My departure from Gandiol, and Saint Louis respectively, was not an easy one. After three weeks in the area I had something that could almost be called a life there. I knew where to go for a good breakfast, I had a regular place for lunch, had been invited now and then by a local family and was a regular at the Thursday night jazz performances on a riverboat. And, not least, the place where I stayed is an absolute paradise spot. Needless to say, my planned departure date got delayed beyond the receipt of my parcel, but finally I made it back into the saddle moving further towards the sun.
A nice feature in Senegal is the kilometre markers along most roads so that in the general absence of signposts giving directions you know at least on which road you are. A rough piste took me to a town named Potou. Until I hit the town of course I did not know for sure whether I was on the right road. Asking for directions, and especially distances in Africa can be frustrating. ‘Not far’ is a terribly overused answer. I asked a man whether this was the road for Leona, a town shown on my map. He said yes, and that it was only seven kilometres away. Nice, I thought, being surprised about his precise answer. A few kilometres down the road, I asked another man, who confirmed it was the right road, then on my departure, he said, it’s seven kilometres. Well. After about another ten kilometres I asked again, this time for the distance. ‘It’s only seven kilometres’. This was when I decided to stop asking. I measured 28 kilometres, eventually. From Potou an excellent, seemingly new tarmac road took me back to Louga on the main highway. I have encountered many new roads in Senegal so far, most of which had a sign there telling they were financed by the European Union.
Originally, I had decided not to go into Dakar. Big cities are never nice to cycle, and just a pain to get in and out. And, they are usually not that attractive and unless it is necessary to go in I rather stay out. Further more due to the upcoming elections and the controversial ruling of the constitution commission on the candidacy of the current president, demonstrations and consequently road closures are frequent in and around Dakar. However Dakar, or the Cap Vert peninsular on which the city is located is Africa’s westernmost point so it had some appeal. In Thies however I learned that there was a train departing early in the morning and going back in the evening so, at eight o’clock in the evening I changed my mind and decided to head for the capital the next morning.
The train was not precisely fast, it does the 60 km trip in about two and a half hours, but it is reliable, comfortable, and air conditioned. It was actually freezing cold in there. In Dakar I went to see the Austrian consul with whom I had e-mailed back and forth in the weeks before and who had invited me to a visit. I spent most of the morning there and we had a good chat. I had lunch in a sparkling cafe in the area where I was served very western food for very western prices. One of the main sights for the visitor in Dakar is the Ile de Goree, an island just off the coast from Dakar. In history slaves were traded on its markets and shipped to the Americas from there. I decided that the hassle at the point where the boats for island depart was probably only a blink of what was going on there and I decided not to go but rather have a wander around town before heading back to Thies.
Already before I hit Thies I encountered the first Baobab trees. Further on through some areas they occurred so frequently it almost looked like a forest of them. The tree behaves much like a succulent storing large amounts of water hence the size of its trunk varies seasonally. The bark is fire resistant and used for cloth and rope, the leaves as a vegetable and the fruit can be eaten or cooked to a jam, that was sometimes offered to me by Europeans in the area. To me it is the quintessentially African tree. And they are each so different, it seems there are no two of them looking alike.
A short ride of about 50 km took me to Mbour, which my guidebook sold for its beach. Frankly, it’s not at all that attractive. I was pushing my bike through the deep sand towards a hotel which I wanted to check out when I was approached by a young man. He seemed very friendly and interested in my trip, and wanted to drink tea. I said I would come back after I had checked the hotel out. I would find him at the shop, he said. Instantly I played my program for the hassling shopkeepers, no I wouldn’t buy anything, and even looking will waste each others time, didn’t you see I am travelling on a bicycle? He looked at me squarely and said, no, you don’t buy anything, we will buy you a tea. I felt like an idiot and wandered off. I went to the shop after an hour, and had a small crowd of people welcoming me. I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting outside the shop (which turned out to be a grocery shop) and enjoyed the chatter.
Together with Francois who had approached me the day before and Antoine, a friend of his I headed off for Fadiouth the next day. It is an Island off the coast just outside of the Sine-Saloum Delta. It is really a pile of seashells which were deposited there over what must be centuries and eventually a town was built on it. The seashells still continue to pile up since large quantities of mussels are peeled and dried in the sun there. Both of my new friends had family there, and I was shown around, fed well, and introduced to what must be half of the town. It was a great day out.
I saw a bunch of pigs on the roadside, and I stopped to take a photo. A pig? Well, it needed some soul searching before I understood it myself. After months of travelling through countries which are almost exclusively inhabited by Muslims (or in the case of Mauritania where it is the state religion) a pig is actually an odd sight. As well Senegal is a predominantly but by far not exclusively Muslim country. Along the coast and in the Sine Saloum Delta there is a very obvious Christian population.
Soon, I spotted churches asides from the mosques, heard bells ringing on Sunday. On closer inspection, in the mixed towns there are shops with a cross on them presumably meaning they are run by a Christian. Admittedly it seems what is on offer there is mainly booze. Religion seems to filter into peoples’ names too. While Christians’s first names seem to be European like Francois and Antoine, followed by an African middle and family name, Muslims’ first names are more on the lines of Mustaffa or Mohammed (Modu being the very common and pretty cool Wolof abbreviation for the latter).
I cycled through the Sine Saloum delta with its rich birdlife, being particularly rich this time of the year when the local bird population is boosted by large numbers of migratory birds from Europe. It is a vast area of floodplains around the estuaries of the Sine and the Saloum rivers overgrown with dense forest and mangrove. On top of the birds I frequently spotted monkeys as well, they all being too fast for the camera however.
