Guinea-Bissau

26th of March – 24th of April 2019: 

After a night under cashew trees, we woke up since many people walked, drove or cycled on the nearby dirt road or worked in their gardens. The road we chose leads to one of the only beaches of the country that is around 20km long. The only problems are that the road leading there is in an extremely bad condition and a dead end at the same time. Despite that, we started cycling the 50km long sandy, rough dirt road until the seaside. Many people on heavily loaded bicycles or walking passed us and we greeted all of them with our small vocabulary of the Portuguese language.  

After we managed the difficult terrain, the reward was a beautiful sand beach. There was literally a beach as far as we could see and almost nobody around. During a quick exploration walk, we met a group of community workers dancing to loud music and drinking lots of beer and palm liquor. The social and tipsy group offered us some drinks and we enjoyed the view over the beach and the pleasant company.  

The summary of our rest days after the strenuous arrival is rather easy. Reading, Swimming, washing clothes and the construction of sand castles were our daily activities. We enjoyed the calmness, the fresh wind and therefore the ideal climate. Almost nobody was at the beach. The sea breeze and the eucalyptus trees were dancing squeakily in the wind.  

In the meantime, we visited the village and talked with several people with some knowledge of the French language. We told them that we would like to take a boat to the other side of the Rio Cacheu, to omit cycling back the dirt road we came here. Two locals promised us to ask around until the next morning and to inform us. The evening came quickly and as soon as the dawn set in, the temperature was lower and we had to wear a sweater while being outside.  

One informant called Osman got the phone number of an angler and he tried to call this number several times until he realized that it was his own number. The angler had the same name and he obviously did not know his own number by hearth. Therefore, our hopes were depending on Ismail who told us that until the evening he would know if the pirogue would leave the village or not. Later we discussed with several people of the village and denied among others a private transport for unbelievable 200 Euros. Finally, an owner of the pirogue that transports dried and fresh fish to Cacheu, gave us green light for the crossing the next morning.  

As discussed, we met at Ismails restaurant shortly after nine o’clock and brought already all our chattels. Quickly, we realized that we had to wait a little longer, since the fishermen had to finish some work before we could leave Varela. Half an hour later, Ismail led us to the beach where all the boats arrive and the loading and unloading takes place. There, the hard-working locals said that we had to wait a couple of hours more, because the water was not high enough and they had to wait for another boat to arrive. Therefore, we installed our solar panel and relaxed in the shade of some palm trees.  

In the meantime, villagers carried fish by the kilo to the seaside and prepared for the passage. In addition, many anglers with filled gumboots carried complete marine engines to the beach and back. At six o’clock, the captain finally gave us a sign to prepare our luggage for the journey and bring it to the beach. There, we surprisingly had to bargain for the price. The day before we were astonished to hear that we did not have to pay anything and that would be no problem at all. Having said this, the captain all of a sudden expected us to pay 15 Euros each and we were shocked, since we were training our patience a lot for this free crossing. Since we were quite angry, the captain agreed on a friendly price of around 1.50 Euro per person.  

We transferred the bicycles including our luggage systematically to the approximately 15 meter long pirogue and soon the journey started. During previous discussions about the trip, the villagers told us that the crossing would take around one and a half hours, so we assumed to reach Cacheu before nightfall. Of course, it was long dark before we even entered the Rio Cacheu. After roughly three hours, we were interested where we were and opened our GPS-map on our phone. Our intuition was right and we were already too far and completely lost. Immediately, we showed our location to one of the crew members and they gave instructions to the helmsman. After some rounds in a circle, the communication harmonized across three corners and we were back on our route. Already alarmed by the insufficient navigational skills and the infrastructure on the boat, which was inexistent, we checked our location every couple of minutes.  

To all of this, the cook approached us and said that we can rest a bit, threw the anchor out and went into the protected part of the boat. Of course, we asked why and he said now it was low tide and we had to wait a couple of hours until high tide to continue further upriver. Irritated we tried to get some sleep. Adrian on deck, since his seasickness did not allow entering the shelter with his stuffy air, built with rice bags stitched together. Fabian with the other five men huddled under the shelter, which was hardly two square meters of size. Suddenly, around 1.30 AM, the motor started again and the journey continued. Shortly before 4 AM, we reached the port of Cacheu after almost ten hours on the water and were happy that one of the crew members invited us to his house for the night.  

 

Still knackered from the long night trip, we thanked the unqualified, but extremely attentive crew and left the old colonial town of Cacheu. The whole day we cycled through cashew plantations and asked ourselves, if the scenery would change at some point. During the breaks in the shade, we told the locals from our project. Like many times before, they did not believe us and shook their head when thinking about the distance we already covered.  

