Dakar: not just a rally: slaving over a hot island


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Africa » Senegal » Cape Verde Peninsula » Dakar
May 16th 2016
Published: June 26th 2017
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Namibia to Senegal


Distance travelled from Cape Town: 3,704 nautical miles

From Walvis Bay we have been on a North Westerly heading. We crossed over the Angola Basin at a depth of 5000m, just over 3 miles deep, before crossing the equator. Rounding the 'bump' of the African continent we sailed past the coast of Liberia and headed north toward Dakar, Senegal.

The day before we docked we received a notice from MSC in our cabin: As a measure of general precaution, as the security and personal safety of our guests is always paramount to us (translated as: we don't want to have the shit sued out of us!!) we recommend you exercise extra caution and remain aware of your surroundings when in the vicinity of any large gatherings or, more in general, in areas that are particularly crowded.'This sort of letter isn't usual for every port we visit. Is this a ploy from the company to scare you in to booking an official excursion? Probably not as the excursion desk is now closed. Maybe it is a reminder to all those who have paid for an official excursion that it will have been money well spent. Nah, even I'm not that cynical. It's probably just a friendly warning to raise awareness!

Dakar is the capital city of Senegal, West Africa. It is bordered in the north by Mauritania, the east by Mali and the south by the two Guineas – French and Portuguese. To the West of Senegal is the Atlantic Ocean!! Dakar forms part of the Cap-Vert peninsula. This is the westernmost point of the whole continent of Africa. The population of Dakar is about 1 million although the Metropolitan area brings this up to nearer 2.45 million. The official language of Senegal is Wolof with about 80%!o(MISSING)f the population speaking this lingua franca. However, French is also considered to be an official language of this country.

Dakar is most famous for the Paris to Dakar rally. This was a gruelling event that since its inaugural event in 1978 until the final race in 2006 claimed the lives of many competitors and spectators. One of the prominent happenings I recall is the then UK prime Ministers son Mark Thatcher was reported ‘lost' somewhere is Mali/Mauritania. Several days ago, a documentary was shown in the San Carlo Theatre here on board documenting the history of the rally. Mark Thatcher, who was a co-pilot and navigator was interviewed in this film as was his driver (but on different occasions) The driver lambasted Mark Thatcher saying that they were 200 miles off course from where they should have been. Mark Thatcher stated that he knew exactly where they were but due to a broken axle no one was going anywhere anyway!! To be fair, this was in 1982 way before Garmin or Tom Tom. All he had was a map of the Sahara Desert – so basically a blank yellow sheet of paper!! It's not exactly as if he could say: ‘Turn left at the next McDonalds!' (Although if the race was still going today, I'm certain McDonalds would ensue that their Golden Arches would be visible at some stage of the race!!)

Roisin and I watched the ship manoeuvre in to its berth just after 8am. Many of the vendors had already started setting up stalls on the quayside. Some vendors, the stevedores and other locals who happen to be strolling along the quay at eight in the morning were all waving as they greeted the MSC Sinfonia and all who sailed in her to Senegal. This is only the second and final cruise ship to stop in Dakar all season so still a bit of a novelty for the locals. I can see the dollar signs lighting up the little eyes of the street vendors and merchants with the expectation of all these rich westerners passing by. Easy picking? I wouldn't be too sure. Most of the passengers on board are South African. Have you seen the state of the Rand recently??!

Today we took the official excursion over to Gorée Island, a few kilometres off the coast of Dakar. I had carried out some research prior to this cruise. The ferry terminal did not seem to be too far from where the ship would berth. The ferry timetable appeared to indicate a service every half hour at the cost less than £5 each return. However, not knowing much about the efficiency and reliability of the local transport and the other warnings before we boarded the ship we still hadn't decided whether to chance to trip under our own steam or ‘place safe'. We had, though, already decided on two excursions, Walvis Bay and Malta, so this tour was a last minute, spur of the moment decision made at the same time we booked the other two excursions at the Shorex desk on board.

Our excursion met in the Sinfonia lounge at 9am where we showed our ticket and got a number sticker to display in a visible place. This indicated the number of the tour and helped the guide identify who belonged where during a head count. A small frail-looking lady in her eighties appeared who Roisin remarked looked curiously like her Nan. We sat within earshot as she engaged in a conversation with one of the excursion assistants.

‘Are we going to be back by 5 as I'm getting my hair done at 5?' asked Roisin's ‘nan'

Yes', came the replywe have to be all back on board by 4:30 as the ship sails at 5. The excursion is three and a half hours so we will be back to the ship by 1pm'

‘As long as we're back on board by 5 as I'm having my hair done!' And with that she scuttled off to an empty chair clutching her sticker and excursion ticket.

