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Echoes of Apartheid by a Malian waterfall

Within a few miles we came upon Les Chutes de Gouina. A left fork took us through a sandy S-bend to a grassy area alongside the river. At this point the river had formed a wide pool, perhaps half a kilometre across, surrounded by flattened, polished rocks. A few hundred yards upstream we could hear the thunder and see the white water of a spectacular, horseshoe waterfall, easily sixty feet high. After all the sweat, toil and uncertainties, this place was pure paradise. To our surprise a white girl in her teens appeared. She was the daughter of one of the South Africans from earlier. So they had known where they were heading.

“Why don’t you join us? We have plenty of food,” she offered.

“We’d love to.”

“Aah, the mad English couple on their motorbike. Welkome.”

They were goldminers. They had fled South Africa, which in their opinion ‘had gone to the dogs since the fall of apartheid’. Several South African companies had relocated to Mali to harvest its gold. They had been here a few years now. One of them, the quiet one, was a geologist. The others maintained the machinery. They were a close-knit group with an undeniable leader in their midst. His name was Basil, but he liked to be known as Uncle Bas. His wife was huge and barely fitted in the white plastic chair they had brought for her. Uncle Bas was short and stocky, with a grey beard. He was dressed in a homemade, armless, Hessian smock which hung over his belly and shorts. His son, in his late teens, did as he was told and followed his father’s lead. Uncle Bas’s right hand man was known as ‘The Colonel’. He too was stocky. Like most South Africans he’d been weaned on rump steak. He also had a wife and younger children with him. The geologist was unattached, Namibian, and a very good cook.

Their hospitality and generosity was gushing, almost forceful, leaving us with little choice but to join in with their fire and merry-making. Their beer stocks were impressive and the food delicious, a real treat for us to tuck into some quality meat. We had nothing to give in return except our company. No matter. Bas was happy enough to continue to take the rise out of our Englishness.

“Wot is a brrraai without sudsa mili pap?” he quipped in his guttural tones as he mixed the maize into a mash-like blob, the carbohydrate staple of all southern Africa.

“It’s a baaaar beee que,” he answered himself in a patronising, high-pitched voice.

Like all ex-pats who have left their country of birth they were fiercely patriotic. One might have mistaken them for the Vortrekkers themselves. All South Africa’s current woes were blamed on the cessation of apartheid, and the rise of the ‘blecks’.

“Aaaach man, Sed Africa is tu bledy dangerous, nowadays crime is uncontrolled. Look mun, I em not e racist, but we are better than them.”

I felt rather two-faced, repelled by their prejudice, yet happy to drink and laugh with them. As the beer flowed renditions of the South African National Anthem rang out, followed by some kind of Afrikaans song not dissimilar to ‘Swing low sweet chariot’ with its accompanying mime. Uncle Bas formed a fist with his left hand, whilst his right held tightly on to his beer, passionate to the core.

It was to this scene that a black man dared show his face. A local guide, driving a Toyota Landcruiser carrying French tourists, he was wanting to pass, to make camp further upstream. Our goldminers had blocked the way with their vehicles, fire and chairs and now bluntly refused to move. The Malian guide was not amused. Hardly surprising given that he was standing in his own country. Despite his fragile build he spoke his mind, perhaps a little too vociferously.

Vous etes un imbécile,” he spluttered, spitting on the ground, anger flashing in his eyes.

Unflinching, Uncle Bas growled back, fixing his gaze.

“Colonel, brrring me that spade. Grant you go with the Colonel.”

Like a posse, a tribe, they closed ranks. I was deeply regretting our involvement with these folk. Just as I thought things may turn really ugly a compromise was reached, the Colonel ‘escorting’ the Malian away without any recourse to violence. The French group were forced to carry their gear through our camp to set up in the dark some way beyond, their vehicles left inconveniently downstream. From this moment on Uncle Bas sang with renewed gusto – longer and louder than ever before.

Breakfast was a carnivorous affair. Uncle Bas, having carefully positioned his sack-like shirt on an erect spade, was keen to take a wallow in the water. Yesterday we had heard and seen the snout of one lonesome hippo. Now there were two. Indeed Bas’s deep-throated grunts were uncannily close to the real thing. The Colonel and Grant joined him, pushing out a polystyrene square, a makeshift cooler tray for their wine and beers. I would have happily indulged in this male-bonding ritual but was only too aware that the slowmoving water would be teeming with bilharzia. It is a sad fact that most of the fresh water in Africa, so inviting in the incessant heat, carries this disease. The bilharzia worms, emitted from their snail hosts, are able to burrow through human skin causing nothing more than a red weal and swimmer’s itch. Once inside their human host the worms produce eggs in frightening numbers which invade the bladder and bowel leading to bleeding, kidney failure and eventually cancer. Infection is endemic in much of Africa. With this in mind Ness and I sat on the riverbank, slurping our coffee. A few hours later Bas and the Colonel proudly showed off the little red marks on their legs, possibly unaware of future repercussions.

Our meat overload was playing havoc with Ness’ giardia-ridden bowels. I left her to sleep in the shade whilst I joined the others in the Colonel’s Land Rover, to drive around to the top of the Falls. The wall of water mesmerised me. It was as though a giant hand had cut the land, such was the abruptness of the river’s drop. In an arc of powerful white water the individual cataracts cascaded over the edge to the turbulent depths below. As I watched I could see a single litre, two litres, a bathful surge past me in a fraction of a second. I lifted my gaze to the kilometre-long edge, trying to imagine the volume that passed in an hour, in a day. Yet the land was so dry. Where did it all come from? I let my eyes play games, fixating on a single drop, following its fall, making time stand still.

The South Africans moved on that afternoon. We stayed for two more days, relishing the solitude, keeping the same fire burning by night and exploring the bush by day. On the final morning I gunned the bike up the steep sandy bend to leave our paradise behind, probably forever.

Extract from ‘Bearback’, Pat Garrod’s vivid account of four years travelling around the world. Buy your copy here or read more here.

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