Living in the Community – Unwanted companions

The sun was now dropping below the horizon and the sky turned a deep red then rich purple.  I got as far as a turn in the road on top of a hill and could just see out to the east where the greener and more forested area of the Outamba National Park could be seen a few kilometres away.  Gray had been spending most of his time in there and had returned with amazing stories of the beauty of this place.  I’d only managed a brief visit the previous year when I had a magical trip down the Scarcies River to watch hippos.  But Kofi and I had decided we needed a change.  Part of our remit was to look at the geographical aspects of our partners’ work, and this was to give us the excuse to travel with Gray to another of his sites for his mapping, the Kuru Hills to the north.

I turned for home and walked at a faster pace as the darkness was now coming on fast.  I dodged a couple of taxis speeding as fast as their decrepit frames could carry them to the ferry before the boatmen knocked off for the night.  I met several people along the way, mostly women carrying wood back to the village for the evening meal, a couple of farmers looking weary after  a day in their fields, some carrying fodder for their animals back at base.  One man was very pleased to see me; he talked in good English asking me where I came from and what I was doing.  The conversation was quite detailed but I got a little nervous when he asked whether I was going to church the next day.  He told me where it was and he felt that we all need saving so I would be welcomed in.  I thanked him but tried to make no commitments; I am not a religious man of any hue, and was looking forward to a humanistic day amongst this amazing landscape.  I said I had to get back for dinner and walked faster away from him.

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Sunset on my walk

I had noticed that the mosquito bites had got worse each day, and I also saw, because it was difficult to bathe properly here, that some of the wounds were starting to fester.   It was a nuisance; although I wore long trousers in the day time while out in the bush, it was nice to relax in shorts before the sun went down, but my open sores attracted flies.  Flies during the day, and more mosquitoes at night; it was never a restful time there.

Living in the Community – A painful night

Occasionally, the peace was broken by a vehicle coming along the road.  You heard the roar of an engine as it crossed the stream and the driver accelerated up the incline to the village limits – a headlight revealing their location to us.  Mostly they were small motorbikes, the odd taxi.  Rarely did we see lorries at night.  Once or twice another four wheel drive might bounce through.  Everyone would look up from what they were doing and look across, even in the darkness you knew these outside effects were still rare enough to gather villagers’ interests.

Our conversation thinned; we were all tired.  Even though it was not yet 9pm, we decided to retire to our own rooms.  We brought in all the crockery and pans and left them in a plastic bowl  for our cook to take off to clean.  We carefully carried the chairs back inside but decided to leave the table out under the veranda, and I struggled to close the two doors and lock up.  In the dark I fumbled to use the latrine, then tried to make myself as comfortable in my bedroom.  It was horribly stuffy inside.  I tried to open the window shutter, but one of the hinges was broken and it wedged hardly an inch out from the frame.  I noticed there was no screen on the window.  I hoped the mosquito net would provide sufficient barrier.  I undressed.  I wetted a flannel which is a precaution I take in all hot stuffy houses, and left it on the chair which I positioned near my pillows next to the bed.  I took off my clothes and left them on the lid of my suitcase with the hope they would be away from dust and clambered into bed through the gap in the net.  I had my torch on my head and surveyed the quality of the net; as I had dreaded there were a lot of holes in it – too many to try and block.  I removed an itchy thin blanket and climbed in under a thick polyester sheet.  It was uncomfortable from the start and as soon as I lay down I realised I had started sweating.  I reached out and grabbed the flannel and tried to wipe water on every part of my body.  The cold of the flannel and the few moments of evaporation that followed were an exquisite release, but only for a few seconds.  I was hot again in moments.  I tried some reading but was dog tired.  I turned off the torch and put it to one side of the pillow and lay there in the dark  and tried to relax for sleep.  For a time I found I was concentrating on the noises in the houses around me.  Being at the back of the house my bedroom was adjoining another property and there was still some late night cleaning of pots and pans and general chit chat going on; and the chickens and goats never stopped their clucking and bleating.  Gradually this started to mentally disappear into the background.  I started to relax and feel slumber coming on.

I was startled out of this state by a noise coming across the room at me.  It was the high pitched buzz of a female mosquito.  I knew I was not to get to sleep now.  Even though it might not find its way through the netting, the constant hum moving around the room was distracting; no that is wrong; it was not distracting, it was completely fixating.  I flashed my torch around in the hope of catching it in the beam but no luck.  I had to just lie there and take my fate.

I tried all sorts of tricks to get me off to sleep, counting, reciting lists of geographical features both real and imaginary; things like all the railway stations from Victoria to Dover Western Docks or the countries of Middle Earth.  I tried to breathe more deeply and slowly.  Nothing worked.  Or so I thought.

