Saturday, February 22, 2020

Guinea: The Epitome of West Africa

Guinea, fabled perhaps for fowl and pigs, although I have no idea if there is a connection between these eponymously named creatures and this rather unusual West African country, is remarkable by almost any standards.*

Its politics are loud and unpredictable; its countryside is raw and overwhelming; its people are friendly yet reticent; its weather extreme, and its roads, dear God, its roads …...

Racked by historical context, a largely superficial acceptance of democracy, ravished by Ebola and left often to its own devices, Guinea has developed erratically. After the French unwound their empirical occupation of much of West Africa, the Guinean leader, Sekou Touré turned down an opportunity to participate in a “French commonwealth”, seeking full independence instead. French wrath was immediate and severe; investment and aid ceased and French capital fled. The country, limited in capital, skills and connections limped along, surviving one crisis after another. Even today, the country’s rather cavalier approach to its constitution is causing some disturbances that compelled our route through the country to change, and our introduction to Guinea’s secondary and tertiary road system was inevitable.

“Roads” as a word, conjure up images of vaguely straight paths between two points, bending to avoid major impediments, but generally straight and showing signs of attention. Leaving the appalling secondary roads of Senegal and forging our way through the Parc Transfrontalier was an exercise in faith. GPS signals had disappeared, maps were inadequate and fundamentally optimistic, or even decorative, and direction was determined by encouraging puffs of distant dust and the potential for edging forward a few metres. This was no land for an ambulance.

The Parc, it must be said, was quite stunning; thick Savannah, craggy rock outposts, gentle but austere mountains all tinted with the deep red dust that formed the basic palette of the landscape. Perhaps there was wildlife, but we saw none; to the north of the border, in Senegal, the national park claims the residence of elephants, hippos and more, and insensitive to national borders, these animals may well roan the borderlands; given more time, and a local guide, I am sure that we would have enjoyed the visceral beauty of the Borderlands. But alas, this was not to be, and as merely a fascinated observer, we challenged the boulders and fallen trees sent to dissuade passage and headed on blindly toward Gaoual.

 The road to Gaoual is littered with those that didn't quite make it. We did.

Crossing the frontier at a location so remote that the Guinean border force refused to attend, and instead set up their post some 50 kms further into the country, we lurched, staggered and rolled our way over stones, dried river banks, wet river banks and past villages so bewildered at our appearance that no words nor gifts of pens, pencils, notebooks or games could quell their apprehension, we swayed on to join the country’s secondary road system some thirty kilometres to the north of Gaoual, our target for the night’s stop.

The last hour was gentle; the basically paved road, a contrast to the bone-shaking river banks that had caused even 4WDs of our group to curl up and die, was easy, and as we drew into the “campsite”, anxious for a few hours’ sleep, the thought of the next day and the 500 kms to Kindia, in the south of the country had been carefully set aside.

Nine hours is a long time to spend passing 180 kms of a national highway, but such is the state of said highway, and I use the word sparingly, that prudence should have dictated twelve. However, we had 500 kms to travel until the bivouac, and unwilling to risk a night in The Open, we plugged on, bouncing past wide-eyed villagers, living lives in small, ancient communities by the side of the road.
One shouldn’t sentimentalise small, isolated communities, but it is hard not too. Looking at these small communities of perhaps seventy people, imagining a DNA strain that would sink so deeply into the land that the beginning of time would see these peoples’ ancestors engaged in vaguely similar activity, it is difficult not to wonder whose life is less stressful and even simpler. With sufficient food, a well, and children and woman working and playing in the compound and the men in the fields, life had the essentials. Impossible for anyone brought up with the joys of electricity, restaurants, buses and credit cards to comprehend, but it was a simplicity that mirrored some of the more energetic New World movements becoming so strident in the world’s more affluent economies.

It is hard to travel through any country without comparison. Each destination is identified by its similarities to other destinations visited; each country measured against other familiar lands. This evaluation offers some comfort: “It’s just like that time that we did Bolivia, Darling”, and is an inevitable part of discovery. Yet travelling among peoples so different from any others, with no country offering even a way station to rural Guinea, observations and ideas became disjointed and erratic. Each new village, each new landscape and each new and exacting pothole became its own adventure and a singular experience.

