Ragged roads

Tuesday, January 14
I’ve been sleeping soundly everywhere on this trip, but Sunday night I barely got 4 hours. During dinner, Heather, the English owner of our lodge, got to talking about the ferry across the Gambia (the only way to cross this huge river that divides the country in two). She recalled how one of the last times she’d taken it, someone had loaded a truckful of cattle on board, and they’d broken loose.  “It’s was awful. They panicked, and they were scratching the sides of all the cars with their horns. And one poor creature fell overboard. Don’t know what happened to it.”

I could only imagine how the passengers, many of whom share the same space with the cars and trucks, had reacted. But worse things have been known to occur, Heather continued, mentioning that at least one ferry had sunk since she moved to the Gambia in 2006. Most of the passengers had died (few Africans know how to swim). “The bodies were never recovered, but the awful thing was that later, hundreds of flip-flops washed up, not far from here.” At first she had found that weird, but then she’d realized they must have come from the drowning victims.

Afternoon crossings on the Gambia river ferry are more crowded and more colorful than early morning trips.

So I tossed and turned, thinking not only of our morning ferry ride but also of what we faced after it. As it turned out, the river crossing was great. Moses delivered us to the dock by 8 a.m., we bought tickets (30 cents apiece) from a delighted-looking man who asked me how we were enjoying our stay in the Gambia, we got a lovely spot at the rail of the upper deck (where the only farm animal I spotted on the main deck below was one woeful rooster), and the ferry turned out to be the fast one, making the passage in just 30 minutes. (The one we’d taken while traveling south was missing an engine and kept turning in circles. That trip took an hour.) Steve even had the fortune to stand next to a self-described Gambian “shoe doctor” who for $6 glued and stitched the soles of Steve’s failing Tevas before we reached the northern shore. (Only liberal applications of duck tape had been holding them together.)

Cobbler on the Gambia river ferry offered a 10-year warranty on repairs.

With little ado, we found a taxi to take us to the border and there got our passports stamped by inspectors from both governments. From the border we found a bush taxi heading for Thies, more than halfway to our ultimate destination (St. Louis). As during our first dewy-eyed ride in a sept-place (almost two weeks ago), we had to cram into the stuffy, filthy, shredded back seat along with a young woman passenger. But this ride took more than four hours (instead of two), and by the time we climbed out, we felt thoroughly sick of sept-place travel.

Still, I didn’t feel frightened during that ride, even though at times the road became so badly potholed, the drivers abandoned it altogether for the dirt shoulders or dirt tracks that paralleled the ruined road. In contrast, we felt like we were facing imminent death on the final segment of our journey (from Thies to St. Louis.)

The fixer who’d helped us buy our seats (all three middle ones, a much more comfortable ride) had assured me that our driver was exceptionally good.  Middle-aged, he wore flowing Senegalese robes and a traditional cap. I noted with approval that he seemed to inspect our vehicle before we took off. 

The road was excellent, if not terribly wide. Maybe that’s why he preferred driving down the center of it. The problem was it was one of the busiest routes we’ve traveled on yet. When we would approach the oncoming traffic, he would edge into our own lane clearing the vehicle ahead of us by a few feet. Time after time, I stifled screams. The most terrifying instant came with a huge bird (probably a vulture) swooped down and hit our windshield (fracturing it even more than it was to begin with). With traffic coming the other way, our driver swerved away from it and somehow retained control of the vehicle. I’ve had other scary rides in my travels (certain taxi drivers in Cairo and Shanghai come to mind). But they were relatively brief. This one lasted more than three hours. 

The broad, tree-lined main Boulevard of Thies as seen from the middle seat of a sept-place.

By the time we pulled into the St. Louis taxi park, more than 12 hours after leaving Heather and Moses’ elegant haven, both Steve and I were rigid with tension. But we reached our hotel just before dark, and our spacious room here opens onto a patio facing a huge, empty, glorious white beach. Last night we slept like the dead, today we’re taking it easy (writing and posting photos!). We’ll leave it till tomorrow to fully explore St. Louis.