 

With the capital Bissau as our destination, we left the shade of the cashew trees and entered the main road in the direction of the large city. Unfortunately, the road is in a catastrophic condition and many cars switch voluntarily to the dirt road, which developed next to the actual road. The air temperature raised already to around 35 degrees when we reached the city center. Candida, the flat mate of a friend, received us warmly and in the evening, we ate together in a local restaurant and exchanged our impressions of this small country. 

The perfectly located house of the shared flat of the Portuguese expats was ideal for us to organize the visa for Guinea-Conakry and to get to know the city. The calm capital is home to some colonial buildings, a large cathedral and a run-down port.  

We planned the route for the next weeks and treated ourselves with a culinary variety in comparison to the simple food choice in the countryside.  

We left Bissau too late and punished ourselves with the increasing air temperatures. Already after some kilometers, the oppressive heat made us drink liters of water and our heads were glowing like a fever patient in a hospital. In the shade, we took a break from time to time and refilled our bottles with fresh water from the wells.  

At a toll station, the soldiers wanted to get money from us, because we passed the barrier just leaving a few centimeters of space, instead of cycling around it. We laughed loudly and made clear that we do not pay for anything, since the claim was ridiculous. After a short discussion, they gave up and we they allowed us to pass. After almost 90km, we gave up and found a beautiful spot directly next to a garden of local women.  

 

Shortly before dawn, two women who worked in the gardens came back, explained us in a theatrical way that there were “kobra”, and pointed to large holes in the soil. We were too lazy to move all our equipment and were convinced that we were safe. 

Already at 10AM, it was so hot that sweat came out of all our pores. After almost 20km, Adrian realized that he had breathlessness and we decided to not continue for the day and stay in at a river in a small village.  

The family received us as if they knew we would visit them today. Despite a huge language barrier, we tried to communicate and smiled at each other. In the afternoon, there was suddenly a child with a bowl of rice with some sauce and said this is for us. Afterwards, we played with the kids and swam in the salty river.  

Finally, we saw how the cashew nuts were roasted. They took a rusty, perforated metal plate and put it on top of a fire and place around a kilogram of nuts on it. After a few minutes, an oil came out of the cashews and resulted in a huge flame on the metal plate. Then, the hard working girls extinguished the burning nuts on the ground, cooled off and at the end pealed. The cashew apples, attached to the nut from below, appear in a yellow, orange or red color and this accessory fruit is good to eat just like that. Guinea-Bissau is one of the largest producers of cashew nuts worldwide. However, the poor country exports them unprocessed and therefore creates an extreme sensibility on price fluctuations for the local farmers.  

The dinner was rice with a little bit of sauce with fish flavor, as for lunch and was brought to us without hesitation, incredible! The chief of the family even accompanied us back to our tent, which was only 50m away and made sure nobody was able to steal anything from our equipment during the night.  

In every village, even if it was tiny, children and even adults screamed «Branco» in our direction to greet the passing white cyclists friendly. Today, we realized again that Guinea-Bissau had not even a population of 2 million inhabitants on an area a bit smaller than Switzerland. From time to time, there was a village with some small shops, a mechanic and many people waiting for the heat to pass in the shade of a big tree.  

Shortly before Bafata, we reached a plane with hundreds of rice fields, watered all year by the nearby river. Since a long time we have not seen a green landscape like this. Besides, we had to climb some hills, which brought some change to our cycling day.  

Quickly, we reached Gabú, the second largest city of the country and the last decent city on our way to Guinea. In a restaurant, we ate our usual breakfast, which consists of a baguette with omelet, onions and mayonnaise. On the side, we updated our blog and took advantage of the fast internet connection.  

In the greatest heat, we climbed our bicycles, left the bumpy main road and turned into a side road. This gravel road was in a good condition and followed dead straight the cashew plantations and small authentic villages. After some kilometers, we stopped in a village to refill our water bottles. Hesitant and shy the men approached us and soon we were surrounded by a dozen starring men. One of them spoke French and interested as he was, translated the many questions his friends were asking him. When we left, we shook everyone’s hands, since none of them wanted to miss the possibility to shake the hand of a white man.  

In the late afternoon, we reached the shore of the Rio Cocoli and bargained a fair price for crossing with the too small pirogue. On the other side of the river, we searched for an ideal spot directly on the water in the shade of the trees, cooled our bodies in the too warm water and settled ourselves. 

