The joy of the “Sept Places”

If you’ve never experienced a ride in a sept place, it’s something to add to the bucket list. They can be good, bad…or very very bad!

Two days in Dakar and it’s time to head north to the old Colonial city of Saint Louis – capitale de l’Afrique Occidental Francaise from 1895 – 1902.

Leaving Dakar involved an early start (or would have been if I’d set the alarm correctly), with an hours taxi ride to the Gare Routier at Boux Mariachers in Pickine, some 10 km out of the centre.

Travel in Dakar is challenging at the best of times, but at rush hour, it’s a killer. The pollution is off the scale, with the air dark blue with choking fumes, which as you crawl slowly though the traffic, becomes overwhelming.

Arriving at Pickine was a relief -the Gare Routier is well organised (unlike the former site at Pompiers), and within 2 minutes of arrival, I’d found the depart for Saint Louis, paid my 5000cfa (plus 1000 for the bag) and was sat in seat 2 of the ubiquitous sept places. As ever my luck, sat next to me was a rather large lady who overflowed on to my seat…

If you’ve never experienced a ride in a sept places (7 seater Peugeot 504s or similar), it’s something to add to the bucket list. They can be good, bad…or very very bad! The cars have all seen better days, having outlived their working life many times over. They continue to function by the sheer ingenuity of the drivers and mechanics who seemingly can fix anything on the roadside. The cars are totally shot – suspension, engines the lot. All have cracked windscreens, doors that may or may not open or are wired shut… (and with a nod to Simon Fenton), no window winders [not true]. If you’re of a nervous disposition, probably an experience to skip!

Hitting the road, we crawled for the next dozen km or so until we reached Ruffisque, then it was open road – a well paved road at that. For a change, the driver was good, not taking risks or seemingly wanting to get to Saint Louis in to much of a hurry.

As the journey progressed,  the heat of the day built, leaving everyone dozing in the soporific heat. A sharp braking brought me to my senses, just in time to see a camel legging it across the road just missing the car by a hair! The adrenaline rush kicked in and wide awake, I sat watching the passing countryside, which had now changed to a mix of scrub and Baobab trees.

Then the fatal mistake – I looked at the kilometre markers…2 hours and still 157 to go. Despite trying not to look, I spent the next hour or so magnetised to them, watching them slowly tick down to 100km… then, it was down to 40 to go with the end in sight.

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Arriving at the Gare Routier, I crawled out, dusted myself off and shook off the accumulated stiffness acquired after 5 hours cramped in the car. Finding a taxi, I headed off to the Island with fellow travellers Vincenzo & Marie to find a hotel – my supposed pre-booked room having been cancelled enroute. Thanks to Vincenzo and Marie who had managed to book ahead, I ended up at the Auberge d’ Chateau, home of the contemporary dance group Duo Solo – rooms 10,000cfa per night, cheap and cheerful, but more than adequate.

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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

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!

 

 

Kafoutine – a respite

Overnight ferry from Dakar to Ziguinchor – not too bad, albeit not a lot of sleep in the airline style seats.

Arrived off the mouth of the Cassamance river just after sunrise, for a pleasant “cruise” up river, arriving at Ziguinchor around 10:00. By the time I had disembarked and recovered my back pack and steppe outside, the thermostat had well and truly been turned up to roasting! After the relative cooler clime in Dakar, this takes a bit of adjusting to…

Mad dash around Zig – firts stop Guinea Bissau consulate for a visa – this took all of 5 minutes and with the minimum of formalities. Back into town to change some euro’s before heading to the gare routier to secure a seat in a sept place.

Journey from Zig to Kafoutine took 2 1/2 hours, arriving at The Kora Workshop – http://www.thekoraworkshop.co.uk/ – in time for dinner. The workshop is run by Kath Pickering and her partner Adam with the help of Jobarteh and his wife.

Lunch is the main meal of the day, with typically a dish of rice with a sauce of fish and vegatables – all eaten from a communal dish. Dinner varies – from a barbeque by a log fire to salad and eggs. If you’re up for a bit of local game, theres always bush rat – bit like a cross between rabbit and squirrel!

After the noise of past 10 days – it was never quiet much before midnite in Dakar, it was a shock to experince the peace and quiet of the campement. Chilling for a few days…literally recharging my batteries (metaphotically and physically) before I head off to Guinea Bissau on Monday.

Yesterday went done to the fishing port to watch the catch being landed – what a spectacle. Kafoutine is the largest port in Senegal, with some 300 boats operating from it – double its size of a few years ago.

The fish is collected from the boats which lie offshore at the surf line – porters wade out through the surf to chest height to collect of box of fish – they then “run” the 40kg box to the market – got to admire these guys for their strength and endurance – really tough job thats paid some 250cfa per box (30 pence). They will make up to a dozen runs – damn hard way to make a living.

The fish market is a sight to see in its self, with fish lying out to dry, being smoked or shipped fresh to markets. Fish is exported to The Gambia, Mali and Guinea Bissau, as well as for domestic consumption. Nothing is wasted – skin and bones going for fertiliser.

The ecological consequences of sustaining such a large fleet are enormous – both in terms of overfishing and the impact on the bush, as wood is cut for smoking the fish. The reality is that the port’s life is probably shortlived at this current level…

Tonights “Reggae” night in town – another late night in the offing.

Next update will hopefully be from Bissau

Dakar – moving on

Penultimate full day in Dakar before catching the ferry Tuesday evening for the overnight sailing to Zinguinchor and on to Kafoutine for a few days.

Its been an interesting few days – Dakar is in your face. There is constant noise, be it taxis, the blaring loadspeakers on roadside stalls reciting verses from the Koran, or just the sheer volume of people. In the evening in my room, I can hear a constant hubbub of people and its rarely quiet before midnite.

A thick skin is a prerequisite for a foreigner in these parts, but a smile and good humour will see you through.

Even with my lack French, I’ve coped – the only time I’ve had anyone blatently refuse to comprehend was today in the Post Office. She was not going to understand my request for stamps, even though my request was perfectly ok (in both French and English – which she spoke). Resorted to the use of fingers lol, much to the amusement of the locals.

Dakar, like many places in Africa will have a stall selling everything and anything- paws, claws and jaws, to that part for your vintage car! However, “le papiere de toilet” is a different matter – thankfully Kleenex tissues saves the day!

Saturday evening/Sunday morning – I managed to catch the respected Senegalese musician Pape Cheikh in concert at the popular Just4U restaurant/niteclub. Dakar nite life starts late, with the gig kicking off at 01:00 and finishing just before 04:00, the group playing solid with no breaks – great evening.

Sunday –  after a late start, off to Isle Goree, the former slave island just off the coast from Dakar. The island played a small part in the slave trade before its abolition.

The weather has been good, although less hot than expected. Typical day time temperatures are in the mid to upper 20’s. It’s noticeably chilly in the evening with the need for extra layers.

I hope to be able to add an update once I arrive in Kafoutine.