…doing a Baldrick

In the immortal words of Baldrick, ‘I Have a Cunning Plan’ – an absolute guarantee that things will not go as planned.

In the immortal words of Baldrick (for non UK readers, a character from the TV sitcom “Blackadder”), ‘I Have a Cunning Plan’ – an absolute guarantee that things will not go as planned.

An early start at the Gare Routier (could have been earlier if I could manage to set the alarm), and breakfast on the hoof – hard boiled eggs in a roll, washed down with cafe Touba (a liquorice tasting sweet coffee).

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Having eaten half the roll and shared the rest with some kids, I finished the coffee. Being English and always taught not to litter, despite my travels, I instinctively look around for a litter bin – despite the sea of plastic that is common place in Africa…almost guiltily, I discretely drop it on a pile of rubbish. Strange mentality I know.

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So the plans goes something like this – I would make a one night stop over at Kaolack. Me and Kaolack have a love hate relationship following my last encounter when passing through there in 2014 enroute to Dakar. Then I described it like a Mad Max 3 town – solely on the basis of its Gare Routier, which to put it mildly, is absolute chaos and a fitting description in light of the film.

I decided that I would stay at the rated budget Auberge de Kaolack, which despite its budget tag, boasted a swimming pool. Anyway, arriving at Kaolack, and after a short scooter ride, I pitch up to what was actually a rather nice hotel – but crammed full of expats. Needless to say there was no room, nor at either of the 2 sister hotels in town.

Decision time…do I risk wasting another hour or so trying to find a room (the alternatives being distinctly unattractive), or make a run for The Gambia before the border closes?  Cutting my losses, I head to the Gare Routier, where a giant African kindly helps me find the right car, sort ticket, and water in short order. Happy to tip him 1000cfa.

Heading out, the driver gets side swiped by a truck, removing the protective grill from the rear light cluster. Bearing in mind that a sept places are beaten up old cars, with doors held on by string, barely road worthy (surely that’s a contradiction in terms), so what does it matter one further scratch?  Anyway, a heated exchange follows…police…money…more heated exchanges and after a mere 50 minutes we’re off, heading to the Senegal border.

After an uneventful 80 odd kms, arrive at the border, clear Senegalese formalities and “cross” into The Gambia. Immigration first…write out details in a ledger, usual question as to why you’re coming to The Gambia, occupation, etc etc. The guy then has the brass neck to ask what I had for him. Why??? So I told him I did have something for him…Advice. The advice being that he should help prevent bribery and corruption as it was bad for The Gambia. Perhaps not the wisest thing to say in the circumstances, but it suitably perplexed him and he waved me on my way to clear customs.

A lucky encounter with a local policeman who kindly gave (read for a fee) me a lift to the ferry terminal at Barra, and a chance to relax with a local beer Jul Brew. Well I say relaxed because this is The Gambia, home of the bumster/hustler/fixer…

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Losing My Religion 

Stripping out the rad by the roadside (having scrounged tools from passing drivers), the problem was all too obvious – in the UK it would be call the AA for a tow to the nearest garage, here there is no option but sort it. Luckily every good driver just happens to have a tube of FixIt in the tool box…

Well, it’s inevitable that if you travel by sept places, that you’ll break down at some point or another. In this case a loose bolt from cooling fan/water pump gouged a circle of holes in radiator, leading to total loss of coolant. Fearing the worse, I sat in the shade of a thorn bush whilst the driver got to work.

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Stripping out the rad by the roadside (having scrounged tools from passing drivers), the problem was all too obvious – in the UK it would be call the AA for a tow to the nearest garage, here there is no option but sort it. Luckily every good driver just happens to have a tube of FixIt in the tool box… a judicious application of araldite & sand, and the holes were fixed and we were under some 1 1/2 hours later. Apart from a pit stop after some kms to check all was well, we continued and arrivied into Touba some 2 hours late. Hats off to driver, all in a days work!

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The Mosque at Touba, is home to the Mouride order of the Sufi sect which was founded in 1887 by Cheikh Ahmadu Bamba Mbacke. The building of the Mosque was started in 1931, completing in 1967. It now comprises seven minarets which have been added over the years. The tallest minaret is know as Lamp Fall in honour of the founder Bamba – “Lamp Fall”being the name commonly seen adorning the back of cars and lorry’s.

Incidentally, they cannot exceed 7 minarets as this would be to compete with Mecca!

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Unfortunately at present, it is in the middle of a 5 year restoration project, which is replacing a lot of the marble and plaster work which was crumbling. Certainly the sample restoration work is exquisite and the finished Mosque will be something to see.