As usual I headed off early to reach the border, and practiced my smile a few times on the last few kilometres. Entering the Gambia turned out to be a bit of a hassle. It was not the immigration process itself. I was stamped out by the Senegalese police, interviewed and stamped in by the Gambian authorities, and all this without a no man’s land in between. As I headed off a woman stepped into my way holding the identity card of the drug police in my face. And there I was. She took my passport, directed me and my bike into the back yard pointed at the rear left pannier bag and told me to open it. I offered to unpack it (what I prefer doing myself), she and her male colleague who had turned up agreed and the lengthy process started. They throughly searched my toiletries, cables, asked questions about unfamiliar items like the spoke key, commented on clothes, and I kept smiling and cooperating. We were through bag number two when she started to drop hints about presents, while at the same time waving with my passport and performing the globally understood gesture for money. I ignored it, and kept unpacking, smiling, and telling anecdotes about one or another item. The last pannier bag contained my medication. Another thorough check, another time hinting a bribe. By now I could have jumped into her face, but I maintained my smile. Finally, after one and a half hours I had sat it out, my passport was handed back to me, I was allowed to pack my bags again. I thanked them thoroughly, for what I didn’t know, shook hands, and cycled off.
Twenty kilometres down the road I hit the Gambia river at a town named Barra, which really is only important for the ferry to Banjul, Gambia’s tiny capital. I had very friendly and curious company during the long wait. Two ferries are commuting back and forth, the trip normally taking an hour, I was told, but the ferry on approach was a particularly slow one. Car space is strictly limited and if you arrive on a car you normally have to wait for two or three ferries to depart until it’s your turn. Lorries can wait for days. Once more it was much easier on the bike. I had to wait for three hours until the ferry arrived.
The usual mess evolved when the ferry arrived. I pushed my way through and was given a little space in the front by the stairs for the bike. I strapped it to the railing blocking most of the staircase as well as the access to the passenger lounge on the vehicle level. Intuitively I would not have chosen that spot myself but the load manager was happy. The boat is supposed to be propelled by four engines of which only one was working. It’s casing had been taken off and it was spitting large quantities of engine oil onto the floor making it very slippery. Chocks to secure the cars and donkey carts were unheard of. The railing was severely degraded by rust and some parts were missing. Essentially, it was a health and safety inspector’s wet dream. Quickly the passenger decks filled up and then also the space between the cars filled with people, animals and cargo to a state of severe overcrowding.
The boat reached Banjul after one and a half hours, which I presumed was not too bad given that a guy was busy handling the only working engine full time during the entire sailing. The sun was low by then and I got a bit nervous about reaching my goal for the day, Serrekunda, before dark. It took some time to find a working cash dispenser in Banjul, then I raced on. I arrived before dark and have stayed at the local campground since what gave me a good base for exploration in the area.
I was surprised to learn how touristy Senegal is, however this is all dwarfed by the Gambia. With its broad white Atlantic beaches which are for the most part safe for swimming, and a climate similar to the Caribbean it attracts large numbers of package tourists from Europe. Towns like Fajara, Bakau, Kololi, Kotou are formidable tourist resorts with all the facilities and comforts you could think of. It looks like a great winter sun destination to me easily accessible offering western comforts and probably just exotic enough for those who don’t want to look Africa into the eye.
In the past decades however partly due to natural reasons, but mostly due to illegal sand mining to build houses and hotels much of Gambia’s beaches disappeared. With beach tourism being a large part of the economic livelihood of this country they made the smart move of bringing in a bunch of Dutch engineers to fix it, and reclaim their beaches, and by now each coastal town has its sandy strip back.
On a different note, sex tourism here is a big thing, and this is mostly female sex tourism. European women being intimate with local men are a frequent sight throughout the tourist resorts. The provider of the service being a fair bit younger and healthier than the customer, who, aside from the racial differences, in most cases could be his mother.
Over dinner at the campground I met Jack, a Dutch guy who had bought land and was in the process of building a house in the Cassamance, the part of Senegal south of the Gambia. He invited me to come to his house with him, which is only 70 km away from Serrekunda. I wanted to go but since I need a visa to enter Gambia exiting the country briefly isn’t that easy for me. Well, there is no official border crossing anyway, he told me, so I could come without screwing my visa. He had done it a hundred times, nothing ever happened, and I would just have to say this and that to the official. Hell, it’s border jumping I argued, but my curiosity won and I was finally talked into it and we headed off.
An hour’s taxi ride with several police, a military and an immigration roadblocks took us to the river which marks the border between Gambia and Senegal. I left it to Jack to handle it. A guy with a dug out canoe takes you across and after another seven kilometres on a sand track I was at Jack’s house in the woods. In the afternoon he showed me around what is a proper paradise spot. Only a short walk through rice fields, across dunes and through Mangroves took us to a wide, white sandy beach, with nobody around. It is properly amazing place. It was worth all the illegality of the trip.
I was of course by myself on the way back. Jack took me back to the river. This time another guy with a dug out canoe was there. He had life vests on it, and he insisted that we used them. At least my and my fellow border jumpers’ personal safety was taken care of. I couldnt help but smiling to myself. Both the military and the immigration officers along the road noticed that I was coming back by myself whereas when I headed out there was another guy with me. I answered as Jack had instructed me to, blatantly lying into the guy’s face while I tried to hide the shaking and my heart sank into my boots. I am not good at that. I don’t think I will do this kind of thing again.
My trip southwards ends here, for the time being since I will turn east from here and continue up the Gambia river, then towards Tambacounda, from where I will need to find a suitable road towards Bamako. Planning routes is one of the major delights of road travel.