Senegal - part 1

Day 25 - Wednesday 14/11/07 -Zebrabar camping, Senegal

Pirogues at Saint Louis washing day at Saint Louis

Zebrabar is the perfect place to relax for a couple of days - spacious, shady, clean toilets, hammocks etc. Met a retired English couple driving around in their 50-year-old Morris 1000 and they said that in all their travels, the crossing at Rosso was the worst border they'd ever experienced. We also learned that if we acquire a 'carte brune' we can use the insurance we've bought in most of West Africa (see Notes & tips), which is good news.

Headed into Saint Louis to have a look around - the island has a certain crumbling colonial charm (and lots of hustlers trying to sell carvings and football shirts) with some cool bars to hang out in, and the funkiest buses - usually with about half a dozen kids hanging off the back. What a difference a border makes: Senegal immediately feels very relaxed: the men wear mostly Western clothes, while the women wear flamboyant dresses and headgear, carrying things on their heads, with babies in slings on their backs (not to generalise too much, of course!), and exposing a lot more skin. It's still predominantly muslim, but it feels very different to the Arabic countries we've experienced before; the call to prayer comes as a surprise. There's also so much more fresh fruit and veg around - we were just about to buy some bananas from a women on the street when she started running off with them - apparently the police were coming.

Day 26 - Thursday 17/11/07 - Zebrabar

view from Zebrabar tower pirogue owner and son

Ahh, lovely. Nothing to do today except relax and do some washing. It was really noticeable how noisy it was going to sleep to the sound of insects/crickets and waking up to the sound of birds - the desert has been so quiet. The campsite is within a national park so we dodged our way through thousands of crabs and took a pirogue trip out to one of the islands to get to know the local wildlife - a lot of the birds are the same as home, having migrated south for the winter - oh yes, it's a heron, we get those... and swallows... and waders... Went back to the local restaurant for dinner - food here is really tasty, with lots of fish, chicken and various sauces - peanuts are Senegal's biggest export, so plenty of those too.

Nic and crab aaagh!

Day 27 - Friday 16/11/07 - Zebrabar to bushcamp near Palmarin

In a bit of a dilemma today - we want to head to Dakar to try to pick up our Cameroon visas (the only other places to get them are Lagos or Calabar in Nigeria) but the embassy is shut until Monday and the area around Dakar doesn't sound particularly appealing, with lots of hustlers and horrendously over-priced accommodation. So we followed the coast south to explore the Delta region and found a good spot to bushcamp near Palmarin. Senegal is very flat (the highest point is 500 m above sea level) so the scenery is pleasant rather than stunning - lots of baobab trees and cattle in the fields. A few people wandered past and there were monkeys in the trees, but we were left in peace. All very relaxed round here.

Day 28 - Saturday 17/11/07 - Palmarin to bushcamp near Toubacouta

We were hoping to take a boat trip into the mangroves, but it's quite touristy round here and the cheapest we could find was about £30, which is really overpriced. Lulled into a false sense of security by the tarred roads we'd travelled on so far, we decided to 'nip round' to the other side of the Delta. Not the best plan as the road soon deteriorated into potholes (more potholes than tarmac) and it was a bit of a slog, although we did get to stop at a great little village market to stock up on fruit and veg. One of the women sold us some weird fruit - like a cross between a kiwi and pistachio, with a fibrous seed and very strange texture - actually quite tasty once we realised it wasn't a practical joke - they thought it was hilarious. Toubacouta is supposedly one of Senegal's 'prettiest places', but as soon as we arrived, we were greeted by 'hello my friend' and hustlers for craft stalls, accommodation, boat trips etc and it all felt like too much hassle - especially after we'd spent two hours trying to find change so we could pay for some drinks. Apparently they all have change, they just don't want to give you any so that you're forced to buy more! Anyway, we found another bush camp and were just settling down to a nice cup of Earl Grey, when we heard a rustle in the bushes. About 20 armed soldiers were creeping through our camp - presumably on a training exercise - I don't know who was more surprised, but they were very quick to wave and say hello before creeping off again.

Day 29 - Sunday 18/11/07 - Toubacouta to Toubab Dialao

Shared our breakfast with three curious boys who were off to the fields, then trekked back towards Dakar wondering where to stay. Our road map shows a road running all along the 'petite cote' south of Dakar, but it definitely doesn't exist, as we found out after lots of backtracking! Eventually stumbled upon a lovely beachside restaurant in Toubab Dialao and they had a basic room for rent, so we stayed there for 8000 CFA including breakfast - great value. Spent the afternoon in the sea and relaxing, being looked after by Nabou (below) and Hadi + trying to convince them that I really don't want to have my hair braided. Tasty grilled fish for dinner - and cold beer - this is the life.