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Whilst not being able to enter the Mosque itself, I was free to wander around the exterior courtyards; luckily I had the services of the librarian Marabou Diabaye to take me around and show me the works. Part of the restoration includes replacing the white marble in the forecourts with travantine, as the marble gets too hot to walk on (needing to be bare footed to enter the Mosque).

Ignoring any question of religion (those who know me know my views), the Mosque is certainly a credit to the Muslim community, and no expense spared on the travantine and marble from Italy, lamps from Morrocco and Turkey, as well as the skills of the local tradesmen…

The Pelican or what’s the price of a cup of coffee?

The best time of day has to be dawn…after a good night’s sleep, everything feels fresh and clean, the dirt of the previous day’s travel has been washed away and you’re ready for your next challenge. 

Stepping out into the early morning chill, I head into town to catch sunrise…and reflect on life in Saint Louis. In short, it’s tough.

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Last night I encountered an old man (well actually 6 yrs younger then me), who for what might be considered obvious reasons, latched on to me.

I’m always interested in people, and always have the time to listen – surely a prerequisite for any traveller. Anyway, Max had my attention as he told me about his extended family, his houses, his animals, at the same time guiding me around the quarter and showing me various things.

In passing a house I noticed a Pelican outside seemingly resting along with a herd of goats. Being a softie for animals, I touched the head of a nearby kid…wrong move! The Pelican was up in a flash, wings spread wide and bill clacking, coming straight at me. Exit stage left. Apparently, it’s guard Pelican and that’s his herd…who needs geese. 

 Coming to the end of the guided tour, Max started telling me how hard it was to feed his family, finding clothes etc. As expected he asked for some money for rice.

Anticipating this, I offered to buy him rice (not give him money), which I duly did. I bought from the neighbourhood store 2,500cfa of rice, which provided him with a few kilos of rice.

To me, 2,500cfa is less than the price of a cup of coffee from my favourite cafe…surely something we can all forgo?

The joy of the “Sept Places”

If you’ve never experienced a ride in a sept place, it’s something to add to the bucket list. They can be good, bad…or very very bad!

Two days in Dakar and it’s time to head north to the old Colonial city of Saint Louis – capitale de l’Afrique Occidental Francaise from 1895 – 1902.

Leaving Dakar involved an early start (or would have been if I’d set the alarm correctly), with an hours taxi ride to the Gare Routier at Boux Mariachers in Pickine, some 10 km out of the centre.

Travel in Dakar is challenging at the best of times, but at rush hour, it’s a killer. The pollution is off the scale, with the air dark blue with choking fumes, which as you crawl slowly though the traffic, becomes overwhelming.

Arriving at Pickine was a relief -the Gare Routier is well organised (unlike the former site at Pompiers), and within 2 minutes of arrival, I’d found the depart for Saint Louis, paid my 5000cfa (plus 1000 for the bag) and was sat in seat 2 of the ubiquitous sept places. As ever my luck, sat next to me was a rather large lady who overflowed on to my seat…

If you’ve never experienced a ride in a sept places (7 seater Peugeot 504s or similar), it’s something to add to the bucket list. They can be good, bad…or very very bad! The cars have all seen better days, having outlived their working life many times over. They continue to function by the sheer ingenuity of the drivers and mechanics who seemingly can fix anything on the roadside. The cars are totally shot – suspension, engines the lot. All have cracked windscreens, doors that may or may not open or are wired shut… (and with a nod to Simon Fenton), no window winders [not true]. If you’re of a nervous disposition, probably an experience to skip!

Hitting the road, we crawled for the next dozen km or so until we reached Ruffisque, then it was open road – a well paved road at that. For a change, the driver was good, not taking risks or seemingly wanting to get to Saint Louis in to much of a hurry.

As the journey progressed,  the heat of the day built, leaving everyone dozing in the soporific heat. A sharp braking brought me to my senses, just in time to see a camel legging it across the road just missing the car by a hair! The adrenaline rush kicked in and wide awake, I sat watching the passing countryside, which had now changed to a mix of scrub and Baobab trees.

Then the fatal mistake – I looked at the kilometre markers…2 hours and still 157 to go. Despite trying not to look, I spent the next hour or so magnetised to them, watching them slowly tick down to 100km… then, it was down to 40 to go with the end in sight.

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Arriving at the Gare Routier, I crawled out, dusted myself off and shook off the accumulated stiffness acquired after 5 hours cramped in the car. Finding a taxi, I headed off to the Island with fellow travellers Vincenzo & Marie to find a hotel – my supposed pre-booked room having been cancelled enroute. Thanks to Vincenzo and Marie who had managed to book ahead, I ended up at the Auberge d’ Chateau, home of the contemporary dance group Duo Solo – rooms 10,000cfa per night, cheap and cheerful, but more than adequate.