Guinea is different; it is what it is, and thus reduced simply to landscapes (stunning), people (captivating), villages (fascinating), roads (startling), politics (impenetrable) and the life around us (vivid), Guinea became that most difficult of destinations: new, real and most interesting.
The 180 kms of spine-fragmenting highway was, of course, memorable, and as we finally reached the asphalt at Boké, and headed toward the south at a breakneck speed, the evening started to draw in, the police checks more insistent and the traffic more erratic. Deciding that a hotel in the capital, Conakry, was preferably to the final 80km push to the “campsite”, we left the highway and embarked on a forth kilometre run along the peninsular that houses the capital and its attendant growth, to out hotel, chosen at random, but located at the far end of the spit.

Approaching Conakry at midnight
Nearly midnight now, the traffic was heavy and dark; markets still active although it seemed impossible to tell what each stall was selling; strong, pungent African beer permeated the atmosphere and the unsteady gait of folks weaving through the traffic. This was a city with little money but huge soul; vibrant music blared from bar after bar; thousands of people were out, perhaps the streets more comfortable that the corner of a room that could be called home, walking, talking, dancing, singing and waiting for the next morning, and another day of hustling the gritty streets of Conakry. Capital cities attract people, and as we retraced our footsteps in the morning, the music silent, the food sellers subdued the markets were starting to find buyers for their goods, the needs of the two million people that call Conakry home to find some money before the sun goes down were obvious and primal.

The run to the border was, for a change, uneventful albeit uneven; our graceless departure from this fascinating country was a touch discomforting.

Guinea has character; it has beauty and it has people who live lives that wash up at the borderline between north and south. We did it no justice as we drove through, focused on bad roads rather than the gentle lives of the countryside and the harsh, but so focused lives of the city.

I would like to return to Guinea; next time with a local guide, time and a deeper capacity to appreciate this very African country.

*  PS: I know that Guinea pigs are Andean, and that Guinea Fowl originated in Tibet, but are now common worldwide, including sub-Saharan Africa! 

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Mauritania: A Desert Kingdom

Mauritania for a two-week vacation, as the old joke goes, is not the First Prize in any competition that you might wish to enter. Mauritania for three or four days, longer, perhaps, for those with some particularly niche interests, is a tremendous opportunity and a very interesting place to visit.
We can’t all be experts; of course, the longer one spends in a destination the more accurately and perceptively one can write. However, three days travelling through this remarkable country is enough to gain an impression and an empathy for this raw, edgy place.

Let it first be said that I liked Mauritania; actually quite a lot. Not in the “Let’s buy a little vacation home here, Darling” way, but in the way of finding a piece of a missing puzzle lying before me. I had heard, read and spoken of sub-Saharan refugees, of the difficulties of life in the Sahel, of the power of shifting desert sands, but now I had seen all of these with my own eyes. And the impressions are powerful.

Entering the country is a confrontation. After leaving Morocco, there is a dystopian, three-kilometer stretch of burned-out cars, trucks abandoned after their particular insurance fraud, land-mines, refugees living among this debris having successfully left Mauritania but denied entry into Morocco; it is a warped piece of land.

Mauritania is a tortuous nation; it lies mostly straddling the Sahara from the vast inland deserts to the dunes that try to push the Atlantic
coast back to the west. It is a land of harshness, of difficulty and struggle; it is a land painted in a palette of browns, yellows and dust; it is a land of transition as the Arabic peoples of the north blend and merge with the Africans of the south. It is a land of definitions.

The languages, from Arabic to Wolof and the latent French of their colonial puppeteers blend and spread; the cultures of the culture, based mostly on family, clan and tribe still remain the bedrock of the country’s social fabric. In a land as apparently desolate and exacting as the Sahara, these ties bind and tie people closely over vast distances.

Driving through the desert there were signs of temporary encampments. Signs that the nomadic existence, so well suited to the environment, was alive and almost well. Camels, goats and dust wandered and lived along the roads defying the ever-blowing sand.

To coin a phrase, “The answer, my friends, was blowing in the wind.”

The questions remained obscure.

Who “owns” the desert? Whose land is marked by a shifting surface? Where can people live?  
Those questions, answered by a curious and no doubt divisive confrontation between the traditional and established custom of the region and the vast power of the multi-national mining interests and their brutal financiers.

It is a region that makes sense of belief; a belief in a better future beyond the bitter desert winds and their capricious whims. Life in the desert is harsh; the weather bitter, the landscape austere but life for those lucky enough to enjoy family, tribe and clan can be secure. Life, punctuated five times each day with the call to prayer that binds the national community may not be one that westerners could enjoy, but we were not supposed to enjoy it.

