An immersive experience with the ‘perfect people’
On 14 September 2019, as part of the PONANT Discovery scouting mission, a two-year round-the-world voyage with the purpose of preparing future cruise itineraries and developing a sustainable form of tourism hand-in-hand with local peoples, the motorised trimaran Titaina Explorer set sail for the Bissagos Islands. Nicolas Dubreuil, sustainable development director and resident expert in polar and tropical expeditions at PONANT, describes for us his unique experience of visiting the Bissagos Islands.
Scouting for unique ports of call
In order to both offer its passengers novel and unique ports of call and evaluate and limit the environmental and societal impact of disembarking in fragile and threatened areas of the world, PONANT has created an exploratory scouting programme named Ponant Discovery, a two-year sea expedition developed with the help of consulting firm Océan Consultant, which is owned by well-known French sailor Olivier de Kersauson. The objective? To take the impact of cruises into account when designing itineraries by first conducting a detailed beforehand analysis of each of the components making up the cruise.
The PONANT Discovery scouting program is being conducted on board a trimaran that departed for its round-the-world expedition from the French port of Brest on 14 September 2019. The Bissagos Islands, located off the coast of Guinea-Bissau, constitute one of the best preserved and protected archipelagos in the world, and it’s here that the ship began its mission.
Bolama: a port of call untouched by time and space
This was a typical day of scouting: busy and energetic. Up on deck in the evening, with the stars above you, you could no longer be sure whether you’d really lived it all or if it was simply just a dream. The day began in the pouring rain, with an exploratory tour around a town of incredible poetic charm. Bolama, an abandoned and now revived former Portuguese capital… It’s hard to describe the amazing feeling of visiting a Portuguese colonial town of half-ruined buildings and in which life has managed to take up residence almost everywhere… A ghost town, yet at the same time so alive!
The gateway to Orango
With each day that passes, we increasingly come to understand why the Bissago (the Bissagos Islands inhabitants) were the last people in Guinea Bissau to be colonised; the region is like an impregnable fortress! We have to proceed with great caution and humility. The Titaina’s team of marine specialists are discovering new and previously unsurveyed sandbanks and rocks every day. By combining their invaluable experience with our exploration equipment, we are able to carry out an accurate survey of the seabed and identify the best and safest places to anchor our vessels, not just in terms of the seabed and the currents, but also in terms of being close enough to the landing site for quick transfer to and from the boat.
Orango, or Queen’s Island
The sea is calm today, and the weather very hot. Ideal conditions for finding perfect places to anchor on the island of Orango, where we’ll be going to see the saltwater hippos. A hugely important day for us! Accompanied by both Laurent Durris, our local contact, and a local guide from IBAP (an environmental protection NGO responsible for managing the Orango Park), we head off to see the treasure of Orango: the saltwater hippos. The instructions are the same as with every exploratory trip to the interior parts of the islands: follow the guide, watch where you walk, and follow his directions. Access onto the island is via a trip through the mangrove swamp of a Bolon (a kind of island estuary). The journey along this long and increasingly narrow channel gives us opportunities to spot monkeys and, in particular, an incredible number of birds. We eventually reach a small pontoon and the traditional local village of Anor. We then cross a remarkable area of African savannah bordered by gigantic trees (baobabs and kapok trees); the scenery is simply exceptional. There’s also an absolutely amazing range of biodiversity.
We next arrive at an area close to a large pond where there are at least twenty hippos resting and relaxing. It’s a spectacular vantage point! We see a huge male, younger hippos, a mother and her babies… and all surrounded by this still green and flowering savannah. It’s always a wonderful privilege to have the chance to observe a wild animal in its natural environment. I determine the best places to watch from with my guide, so we don’t disturb the animals, and to ensure our presence has only a minimal and passing impact.
The ‘perfect people’
The Bissagos are famous for their strength and determination. Today, we’re off to explore several remote inland villages. It can sometimes take several hours of walking through primeval forest to reach these small groups of straw-roofed mud huts. ‘Iran‘ (spirits) are present everywhere: at the entrance to the village is a small hut containing them, and there are monkey skulls placed in the cavity of a giant kapok tree to protect the village. Life here is incredibly well organised: a happy blend of people, cattle, chickens, pigs, dogs, cats… Their survival depends directly on the rice they grow, the palm oil they extract and the cashew nut. A very simple and basic life, but so happy and cheerful, and in complete harmony with the wild nature around them. Children everywhere, lots of poverty, but no begging at all.
The school is completely run down. The two teachers have not been paid for two years. Knowing the importance of the role education plays, you say to yourself that it would be a fantastic idea to rebuild the school, and in particular, to provide housing for the teachers so they’ll be able to bring their families… Watch this space!
Next stop Bissau, the vibrant capital city
After a particularly enjoyable evening during which everyone shared details of their adventures on the far side of the world, surrounded by the incomparable scenery of the magnificent island of Kéré, it was time for me to leave the crew of the PONANT Discovery behind. Olivier, Jean-Charles and Benjamin are set to head out to sea again for the next part of the mission, Cape Verde!
I, on the other hand, have to go to the capital, Bissau, to meet with the local authorities and ensure everything is in order. I spend the night in Kéré before leaving early next morning. It takes two hours in a dugout and three hours by 4×4 to reach Bissau. I feel like I’m travelling forward in time from an age of mud huts to one of concrete buildings. I’ll be splitting my day between the CAIA (the governmental agency for the environment), the IBAP (the Institute of Biodiversity and Protected Areas), the Ministry of Tourism, the port authorities and the French Embassy, etc.
I spend a long time discussing things with them, explaining our involvement with the environment and local populations, our approach to safety, our landing procedures, our waste management, etc.
The day comes to an end at one o’clock in the morning; it’s still just as hot and the sky clear. I buy a fruit juice, and the little man who sells it to me jokes because he never normally sees tourists. I tell him that his country is wonderful, and that I found visiting and exploring it an especially rewarding experience. He can’t believe I actually went to the island of Carache, which is where he himself comes from. He offers me his bracelet and greets me in the special Bissagos manner: you shake hands, then you put the same hand to your heart to say you’re preserving everything that’s good between you; you then shake hands again, but this time you pretend to throw something back over your shoulder with the same hand to symbolise that you’re forgetting everything bad between you.
This is where my journey ends and yours begins! I hope you get the chance to enjoy these same rewarding experiences and one day explore this magnificent region in which every human being is able to find their rightful place in nature.
Photo credit : © PONANT / Nicolas Dubreuil
Discover the story of Nicolas Dubreuil’s scouting mission to French Guiana