The haunting departure point for thousands of West African slaves, today Senegal is blessed with a thumping music scene, beautiful beaches and bird-rich national parks - and British travellers are finally getting in on the secret
What, I wondered, would Mungo Park have made of Colleh, a grass-hutted village on the red-earthed fringe of the Sahel where I sat on a low stool with a Fula family, sipping baobab fruit juice from a calabash cup?
Park, the Scottish explorer, journeyed through this region - now Senegal - at the end of the 18th century before publishing his Travels in the Interior of Africa in 1799. Two centuries later his classic travel book is still in print, and tells of an expedition fraught with disease and hardship but also touched by the kindness of villagers who fed and nursed him.
My hosts may not have held my life in their hands as Park's did, but they treated me with gracious warmth and an open-hearted eagerness to converse. No doubt my questions sounded as bizarre as one enquiry, in fractured French, I received from a young chap who had studied European history at school: "In Scotland, is intermarriage permitted between different clans?"
From Park's exactingly detailed accounts it is clear many aspects of life in the interior of West Africa have changed little. The huts, the hand-drawn well and the meals of pestle-ground millet porridge, for example; or the herd of long-horn, humped zebus whose number is the measure of a community's wealth. While villagers showed me around, I also noticed both an enclosure reserved for praying to Allah and snakeskin ju-ju amulets nailed to the eaves of huts, indicating the fusion of religious beliefs that so puzzled Park.
On the other hand he would, obviously, have been flabbergasted by the arrival of a battered, flag-festooned bush taxi with its roof piled high with everything from live goats to satellite dishes. "It is time for us to leave now, so everybody can greet the taxi," judged Yamar, my guide, as the ancient Peugeot approached, honking through a billow of ruddy dust.
Nor would there have been anything remotely familiar about Dakar, Senegal's rambling, boisterous capital of low buildings, rickety yellow taxis, oily docks, men and women draped in iridescent boubous (robes), and boys in T-shirts with Obama motifs pushing barrows of coconuts. There are few 'sights', so my first venture was to the Presidential Palace where a scarlet-tunicked guard was posing for tourists' photos. "Voulez-vous essayer?" he joked, pretending to offer me his machine gun.
If this sounds improbably relaxed for a bastion of West African power, remember that there have been - uniquely in the region - two peaceful regime changes in Senegal since independence from France in 1960. 'Poet President' Léopold Senghor stood down voluntarily in 1980; his successor, Abdou Diouf, accepted defeat at the polls by current ruler Abdoulaye Wade in 2000. Despite the ongoing separatist movement in the southern Casamance area, Senegal remains a stable nation with an economy based on exports of fish, phosphates and groundnuts, as well as - increasingly - on tourism.
But why, I kept asking myself, are we European travellers so absurdly and disproportionately drawn to our former colonies? This winter, for example, there are direct charter flights from five UK regional airports to minuscule Gambia, while plane-loads of French and Belgian tourists are heading for the beaches of Senegal. But the other way round? Almost zilch.
Nevertheless, tours of Senegal and beach holidays at luxury hotels on the Atlantic coast are tentatively being offered by a few UK specialist travel companies. Better still, Dakar is easily and fairly economically accessible with flights via various European capitals. So my plan was to take advantage of this with a circular trip from the capital in a 4WD with a local guide, taking in some of the farther-flung reaches of the country.
Arriving in Dakar it was no surprise to find that people automatically addressed me in French, or that my having learned a few phrases in Wolof, the local lingua franca, was appreciated as a token of respect.
But I also discovered two other idioms to be helpful social lubricants. The first was that old chestnut, football. Blackburn Rovers striker El-Hadji Diouf is probably the best-known Senegalese in Britain, while most of his compatriots - at least the male ones - seemed to be remarkably familiar with the English Premier League. "Lampard... Gerrard... Didier Drogba!" people chanted when I confessed my nationality while we all watched a noisy Champions League match at a café on Dakar's Avenue Pompidou.
Closer still to the Senegalese soul is the language of music. Saturday night in the sparkling nightclubs of Dakar has been legendary ever since national hero Youssou N'Dour turned mbalax into a world music phenomenon. However, because my itinerary forced the weekend elsewhere, I discovered that Dakar also has numerous unflashy little bars and cafés where music-lovers gather in the evenings to play or listen to a mixture of traditional and electric instruments.
