After a few days of 4th of July festivities, I finally did what I came to Kédougou to do (other than drink tequila sunrises, eat potato salad, speak American, and generally have a good time). I set out to explore part of the hyped-up Kédougou region, and decided to bike out to Ingli, a isolated waterfall site and about a 5-7 hour bike ride from Kédougou (depending on how lost you get).
Ingli was allegedly “discovered” (in the colonial sense) by Peace Corps volunteers about two years ago. No tourists go there, only locals, and not many at that (Senegalese tend not to be big on swimming). Thus it is a secluded, quiet oasis among hills and forests. Though no one in my 3-person biking group had been there before, we had Pulaar, Wolof, Malinke, and French between us and felt pretty confident we could ask our way around. We received directions on how to bike there, mostly in the form of names of villages we would pass along the way. The route is mostly bush paths, meaning dirt/sand/rock/gravel trails that villagers use to get from one place to another. With our camping equipment, food, questionable mountain biking skills, and practically the entire day to get there, Andy, Emilie, and I were feeling excited about the adventure.
Biking on bush paths is fun, and was a nice contrast to the smoothness and predictability of riding on asphalt. Being deep in the shade in trees along a narrow dirt path, sweeping through a glade, bumping up rocky passes, wondering if your tires are going to pop from bouncing too much–these are fun ways to see the countryside. Every so often we would come upon a settlement, find a person, greet and laugh a bit, and ask them the name of the village. Pulaar people are notoriously friendly and relaxed, and I enjoyed hearing the more sing-songy Pula Futa dialect spoken against my Fulakunda. Though our encounters with random villagers were brief, it added a warm human component to an otherwise rather solitary ride. The fact that we needed real people, not fancy maps or GPS devices to find our way made our journey more individualized yet inherently more risky. Village by village we fulfilled our mental checklist of the places we needed to pass through. Quaint, and easy, it seemed.
All was well until we reached one of the final villages. We summoned a man and he came out to the path, purposefully showing us the way. We walked and walked, confirming that he was taking us to the river crossing, and that he would put us on a path to Ingli. He said yes, yes. He helped us carry our bikes across the river, through which we had to wade in thigh-deep water. He walked a very long way with us, and for a while we were grateful that someone was being so thorough in showing us exactly where to go. Things started to get bizarre when he led us off the main path and up a hill into the forest. It was lumbersome to walk our bikes over branches and around rocks, climbing. Eventually he left us and said, “just continue this path, straight, to Ingli.” We felt he had gone a considerable way with us, so we gave him 500 cfa ($1) as a thank-you.
The “path,” however, was not really a path. One could vaguely hallucinate a trail ahead of us, but it was mostly trees, overgrown plants, rocks, and fallen leaves everywhere. We marched on for a long time, saying to ourselves, “he told us to just keep going straight, that Ingli was straight ahead.” There were times it seemed we were following a path, when we’d reach an impasse and then star out in three different directions, each of us trying to find if a better route presented itself further on. We were growing delusional and tired, so desperate to find a way that we tolerated the unforgiving landscape around us. We paused every now and then, certain we heard falling water in the distance. Finally one of us found a grove of palms that looked like they had been tapped, and had the hypothesis that even if these were paths, they were only for those people trying to find palm wine. Dead end.
For three hours, we were lost. I even got out my rape whistle, on the off-chance someone would hear us. Needless to say, we had no cell phone reception, not that someone could direct us anyway from a remote location. I never felt unsafe, knowing that we had each other, camping equipment, and food. I just felt exhausted and discouraged that our waterfall excursion would never happen. It made every difficult rock, or twig caught in my chain, that much more of a bother. Andy, Emilie, and I tend to be extremely lighthearted around each other, but this time the jokester in each of us was sapped. I remember moments of looking at them, seeing the worry/exhaustion/frustration in their eyes, and just knowing that it was not the right time to break down and commiserate about how horrible this was. We were concerned that our other four friends, who decided to leave Kédougou after us and would at this point likely arrive at Ingli before us, would worry about our whereabouts. Andy at one point said, “we have to just pick one direction, and go in that direction in order to backtrack.” We eventually found the river again, though in a different spot and still no humans in sight. We again forded the river and after a while, joyously, came upon a man working in his field.
We later concluded that the sound of distant falling water had only been wind in the trees. Looking back, I’m really proud of us for holding it all together and not crumbling in panic.
