Long time readers of my blog won’t be too surprised to learn that the journey to Dakar was a series of set-backs. Neil had suggested a road trip and booked his ticket home out of Dakar so we timed this for my book event in the capital. We were all ready to go and had alarms set to leave early in the morning when I received a message from a friend – “you realise tomorrow is set setal in the Gambia?”
Set setal is the bi-monthly national cleaning day. Rather than just be clean all the time, the entire country grinds to a halt between 9am and 1pm to pick up litter and no traffic is allowed on the roads (except perhaps ambulances). It has to be said that the Gambia does now look noticeably cleaner than Senegal – the ban on plastic bags has also helped.
So, we left Abene at about noon, taking motorbikes along the sandy tracks to the border crossing near Kartong. I arrived feeling a little shaky as my driver seemed to think that avoiding the tyre tracks and driving through thick sand was the way to go.
After a quick canoe crossing and immigration we found a car to whisk us across the country to Banjul city where we grabbed a bite at the Lebanese Ali Baba’s – not sure what stuff is but I went for humus.
We took the ferry across the mouth of the river to Barra – always a fun experience and then a crowded bus to the border at Karang which we reached as the sun set.
We had to go out of our way to find the passport stamp office, winding down some dark musty passages. I could have probably breezed straight through – not a problem for me as a resident, but this could have caused Neil difficulties leaving the country.
Another motorbike to the garage which is a big noisy dirty place full of rusting clapped out vehicles, hawkers and heart breaking Talibe children – the kids who are sent to Koranic schools and spend their days wandering barefoot collecting coins in an old tomato paste tin.
We were now too late for public transport to Foundougne, our destination, but it wasn’t too much to pay for all seven places of a bush taxi and have them take us there – an hour plus journey on broken bumpy roads.
I had one surprise – in pretty much every village I was getting a pretty strong 3G internet signal on my phone, something that is almost non-existent in the Casamance. I’d presumed everywhere outside of major cities was terribly slow but it does seem that the Casamance has been undeveloped and forgotten about.
It was late when we arrived at the delightful Baobab sur la mer hotel. Too late for food, so we grabbed a cold drink (I treated myself to my first beer in two weeks) and enjoyed the wifi. Then we went to bed where the numerous mosquitoes enjoyed me.
The bathroom window
The next morning we were greeted by stunning views – the hotel was perched on the edge of a river in the Sine Soulem delta and the restaurant area was beneath a huge baobab tree.
After breakfast we had planned to see if we could get a boat through the delta and there lay our next set back. We were short of cash but Neil had some UK sterling to change. But it was Sunday and the banks were closed. Not a problem – there are always shops that change money and although euros are more commonly accepted I can change £’s in Abene or Ziguinchor. Not here though – the guy took the notes and peered at them, wondering what they were, shaking his head. “You’ll have to try the bank tomorrow” he said.
We decided to have a rest day and chill by the river. After making some enquiries about public boats, we found out there were no public boats and we’d have to charter one. Lamin owned a pirogue and set out a nice little itinerary for us so we decided to do that, once we’d changed the money the next morning.
We had the same response to the £’s at the bank the following morning. Lamin had a solution – one of us could cross the river on the ferry and take a motorbike taxi to Fatik, 20 km away where there were atm’s.
So off I went, hurtling across a lunar landscape of endless sand, turquoise waterways and lone baobab trees. Fatik looked like it had been heavily bombed but had a functioning hole in the wall and an hour or so later Lamin and Neil met me back at the river in the pirogue.
We were off at last, under the mid day sun and I regretted not bringing my hat. We gently puttered past endless mangroves and stopped at a fishing village – only accessible by boat.
Kids and cows posed for photos and some older guys rested in the shade beside some new boats they were building.
We passed a few fancy looking eco-resorts and stopped again at Mar Loj island.
There was a pretty village with a church, a mosque and a large fromager tree in the centre. Also the village “telephone” drum which was used to send messages for up to 7km.
We were dropped off at a fishing village feeling a little crispy after hours in the sun and jumped in another bush taxi heading towards Joal. The “road” was tyre tracks in the sand and landscape unworldly with lots of really big baobabs and rainier palms.
The car was battered as usual and broke down on the edge of Joal – as luck would have it an empty car was passing and picked us up. He offered us a very cheap price for the two hours or so up to Dakar, so we sat back and enjoyed the views whilst I felt a kind of reverse culture shock seeing how developed everything appeared.