to kill more people in Africa each year than any other large animal), I would still love to see them from a safe distance. It’s only a matter of time I expect.

We decide to camp early, having had a successful day. But as is so often the case when cycling, at the point you want to camp, people suddenly appear. And so it was today – we want to camp and no sooner do we round the bend and we come across a fishing camp. We paddle on a short distance and pull over to check out some flatish rocks. While Lars explores, I take a couple of photos and unbeknown to us, two young men from the fishing camp are paddling towards us.

The come and say hello and ask where we are going. They explain that downriver it is difficult to pass. In their sparse French and some hand-signalling, it seems that we may need to push the boat through or carry our gear on land. They say they will accompany us and help. So much for camping early.

The two pirogues slowly make their way downstream, until the young men pull over and we do the same. We can hear the white-water already. Walking over to assess the route, it is clear we are going to have to walk the boat down and steer it from on top of the rocks. The young men seem less concerned about helping though than in having a cigarette. They reluctantly take some rope when I pass it to them, but we haven’t walked far with the boat before they are explaining they have to return to fish. They retreat to a safe distance and watch us struggle alone with the boat through the rapids. We make it through though.

Fishermen watching us negotiate the rapids from a distance

Fishermen watching us negotiate the rapids from a distance

Ahead though, it seems the river has recently forged a new route downstream, cutting off the tightly looped bend. Our route is blocked by a fallen tree. On closer inspection, it seems someone has already cut back enough branches to make a small path. With Lars clearing more branches with the machete and me pulling loose the caught-up driftwood and debris, we at last have a space big enough for our boat to get through.

And now, finally, we can camp and cook the fish we bought from a local fisherman earlier that day.

Day 9: Feb 14th 2010

My birthday – Half day – Snake escape – Stock check – Beer

It’s my birthday today! Although it was business as usual on the river. Morning coffee followed by a good morning paddle. We covered plenty of ground and so agreed to take the afternoon off to rest – our first break since we left Faranah. My body, at least, was beginning to get tired earlier with each passing day.

I slept under the shade of some trees on the riverbank in my tent, safe from sand-flies and tsetse flies.

Later I collected some wood ready for a fire and then retreated back to my tent. Having squashed the numerous sand-flies that had entered the tent with me (and so covering my tent roof with another spattering of blood – mostly mine I believe), I set to work on the tsetse fly.

The tsetse flies are rather more resilient however and I was well into round 3 of giving this bothersome fly a pounding when I hear a shout from Lars, ‘Helen! Look out – Snake!’. Distracted by the tsetse fly which is now leaving a thick trail of blood on my tent floor, I look up to see a snake slithering with exceptional speed in the direction of my tent, the rustling as it moves through the dead-leaf-covered ground reaching my ears a split second later. Lars has disturbed it when he picks up the food sack which it must have crawled under.

My attention is now rapidly focussed on trying to zip up my tent before the snake reaches me. But as I grab at the zip, the snake is already here. It slithers under my tent. ‘Helen! Don’t move!’ Lars screams. I freeze, pinned to the spot. Motionless, like the sandfly remains on my tent roof. Lars is worried I may accidently stand on the snake and then who knows what it may do. But just as quickly as it arrived, it leaves – disappearing into the forest behind.

I don’t know who was more scared. Me, Lars or the snake.

I do know that my heart is now pounding, double time, from some new location in my chest cavity to where it jumped when Lars shouted out the word ‘snake’!

Once calm has returned, I provide the knock-out blow to the tsetse fly and we (me and Lars that is, the tsetse fly is dead) do a stock check to see how much food we have left. It’s more or less what we expected. We have food for another six dinners. Then we need to be in Kouroussa. It’s going to be close.

At the end of the day, while sitting by the fire as dinner cooks, we open those two beers we’ve saved. Wow – beer has never tasted so good. If only we had more….

Day 10: 15th Feb 2010

Chimpanzee rehabilitation centre / Bee-sting / Antelope

We’ve been paddling barely half an hour when I see on the top of the river banks a couple of large buildings with corrugated roofs. These are the first man-made structures (besides pirogues) that we have seen since leaving Faranah. But these were local homes as you would find in a typical rural Guinea village. We paddled over to investigate.

Niger River bend at Somoria

Niger River bend at Somoria

It turns out that after nine days of saying, ‘Do you think we’ll reach the National Park today?’, we are finally within the park and are at the chimpanzee rehabilitation centre of Somoria, which is run by the dedicated Estelle Raballand (www.projectprimate.org). We are invited to see the chimpanzees at feeding time at noon. In the meantime, we have look round the centre and chat with the volunteers. Of the seven volunteers, two of them have also cycled to Guinea, on a tandem! Amazing.

Estelle has been running the centre for ten years and recently released a group of chimpanzees back into the wild, some 35km along the river. The first group release of it’s kind. They keep track of the chimpanzees and all seem to have adapted to their new environments well.

Come feeding time, the dinner bell rings and the local workers carry the chimps lunch round in wheelbarrows. The chimps know the sound and are causing an expectant racket.

We observe the chimpanzees from a distance as Estelle and the others hand the food through the cage bars. The chimps however, clearly aware of our unfamiliar presence, are on edge and putting on a bit of a show. The males in the group, beating the bars in a show of machismo and chase off the smaller chimps from the food.

Chimpanzee waiting for lunch

Chimpanzee waiting for lunch

I don’t recall ever seeing chimpanzees before (maybe when a child on a zoo visit) but these animals were huge (much larger than me), incredibly strong and intimidating and I was glad there were strong metal bars between us. It certainly made me apprehensive about potential encounters in the wild.

We left the chimpanzees to eat in peace and walked back to the main hut with Estelle. She provided us with some useful advice:

  • – We should only camp on the left bank of the river from now on since it is illegal to camp within the Park, which includes the right bank
  • – When passing the chimpanzee release site, keep away from the banks and rock – otherwise the chimpanzees if they see us may come on over and try to climb on the boat
  • – Be aware of hippos – it’s probably best to paddle down the middle of the river (a hippo could charge us to get to the river if we are too close to the bank) and where the river is deep (so that a hippo can’t rear up and trample us or the boat)

After lunch and a book exchange we get back to our boat and start paddling again. But not before I am stung by one of the many bees that have become fascinated with the contents of our boat, especially my shoes.

It’s a solid afternoon with steady progress and we end the day camped on rocks, having startled away some antelope drinking by the river’s edge.

In the next update…

Hippo encounters, bats gone crazy and officious Guinean military… could I really be mistaken for a poacher?

See this post for photos of our visit to the chimpanzee sanctuary

 

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