On the quay most of the vendors were now set up. At this time, the customers were sparse owing to most of the passengers having pre-arranged excursions and were not dillying or for that matter dallying. This didn't seem to perturb the local vendors who you sensed knew that they hadn't seen the last of us. Anyhow, there was a whole bunch of independent tourists itching to get at the fake Gucci sunglasses, Michael Kors handbags and such local crafts as wooden carvings that have been known to be nothing more than compressed paper or antique carved masks which were probably newer than the Canon camera I had around my neck!! We walked passed all these goodies unhindered. I had heard so much of the ‘hard sell'. I'd hoped this was the shape of things to come. It wasn't!!!

We boarded the coach and set off. Our local guide explained a little about Senegal, Dakar and also what we were likely to see and visit once we arrived at our destination. It's amazing how much you can fit in to three minutes as that's how long the coach ride was!!

We were shepherded in to the ferry terminal and waited for next ferry. As we were moving in line towards security, a local lady with a very proper English accent started talking to Roisin. Her name was Maria. She came across as very friendly and genuinely interested making you feel almost like you were the chosen ones. Well, in a way we were!! Chosen for her to target us and plead that we visit her shop on Gorée Island. It was so easy to say ‘maybe' but we found ourselves saying ‘Yes'. We watched Maria as she worked her way down the line. The same spiel: ‘What's your name and where are you from?'

We spotted two familiar faces further down the line. Dave and Hanlie had made their own way and were travelling independently. I was starting to wish we'd done the same thing as the ferry transport seemed to be more organised than I expected. This was booked on impulse. I hate impulse!!

The Ferry was bigger than it looked. We managed to get a seat outside near the bow of the boat. It was 82F (27C) and hardly a breeze so it was pleasant when the ferry started its twenty minute journey across to the Island.

A young girl, not much older than twenty was sitting on the seat in front. She turned and started chatting to Roisin ‘What's your name and where are you from?' These people have obviously been watching too many British game shows!! Her name was Abby and surprisingly (or not!) also had a shop on the island!! And as if on cue wanted us to visit it.

So, what's so special about Gorée Island? This used to be a transit camp for the slave trade for over 400 years. It was named by the Dutch after taking over the island from the Portuguese in the late 1600s. This was ideal for the transit camp as it was the nearest point to the new world. Just to clarify, the old world consisted of Europe, Africa and most of Asia whilst the new world referred to the Americas. The House of Slaves is the most visited attraction on the island so after we landed we were rounded up (not unlike the slaves) and our guide in his grey combat gear marched us (although to the local merchants it was probably more of ‘paraded us' - not unlike the slaves!!) through a narrow street lying off the main square to the House of Slaves where we were handed to the curator of the museum.

During the slave trade over five million slaves were processed through this house coming from all over Africa. This was not the only Slave route on the west coast of Africa but it was one of the busiest. I'm surprised there was never an uprising with the slaves far outnumbering the oppressors. They probably told the ‘slaves' that they had won a free cruise!! The slaves were housed in small cells with about twenty five crammed in to each tiny space. One area had a plaque that read ‘Gde Cellule des Recalcitrants'. The House of Slaves even had its own naughty corner!!! It wasn't unusual for the white slave master to take some of the young girls at will to their private quarters atop of the main steps. If a girl fell pregnant they were released. At the far end of the building, looking through an open door at the ocean beyond, this was known as the ‘door of no return'. Once a slave walked through this door they know the jig was up and they'd never return to their land. Thousands of slaves never made it to the ‘New' World despite passing from the ‘Old' World. This was predominantly due to the poor sanitations and general conditions. The weaker amongst them and the elderly often died of dysentery and other such diseases en route.

As the curator spewed fact after fact, one of our guides translated these for the benefit of our German guests. This is a very difficult job at the best of times so well done to him!!

That done, our guide strode out of the museum on to our next stop at an art gallery. We were literally here for three minutes and as we couldn't buy or touch anything and photography was forbidden we were not too sure what this achieved. From the few sentences that the guide uttered I gathered that the speciality with this art gallery is that all the paintings are made using sand. There is no artificial colouring – all natural sand pigments from near white sand through to yellow, orange, brown and finally black volcanic sand all collected from the vicinity.

We were off again. Uphill this time. Past some waste ground where a couple of goats stood lazing in the dry heat in front of a pile of rotten bonfire wood which I later learned was someone's house!! After one last push we arrived at the summit. A tall white monument greeted us. This took the shape of a sail and represented the slave sailing ships. Gorée Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and they subsidised this monstrosity as the locals refer to it. A few metres further on is the remains of a large modern double barrelled canon. This was originally built by the French in 1907 and was only fired once in 1945. The gun weighs upwards of sixty tonne and had a range of twenty kilometres. Before the French left Senegal they disarmed this massive weapon of destruction so it could no longer be used. The guns most famously were used in a few scenes of the movie based on the Alistair McLean novel ‘The Guns of Navarone'. Just think, David Niven could have been standing were I had placed Pooh to have his photo taken!!

There was another smaller turret shaped gun with a compact barrel which, as Roisin pointed out, would have looked more at home on the Death Star from Star Wars. As we seem to have walked in to what once was a Hollywood movie set, maybe it was!!!

