12 – 12th January 2005 – Barra, The Gambia

So, Happy New Year!  Better late than never.  As the last minutes of 2004 slipped away, we found ourselves on the quayside in the Senegalese seaside town of St Louis, watching an impromptu firework display.  Random locals seemed keen to join in the semi-organised affair, holding lit fireworks before directing them out across the bay.  Well, that was the intention, in reality rockets and bangers were soon whizzing across the cobblestones and fizzing across the water surface.  Time to retreat to the safety of the darkened streets, in the absence of even the most rudimentary Health & Safety provisions!  We were in bed by 1am, so hardly the most uproarious New Year celebrations ever, but the upside of this restraint was that we awoke on Januray 1st hangover-free!  We made the most of the day – visiting the Parc National des Oiseaux du Djoudj, and taking a pirogue ride among the creeks to get into close contact with the parks feathery inhabitants.  There were simply incredible numbers of pelicans, cormorants, herons, terns and other assorted avians, as well as a (thankfully) sleeping crocodile.  Luke was snap happy (no corocodile pun intended), so we’ll let the photos speak for themselves.  The photos can be accessed here

Since leaving Nouakchott in late December, in fact, we have been wishing we had a bird guide to help us identify all this feathered fauna.  In southern Mauritania, the sand and dunescape that had accompanied us for more than 1000km gradually gave way to scrub, and suddenly grasslands and trees began to appear as we neared the Senegalese border.  We hadn’t realized quite how much we had been missing the greenery, but it was literally a sight for sore, sand-filled eyes when we reached the Senegal River and entered a landscape of watery meadows, lush grassland and acacia trees.  The ferry crossing was a bit frenzied (does a bike qualify as a vehicle or a passenger when it comes to fares…?) but we were soon away from the hubbub and money changers and cycling along quiet roads, hoopoes flitting from shady perches, hornbills perched contentedly in pairs and cattle, hung with heavy bells like their alpine cousins, tinkling dozily in the fields.  Hornbills seem rather lovey-dovey – always snuggled up together in the branches of an acacia tree or looping over the road beak-to-tail.  They are very funny birds, rather prehistoric-looking with a flap-flap-glide approach to flying which Luke says is akin to Anna’s pedalling technique (pedal-pedal-freewheel…).  Further south, in Thies, the evening roost was doubly spectacular. Flocks of egrets and hundreds of black kites settling cacophonously in the tall trees, which were simulatenously being vacated by clouds of bats.  Not a bad avian timeshare arrangement….

But enough about birds, which were in any case in short supply as we cycled on from Thies through the scrubby suburbs of Dakar, the Senegalese capital.  We decided to skirt the city itself, having heard nothing good about it from any quarter, and so we spent the night in Yof, a suburb of Dakar with the feel of a small fishing village.  Yof’s fishy pre-eminence extends overseas, with fresh produce flown directly to the restaurants of Europe from the nearby international airport.  There’s also a twin town on the Breton coast, which means annual visits and provision of financial and material aid from France.  The wide white beach bustles with activity and the stalls are packed with fresh-caught tuna, barracuda, sole and a plethora of other marine “delicacies”.  There’s a tang of seawater, rotting fish and petrol from the motorised pirogues.  It doesn’t sound too appealing, but two local youths took us on a guided tour which was as illuminating as it was exhausting, and after that we felt we’d got to grips with the place!  Our tour of beach, ‘sacred baobab tree’ and village complete, we retired to an auberge and slept like logs (again).  It was just as well we got a good night’s rest as the next day was pretty horrendous.  Our main reason for taking on the dust and demented drivers of Dakar was to make it out to the Pointe des Almadies.  This being the westernmost point of mainland Africa, we thought it would be a pity to pass so close without visiting!  The peninsula itself has, not unexpectedly, been heavily colonised by tourist boutiques and a Club Med holiday complex, but it was quiet enough at 10am and we stood on the black, rocky beach undisturbed, trying to imagine how it will feel when we reach this continent’s southernmost point – the Cape of Good Hope.  It’s a bit too far off yet and the thought of actually getting there rather unreal.  From there on the road was, to be blunt, a nightmare.  Imagine Bank or Piccadilly Circus at rush hour, add sheep, donkey carts (between one and three wheels on the cart and not always four legs per donkey), sand, a strong harmattan wind.  Now remove the tread from half the tyres, reduce average age of lorry drivers to, ooh, 11 years (do they have a driving test here?) and you are getting the picture.  We don’t mean to moan, but it was pretty bad – 20km of this left us nerve-wracked, overheated and coated in a grimy layer of sweat, dust and exhaust fumes, feeling like a pair of cats on the eighth of their nine lives…  Finally, the built up area receded and gave way to a drab landscape of brittle, ashen scrub.  We were tired out and the afternoon was wearing on but fences, buildings and grazing livestock seemed to appear whenever a campsite looked likely.

