Day 1: 6th Feb 2010

Departure – 3 beers – Boh’s helping hand – will we make it to Bamako?

It’s Saturday in Faranah; our boat is built and afloat on the river, our belongings have been wrapped and packaged in plastic bags ready for the trip, we have cycled into town for breakfast and bought last minute goods (including lots of packets of pocket tissues since there’s no toilet roll in the whole town – being a ‘luxury’ imported good, it has to be bought in the capital, Conakry, some 400km away, apparently). There’s nothing else to be done. With a small degree of trepidation, we begin carrying out our large sacks of belongings and slowly clear out our hotel room that had been home for the previous week.

On seeing us struggling with the oversized sacks, Boh the helpful manager of the hotel comes to lend a hand. On seeing the three of us struggling down the path from the hotel to the river, a number of local kids follow on behind. Before long, Boh has instructed the kids to carry our sacks to the river and we are left with the easier task of wheeling the bikes. While we go about loading the bags into the boat and dismantling the bikes so that they too will fit, a small crowd gathers on the river bank and looks on curiously.

Eventually, everything is secure in the boat and after a few photos to capture our imminent departure, we are as ready as we’ll ever be to climb aboard and start paddling. And then I remember something – we haven’t got any beer! This situation must be rectified before we leave! I’m going to be spending my birthday on the river in just over a week’s time and there’s no way I’m celebrating the occasion without an alcoholic beverage. With this, I ask Boh if we can buy some beers from the hotel. ‘Of course,’ he says, ‘but there’s only three left’. Oh no! But it’s too late to go into town now, so we’ll just have to manage with three beers. One of the staff runs back to the hotel to fetch them.

All packed and ready to paddle!
All packed and ready to paddle!

During the short wait, Boh explains that he will accompany us for the first short leg of the journey, round the first couple of bends since there are some tricky waters to navigate apparently. We are grateful for this.

Minutes later, the boat is fully loaded, now including the three beers and so we wave good-bye to the onlookers, clamber aboard The Joliba II and push off from the bank.

The paddle on the Niger has begun!

The first ‘tricky’ section we get through with the help of Boh. We get stuck on a couple of rocks and have to get out and push to release the boat. Once released however, the boat moves freely in the flowing river as myself and Boh guide it between the exposed rocks. Lars at this point concerning himself with his flip-flop which has come off and is gradually getting left behind. With some splashing and crashing in the waist-deep water, he eventually catches up enough to reach out and grasp for the back of the boat and is inelegantly dragged through the water, until the rocks disappear, the river widens out and the flow slows enough that we can all climb aboard again. No sooner are we all in the boat again, than more rocks appear. As the bow rises over a rock and gets stuck, the stern with me in it swings round. Now I’m at the front and Boh is at the back. Boh takes charge of the steering while I sit facing upstream, helpless. Boh takes the next section in his stride and soon he is pulling over to the bank and jumping out of the boat.

As Boh walks over the bank we shout our thanks and ask if he thinks we’ll make it to Bamako. Boh’s last word before disappearing into the bush was a definitive, resounding ‘NO!’

And then we’re alone.

It’s now mid-afternoon and we haven’t eaten since breakfast. So we pull up on the next sandy bank round the next bend and ravenously devour a mayo sandwich and share, while it’s still fairly cold, one of the three beers (the other two we’re going to try to save for my birthday on the 14th).

Day 2: 7th Feb 2010

Use of a plastic kettle – Lost and found paddle – Aussie encounter – Beer surprise – Man overboard

Not long into the day’s paddle we come to some minor rapids. It wouldn’t even be noteworthy were we in an inflatable raft or modern kayak or canoe – but we’re in a heavy, fully-laden, locally-built wooden pirogue that is for navigating and fishing on still, calm waters. The pirogue picks up speed and I use all my strength to steer the boat round the rocks.

I make it round the first few rocks, but can’t make the final sharp bend. The front jams against the rock, the back end swings round in the white waters and it too hits a rock. The boat is now wedged between a rock and a hard place leaning at an angle. Oh no! – there’s water coming in over the side. I leap out of the boat, hoping the reduced weight will lift the boat out of the water enough to stop the inflow. As I do so, I scream at Lars to get out too. Lars doesn’t really hear what I say, but from the sounds of my voice knows something’s up – startled, he jumps round to face me and effectively falls out of the boat.

