‘Guinea is a paradise for cyclists. You’ll probably want to spend most of your time in the Fouta Djalon region. Roads are not always maintained and if you are coming from Guinea Bissau you’ll have 200 kilometer of rough roads before reaching the tarmac.’ Was written in the guide for cycling
A paradise? Well, I have cursed the road only twice and the same number of times have I let out a silent ‘fuck! No!’ by seeing the track quite vertical in front of me. I have enjoyed the journey but was each and every day happy to be just a little closer to the tarmac of Kindia. I did savor the lush nature and the very hospitable people, the red earth tracks are beautiful in this surrounding and should never be sealed, only to keep the fairy tale as how it is at present, but I am not going to take this track again.
How little do I know?
My heels are blackened and cracked. My nose is dried out and crusty. I am just plain dirty and smelly. My hands start to develop calluses. I got burned patches by cooking haphazardly. Pots and pans are cleaned with dirt rags. I am partly cleaned when I get the chance. My nails are soiled, the lines of skin are filled with earth combined with palm oil. The pores of my faces turning into blackheads. Everything is red, oily and messy. My skin is dried out as well. I have itchiness and use velcro to itch myself with. My nose is running and the snot is smearing my sweaty, salted face. I develop constipation from a lack of rest. My hair is stiff. My feet stink. I stink. My clothes are starchy from the dirt and sweat. However, I do not mind being dirty, everyone is dirty out here. Neither I mind not to have a bucket shower, happiness is not in being clean. But a cyclists paradise? No way! The Sahara. Now, thát is a cyclists paradise!
I start the rough journey after a day of rest in Koundara in a hotel where I first brush out the used condoms in my room. I have cycled in 6 days through Guinea Bissau and am going onward to reach Labé in another 5 days.
The start of Guinea
By entering Guinea I decided, after 76 kilometer of rough road and tracks, to call it a day. I search for a spot to camp and when no one’s around I quickly move into the bushes. My chosen spot is far enough from the road and although people do come here to collect wood, I am positive. I am not visible and fairly surrounded by thick bush. Of course I am a bit worried at first: suppose if a man come to rape me? Yes, I am a little afraid even. But what I usually do when I am afraid is recognize it. Then I become aware of how the people of Guinea are, and know that they are generally peaceful. No man will come to rape me. Maybe a man will come to say ‘Jarama’ in a surprised voice, but really nothing more than that shall happen. The moon lit my place, the birds in the morning come check this stranger and fly off. I leave the bushes without the two women noticing me. Off to Koundara, only 43 kilometer further.
The distance from Koundara to Labé is only 265 kilometers, and Labé has an altitude of 1025 meter. I leave prepared with a package of pasta and a box of La Vache Qui Rit cheese, all the rest I hope to find along the route and so my dinner the first evening consist of nothing more than onion and concentrated tomato paste. Yet it is a delicious treat after having cycled 87 kilometers. In my apprehension I have already start the climb and am optimistic. I have set myself 50 kilometers each day to reach Labé. Again, little do I know.
I start the day in Koundara with a heavy breakfast of half a baguette, merrily smeared with Dutch mayonnaise and an oily omelet, accompanied with ‘café au lait’, which is half a cup full of, again Dutch, sweetened condensed milk, a little water and very little Nescafé. As soon as I leave the tarmac behind me, after a 77 kilometer long ride out of town, I see the hills rolling up and down in front of me. I stop to envision the sight in front of me, jump in excitment, I am happy to see the difference in landscape. It is simply wonderful to enter this hilly world where red earth tracks will lead me to another part of this world.
Fallen flowers of thick, almost rubbery consistence lay beautifully in front of me. Children are a little bewildered to see me. Trucks slowly thrust their way through this red earthy track as I do, and so I assume it can’t be very steep nor bouncy. Quite a wrong thought.
I hear people and some children call me ‘touriste’, which I prefer over the discriminating calls of ‘blanche’ and ‘porto’. I adore being called a ‘Chinois’ and later do I find out why; a road is being constructed, financed by the Arabs, built by the Chinese. But mind you, far from being completed. Once I entered the rough roads and therefor the middle of the nature and being right in the hilly landscapes I stop often to take in the beauty. When I see some cows I decide not to cycle on to the first village but stop at the first settlement. I am tired. Happy. Content. Hungry too.
