Monday 17 June 2013

o : Ditinn Waterfall

On a rock facing the Ditinn Waterfall
Fouta Djallon Plateau

Dear o,

There is no one else around.  No merchants trying to sell us their wares, no hustlers trying to be our guides, no gendarmes eyeing up our willingness to shed money.  Perhaps way up above this giant, jetting cascade of water, on the plateau that we can’t see through the mist, a child or a couple hold fort around a telescope in the hope we’ll strip down and skinny-dip in the dark, rippling pool.  Of course, that’s a ridiculous thought, but it took us a good ten minutes after we arrived here to be sure no one had followed us from the village at the entrance to the trail. 

We arrived a few hundred metres from the village trailhead not long before dark yesterday and set up camp.  On the way from Ditinn we picked up a man named Ahmed on the road, who was asking for a ride.  “Where are you going?” I asked, and he pointed up ahead, “not far.”  We chatted for a bit and he seemed in good spirits.  He asked what we did and we told him.  We asked what he did, and he said he was in tourism.  Fantastic, we thought, and we knew what might be up.

When we spotted a good, flat place to put up our tent about five minutes down the dirt tracks, Al got out and I offered to drive Ahmed on to his destination while she set up.  He said no, here was fine, and so we pulled in and all got out.  He stood there while we got our bags and gear out, and then tried lamely to help with the poles.  “No, thanks,” I said, “we’re alright,” and so he stopped, and just stood there.  Two more men arrived together on a bicycle.  They got off, we said hello and they reciprocated, speechless. And then they too just stood there, with Ahmed, whom they knew.

“What are you doing?” we asked.  “We are here to help,” said Ahmed, and the others agreed.  “We don’t need help, thanks, we’re alright, please go on to where you live.  Good night.”  “Good night,” they all responded.  And then didn’t move.

Al and I walked into the bush to discuss our plan, and decided to move the tent somewhere on the other side of the road and in the cover of the trees, which would give us a better reason to say, “go away” – as if we’d staked a claim on a spot in the grass.

We returned to the tent and truck.  It was getting dark.  Ahmed and his two friends hadn’t moved.  “What are you doing?” I asked again.  “We are your night guardians,” said Ahmed.  “No thanks,” Al and I said together.  I picked up the poled-out tent and carried it into the bush, while Al got into Archer and drove him around to meet me.  I found a spot, laid down the tent, and saw Al come around the corner through the trees, followed by the three.  I walked past Archer and waved Al on, and stood in front of the men.

“What’s the problem?” I asked.  “We are your guardians for the night,” said Ahmed.  “No, no guardians, please leave.”  “You cannot stay here without guardians,” Ahmed insisted, flanked by his men.  “Is it illegal?”  “Yes,” said Ahmed, and there was just enough light left in the sky to see in his eyes that he was lying.  “Okay, go get the police,” I said, and turned back.  They followed, and I stopped to block their way to Al, Archer and the tent.  “Go get the police,” I said again, louder.  I could see Al in the corner of my eye, still and watching by the truck.  “No,” he said.  “Then leave us alone.  Good night.”  “Give me money,” said Ahmed, not so much a threat as a beg, but it got me angry all the same.  “For what?”  Silence.  “For what?  I gave you a ride!”  I looked at his friends who, thankfully, were getting nervous and looked like they wanted to go.  “You asked for a ride, and we were kind enough to give you one, and now you ask for money?  That’s not right.”  “We are tourist officials,” Ahmed lied.  “I don’t care.  Leave.”  The two others grabbed Ahmed and convinced him to go with them on the bicycle.  I went back to Al and the tent, watched them wait a little longer, and then they were gone.  Night had fallen, and there would be no time to cook a proper dinner: another night, then, of cold mackerel and sweetcorn.

 I didn’t realise it, but when Al had returned to the truck, she took hold of the hammer and the window-breaker, and prepared for things to get out of hand.  I felt bad about getting angry and escalating the situation, but typically self-righteous for being so used.  We slept in the tent for the night, because the truck was too hot, but I held the hammer under my pillow throughout the night.

That is the sort of thing we wanted to get away from by coming out here to the Fouta Djallon plateau.  Not so much the threat as the hassle; and not so much the danger as the constant watching.  We drove for two days on the treacherous northern road (on which we saw dozens of freight trucks turned over on the sharp turns), the same road we would have taken from Guinea-Bissau if we had avoided the swampy border we crossed.  We drove onto lesser roads, where the only others were on motorcycle, to get to the village of Ditinn, and then this morning walked for a couple hours to come here.  All to get out of town, away from the omnipresent reek of diesel and the prying eyes – above all, to get out of Conakry.

Conakry is the Guinean capital where our Ivory Coast visas are being processed.  We originally considered waiting the couple days out in the city, but quickly discovered why that wasn’t such a good idea.  I have never visited a dirtier, fouler, less friendly, less hospitable place in my life.  Millions live in the peninsular city, similar in shape to the larger, cleaner and more welcoming Dakar, serviced by a single laneless mud road for the whole of the conurbation’s traffic.  There is garbage everywhere, and the oceanfront is so covered with plastic that it is not possible to see the sand or rocks beneath.  There is no electricity for most of the city, while the rest has it for only the daytime; this wasn’t such a big deal for us until we thought of the common people, navigating the concrete metropolitan wilds in the night with just a flashlight and the rumbling, sleepless sound of a generator or two.

Worst for our first impressions and state of mind was the fact that we were stopped dozens of times by police and gendarmes, more than anywhere else by far, all asking for money and telling us something was wrong: luggage improperly packed, no vignette, we didn’t stop on a dime when we they blew the whistle.  One police officer simply walked up to my window, slammed his hand on the truck, and blurted out, “Give me money.”  Of course we didn’t – but each stop took a good 15 minutes to bitch, threaten, not speak French, and act like the stupidest, most banal, and above all most patient people of all time.  If that’s what we have to deal with, imagine the local woman who must fetch water by going past these assholes on ‘patrol’.

If we had found a way to skip Conakry altogether, and maybe get the visas in Freetown or Monrovia, we would have.  But if that was our route, I’m not so sure we would have driven ourselves so hard to get up here, and if we would have waited out last night without packing up and driving off.  Even last night’s talentless huslters, who in our imaginations had more skill as midnight robbers, made me want to push on to something beautiful.  Conakry and its country try-hards made us want to see just a little waterfall, almost desperately, and here we are.

It is stunning, and not so little after all.  The water tumbles down hundreds of feet, and by the time it hits the pool it is half a shower, half a cloud.  The whole area is ringed by the plateau cliffs, which jut out and abruptly halt, shields against the tropical plain.  The trees are big, sprawling and glistening, and they look as if they reach down and dip into the pool with cupped branches and suckling twigs.  This is everything Conakry isn’t, an antidote I hope exists for all Guineans.  There are birds, butterflies, blue sky and big rocks for the view – everything but the people, who still haven’t come.  I think it might just be safe to go for another, less inhibited swim.



Garbage Beach
Corniche Sud, Conakry
View from the first floor,
On the road to Ditinn

Our campsite
Distant view of the Ditinn Waterfall
A closer look,
Ditinn Waterfall
The village at the trailhead,
in front of the Ditinn Waterfall