Day 11: Feb 16th 2010

Warthogs – Broken boat – Hippo encounter – Bush fire – Bat exodus – Uniformed and uninformed – Poacher or American?

A long, hard morning paddle – at least we were paddling and not pushing or dragging, but the wavelets on the river surface were tiresome. With the ripples lapping at the boats keel it felt like being at sea.

With rustling on the left bank, we looked over to see a family of warthogs darting away from the river, clearly startled by our presence.

Around one o’clock we came to a virtual dead end in the river. The river here is significantly wider than at Faranah, but the entire span seemed to be blocked by a wall of black rock. We pulled the boat over to take a closer look. We could see plenty of water on the other side and so there must be a channel through. Besides, we could hear that familiar rumbling sound.

Having seen the channel with water rushing through, we opted to lead the boat down on ropes – the slower but safer option – and as a precaution, take out our valuables bags and the food in case of a problem.

It should have been an easy enough manoeuvre – we had led the boat down far harder sections. But the flow here was just too strong. And 11 days into the trip, I was just too weak.

White water and into the calm
White water and into the calm

I couldn’t hold the back end. The rope ripped through my hands, the back end flipped round in the stream and crashed into a protruding rock. With some careful pushing and further guiding, we managed to pull the boat to safety in the bay below. The boat had taken quite a knock though and besides the wooden back support which had broken off, the bottom of the boat at the stern now had a long crack propagating along the panel length.

We paddled over to the nearby sandbank and Lars, using a rock, hammered in some spare nails we’d fortuitously brought with us. Safely on the other side, boat repaired, we could now appreciate the view in all it’s simplicity. The deep blue river, the golden sandy shores, the vivid green trees and the shining black rocks. Just four elementary colours. Sometimes the simple things are the best.

Paddling on, I spotted something hippo-like in the water ahead. For several days I had been seeing hippo-like things in the water, but they had only been rocks jutting out mid-stream. So rather than be mistaken again, I say to Lars, ‘That’s just a rock isn’t it?’. But then the rock’s ears twitched.

I’ve just seen my first hippo on the Niger. I’m elated!

Then pragmatically, I ask Lars which side we should pass by this hippo. ‘The side furthest from it,’ comes the matter-of-fact reply. So I steer us sharply towards the left bank and as I do, the hippo’s head sinks below the river surface. With determined paddling, we pass the point where we had seen the hippo. Then ten minutes after the first sighting, it resurfaces upstream of us – it is now exactly at the point we had been when it first disappeared. It’s as if it’s trying to catch us. It let’s out a resounding snort that resonates downstream before sinking once again.

I repeatedly look back over my shoulder to see if the hippo will surface again, but am soon distracted by the drama unfolding in the other direction, downstream. From the tree-lined left bank, hundreds of winged creatures are fleeing the trees and swarming in circles above the water. There is something not quite right about the scene… these animals are not behaving like birds, nor are they sounding like birds. Their motion through the air is uneven and the high-pitched screeching is unnerving.

From a distance, they look and sound strangely like bats. But what are nocturnal creatures doing flying in the middle of the hottest part of the day?

We then see smoke rising above the trees. Fire encroaching on their homes could indeed explain this mayhem.

Not wanting to be fatally bitten by a rabid bat, we change course for the right side bank, trying to give as much clearance between us and this horde of distressed animals. But then we see in the river ahead of us yet another hippo head peering out of the water.

Change of plan – we’d rather deal with rabid bats than an angry hippo! So we violently change direction yet again and this time head back to the left bank. As we’re paddling hard, I conjure up images of how I can more successfully (and unrealistically) fend off a bat attack with wild swings of my paddle like a baseball bat, sending the vicious winged mammals flying over the riverbank for a home run, rather than pitch my strength against a mighty hippo, that would surely crush my wooden paddle as if it were a tooth pick in it’s jaw and most likely crush me with it too.

By now we have passed the second hippo, which like the first had disappeared underwater shortly after sighting us, and are paddling downstream alongside the left bank. The bats (they are very definitely bats, which are so close we can now clearly see their individual faces; bat-ears, teeth and all) have ceased to circle wildly above the river and are now embarking on a mass exodus downstream, overhead of us, marginally faster than we are paddling.