Bird banding in the Gambia

Sunday, January 9
We met a man today who told us this popular synopsis of The Gambia’s genesis. It came in the early 1800s, he said, when the British had decided the slave trade was evil. Since they saw it as their mission to run the world, they sent warships up the Gambia River and claimed jurisdiction over the land that had been controlled by the French and Portuguese. Within the territory that could be bombarded by their weapons from the middle of the river, they prohibited slave-trading, and the eventual result was this funny little sliver of an English-speaking country in French West Africa, less than 30 miles wide in many places. Today it indescribably screws up commerce and transit through the western half of Senegal. The Gambia itself is even more of a mess.  I’ve seen recent IMF figures that suggest the average GDP per person is only 500-some-dollars per year (less that half that of Senegal). The story made me think of current US foreign policy: well-intentioned but fraught with ghastly unintended consequences.

“The Gambia is hardly going to knock your socks off,” warns even the Rough Guide (which finds something nice to say about every country in West Africa.) The book did describe one retreat upriver that intrigued me: a chimpanzee rehabilitation and breeding center where one could stay in safari tents “with superb river views.” But when I tracked down the founder’s husband via e-mail, he shot me back a woeful tale that included his wife’s dying of cancer, the government kicking him out, and handing over the property to incompetents who had destroyed all that his wife had worked for. 

I don’t remember how I heard about Farakunku, a lodge opened by an Anglo/African couple (Heather and Moses) at the beginning of 2009. Their website offered a two-night special I couldn’t resist. We had the first night here yesterday, and sadly, we’ll depart tomorrow before dawn. 

Garden at Farakunku lodge

I find everything about this place charming: the immaculate and beautiful cottage where we’re staying (one of only four on the property), the luxurious bed (canopied in mosquito netting), our superb meal both nights, our hosts. But what dazzled me most was our outing this morning (part of the package).

Interior of a cottage at Farakunku lodge

 

We climbed into Moses’ diesel-powered SUV before dawn and drove for about 30 minutes to the property owned by Colin Cross (the British expat who recounted that history.) A passionate birder since the age of 7, Cross (now 55), began coming to the Gambia years ago to study the birdlife here. It ranks among the richest on the planet, with more than 500 species recorded. The eccentric fellow who mentored him, another Brit with a staggering knowledge of birds, finally decided he’d had enough of the place and offered to sell Colin his house. So Colin bought it, moved here a bit less than a year ago, and only recently married his African fiancee (a celebration for which his 80-year-old mum made the journey from England.) 

View of the marsh by the bird observation station in Kartung, the Gambia
Checking the nets for birds at the Kartung observation station

I felt an instant sense of rapport with Colin. Funny, iconoclastic, and friendly, he was generous with his knowledge in the way of all great teachers. Still, it was hard to absorb all he’s trying to achieve on his property, which the British Trust for Ornithology has declared an official bird observation site. Stupefyingly, it’s the only place in all of West Africa where anyone is banding birds — even though this flyway is crucial to the survival of some 50 European species. Colin has huge plans that include building quarters where ornithological volunteers will be able to help him with all manner of studies.

We only got the tiniest glimpse of the kind of work he does, but it was fascinating.  We walked with him to the three nets he’s erected at various places on the property. When he’s lucky, birds fly into the nets and he can extract them and pop them into little bags that keep them calm. This morning he caught only two: an African mourning dove and a small brown variety of babbler. On his front porch, he removed each bird from its bag, placed a band around its leg, measured it, weighed it, meticulously recorded several pieces of data, and then released it. He sends all this information off to a computer in England, and over time the tiny pinpricks of information helped to fill in the picture of what’s happening to the birds in this part of the world. 

Colin Cross examines a mourning dove's wing to help determine its age.

Every evening Colin climbs up onto his roof with three village children and they record what kind of birds are roosting and in what numbers. The ornithologist says he also gets good results by going out into the marsh at night with a flashlight. The light stuns the birds, and he can net them that way for banding. The only hazard is that crocodiles also inhabit the property. (People worship them in this neck of the woods. I’m not joking.) 

It felt awful to have to leave after spending only two hours there, but our package also included a 90-minute birdwatching outing with a Gambian ornithologist on the Allehein River, down the road from Colin’s place. There we climbed into a canoe roughly hewn from a silk cotton tree. It tipped from side to side as we were paddled through the channels of mangroves. I thought about the crocodiles.  But in the end, that part of our day was probably a lot safer than the journey we face tomorrow: traveling all the way from here to St. Louis, the Senegalese city on the border of Mauritania, far to north.

