Sand in the Sandwiches – Trip to the Port Au Peche

We had little time to explore the country outside of work.  With just two short weeks we had to hit the ground running.  Additionally we got our weekends confused.  Mauritania, being Muslim, had Friday and Saturday off, but the Government decided to switch it to Saturday and Sunday during our stay.  We ended up working an extra day on the Friday to keep up, but then have to be back at work on Sunday and missing another day of the weekend the next weekend as well.  We only had about two days off in the 16 days, and on one of those we worked at the apartment.  On the other, we took the afternoon off and went to the coast.  Nouakchott is inland by about four miles, and the sprawl of the city has not quite reached the coast.  We had been recommended to go to the fishing landing site on the Atlantic coast to see what happened there and a taxi man snaked his way through the better suburbs of the north of the city to the road to the coast.  Where the city gave out the tarmacced road headed out across a sandy scrubland.  The most bountiful thing out here was no plant or animal, but plastic.  Millions and millions of plastic bags had been blown out here from the city.  I knew it was desecrating the natural environment the world over, but here where there was little vegetation, the bags were stark, and with few rain showers only the sun would eventually break them down, and while the older ones looked decayed, the quantity of new bags was increasing exponentially.

 The topography around Nouakchott was flat and repetitive, and only a few small sand dunes to the west marked the coastline, that and a number of superstructures on the skyline.  To the south was the port, and a set of silos that seemed to be connected to a concrete factory.  Immediately in front a bunch of concrete eggshells marked the roof of Port de Pêche, the fishing port.  It was hectic on this Saturday afternoon, but the taxi driver insisted on forcing his way to the centre of the throng by the ramps.  We got out of the vehicle and told him to wait for about forty minutes and started to explore.  Like the world over, fish were being sold by a bunch of women on the hard, the men were mainly smoking and arguing in little groups.  We worked ourselves past the plastic trays and basketry, large thick bloody pelagic fish in piles, their severed heads in a bucket nearby.  We walked towards the seaward side, passing traders, customers and loads of little kids trying to see what they could cadge.  To get to the beach itself, we had to weave our way through hundreds of boats, long wooden structures tapering upwards at both ends to ride the harsh Atlantic rollers, cross beams for a bunch of hardy fishermen to sit – up to twelve in a crew.  Most of the boats on the beach were unseaworthy, years of neglect leaving them to the mercy of the sand, the salt and the spray.  All the others were brightly coloured.  Out to sea too about a hundred boats buffeted by a high surf.  We could not quite work out how the fishermen got out there, whether they hitched lifts on the other boats launched form the beach or had little boats stashed away somewhere.  We saws why some were anchored, to haul these huge cumbersome boats up and down the beach took a Herculean effort.  Judith and I watched seven or eight guys manhandling one of the boats. Rather than try to bring them up bow first, they took them parallel to the shore and wiggled them first to the left, then up to the right and they zig-zagged up about a dozen or more times to get it beyond the high tide..  These guys were huge, most well over six feet and built as broad, but they still struggled manfully to move the boats.  The beach was full of these zig zag trails.  Most were wearing huge yellow mackintoshes and floppy sou’westers.  I was amazed they needed this so close to the heat of the desert, but when I tested the water, it was extremely cold, and there was a stiff cool breeze blowing onshore.  The cold water meant the fisheries here are very rich, upwellings were bringing vital nutrients to the surface and attracting large numbers of fish.  To get the fish from the boat to market, several ass stood by harnessed into two wheeled carts.  They would haul it back to the huge superstructure we had arrived at.

Liming – On the Edge – Exploring St Lucia

By the Wednesday, we were getting tired.  We saw little hope of moving the St Vincent project on, and Keith persuaded me that I should go and meet with my counterparts in Kingstown, the capital, so he booked me on a Liat flight the next day.

