Expect the un­ex­pected

Un­usual ad­ven­tures in Guinea-Bis­sau

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - NICK BOULOS

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.