Senegal and Gambia


Senegal and Gambia:

An Excursion to the border with Mali

After two nights I left Dakar. Assuming that I didn’t need to secure any visa, I didn’t have a reason to stay. I much rather be in nature than in town. Unfortunately, as it turned out later, I was wrong.

In the early morning breeze, I quickly left the city.

As a cyclist, I not only see the beautiful sights which are prepped for the tourists. I also like to share the less attractive aspects with my readers which make up the whole picture and are important if one wants to understand the country and its problems.

Behind the pretty façade, it looked like this:

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Like in other countries, animals eat the garbage.

Away from the towns and especially near the tourist areas,

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for example the “Réserve de Bandia”, it was clean.

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The further I got away from the ocean, the hotter it got. The wind no longer blew from the northwest but now there were relentless headwinds from the southeast.

During the late afternoon I entered a completely different Senegal, near Saly. It had a lot in common with the Spanish beach towns. The reason for the detour: thanks to a friend, a French guy had brought new brackets for the Ortlieb pannier which had been damaged in the bus accident. Thank you very much!

After the exchange, I left quickly.

A few kilometers onwards, I found a fantastic quiet place for camping. Apparently, this spot has been picked for yet another resort but for now the huge plot is filled with old Baobab and mango trees.

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The security guard let me camp under the mango trees next to his house.

The only other living creatures where lizards which ran up and down the trees.

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After a short visit to the mangroves and mussels from Joan Fadiouth, I strayed into an area not intended for tourists.

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Normally I don’t stay in such areas. There was a police checkpoint which confirmed that I was in the right place and that I should feel safe. People live here! Kids played in the garbage and women did the laundry. This was also Senegal.

The sandy track wasn’t easy to navigate and therefore I was quite happy when I came across this almost-finished road. The construction crew put rocks so that cars wouldn’t drive on the road.

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Once there were thorny branches and I thought that I could cross safely with the Schwalbe Marathon tires.

I stopped at a big Baobab tree. During many kilometers I hadn’t see anyone but here there were suddenly men and a hotel.

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The reason: the largest baobab tree in Senegal. At least eight men had put out souvenirs for sale but there wasn’t a tourist in sight.

Suddenly one of the men pointed out that I had a flat tire. Indeed, both the front and the back tire were flat. So much for Schwalbe tires which never get a flat! Perhaps they had only been tested on a local daisy but not on real African killer plants. I shouldn’t complain and make nasty remarks. After all this were the first flats after 8,000 kilometers.

Anyway, it was too hot to continue. The men promptly produced a bucket of water and I patched the tubes. Lizards and men were watching me closely.

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The largest baobab tree was really impressive:

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Its ws 30 meters in diameter and it was 850 years old. It was hollow and one could climb inside.

Once it had cooled off a bit, it wasn’t too far to Samba-Dia. The village is a collection of huts along the dusty road. But afterwards there is a lovely forest.

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I spent the night at the beach of Dangane in the Saloum delta. In front of me canoes were idling in the water. For a while, this was the last comfortable night in the tent because night time temperature was very pleasant.

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Before the first tour operators woke up the next morning, I broke camp.

And once again it became unbearable hot. I continued towards the center of the country, and the temperature increased to over 50 degrees C. Many roads were being rehabilitated and traffic was diverted to a makeshift road.

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It seemed that some vehicles had more problems than me. A lot of people came from far away to collect the food that had spilled from the truck.

And then the wind picked up and it was horrible.

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It was like being in front of an oven which blew sand. Every few kilometers I tried to find a bit of shade. Sadly, I was never alone for a long time. Within a few minutes 20 to 40 kids arrived and screamed “Toubab, toubab (Whitey, whitey) , “Cadeau” (present), and “Argent” (money).

Finally, I reached a gas station and that meant cold drinks. A favorite German drink is called “Radler” (cyclist) which is a mix of beer and Sprite. I had really earned one. Afterwards I wasn’t so sure if drinking in such heat had been a good idea. Never mind, it wasn’t far to the center of town.

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For a few years now, Café Touba has been very popular. In small brown plastic cups, it was sold as coffee to go. Everywhere. As if Africa didn’t already have a problem with thrown away plastic. Mixed with plastic bags the cups are a great breeding ground for mosquitos when it rains.

I discovered a quiet guesthouse which I barely recognized as such. I sat in front of the fan and only reemerged the next day. There was Wi-Fi and I had plenty to do.

Several kilometers of construction sites followed, I stayed on the new/old road, and after a few kilometers, I reached the border with The Gambia.

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Why can’t it always be this easy? The guy asked for 10,000 CFA (15 Euro). Even so I realized it was for his own pocket, I gave it to him. Other than that, it was easy going.

There was no ATM in Farafeeno and the banks were already closed. But there were plenty of informal money exchangers.