Air Jamaica plane taxiing at Vigie Airport

Air Jamaica plane taxiing at Vigie Airport

Before I went, he wanted to show me more of the island, so far I had seen only the north west side, the busy capital of Castries and the tourists traps around Rodney Bay.  We slipped out of work the Wednesday lunch time and headed south along the coast.  Past the massive oil tanks in the deep bay harbour, we went through the banana growing country that helps sustain St Lucia’s economy.  Every single bunch of bananas was enclosed in blue plastic bags to keep pests away, but these bags also littered the ground and watercourses for miles around.  We went past Marigot, where the original Dr Doolittle film was shot.

Doolittle Bay

Doolittle Bay

We went through a couple of fishing villages, Anse le Raye and Canaries, and I began to see how under the veneer of paradise, there was a developing country shouting to get out.  Although not the mud huts of Africa, nevertheless, these dwellings were small, ill-repaired and lacking many basic services.  From above the village, the clusters of tin roofs look like any barrio in Cali.

 At every corner we passed people by and Keith would invariably toot his horn or be waved at.  I think he knows everyone on St Lucia.  It is hardly surprising, these islands are so small if you live on them for a few years you are bound to know most of its inhabitants.  Keith had also been a fisheries officer for the St Lucian government before moving on to OECS which meant he spent a lot of time in these little villages talking to the fishermen, often the kingpins of society in these places.

 We circled a few headlands and went through a couple of forested areas bedecked in tree ferns and lush green shrubs, before we came down into Soufrière.  Once the capital of St Lucia, this small gridiron town sits in amongst one of the most dramatic settings of anywhere in the Caribbean.  Not only does the river valley Soufrière snuggles into emanate from the largest mountains on the island, clad in tropical rain forest, but, to the south of the town, two huge conical hills rise out of the sea, known as the Gros and Petit Piton.  Closer and more dramatic, the Petit Piton appears more challenging, tapering uniformly to its peak, but together they give St Lucia a potent environmental symbol.  Every tourist brochure contains their picture, as do the T-shirts, shot-glasses and T-towels you can buy, and even the beer is named after them and displays their twin peaks on every bottle.

 In the little town below, we met up with Kie Wolf, at the time the manager of the Soufrière Marine Management Area, a sort of co-operative National Park.  He showed us round his new headquarters, only about half finished at the time.  We could hardly hear because of the hammering that was going on, and the noise of a drill sergeant who was training National Park staff in the car park below.  We stood and watched this huge man ridicule his pimpled young recruits.  RecruitsHe barked out orders to this group of youths in the car park surrounded by the old men of the town, several vendors and Keith and I.  The youths became easily confused, turning right when they should go left, bumping into each other, yet all the time trying to maintain their dignity with solemn concentrating faces.  Keith and I could hardly contain ourselves.

 A small red plane circled out in the harbour mouth before coming into land on the water.  It taxied up to the beach, and some fishermen went out to pull a rope the pilot was throwing out.  The landing caused great interest and most of The way to Commutethe town seemed to come down onto the promenade to watch what was happening.  The seaplane pilot disappeared into the back streets for a few moments before reemerging carrying a couple of groceries.  He started the plane up, withdrew his rope and circled around to face the open sea.  With a lot of noise and spray he lifted the plane into the air and it flew out of Soufrière’s life again.

 I took a quick look on the beach, where a small armada of brightly coloured fishing boats were hauled up on the pebbly beach, tied to swaying palms.  The whole place seemed so tranquil, the true Eden, so stable.  The following year, the whole front of Soufrière was destroyed by Hurricane Lenny.  The beach was washed away, many palms were cut in half, the new centre of the Soufrière Marine Management Area was washed out.  It showed how below the devil-may-care attitude the tourist may see in the Caribbean, an attitude cultivated by the holiday brochures, people lived on the edge in these islands.

The Night They Bombed Uvira – The View from the Terrace

It seemed that there was potential for a flare up at the barrier if people could not make it through, but the system seemed to work.  We dropped our people around town and headed home; Kelly contacted the UN office to tell them we were all back and accounted for.

