Acting on a tip from a pair of French tourists, we decided to head south almost to the border with The Gambia to the Sine Saloum Delta. This is an area of twisting “bolongs” with mangrove forests full of sea birds of all descriptions. A maze of twisting roads and sandy pistes connect the areas of settlement among the bayous.
The very sweet 6”8”, 130 pound Wolof manager of the Siki Hotel in Saint Louis had arranged a friend to pick us up in Lompoul and drive us down. His price was good which turned out to be a bad sign, as he had confused Simal Ecolodge with a tiny interior village called Semel.
Thank goodness for maps.me a wonderful app that lets you track your route without benefit of cellular service. When I realized he had turned off the main north south road, I turned it on and sent him back on the correct route. He really didn’t believe me and had no understanding of the technology but I made him just keep going and trust…hoping that we would eventually arrive! The road became smaller with no settlements along it, and those few he asked were vague on the possible location..
The last couple of kilometres we had to turn onto a sandy track which became deeper and deeper sand as we wended our way through two tiny villages and across open fields — amazingly maps.me tracking along — he was shouting, “Sable, sable, merde merde” (sable being sand, merde being, well merde). Finally we spotted a sign and staggered to a halt, beside, incongruously, a swimming pool. We decanted from the car, we were indeed at the right place, as a manager came to greet us. The poor driver rushed poolside and started sluicing water all over himself, I thought he was simply hot, but he was doing his ablutions for prayer. He proceeded to drop on to a handy straw mat and start in.
The Ecolodge was a lovely, rustic spot. Right on the edge of the bolong, we sat to eat meals at tables beside the water watching pelicans, terns, gulls, ibis, cormorants, herons and stilts compete for the fish teeming in the water. They had a co-operative process. The gulls came in screaming which seemed to herd the fish in, assisted by cormorants chasing them underwater. Next would come in the terns diving like mad, while up popped the cormorants from below. Gulls would dive in, the herons would scoop the perimeter, while the pelicans sailed majestically through plucking up scoopfulls. Then the frenzy would abate, all would go out to sea to wait for the fish to forget what had just happened, until a few minutes later the whole thing started again.
Quite the sight from the comfort of the beach, no need to move, but they took us out in a pirogue to wend in and out of the tiny inlets where we saw fewer birds than at the lodge, but were fascinated by the mangrove reforestation scheme taking place. In many countries mangroves have been cleared, as their vital place in the ecosystem was not understood. We saw similar problems in South America. But we had not seen reforestation going on before. Miles and miles of tiny mangrove saplings poke from the water in tidy rows, looking ever so much like one of our replanted forests, with the addition of water of course. The local people support it because the depletion had impacted fishing badly.
Since the place had no internet, and we had had only a few minutes a day at the desert, we took the offered caleche (horse cart) ride through a number of small villages, across a bridge more like a narrow mud dyke than a bridge, built to enable the kids to get to the secondary school without wading holding their clothes over their heads as the water reached to their necks, which is how the dedicated little blighters did it before. Old guy who drove spoke slowly for us and had lots of interesting local lore. We were accompanied by an Italian woman we had met who was worried about her mother who had been injured in a skiing accident. She had heard that there was another lodge with wifi. We just wanted to let the kids know we had not disappeared — nowadays with such regular contact, the problem is that when we unexpectedly fall off the grid, people worry.
We found the lodge and though it was quite posh, the cabanas with all mod cons and private sitting gazebos at the end of rickety jetties for watching the birds, we liked ours much better. Our cabana was built local style with an outdoor bathroom (attached) so close to the birds, but also the area in front was used daily by a group of young fitness enthusiasts, either training themselves for Senegalese wresting, or for “football” or just doing calisthenics — very impressive physiques these tall young guys have — after which they would stoke a tiny fire and brew themselves improving glasses of Senegalese tea, which is rather ghastly to our taste as they boil black tea and mint into a very dark concoction and then add several sugar lumps to each tiny glass.
We had a village right beside so women and children passed constantly. This is such a lovely country of friendly greetings: “Bonjour” “Bonjour” “Ca va?” Ca va bien, et vous” and then the obligatory handshake and exchange of names. No one walks past anyone without at least the Bonjour and Ca va part. Also a great kissing of both cheeks but fortunately only with friends!
The three days passed too quickly, but Adama turned up as promised on the appointed day — the manager of the Ecolodge was a friend of Seck at the desert camp and they all knew Mamadou in Saint Louis…anyway Adama often picked up people there, and despite being in just as small a car had no trouble with the dreaded “Sable!”
Off on cue to the new airport south of Dakar full of technology for security that no one knows how to use so checking in even a tiny plane a lengthy procedure. Next stop Casamance, the southern most part of Senegal, quite separate in culture from the rest. Common language Diola, not Wolof, largest religion traditional animism. A lengthy civil war for independence decimated the tourist trade there — plus the scourge of Ebola which did not touch Senegal put put everyone off West Africa for a while — but a ceasefire has been in effect for 4 years with ongoing negotiations just like in Colombia so tourists are trickling back.
Will keep you posted!