Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Senegal: my travel diary

Unexpected Senegal: things to do in Senegal


 Lake Retba or Lac Rose (meaning Pink Lake) lies just 30 km (18 miles) north-east from the capital Dakar. Self-drive from Dakar (not more than an hour) is possible but it is better having a driver especially during the evening hours because part of the route is unpaved with no directions.
It costs not more than 20.000 cfa. First they asked us 40.000 cfa and negotiating we got it for 20.000 cfa. If you are smart enough you can negotiate the price to 10.000 cfa. It was night so we couldn't find a place to eat. The hotel (Le calao du lac rose) only had bottled water, so we had to settle for chocolate bars we brought from Italy. The hotel, owned by a French man, was just in front of the lake. In fact, we walked to the lake and when we arrived close by it, the men sitting here and there wanted to sell us a trip on their wooden boats. I have to say that it was really worth it, we paid 5.000 cfa for both of us and the trip was really interesting. The lake is separated from the Atlantic Ocean only by a narrow corridor of dunes, and is named for its pink waters caused by Dunaliella salina algae. The algae produces a red pigment which is particularly visible during the dry season (from November to June) and is less visible during the rainy season. I was there in September and as you can see from my photo I was blessed to see it pink. The lake is known for its high salt content, men and women work 6/7 hours a day, from dawn to sunset, to collect tonnes of salt with their wooden boats. The pink lake deserves at least two days of stay. The day after we travelled from Niaga (Pink Lake) to Lompoul by taxi, paying 20.000 cfa.

We stopped by the lake for lunch (rice with fried fish and rice with fried chicken) It took us about four hours of drive to get to Lompoul. The driver dropped us on the main street just in front of the Lompuol board sign, where the hotel truck was waiting for us. Self-drive is quite possible from Niaga to the Lompoul main street, after that you need a 4by4 wheel to enter into the desert in case you want to sleep in the dessert area (2KM away), as your car probably won't be able to go through the sandy road. We slept in a hotel called Camp Du Dèsert, it is a nomad camp at the starting point of the desert. Sleeping here inside was a memorable experience, but we do not recommend it for more than a night. An eco-structure can't absolutely have such a high price. The accommodation is very basic; tents with flies, insects and mosquitoes so don't forget your repellent and appropriate clothes. The absence of basic services would have been justified by a cheaper price. The atmosphere was very special however, it gets dark early and you find yourself surrounded by thousands of stars and only some candles to look around. We also had a powerful torch with us which helped us a lot.
The camel ride, organized by the hotel, at the Lompoul desert, was very nice but brief.  They said 30 minutes but it was not more than 20. It cost 6.000 cfa for both of us. We tried to negotiate but the camel boy didn't give up with the price. Check the time before you leave and keep the watch with you to check out the minutes! I recommend you do it at sunset, because we did so and the scenery was spectacular. This is all we did in Lompoul. We should have paid more to go deep inside the desert? Maybe, who knows? During the dinner at Camp Du Dèsert we met two French tourists travelling with a Senegalese guide. We had a chance to chat with him for a while and this has changed our travelling way. He is the first one we met with perfect English and a very good knowledge not only of his own country but about everything. Thanks to him we learned about "Gares" which is supposed to be a Bus station.  Here came the turning point of our vacation: we started to move by public transportation of Senegal. The rates were cheaper and it gave us more self-mastery. The following day, the same red truck dropped us at the main street, just after the breakfast, very early because it's impossible staying inside the tent after dawn, means five/six in the morning. In my opinion it would have been better reorganizing our backpacks in the evening and not the next day as we did, because in less than five minutes we found ourselves full of sweat as if we were inside a sauna. At the main street we caught the taxi to Lompoul beach and then direct to Kèbèmer where the bus station is. Our destination was Saint Louis. We reached Saint Louis by bus, it was a big one and we travelled seated of course. This journey was our first experience with the Senegalese public transport. It deserves a description. We arrived at the gares of Kèbèmer quite early, after just having a brief visit of the Lompoul beach (Lompoul sur mer). Upon arrival we were literally caught by men and children who we didn't even know who they were. And since we didn't speak French it took a while for us to understand what was happening around us: they were "hunting" people in order to fill their owner's vehicle.  Yes in fact at the gares there are many types of vehicles, normal cars, seven seats, vans, buses, etc. with different prices and different destinations. Each of them with its owner and porter to gather people in order to fill the seats. Until the seats are completely filled the vehicle does not move even if it takes more than six or seven hours. Probably those who own a vehicle pay a kind of tax to transport people from one place to another. Once they catch you, they load your luggage and they sell you the ticket immediately so that you can't change your mind any more. We have been "picked" by the porter of a large bus with endless seats, seven per row. We paid our ticket 3500.00 cfa per person, bags included. What happed then was waiting waiting waiting and sweating. We just stayed there inside the bus, with no ac of course, hoping that those who came closer have your same destination. Now you can easily imagine how many hours we have been waiting, without food, to fill that huge bus!!! Thank God we had water and we could buy some peanuts from the children going around. Finally at about three pm we started to move and we reached Saint Louis around five pm. It was not a long run. From the gares of Saint Louis we took a taxi (1000 cfa, fixed price) to reach our hotel (Hotel La Residence) which was located in the colonial part of the city. We crossed the famous Faidherbe Bridge and we reached the narrow Island fastly and easily, just 5 or 6 minutes of drive. For my experience Saint Louis was the dirtiest city I have ever seen!!! From the taxi I could see garbage everywhere, even though the characteristic colonial architecture gave Saint-Louis its distinctive appearance and identity.
