We’re on the Road to Nowhere. ..

Talking Heads’ lyrics spring to mind as I gaze at the crumbling facade of the railway station in Dakar.

    No where it seems is as true as here. When I first ventured to West Africa in 2005, I had some romantic notion of travelling by train…some hopes as virtually all rail lines in West Africa are long defunct.  Even the line from Dakar to Bamako in Mali ceased to operate in 2009 following  the terrorist  attacks. 

    The news that a new railway line was to be built from Dakar’s new airport (some 60km away), seemed to be welcome news. However, the reality on the ground seems far removed…

    The pictures of a TGV style train (actually the TER  – Train Express Regional)  are encouraging. Sleek with all mod cons i.e. WiFi and aircon, this would bring a welcome relief for passengers who currently have to endure the basic facilities at Yoff.

    Whether the Senagalise will be able to match the sucess of their cousins in Morrocco and Tunisia in building an efficient rail network remains to be seen, I certainly hope so. 

    However, whilst I hate to be a detractor of African ambitions, it does seem that major infrastructure projects are fated to be late and fail to deliver their promises. 

    Point in case, is the Grand Theatre National and the newer Musee des  Civilisations Noires,  both built by the Shanghai Construction Company…the latter still incomplete. 

    How the railway will fare remains to be seen; the latest estimate for the opening of the airport being 2019.

    I look forward to travelling on this in the future. 

    Refrain…”We’re on the Road to Nowhere, come on inside. Taking that ride to nowhere,  we’ll take that ride”

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    Isle N’Gor…Time to Chill

    The waves from the Atlantic sweep around each side of the island, leaving a small beach on the sheltered leeward side for swimming and sun bathing. Lining the beach is an array of small bars/cafes offering a range of brochettes and sandwiches.

    Travelling on from the Monument de la Renaissance Africaine, a short pirougue trip (500cfa, or 80 cents return) and I’m on the Isle N’Gor.

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    An escape from the city, the island offers a chance to chill out, enjoy a beer or two and chat to the locals (or foreign nationals – predominately NGO workers).

    The waves from the Atlantic sweep around each side of the island, leaving a small beach on the sheltered leeward side for swimming and sun bathing. Lining the beach is an array of small bars/cafes offering a range of brochettes and sandwiches.

    After a frenetic 4 months leading up to the trip, it’s a nice change of pace, time to recharge the batteries and relax into Africa.

    P.S. Being Africa, if you need something, you only have to ask. Need to change currency, someone will take you to the local money changer – here in Senegal, they are part of the West African monetary union and use CFAs, which are pegged to the Euro at an official rate of 650cfa to €1, so it’s easy to ensure that you don’t get short changed.

    Likewise, need to charge your mobile, someone will oblige – try that in the UK!

    Dakar…a return visit

    Visiting a foreign city can be a daunting task for the first time, especially when faced with language difficulties (my French being limited to restaurants and bars), a totally different outlook on life and a mentality that Europeans find hard to comprehend.

    First full day in Dakar. Writing a blog can be difficult even when you have Wifi, but when you’ve limited connection, a fone that won’t hold its charge, it makes the task even more fun (Wifi now sorted courtesy of my landlady Mary-Anne).

    Visiting a foreign city can be a daunting task for the first time, especially when faced with language difficulties (my French being limited to restaurants and bars), a totally different outlook on life and a mentality that Europeans find hard to comprehend.

    Three years on from my first visit, and I’m looking forward to these challenges – rather than feeling outside my comfort zone, I’m embracing them, enjoying meeting new people, hearing their stories and sharing a moment of their life. A smile works wonders and is a simple way of opening doors.

    On my previous visit, I’d missed the chance to see the Monument.

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    The Monument de La Renaissance Africaine, despite the approbium poured on it for the cost, some €20m, is a tribute to the people’s of Africa. It’s a colossal piece of architecture standing at 52m, & topping the Statue of Liberty by some 10m!