In the evening before, we could not buy any bread and therefore had to organize breakfast the first thing in the morning. The baker was not there and so we bought a few fried pastries and told Lamarama, the French-speaking village tailor, we would like to eat the meal a woman was preparing and looked delicious. He said that would be no problem. We just had to buy the fish and bring it to her. Later, a fully packed motorcycle arrived with fish to our tent, accompanied by three guys. We bought ten fish and asked if they can bring it to the woman for preparing the meal. As we agreed, the food was ready around two o’clock and we sat down on the typically broken imported chairs from China.  

Before we could try the new dish, the host tested with our spoon, if everything was all right. This seems to be a tradition in Guinea-Bissau and puts a smile on our faces each time. The fish balls with mango, onions and rice were delicious. We relaxed in the shade and observed families collecting cashew nuts. Every few minutes, a nut including the fruit crashed down from the trees and we sighted each time they did not hit us. 

The inhabitants of this small village close to the river were Muslims; belong to the tribe of the Fula. They mostly migrated from Guinea Conakry. Many domesticated animals lived in the village and all the people seemed to live close together in peace and were happy about the things they own. The tea culture is important and celebrated to the excess. One can wait easily two hours for the tea to be ready. In the last evening, we watched part of a Champions League game in a small, hot corner of a bar, filled with kids and teenagers.  

The sun was already in the zenith until we said goodbye to all our new friends in the village, bought supplies and filled our water bottles. The condition of the gravel road got worse and we had to some struggle across the rocky hills and deep gravel. From time to time, there was a short downhill, which rather reminded us of a hiking trail than a road. Scenically, it got clearly hillier and there were sparse, rocky parts as well as short sections in dense forests.  

In a small village, there was some kind of party going on, some men played loud music, and women sang accordingly. In regular intervals, a woman got up and danced energetically to the authentic rhythms. Dozens of nicely dressed kids and women gathered, either standing or sitting in a huge circle. 

Quite drained from the bumpy ride and at the same time we were glad to have arrived without any breakdown, we decided to stay in the village Gobije. By foot, we walked to the river to cool down our overheated bodies.  

A partly emigrated Mauritanian invited us for two sweat teas and afterwards we continued the struggle back to the main road. The dirt road got partly even worse as the day before and we needed a high level of concentration. We passed extremely rudimentary settlements, who had huts constructed out of simple branches and bushes.  

Shortly before reaching the long-desired asphalt road, we read that we were in a national park called Dulombi. On the main road, we cycled approximately 10km until the waterfall Saltinho, where the river passes under a bridge and drops down several meter high cascades. After a refreshing bath, surrounded by half-naked women and children, we played around with a few kids until we were hungry.  

Luisa, our acquaintance who left us her flat for our stay in Bissau, invited us for a short trip to a beach in the South. Like this, we finally got the opportunity to meet her. Therefore, we cycled a bit further than Quebo, deposited our bicycles and drove with Luisa and a local friend called Dio across the bumpy dirt road. The car with 4WD fought through the sandy, rocky and narrow road, until we suddenly reached a beautiful, lonely beach. We swam in the shallow water and Dio, who could communicate with the local anglers, organized some fresh fish for dinner. We enjoyed a few beers, grilled the fish and appreciated the silence on the beach, accompanied with interesting conversations.  

In the afternoon, we drove the bad quality road back and stopped in a few villages, since Dio wanted to check the prices of some exhibited wooden doors or some vacant houses. Back at the fuel station, we were glad to be on the asphalt road again. Directly behind the fuel station there was a shelter where we installed our mosquito net and spent the night.  

Since the people around the fuel station were very friendly and we anyway wanted to finish some things, we stayed for a rest day there. We could wash ourselves in the toilet, use the electricity and use the small shelter as a resting place. A security officer joined us for the night sleeping on the floor. 

30km and many potholes after the fuel station, we reached Buba, the hometown of Dio. Luisa works there currently and we went for a swim in the afternoon in the nearby river. After the luxury of a shower, we met Dio in a bar to drink a beer to our reunion. Afterwards, we pitched our tent behind an abandoned house on the riverside.  

Three men who practiced their dancing choreography woke us up just after eight o’clock. The sportive teenagers moved synchronically to the western music and showed that the feeling for rhythm seems more pronounced in the genetic code of the African people than in Central Europe.

We enjoyed the newly opened asphalt road from Buba in the direction of Catió. Almost no traffic and no potholes, therefore our touring hearth beat faster. Only a ruptured gearshift cable on Adrian’s bicycle stopped us for two hours. We luckily had an extra cable and finally were able to install the new cable and adjust the gearshift. Shortly before Catió, we left the good quality road and had to get used to the gravel road again. At the port of Cufar, we found a pirogue to the other side after some short price discussions. The locals told us that on the other side we had to cover 4km of difficult terrain until we would reach the road again. We accepted this risk and entered the boat with the help of the strong local men. After a few minutes, we saw a one-and-a-half-meter long crocodile on the riverbank and were glad to be inside the boat. 