Soon, we encountered a different man in a soccer jersey who had a bike and showed us the correct way. Once again, we trudged through the river, this time not batting an eye at the weight of the bikes and the depth of the water. After a while, we arrived at a clearing where we could see Ingli in the distance! We found footpaths, and raced in that direction.
When it was clear we were very close to the falls, we started the Pula Futa whooping calls to alert our other friends who had already arrived at Ingli. We heard calls back, and morale instantly went up. Within minutes, we reunited with Aaron, Ian, Frank, and Grant, and saw the breathtaking waterfalls. They said they had freaked out a little bit when they didn’t see our bikes already at the falls earlier, but decided to just wait it out. It was about 6:30 p.m., and we had left Kédougou at 11 a.m. Seeing the waterfalls with daylight to spare was the best reward to that aggravating day.
We climbed barefoot over dozens of boulders to go uphill to the main pool where most of the water splashes down. It was like heaven, not only to feel cool after sweating and biking, but to suddenly be in a serene setting where all the stress of the previous 7 hours just disappeared. From the main pool, you have to tilt your head all the way back to see the top of the waterfall. I swam to where the water pounded down on the rocks, climbed a bit higher, and jumped back into the deep pool. Floating on my back, I gazed upward to see millions of individual droplets of water fall through the air toward my face. We made a camp fire, set up our tents, put on some music, drank shots, and cooked food. Naturally, we climbed the boulders again for some night swimming. There were leftover fireworks from the 4th of July party which someone brought. We set off loud, bright fireworks in the nothingness of the canyon, signaling to no one but ourselves.
The next day, we made oatmeal and instant Starbucks coffee for breakfast. [Side note: the Starbucks coffee packets were brought to the Kédougou regional house by Ed Helms, who plays Andy Bernard on The Office, who was doing some form of malaria awareness work here, and who I, as someone who one day aspires to work at Dunder Mifflin, would have died to meet.] I took a morning dip in a small pool we dubbed “The Grotto” (which, hilariously, is the same name as the pool/cave at the Playboy Mansion). Though not a cave, the swimming hole did seem so perfectly sized and intimate that someone would try to replicate the exact rock structure for their own backyard water entertainment. I took a morning nap on the clean rocks next to The Grotto and thought about how much better it was than lounging at the beach with sand in my mouth.
We climbed up the side of the steep hill to get to the source of the waterfall. At the top of the cliff where the water gathers momentarily before finally spilling off, it was surprisingly less turbulent than I thought it would be. I had imagined the top of the waterfall having a magnetic terminal pool, pulling at me like a rip tide toward the edge. Instead, it was shallow and picturesque at the top, with a series of small pools and rocks to sit on.There was one area of splashing water that served as a great natural back massager. Something about being at the top inspired us to take a lot of pictures of ourselves and the stunning green landscape. A lot of hilarious snaps resulted from that extended photoshoot, many of them too inappropriate to post here. Ruining my illusions of being lost in the wilderness was the discovery that I finally got excellent cell phone reception way at the top of Ingli.
Despite the fact that there wasn’t as much water crashing down at Ingli as there is later in the rainy season, I appreciated that the water was clear; we could see the rocks at the bottom, fish, and even water snakes (which we disposed of). With the aid of microbe-killing Aqua Tabs, we drank the water and it tasted fine. We made other meals with the aid of a simple camping pan and the fire, including chicken spam sauteed with a taco seasoning packet and Maggi (bouillon cube), vermicelli with tuna, and more oatmeal fortified by vitamin-C rich strawberry-flavored drink mixes. Oh, the things that taste good when you’re hungry. For each course all 7 of us huddled to eat around the 10-inch diameter pan, sharing space and utensils, the true Senegalese family-style way.
The question remains whether the man who misled us into the woods was (a) on crack, (b) mischievously leading us astray for a laugh and a 500 cfa piece, or (c) sincerely showing us a route but not realizing non-locals would not be able to interpret it correctly. I think it was some mixture between (a) and (c). Regardless, we learned our lesson of not following someone blindly into a thicket without a location device, the second opinion of other villagers, and listening to our initial skepticism that it seemed like a bizarre path. On the way back to Kédougou, all of our group left at roughly the same time yet still got separated and partially lost, which made me feel better that it was not due to some innate stupidity on our parts that we had gotten lost on the way there. I suppose a certain amount of the Ingli experience (unless you’ve done it many times) is being O.K. with feeling lost and confused.
I wish I could have stayed more days at Ingli. It was so private, special, and relaxing. Next time I need to get away from it all, I’ll go there.