 David and I were full of our trip and when Jerod crawled out of his little den where he designed web pages he was bombarded with our experiences.  Kelly was not well.  Partly, she was exhausted; David and she had been at a big project coordination meeting in Nairobi a week before, she had then had to look after us and she was overworking.  Some bug that got inside of her feasted on her weakness and before dinner she lay low in her room.  David and I shared a few beers on the terrace, and after a while Jerod came up to join us, we had some dinner and returned to the easy chairs to discuss the world in general.

 The view at night was equally spectacular as in the daytime, but very different.  The main city streets in the centre and affluent suburbs were well lit; the neon signs on the Source du Nil Hotel, a glorified knocking-shop so I was told, mingled with other lights around the main market area.  To the north, the road to the airport was well lit, but the lights only came on when the road was being used.  Across the lake, a series of orange lights marked out Uvira, a sort of sister city to Bujumbura some fifteen miles away, because although they lay in different countries, Uvira’s road links with Burundi were better than with distant Kinshasa, Uvira derived its power from the Bujumbura side of the lake, and there was much coming and going between the two.  To the south west, where there should have just been lake, was a whole city of white lights.  They sat there strangely, appearing and disappearing.  Jerod explained that they were the lights used by fishermen out on the lake to attract fish.  And there were thousands of them, mostly Congolese in this part of the lake.

 Here, then was the arena for a most bizarre set of events which we watched from that terrace as if at a cinema.  Relaxing after our adventures in Gitega,  we had our feet up on the brick wall in front of us, the smell of basil wafting over us.  Jerod was coming up with his usual theories and opinions on African life, David was at times trying to taunt him, other times teach him, and I put my incoherent tuppenceworth in whenever I thought I hadn’t said much for a while.  I spent most of the time looking out over the scene.  Which is why it is bizarre that I never saw what happened next.  I must have just glanced the wrong way, or had my nose down a beer bottle.  I cannot remember now.

 “What the fuck was that!” shouted Jerod.  Both he and David were upright, straining their eyes out towards the lake.

“That was a flash, it was definitely a flash”, said David

“That was a bomb, they are fucking bombing Uvira”

“ Are you sure?”

“God, there’s another one, it’s an air raid”

“ I didn’t see it” I said, the disappointment already present in my voice.

“Yeah, “ Said Jerod, “that was a bomb”

“It was a big orange plume, just went whoosh, rightup, “Said David trying his best to describe it too me.

“Who would do that?”

“It’ll be the Kinshasa government”

Jerod leaped up out of his chair and headed for the stairs

“I’m going to get on the radio, we might get scrambled”.  Ever the drama queen  Jerod, but I was afraid that this time he may have been right.

We followed him to the stairs, I kept my eyes peeled on the lake but there were no more orange plumes.  As we went down the stairs, we were brought to a sudden halt when, from across the lake we heard “Boom”… a gap….”Boom Boom”.  Three explosions had travelled across from Uvira and hit our ear drums.  If other residents of Bujumbura had not seen it, then they all knew about it now.  Jerod listened to his two way radio, no clicks or codes to get out.  He phoned the local American Embassy warden, a rather strange American-abroad type, who although he had the best communications and information networks at his fingertips, never quite knew what to do with it.  He knew little as to what was going on now, but after all, it was barely three minutes since the attack.  We went back upstairs to watch events…if any events were to happen.

First Time in Binga – Soaking up Africa

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Starting from the Livingstone statue who boringly named them Victoria Falls instead of keeping the much more evocative local Smoke that Thunders name, we looked across at the Devil’s Cataract, the most dramatic of all.  The water turns white as it approaches and gushes down the ravine into the deep below in a series of stages, obscured by gallons of spray.  Spectacular rainbows reached across the gorge.  I tried to follow some water down, moving my eyes fast enough to try to freeze frame it, but the sheer force of water made it impossible to keep track of it.