For a country which is very poor, things were very expensive. At the hotel, I had a long discussion and entertaining conversation with a local man from The Gambia, even so we talked about serious matters. He worked for one of the many aid agency which paid for him to stay at the hotel. No teacher could afford such a place and in any case, wouldn’t get the idea to stay there.

The next morning, I crossed the river Gambia.

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The was a throng of people who tried to sell their stuff. One could buy anything from underwear to drugs and of course Cafë Touba.

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Because people here are very poor, the coffee seller collected the used cups, cleaned them, and used them again. There were hardly any plastic bags at all. I didn’t need to have a bad conscience when I bought 1.5-liter water bottles. People are much in need of the empty bottles. There was much less garbage in The Gambia than in Senegal.

On the other side of the river there was a large town, Soma. I found a bank which advertised in large letters “24 hours ATM”. By the way, English is spoken in The Gambia. I didn’t find the ATM and asked. It didn’t exist and I thought it was funny because the bank was called “Trust Bank”.

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Kids weren’t as annoying here as they had been in Senegal. Occasionally I heard “Toubab ” but it was seldom followed by “money” or something else. Children are busy studying the Koran.

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I continued on “South Bank Road” eastwards. There was hardly any car traffic, sometimes there was a minibus, and a lot of cyclists. Big monkeys crowded the road. There were large numbers chasing through the forest.

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Sunning on the road

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During a shady break some policemen convinced me to visit the historic town of Janjanbureh in the Senegal River. They told me that slaves were dispatched from that place.

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The house of slaves still existed and could be visited. Those who managed to break free, reached the “Freedom Tree”, and carved their name into it, were given their freedom.DSCN4320klein

A very nice family with two youngsters who spoke very good English, took me in.

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They really enjoyed themselves.

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The little ones had to put on their best dresses for a photo shoot. I sympathized with the young girl when she started to cry because she had to put on a dress with ruffles.

The little ones had to put on their best dresses for a photo shoot. I sympathized with the young girl when she started to cry because she had to put on a dress with ruffles.

The little ones had to put on their best dresses for a photo shoot. I sympathized with the young girl when she started to cry because she had to put on a dress with ruffles.

The little ones had to put on their best dresses for a photo shoot. I sympathized with the young girl when she started to cry because she had to put on a dress with ruffles.

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The blind passenger stayed behind when I continued very early the next morning.

I assume the reason why there is so little traffic on the road is because no vehicles were allowed to cross the border. I once again had my fill of mangoes which were in season and continued early the next morning. I was happy to pass the waiting trucks.

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I had no idea for how long they already stood there. Some drivers looked quite comfortable under their trucks.

The border crossing into Senegal was once again very easy. The first town was Velingera and once again I looked for an ATM. This time I was lucky, but the machine refused to give me cash. The message wasn’t very clear, and I thought perhaps the ATM was broken. It was the only one in town, the next one was 100 kilometers away, and I continued straight away.

The southern region of Senegal, the Casamance, was quite similar to The Gambia. It was equally dry and appeared poorer than other parts of Senegal. The roads were quiet, and I was immediately thronged by kids.

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In The Gambia there were faucets with potable water and here there were wells.

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The water had to be pulled up from a depth of about 30 meters.

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There was no covering and what I saw floating on top of the water, convinced me to ask for bottled water.

And then another crossing of the Gambia River.

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This time there was a bridge.

Another similarity with The Gambia was that there was no electricity outside the town. And this is what a smart phone charging station looked like.

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The electricity came from a generator and solar panels.

Sunday morning I reached the ATM in Tambacounda. Once again I couldn’t draw money but this time there was a clear message. I should get in touch with my bank. Sure but certainly not today, and I didn’t want to stay in town. I had planned to reach the “Campement de Wassadou” by evening. It was popular with overland drivers and I therefore assumed it would have internet.

It was a beautiful resort above the Gambia River.

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But no internet and therefore I needed to wait some more time before I could contact my bank. Instead I watched hippos.

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(who spots the top of the head?)

Once again it was very hot and it didn’t cool off at night. I was the only guest and I put my bed with mosquito net outside.

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And that was by far the best A/C.

The camp is shortly before the Niokolo National Park.

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After Tambacounda the landscape got more and more beautiful and I really looked forward to cycle through the park. The previous evening, I was told that the elephants had all been killed but that lions still roamed free. I wasn’t much perturbed with the news and I assumed that my chance to meet a lion was very remote. Probably there were few animals left and they would not be near the national road.

Nevertheless, I was stopped after 200 meters.

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I wasn’t allowed to bike through the national park. What upset me most was that this wasn’t publicized at all. I had told so many people that I wanted to bike through Niokolo National Park and no one knew that it wasn’t allowed to cycle in the park.

