Thursday, 11 July 2013

Burkina Faso pt III: Peaks

Sindou Peaks
The Sindou Peaks in southwest Burkina Faso are an astonishing geological spectacle. Across the millennia, the elements have carved these giant columns into a stunning array of shapes and sculptures. Today, these dazzling maroon formations are a giddying sight, enough to send you head over heels – and straight down the rocks below.

Sandstone may be the perfect material for allowing Mother Nature to get creative, but the small pile of dust and blood at my feet proved that its structural qualities are less noteworthy. “Some of the rocks are not very strong”, confirmed Paul, our guide, in French. Helpful advice, especially when delivered before you start climbing them.

Once my cuts were cleaned and I’d checked my ego for bruising, Paul continued our walk. He led us nimbly through the crevasses to the best vantage points from which to appreciate the surrounding Senoufo villages and lush farmland, vibrant with tall stalks of sugar cane. Looking out, he explained how entire villages trek into the hills for religious ceremonies. Tourists used to be allowed to attend these, and even camp on the plateau, but visits are now limited to day treks. “The campers left too much rubbish”, Paul said, solemnly. “People didn’t respect the importance of this place.”

Hiking through the peaks
After two hours of exploring, we descended back to our car. Hannah and I had been a little daunted about heading out into rural Burkina Faso. It’s one of Africa’s poorest countries, and there is little in the way of organised tours. But an unofficial grapevine exists between the excellent hotels in the southwest region. The manager of the Villa Bobo hotel in Bobo Diolasso had made all our arrangements in advance, and Metina, our affable driver, had met us at Banfora’s scruffy bus station.

The haggling for our two-day tour around the region had been simple. Metina had typed a figure into his calculator – 50,000 CFA (around £65) for two days including petrol – and we had quickly agreed.  He used the calculator because he couldn’t read or write, and later told us that he used the money from his tours to pay for his grandchildren – 37 and counting – to go to school so they could learn.

After the morning’s rock-climbing-and-falling excitement, the second stop on Banfora’s tourist circuit was far more leisurely: a trip to see the hippos on TengrĂ©la Lake. As at Sindou, the facilities for tourists were basic but well organised. Metina introduced us to the owners of the small guesthouse on the lake shore. Five minutes later, we set off in a hand-carved pirogue for the northern end of the lake, while he kicked back with a coke.

For anyone used to safaris in East or Southern Africa, wildlife watching in West Africa is a remarkably health-and-safety-free experience. We glided silently through the water lilies resting on the lake until we could see the hippos right in front of us. Then we went a bit closer. Then closer still.

Now that's a hat
With our boatman showing little sign of stopping, I urgently recalled enough French to ask, as calmly as possible: “Is this close enough?”
“It’s ok, the hippos are happy today,” replied our guide nonchalantly.

I’m not entirely sure how you gauge the mood of a pod of hippos just from their ears, which were all that showed above the water’s surface. But my French definitely wasn’t up to asking, so instead, we watched the huge beasts from just a few metres away. I divided my time between taking photos and calculating if I could paddle to the shore faster than a hippo could swim, should something snap one of them from his good humour.

Hours drift by peacefully at TengrĂ©la. Herons waded through the shallows, competing for the lake’s fish with the local men. Hornbills peeped loudly from the trees overhanging the lake. Children waved frantically as they made their way home from school – white tourists are still a novelty here. The sun pounded down relentlessly. After two hours, it had become too hot and we turned back for a cooling drink. The hippos had barely twitched so much as an ear; perhaps that’s how you tell that they’re content.

A cow


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