Fortunately, with both of us quickly in the river, the boat rises and the inflow ceases. Now we can calm down and go about emptying the boat of the excess water. Suddenly it becomes clear what the yellow plastic and green plastic kettle that was in the boat when we received it is for -Obviously a plastic kettle is no good for boiling water. It is however, well-designed (albeit unintentionally) for scooping out water from flooded pirogues!

Waist-deep water removal technique
Waist-deep water removal technique

Disaster averted, we climb back aboard to continue our journey. But where’s my paddle? In the confusion, I had let go and it must have floated off downstream. Good job we brought spares – but better be more careful from now on! Fortunately though, a couple of bends downstream and I was able to retrieve the original paddle, which was floating in some still water.

We are enjoying some quiet, uneventful paddling when we hear laughter from further down the river. Soon we see three little figures on the riverside, which grow as we near them. But these aren’t local fishermen – they are white. I have seen three white people in Guinea in over a month and now, unexpectedly, we see three more on the remote banks of the Niger river. We paddle over to say hello; somewhat intrigued. It turns out that Shaun the Austrailian, the Belorussian and the Ukrainian are ex-pats working at the nearby mines. They are equally surprised to see us and are quick to hand us their last two beers in their cool-box which we thirstily gulp down. But if we are to make it to Bamako we must continue paddling and they now have no more beer. So with that, we continue on our journey down river and they get in their 4×4 and drive off.

Unexpected encounter - beer supply
Unexpected encounter - beer supply

Barely back in the rhythm of paddling and we come to another rocky section. The river narrows and divides round the rocks and the boat again picks up speed. But I just can’t turn the boat quick enough round the bend and in seconds the boat is headed into the low overhanging branches of the riverside trees. Lars being in the front, is helpless to avoid the branches and in an instant is being forced, back-side first, over the edge of the boat. I don’t have time to either laugh at Lars’ unfortunate situation or even worry that he may have been hurt, for I too am rapidly heading for a similar fate as the back end is swinging round. I decide to leap out before I am forced out. Once again we are both up to our waists in water.

This time as we gather our composure to continue onwards, it is Lars who realises he has lost his paddle. But once again we are lucky and are reunited with it downstream.

Day 3: 8th Feb 2010

Sand-flies – Fishermen – Following the flotilla

I am awake earlier than usual today. I just can’t sleep. The reason is simple – I am itching. A lot. No, it’s not mosquitoes that are a problem, but tiny little black flies, otherwise known as sand-flies. I first became aware of these little pests when I was paddling that first afternoon and looked down at my legs. To my horror, I saw I was bleeding. My legs were covered in scores of pin-pricks of my blood. I was being eaten by sand-flies! Ever since, I had done my best to kill them before they got a chance to feast, but simply put, there’s just too many of them. These innocuous little pin-prick sized marks soon become incredibly itchy. So itchy, you just have to scratch them. So itchy, you can’t ignore it; you struggle to get to sleep in an evening and in the night you unconsciously go about scratching at your legs with such intensity that you wake yourself up.

After the usual morning coffee that I make while Lars peacefully sleeps on, we packed the boat and started paddling once again. It was a relatively easy morning, with some periods of silky smooth river and only occasionally did we get stuck on a partially exposed rock or on the sand in particularly shallow sections, where we would have to get out of the boat and push. We continued to pass several fishermen and made the usual exchange of a wave and ‘bonjour, ca va?’

Going nowhere fast - Shallow Waters
Going nowhere fast - Shallow Waters

In the afternoon, the river widened and became rocky. I found it difficult to navigate through, unable to pick out the deepest water and regularly we got stuck on rocks. Each time we’d have to get out and drag the boat over.

As we were struggling on yet more rocks, we were overtaken by local fishermen who were proficiently poling their way through the maze – they know the river, they know the deep channels, they don’t get stuck. Soon another pirogue with fishermen passes us…. and another. We look upstream to see a flotilla of boats making their way towards us. With some help from of the locals, we are soon afloat again and we pick up the pace. I am eager to keep up with them for as long as possible, so I can follow their path.

I am envious of the way the fishermen move through the water with such ease and speed. One stands at the back and using a long pole, 2-3 times their height, places it on the riverbed and pushes backwards. In doing so, the boat propels forward in a long burst of speed. My experience of punting on the river Cam back in England is insufficient against these professionals though and we find that the more traditional paddling as though in a canoe is more effective for us, although significantly more energy-intensive.

That afternoon we covered a lot of ground though and rarely ran aground either.

In the next update…

Now you may be thinking, that three days into the journey, we are starting to get the hang of paddling and that things would get easier from here….

That’s what we thought anyway.

How wrong can you be?!