Day 30 - Monday 19/11/07 - Toubab Dialao to bushcamp near Jene (via Dakar)

Got up at the crack of dawn to try and get to Dakar in good time. We hit the rush hour and it took about two hours of sitting in very smoggy traffic jams, weaving in and out of hawkers selling everything from ironing boards to lottery tickets, to eventually arrive at the Cameroon embassy. It was good move to arrive early as we were the only people there and the very friendly man helped us to fill in our application forms (see Documents & visas). He asked us to come back tomorrow to collect the visas, but as the embassy was blatantly not very busy we asked very nicely if would be possible to do them today - a few Robin Hood jokes later and he said he'd see what he could do. True to his word, the visas were ready a few hours later - hooray - that means we don't have to risk getting kidnapped in Nigeria! On our way out of Dakar, we stopped for two minutes while Robin nipped to the post office - in the meantime, some guy had snuck round to the front of the car and clamped one of our wheels - while I was sat there at the wheel with the engine running! Fortunately it turned out that we were blocking in some important-looking official - when we explained what had happened, he ordered the guy to take off the clamp immediately and gave him an earful. Almost ended up feeling a bit sorry for him. Headed out of Dakar and found a great bush camp under a huge baobab tree - it wasn't particularly remote and quite a few people wandered past, but they just waved and walked on. We've been surprised how easy bushcamping is - the key seems to be not to stop too early, so that anyone passing is on their way back to their village before dark.

baobab bush camp local market

Day 31 - Tuesday 20/11/07 - Jene to Serekunda (The Gambia)

Set off early towards the Gambian border. We gave an old man a lift from the market back to his village - he seemed to be having a bad day but he cheered up somewhat when we saved him a three-hour walk. Leaving Senegal was very quick and straightfoward, and entering Gambia also went smoothly - although they did a very thorough search of our car and then asked for 10,000 CFA. Determined not to part with our hard-earned cash we insisted we don't have to pay and he reluctantly accepted - it's much easier to argue now it's English-speaking again. We were feeling pleasantly surprised at how quick and easy the border had been, until 1 km down road there was another checkpoint. This time, two non-uniformed men (with ID) said they were the 'drug squad' and needed to search our car. It seemed a bit suspicious to have another search so soon, but there was a man in uniform sat in an office across the road who seemed to be vaguely supervising. They proceded to go through everything, and I mean everything. Eventually they found three herbal sleeping tablets and said 'aha, these are illegal, I'm going to charge you for this'. When we insisted on going to the police station and contacting our embassy it got a bit heated and he started yelling 'your embassy means nothing here' and trying to intimidate us. Eventually they let us go without paying anything, but it was good practice - I'm sure we'll have lots more fun with the police in central Africa. After this incident, all the hustlers at the Barra ferry were almost a delight! It took about two hours to cross the Gambia River to Banjul - by which time we really did want those cold but overpriced Sprites. It was getting dark as we arrived in Serekunda, but thankfully we had GPS coordinates of the campsite. Welcome to the Gambia!
The Gambia

Day 32 - Wednesday 21/11/07 - Sukuta camping near Serekunda

We've reluctantly made the decision that heading down through Guinea-Bissau and Guinea to Sierra Leone is going to be too much of a rush (six extra border crossings and three extra visas before we've even started + the roads aren't reported to be good) and that it would be better to travel at a more relaxed pace through the rest of West Africa - the faster you go, the less you see. Besides, we had to spend today cleaning out the landie as Robin noticed a sticky oil-coloured liquid dripping out the back - it turned out to be honey and the brand-new jar we bought has emptied itself somewhere inside and everything is rather sticky! Went for a walk round the village - all the kids wave and shout 'toubab' (foreigner, but literally from the Wolof word 'to convert') at you. It's friendly, but seems much poorer than Senegal and they all seem to be after something. It's also much more densely populated and apparently half the population here is under 15 - there certainly are kids everywhere.

Day 33 - Thursday 22/11/07 - Sukuta to Boiboi Lodge, Kartong

Made a token effort to visit the Abuko Nature Reserve and Lamin Lodge, but it seems more geared up for tour groups and not really our scene. We also drove past some of the resorts on the coast, which are actually a lot more low-key than we were expecting, but the whole 'smiling coast' marketing is a bit nauseating and we're already sick of the 'yeah man, one love' approach - at least in Mauritania they just ask for their presents upfront! I know we're not really giving The Gambia a chance and we should really head out to the east, but from Banjul it's only 25 km to the very south of the country, where there are fishing villages and deserted beaches - it's just too tempting. Boiboi Lodge is on a fantastic stretch of coast and we can camp among the palm trees and use their bodyboards - so we're going to have a mini holiday instead. Well, we have been working awfully hard...

Day 36 - Sunday 25/11/07 - Kartong to Esperanto, Kafountine

Note that even though the map clearly shows a border crossing from Kartong, this isn't possibly if you have a car as there's a river in the way! So we backtracked round to Brikama and headed south from there - along a terribly potholed road. The border crossing was very quick and easy - no-one even asked us for any presents, wow - and the road on the Senegalese side is good tarmac, so we arrived at Kafountine much earlier than planned. It's a ridiculously chilled out place - all reggae and beach bars - with the sort of vibe that The Gambia likes to think it has. We followed some random signs to what turned out to be a fantastic campement right by the beach. It was really quite plush with beautiful huts and bamboo walkways, but they allowed us to camp in the grounds. Brill.

