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Published: July 23rd 2017
Greetings from deep in the African bush! I feel like I am really travelling on this trip now. I always find that there are two big steps on a trip: the flight from home to the country of destination, and then the first journey one makes within that destination. Sometimes that second journey can be just as nerve-wracking as the first, and I found this one to be the case. Whilst after three nights I felt I had gotten used to Dakar, on Friday morning I took a taxi from my hotel to brave the real travelling within this region. The taxi took me to the Gare Routiere des Beaux Maraichers, in the northern Dakar suburb of Pikine, which seems to be the main transport hub of the capital, linking it with the rest of the country by old, ever-so-slow and rusty buses, and smaller forms of transport referred to as “bush taxis” or “sept-places”. As the name suggests, there are seven seats in these larger than average taxis, and they operate on a fill-up-and-go basis. The bus station seemed fairly hectic, but not quite so bad as I had expected, once I had shaken off a couple
of touts who wanted to know where I was going. I found the bush taxi area that I needed, and was the last person to arrive for the sept-place I was taking to Toubacouta. This can be seen as a good thing and a bad thing: good, in that as soon as you arrive, you get going, rather than having to wait for six more people to show up. Bad, in that you most likely end up with the worst seat. There is one choice seat in the front next to the driver, three in the middle, and three on the back. I ended up on the back row in the middle, with a good view of the rest of the taxi and people in it, but that was about it. The seat seemed ok to start with, but after half-an-hour or so it felt like I was sitting on a wooden bench, and every nerve in my backside seemed to cry out from thereon for the rest of the journey, particularly going over the speed bumps which became painfully and increasingly more frequent towards the end of the journey. Just as I felt my backside couldn’t take it any
longer, shifting positions every five minutes or so to let the blood flow to each part again, we arrived in Toubacouta. This was a loooong journey of nigh on five hours, with absolutely no stops along the way!! So whilst the bush taxi is probably the more fleeting mode of transport, faster than the chugging buses, it was a very cramped and very uncomfortable journey. Still, upon arriving, I felt an amazing sense of satisfaction having got there, which I hope will continue to drive me in taking these things to travel around the region over the coming weeks.
Toubacouta is the main gateway to one of Senegal’s most famous National Parks: the Sine-Saloum Delta, which is also granted UNESCO world heritage status. It is an important wetland area of 76,000 hectares, where the Sine, Saloum and Diombos rivers split into numerous channels, forming a marshland, delta area upon reaching the open Atlantic Ocean. It is abundant in mangrove trees, and hosts a huge number of bird species, making the area attractive to numerous bird-watcher tourists from Europe. Indeed, Toubacouta is the main tourist hub for the region, although visiting currently in the off-season it seems hard to believe
Touba Mouride Market
that many other tourists visit this place at all apart from myself – I have only seen a handful of other foreign visitors. This does make me feel like I have the place to myself, although on the other hand I also feel like I stand out more, as every pair of eyes seems to look at me as I pass by, some saying “bonjour”, others saying “salaam aleikum” (the Islamic form of greetings), and children invariably giddying themselves up into a frenzy, running and shouting “toubab, toubab” – the local word for a white man. It feels very welcoming, though I am not yet used, and probably never have been never will, to being the centre of attention wherever I go. Ah well, it definitely feels like the “real” Africa here, and I am very happy and excited to be doing the proper travelling now.
So far I have spent two nights here, and just have one more night to spend before moving onto The Gambia tomorrow – quite a momentous occasion it will be too, as it becomes country number 75 on my list! Here in Toubacouta, I checked into the Keur Youssou, a local lodge run
by a very friendly, and powerful figure, the larger than life Youssou, and his family. There are six traditional huts here, housing comfortable lodging with en-suite bathrooms and ceiling fans, and I am the only one staying here. There are also no other guests at the Keur Thierry nextdoor, a similar place, run by a rather eccentric Belgian chap called Thierry. I have gotten to know these places well, as I have taken my meals here, as well as the nearby plush upmarket resort of Hotel Keur Saloum, which has a few more visitors, plenty of cold beer, and stunning views across one of the delta channels. For the last two evenings I have had dinner at the Keur Thierry, and am not joking when I waited each time two hours for my evening meal to come! They are probably cooking everything from scratch, as well as buying the ingredients, when I order, given that no one else is staying here.
