TRAVEL: HOLIDAY DISASTERS

A five-mile jaunt in Burkina Faso turned into a nightmare when John Messer and his friend thought they could travel without a guide

If all that the most exciting local tourist site in the area has to offer is a large pile of chicken feathers, then either your holiday should have been planned more carefully, or you are visiting, as Lawrence and I were, La Mare aux Poissons Sacres de Dafra - a pond containing sacred, chicken-fed catfish, near Bobo Dioulasso, in Burkina Faso.

We had declined offers, made the night before by some local young men, to be our guides for the day, in spite of their warnings about muggings and a gruesome story about a French man who had had a thumb cut off in the area, and instead had caught a taxi the five miles from Bobo to Dafra.

We got out of the taxi and within a few minutes a local bushman appeared who seemed to know where we wanted to go, so we followed him the quarter of a mile to the pond.

The pond was surrounded on three sides by 30m-high (100ft) rock walls, the only access being the narrow path that we had just walked down. The flat rocks that lead down to the edge of the pond were covered, ankle- deep, in feathers.

We had been there for about 10 minutes when another bushman arrived on the scene. He had a machete in one hand and his face was covered, cowboy- style, with a greasy-looking handkerchief. He did not approach us directly but rather zigzagged toward us, walking sideways like a crab.

"Here comes Zorro," giggled Lawrence, suspecting that a show was about to be put on for our benefit.

The intruder yelled at our guide and with his sling shot at full stretch, fired a golf ball-sized stone which hit our guide in the hand. He shrieked and, dropping his own machete, sprinted past the intruder and away up the path.

The bushman said something as he advanced towards me. He raised his machete and hacked a couple of times at the shoulder strap of my backpack, which I took to mean that he wanted it.

Our mugger squatted on the ground and looked through my bag. My Swiss army knife and a bottle of paracetamol interested him, but my camera did not. He lay his machete on the ground as he tied his new possessions into the cuffs of his loose cotton trousers.

The next thing that he wanted was our money. He pointed at our pockets with his machete. I found a few coins which I gave to him. Lawrence, who had most of our money, bundled it into his fists, before pulling out the insides of his pockets to indicate that (apparently) he had none.

Then it was over. Lawrence and I walked towards the path that lead out of the gorge, picking up my day- pack and camera on the way.

A sudden burst of anger took hold of me and I turned back in the direction of the pond.

I stormed up to the mugger and stopped about a yard from him and just glared at him. I clicked my fingers aggressively a couple of times and shoved forward the demanding palm of my right hand. Surprisingly, he immediately returned my knife and the bottle of paracetamol and began returning the coins.

I held up my hands in protest: "No more, thank you."

I joined Lawrence on the path. As we came out into the open, at the top of the path, and with a fair bit of adrenaline coursing around our systems, we stopped to assess our situation.

But not for long, for behind us another bushman, machete in hand, unmasked and looking very serious, jog-trotted towards us. It did not seem like an appropriate time to be either brave or foolhardy, so with our first serious dose of fear, we sprinted back to our taxi.

Maybe, in hindsight, we should have hired a local guide to show us around. But then, it had been quite an adventure and all in all, I thought that we had got off fairly lightly. I still had my Swiss army knife and my painkillers, and Lawrence and I still had four thumbs between us.

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