The continuing of many one-woman-shows
This settlement consist of about 4 round huts where in the distance a few boys yell at me. I decide to let their screams be heard and answered, and walk over to them. They all shrink a little with this white woman walking so directly towards them. Worse even, she ask for something they don’t understand: ‘Est-ce que je peux camp ici?’ I have to show them the little booklet of ‘Point It’ to display a picture of a tent. Their answer is a firm ‘no’. My answer is a surprised ‘pourqoi?’ and their reaction is puzzlement. So we start the little conversation again until both our answers synchronize. ‘Of course!’ and ‘Qui’ and a woman who come out of her hut walks up to me and is now accompanying me to a place where I want to put up my tent. I choose a tree where a lot of little nests have fallen on the ground, a termite hill is hugging the tree and a few little goats are wandering around. Many children watch me, as well as the adults, all are astonished what comes out of these Ortlieb bags. Soon after a photo shoot is ongoing, on their own demand. Children who are afraid of the ‘porto’ are crying in terror, others are just very curious and downright cute.
Thankfully, and here I don’t realize the grandness yet, the adults order the children to leave me alone, so I start cooking without a crowd watching the stage in front of them. Now, five little houses all have their own household going on of cooking and eating, dim lights of Chinese lamps and one Petzl are gleaming in the smooth darkness lying between the hills of the beginning of the Fouta Djalon. Stars twinkle wildly. I sleep soon and deep. Happy and calm. Again realizing that huge trucks cross this very route as well, the track can’t be that bumpy, steep or terrible. I assume that when there’s a tarmac road from the capital leading up to Labé all these trucks here can’t possibly only stock up the few villages on the way to Labé.
The N5 route, a dusty red track and a negative mindset
I forget that this is the only route overland from, well, all the way where I come from. Why otherwise did I come here? ‘Why actually are you doing this?’ ask a Senegalese man who lives in Paris with his France wife. I meet them while I am resting somewhere uphill, or so I think. In reality it is far from uphill. So, a good question. Why am I doing this? I ask myself the very same question. I long for a Peugot! The first Peugot who offers me a seat has my agreement. I would accept. I am fed up! I am not made for this. My little body of less than 50 kilo can not handle this. When I see a mountain, and I mean a real mountain, I only can think of not wanting to go there. I focus on this enormous massive rock, assuming Labé lying on top of it and I know I just can’t. I carry to much gear, even though I have left more and more behind (like the beautiful Moroccan handbag, a T-shirt, even the precious Bangladesh bell) it just is too heavy for this petite body. I am not enjoying. I am not wanting to go up and down all the time. I want to go up from the beginning but as it is now I am going more downhill than uphill and my hands are gripping the brakes to the point where they start to hurt.
‘First you come to the river and from there it starts to go uphill. Very, very steep, right into Labé,’ says the Senegalese man. The look on his face indicates I am stupid. Their driver can only watch me in big big bewilderment that I am cycling here. Alone. Meanwhile he ask me to marry him (I am already married, I explain) or find him an European wife. He wants to get out of Guinea. Then they step into their car and drive off. How easy, I think, a car.
Unfortunately I am just not the person to give up easily. I am stubborn. Proud maybe. Of course no Peugot is going to stop next to me to offer a seat. More than all seats are taken, including the roof with their meters high luggage and a few men on top. I have to cycle this. I have to go down and up, cross rivers. Rivers always lay low. Hills requires to go up and down. There’s no ideal way of going up a hill, except in my mind. There’s no such thing as a Dutch landscape where you go smooth, gradually up. Up a bridge. This isn’t a bridge. These are hills. So go for it girl!
Your faith to reach must always be larger than the longing to be already there
Thankfully, after a good night rest my mind has reset itself. I have camped in a beautiful covered spot where I was not to be seen from the road. I felt safe and peaceful. Although I dreamed about taking a Peugot, I know the reality of traveling in these vehicles is worse than sitting on a bicycle. But when I do come to a standstill just before the ferry which will carry me over the river and I see a real ‘Chinois’ in a complete empty pick up truck, where me and my bicycle would fit in, I don’t even think about it.
I love cycling. And this day I find out that Labé is not on top of that one enormous hill right in front of me. It is way behind it. I am here the only one who set limits, no one else than me is the one who decide how much I cycle. If I can’t make 50 kilometer a day, than I simply don’t. Days are always filled up to the rim with things which have to be done in order to have a smooth ride. While cycling I need to keep an eye out for streams where I can wash my cycle short. I need to find water pomp’s and fetch water. Enough for the evening, enough for the next morning. I need to have food and also ask people where the next village is and how far that is so I won’t be without food nor water. I have learned not to wait until I reach a village to eat but eat when I am not yet hungry. I have learned to buy whatever I see before the chance won’t come again.