Senegal - part 2

Day 37 - Monday 26/11/07 - Kafountine to Catholic mission on the road to Kolda

This Casamance area of Senegal is really beautiful and very different to the north - lush and green, with much more of a tropical feel. It would be great to come back and do a cycling trip round here as the roads are flat and there are loads of little villages with local-run camps where you can stay. They've suffered a lot from lack of tourism in recent years as there's an ongoing battle between the government and various separatist groups. We got stopped and asked for money by some workmen who'd been cutting down trees; when we pretended not to understand one of them hit the car - at which point Robin slammed on the breaks and reversed back. I found myself wagging my finger at this machete-weilding man and saying 'now, you mustn't hit the car, you know that's very rude' and amazingly he backed off! We had fun driving round the little tracks to the villages and waving at all the kids - whoever's not driving is officially on waving duty - and had lunch at one of the local houses. The road from Ziguinchor to Kolda is really potholed, so we didn't get far before nightfall. We were a bit nervous about camping in a politically unstable area so asked in a Catholic mission if we could stay. The Italian priest, Father Brown, was making pasta at the time (!) and said we'd be more than welcome.

Day 38 - Tuesday 27/11/07 - Kolda to Camp Wassadou

Continued along the AWFUL road to Kolda and beyond. Thought we'd try a 'short cut' along some little tracks, which was going quite well until the tracks disappeared. We asked directions from a man, who was travelling across the fields with his family on a donkey cart, and he insisted that we follow them... so we found ourselves travelling at donkey pace along what was effectively a footpath, until that track completely petered out too! Got rather lost and ended up in some tiny little mud-hut villages, which caused quite a stir with everyone running out to greet us. Eventually found our way back to a car-sized track heading in the right direction and arrived at Camp Wassadou just before sunset. It's fab here though - quite a plush campement right next to the Gambia river and right next to the Nikolola Koba national park.

Day 39 - Wednesday 28/11/07 - Camp Wassadou to bush camp near Koudougou

Spent the morning at Camp Wassadou and hired out a canoe to go in search of the resident hippos. This might not seem like the best plan, but apparently they're only really dangerous on land or if they're threatened... so we confidently paddled off upstream. Saw loads of birds (hornbills, kingfishers and a huge eagle) and baboons along the way, then after an hour we saw what looked like an island in the river - this turned out to be a rather large hippo... and his family. Not knowing quite how close is too close we tentatively tucked in to the side of the river to watch. They obviously didn't know we were there (they're very shortsighted and we were downwind) and came progressively closer - and they really are HUGE! From the photo, it might not look like we were very close, but I can assure you that when you're in a canoe and there are five of them, it's quite scary!

After lunch, we drove on through the park towards Kedougou - on an amazingly good paved road. We didn't expect to see much wildlife, but there were lots of monkeys, a family of warthogs and we were lucky enough to see the very uncommon giant western eland, which is about the size of a horse. Rather than backtrack along bad roads up to the main border crossing into Mali, we thought we'd try the more adventurous route in the south. We asked at the police in Kedougou if it's possible to cross here and they said it depends on the river, but that they'd seen a Malian truck recently. Anyway, they stamped our documents without question went off to find a bushcamp for the night.

Day 40 - Thursday 29/11/07 - Koudougou to near bushcamp near Kasama

With a sense of intrepidation we set off towards the border. They're building a new road here in order to exploit the iron ore potential, so for the first hour we were making good progress - not a pothole in sight. After a while the new road ended and turned into a bumpy little track (which is what we'd been expecting) and right in the middle of nowhere we came across a truck that had broken down. They were really happy to see us as they'd been there for hours already and passing traffic is rare. Turns out their alternator retaining bolt had stripped, but after a bit of digging around Robin was able to fashion them a new one and get them going again - what a hero! They were overjoyed and said they would remember us for at least 10 years!

We knew that the border was unmanned and that it was marked by the Faleme River, so every time we crossed a stream we thought 'was that it?'. Oh no no no. When we arrived at the river, there was no mistaking that it was the border, and we learned that when people in Africa say the river is 'down' they just mean that it's not 20 m deep as usual. This was a proper river and naturally the whole village came out to watch as we checked out how deep it was and decided whether to cross.

The river was about 1 m deep, which meant it came up over the front of the landie, and was quite fast flowing in the middle, with a few big rocks to avoid. We figured we couldn't just turn back now so we plugged up the holes, got out all our recovery gear (just in case), deflated our tyres and hoped for the best. Fortunately it was a textbook crossing, with a nice steady speed to create a bow wave. And with that we crossed into Mali - the best border crossing ever!

Found our way to Keneiba where they happily stamped our documents (no bribe requests - not much traffic round here) and climbed a tiny, rocky track up the escarpment towards Kasama where we bush camped under a big tree. The locals thought we were mad and said it gets freezing cold at night, but it was still far too hot for our sleeping bags.

Diary Mali

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