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    Sculpted in rather a brutalist manner, the man, woman and child dominate the skyline at Mamelles and is clearly visible on the flight path into Yoff international airport. Love it or hate it, it’s worth a visit.

    The vista from the 15th floor (literally in the man head -possibly the only time that you’ll ever get the satisfaction of doing that), provides a panoramic view over Dakar, albeit dominated by the runway at Yoff in the foreground.

    A wonderful end to the visit was the sight of my friend Adolphus performing with a local artist…

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    On The Road…

    Not a reference to Jack Kerouac’s book, but the more mundane pleasures of getting to the airport and onward travel to West Africa…

    In this case not a reference to Jack Kerouac’s book, but the more mundane pleasures of getting to the airport. ..in this case London Gatwick.

    It’s some 12 years since I first travelled through West Africa, and a lot has changed. Where before it was feasible to travel to Timbuktu and even to the Festival in the Desert,  now it’s a no go zone.

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    My first trip to Bamako was the start of my child hood dream…following in the steps of such famous explorers as Mungo Park en route to Timbuktu. Having said that, it was somewhat easier flying than directly there, rather in Mungo’s days, even if it was in a dilapidated Russian crate of a plane. Just as well the runway at Bamako airport was very long.

    Moving on to the present day, I’m supposed to be jumping on a plane to head off to Dakar in Senegal shortly, but as ever, life’s not straight forward, particularly as my ‘day job‘ requires me to go to Ipswich to give expert evidence in the Crown Court case.

    What had been carefully planned for some months, is now threatened by a demand to appear at short notice – despite having told everyone that I wasn’t available. No consideration is given for my travel arrangements or work to be completed, whatsoever. Still, I know the pitfalls, and as we always used to say in the Navy, ‘that’s life in a blue suit!’

    If I’m lucky, my point blank refusal to attend will be accepted (as any reasonable person would expect), however we are talking about the English justice system, just hope the Judge has a good breakfast and is considerate! If not, it’ll be an order to appear or face contempt of Court (travel plans will definitely be on hold then).

    Still on the bright side, I hear prison foods quite good these days now that Jamie’s involved…but being a glass half full sort of chap, I suspect it’ll all pan out alright.

    Moving on to my current plans, first stop Dakar, then Saint Louis and onto Touba and Tambacounda before crossing into The Gambia and travelling along the river to Banjul.

    Now that the former president Yayah Jammeh has departed, I’m looking forward to seeing the changes that have started to appear…certainly the national spirit is on a high, and hopefully this will auger well for the economy. How Adama Barrow is going to deal with a nigh on bankrupt state remains to be seen…we wish him well.

    Continuing from Banjul will take me into the Cassamance region, an area neglected by tourists over the last decade or so, partly due to the separatist movement in the region, coupled with over zealous warnings from the FCO about the dangers of travelling in the South of Senegal…seemingly unfounded given the peace that’s prevailed for many years. Yes there are checkpoints, and on occasion the odd request for ‘la cadeau’, but all in all a smile will ease the way.

    From the Cassamance it’ll be a return trip to Dakar for a flight to Freetown in Sierra Leone…a country I missed on my last trip due to delays in getting a visa in Guinea Conakry. Failing that, it’ll be overland via Guinea Bissau and Guinea, with a side trip to the Fouta Djalon reigion. 

    In Sierra Leone, I’m looking forward to a side trip to Bunce Island, one of many slave islands in the region (probably less well know than Goree Island off of Dakar).

    Travelling in West Africa is tough; there is no public transport or railways (mineral trains are generally off limits), so travel is invariably by the ubiquitous “sept place” – old Peugeot 504s, which will be crammed with many more the the ‘sept’ (7) seats, together with mounds of luggage and other goods. These 504s have definitely seen better days and would instantly be condemned and sent to the crusher in the UK. Still, if you’ve a sense of adventure and a strong constitution, there are undoubtedly worse ways of getting around!

