Expect the unexpected
Unusual adventures in Guinea-Bissau
I’m not sure who is most surprised to see us: the funeral party, the king wearing a red bobble-hat or the herd of hippos. We don’t bump into them all at the same time — that would be really weird — but they each form a memorable encounter during a week travelling around Guinea-Bissau.
This small, welcoming and, yes, safe patch of West Africa — a former Portuguese colony, and now a land of tribal kingdoms and sacred islands — delivers a daily dose of the unexpected. And not just for those passing through. Tourists are a novelty in these parts. Almost everywhere I go — every village, market, church and beach — results in quizzical glances, curious conversations and high-energy displays of hospitality.
West Africa hasn’t had the easiest of times. Lacking the big-game parks that draw visitors to other African nations, it has always been a niche holiday destination. The shores and resorts of Gambia have attracted decent numbers, while others opt to holiday on the waterways of neighbouring Senegal and a few trickle south to Ghana, but that’s about it. Even this modest tourism was hit hard with the outbreak of ebola in 2014, spelling an end to overseas visitors almost overnight.
Despite cases only occurring in a handful of West Africa’s 16 countries, and not a single one in Guinea-Bissau, the aftermath of the scare was felt far and wide. “There are many misconceptions about this place,” my guide, Augusto M’Tambe, says. “People think it’s dangerous and full of disease but it’s not.”
To discover the truth and experience a corner of the world slowly emerging from the darkness — though political difficulties remain in a country that has experienced nine coups or attempted coups since 1980 — I join a group of intrepid-minded travellers on a group tour.
The plan is to travel south from the capital, Bissau, for several days sailing around the sacred Bijagos archipelago, a sprinkling of untouched islands in the Atlantic steeped in age-old traditions and home to some very unusual residents.
Before we set sail, however, a long day on bumpy dirt tracks beckons. The ruler-straight road, lined with giant trees with twisted limbs, shimmers long into the hazy distance. The dusty town of Canchungo is in mourning when we arrive unexpectedly. We only intended to make the briefest of pit stops, to buy a bottle of the local tipple, cana, a rum-like spirit with sugar cane and cashew nuts, as an offering to the local king we would soon meet. “You never go empty-handed,” advises Augusto. But the need to source gifts is swiftly sidelined as we stumble upon the most private of gatherings.
The dearly departed has been laid to rest and the sniffling funeral party, many wearing T-shirts featuring the face of the deceased, have congregated in a sandy square just off the main street. Heavy-set women in bright and colourful tribal dresses cry into their hands but the sobbing pauses abruptly upon sight of this group of out-oftowners. We stand on the fringes, shifting awkwardly in the dust, but the grieving family does not take umbrage at our presence. Instead they beckon us to join them, but our intrusion feels inappropriate, so we offer our condolences and gently retreat.
And, so, onwards to the Bijagos archipelago, a sprinkling of 88 semitropical isles encompassing two national parks, a UNESCO-listed biosphere reserve and the most important turtle nesting site in Africa. But its significance extends beyond the flora and fauna, with remote communities still governed by tribal chiefs. After cruising through the largest mangrove forest in West Africa, spotting pelicans, storks and river dolphins, we stretch our legs at the village of Elia. At the end of a raised embankment made of crushed oyster seashells, which scrape underfoot like shards of shrapnel, is the royal residence.
Less of a palace and more of a simple mud house, with low ceilings and iron pots placed over a crackling fire, it is home to King Gika Jata. A laconic man with stained teeth and long grey hairs dangling from his chin, he wears frayed shorts and a red bobbly hat in place of a crown.
He came to power about 20 years ago. “I can’t remember exactly when,” he says, his voice as low as a whisper and almost drowned out by the snorting piglets running around on the other side of the wall. We sit on wooden blocks and discuss his life. “I never expected to be king,” he tells us. “It’s a calling. The elders consult a fortune teller and the spirits choose someone with a clean heart.”
The next few days pass in a blur of ghost towns and age-old initiation ceremonies, including the menacing vaca bruto ritual, in which young men in heavy wooden masks modelled to look like bulls’ heads battle each other on all fours.
Bolama — all crumbling colonial mansions and grand houses now strangled by twisting tree trunks — served as the nation’s capital when the colonising Portuguese relocated it in a bid to escape malaria on the mainland during the mid-19th century. It remained the seat of power until 1941. Today, it’s a largely forgotten place with a modest population, most of whom seem to be sitting in the shade in the main square near a statue deposited by Mussolini when an Italian seaplane crashed nearby in 1931.
One of the archipelago’s southernmost islands is uninhabited Poilao, which forms part of the Joao Vieira and Poilao Marine National Park. Deemed a deeply spiritual place, the interior of the island — wild, untamed and a place for male initiations — is strictly off-limits to all but select elders and tribal leaders.
Luckily, though, the sandy shoreline that borders it is well used to receiving guests. Most nights between August and February, the beaches play host to green sea turtles which haul themselves across the sand to dig large nests and lay dozens of eggs. Reports suggest there are upwards of 2500 reproducing females, some travelling from as far as Mauritania, who come here to give birth on the same beach where they were born.
We camp near the sand and stay up into the early