It's not yet eight in the morning when Herculano, the man at the helm, sets sail from Kéré Island.
We go aboard a metallic speedboat that glides over the shallow sea of Bijagós almost without swaying. Ahead, towards the west and the Atlantic, we have the channel that separates the islands of Carache and Caravela.
If we took it, on the other side, we would be more exposed to the Atlantic. Instead, we skirt the sharp east end of Carache, heading towards the Pedro Cintra channel and into the heart of the archipelago.
The African oil palms succeed one another, so characteristic of these parts of Africa that they are also known as Guinea palms, surpassed in height only by the older poilões.
To the southeast, along the coast of the island of Enu and on the immediate coast of Uno, with the exception of a few areas of mangroves, the scenery maintains the same vegetation constancy.
We put ourselves between Uracane and Uno. We approached the sub-group of islands that form the Orango PN.
Paulo Martins, the guide, and Miguel LeCoq, the biologist and guide, explain a little bit about the ecosystems and culture of the Bijagós. Once there, they alert us to something special.
The Asado Sandbank on the Path of Orango
We catch a glimpse of what looks like a sandbar left uncovered by the ebb of the tide, occupied by a myriad of birds. When we approached him, what appeared to be confirmed. Different species share it.
Many of the birds only have space on the edge of the bank, where the waves refresh them.
We get a little closer. We realize that the latter are waders.
Dozens of flamingos eyeing the vessel. They are joined by several hundred sandpipers, newly arrived from faraway Iceland.
We continue navigation. Despite the distance, some wary birds play it safe. As they take off, they encourage others to follow.
They generate a wild chaos that manages to confuse us. Gradually, as they circle the sandbar in an evasive loop, they fall into their proper formations.
The flamingos free themselves from the sandpipers. From then on, we admired, without interference, the exuberance of its colors and shapes, the grace of its synchronized flight.
As we move away from the sandbar, the flamingos complete their ellipse. Return to the starting point.
In the meantime, we pass by the village of Anônho and, soon, between it and that of Eticoga. We stop at the pier at the Orango Hotel. There we are joined by Belmiro Lopes, native of Orango and guide of PN Orango, responsible for taking us to meet the hippos.
Herculano and Miguel salute you. They welcome you on board and find out about news, some of which are important for the expedition. They do it in Guinean Creole, which, due to his long time in Guinea Bissau, Miguel also masters.
We continue down the coast of Orango, on the path to the landing point. On this last journey, we are close to the edge of the archipelago, more exposed to the ocean.
For the first time, the Atlantic bathes the sand with samples of waves that do little or nothing to disturb the transition to land.
Disembark in Orango and Walk through the Meadows of Anôr
Already on the scorching sand, we relax our legs from almost three hours on the speedboat.
We examined the coastal vegetation, low, almost shrubby, devoid of the large guinea palms and the poleis that had succeeded since the now remote Kéré island.
Belmiro leads us to the trail on which we would advance towards the interior of Orango.
In a few meters, we notice that it crosses a yellowish savannah, and a landscape that is different from those of Kéré, Caravela and Carache, the trio of more than eighty Bijagós that, by that time, we had explored.
Miguel explains that, as we saw it, the savannah with tall grass turned golden as the region's dry season extended.
When the rains arrived, those meadows soaked and became green, more in keeping with the amphibious life of the hippos.
Not by chance, moments later, did we detect a trail of uprooted meadows and sandy soil, created by the successive passages of the river horses.
We walked between tambakunda trees. With the heat squeezing, its illusory fruits and hard as stone, make us dream of juicy kiwis.
The reward is different.
The First of the Lagoons of Anôr
The trail reveals the first of the three lakes covered and the initial chance of seeing hippos.
Belmiro and Miguel scrutinize the body of water full of water lilies, surrounded by grass and on a secondary shore, acacias and, yes, some African oil palms.
In this search, we come across two crocodiles reloading.
We photographed a prolific community of birds: weavers, authors of an impressive macramé of straw nests.
And even ducks, ibises, herons and others.
The repeated bass clapping sounds produced by Belmiro fail to reveal and attract hippos. The guides decree them absent from that lagoon.