I have enjoyed my two full days here very much, as Youssou has arranged for a local guide here called Yamin to take me on a few excursions. Yesterday morning we visited the nearby traditional fishing village of
Missirah, and it was fascinating to see how the local people make their living from the river: from the fishing boats moored at the village pier, to the areas set aside for drying and smoking the day’s catch nearby, the onshore painters who decorate the pirogue fishing boats with bright and beautiful colours, and the piles of oyster shells discarded by the village women who harvest the oysters, and then leave the piles to be burned, which produces a white paint local people use to decorate their houses. The village is also home to a stunning, achingly old tree, said to be one of the two largest in Senegal: a silk-cotton tree, known in French as a “fromager” – it was huge, around one thousand years old, with giant buttress roots which seemed to house a family of goats, and branches resembling wizard robe sleeves. A stunning and impressive site, traditionally the place where the local village chief would preside over and resolve village disputes, but now seemingly home to the family of goats and a couple of little-visited tourist trinket shops.
In the late afternoon, we took a local pirogue fishing boat to go on a lovely excursion
Keur Youssou, Toubacouta
on the river delta, taking in the views of the mangrove shores, trees which grow above the water level but whose roots are also visible as the tide ebbs and flows. Mangroves are also unique in that they are able to grow in saline water areas such as river deltas, and because of this pretty much take over the area. They in turn become home to countless bird varieties, of which both Senegal and The Gambia are both home to, making them both prime destinations for European ornithologists. So far I have spotted pelicans, fish eagles, cormorants, herons, bee eaters, hornbills, weaver birds and kingfishers. I have taken a good few photos of them too, and have posted the best ones here. I am glad that my small camera has got a really excellent zoom for a camera of its size, and also happy to have brought for the first time on a trip, a travel set of binoculars – they came in handy indeed yesterday. Our pirogue ride also included a visit to a nearby Ile aux Coquillages, or “Island of Shells” – an island which has literally grown from oyster shells deposited over centuries, which can also support
the growth of mangroves as well as huge baobab trees. It was really impressive to see such beautiful, typically African trees, grow in such an unlikely location. After this we arrived at dusk at the Ile aux Oiseaux, the Island of Birds. This was a very small cluster of mangroves in the middle of the river channel, no land whatsoever, but because of this is a safe haven for all manner of roosting birds. It was a memorable time indeed circling the island a few times, as variety upon variety of birds arrived there to lodge for the night: pretty much most of the species mentioned above could be seen on this tiny island, perhaps only 100 square metres, made up only of mangrove trees. In the evening, back on land, I enjoyed a local Gazelle beer while I waited the two hours for my dinner…
This morning Lamin took me by motorbike to a nearby village which hosts a weekly Sunday market: Touba Mouride. This involved an hour’s ride over dirt and sand tracks, the latter being extremely difficult to drive on, and involved a very minor crash into a local farmer’s field. This was also tricky again
My Guide, Lamin
Road to Missirah
for my poor backside, which is still recovering from the sept-place journey on Friday…! We also wended our way through Serer villages, the local rural people here who build their dwellings and villages as per the typical image of an African village: five or six mud, circular huts with thatched roofs, surrounded by a perimeter mud wall. These were very photogenic, and also housed numerous children who all came running, waving and shouting “toubab, toubab!” upon seeing me, trying to hold balance on the back of a small motorbike as Lamin navigated his way through the sandy paths. I also had the great honour of meeting one of the village chiefs, distinguished by a pointy, Chinese-style decorated hat, and long, sand-coloured robes. He had the eyes of a wise man, who had seen much in life, and who was able to navigate his way through village disputes with the air of nobility and esteem. I felt a great honour in meeting him, and meeting his deep and respectable gaze. We then arrived in the village, as it hosted the weekly market, and I have not really experienced a market like this on my travels before. The idea attracted me this