Travellers are welcomed deeply; we are treated with respect, kindness and care. Even a little wonder. As a visitor to Mauritania, although warned before arrival of the dangers of brigands, and the potential of being kidnapped (30,000 was the probable ransom that was advised), I never felt in any danger. I was annoyed, irritated and even exasperated, but only when I felt my own interpretation of an event to be superior to the local idea. In a land of such complexities, and a life determined so completely by the bleak, harsh Sahara, I really had nothing valuable to add.

After time in the desert, driving past the iron-ore train, appreciating that there were subtleties that I would never understand, I decided that I rather liked Mauritania. Or, at least, I felt a growing empathy for a country that in the wildest reaches of my imagination, I could not conceive.

Nouakchott, the capital, a city of some million folks came as a surprise. It isn’t a particularly beautiful place, in fact it isn’t really beautiful at all, but it is lively, contemporary and perhaps will operate as an economic driver for the country. The market, visited thanks to Google Maps attempt to help me avoid a vast traffic jam, was a wonderfully frenetic place, ad in ordinary circumstances I would love to have spent the morning exploring; it is a new city, only 65 years old, and in some ways an ugly, unintentional growth. In other ways, however, it represents the harnessing of the dynamic energy of the country, and the potential growth of both population and mineral wealth in the next decades will determine Mauritania’s future.

Harsh? Yes; Challenging? Absolutely. Interesting? Without question.

Perhaps a one-week stay in Mauritania would be a worthwhile prize.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Budapest to Bamako: Driving the Sahara

The route from France to Freetown

Driving across the Sahara Desert may appear to be an odd thing to do, and perhaps it is. However, in the same way that remote places seem less isolated when visited, driving from Morocco to Sierra Leone seems quite normal as one motors south in the company of other like-minded folks.

Except, of course, in Guinea, but that is another story.

I am not at all sure how this journey really happened; it started, as all good adventures do, in a wine bar. This time, in Tbilisi with my friend Ia Tabagari. She, the most indefatigable woman I have possibly ever met, was itching to go on a long drive, and had found the Budapest to Bamako rally somewhere in the ether. It was, we agreed, a fine idea, and fortified by the fine local wine decided that we should enroll. We didn’t, mostly because the security situation in Mali deteriorated; however, like so many ideas that burrow their way into one’s brain, the idea of the B2B rally refused to budge.

Fast forward a couple of years, and an Australian friend, Alan Wallish, the owner of a fabulous Cairns-based reef operation, Passions of Paradise, and a colleague and friend these thirty years, visited Winnipeg to relieve the boredom of Canada’s West Coast for a few days last summer. The idea was pitched, agreement concluded, toasts drunk and the entry completed. Our participation in the 2020 Budapest to Bamako rally was secure.

Panda and the Ambulance
Adding three additional friends and a 4WD Fiat Panda from the Orkney Islands the package was completed and the countdown was underway. We had purchased an ambulance for the journey, basically on a whim, but with the thought that it would be donated it to a local medical facility in Sierra Leone upon arrival. At this point, observant readers will have noted that Bamako is not actually located in Sierra Leone; this is, of course, true, but due to the security situation in Mali, a new (and considerably harder as it turned out) route to Sierra Leone had been drawn to avoid potential bloodshed.

Spurning the actual start, our idea was to meet in Malaga, as heading from France to Budapest for the start of the rally only to turn around and retrace the 1500 kms seemed a bit daft (even by our standards), so we agreed that the ambulance would be driven to Malaga to await the two Australians and we would continue from there, meeting our Orcadian cohorts in Ceuta. The Orcadians, it should be noted, had decided to drive from those distant, northern isles to Budapest and then on to the south of Spain, arriving in a state of semi-chock. So far so good.

And so the journey started. 

The pace was undeniably hard. The premise of B2B is, of course, a rally, but the inclusion of a “Touring” category, not to mention the “Spirit” category lulled many of us into thinking that there
Breakdown in Tan Tan
would be a slightly gentler route, with some time to enjoy and learn about the countries through which we passed. Alas, this was not to be. The tempo was sprightly, and although the Spirit route did not incorporate many of the rather more rutted and inhospitable terrain the racing 4WDs were challenging, our statelier vehicles still needed to reach camp at nightfall, and time to sightsee, explore of even photograph was very limited. Frankly, some of the roads would be better suited by a convoy of Mars Rovers.

The roads unfurled with the topography. From the smooth and perfectly cambered highways of Morocco passing first through intense agri-business then the High Atlas Mountains and then, as the mountains flattened into craggy plains and desert the roads became straighter and dustier, and finished in accordance with the country’s road-paving budget.

 The Moroccan roads started well, and grew into the mountains; here it Panda 
climbing a steep  run deep in the High Atlas Mountains.