Data from each bird banded or recaptured is recorted in a log book for incorporation into an annual report compiled in Britain.

In praise of insider tours

Saturday, January 8

The Hotel Hobbe wound up costing about $51 a night, but the delicious three-course dinners we enjoyed there (including substantial amounts of alcohol) came in at about $20 per person. So no grumbling from me. According to Laura, the Hobbe is the best hotel in Kolda, and although Kolda doesn’t even rate a mention in the Rough Guide, Steve and I wouldn’t have missed it.

Hobbe hotel pool

Having Laura as our insider guide made all the difference.  The Hobbe’s just a few blocks off the main drag, and yesterday morning, she met us there and led us on foot to the commercial action. Unlike the Kaolack market (much of which is covered and dark), Kolda’s vendors line both sides of block after block of the paved central street. Hawkers of flip-flops, sunglasses, oranges and bananas and lettuce, hair straightening concoctions, bike parts, colanders, cola nuts, peanuts, baobab and palm oil seeds, SIM cards, and more make up a jolly jumble, Laura helped me buy several pieces of the gorgeous Senegalese fabric and then led me to a tailor who promised to transform them into aprons by the end of the afternoon.

Fabric shop in Kolda
At the tailors in Kolda

Then we visited the used-clothing market. It IS covered, and dark, and filled with stuff that’s been donated by Americans to organizations like the Salvation Army, packed into huge shrink-wrapped bundles, loaded onto container ships, sailed to Africa, trucked here and carefully hung up or folded and laid out on tables. One t-shirt caught my eye. In good condition, it bore an image that I thought a friend back home might appreciate. Try though she did to procure it for me for 500 CFA (about $1), Laura couldn’t get the seller to budge from his final price (700). So I paid that and will transport the shirt once again across the ocean to San Diego (where my friend may send it jetting back again!)

Kolda street market

We bought liters of water for $1 at the Mauritanian grocery store and popped into the local liquor wholesaler (who will sell you a single Gazelle or cases of it, the Muslim majority here notwithstanding.) We stopped at Kolda’s little post office where Laura picked up her most recent issues of the New Yorker (only a few weeks late) and joked in her fluent Pulaar with the kindly postmaster. We strolled past the town brothel, and then wandered past the town woodworkers and their creations (mostly bed stands and dressers made of a gleaming golden wood).

Kolda craftsmen carve wooden bed frames from African hardwoods.

Not far beyond them, blacksmiths hammered metal creations using skills that average Americans haven’t used for 150 years. I was mesmerized by the enclave where sweating men were pounding discarded 50-gallon drums into flat pieces of steel, then shaping those into storage chests. Initially ugly, these were painted bright colors. We watched one stolid fellow dip a wood block covered with raised bumps into a can of white paint, then press that in patterns over a chest that had been painted bright blue. Later, he added yellow sections to the pattern. When he was finished, the chest looked as pretty as something you’d find at IKEA.

Kolda metal worker paints a storage chest.

In the afternoon, we visited the well-swept compound where Laura boards with a local Senegalese family. She showed us the family’s large vegetable garden, the well that’s the sole source of their water, and her private sleeping and bathing quarters. Around 2:30, while other family members and neighbors ate in other small clusters, Laura, her host mother, Steve, and I shared a huge dish of broken rice cooked with grilled fish, fish balls, eggplant, peppers, and other vegetables. The three of us white folk ate with spoons, but our hostess manipulated her food in the traditional manner — squeezing the rice into bite-sized pieces with her right hand. It seemed to me, though, that she spent most of her time not eating but rather breaking off pieces of fish and other tasty morsels and distributing them to our various quadrants of the platter. Laura says Senegalese mothers typically do this to ensure that their children get equal shares.

Kolda Ladies Group prepares vegetables for dinner in the shade of a tree in the family compound.

In the late afternoon, we visited some gardens overseen by local Peace Corps volunteers, then we walked back to dinner at the Hobbe through the soft twilight. It felt like rush hour, with us swept along with the streams of ladies bearing bundles on their heads, boys zooming by on crazily laden bikes, ancient battered taxis threatening the meandering livestock (and occasionally pedestrians) and transforming the dirt street into minor dust storms.

Peace Corpts volunteers organized this demonstration garden Kolda.