Salvation came in the form of a friendly Frenchman – Lucien – who runs a sort of adventure playground for adults called Accro-Baobab.  We only asked to camp by the entrance, but French hospitality being what it is we were soon installed in a nomad tent under the towering baobabs, with access to the toilet block and Lucien’s assurances that the night watchman would keep a close eye on our bikes!  A word about baobabs, which abound in Senegal and The Gambia – they are amazing trees, looking like someone has uprooted them and replanted them upside down!  Most are leafless but hung with amazing mustard-coloured, mango-sized, furry fruits.  It looks like someone has hung each tree with Christmas decorations, which agile little boys with long sticks knock down…  You can eat the fruit and they make a delicious, sticky and icy drink from the pulp, called wonjo.

Things improved a little after the escape from Dakar, with a quieter road and an interesting estuarine landscape as we entered the Saloum Delta – a maze of islands and mangrove swamp.  Pied kingfishers darted into pools beside swathes of waist high grass, and the evening light brought out some incredible hues in the vegetation – from a light, lemon yellow to a cloudy emerald green.  We reached the river with time to spare for the 6.30pm ferry, which in fact was running to African time and thus didn’t depart until after 7pm!  We are getting used to this by now.  Earlier in the day we had made the acquaintance of a local DJ, who said he knew of cheap lodgings in Foundiougne – the small town where we disemabarked after the 15 minute ferry ride.  It was pitch black as Lat led us through the sandy streets to a compound, where we had to haggle a little over the unreasonably high sum we were asked to pay for pretty basic facilties.  We are getting used to this by now,also.  Sadly toubabs (white people) are seen as walking ATMs by many folk, so the first asking price is usually three, four or five times the “real” price.  It’s funny, it wasn’t really like that in Morocco.  In the end, though, the evening was rather entertaining as the children of this extended family (there were many) descended on the cycling oddballs with relish.  A dozen small pairs of hands straightened tent pegs, untied guy lines, chopped chillies, tried on our head torches (delighted!) and washed up our bowls once we had made our dinner…after helping us to hoover up the food itself.  Their dinner, served earlier in the evening, had obviously not been sufficient and it’s not every day you get to try instant noodles if you’re growing up in rural Senegal, now is it?  Even the youngest children spoke passable Frenc so we were able to communicate in a way that was not possible in Moroccan families, where the women and children often spoke only Arabic or Berber.  Women are also more inclined to converse with strangers, more at the forefront of things here too – nothing like as shy and retiring as their Moroccan counterparts.  The Foundiougne family’s native tongue is Wolof, so we can now count to ten and have learned a bit of handy vocab for various animals – largely by making appropriate grunting, baa-ing noises and then looking inquiring.  The kids particularly enjoyed this bit.

