Senegal, The Gambia and Guinea (of the Conakry variety). Those (few) people who had visited this part of the world had warned me about the incessant delays, false dawns, fallacious promises, and rough terrains. They were only half-right.
Yes, travel could be slow, but there were often solutions (e.g. paying for the empty seat of the souped-up Peugeot 305 ‘bus’ that is your only mode of transport). Yes, there were lies (e.g. The Gambian footballer who claimed he was a national treasure and everyone in his home country knew who he was: they didn’t). Yes, the terrain could give rise to unexpected surprises and bumps. But overall, travelling was easier than anticipated, and we were rewarded with amazing landscapes, interesting towns and memorable experiences.
What people did not warn me about, however, was the role of the chicken or hen on public transport. Often cradled (in a black plastic bag) like a baby suckling its mother’s teat, they had sheer fear in their dilated eyes, with an unremitting squawk. Why? I don’t know. Also, assuming (but perhaps wrongly) that the poor animal was being transported to its death, why not kill it beforehand? Why subject the passengers on the bus to the shrill shrieks of its cries for mercy? Why, why, why? And why would it ever be suggested that, instead of sticking the alive chicken in a bag, it should be tied to a rope, only to be dragged along the floor as the car chugs along? Why? I don’t know:
And there’s a lot more to this part of West Africa I could not comprehend. Such as why is an acceptable ‘seat’ on Guinean transport on top of cargo…on the roof of the car?
Or why The Gambia overturns gender stereotypes by being a sex tourism destination…for British women?
Okay. Not quite. But the paragraph above is factually correct.
Or why you need to stop off at a dozen checkpoints when entering Guinea, each checking the same document and making you complete the same details in a thick paper ledger?
But despite these questions, I have one unequivocal response to anyone wondering whether to visit this part of West Africa: GO (other than, perhaps, to The Gambia).
Rich – my travelling companion for the trip – and I arrived in Dakar in darkness. In the unlit streets it looked unremarkable and dusty. This perception changed once we awoke. My overarching memory is whiteness: it looked more like a Greek town than a rundown capital city (akin to many I had seen in East Africa). The streets were spacious, the traffic manageable and the ambience tranquil.
We visited nearby Lac Rose, a lake which is known for its pink hues. Unfortunately, there were clouds in the skies, so the pink lake looked musty grey. But from there, the capital was interesting to visit, with sweeping panoramic viewpoints and a momentous Herculean statue located in the middle of the city.
With a tight schedule ahead of us, our visit was unfortunately brief, and we soon travelled to Isle de Goree, a minute island just off the coast of Dakar which was previously a slave trading post. The island was quaint but beautiful. It had a gentle hum and the streetscape had the sort of faded qualities that at once felt familiar yet historical.
Following Isle de Goree we travelled to the north of Senegal and visited St. Louis, which is renowned for its eponymous jazz festival. The old town in the city was akin to a larger-scale version of Isle de Goree, whereas the old port area was frenetic as fisherman returned from their journeys off the coast of Mauritania with their prized booty. It was an interesting contrast, but worth the journey:
En-route to The Gambia we stopped overnight in Kaolack. The less that is said about Kaolack, the better: our accommodation was sweltering but lacked a fan, and the mosquito net was riddled with holes. Following a quick escape the next morning, we arrived in The Gambia’s capital, Banjul, around midday. We took a taxi to the main tourist strip [Serrekunda], hoping to relax over a gentle drink and the shimmering sea. It was ok, although the main attraction appeared to be less the beach and more the flirtations between old British women and young Gambian men. C’est la.
We arranged a tour the following day to visit mangroves and some bizarre tourist village established by a British man several decades ago. It was awful, overpriced and more fitting for the packaged holiday types that The Gambia seemed desperate to attract. You make your own bed, but this one was not for us.
Back to Senegal
The Gambia is landlocked in between Senegal, and we fled south to the Cassamance region of Senegal earlier than initially expected due to The Gambia’s woes. The Cassamance was once a restive region, but now it appeared sedate and perfect for leisurely strolls. It was a welcome respite.
We stayed two nights in the Cassmance’s capital, Ziguinchor, and embarked on another (more interesting) mangrove boat trip, in addition to going on a cycling trip around nearby Oussouyne. Bliss entailed.
The journey to Guinea Conakry was long. That said, we were initially told that we had to travel to a place called Tamba near the centre of Senegal, but some shrewd Google Mapping showed us that we could stop of en-route to an outpost called Manda. Our gamble paid off and we shaved 1/3 of the time off our journey. There were challenges though. The intermittent but numerable checkpoints as we arrived in Guinea slowed us down considerably, and we realised that we would be unable to arrive at our destination Labe that evening.
We therefore stopped off at a place called Koundara. An exuberant elderly man from our bus tried, but failed, to find us accommodation in Koundara, so he invited us to sleep in his family’s (somewhat grand) compound. As always, if there’s a will there’s a way, and there always seems to be someone who is willing to help you.
The following morning our Deus ex Machina drove us to the bus station, in order for us to catch an onward journey to Labe.
We used Labe as our base for a two night, three day trek of the verdant Fouta Djalon region. The pictures below can describe the landscape better than words, but I will leave it up to your imagination how our guide almost directed me to my death by recommending that I swim in a pool beneath a waterfall which contained a venomous snake:
After our trek, we stayed one night in Dalaba. We had a mixed experience there. On the one hand, our original accommodation was riddled with bed bugs; on the other hand, we made a speedy escape to an old colonial hotel overlooking a vast valley, sipping beer and enjoying our final full night.
A woeful military-grade haircut later, and a quick final hoorah at the Sheraton in Conakry, we went our separate ways: Rich home, and me to Dubai.
West Africa: C’est Bon!
You view the rest of the photographs HERE.