Wading to Orango
Shipwrecked in an ark - Orango, Guinea Bissau
Guinea Bissau is definitely not on the tourist trail. In most people’s minds it is barely distinguishable from other countries with Guinea in their names. If you know anything about Guinea Bissau it is probably that being head of state there is a risky pursuit. Few have lived to seek a second term of office and some have met very sticky ends. The state doesn’t function particularly well which is one of the reasons that this small West African country has become a smuggling hub for cocaine dealers on the way from South America to Europe.
Notwithstanding all of the above Guinea Bissau is a fantastic country for adventures. I was there in search of the world’s only saltwater hippos, which live in the Bijagós, an archipelago 40miles from the capital city Bissau. From Bubaque one of the more populated islands I had to take a wooden pirogue to Orango.
The boat steadily filled up with passengers, cargo and then animals. A pig, a goat or two then three disgruntled cows were hefted over the side of the boat by teams of young men standing waist deep in water. I sat on the edge of the wooden boat my feet dangled dangerously near a cow’s rear end.
Eventually the boat was loaded and ready to leave. A few life jackets were distributed and the lucky recipients used them as cushions. The roof was covered in sheets of white plastic. Either these plastic sides of the boat could be rolled up, in which case the passengers baked in the sun, or rolled down eliminating all breeze and containing the farm yard smells emanating from the livestock. The locals preferred them down. Sweat tricked down my stomach. It wasn’t long before I started to feel a little bit seasick.
It hadn’t been clear when boarding how long it would take to reach Orango and it was several hours of open water before we made any stop. This was another island where a few people got out ...and a few more cows boarded. It was market day in the archipelago and boat is the only way to transport your animals.
Loaded, now to over capacity, the boat continued. I was sitting next to a friendly man who offered me a dubious plastic bottle of potent alcohol. I refused. He continued swigging and his subsequent attempt at conversation resulted in him spraying me with quite a lot of it.
Hours later, peeks beneath the plastic revealed a green tropical island ringed by white sand. This was Orango. The boat approached the beach and the passengers began eagerly packing up possessions. Then a lurch and the boat juddered to a halt. It took a few seconds for people to realise we had run aground. Shipwrecked, if you will, in an ark. A cow relieved herself splattering my feet. There were sighs all round. We would have to wait for the tide to turn the captain suggested, shrugging to say this might take a while.
We sat. Then splash! An intrepid man had lowered himself over board. He took his belongings on his head and began wading carefully, slowly through chest deep water towards the shore. A boatload of passengers watched with intent interest. Once he was almost on dry land a few more people dropped over the side of the boat picking up sacks, children and chickens on their heads and walked towards the beach. As a passenger positioned the pig across his shoulders and set off I thought it was about time I should give it a try. Rucksack on my head I waded the 500 metres or so to the shore.
I emerged from the ocean soaking wet and wondered what to do next when several people started directing me along the beach to ‘the hotel’. Bemused and intrigued to see what kind of hotel could exist on such a remote island I walked in the direction they pointed.
I was amazed to find a fully functioning hotel, and better still an ecolodge. The Orango Park Hotel was set up by a Spanish foundation and local employees are being trained to run the hotel. It is made up of comfortable bandas and meals are served on the veranda of the main building which has a stunning view through the trees to the sea. After six hours at sea and a shipwreck I put off hunting for saltwater hippos and ordered a drink.