We saw at the reception the same Senegalese guide that we met in Lompoul. He said his French costumers were staying in our same hotel so he was also sleeping in a room there. After having a shower we went out in order to find a good place to eat. We had identified a restaurant on TripAdvisor that wasn't really existing anymore so while trying to find another one we cross the same guide who seemed to want to join us for dinner. We 3 walked about 30 minutes with our torch, to reach another restaurant recommended on TripAdvisor but also that one was closed. So we finally decided to go back to the hotel for dinner. I was really very tired and hungry and I didn't want the guide to stay with us anymore. He kept on talking and I was no longer able to follow him, I was just hoping for good food and a glass of wine before sleeping. As I hoped the food was very tasty and the wine was not too bad. I could sleep peacefully.The next day we wandered Saint Louis with no fixed plans. Lunch at the Senegalese restaurant called Fleuve Plus, it was just in front of our hotel. (rice with shrimp sauce/rice with fish skewer). We did not do any special excursions offered by various travel agencies organized by the Europeans who live in Saint Louis. So what we did was walking around the city visiting school, church, mosque, some workshops, shops and etc. That was the best thing we could ever do. The third part of the city, which lies on the external mainland deserves a visit, in fact from the narrow island we suddenly reached this area, we were surprised to see that life over there was completely different: plenty of people, fishermen, an exponential number of children and animals on the road, domesticated pelicans, others playing football on the beach. Such a suggestive and impressive setting that you can't miss. If you like photography, this is the right place for you. We had dinner at La Terrasse Restaurant, they have western-style food, pizza and alcoholic beverages. It is slightly expensive than the other restaurants that offer Senegalese food but when you've only eaten rice for days, it's nice to enjoy something familiar. We spent our second night in Saint Louis, in the same hotel and the day after we moved to Bandia by  public transport: taxi from the hotel to the gare of Saint Louis, seven seat to Kèbèmer and mini bus to Bandia (banja) which dropped us on the main street close to the hotel: Baobab Soleil. From there we walked down the red sandy path full of baobabs and peanuts plantations. It was fascinating to see the peanut pickers and the donkey carts that occasionally crossed the path full of puddles due to the rain of the night before. We were the only ones staying in Baobab Soleil, so upon arrival we relaxed with a drink at the pool and then had a good dinner with some rosè wine before going to bed. The girl at the reception helped us book a cab for visiting Bandia Reserve and to take us up to Ndangane. Negotiating the driver agreed to 20.000cfa. Nobody had alerted us to the fact that we needed a 4by4 vehicle for the safari; we realized only at the entrance that it was not doable with our car. At that point the only option was hiring the vehicle (11 seats) directly from them for 46.500 cfa. The entry fee was 12.000 cfa per person, then we would have spent 70.500 cfa, means € 108.00, which was a very big expense for us. We therefore decided to wait other visitors in order to split the rent. In less than 15 minutes six French arrived with their own four wheel drive. They gave us a ride on their jeep for 16.500 cfa. We could save 30.000 cfa. Even if it was very expensive and not well organized, the place was nice.
