40 – Bijagos, it easily gets difficult…
40 – Bijagos, it easily gets difficult…

40 – Bijagos, it easily gets difficult…

As we’re already in the very south of Senegal, the Bijagos Islands of Guinea-Bissau are not so far. It is a UNESCO wildlife reserve and we are hoping for more wildlife (like sea hippos, crocodiles, sharks,…) than in the rivers of Senegal. This decision also means that The Gambia will have to wait for another moment in life…

First approach

We wave goodbye to our sailor friends from Orion and Touka at Papis in the Casamance, Senegal. They’ll be crossing to Cape Verde from here. We sail south to the first Bijagos islands in 2 steps: 6 hours the first day, to a rocky anchorage just after the border in a vast bay, early rise, and 11 hours the next day, arriving just before sunset 1 mile off the pebble island of Kéré.

In the morning, the first thing we want to do is go on shore, which is not exactly simple as tides are quite important here (up to 5 meters). So we are anchored very far away and approaching the little beach with the dinghy, we realize, is not that easy: rocks one side, sandbank the other, … But what a dream place we come upon! It is a lodge, built step by step by a Frenchman during the last 20 years. We eat there and he gives us some tips about the islands, the do’s and don’ts, the costs, and the… extra-costs. These are mainly due to the different types of functionaries that are able to find any kind of reason to make you pay a little something without clear explanations…

The rules we prefered to stick to while on the Bijagos

Do’s / the +Don’ts / the –
To do your immigration and check-in, get in contact with the lodge owners. They will help you. (If you’re sailing and need advice, call or wright to us)Don’t go to officials, or pass by too close to them, if you can avoid it: they have seen you and as soon as they get hold of you, it will cost something…
But as they don’t have any working boats, it’s pretty easy to escape from them!
Walk around on the different islands, they are beautiful! The life is still like Africa a long time ago. It is a matriarchal organisation with queens and they are mostly animists and you’ll see a lot of fetishes.But not on the sacred ones: the locals get very upset… You don’t know what they can still do to you! (there are rumours of cannibalism…)!
And do not go inland off the paths, as there are mambas and other “interesting” animals. There is no serum in Guinea-Bissau, and if there is maybe something, it’s in Bissau only, which is hours away. So, you have time to die many times before getting there!
Pay the fees to the officials when it is a natural reserve (5.- € per day per person). There are three of them, each grouping several islands.Don’t try to cheat: they are very attentive and aggressive (we experience it: we wanted to land one evening on an island just for a stroll and had to bargain for quite a while with a guard just for a 10 minutes walk… Our walk lasted about 5 minutes and we felt VERY watched!).
Speak Bijagos, or Portuguese creole or at least a little Portuguese (worst case!).With French or English you don’t go far and cannot exchange with locals.
Go to one of the lodges! Enjoy some delicious food and a cocktail, stroll on the stunning beaches and enjoy scenery. These lodges can also organize all sorts of excursions for you as well as bring groceries, fuel, water…It can get quite expensive as everything has to be brought to the islands by little boats. As there is no organized tourism, you need to find individual solutions for excursions and visiting other islands.

Distances and hidden passages

After these first informations we are anyway motivated to move on, also because we need to have our immigration check-in made in Bubaque, the main town on the islands.

On the maps, it looks quite close, so we don’t expect to take 3 days to get there! Imagine moving slowly – as we know hitting the ground is better at low speed – between distant islands, with strong currents between the islands, 50% of the time in the wrong direction… Obviously you would go in a straight line between A and B, but you can’t: high grounds, sandbanks, rocks, all of them underneath the water level at medium and high tide. On top of that, you can’t trust the maps because – hey, these beautiful sand banks just keep moving!… So, you take detours along channels you can only see on satellite pictures, past islands you can’t see unless low tide, to end up anchored 1-2 miles off the island you actually want to get to…  

Island of Rubane

We discover that, to arrive in front of one of the French owned lodges is easier and reassuring. The owners are extremely welcoming, happy to help, inform, and eventually deal with our papers. We are even allowed to use the pool at the Anchaca lodge. In exchange we happily eat at the lodge several times. One day we go around the island of Rubane with one of the lodge’s employees, Sidonie. He brings us to his family, his garden, lets us taste their meal, “peel” the rice, see the “temporary village”. They are only active during harvesting periods, as the island’s sacred, so nobody can live permanently on it. After a very reserved contact at the beginning, the ice melts and the next day we are greeted with a wide smile and a big hug.

Water pleasures

We don’t swim much either, the water is blurry, sand loaded and sting rays as well as different species of sharks apparently like the area. Although it looks turquoise and inviting on pictures, we get satisfied with a quick dip from the boat and playing in the hotel pool.

Ancle deep in mud

The shallow waters of the archipelago teach us how challenging it is to live with important tides: when you go on shore, if you land at high tide, you have to drag the dinghy back to the sea for more than 100 meters… With a small anchor, a short chain, the fuel and engine, our belongings, the dinghy easily weighs 120 kg. So, to pull the whole thing over muddy or soft sandy bottoms is not very convenient! And if you come at low tide, either you put an anchor where you land and swim back to the dinghy or you stay around and regularly come back to it and drag it up on shore. No option is really satisfactory!

When you’ve found a decent solution for the dinghy, all sweaty and muddy, you’d then like to have a swim from the fantastic beach you just stepped onto. But the sea is then quite far away and without serious and solid shoes, it is not advised to walk in the water: sting rays love to rest in 40-50 cm deep waters. And their poison is apparently very painful…  and there are a lot of them here! (picture)

Where the money goes

When you do get to one of these beautiful islands covered with vegetation and white sand beaches all around, you just might be on one of the sacred islands you’re not allowed to walk on. Or you might meet a “guard” who would like you to pay a fee for entering “the nature reserve”. Prices aren’t clear and neither are their uniforms. So, who and what are you actually paying? Good question.

No crocs, no hippos

We finally never see/saw crocodiles, or sharks, or the famous sea hippos. These only live in a very distinct area that is only accessible by paying loads of money to some park, leaving bakshish at another place and paying a guard to show you where to go. To get to the hippos you need to hire a taxi boat, to anchor around there being difficult and with strong tidal currents…

So, how did we like the Bijagos?

Difficult question. All these adjectives fit: wild, authentic, natural, beautiful, fascinating, as well as complicated, corrupt, challenging, and yes, lets be franc, a little disappointing. We had expected to swim, snorkel, see more animals and sail from Island to Island. This was scarcely possible, as we were never sure of the depths, so mostly decide to move with the engine.

It would have been better to have more time and a larger budget to pay taxi boats and guides moving around from the lodges. Maybe we didn’t do our homework well… and actually, there were not a lot of people to talk to and get information from before going there. Let’s say: the 2 weeks were interesting!


  1. Mum

    That all sounds rather difficult … but it was a different experience and an opportunity for the boys to see yet another culture and way of life … so all good!

    Pity nobody else leaves a comment, but keep it up anyway!

    Love and xxxx

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