 We dropped down some steps in the forest to the most remarkable viewpoint, about a third of the way down the gorge.  The water from the Devil’s cataract turns a right angle into the main gorge and the other falls can be seen to the left dropping away from the Zambian side.  On the Zimbabwe side, the spray was being whisked up and over the forest, high above the sheer cliffs.  Because we were partly looking up at the falls here, they appeared even larger and more dramatic.  From in amongst the trees, the light was a curious blue and several rainbows stood out against the spray.  The incessant flow of water was mesmerizing and it was hard to drag yourself on to the next viewpoint.  The other falls were larger but less charismatic, the main falls a sheet of continuous white draped across the cliffs, a few ridiculous plants clinging on to dear life on no soil and battered by high pressure jets of water.  The last three falls were hardly visible, the spray on the Zimbabwe side so intense that we were just in a fog.  I walked with Knowledge and Willy out to the Danger Point, the very edge of the cliffs where the river turns south into the second gorge, spanned by the famous iron bridge.  We could see nothing, but the thrill of standing next to the edge on the slippery rocks being drenched in the updrafts of spray was fantastic.  We walked back to Judith soaked through, I held my T-shirt out from my body in a vain attempt to let some dry air in.

 Still probably the most incredible natural phenomena I have ever seen in Africa, you could not wipe the grin on my face as we headed back to Lake Kariba.  Despite that, the Binga Rest Camp remains one of my most enduring memories in all my trips abroad.  After a few nights in the Bronte Hotel in Harare and a curious room in Bulawayo, this was my first taste of the real Africa and I fell in love with it.  Its sheer peacefulness, its sublime beauty and prospect, continue to dwell in my mind.  Either morning or night, the little sounds of frogs and birds, the occasional hum of an insect flying by were all that disturbed the quiet.

 Then the American’s arrived.

 I’m not saying that every American is the same, and far be it for me to stereotype them, but this lot were almost insufferable.  I had been in Africa a couple of weeks, and had got used to the rhythms of the lifestyle here.  I was quietly taking it all in, while protecting my own sanity and methods in a few possessions and rituals.  When they arrived, they brought their cultural baggage with them and dumped them in the rest camp, not just on us but on the whole area.

 They were a group of opticians, ophthalmologists and dentists who spent a few weeks every year here, setting up their stalls in the hospital and treating the many people with eye and teeth problems.  There was plenty of work for them.  I had seen more incidence of cataracts and blindness here than anywhere else I had been, most of it river blindness.  They also tried to fit false teeth to those women who had been rendered unattractive by their protective husbands.  It was noble work and I salute them even now.  However, it was not so much the doctors, as the huge entourage they brought with them, nurses, administrators, families, all crammed into the shared chalets and other beds.

 The first morning, I was rudely awoken, not because of the usual cacophony of dawn chorus sounds, but by a bunch of kids “Oh look, Mary, is that a horse?”  “ I think it is a horse, you know”.  As if they hadn’t seen a horse before.  I got up and washed, and went out for some fresh air before breakfast.

 “Hi guys” came a shriek down the pathway.  “Have you seen my electric toothbrush”.

“ I want my shirt back”

“Heh, when is breakfast”

“Are you alrighty?”

“I’m alrighty.  How are you this morning?”

“I’m very well although I think I lost my contact lens”

“heh come and see this horse”

“Gee that is some horse”

 It really was too much.  I had grown used to having this place to myself.  I walked off down the field, past the lower swimming pool and out of the gate at the bottom of the field, close to the normal-looking horse which had now become the centre of attention.  When I reached the bottom road, I turned right towards the harbour, then veered down to the lake shore through some grass.  There were no hippos or crocs down there, so I stood looking at the lake.  I could still hear the American’s twittering up the hill.

 Twenty or thirty fishing boats were drifting in from their nights light fishing.  The harbour to the right was just a sheltered bay and a small jetty.  Most of the boats tied up as close to the water’s edge as possible, and a human chain was passing the catch back up onto the land.  They sang some quiet hymn as they worked.  A few small engine noises drifted across the becalmed waters.  The lights of the remaining boats looked dim in the gathering sunlight.

 I looked to my left, away from the work, and saw a fish eagle swoop over a small ridge and drop.  It rose again, a small silvery fish in its talons wriggled with futility, and disappeared over the trees above the fishermen.  I sighed with relief.  The Americans may have come and shouted but Africa was still very much here.