Definitely it is fantastic for those one who is seeing wildlife in Africa for the first time. The guide was good and knew all the wild animals well and where to find them at a given time of the day. He let us get close to some. Even out of the jeep was allowed. Our diver was waiting us at the exit, so we immediately left to Ndangane with him. Being Ndangane located in Sine Saloum area, public transport would be too long with too many changes that wouldn't have guaranteed the arrival on the same day. The fastest way was travelling by taxi. Ndangane has two parts: the tourist area, where the tar road from Dakar (160km) ends by the boat jetty and the village proper. From the either area you can get pirogue across the river. All shown prices, at the end were always negotiable. Our hotel, Auberge Boavista, was in the center of the village, just fifteen minutes walk from the tourist area where, as you can imagine, most of the accommodations and eating options were located. It was our first stay in hotel run by a Senegalese. Although from the outside the garden and the huts seemed cozy, the interior was very spartan, totally different from the description given by the booking website: the bathroom had no door, there was no toilet seat, the mosquito nets were broken, there was a bird's nest on the bathroom window, the fan had a broken plug, ants everywhere and etcetera etcetera. The main problem was the toilet that didn't flush properly. We were a little bit disappointed. Some way we have been able to communicate with the owner Elhadiji, who spoke only Wolof and French, that at least the flush need to be fixed. He repaired it immediately while we tried to clean the room with the broom. There were mosquitos and insects everywhere. It was all taken care because we've got bug spray and mosquito coils from Italy; this is normal in Ndangane because it is a swampy area with mangroves, lagoons, open forests, dunes and sand islands. After getting through this hard time, we could relax in full our two days in Ndangane.
The owner Elhadji was extremely helpful and accommodating, even giving us a ride every evening to the tourist area for dinner with his car. For our experience in Senegal, Elhadji has proved one of the few natives to work hard to improve the services offered by him. We recommend the lagoon gran tour trip with him for which he did his best to find out an English guide for us. His attention to satisfy every our request made our stay pleasant all the times. At the end we were also happy about the location, because Auberge Boavista, unlike other tourist infrastructures of Ndangane, was situated in a great scenic charmed area that otherwise would not be seen by tourists. Since Elhadji had also taxi service, we asked him to take us up to Karang (40.000 cfa). The road until Karang was really very good but the river crossing in Foundiougne took us a lot of time. There was only one small ferry running to Dakhonga. The run took about 20 minutes and it cost 100 cfa. If we had not had a car, we would have made better time.The ferry could contain not more than 10 cars so we had to wait about three hours for our turn. We killed the time easily visiting the small market and the fishing area close to the ferry stop. Most of the Senegalese don’t enjoy being photographed so you always have to ask them for permission before. Despite this I could anyways take some good photos during those hours of waiting. So it wasn’t all that annoying. As soon as we reached Karang, the police men stopped our car; Elhadji said they asked him money because he was with tourists. We really didn’t understand the real reason but I had to give 5000 cfa. This has been a very expensive trip for us!!! We should have gone with the public transport!!! The driver then dropped us at the border. As we got out of the car, people tried to sell us something, especially money exchangers who wanted to sell Dalasi, in fact we immediately converted 100 euros to Dalasi, we thought it was more than enough for our three days in the Gambia. If we had waited, we could have had a good exchange rate on the Gambian side.  So our advice is to wait and inquire among the money exchangers who at your every single step try to sell you Dalasi or cfa.The border is not separated by a gate, and then it is not absolutely necessary to convert the money in Karang as soon as you arrive. You can also walk down the Gambian side and then decide where it is more convenient. They always try to fool you and since the place is very chaotic, you easily lose control and fall tricked. While travelling to Senegal or The Gambia, the border crossing (Karang/Amdellai) is a must, not to be missed. It is a such an interesting site, with police men from the both Gambian and Senegalese side, such a strange immigration office with plenty of prisoners closed in their cells, looking at you while you wait your turn to get your passport stamped, children who follow you with no reason, teenagers selling phone cards, ladies selling food items and water bags, shops, animals like hens, goats and dogs going here and there, even inside the immigration office.