On the other side, we saddled our bicycles and realized quickly that the four kilometers lead over narrow paths along huge rice plantations. This meant, we only moved forward as fast as we could push our bicycles. The first flat spot we saw was a straw storage location and we decided to spend the night there.  

Already before sunrise, people walked past our tent and loudly exchanged the newest village gossip. Shortly after, we decided to leave the plantations, since the sun shone already on our tent with full power and it got hot quickly.  

The trail led us further along the rice plantations and we carefully had to push our bicycles across the narrow paths. Since there is not enough freshwater at this time of the year, the fields can only be used during the rainy season. Many women and children passed us, greeted friendly and asked us many questions we could not understand. At one spot, we had to cross a stream to continue to the other side. A group of younger and older women helped us immediately and posed with lots of pleasure for a couple of pictures.  

With the help of these women, we found the way to the village, where we asked for the shortest way to Jemberem. Two teenagers came with us to show the right way, transporting us to the other side of another river and even pushed the bicycles for a while. Soon, we reached the road and shortly after the village in the middle of the last primary rain forest in the region, which belongs to the “Parque National de Catanhez”.  

After the arrival, we organized lunch in a complicated, but necessary way. We asked a few men, where we could find something to eat, even though there was no restaurant. After we suggested that a woman could cook for us earning some money, the process got faster and about two hours later, we could finally eat.  

To discover the area, we walked a few hours along the small trails through the dense forest and unfortunately partly cashew plantations that are omnipresent despite the park.  

The local guide told us that he would search groups of chimpanzees and tell us in the evening if he found them. The tour to the chimpanzees would start at five the next morning. Unfortunately, he was not able to find them the same day and the next one as well.  

Instead of observing the chimpanzees, we made a trip to the primary rainforest with Roberto and Emma, two Spaniards we met at the camp. We saw different primates and beautiful birds. Luckily, the locals found an overnight spot of a group of chimpanzees and the next morning at five, we drove to this spot. In the dark, we sneaked under a tree where we could already see the nest of the primates. Excited, we waited until the chimpanzees started to stretch their arms and legs in a relaxed manner and then they looked out of their nest, directly in our direction. Afterwards, they escaped quickly and agile into the thick forest. This was an experience to remember.  

The National Park Catanhez is home to the most western communities of chimpanzees in Africa and researchers estimate the population to be around 600. In addition, there should be elephants, who are extremely difficult to spot in this area.  

The bad road led us through dense forest and small villages. Suddenly, we heard monkeys scream and we searched a trail into the forest, to find the source of the noise. As expected, it was a group of chimpanzees. We sneaked closer and closer until the noise got so loud that we were afraid to go nearer. Suddenly, we saw that the apes approached us and obviously wanted to show us who was the owner of the territory. Since we did not want to start a fight with our closest relatives and knew about the immense strength of the animals, we left the forest.  

The horrible road, which was only ridable with a 4WD, was finally getting better and quickly, we reached the border village of Candembel. A few days ago, we asked here, if it would be possible to get the exit stamp, before crossing the border on the small trail to Guinea. The custom officials explained to Dio and Luisa, our translators that would be no problem at all. The custom officials recognized us and offered us spontaneously a room for the night.  

In the calm and rather beautiful border village, we spend our last day in Guinea-Bissau. The first thing we did was looking for a mobile antenna of our provider to update the blog. Unfortunately, the signal was too weak, therefore, the internet was too slow, and after a couple of hours, we finally gave up.  

Fabian repaired his shoe and the bicycle tube with the help of various people of the village and Adrian maintained his bicycle. The village is home to stunning traditional round huts and many families were busy with the production of palm oil or the collection of cashew nuts.  

In the early morning, we tried to search the two custom officials, who should provide us the exit stamp. People told us that they already left the village and would only return in the late afternoon. We were shocked and already thought we would have to spend another day in this small village. However, the helpful villagers explained us efficiently that the commander was here and could give us the stamp into the passport. At his house, he got his plastic bag with the completely worn-down stamp and the dry ink and slammed the stamp into our Swiss passports. Unfortunately, the shirtless official took the wrong stamp for Adrian’s passport and gave him a second entry stamp. After a short discussion, he put the exit stamp on top of it, so it was impossible to read anything.  

After a few minutes, we arrived at a small, thatched hut with a flag of Guinea, where the border official greeted us friendly. He said that we would get the entry stamp in about 30km in the next village.  

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