After such a fine evening, the following morning was rather sad as well as stressful – we woke up to find that someone had stolen our Leatherman penknife / multitool out of the saddlebag on Luke’s bike as we slept.  Especially surprising as we were spending the night inside a family compound, our tent pitched in the “courtyard” between the gate and bikes.  So the thief was either a family member or, as they suggested, a wandering cat burglar who snuck into the compound under cover of darkness…. We think it is unlikely it was an outsider, but with 30 people (including various non-family members) sleeping there it was difficult to make any accusations.  We relocated to a simple “campement” by the river, making it clear that we would leave a day later if the Leatherman failed to “reappear” and would be going to the police on our way out of town.  Nothing appeared so we went to the “poste de police” where 10 officers sat around and took an unfeasibly long time to record the theft in a huge ledger marked “Registre de declarations des pertes / vols”, still longer to type and triple rubber stamp a form for insurance purposes.  We have become rather trusting after months of trouble-free travel in the Mahgreb, so perhaps this is a good wake-up call…  We left rather disconsolately, and decided to cycle all the way to the Gambian border in one day, eager to get out of Senegal for the time being.  Of course it’s unfair to judge a whole country by a few experiences but chaotic Dakar, hassle from kids and adults alike and the robbery had left us feeling a bit drained and in need of a change of scene and a change of pace…

On to the Gambian border, arriving in Barra, just before sunset on Tuesday 11th January.  In fact, the ride to the border crossing at Karang was unexpectedly pleasant, even if the road was being dug up along the way!  Quiet fields fringed with mimosa and peaceful herds of zebu squelching in the blackish mud where mangrove peters our into pasture.  Small plots of vegetables or mint were interspersed with well-kept villages, comprised of adobe huts topped off with conical, layered roofs of reeds.  High wattle fences sceened most homes but occasionally an open gate gave a glimpse into the peaceful compounds.  Invariably several huts are ranged around a sturdy tree, branches nibbled to an even height by the family’s collection of donkeys, goats andd sheep.  There’s bright bougainvillea in abundance and roadside benches, polished smooth by generations of bums, act as shaded meeting places for elderly men.  It all seems rather idyllic and timeless as yu cycle through, fondly imagining that life here has remained unchanged for centuries.  Then a lorry laden with clanging coke bottles thunders past, a taxi blaring out Britney Spears overtakes on the inside and a gaggle of children clad in Man United shirts emerge from behind a Nescafe billboard you somehow hadn’t noticed was there.  As they get nearer, palms outstretched, you hear the familiar cry ‘toubab, toubab, any pen? Give me you bike, give me your mobile (they have spotted the GPS), give me…anything!’.  The reverie is over and, as the horde surges around the bikes, you patiently explain about the penury of the travelling cyclist etc etc before riding away…

Once across the border, the road deteriorated to pot-holed tarmac and seashells, and so it was no surprise that it was susnset by the time we arrived at the Hotel Barra.  It sounded pretty promising “Hotel, Restaurant and Computer Nerve Centre”.  But the sign-painters of The Gambia, we now know, are prone to exaggeration (earlier in the day we had passed a shop claiming to provide “ALL YOUR DAILY NEEDS – RICE, ONIONS, SUGAR AND CEMENT”) – tasty.  Given the presence of various ladies in states of undress and the air of general decrepitude, there was not much doubt that the Barra Hotel also doubled as the town brothel.  Still, we are armed with sleeping bags and at least our roon had a padlock so, once installed, it didn’t feel too unsalubrious….  Barra is just across the estuary from Banjul, the capital city, and the two ferries that ply the route are currently running on 1 or maybe 2 engines (out of a possible four).  This means fewer services and thus a build up of traffic waiting to cross.  Probably good news for Barra’s ladies of the night – a captive clientele of lorry drivers – but not great for the sheep and goats loaded into open trucks and waiting passage (first to Barra and thence into the afterlife when they are dispatched during Tabaski – the feast in which every family sacirifices a ram).  Some had waited a week already – animal rights groups would have a field day.  This is the second time we will have been in a muslim country for Tabaski, although they called it Aid el Kebir (The Big Feast) when we were in Fes in 1999.  Bad timing for the sensitive veggie (Anna), really.  She has attempted to urge tethered rams to make a bid for freedom.  They give her such a look of blank vacuity,though, that we think perhaps they are sheep of little brain and will not suffer unduly when the time comes.  On up the River Gambia, then….


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