And I should know by now that I better not listen to comments like ‘ces’t ne pas un longue distance. Peut-être 7 kilometre, oui… ces’t une petite village.’ It is a quarter to six, in one hour it will be dark and I have forgotten the fact that finding a flat spot to camp in the hills requires more effort. With my average speed of 10 kilometer an hour I can reach that village just before darkness sets in.
Around five I started to find a camp spot. The first bush spot, just to the side of the road, where I trust my bicycle through is rough and not flat. My legs gathering a lot of scratches only to find out that I am very visible from the road. The second spot turns out to be a meadow for cows and certainly bulls too. It’s far from covered and very obvious some one’s ground. But no one is around to ask permission. Third try is going to be a village, according to a man whom I ask, there should be a village somewhere near. I race over the darkening tracks, pass trucks which I pass every day and each time have break downs. The men try to fix the problem and sleep close to their vehicles, lighting fires and cook. My spot turns out to be very close to one of these trucks. By the time it is dark I have not find the village so I decide to disappear in the bushes where I am that very moment. I need to sleep, don’t I?
People are returning home, groups of women walk together cheerfully. There must be something near but I have not found it. Instead I push my bicycle through the bush again, hoping no one sees me doing this. I park the bicycle, drag all my luggage to a slight higher level of ground. Lift the bicycle over to the spot. Remove the many cow dungs laying around. Pitch my tent. Smeared with stinking dung on my arm and no meal I fall asleep exhausted! Far from ideal, I know I will be punished the following morning for having no dinner after an arduous day of cycling. I also know that I will be with less energy because the night doesn’t allow me to sleep peacefully: cows gather around my tent, sniff around and hop away if I call out to them ‘hello?’, thinking it is a person. With the many, many burning of the fields all day around me, I am afraid this field will be burned too. So I have to check now and then to see no glow of fire’s coming my direction. I would not like to drag all my belongings back to the road.
If I only knew where I was situated I would have slept more peaceful. Or not at all!
When I wake up the following morning I have chosen a spot right in sight of every one who walks by, who pass with his motorbike and who sit on a truck or car. I am completely visible and only 5 meters removed from the road. I had taken a beautifully bushy path to get there while there’s a straight path, right to my tent. Great!
Mornings somehow always feels safer to me because there’s light, so I take my time, cook a big breakfast of pasta with tomatoes, eggplant and onion. Drink a coffee after, write my diary, empty my bowels and off I am. But not before I remove a thick thorn out of my tire.
With surprisingly much energy I continue the track, through nature where a lot of trees are being cut, and where I keep passing the truck I passed on the first day. Each time the boys have to fix some problem, their little camp right behind the truck, dressed in thick winter jackets while the temperature is a pleasant 30 degrees in the morning.
The track is sometimes difficult, I have to choose the best piece of road where there’s no rocks, no loose sand and I have to keep looking ahead so I can continue choosing the best part of route without getting off the bicycle to push.
Passing through settlements leaves me with stocking up my food supply, fill up my Ortlieb waterbag, ideally washing my cycle short and if I am still feeling hungry I eat some more. One of those happy days I stumble across ‘galettes’, the best fried dough balls I have ever eaten. In Dutch we would call this oily balls ‘oliebollen’ and are eaten on the evening of New Year only. You can imagine I am too happy to have two big galettes here. They are so enormous that I can’t stow away the second, so I pack it on my bicycle and eat the other half on the road side picknick, while a group of young children climb in the tree to have a better look of me.
The uphill has started and continues with a day of some more ascending. I am happy with that because in my ideal world, going up a hill should be ascending only and not going up and down and up and down and more down. Up is what I want.
I manage to cycle only 36 kilometer but it was a day of uphill only. I have reached a maximum altitude of 1020 meter. Which is not very high but having reached this on the tracks I am on, I feel proud. Maximum climbs can be as steep as 11% which I find sometimes difficult to manage, on a track where you have to be concentrated on which move to make, a boulder to avoid, a stone under your tire, loose sand, sliding here and there or a truck who comes your way. Some occasions I have to give myself a ‘come on Cin, you can do it!’ I start to get hard patches on my hands, pain in muscles which I seem to use for the first time. I am smothered in red dust, am encrusted with dirt.
The question of ‘why’ did not cross my mind once. Groaning thoughts like ‘how far?’ and ‘how long?’ did not appear either. I manage to pull myself up the hill and am fully concentrated. The nature is pleasant. People are few and the one who are there are friendly and very easy going. Children do not scream very often and the ones who does are just genuine happy to see a tourist passing through their simple life. Grown ups seem to find it absolutely normal that a cyclist is passing through, although women can be very surprised and greet me in a joyous manner. Men fetch me water, children are only too happy to help me where they can. Truck drivers wave to me, taxi drivers press their horns and the men covered in dust on top of the Peugots watch me until I am out of their sight.