Accordingly, they ended the rest and set us on our way to the lake that followed.
For a little while longer, we meandered through the savannah.
At intervals, through a meadow so overgrown that it reached us in height. We crossed muddy and dark corgas and puddles, symptoms that we were closer to flooded redoubts.
The Second Lagoon of Anôr, still in search
We crossed a final pool of rusty black water into a dense forest, full of leafy branches and curled lianas. Belmiro announces that we are at the entrance to the second lagoon.
It leaves us at a safe distance, in anticipation.
Then, advance to the slightly elevated edge. Concealed by the weeds, he recovers the resonant palms of the first lagoon. One time. Two. Several more.
For four or five minutes, without result. Belmiro moves to the front of another point where, via a short channel, this lagoon had an extension. Then he goes back to his summoning palms.
It seems to us all that still in vain.
Finally, the Meeting with the Hippos of Orango
We are turning our backs and preparing ourselves for another hour of walking and for the last attempt, when Belmiro alerts Miguel. "Are here!" confirms the biologist. We line up on the edge, as quiet as we can.
At first, we see no sign of the animals. Belmiro carries it in his palms, more intense and echoing. Finally, a curious hippopotamus emerges, its ears and head poking out of the water covered in dense vegetation. So, one second.
Another plus. And yet another.
Shortly after adjusting to the contours of the bush and becoming astonished at them, we counted at least ten hippopotamuses, all of them with their heads out of the water, just from the nostrils upwards, with pricked ears.
Intrigued by the embassy we dedicated to them.
Gradually, they approach us.
In such a way that, even though we are aware that the superior plane from which we observe them protects us, they begin to intimidate us.
We had been admiring them for fifteen minutes.
Belmiro, considered that the animals were getting too close and that time had run out.
Accordingly, we went back across the dark pool, out of the pocket of forest that enveloped the lagoon.
“Well, this, today, was really lucky!” says Belmiro. “The last few times I came here, I never got to see them. As soon as you arrive at the second lagoon, you immediately find a group like this!”
The Evolution Caused by Leeches
We shared a justified euphoria. Affected only by the concern to examine the feet and legs, in search of the leeches that infest that lagoon and around it, like others from Orango.
By a derivation of the same luck, we didn't carry even one of those parasites that have long taken advantage of the hippopotamus amphibius das Bijagós and it is believed that they ended up determining a unique behavior of the nearly two hundred specimens estimated in the Orango PN.
The Bijagós species is the common one. In ecological terms, it presents an evolution made possible by the geological past of the region.
The Probable Geological Explanation
At one time, the current area of the Bijagos archipelago it was filled by a vast river delta, covered with fresh water. Over the millennia, the ocean has advanced.
Make it navy.
The hippopotamuses that came to proliferate on several other large islands of the archipelago, Caravela, Formosa and, it is known that even Bubaque, adjusted to the new conditions.
At a certain point, the animals learned that, by immersing themselves in sea water, so close to the lagoons, they got rid of the leeches that pierce their skin.
So when the leeches bother them, they go to the ocean. They remain in a salt bath for an hour or two. Sometimes more. When they return to the lakes where they live, they are already purified.
Hippos sometimes make longer sea crossings. Many of them even live permanently in the sea, from which they come out to drink fresh water and feed themselves.
It happens, from time to time, to go ashore near the Bijagós tabancas, even outside the Orango PN, as happened on the relatively distant islands of Unhocomo and Unhocomozinho.
On those occasions, the people of the Bijagós fear them, but they just chase them away.
Since the Bijagó people can remember, hippos are seen as powerful and almost sacred, and as such, protected.
Finding them on an island in PN Orango, or in any other Bijagó, has the feel of an animal grail.
HOW TO GO:
fly with the euroatlantic , Lisbon-Bissau and Bissau-Lisbon, on Fridays.
BOOK YOUR VACATION ON KÉRÉ ISLAND AND EXPEDITIONS IN SEARCH OF HIPPOPOTAMS and/or BIJAGOS TURTLES IN:
http://bijagos-kere.fr or by phone and WhatsApp: +245 966993827