I continued the dark road along the Sankarani. Present on my right I could sense the mighty NIGER tributary, which flows majestically, a mile wide.
Always alert to meet some new surprise, gazing towards the end of the high lit beams radiated by the vehicle into the heavy, damp air that surrounded the Bush.
The sheer, never ending screeching sound of Cicadas filled the night, adding a peculiar sense of solitude in this vast wilderness. Not sure whether I was close to Mali, or perhaps in Mali;
My uncertainty grew as the road got more and more invisible. Suddenly it seemed to turn, then got lost into several tracks. I stopped, attempting to visualize the unimaginable vast stretch of Savanna around me.
It was futile to get carried away in this situation. It became almost painful to think where I was, at what time, at this moment. Nobody at home would have had the slightest idea of my location, left alone the surroundings.
I shuddered at the thought of how to reach the next settlement. To continue to drive, slowly, trying to make out landmarks, tire tracks of vehicles that passed before me, became even more difficult.
Amid all the tracks, several of them, I had lost my way. I made out the dark Silhouettes of Cotton plantations which are frequently seen in these areas. I had no intention to sleep in a Cotton field. Yet, the need to look for a shelter for the night had become apparent by now. The time was going, it was close to midnight, and my reserves were going down faster than I thought.
My road, it turned out was going to nowhere. The Bush closed in, no more passable, the tall grass surrounding the vehicle almost completely.
I had lost my way. Thinking of where I could be at this time, perhaps at a cocktail party, enjoying dinner with friends; Why did I chose to be in a deserted place like this, 5000 miles from base, worse : I did not know when – or if – I 'd return to home.
I was desperate. Where to go; it was hard to maneuver the car in the thick Bush,
reversing was the only option. Sure, it would take me time to find the right path.
Not to end up in a ditch, I slowly inched back and forth till I had turned completely, and started slowly, careful not to miss my own tire tracks.
Tedious and painstakingly slow, always stopping to verify I did not miss the point where I got lost.
I must give credit to the makers of my vehicle, for any defect now could mean a real disaster. For days I drove on the worst, unimaginable roads, thousands of bumps, potholes, water puddles. And my car just performed miraculously well, except for a exhaust pipe break, it gave no complications.
As I inched on, I noticed the widening of the Savanna, and the trail from Fulani cattle herders became more apparent again. I had reached back to main track. Unexplainable how I ended up in a dead end, overlooking the important cow tracks.
At the decisive bend I turned the car 90 degrees left.
Moving ahead through the night, at a distance I saw a shimmering light, I passed it, as it turned out, a village on my right. At a first glance it did not look like a place to spend the night.
There was a bend, and I heard water gushing nearby. My beams could not make out anything, except the trees on the car's left and right.
I reached a creeks crossing, passable by a mere makeshift bridge made from rough tree logs, covered by boulders and rocks.
Against my better instincts I decided to attempt to cross, with almost no space on both sides. The car was hitting rocks below, bong, and I knew this was not good.
A third of its length covered, I realized it was best to unload the car and attempt to cross rather with an empty boot.
I inched back carefully, not to miss the track, my head protruding, not to miss on the narrow passage over the creek.
Car and driver would have been flushed away in a second, the torrents were strong, the creek filled to the brink with rapid floods.
Moving back slowly, deciding to get to the village I saw on my way and find some sleep.
Another hour had passed and it was now getting to 01.00 h.
I noticed the strong scent of a log fire. The distant glare of the in the village attracted my attention. I kept on moving on the tracks till I could make out dark shadows of the African village, its distinctive round huts covered by tapered straw roofs.
By now I knew this would be the only chance of a secure night stay.
The path leading to the hamlet was narrow, the trail allowing a person to enter, left alone a car of my size. I had no choice, and followed the path, pushing the grass left and right to the ground.
The fire became closely visible, an old Fulani sitting near the flames. He was as curious as me, and came cautiously to the car, holding his mighty Bush knife.
I uttered the few words on Malinke, the local language of the Fulanis. I greeted him, and asked careful if I could spend the night near the fire within the shelter of the hamlet.
He nodded his approval, upon which he sat back near the fire, straw hat and frock, Bush knife close to him. I felt awkward, in spite of the hospitality shown. These parts were known where cannibalism was as common as in some places of South America, or Papua – New Guinea for that matter. Nobody has ever mentioned to you the Cannibalism further down to the south, Liberia, where warring parties devoured their captives. I will write about this later, in a different chapter.