Even to my untutored European ear, it was clear that these unfiltered melodies share their roots with the raw rhythm and blues that have enraptured me in Memphis juke joints - not surprising when you remember how music was carried to the New World by slaves ripped from West Africa. Untold numbers were shipped from Île de Gorée, the small island looming within sight of Dakar's docks - of which more later.
Departing Dakar, Yamar drove me north along the coastal road in a demented phalanx of hooting lorries and cars besieged by roadside vendors touting SIM cards and bags of peanuts. Talking from the heart, my newly married guide told me how difficult it is to make ends meet in his impoverished country. Our first stop was Lac Rose, Senegal's answer to the Dead Sea, where tourists lay poaching in the pink-tinged saline lake while men and women toiled on the dry, bleached bank collecting salt worth less than €1 per 25kg sack.
Next we called at Kayar, the county's chief fishing port, where pirogues were crashing through the surf while athletic male bodies leapt on to the beach hauling in ropes and nets. Big-bosomed women sorted the sardines and mackerel for drying, salting and selling to the itinerant traders who carry the fish inland as far as the markets of Bamako and Ouagadougou.
Driving on, Yamar set the jeep to cruise control as we streamed for hours along a straight, empty, motorway-flat beach, passing the skeletons of wrecked ships and beached whales, while ghost crabs in their millions scuttled from our path. When we eventually turned inland, it was into a parched landscape that had deepened in colour and was strewn with dry scrub and acacia trees. This area, along the Senegal River, which forms the border with Mauritania, is made up of an astonishing variety of scenery.
We stopped one night at a laid-back campement of stilted huts. They were overhanging tidal mudflats in the Parc National de la Langue de Barbarie in the estuary of the Senegal River, which splinters into myriad islands and channels. Staying at simple but comfortable camps is the handy way to travel around the more remote parts of Senegal. Another was the Moorish-style camp in the Desert de Lompoul, nestled among gigantic dunes ribbed by the wind like the roof of your mouth, and which turned from peach to plum as I sat on the sand and watched the sun bleed over the horizon. Later, the Mauritanian staff grilled lamb kebabs on an open fire before we retired to our low, goat-hide tents.
Colonial resonances, however, are everywhere in Saint-Louis, which looks across the river into Mauritania. The island-city was the administrative capital of the whole of French West Africa in the 19th century. Nowadays, extraordinary numbers of goats wander around the earthy streets and courtyards of crumbling mansions.
Still, there are some lovely restaurants along the quayside below the grandiose iron Pont Faidherbe, serving tiéboudienne, the local speciality of marinated fish with rice. Several colonial mansions have been restored as boutique chambres d'hôtes; one wonderful old place, L'Hôtel de la Poste, is themed on the famous Aéropostale aviator Jean Mermoz who overnighted here more than 100 times when delivering the mail by flying boat, which he landed on the river.
From Saint-Louis we headed out into the wide brown yonder, passing groups of nomadic Mauritanian camel herders journeying across the relentless flatness, and stopping at occasional villages such as Colleh, where Mungo Park's travels came so much to mind. It also struck me that just as you sometimes need to be really hungry to appreciate a good meal, so rumbling endlessly through the hot, dry dust of the Sahel added something special when we reached the cool, ethereal beauty of the Parc National des Oiseaux in the Djoudj basin.
Bounded by the Senegal River, this 160 sq km wetland is made up of glassy lagoons, tangled expanses of mangroves and labyrinthine creeks. Because Djoudj is the first wetland area south of the Sahara, more than three million migrant birds pass through every year, making it one of the world's most important sanctuaries, with more than 350 species recorded. Serious ornithologists hole up at the Hôtel du Djoudj near the park entrance and stay for weeks. I had just a day to putter through in a pirogue, among seething masses of waders, waterfowl and imperious-looking crested cranes.
More of a surprise was the welter of non-feathered wildlife: warthogs rootled by the shore and crocodiles slunk into the primordial ooze; we spotted a sleeping python twined round a mangrove root, and I almost got my fingers bitten by a monitor lizard as it swam past the boat. But the star attractions - no contest - were the great white pelicans: thousands upon comical-looking thousands of them patrolled the airspace and dive-bombed the water for fish.
