The rationale behind our visit to Senegal was simple. I had never been to Africa. Senegal had a strong reputation for fantastic music and it is French-Speaking. It helped that it was 34C in October – something us Europeans find hard to resist. The Gambia felt more an added bonus (and, shamelessly, an opportunity to tick another country off the list) but I will get to this in a later post.
Arriving at our accommodation in Dakar was a disorienting experience. We had reserved a room through AirBnB on the Island of N’Gor just off the coast of Dakar. We arrived at 2am on a beach in northern Dakar and waited under bright moonlight with a pelican by our side for a fisherman’s boat to take us across the channel. The crossing took five minutes. There were only three of us in the boat, our rucksacks on the side and waves gently lapping against our sides. The sky was crystal clear. I smiled the entire journey.
Finding our way to the house in the middle of the night was a challenge. There is no street lighting on N’Gor. The street signs are handwritten and there are no roads. Waking our host up so early in the morning didn’t make the best of first impressions but she seemed fairly relaxed about most things. Although I doubt the neighbours were too delighted with her fives dogs barking at our arrival.
The island itself was utterly charming. Our host Arielle is a mosaic artist who has spend the last fourteen years decorating the island with her art – benches, signs and even stones. Except for one or two hotels, there are only houses and a few shack restaurants dotted along the beaches. The beaches were the best in Dakar. Everyone says “Bonjour” as they pass. It had the atmosphere of a village in Devon – but with more colour. Arielle was a fascinating character. On the island for fourteen years but originally from Paris, she introduced us to island life, many local people and stories from her past.
On our first day we visited Ile de Gorée, which is a ferry ride from the centre of town. The journey across from downtown Dakar takes thirty minutes and provides an opportunity to take in the surrounding area from afar. The island tells the tragic story of thousands of West Africans who were sold into slavery over the course of centuries. As distant as it may seem, the history is no less harrowing and the stories no less heartbreaking. One is shaken by both the human tragedy and scale of the trade. As you wander around the Maison des Esclaves, it’s hard to come to terms with that fact that people were comfortable eating, drinking and being merry as hundreds of people were held captive below the floor boards; waiting to walk through the ‘door to nowhere’ into a boat and across the Atlantic onto a life of slavery. Aside from the history, the island is bright and scenic with some great food and art stalls.
Central Dakar is small. The cultural district is a must-see for fabrics and the music scene made famous by Youssou N’Dour. The same district houses the central mosque (above right). I bought a few fantastic fabrics for myself and my mum having survived the fairly aggressive selling techniques of local vendors. It is also a great place to experience street kitchens selling cheap local food – chicken yassa is a good shout.
Unfortunately, many of the main museums were closed whist we were in town but seemed to house fairly impressive collections of regional Africa art and historical artefacts. No visit to Dakar would be complete without a visit to the African Renaissance statue on Les Mamelles. Designed and built by North Koreans, it is a bizarre tribute to post-independence Africa and offers fantastic views over the city and out to the Atlantic. The tour is slightly North Korean in its authoritarian approach to sight-seeing. Cute fact: the child in the statue has his finger extended pointing across the Atlantic directly to the Statue of Liberty on the other side.
Perched on one of Africa’s most westerly points, Dakar is well known for its seafood. Fortunately, one of the best places to sample the treats of the city was just across the channel from our accommodation on the Plage de N’Gor. La Cabane du Pecheur is highly rated for its seafood menu. One of my colleagues had visited during his time posted in Mali and highly recommended the place. Lovely atmosphere, well priced, great view and, helpfully, a good broadband connection. After the meal, we strolled along the beach in the late evening listening to live music and drinking a few beers alongside the local pelican. We were only a hop, skip and pirogue ride from home.
We only stayed in Dakar for four days before heading down to The Gambia. The plan originally been to head north to see Saint Louis, and perhaps some of the nature parks, but my travel partner wanted to go straight onto The Gambia to avoid too much time on the road during a fairly short vacation (ten days). We intended to save a few days at the end of the trip to see some last minute sights in Senegal before heading home from Dakar. Unfortunately, troubles with our flight back from The Gambia stopped this happening.