But before we have a chance to calm ourselves to the presence of the bats than another hippo appears in the distance. This time, we choose to pass by on it’s right and so once again cross the river to give the widest clearance possible.

On reaching the far side, we hear a loud rustling coming from the trees (well at least it can’t be a hippo). Simultaneously we swing our heads round in the direction of the sound. And there we see it…

A huge, male chimpanzee, sitting in the tree having peeled back the leafy branches to get a better look at this passing peculiarity (two white people in a pirogue; us). For a few moments, he stares at us with intelligent curiosity and we smile right back in stupid wonder. As much as we would love to sit and observe this passive cousin (his calm reaction to us was in complete contrast to the destructive violence of the chimpanzees at the sanctuary), we were more concerned by the attention we were continuing to attract of the hippos.

So paddles in hand, we pushed on downstream where finally the wildlife of the Niger gave us some respite and we were able to stop for a short break.

The wildlife may have been content with us taking a break. A military officer approaching us in an inflatable, motorized dinghy, on the other hand, was not…

He wanted to know what we were doing, he wanted to know what we were transporting, he wanted to see our passports. His local guide during this inquisition had paddled over to the bank and in minutes we were being greeted by a Frenchman. It turned out we had stopped near the release site for the chimpanzees and some of the volunteers from the centre were in the area working.

The Frenchman, being considerably more fluent in French than me, explained that we were friends of the sanctuary, tourists travelling towards Kouroussa and clearly not poachers, which the military officer is tasked with searching out and stopping. Now, if this officer seriously thought that the typical poacher looked like we do, he’s clearly not being very successful at his job. Even I know that the poachers of antelope are none other than locals with a gun trying the only way they know to feed their family. They are definitely not the infrequent white, English-speaking novices paddling slowly down the river with bicycles strapped into the boat… I suspect more white men have set foot on the moon than have paddled the Niger River between Faranah and Kouroussa.

Not entirely convinced by our story, the officer spends an inordinate amount of time staring at the front cover of our passports before recklessly searching through the pages, while me and Lars casually chat to the Frenchman about the work he’s doing. Eventually our passports are handed back and the officer then directs a barrage of questions concerning us at the Frenchman. ‘Are we American?’, he wants to know.

Now I’m sorry, but which part of our passports did he actually bother to read? Eventually, out-numbered, he gets bored and says it’s ok for us to continue. (I’ve no idea how he planned to stop us.) So without a chance to even sit down, we get back into the boat and paddle off downstream before this small-minded man in love with his camouflage uniform and shiny black boots changes his mind.

A rare moment of calm clear water
A rare moment of calm clear water

By the time we get to take a break, it’s time to stop for the day. Now we can relax.

Day 12: 17th Feb 2010

Sound in the night – one lady and her dogs – Joliba II suffering – more wildlife – sand-flies continue to attack

After the long, eventful previous day, I was quick to fall asleep in my tent once I’d eaten and the stars were clearly visible.

However, I was rudely awoken in the early, dark hours of the morning to a strange call. We were camped up on the river bank in the bush. It was not a fish, crocodile, hippo or chimpanzee – all sounds I was by now familiar with. It couldn’t be a wild cat could it? Estelle’s (the director of the chimpanzee sanctuary) comment that the guards on patrol locally had heard a lion recently was ringing loudly in my mind.

My mind alert, I opened my eyes and to my horror, realised that I had fallen asleep without putting up the outer cover of my tent. If indeed there was a lion (or any other predatory animal) on the prowl, it would be able to see straight through my mesh inner to my small body lying on the forest floor. Oh crap. I lay there motionless, glancing from left to right to see if I could see any movement in the shadows nearby. Nothing. I remained frozen, feeling my heart pounding in my chest. Some rustling. And then silence.

I continued to lay there without a sound. I wasn’t even going to ask Lars if he had heard something. After a peaceful period had passed, I unzipped the tent, hastily put on the outer cover and retreated back into relative safety. Ok, so it probably wasn’t a lion, but I vowed I would never forget to put up my outer again. Of course, when I asked Lars if he’d heard anything in the morning, the answer as usual was no. Ignorance really is bliss or at least leads to a good night’s sleep.

With daybreak, our camp was visited by four dogs and a friendly local woman. Although we spoke no common language, it didn’t stop us exchanging warm greetings and bidding a good day. She was the only person we were to see that day.

