Saturday, January 1, 2011
Hyenas ate one of the camp dogs last night. (We only learned this at breakfast this morning.) It was the only shadow on our 3-night stay at Keur Bamboung (Chez Bamboung).
This has been a high-level camping experience. The camp has 9 rooms scattered around the sandy grounds; they can accommodate up to around 30 people. We’re in a double: two ample rooms made entirely of reeds and grasses and bark and logs. A comfortable lounging area separates the two sleeping quarters. Each room has its private open-air bathroom, complete with porcelain toilet, sink, mirror, and shower. Solar panels provide all the electricity (not much) and power the pumps that bring water up from underground. We gather for meals in a large communal pavilion, open on two sides to the marsh and mangrove forests all around us.
The camp’s a French project, the heart of a large marine reserve started in 2004. Proceeds from it fund the guardians who prevent anyone from fishing within the protected area. We’re told that close to 30 new fish species have been found here since the reserve was created. Good news for the fish world, but hardly the most remarkable aspect of the place, in my opinion.
Other animals that live here include warthogs, bats, red and green monkeys, antelope, and those pesky hyenas. But I think the greatest stars are the mangroves — those magnificent plants that have adapted to live in salt water, creating new land as the silt builds up around their roots. Yesterday morning, a guide led a small group of us on an hour-long trek through some of their inner recesses. Barefoot, we followed serpentine streams through the shady green vegetational tunnels. The plants have evolved to filter out the salt; they excrete it on their leaves, which are crusty with the stuff. In places, we sunk up to our ankles in the ooze, taking care not to scratch our arms and legs on the knobby thickets of roots. Because our guide, Famara, had declared that the groves harbored no poisonous snakes (and because I tried not to look too closely for spides and insects), it was a magical world — one I never dreamed I would penetrate.
High tide came around sunset, and we set out again then to kayak through some of the same places we had sloshed through on foot just hours earlier. The opalescent light and the glassy waters made this a serene and glorious excursion (although we all agreed that the foot-trek was even more thrilling.) The true highlight of the night turned out to be the New Year’s Eve feast prepared by the staff. It started with baskets full of fresh oysters — harvested earlier that day from the mangrove roots on which they grow. These were tossed on a roaring bonfire and roasted. (We squeezed lemon on them, and washed them down with fresh palm wine.)
We moved into the pavilion to eat the fish terrine with mayo/ketchup sauce. Visiting friends and relatives of Charles, the French resident manager, had spent part of the afternoon peeling potatoes for the pommes frites that accompanied braised chicken and green beans wrapped in bacon. There was even a cheese course — a most uncommon luxury in this part of Africa (and doubtless imported by the French contingent.)
I’m happy to report that Laura and Albie’s foresight provided the piece de resistance. They had stocked up on fireworks in St. Louis, and as midnight approached, I helped Laura distribute them to everyone in the dining room (lit, by then, by just a few kerosene lanterns). As we counted down, people lighted their Roman candles and waved them, while Laura and I set up the bottle rockets and she used a lighter to ignite their fuses. The grand finale was a monstrous and scary looking creation that had cost them $20, and of which I would normally have been terrified, had I not drunk as much I had. It proved to be worth every penny, rocketing hundreds of feet into the air and exploding in a huge shower of lights and colors.
The gooey chocolate dessert and bad sparkling wine that was served a bit later was a clear anticlimax. Now halfway through our final day here, we’ll depart early tomorrow. Alberto will be driven back to Dakar, while Laura, Steve, and I will head south through a part of Senegal where just days ago a dozen or so separatist rebels (or drug thugs) and the military reportedly killed each other. This is part of an old on-going conflict, and by other reports tourist transit should be safe. Still, mindful of the fate of that camp dog, our aim is to arrive in Ziguinchor long before the time when the predators come out.