We had an early breakfast, said our goodbyes and then drove back towards Bignona, panicked slightly when the first two petrol stations had sold out of petrol – we were in luck at the third – and then took the trans-Gambia highway north. Turning east towards Kolda, at the far end of the Casamance, the scenery grew starker and square corrugated huts gave way to round mud houses with thatched roofs. As we saw another idyllic village surrounding a rustic well with a small plume of smoke rising I heartily declared “this is Africa”. Then a troop of howling baboons ran across the road in front of us, as if to demand.
Kolda’s an attractive town with a market strewn along the road between large trees. It’s the winter season right now and the thermometer read a cool 40°C – much more pleasant than the last time I visited.
The decent road ran out after Kolda. We passed through a burnt landscape with traditional villages by the roadside where life hasn’t changed much for hundreds of years. The road was pot holed and corrugated for around 50km before breaking into a pristine brand new highway. That didn’t last long though. Before long, we were rounding the finger nail of the Gambia, passing through Velingara – where I went for a top up and found the petrol had again run out at the towns sole fuel station – and across the river Gambia before hitting Tambacounda.
Last time I was there was a fairly miserable experience involving sweating, Liberian refugees and an incident with a sausage. This time we stayed in a decent hotel and it was a bracing 38°C. The hotel was reminiscent of the many Chinese and Russian establishments that I’ve frequented – all concrete blocks and white tiled rooms. Ian and Alan were perfect travel companions – during the planning phase of the trip I’d sent a list of potential interests (walking, culture, beaches, music etc) so that I could prepare a suitable itinerary. “All of the above plus cold beer” came the response. So, now we hit a local hovel for some beers before retuning to the hotel restaurant for supper.
The choice for the starter was vegetable soup or “exotic cocktail”. Guess which I chose? Ten minutes later I was served some prawns – a risky move 500km from the sea in a land with little refrigeration – mixed with segments of grapefruit and cubes of apple. I suppose apple is considered exotic here where it’s not native. Odd but fine.
In the morning we breakfasted and left a little after 7am, wanting to get a full days exploration of Niokolokoba. The road was reasonable, through bush, more villages and one sizable town with a huge mosque that looked atmospheric in the smoky early morning light. Crossing a bridge I noticed maybe fifty baboons so we stopped for a look. The bridge crossed a jungle lined river and the baboons hooted and stared back. It’s scenes like this that keep me going.
A herder walked past with a hundred or more goats and then we moved on to the park entrance. Niokolokoba is a million hectare area that was declared a national park in the fifties. It is a world heritage site and the largest Senegalese national park. I had imagined it would be beautiful but didn’t have high expectations for seeing much wildlife. After all, they always say: “go to east and southern Africa for animals, go west for the people”. The reality was a pleasant surprise. It’s virtually impossible to see the few remaining lions, elephant, leopard and chimpanzees, but there’re many other animals and birds to see.
It was compulsory to take a guide and ours was Ansou – a nice enough guy who saw a few things we might have missed, but we could have easily gone alone. We drove slowly through different types of forest – palm, raffia palm, dried grass, bamboo, teak and more. The main animals were monkeys, baboons (in troops of 50 and more), gazelle, wart hog and many birds. I turned the AC off and opened the window so that we could be attacked by flesh eating flies. Then I closed the window and turned the AC back on. Arriving at a marshy waterhole, we saw a few giant crocodiles basking in the sun. At lunch time we arrived at the “Lion Camp” where we were to stay in very simple rustic huts with no electricity or running water. It was on the banks of the River Gambia at a mighty bend – a spectacular location. Before long, a family of wart hog and a troop of monkeys came along to see what we were up to.
Early mornings and late afternoons are always the best times for viewing animals, so at 4.30pm we headed out again, driving slowly and stopping off at several view points. The first was at a high point over the river, looking down on at least twelve huge hippos that were wallowing and snorting in the water. I’m always tempted to go and swim with them but the reality is they’re one of the deadliest of all African mammals. I’d rather not go down in history as a viral youtube clip.
Next stop was a large marshy water hole where a large gazelle species grazed and various flocks of birds put on some swooping displays. We heard the swish of crocodiles in the marsh, the calls of many birds and the hoots of monkeys.
Finally another water hole that had dried to a trickle where some wart hog, gazelle and guinea fowl sipped.
Then we returned to camp for an African sunset, sun downers and a meal of local chicken (very tasty with about half a mouthful of meat on a breast) and potatoes in onion sauce. Alan and Ian told stories of their trip from Europe to New Zealand in the seventies, through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
I now sit writing this under a full moon with the chirrup of insects and occasional crash, bang, wallop of the monkeys roosting overhead. It’ll be a few days or a week till I’m able to post this (it’s 14th February as I write) but I’ll leave this post here with one final image, taken on today, Valentine’s Day. The closest I’ll get to romance on the other side of the country from Khady.