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.
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.
One evening we had finished early enough I decided I needed some exercise. I had been trooping around with the trainees but the walks were short and there was a lot of time just standing round explaining or fixing problems or interviewing the land holders. I felt the effects of too many chicken and rice curries and felt I needed to reduce the bloat. So I told Kofi I would head along the main road and see where it took me.
The sun was just beginning to drop low enough to redden the sky; I estimated I had about 90 minutes before it got too dark to see. I dropped down from the house and within 100m was in amongst the community forest which bounded much of the village. At the bottom of the hill was the women’s bathing pool and a couple of semi naked women were washing and chatting down there, their children playing in and out of the water half covered in soap. The road rose quite steeply into the dry scrubby vegetation; I left what was called the “gallery forest”, the tall thick tropical trees, behind, and entered a low but densely treed area with thick tangles of grasses and creepers now almost completely dried out. To me it was a very pretty landscape, a sort of crowded parkland; one I heard was innately within our blood to connect with as it was the savannah landscape our first ancestors ever looked out on. The road dipped again and there was a wide valley bottom. As opposed to the community forest, this valley had been stripped of all but a few trees, and the floor carved up into different farm plots. A variety of food was being grown here; as well as rice paddies there were vegetables including onions, chilli, okra, gourds. People had devised different ways to control the water flow and water logging here; some of the crops were grown on small round soil mounds about a metre above the valley bottom, others in ridges of soil. In other places bunds had been put up to shelter the crop from the little channels of water than ran between each plot. It was so carefully controlled, meticulously managed.
And the contrast between the green of these bottom areas (bas fond in the French was a common term used for them) and the dry scrubland vegetation around was stark. No wonder you could pick it out from satellite imagery so easily.
It had been a long day of travelling, and after the overnight flight the night before, I was ready for some rest but as often when I start trips I awoke early just as the first hints of daylight were revealing themselves through a gap in the curtains. I pushed those curtains back and watched the sun rise over the lake, as rapidly as it always does in Africa. It was still an hour before breakfast so I decided to take a walk around the environs of the hotel. Most of the hotel rooms were in one of two blocks on the lakeshore, protected from choppy waves by a low wall. There were also some trees to protect the shore, but their roots currently stood in water – being the end of the short rainy season the lake was relatively full. This meant there was only a narrow beach of beautifully soft white sand. It could almost be seaside. The wind the night before had whipped up sizeable waves – the fetch on the lake was not good enough not to produce full size rollers but they had crests and broke noisily on the sandy beach.
I wandered through the hotel compound; it had been almost dark when I had arrived the previous night so now I picked up on more features on my morning walk, including a large naive styled antelope sculpture made of plaster next to the dining room. I headed out past a snoozing guard in the car park, out the front gate and along the dusty track that ran parallel to the lake shore. There were a number of small workshops and storerooms dotted along the track, mostly related to fisheries and woodworking, and I did not realise till after breakfast that the Fisheries Department had their offices along this road. Ian introduced the key officers to me when we walked down the road again, and we talked about the day’s trip.
The walk had not taken very long; given the marathon the day before we had progressed further than expected. Mike was not due for another couple of hours at least, so we settled down on the grass and watched the world go by. For a while it was quiet, the odd dog sniffing around the strand line, a single fisherman out on his canoe. Then we heard a raucous behind us. A group of about 20 creoles were coming across the park. They were dressed eclectically, some in t shirts and track suit, some of the women in flowery skirts or overalls, some wore baseball caps, others headscarves. They acknowledged us but otherwise were watching the horizon, they had buckets of bait in their hands. It was a joy to watch the interaction between these people; cheerful, joking, telling stories, catching up on gossip. A few mongrels wandered in amongst the crowd, having their own social interactions of wagging tails, sniffing bottoms with the occasional low growl or heckle raised. Once or twice the two species intermingled with a pat, more sniffing and once or twice a raised hand or kick. We lay there and watched this spectacle – as if we were the audience at an opera watching the chorus set the scene before the main stars appeared.
As the helicopter passed closely overhead in the direction of the airport once more, we noticed that a couple of fishing boats had cut through the breaking waves into the lagoon and were heading to the posse in front of us. The conversations continued but now they also went about their business, which was to collect the catch from the boats and unpack the boat of its equipment.
Waiting for the fishing boats
Spying on their interconnections
No sign of the boats