As always, as everywhere in the towns and villages, piles of garbage lined our paths. But it struck me as we walked that my relationship with the ubiquitous Afro-garbage is subtly changing. It seemed so ugly and squalid when I was first exposed to it. On some of our bush-taxi rides I’ve almost laughed out loud at the sight of one of our fellow travelers polishing off a can of soda or a cookie package and blithely tossing it out the window — so taboo back home (and yet ringing distant bells from my own childhood.)

It’s tempting to harrumph that the Africans have no system for dealing with all the garbage. But Steve and I have noted that in fact there is a system: you throw your trash willy-nilly on the ground, goats and other animals eat everything that’s remotely edible, and every so often someone burns the inorganic piles when they get too large. It’s not a very good system, but it’s cheap and in its own way, it works. Bottom line: it’s the way things work here — the way the subways are jam-packed in Tokyo or graffiti covers many building facades in Detroit. After just one long day of glimpsing quotidian life in Kolda, the complex nuances of the town had claimed the forefront of my brain, while the garbage had sunk so far into the background that I barely noticed it.

Livestock perform the first sorting of municipal trash in West Africa. The proliferation of plastic bags and bottle contributes to the waste problem.

Bedbugs and bribes

Friday, January 7
Two lifetime firsts for me yesterday — first bribe and first bedbug!  Both somewhat disgusting, if only mildly so. 

The bribe came as we were returning from Guinea Bissau.  We’d had two choices of travel routes back to Senegal: 1) returning to Ziguinchor and then heading east to Kolda, or 2) traveling east to a town called Bafata and from thence north to Kolda.  We’d had such a dreadful time with all the checkpoints on the way from Zig that we decided to try the second, even though we’d been warned that the roads were dreadful. Happily, they actually weren’t all that bad, although once again, the travel was pricy.  Despite hard bargaining, we’d had to pay about $100 for a bush taxi to get us from Bissau to the border (for that, we got the whole vehicle.) Bizarrely, all the taxis in GB were in hugely better condition than those in Senegal and the Gambia. In Bissau, they were all Mercedes Benzes, not that ancient, and our sept-place to the border was a remarkably clean and comfortable Renault.  (Steve suspects there’s some convoluted explanation involving foreign aid and government contracts to explain this.) 

The bribe came after we’d gone through customs and gotten our GB exit stamp.  We’d had to stop in front of a stand where a sullen looking guy told Laura he was in need of tea, so we would have to pay him 2000 CFA (about $4).  She protested and argued, but he was malevolently implacable.  Item by item, she started taking everything out of her backpack, even though we were all snickering at how ridiculous this was.  The African who would be traveling with us in the bush taxi to Kolda jumped in, pointing out that even HE had had to pay the tea bribe. So we threw up out hands and dug out the money.  It was all so brazen. I’m a little sorry we didn’t carry through and take out every item in all our bags. But we sensed that might have backed the guy into a corner that could have resulted in our spending many hours at that roadside. 

I spotted the bedbug this morning, as he was about to crawl into the crack between the sheet and the headboard.  I probably wouldn’t have recognized him, were it not for the 3 little smears of blood on my pillow.  Ugh!!!!  (I know they’re not harmful.  Just gross.) 

The Hotel Hobbe, where we’re staying, does have its charms.  The pool is large and sparkling clean.  Most of the rooms are located in African-style rondavals (and everything has thatched roofs).  The wifi’s superb, and our dinner here last night was topnotch.  Even the beds are comfy (if infested).

I’m not exactly sure how much the rooms are (as Laura made the reservation for us).  I’ve decided that if we have to pay $40 or less, I’ll be satisfied.  At $60 or more, you’ll hear me grumbling. 

Gille’s Gulch

Wednesday, January 5

I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged when I was 17, and among the marks it left on me was a romantic vision of secret havens (like Galt’s Gulch, named after Rand’s hero, John Galt) created in the midst of societal chaos and decay. Our taxi ride through Bissau Monday afternoon was brief and yet long enough to make me think this country is worse off than anything in Rand’s worst nightmares. It ranks among the poorest countries on earth, and its capital city is a shattered, dusty place. The last civil war ended about a dozen years ago, but one corrupt president was just assassinated last year. Reportedly Bissau has only a few hours of electricity per day. At night it’s said to be eerily black. In the countryside, land mines remain unexploded. Warns the Rough Guide, “Don’t use footpaths on the mainland unless you see other people doing so or you’re accompanied by a competent guide.”