People do not yet ask for money in this country. Although they are visibly more poor than in Senegal, their attitude is completely different. I find the people of Guinea very pleasant. I find them relaxed, laid back and easy going. Stress don’t seem to exist although their lifestyle is far from luxurious or easy. But then, isn’t stress a forthcoming out of a luxurious lifestyle? People here seem to life with the flow of nature, surrounded by earth huts covered with a grassy roof. Water’s coming from the river, a well or a donated ‘pompier’ . I soon find out that the river is a very important source, a place to gather, to wash laundry, your tired, dirty body and the dishes. Girls sit topless on the side of the road, clothes being an unnatural thing when drying yourself.
But people do ask. For medicines. When I am having a very sweet cafe au lait and bread with mayonnaise and omelet, I do not notice the lady behind me who already lifted up her shirt. So when I turn myself around I watch two large hanging breast filled with milk. She grips her nipple and shows it to me, asking if I have something for the cracks in it. Well, no… not exactly.
Wishful thinking is not for one-woman-show stars
The day of going uphill is toughened by the many brand new Chinese trucks who ply the route. As the road is being built trucks cross on and off and leave me in an even thicker layer of red dust. I need to cover my mouth and nose each time they pass and overtake me. Somewhere at the point where I want to stop I am followed by a group of school children. The are very much interested in this lady on the bicycle, slowly moving up the hill, so slow they easily and happily walk right behind me. They stop and watch me as I eat a brown banana. The children are just interested and very curious in a yet perfectly well mannered way. Though, I get irritated by their sweet adoringly behavior so I know it is time to stop for me. ‘Reposer un pue,’ says the shopkeeper once I reached a little village. And I do. I ask if I can camp somewhere, eying into the compound of a few elderly ladies.
With this I hope to have a less crowded one-woman-show. But as I said, wishful thinking is not for stars like me. As soon as I enter their fenced compound I do have a big big crowd. No wonder, imagine yourself living a life in the red dusty hills of Fouta Djalon where’s not much else than wonderful nature, bright shining stars up high in the night sky, a few generators and trucks loaded with fish from Dakar. Girls run to the fence once they see me coming, they are excited and afraid to see me.
As soon as my tent is standing, a neighbor reach over the fence and ask me in English why I don’t stay in his house. He’s living in Italy and I can’t help but make the comment ‘ah, so you’re a rich Westerner?’ He admit he is. And he is, in some way. Most probably he has to deal with racism and suspicious approach (as I have seen so often on my workplace in the clothing shops I worked) and as my friend from Bangladesh said: ‘You’re always treated like a secondary citizen, how ever much you work.’ Why people here do not approach me with suspicion? Why people here are genuine hospitable? It is not because they hope to receive. People here are real open. People here are not afraid to welcome a stranger.
That’s the reason I am not feeling a slight panic when immersing in the bush and stay the night. I feel completely safe in this country but now do I choose to stay with a family mostly because there’s not much open neither flat area to camp unseen. And so I do my things while being watched by children, except when I am offered a bucket shower. I am literally encrusted in red earth, something which possibly can not be unnoticed by the family. It’s a sensational feeling to lay clean in my tent after a hard day of cycling!
A novelty is also that I may use their kitchen. Their house is a stone one, so their kitchen too. While a woman prepares galettes over a wood fire, the man of the house giving us all a few to eat, I prepare fried garlic rice. While being watched by children, of course…
The next day I arrive in Labé, after a comparative easy ride with not much climbing. I am rewarded with the luxury of a hotel, L’indépendance’ where there’s no running water but surprisingly very often electricity. Thankfully I don’t have to shove the used condoms out of my room and so it’s a nice, relatively clean room.
A few facts: the tarmac stops 70 kilometer after Koundara and start again about 10 kilometer before the center of Labé. Labé altitude is 1025 meter.
The highest altitude reached on this part is 1046 meter, with percentages of maximum 11%. Total kilometers from Koundara to Labé is 263.
There’s one river crossing. The ferry man asked me 20.000 (about €2) and I gave 5000 (about € 0.50)
My very extended knowledge op Pulaar, the language spoken in Fouta Djalon. I made people smile and laughing with this knowledge however.
How are you?
I am fine
I am fine
This post is about the first part of the route in Fouta Djalon, the other part will be written in Dutch.
From 2nd of January to 2nd of February 2013