Wildlife watching in Senegal is far more casual than in, say, an East African game reserve. Even more so, I was to find, in the Siné-Saloum Delta, just north of the Gambia River, the other wilderness I visited before returning to Dakar.
The full day's drive from the Mauritanian border brought home to me just how unremittingly featureless much of Senegal's baking hinterland is. It was hard to imagine life as anything other than desolate in the mud-walled villages strewn across the waste. But this world seemed to come magically alight whenever we stopped at roadside markets to be greeted by women wearing boubous and headdresses made of eye-bursting fabrics. Amid cries of "toubab, toubab!" (white man) they pressed on me mounds of produce, baskets made of grass dyed blue and orange, pungent dried fish, and tangles of purple offal that would frighten a surgeon.
We also deviated off the main highway to weave through a baobab forest, which suddenly looked familiar as I remembered a drawing in The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (another Aéropostale aviator on the France/Senegal route). These enormous, upside-down-looking trees with hollow trunks are sacred to the local Serer ethnic group, as Yamar explained: "Spirits live within the baobabs, and sorcerers find inspiration among them."
Eventually the landscape segued into green fields, coconut palms and dense undergrowth as we neared the spongy expanse of brackish marshland strewn with islands that is the Siné-Saloum Delta. A pirogue ferried us from the tiny port of Djifer across to Falia, a sandy island in the mouth of the Saloum River where an unlikely luxury hotel of thatched-roof bungalows, landscaped gardens and swimming pools has recently sprung up. Curiously, I found it almost empty.
As in Djoudj, nature is the main draw though it is the beaches that entice tourists to stay longer. On another pirogue jaunt we watched ibises and swooping sea eagles before our boatman, Bashirt, took us to an island of dark squelch like chocolate pudding, where rows of women were bent over double collecting clams, oysters and mussels with their fingers.
"The sea is for men, but the mangrove is for women," declared Bashirt, quickly adding that his other job was aboard an ocean-bound fishing boat. He bought some small fry and live shellfish from the women, and we set off for a secluded beach where he grilled the catch on an open flame for lunch. The oysters were particularly tasty - chewy, with a smoky flavour from the fire.
Later, I found that the nightlife on offer was just up my street. Sitting on the beach outside my bungalow, I gazed up at a star-clustered sky where a magnified half moon hung like a wedge of glowing melon. The sporadic, eerie wail of a distant creature served more to emphasise the silence than to break it.
I still had one important journey to make - a 20-minute ferry ride across the choppy water and over the centuries to tiny Île de Gorée, a place that could not have contrasted more with the noisy, hustling capital. Peace and an eerie calm pervaded the sandy alleys where I ambled between bougainvillea-draped French colonial buildings repainted mustard and russet, and stopped for coffee at a palm-shaded café next to the 17th-century Dutch fort.
Gorée is Senegal's biggest tourist draw, and has attracted dignitaries from Nelson Mandela to Pope John Paul II. The island has been named a Unesco World Heritage site - not to preserve a bijou colonial gem, but as a place to reflect on the appalling facts of the slave trade. This I tried to do in the notorious Maison des Esclaves, where European wholesalers stored their human merchandise.
For intimations of evil, there are ledgers on display showing how margins of wastage of up to 30% of this 'perishable cargo' were allowed for in transport. It all seemed so horribly matter-of-fact. Then I crept through the low-ceilinged cells where men, women and children were once manacled, till I reached a doorway - the Porte Sans Retour - that opens onto nothing but sky and sea. There are some jagged rocks below, but beyond only the Atlantic.
How to react? Alongside the sun-worshippers and travellers seeking adventure in the hinterland, Senegal hosts increasing numbers of African Americans trying to understand their history. On the ferry back to Dakar I sat next to Cheryl Arnold from Washington DC who had traced her roots to Senegal. She told me: "All the time I find myself staring at people who have eyes like my sister's or the same nose as my granddaddy. The connection is so close it makes me cry."
Cheryl's was a complex mixture of grief and anger that people whose forbears where not wrenched from their homeland to toil in bondage for generations may never understand. But if you want to try, Île de Gorée is a good starting point.
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