Ruins of Guinea-Bissau's former president's vacation home

Why travel here?  I’d heard that a Frenchman named Gilles Develay had created the best hotel in the entire country on Bubaque, one of the islands in the Bijagos archipelago, located two hours (by speedboat) southeast of Bissau. The Kasa Afrikana was reported to be pleasant not only when judged by the abysmal standards of Guinea Bissau, but also by those of the New York Times West Africa correspondent who wrote about it in late 2009. 

Gilles Develay

I yearned to see it, and now I can report that it’s every bit as lovely as described. The rooms and grounds are immaculate, and from where I’m sitting I can identify plantings of baobab, various palms, cashew, and exuberantly blooming canna, ginger, marigolds, bougainvillea. The pool isn’t big, but Gilles told us last night he dug the hole for it and built it by hand, covering its interior with little turquoise tiles. The water in it, pumped from a deep well, is pristine. A generator provides abundant electricity for all the compound, but when we asked him last night how he gets the fuel to run it, Gilles shook his head and said it was too complicated to explain. (I understood that the problem wasn’t his English but the enormous complexity of the answer; that it would take a book rather than a blog post to begin to explain how he’s created everything in this place where every tool, every nail, every fixture or piece of furniture must either be built or brought from far, far away.)

The port at Bubaque has seen better days.
Kasa Afrikana room
Kasa Afrikana pool

Why is Gilles here?  We got snatches of an answer to that. Now 55, he and 3 buddies somehow rejected their futures as cogs in the machinery of bourgeoise suburban life in Lyons when they were 17.  All four traveled the world (whether together or independently or both, I’m not sure), and when Gilles arrived on this island (“the end of the world”) 16 years ago, he was ready at last to settle down. He bought a piece of property, camped on it, started a ferry service to Bissau, slowly expanded his land holdings. Although the civil war at the end of the 1990s never brought actual fighting to Bubaque, all tourism to the country collapsed. Yet he continued building, solving the hundred and one daily puzzles generated by the challenge of creating an idyll in this unlikely location. He says now his main clients during the rainy season are officials or business people who come here for meetings, while in the dry season, its sport fishermen.

Unloading the catch at Bubaque

If we’d had one extra day here, I might have wanted to go out in pursuit of some of the magnificent fish inhabiting these waters.  Or perhaps we would have tried a day excursion to the nearby island of Orango, where saltwater hippos congregate. But with only two days, we were content to stay on the island — exploring the squalid central village, lounging by Gille’s pool, napping, reading, writing.  Today we biked (10 miles each way) to the endless unspoiled beach at the south end of the island. We’ll have one more excellent meal tonight, then we depart on the speedboat early tomorrow, rested up for another chaotic travel day, destination Kolda.

Road to Praia de Bruce on Bubaque: Most islanders live in mud-brick houses with thatched or sheet metal roofs.
Centuries old trees are being cleared for cashew orchards.
Praia de Bruce on Bubaque remains pristine, but for how long?

Life’s little essentials

Tuesday, January 4 (posted 1/6/2011)

The only sign of any rebel threat on our two-day journey from Keur Bamboung to Bissau were the burly guys wearing camo suits and toting AK 47s that we saw occasionally along the roadside. They appeared to be Senegalese Army regulars on routine patrols. 

In the absence of any violent incidents, I had plenty of time to chew on this one: Assuming you have a clean water source and enough food to keep hunger at bay and clothes to keep warm, and assuming people aren’t trying to rob or kill you, does reliable electricity or good transportation come next on the hierarchy of my own personal needs?

We’d experienced a lack of both during the last week, so the question was fresh for me, and I thought my answer was unequivocal: I’d choose light. Bad roads slow you down and coat you with layers of sweat and fine grit and induce otherwise responsible drivers to zoom into the path of oncoming traffic to avoid hitting deadly potholes. They cripple commerce and condemn sick folk to dying because they can’t get to medical care. But the lack of reliable electricity crushes my spirit nightly.  The impenetrable darkness might hold hungry hyenas or harmful bugs, and even when you’re in the sphere of dim warm kerosene lanternglow or the funereal pallor of a solar-powered fluorescent, you can’t do much more than talk or drink (or both). Or you can turn everything off and gaze at the magnificent starscape, as we did for a while on the beach on New Year’s Eve.