The police man watching soap opera while controlling our documents was the funniest thing I have ever seen: He was so interested on that story that I felt like we were disturbing him. Sadly photos were not allowed here!!! Going with a driver could make everything easier but as it is not dangerous, you can handle it and try to do it by yourself as we did. Nowadays visa is not requested for Italian passport holders to get into The Gambia/Senegal. We stayed three days in the Gambia and we returned back through the same route crossing the border again. While at the Gambian side regular busses runs from Barra to the border, at the Senegalese side we had to hire scooters (200cfa) with drivers to reach the bus stop in Karang. From where we took a kind of mini bus to Mbour and then a taxi (6.000 cfa) to our hotel in Joal. The trip with the minibus was so long, around six hours. When travelling in Senegal, you must always keep in mind that in addition to the hours of travel, there is also hours of waiting and breakdowns of the vehicles. In fact all the vehicles in Senegal, (taxi, car, sept place, mini bus and busses) during the journey, for some reason consistently breakdown so you have to wait until they find a way to repair it. They are faster than I expected, the fact that they are used to this, probably brought them to find instant solutions that can temporarily resolve the problem. These are the reason for which often a journey becomes long and long. This means of travel, anyways, was not a big issue for us, because we constantly learned something. When we reached the
hotel (Joal Lodge) it was late, we just had time for a shower and dinner. During the dinner we met two Spanish girls, Marta and Maria, who were sleeping in our same place. We were the only ones of the hotel, we had a good chat together before going to sleep. They were travelling in Senegal with coatchsurfing: free sharing accommodation. It was really interesting for us to hear their experience with coatchsurfing. Before meeting them I thought that ours was a great adventure but only after we realized that their was even more. The day after we 4 together left the hotel to visit Joal and Fadiouth. On our way to the bridge we stopped watching a local feast where women were cooking in the middle of the street with big pans, men cutting the goat’s throat, plenty of children were jumping around having a great time dancing and singing. They allowed us to take some good pictures. Joal lies on the mainland, while the village of Fadiouth, linked by a bridge, lies on an island made of shells, which are also used in local architecture and crafts. The village has no motorized transport evidence by the sign on entering.
It has large Christian and Muslim populations with a cemeter
y on the other side on the mainland (it seems like an island because it lies on a Laguna) linked as well by another bridge. The cemetery also is covered in sea shells and is a unique visit as both Muslims and Christians are buried near each other which is a rare occurrence in the world. At the entrance, where the bridge starts, there are so many private guides, who can take you through the village of Fadiouth.I really don't know if it is important taking a trip with them because they say nothing more than what you can already find on the internet or guide books. Nowadays, at the tourist information office, which is just in front of the bridge in Joal, you have to pay 1200.00 cfa/person to enter. This price includes also the guide. There are no boards or signs which tell you about the entrance ticket.  Actually we thought it was free of charge but as soon as we got to the site we realized that the guys around won't let you go if you don't pay. It seemed to us a kind of mafia, because if you take the private guide there was no need for the ticket which is applied by the government. A Spanish speaking guide tried to convince us to take a trip with him privately but when we replied him that we wanted to do it by ourselves, he got angry and he forced us to get into the tourist information office to pay, and he also said that if we have reached Senegal, we have enough money to pay the entrance ticket. We all sensed that something wrong was going on and we end up with paying 4800.00 cfa for 4 of us. Perhaps negotiating with the private guide has been cheaper. Anyways we paid what they asked and it has been worth because Fadiouth was really amazing!!! After having lunch in Fadiouth, we took a horse cart (5.000 cfa) by the cemetery to the giant baobab in Samba Dia. It's about 8 km from Fadiouth; they said it is a largest baobab in all of Senegal and to be 33 m in diameter. There were so many craft sellers around the tree, they pressured us to buy something from them. There were also guides who can take you inside the core of the tree. In fact we paid 500 cfa and got inside. It was worth just to feel how enormous the tree really was. So many bats were living inside and it was quite disgusting feeling them flying above the head. Once I was out again I was so proud for concluding such a difficult task.   We didn't miss anything also during our way back to Fadiouth: life is so different in here that we filled up our eyes and mind with so many information. Before getting back to the hotel we stopped watching the basketball in Joal. The Senegalese seemed to me very athletic, I often saw them interested in spots. Again today the trip ended full of satisfaction. We came back to the hotel to pick out backpacks and then we four took a taxi (6000.00 cfa) to Mbour. The Spanish girls were coatchsurfing in Mbour at Amandine's house (French girl living in Mbour), but we were headed to Sally, Hotel A Keurmaya. The journey from Fadiouth to Sally was supposed to last some minutes, but due to the breakdown it got late, we had to wait for a minibus which had hauled up to Mbour bus stop. In fact we reached Mbour around seven or eight pm. Amandine and her husband gave us a ride in their car for 2000.00 cfa until Keurmaya. This hotel run by a French lady named Maya (Keur in Wolof means Compound), was just in front of the beach. Not in the touristic part but just close to the village. Wouldn't find the place easily, a Gambian boy, Omar helped us to find it out. We arrived so late that everything was closed, we couldn’t find a place to eat, Omar again helped