This budgetary disparity was brought sharply into focus some 2,800 kms south of Ceuta at the Moroccan/Mauritanian border. Between the two customs posts, placed some seven kilometres apart, lies the most desolate no-mans-land that I have seen to date. The first two kilometres, presumably Moroccan and finishing at the actual border were paved, the subsequent five, lying now in Mauritania were not, and the way forward simply a vague channel of adventurous rock strewn with a dystopian collection of burned-out cars, trucks abandoned in the pursuit of some insurance swindle or other, and a warning that beyond an unidentified boundary there are land mines.

The Mauritanian border; burned out cars and landmines

We ventured no further than the identified boundary, and following a brief concern that one of our party who was suffering from a hangover, would be identified as a Coronavirus or Ebola carrier due to his elevated temperature, we passed through the gates, passed the border and entered the start, dry and harsh landscape of Mauritania. 

The Sahara is a stark and unforgiving place; its brutality is reflected in the harsh housing, the scrubby animals, the layers of clothing protecting against the ever-blowing sand and the unforgiving sun. It has a beauty, a raw grandeur that embraces the horizon and everything within it; it is a land of strict rules and strict traditions, without which life in this environment would be impossible. 

The desert eventually gave way to Savannah as we approached the Senegalese border, and as we drove farther south, the vegetation grew, the water supplies became more obvious and hints of the
approaching Tropical zone became more apparent.

To see these changes in landscapes was remarkable; to see how the people living throughout the region adapted to their particular circumstances was fascinating; the drive, all 7,150 kilometers of it, was endlessly absorbing and now, as I sit in Freetown trying to collect my thoughts, I look back on the images of the journey with a degree of smugness. 

Driving across the desert was cool! 

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Budapest to Bamako

The journey so far

West Africa is not the most visited region of the world, and for those who are frustrated by the phenomenon of “overtourism”, it could be an ideal destination. It is a land of geographic and societal contrast, overwhelming space, vast deserts and high, craggy mountain ranges. It is a region with thousands of miles of raw Atlantic seaboard punctuated only by isolated military lookout posts, ever vigilant for the stream of refugees fleeing the poverty of the sub-Sahara.

It is a land of stark contrast, extreme beauty and a harsh living environment that is so alien to those who have the fortune to live in “The West”.

And the Budapest / Bamako rally, started some fifteen years ago by the Hungarian adventurer Andrew Szabo, draws a line through the region, and attracts some 600 folks to give up their comfortable lives for a two-week run through six countries, to Freetown, Sierra Leone. The Bamako part of the trip having been abandoned (at least for this year) for security reasons, but the brand lives on.

It is first and foremost a car rally. There is an objective among the racing group of our number to reach way points, speed on to the next and cover the distance, and detours satisfying only to off-road drivers (in off-road vehicles of which an ambulance is decidedly not), and reach Freetown with the highest, or possibly lowest - I have no idea how they count, score.

It is most certainly not a tour.

While I knew the nature of the event before we started, I had made an assumption that those of us not participating in the competitive part of the journey would have more time to explore a little along the way. This, however, has not proven to be the case so far. We have driven long and hard, hard enough to require two new rear shocks and the rejoining of the chassis and the sub-frame that had come apart in Tan Tan, and from early in the morning to dark. Not, I hasten to add, a hardship, because I like driving, but a very different way to experience Africa.

Panda climbing in Morocco
A major advantage is that driving consistently through thousands of kilometres of highway, it is possible to see landscapes unfolding and evolving in front of one’s eyes. The subtle changes of scenery that create the boundaries between topographical systems become obvious, and the different lives of those who are adapting to their environments become alive and immediately noticeable.

To date the journey has taken The Ambulance from Esperaza to Perpignan, where I had to turn around and return because I had left the insurance document on my kitchen table, and then back to Perpignan and south to Gibraltar.

This early start was necessitated by a major computer malfunction, and the thought that if I needed a new one, in Gibraltar I could at least find one with an English keyboard. AS it turned out, the issue was “dirt in a connection to the BIOS battery”, which meant absolutely nothing to me other than the fact that the bill was only £65.

And so, a week later when my two Australian colleagues joined me, we headed across the Straits of Gibraltar to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta lying on the Moroccan coast. There we waited another day for our final colleagues to arrive after driving their Fiat Panda from The Orkney Islands to Budapest and then on to Ceuta.

Then we headed south, crossed the border into Morocco and headed 2,800 kilometres south to the Mauritanian border. Morocco is a very big country indeed, but more of that next time.

Now, it is time for breakfast and onward …