That’s peachy for a camping trip or vacation jaunt, but no way to live long-term. Still, I now think there may be something even worse. For decades, I’d read in travel literature and fiction about the dreaded African police and militiamen and drug inspectors and customs agents who transform overland travel on this continent into an extended nightmare. Now that I’ve experienced it, I have to at least add them to my short list of human plagues. 

Unless you DO personally experience this, it’s how to imagine how it could take almost 14 hours to cover roughly 200 miles, over the course of two days. This trip for us was broken into 11 different travel segments (donkey cart, pirogue, river ferry, sept-place, and multiple taxis). It also included stops to get visas to travel through The Gambia (about $13 each) and into Guinea Bissau ($21.50 apiece).  For Steve and me, the visa-getting was tedious but routine, requiring filling out forms and getting stamps and auxiliary stamps and having the blank lines on those stamps filled in by official hands. (All this activity has already consumed about 3 pages of each of our passports.) But Laura also had to endure a private interrogation with a glowering Gambian official who discovered her failure to get yet another Gambian visa when she passed through a month or two ago on her return from Sierra Leone.  “You KNEW what you were doing was wrong, and you did it anyway!” he browbeat her, his expression that of an angry parent. I was sure he would try to extort at least a bribe from her, but she says all she had to do was act humble and contrite, feeding his officious ego and patiently enduring the waste of time. 

We all got hassled, but she again the worst of all of us, at the sleepy Senegal/Guinea Bissau border. When an official waved our sept-place over to the side of the road, we had to pry ourselves out of the vehicle and extract every piece of our baggage, then haul it over to the back of an unmarked pickup truck parked under a huge tree.  There, a guy wearing a Police baseball cap made us put each piece, one by one, on the tailgate.  He opened every single bag, and every single receptacle within; all our medicine/first aid bags, my makeup case, all the inner pockets of my purse, even the box of matches within one of those. Heavy-lidded, he studied each item, neither polite nor surly, an automaton going through the motions. Finally we repacked and loaded all the luggage and he returned each of our passports, except for Laura’s; he said he was going to detain her. She acted exasperated, then disgusted. She called our driver over to intercede.  Eventually, the official relinquished her passport with a leer.  “They just want to flirt,” she said to us with a roll of her eyes.  “They have nothing else to do all day.”

Our sept-place driver who endured so many checkpoints

Having to stop and go through one of these bureaucratic exercises at each of the three borders (Senegal/Gambia, Gambia/Senegal, Senegal Guinea Bissau) didn’t surprise me. What I wasn’t prepared for was how many times beyond that we were forced to halt — three or four separate detentions at each of the latter two frontiers, then more stops at checkpoints along the way. Sometimes only our driver had to get out (and once I think a “fee” was extorted); sometimes we all had to hand over our passports for furrowed-brow thumb-throughs. Each stop stole time. 

For Steve and me, slumming as we are, most of this activity was actively entertaining for its cartoon quality and obvious absurdities. Tiny human dramas abounded. 

But around 3:30 p.m. — when we were a full 90 minutes late for meeting the speedboat in Bissau that we’d hired to take us out to Bubaque Island — it began to grate on our nerves as it had been irritating Laura and our three African fellow passengers all along. Two of the latter were natives of Bissau (and speakers of English as well as Wolof, Portuguese, and some French). Friendly folks, they helped us find a taxi and direct the driver to the container port where Gilles had said we’d find the speedboat.

Helpful passengers who helped us find a taxi.

Miraculously, it was still waiting for us (and supposedly for an English threesome).  Laura and I found some beers at a shanty bar across the street from the port, and from then on the afternoon got more and more golden.  With sunset approaching, we left Bissau (sans Englishmen) around 4:30.  We zoomed through glassy seas toward a misty paradise without borders or the rascals who harass those who would cross them.

A Kasa Afrikana speedboat awaited us in Bisau harbor
Cristal Time

Camping in Senegal

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.

Two bedroom reed hut at Keur Bamboung
Bedroom at Keur Bamboung

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. 

Entering the mangrove forest.

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.