us to find some bread just to fill up our stomach. (Thank you Omar). What did we do in Sally? Nothing! We had spent two idle days in Sally. Senegal had it all: beach relax life, history, desert, pink lake and so on. We deserved these two days of relax. All what we did here is walking, eating and drinking wine, even if it was not good! One day we went to the supermarket to stock up some repellents for mosquitoes. Sally is very touristic and the super market here, in a western style had everything. Other day we went to the touristic side by walk, and the day after we hired scooters (with drivers) to the pharmacy and that's all. Leaving to Dakar had been very easy, at the main junction of Sally, there was a kind of Gares, from where busses left to Dakar frequently. Since it is a capital probably people go there often so the bus connections were fast. It took only some minutes to fill up the vehicles. The road also was very good so we could easily reach Dakar. The bus driver dropped us near a taxi stand from where we could took a cab to our hotel, Quicksilver board riders. We left our things in the hotel and just after having a good lunch at their restaurant, we immediately went to catch the ferry to Goree Island by taxi (2.000 cfa). At the ferry station many "guides" tried to direct us. In such a chaotic place it is easy to be diverted. We were by that time toward the end of our trip and we had learned to handle the various situations in Senegal. We didn't need a help for the ferry trip. We did it easily by ourselves. It took about 20 minutes and it cost 5000.00 cfa for tourists. On the ferry ride over DO NOT promise any of the girls that you will visit their store in Goree. They will expect you to keep to your word and will bug you and hold you to it. Once you get to the island, we paid another 500.00 cfa as tourist tax (right outside of where the ferry docks). The island itself was really nice and serene. Colonial French architecture gave it an exotic feel and the weather was wonderful. The highlight of the island is the "Slave house" a small building which was a processing station for slaves being exported to America across Atlantic. Many street vendors (like everywhere in Senegal) tried to sell us something; we didn't have enough time to spend with them, because we had to travel back to Dakar the same day. Don't think of them as people to avoid and ignore, engage them, joke with them, practice your Wolof with them, allow them to practice their English with you. Many of them will open up to you. Be mindful about making idle promises you don't intend to keep such as buying merchandise or visiting their shops it's best to be honest. A lot of these people are very poor and they love to do nothing more than to make some money off of you. But many of them just enjoy conversation with tourists as well. Anyhow I tried to keep always the correct distance because they are insistent and sometimes, especially when you are tried, it becomes difficult. A day is enough to explore the Goree Island. Goree evoked many emotions: from joy to sadness. We feel moved to see where Africans in the slave house, "maison de esclaves" waited before being ripped from the continent. The door of no return was a truly touching experience. A place that in my opinion everyone must visit to know the horrors of those times. Words cannot explain what a moving experience it was. Couple of hours was enough to walk around the island and in fact we could return back to Dakar aroung five pm as we planned before. We had our dinner in a place close to the ferry station and after very long negotiations with a taxi driver, (who first asked us 6.000 cfa to our hotel, before we paid only 2.000 cfa) we could finally reach the hotel. This was our last night in Senega, our flight was leaving the day after at seven pm. we devoted our last day for Dakar: we have visited Le monument de la Renaissance Africaine, Des mammels lighthouse, and we tried to visit the famous singer Youssou N'dour, who was living just next to our hotel but it couldn't be possible. A tour around Dakar is not complete without a visit to its famous art complex, where some of Senegal's most promising and established photographers, painters and sculptors create, shape and display their works in a large garden space. The Village des Arts is a mini village dedicated to all artistic things. It comprises artist’s ateliers and an art gallery, and represents the best of Senegalese traditional and modern art, sculpture and installation. The village has a sleepy vibe, however behind the rows of workshop doors, talented artists are hard at work experimenting with colors and materials, and getting finished products ready. You may walk into the artist’s studio (always polite to knock first) and engage the artist to find out what his/her work is all about. Then if you are convinced – and the price is right – you may make a purchase on the spot! Ask before photographing because not all of them are happy to be captured. The creations that you find at the Village des Arts span many genres, subject matters, and mediums of expression (even video), however the work is also unmistakably African.
The artists of the village are mostly from Senegal, but some others come from neighboring African countries and Europe. The village artists are normally actively involved in the Dakar art biennale, Dak’Art. The village is located just opposite Dakar’s main stadium and you can just reach the place with the local bus ( I thing bus number 61) called
Dakar Dem Dikk, those busses are same like here in Europe, they are pretty good. We spent only 300 cfa. So no need of getting a taxi if you are already in Dakar. The problem is no one will help you out with the bus directions, hotel staff neither, so you have to manage it with the natives around. I hope you are good enough in French, we were not, not even a single word!!! We had a good offline map application on our cellphone which helped us a lot to find out the correct bus stop and where to get off. There are several connections around the capital and the fares cost between 100 cfa and 300 cfa. They're quite reliable and only crammed full during rush hours. After all day around, we returned back to the hotel for a good shower before leave to the airport. 




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