There wasn’t anything on the Internet either which I checked later on. I had chatted with a man in the village 500 meters before the barrier and he had told me that I wouldn’t see another village for 45 kilometers and that would be the ranger station of Niokolo Koba. That was the reason why I had stopped there to buy provisions.

The guards weren’t very helpful. They told me I had to backtrack 100 kilometers to Tambacounda and then somehow make my way from there. Or I would have to take one of those old buses.

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With bike and luggage. Neither of those options was appealing. Finally, one of the guards told me that he’d find a car for me.

I sat there for four hours, wrote my diary, surfed the internet, took photos, and read emails. An email from my sister had arrived and informed me that my bank had cancelled my credit card because of assumed fraud. Not the kind of email you want to receive on a trip but at least it explained why I couldn’t withdraw money.

Nothing had materialized about my lift and I decided to take matters into my own hands. Within five minutes I had organized a ride.

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These three nice men gave me a lift. The bike fitted in the back with the fresh eggs which they had bought in the north of Senegal and sold in the south. I joined them in the front. Because of the fragile cargo, it was a very soft ride and we had an excellent conversation. I learnt a lot about Senegal.

They explained to me the meaning of “Lamp Fall” which I had seen on every rickety vehicle. It is the name of the minaret of the most important mosque in Touba, Senegal and it signified that one is a member of that Sufi community.

All kids and apparently all adults wear a string around the waist, a so-called “KriKri”, to keep away evil spirits and bad luck. Maybe I should get one as well.

The road through the park is 100 kilometers long. My hand was very painful and decided to continue with the guys for another 40 kilometers to Kedougou.

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A burn blister had become infected and the whole hand became inflamed, hurt, and no longer fitted into the bike glove.

Therefore, I had to go to hospital in Kedougou which was an experience in itself. When I finally made it to the front of the queue, I was sent to the cashier to pay 1000 CFA before a doctor or nurse would see me.

Then I got a list of things which I needed to buy from the pharmacy, including disinfectant and bandages which the doctor needed to treat me.

It was already dark when I left. A staff guided me across muddy tracks, over rocks and sticks to a rest camp where I slept in a hut.

I stayed here for three nights, took care of my banking and my hand, and worked once again on my book.

There were lots of mango trees and once again I ate at least six a day.

I managed to have my ATM card unblocked for 15 minutes and withdrew a lot of cash.

The nurse at the hospital didn’t object to my departure and the next day I headed to the border with Mali, a distance of 120 kilometers from Kedougou. The landscape was gorgeous, slightly rolling, and more and more trees and shrubs. There were very few settlements and each with only a few huts.

20 kilometers before the border, I arrived in Karakene. I was very surprised to come upon a slum in this remote area.

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I asked the policeman at the end of the village why so many poor people had settled here. He laughed and corrected me: they weren’t poor but gold diggers. There were not that many and each one of them could make a decent living.

Once again, I had learned something.

They recommended that I should continue to the border because there were apparently many bandits in the area. I found a sheltered area and it wasn’t bandits who bothered me but small animals. During the whole night, I had something scuttling about. Next morning my ground sheet looked like a mosquito net.

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Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to camp next to a termite colony.

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It wasn’t only the termites but also the heat which had made it impossible to sleep. It was well over 30C and I was sweating.

I was almost at the border. The police in Karakene had said, I might have difficulties to get into Mali because the country was experiencing problems. The policeman at the border thought that without a visa for Mali it might be difficult to enter but I might as well try.

Then I crossed the river to the Mali side. They looked for a visa in my passport, without success. The visa upon arrival had been discontinued. They called the big chief and I hoped that maybe there would be a solution. But far from it and he was very unpleasant. He treated me as if I had tried to enter the country illegally. There was no other way but to return to Dakar, 800 kilometers away.

I got a policy escort to the Senegalese side of the border where I was accepted without problems. And there was a bus which was a surprise because I hadn’t seen one the day before. I asked if the bus was going to Dakar which the policeman confirmed. If there was space, he recommended I take it.

I thought about it briefly. It was Friday which meant, I would have to spend the weekend in Dakar which wasn’t appealing. But it was the easiest way to return to the city.

Due to the heat and the sleepless night, I was lethargic and just went with the flow. The policeman took care that there was space for me, the bike, and my luggage. It was an “African Star Express”, with A/C, it came from Bamako, Mali, and I was the only white person.

It took forever but I was so tired that I didn’t mind. There were many checkpoints on the way and the bags of the other passengers were searched but not mine.

The policeman had said, we’d arrive in Dakar at 6:00 pm but it was well past midnight when we reached the city. I asked whether I could sleep in the police station at the bus terminal, put my head down, and was lost to the world.

Next day I’d figure out what to do.

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