Road to Missirah
time for the first time in my travels, and I am glad I went. All sorts of goods were on sale, from agricultural products such as sweet potatoes and cassava, to hardware and blacksmiths’ tools, and from watch and radio repair stalls, to a small livestock market under the village tree, where donkeys, horses, goats and cows were being bartered and sold. There was a busy, yet friendly atmosphere, and the people didn’t mind me taking photos – I always feel a bit odd in such situations, taking pictures of people going about their daily lives, and would find it most annoying if people were trying to take a photo of me back in London say, on the way to work, or teaching a lesson…! But I felt comfortable taking photos there. There was only one incident which I did not enjoy, and this was a man exuding negative energy just outside the village mosque, who upon seeing me said words along the lines of “mosque, mosque”, “Allahu Akbar”, and proceeded to chant the Muslim “Shahadah”, or statement of belief, at me in Arabic: “There is only one God, and Muhammad is his prophet”. He had an air of aggression,
Road to Missirah
and I did not feel comfortable one bit. I was actually quite happy after this to be leaving the village again, though I had to constantly tell myself that this kind of person is the exception, and every other person in that village, and who I have met so far, has been warm and welcoming. Upon asking Lamin afterwards what his intentions were, he calmly said that he was the son of the local marabout, the Sufi Muslim holy man, who was just telling me what is said inside the mosque. I wasn’t so sure, I felt deep aggression and intimidation there. I will choose to believe though that his desire indeed was only to let me know what happens inside a mosque.
The journey back seemed to go a lot faster than the journey there, though it was no less punctuated by local children giddying themselves up into a frenzy shouting “toubab, toubab!” and running after our motorbike – they were very cute and funny, waving and smiling all the way.
And now I am just spending a wonderful afternoon, relaxing and chilling in my very comfortable thatched wooden hut in the Keur Youssou. I plan to
just relax a bit this afternoon, write up and publish this current blog entry, and then sort out my bag a bit before heading to The Gambia tomorrow. My plan is to spend six days in The Gambia: three on the touristy coast, and three at a lodge upriver and inland. I thus plan to return again this way, through Toubacouta, and spend one more night here, at the Keur Youssou, probably next Sunday, before recommencing my journey again in Senegal. Thus, I have decided to rationalise my backpack and leave some things that aren’t necessary for the next six days with Youssou. This will be along with pretty much my entire medicine box. I found out just before I left that Gambian customs can be very strict about the kinds of medicines that you bring into the country – you are apparently not allowed to bring in a number of over-the-counter medicines sold in Western countries, including codeine, which I sometimes take for occasional bad headaches. Any prescribed medicines must be accompanied by a pharmacy sticker or doctor’s letter. I have two prescribed medicines, with accompanying stickers, which I hope to be able to take into the country tomorrow.
Fromager, or Silk-Cotton Tree, Missirah
One of the two largest trees in Senegal, around 1000 years old!
Most of the rest of my medical kit I have decided to leave behind, as I do pack a lot of different types of medicines for my journeys, experience has taught me to do so, and much of it is actually in unlabelled containers or pillboxes, certainly without any doctor’s notes. I thought it best with The Gambia’s strict rules here, to leave most of this behind, along with a few other things which weigh down my backpack and which I can do without for six days or so.
All that is left is a visit this evening to an area of the Sine-Saloum Delta, with Yamin, to see what is apparently a spectacular sight of bioluminescent marine plankton, which magically light up in the water when disturbed – this sounds a stunning spectacle to be able to see, reminiscent of the film “Avatar”, so if I do see any and am able to take photos, I am hoping to write up about it in my next blog entry, most likely from The Gambia.
So, it is with best wishes for everyone that I shall sign out with this one. Thank you very much for reading so far,
and I hope you enjoy the pictures.
Until the next time, most likely from The Gambia.
All the best
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