In my efforts to finally get out and about in Guinea, I was pleased to learn that our Community Liaison Office (the “CLO” – a catchall office that provides welcome information for newcomers, puts together holiday events, and organizes tours and gatherings) was organizing an Embassy outing to Soumba Falls in November. I knew there were not a lot of tourist sites in Guinea long before arriving (and many that do exist require a lot more creativity and resourcefulness to get to), but Soumba was in all the Embassy information – Post video and welcome letter – so the CLO trip was both fortuitous and expected.
As the rainy season had just ended the falls would be flowing well. I had heard that months after the rains, the falls would be little more than a trickle. This was the time to go.
We were to meet at the U.S. Embassy at 7 AM to travel to board the buses that would take us to the Les Cascades de Soumba. Originally, I thought we would all drive in a caravan, and though I do generally enjoy driving, I was a little apprehensive about making this one so I was quite happy to hear about the buses.
The falls are located just under 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the U.S. Embassy in Conakry though drive times vary considerably depending on traffic. It should be an hour drive at most, but online the quotes on TripAdvisor range from an hour and 30 minutes to “less than two hours.” The CLO had estimated a two hour drive with us all arriving around 9 AM. Unfortunately, it took THREE HOURS that Saturday morning! Sigh. Oh, Guinea.
At first, it did not seem so long as people chatted away with one another or snoozed. And we could also look out at the sights along the road. Most of the time it was just to see the muddy roads, the crush of cars and trucks vying for dominance on the streets, and unattractive, poorly built buildings fronting the road. The cement of the structures coated in Guinean dust, and the clothing of many of the people on the street having been washed repeatedly in less than clean water, well, everything just takes on the same monochromatic reddish dirt color. Still, on occasion, there are surprises such as the cemetery sign above and the Donald Trump School (Le Groupe Scolaire de Donald Trump), of which I am quite sorry I did not get a photo.
At long last the buses limped into the parking area of Soumba Falls and we all gladly stumbled out of the buses.
We had a choice of two possible hikes in the area. One, that the CLO had organized last year, was just an out-and-back along the same road we had driven in on, with some side excursions alongside the river. Frankly, it did not seem all that appealing to walk along the dirt track we had just journeyed along on wheels even with the promise of a view or two of flowing water, so everyone hiking opted to take the other, unknown, route.
I would love to write that the hike was a-ma-zing, but it wasn’t. It was okay. The colors of the tall grass were almost wheat-like against the taller green shrubs and the deep green of distant hills and a bright blue sky. Ok, so there were some highlights. But it was really warm, the grass high and scratchy, the trail almost imperceptible that it deserved to be in air quotes (“trail”), and there were several areas where plants with large thorns had to be held back for us to pass, but we still ended up with cuts on our legs and arms and small burrs on our shoes.
The “trail” did not really lead anywhere, just out to an overgrown area near a stagnant part of the upper river where crocodiles were languidly lying in wait beneath the surface. Or so we were told as barely any of us could get a good look at the water through the deep foliage. The two guides led us back the same way, which given the lack of sights the first time through did not give us all something to look forward to. Or rather the guides tried to lead us back the way we came, but they got a little lost at first, taking us first a shortcut that turned out to end in a barbed fence we could not cross, so we had to backtrack. Therefore, I have to air quote our “guides” and the “shortcut” as well.
The “guides” had told us the trek would take an hour. I should have air quoted the “hour” as well, though I didn’t believe them from the get-go. At least ninety minutes after we set out (though I think it was longer) we arrived back at the falls sweaty and grateful for a chance to cool off in the water.
The CLO had pre-ordered everyone’s lunch from the restaurant (well, I mean “restaurant” – it was more a giant smoke grill) that overlooks the falls. Unfortunately, at noon the food (either beef, chicken, or fish – we did not get more details than that) was nowhere close to being done. I cannot say for sure the cooks had even begun. I suspect not.
As everyone who had been in Guinea for at least a month knew that it was unlikely we would be seeing our food orders in the near term, we opted to swim before lunch. Good call.
My daughter, her friends, and their mom ran to get changed into their suits and slipped into the shallow pool at the end closest the “restaurant.” Just above there was a natural water slide created by the gushing falls and some smooth rocks. We counseled our kids to swim quickly to the side after the slide as the strong current and a bit of an undertow had the potential to sweep them quickly into a roped-off area. Apparently, there used to be signs warning of some potential death should one pass the rope line, whether by water or crocodiles or other was not all clear. However, though I went in search of the sign for photographic purposes, it had fallen and been shoved deep into the crook of a tree from which I could not yank it out. So much for a warning. Or a fun photo.
But we knew to stay away from the rope line. We also knew there were other possible risks — our health professionals had warned us all to avoid swimming in the falls due to the possibility of contracting Bilharzia, otherwise known as Schistosomiasis, from parasitic worms that live in snails that hang out in contaminated freshwater around Africa. Generally, these beasties are found in stagnant water though our medical practitioners warned that there is potential even in fast-flowing waters. We crossed our fingers and toes and put positive vibes out into the universe and then took our chances. Hopefully, we were lucky.
Around two in the afternoon to the “restaurant” began handing out some of the pre-ordered meals. Perhaps they had not anticipated such a large group in addition to some other visitors? How that might be the case since we had called ahead and it was a gorgeous and hot weekend at the beginning of the dry season, I fail to understand, but it was what it was and one has to learn to temper expectations in Guinea. By the time everyone had eaten we were well past our expected departure time, but what was there to be done for it? Luckily, I guess, the return drive took only two and a half hours. Ha! Still over what it should have been but it felt short given what it could have been.
All in all, I am glad we went when we did. The waters were high and fast and the falls resplendent in their gushing glory. The waters were cool and refreshing. The grilled chicken and chips were not bad. We were experiencing it as a group, with friends, and as much as I like to do independent travel, I did not want to be negotiating that drive or the meal on my own. I was grateful to have someone else handling those details.