Tense, tired, exhausted I tried to make myself comfortable, reclining seats in front, stretching myself across. Still, at this hour of the night, the hot air not fully cooled down. I needed to open the windows for a grasp of fresh air, on both sides. This attracted myriads of Mosquitoes which buzzed around my face. I tried to think of a cold shower, a bath, fresh clothes.
I drifted off to sleep, with a mixture of thoughts and sentiments. Since my Army days I developed a habit to wake up at once, and it could have been a life saver. I never will know what prompted me to open my eyes that night.
The sky was moonlit, I had good visibility. When I opened my eyes, I noticed the tall straw hat moving along the side of the car, gazing inside the car with a vehement look. It did not look as if someone had clear intentions.
I took all my courage, jumped up and switched on the inside light. The person outside was stunned and stood still. He did not expect a white person and he was as surprised as I was. He mumbled something and disappeared in one of the huts nearby.
It was luck, I will never know how much, but it would have been easy to attack me, and made me disappear in this wilderness. Nobody had the slightest idea where I was, and this was no civilized area. Here, only the strongest survive, unimaginable if one needs a doctor, a Hospital.
I gazed around and could not find the Fofo, the old Fulani. He could be the one who send the other to rob me.
The remaining hours I could not sleep anymore. It got darker, the moon almost disappeared. Upon hearing some noises coming from my right, the fire had gone off by now, I was again on full alert. I had no weapon on me, I did not bring my 9mm Taurus as the license had no validity for for Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast, only my country of residence.
It would have been difficult to defend oneself against an expert Bush knife wielding Fulani. To well I know how skill full they can handle this broad weapon.
The noises came from my right, and before I could make out the noise it took minutes.
By experience I knew it was after four, and a glance at the analogue car watch confirmed the time stood at 04.30 h.
The sounds came from the right hut, some 20 meters away from the car.
African village women get up as early as 04.00 h in order to sweep the courtyard in front of the hut. I always was puzzled, how a person could see in the dark, sweeping the rough grounds, and for what reason. The answer lies in this simple explanation: to remove ants and dead insects from the working area, a form of keeping the surroundings tidy.
I was relieved, as the time ticked fast towards dawn. One by one, kids appeared from the hut, leaving the patriarch asleep.
I realized it had become chilly. The mornings are chilly, in the lower 20's Centigrade. Some shiver overcame me. The kids lit a fire from dry branches, and curled around it. The smoke was immense, and they held their palms stretched towards the fire.
I shuddered at the thought of lack of personal Hygiene here. There was not bath except the ones in the close stream, bringing dangers such as Bilharzia, and other water born diseases. There were not changes of clean clothes, I assume it was impossible. The people are poor, although their cattle is a valuable asset, 1 going for roughly 300 U.S.$, the herders have hundreds of them.
Distinctive, the 'Mali' hump backed cattle species in the African Savanna. They can resist the deadly 'Tsetse' fly, and numerous other pests that infest the Savanna.
As soon as daybreak was close, I sparked the engine, and turned, within the parameter of the hamlet. Slowly I inched out, trying not to make unnecessary noise when leaving. The exhaust had been welded, my silencer doing its duty again.
I was not eager to see the nightly visitor who disappeared in the hut on my left. I never say him appearing again, and I felt no disappointment towards it.
The early morning was refreshing, invigorating. Once back on the Bush road I felt relieved. Before 05.00 AM I reached the makeshift bridge over the gushing creek which I dared not to cross the night before.
Logs of trees had been laid across the creek, rocks covered the bridge, so large, I had to stop and inspect it. I got out of the car and walked across it. A desperate view, torture to the vehicle. Below a torrential creek gushing powerfully. Not to figure out how I tried to make the crossing during the night. I did the right thing to return. Even if it meant to sleep in the Fulani village with the nightly intruder.
In order to make the vehicle lighter, I removed all large bags in the boot, also, in case I had to reverse it would have been easier. Slowly I balanced the vehicle over the makeshift bridge, its width just enough as to accommodate the car. Inch by inch I crossed, now distinctively watching the torrent below. I made it across within 5 minutes.
Again I stowed the large baggage in the boot, and off I went.
The night had come to an easy end, the dawn was now on the Horizon, the golden African sun penetrating the misty air, the branches and twigs of the Neem and Acacia trees, and the wet grass of the Savanna.
Moments like this will let you forget the harsh reality, and you praise the new day as a new beginning.
Africa is unimaginably beautiful, and this was the proof for it.
Moments of tension and despair will evaporate amid this, and that is was one of the reasons I was able to spend 30 years on the continent.
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