Off again but only to the far end of the summit. A large shack with a sand artist demonstrating his talent. This was something different and having seen the art made, we decided to purchase a few of his creations. Whilst haggling, our guide decided to race off down the hillside. We managed to get our asking price as our excuse was ‘we have to go!!' It seemed to work.

We soon lost sight of the rest of the group as we did not return the way we came. The vendors, having decided to finally take ‘No' for an answer, pointed us in the right direction as we hurried down a number of uneven steps with nothing but the waste ground of this barren hillside either side of the steps. We sighted the rest of the group a few hundred metre further down the hill as they all disappeared in to another narrow street that headed towards the main square and the ferry terminal.

Finally, with the end in sight we thought we were out of the woods. However, all hope soon vanished as we saw the unmistakable yellow dress of Abby walking towards us. Without waiting for an invitation she took Roisin by the hand and led her to her shop. I was also approached by several shop owners but with my quick thinking I said; ‘I'm with them!' pointing to Roisin and Abby as I reluctantly followed them in to Abby's shop. There were hundreds of tourists milling around seemingly hassle free. Why had we been singled out? Abby was doing her best to sell a cut of printed material she was passing off as a scarf for €20. You can but three of these for £8 in London!! Again, we tried to use the We need to catch up with the rest of our group and to catch the Ferry routine but she told us the next ferry is not due for another 25 minutes and then proceeded to tell us her life story including her struggle in bringing up her baby single handed!! Feeling that we owed her that much in listening to her plight, we ended up giving her €5 to leave us alone! From our experience on Gorée Island I am of the opinion that no one will hurt you there, but the locals are very creative in trying to separate you from your money.

We rounded the corner to the relative safety of the main square and the Ferry pier. Oh No! We had just been spotted by Maria. She was not too happy that we hadn't visited her shop and started becoming a little persistent.

‘You said you'd come to my shop'

‘Sorry but we've been on a tour and we didn't have time'.

‘But you've got time now'

‘Yes but we've got no money.'

Maria must have thought ‘Not that old chestnut!!' As if on a continuous loop she repeated, ‘Yes, but you said you'd come to my shop!!'

‘For f**k sake. Will you stop pestering us and go and bother someone else. We are not interested', is what I would have liked to say but because I appreciate they have to make a living and they present themselves in a non-threatening manner we just started to walk away. Sitting on a bench at the far end of the square near the Ferry pier, we decided to snack on a few muffins we had brought with us from the ship. We were approached only three times during our welcome repast; once by a man trying to sell five pure gold bangle for €10 – a bargain I'm sure; the antique mask man gave it another shot; and finally someone with three carved monkeys – see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil but they all went away as poor as when they first approached us!! I thought the flies were supposed to be the pests in Senegal. ‘Oh no! Here is Abby. What does she want now? Her shop is 300m away and in another street but she still managed to find us. And who's minding her shop??!'

Lovely Lady!' she began as she addressed Roisin. ‘I like you. Here is a gift from me' as she beckoned Roisin to hold her hand out and slipped a bracelet made from multi-coloured wooden pieces on to her wrist. We offered her some muffin in return which she politely refused and with that she was gone. That was a nice touch. Our story of having no money must have touched her more than her story about her child touched us. Abby probably thought that she had taken our last €5!! However, when Roisin took off the bracelet later that day, it had left a multi-coloured stain around her wrist where the dye had run!!

Our guide rounded us up using his megaphone and apologised that we had not had time to visit everything on the island as was planned due to lack of time. Yes but we still had time for shopping, I thought. Always time to boost the local economy!!

The trip back to the mainland was without incident and back on the quay, the vendors were now in full swing with each stall having a fair share of tourists inspecting the souvenirs. Many guests on board had invested in baseball caps or t-shirts with the red, green and yellow of the Senegalese flag prominently displayed and wearing said attire with pride.

At 4:15 and then at 4:30 announcements were made for a French passenger and a German passenger respectively to report to customer services. The ship was scheduled to depart at 5pm. At 5:10 a pickup truck sped along the quay and stopped adjacent the gang way. The back doors opened and two people emerged who then hurried up the gangway. Inevitably these must have been our missing French and German. Soon thereafter the gangway was raised, the ropes slackened and the MSC Sinfonia pulled away from the quay. There were quite a few people on the quayside, mainly the vendors who were packing up their wares. Unlike our arrival no one gave the ship a second glace as we slipped away. No waving ‘adieu' or ‘bon voyage' Not as much as a ‘missing you already' from any of the locals who were witnessing the departure of the final cruise ship this season.

We now have a further two days at sea before our next destination: Gran Canaria.

The last word has to be about Roisin's ‘Nan'. At dinner that evening, she entered the dining room and I must say, her hair looked nice!!


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19th May 2016

Love it enjoy the rest of the trip, also looking forward to our end of season curry!

Tot: 0.135s; Tpl: 0.032s; cc: 13; qc: 36; dbt: 0.0128s; 1; m:saturn w:www (104.131.125.221); sld: 1; ; mem: 1.4mb