Nothing of specific note happened during the day’s paddle. It was really hard though with lots of pushing and dragging the boat. Poor Joliba II is really suffering from the voyage and continuous pounding against rocks and now long pieces of material that were proofing the seams of the wooden panel joins are trailing uselessly in the water.

A maze of waterways
A maze of waterways

We do see plenty of wildlife; waddling guinea-fowl, tiny duikers (small antelope), several vervet monkeys and lots of large fish flicking their tailfins out of the river surface.

I continue to be plagued by sandflies. My attempts to thwart their attacks on my legs by wearing trousers resulted in them attacking my arms. In wearing long sleeves, they now mercilessly cause the backs of my hands and neck to bleed. With two hands on the paddle and no gloves or neckscarf to wear (which would be unbearable in the heat anyway), they are definitely winning the war. Simply put – I’m outnumbered.

Day 13: 18th Feb 2010

More hippos – tent rest – camp on 3 rocks in river – hippo call

Yet more hippos today.

In the distance, surrounding a large rock in the middle of the river were four pairs of pinkish-grey ears twitching above the surface. Three heads in front of the rock, one behind. We circle wide. Then further downstream, another two. We tried to go wide left, but got stuck on some rocks in shallow water. While we were getting out of the boat to free it up, the hippos had silently bowed down and were now causing concern due to their prolonged absence from view. Just as we freed the boat and got back in to paddle, one of the hippos momentarily re-surfaced, not far ahead of us. I told Lars to paddle hard and soon enough I had steered us clear to the other side of the river. Twice more the hippo’s head emerged from the river, it snorting loudly as we increased our distance.

We then had to get round the bend, but didn’t know where the other hippo was. Seeing a clearing that looked like a hippo access point to the river on the bank, we decided to cut across to the other side again. At mid-point between the inner bank and outer bend, we saw a series of bubbles rise from underwater and burst on the surface just a paddle length away. We paddled away fast. Very fast. If only we could have paddled that fast ever since Faranah, we would be in Bamako by now.

After nearly two weeks on the river with only a half day of rest, the long days with hard paddling and even tougher pushing and dragging, are taking their toll. That’s not to mention the mental strain of constantly watching out for potential wildlife threats and figuring out navigable routes through the myriad of streams and channels of shallow waters between rocks. We decide to take an extended lunch break and put up the tent for a hour’s rest where we can’t be bothered by sand-flies or tsetse flies. Of course, lunch by now is nothing more substantial than the bland imported glucose biscuits that we eat throughout the day; having only brought bread for five days (it was stale long before those five days were up) and finished the last of the oranges several days ago. The rest is much need and much appreciated by my fatigued body.

Three Rock Camp Spot
Three Rock Camp Spot

With rocky sections becoming larger but less frequent, we decide to camp when we see three flatish rocks in the middle of the river. They are just large enough for the tents. The rock to the left is for Lars, I take the far right one and the central one we use as a kitchen and build a small fire having collected wood from the riverbank earlier.

We enjoy yet another beautiful sunset and retire to our separate tents once it is dark. Lars reads and I just lay there, drifting slowly to sleep.

Cloudy reflection at sunset on the Niger River
Cloudy reflection at sunset on the Niger River

A thunderous splash and accompanying snort rips me from sleep and back to reality on the Niger. That was the unmistakeable sound of a hippo – like the sound of a stallion flaring it’s nostrils in the air at he scent of a mare on heat and snorting wildly mixed with that of a whale spurting a tall jet of water skywards as it surfaces. Hippopotamus translates in many languages as ‘water horse’ and that is exactly what it sounded like.

No need to ask Lars is he heard that. No need to ask Lars what the noise was. Instead, awestruck with a hint of fear, I shout from my tent ‘F@*king hell! That was loud!’. And all Lars can bring himself to say with a gulp is, ‘Yes’.

Neither of us have the foolish courage to get out of our tents to see the hippo up close. Instead, we each lie in our separate cocoons perched on our rocks and listen as the hippo snorts a couple more times, enjoying bathing in the cool evening air, before it leaves our space on the river. As relative silence descends (there is always the constant crickets and croaking frogs and occasional chirping or beeping of birds), I again drift off to sleep.