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Fintonia

I awoke at first light and realised I must have at last dropped off.  Although still glum I could make out the austere contents of my room.  I also felt some irritating pain in my calves.  I drew my leg up to take a look and saw a constellation of mosquito bites.  The other leg was equally affected, and  had one or two on my midriff and arms.  It always feels that I have been attacked by a whole army of mosquitoes but it was probably just one or two.  Why they cannot just suck blood from one hole and reduce the number of itchy places on my skin; maybe the swelling gets too much for their proboscis.

Into the Jungle – Settling in camp

Stephanie was struggling with the rental drivers.  They had used up far more fuel than they expected and needed to get some more.  Since the last filling station was in Kamakwie (on the other side of the Scarcies River), I think the solution was to buy some local expensive fuel from containers.  But we were on a tight schedule.  We had a full day of meetings in several villages in Sierra Leone, followed by more tomorrow before crossing the border in to Guinea on the following day.

A lady brought in from the last village we had seen had been cooking up a dinner of fish and rice, and stashes of bottles held by us travellers were brought out, including Amarula, whisky and a bottle of red wine.  We sat round, phased a little by our long journey but fascinated by where we now were in the midst of the area where the project was acting on the ground – about 350 km north east of Freetown as the crow flies, more like 500km the route we had taken.

We retired relatively early; the camp had no generator so we only had firelight, a couple of lanterns and our own torches or phones to light the world by.  The thunder rumbled around and it poured in the night.  I tried to arrange my stuff as best as possible around the room, the most useful and valuable items in the mosquito netting with me – I was having no false scorpions terrifying me again.

A few pages of book read and I was ready for sleep, and awoke only when the soggy dawn broke.  There was patchy activity in the camp and I saw for real what it was like.  I was in one of four rectangular cabins under the trees and behind me, about 30m away was a long drop toilet.  Across an open grassy area where our vehicles were parked were another series of cabins, this time metal rondavels perched on a bluff above the Little Scarcies River.  In front of my cabins were a couple of picnic tables where we had ate the night before and alongside it our hired cook was back boiling eggs in  a large pot and getting some water under way for us to make coffee – traditional African Nescafe sachets with Nido and St Louis sugar cubes of course.

In the trees off to my left was a large open area surrounded by bamboo benches and tables.  And out beyond the rondavels was our ablution area.  We took a plastic bucket and headed down to the river to wash.  I was content like most to strip to the waist and clean myself as best as possible but one or two dove in the river.  The waste water went into the bushes and I headed back for my boiled eggs.  It was a typical boy scout breakfast, as along with the instant coffee from a big box of sachets, we had white bread, margarine and red jam, flavour indeterminable.  Hugo had found some ripe mangoes at last at one of the last villages on the other side of the river and we all had a juicy slice.

The Other Mauritius – The Central Towns (2)

The meteorological office was in a much more salubrious location.  To get there you passed by one of the most exclusive golf courses on the island, and many high class villas.  Indeed the Prime Minister had his residence up in this district.  Given the love for most tourists to have their beach side properties with the views of the ocean and access to all the restaurants down there, I wondered why Vacoas, and, to some extent, Curepipe had some of the most desirable property on the whole island.  Country clubs, golf courses and some of the more fashionable retail stores had clustered around these people’s residences.  Why indeed did over a quarter of a million people, more than double the population of Port Louis, live in this cluster or towns?  The answer lie in the 1800s when during the industrialisation of the island, both the sugar industry and other commodities, the working population suffered a series of epidemics.  It was also the period following the end of slavery and the period of indentured labour.  Many Indians had only turned up in the previous twenty years and were not acclimatised to deal with local diseases. The worst epidemic was malaria; the mosquitoes festered in the mangrove swamps, barachois and dank woodlands in the lowlands.  Much of Plaines Wilhelm is out of reach of their breeding grounds and life was much healthier here.  Unfortunately that meant that the Indian population in particular, although a couple of generations removed from their ancestral Bihar home, were always complaining of the bad weather.  Curepipe was often spurned by many Mauritians for being too cold and miserable.  Certainly on my first trip, I found the town centre constantly shrouded in cloud and often raining; the moss and dirt on the buildings in the shopping streets made it look particularly drab.  But on the second trip I had several trips through the town during sunny weather and I felt it had a strong late spring fresh feel that was rare in Mauritius.

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Curepipe Botanic Gardens

Curepipe held the national stadium, several prestigious buildings and an intimate but pretty little botanic gardens.  It was a busy city and seemed a world away from Port Louis, although only about 15 miles from the centre of the capital.

Heading further south you felt even more distant from the metropolitan part of the island, and a world away from Calodyne.  The old road out of Curepipe soon skirted out towards the largest forest on the island, some of which was privately held by rich landowners in hunting grounds called Domains.