    Travel in West Africa is not something that can be planned to any degree, which it so much more exciting than the daily commute…

    If anyone would like to contact me on my travels,  email vagabondingafrica@yondercot.uk

    Be great to hear from you to to meet enroute.

    Shaun – 01/02/17

    The Flying Carpet – A Step Beyond

    In 2005 I fulfilled my childhood dream of going to Timbuktu, a trip inspired by Richard Hallibuton’s book “The Flying Carpet – The Record of a Great Adventure”

    In 2005 I fulfilled my childhood dream of going to Timbuktu, a trip inspired by Richard Hallibuton’s book “The Flying Carpet – The Record of a Great Adventure”

    Since 2005 a lot has changed in the world…where before it was safe to travel off the beaten track, now you have to think twice, and then think again.  However, despite the threats – real or perceived, we all need to step outside our “comfort zone” now and again…

    Whilst Timbuktu may be off-limits (according to the FCO), and with Al-Qaeda, Daesh/Isis etc. dominating the news, its enough to deter anyone from leaving the comfort of home!

    But don’t be deterred from travelling, as by staying in your comfort zone, you’ll miss out on so much the world has to offer.

    Travel brings you into contact with people who are not so very different from you or I. They have the same basic needs – food, shelter, jobs, money etc. – above all, people (in general) are not out to harm, but are more than willing to help.

    In my travels, I have been shown extreme generosity and welcomed into homes by people who, quite often, could ill afford to put me up.

    In some small way, the chance to travel allows me the opportunity to repay the kindness people have shown, by telling their story.

    Travel allows that opportunity – to meet people, experience new cultures and to open your mind to new possibilities, so if you’ve got itchy feet, get out there and experience life.

    Pico Iyer writing in Harper’s in 1993, said “I am simply a fairly typical product of a movable sensibility, living and working in a world that is itself increasingly small and increasingly mongrel. I am a multinational soul on a multinational globe on which more and more countries are as polyglot and restless as airports. Taking planes seems as natural to me as picking up the phone or going to school; I fold up my self and carry it around as if it were an overnight bag.”

    Open your mind and the possibilities are endless.

    Shaun Walbridge (January 2017)

    West Africa revisited

    Stepping out of the surgery with both arms feeling the effects of the freshly administered jabs (Typhoid, Rabies, Meningitis & Hep B), I’m ready for my return to West Africa!

    Stepping out of the surgery with both arms feeling the effects of the freshly administered jabs (Typhoid, Rabies, Meningitis & Hep B), I’m ready for my return to West Africa!

    This time around, I’m heading off to Dakar (Senegal) to catch up with my friend Adolphus Mawalo from West Africa Democracy Radio before heading south to the Casamance region to spend a few days with Kath & Adam at the Kora Workshop in Kafountine, then on to stay with Simon & Khady at The Little Baobab in Abene.

    In the meantime, trouble is brewing in The Gambia following the recent elections (December 2016) when Yahya Jammeh was voted out of office as president (which he accepted with seemingy good grace!). With the hand over to the president elect Adama Barrow due on 19 January 2017, it seems that Yahya has had a change of heart and is threatening to hold onto power. Just to make matters worse, the army chief  Ousman Badjie has also had a change of heart and is supporting the president’s attempt to stay in office. What this means for the future of The Gambia in the short term is uncertain, especially with rumours  of mercenaries being hired in from Liberia…

    Subject to the political vagaries of The Gambia, all being well I will be continuing on to Sierra Leone to complete my aborted 2014 journey (I wasn’t able to get a visa due to the unwieldy Sierra Leone bureaucracy in their embassy in Conakry). This time around I’m applying for my visa in advance via the London embassy, rather than risking waiting until I reach the border.

    With just over 4 weeks to go until my departure on 04 February 2017, I’m hoping that with the improved internet access in West Africa to be able to continue this blog until my return!