We’re on the Road to Nowhere. ..

Talking Heads’ lyrics spring to mind as I gaze at the crumbling facade of the railway station in Dakar.

    No where it seems is as true as here. When I first ventured to West Africa in 2005, I had some romantic notion of travelling by train…some hopes as virtually all rail lines in West Africa are long defunct.  Even the line from Dakar to Bamako in Mali ceased to operate in 2009 following  the terrorist  attacks. 

    The news that a new railway line was to be built from Dakar’s new airport (some 60km away), seemed to be welcome news. However, the reality on the ground seems far removed…

    The pictures of a TGV style train (actually the TER  – Train Express Regional)  are encouraging. Sleek with all mod cons i.e. WiFi and aircon, this would bring a welcome relief for passengers who currently have to endure the basic facilities at Yoff.

    Whether the Senagalise will be able to match the sucess of their cousins in Morrocco and Tunisia in building an efficient rail network remains to be seen, I certainly hope so. 

    However, whilst I hate to be a detractor of African ambitions, it does seem that major infrastructure projects are fated to be late and fail to deliver their promises. 

    Point in case, is the Grand Theatre National and the newer Musee des  Civilisations Noires,  both built by the Shanghai Construction Company…the latter still incomplete. 

    How the railway will fare remains to be seen; the latest estimate for the opening of the airport being 2019.

    I look forward to travelling on this in the future. 

    Refrain…”We’re on the Road to Nowhere, come on inside. Taking that ride to nowhere,  we’ll take that ride”

    Isle N’Gor…Time to Chill

    The waves from the Atlantic sweep around each side of the island, leaving a small beach on the sheltered leeward side for swimming and sun bathing. Lining the beach is an array of small bars/cafes offering a range of brochettes and sandwiches.

    Travelling on from the Monument de la Renaissance Africaine, a short pirougue trip (500cfa, or 80 cents return) and I’m on the Isle N’Gor.

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    An escape from the city, the island offers a chance to chill out, enjoy a beer or two and chat to the locals (or foreign nationals – predominately NGO workers).

    The waves from the Atlantic sweep around each side of the island, leaving a small beach on the sheltered leeward side for swimming and sun bathing. Lining the beach is an array of small bars/cafes offering a range of brochettes and sandwiches.

    After a frenetic 4 months leading up to the trip, it’s a nice change of pace, time to recharge the batteries and relax into Africa.

    P.S. Being Africa, if you need something, you only have to ask. Need to change currency, someone will take you to the local money changer – here in Senegal, they are part of the West African monetary union and use CFAs, which are pegged to the Euro at an official rate of 650cfa to €1, so it’s easy to ensure that you don’t get short changed.

    Likewise, need to charge your mobile, someone will oblige – try that in the UK!

    Dakar…a return visit

    Visiting a foreign city can be a daunting task for the first time, especially when faced with language difficulties (my French being limited to restaurants and bars), a totally different outlook on life and a mentality that Europeans find hard to comprehend.

    First full day in Dakar. Writing a blog can be difficult even when you have Wifi, but when you’ve limited connection, a fone that won’t hold its charge, it makes the task even more fun (Wifi now sorted courtesy of my landlady Mary-Anne).

    Visiting a foreign city can be a daunting task for the first time, especially when faced with language difficulties (my French being limited to restaurants and bars), a totally different outlook on life and a mentality that Europeans find hard to comprehend.

    Three years on from my first visit, and I’m looking forward to these challenges – rather than feeling outside my comfort zone, I’m embracing them, enjoying meeting new people, hearing their stories and sharing a moment of their life. A smile works wonders and is a simple way of opening doors.

    On my previous visit, I’d missed the chance to see the Monument.

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    The Monument de La Renaissance Africaine, despite the approbium poured on it for the cost, some €20m, is a tribute to the people’s of Africa. It’s a colossal piece of architecture standing at 52m, & topping the Statue of Liberty by some 10m!

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    Sculpted in rather a brutalist manner, the man, woman and child dominate the skyline at Mamelles and is clearly visible on the flight path into Yoff international airport. Love it or hate it, it’s worth a visit.

    The vista from the 15th floor (literally in the man head -possibly the only time that you’ll ever get the satisfaction of doing that), provides a panoramic view over Dakar, albeit dominated by the runway at Yoff in the foreground.

    A wonderful end to the visit was the sight of my friend Adolphus performing with a local artist…

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