When looking for places to visit over the Christmas break, I noticed a direct flight from New York to Dakar, Senegal. Shockingly, the flight from New York to Dakar was not that much longer than the flight from New York to Los Angeles. It also happened to be the cheapest destination in all of Africa.
So, Senegal it would be.
The sights in Senegal are spread out. After much research, I determined that the best way to see the country would be to spend 2 days independently in Dakar, the capital, and then 6 days on a guided tour around the northern half of the country (everything north of The Gambia). I eventually found Barry at TourGambia who created what appeared to be a nice tour. The tour was not cheap ($200/person/day), but it was the best deal I could find that went to everywhere I wanted to see. While traveling independently is safe and far cheaper, I would not have been able to see nearly the same number of sights due to the limits of the public transport system.
Two friends joined me on the trip: Paul who traveled with me to Uzbekistan and Jordan who traveled with me to Mauritania.
December 26, 2022: A Delayed Start
Due to “weather”, my outbound flight from New York to Dakar was cancelled. The rescheduled itinerary had me leaving 2 days later with a stop in Paris. This effectively cut 3 days out of the 8-day trip.
From a logistical standpoint, I no longer would be able to visit Dakar. However, the first stop on the tour was close-ish to the airport. It was decided that the guide would pick up Paul and me at the airport and drive us to the first hotel.
Jordan flew in separately from London and was unaffected.
The flight from Paris landed at 21:15 local time. After clearing immigration, we were picked up by our guide Ali and the driver. We then drove 90 minutes to Lac Rose.
The roads near the airport were Western-quality and among the nicest I have ever seen in Africa. However, the situation changed once we deviated towards the lake. We reached the hotel at 23:30. Luckily, the hotel had made dinner for us and wrapped it up in the room. We ate and went to bed.
December 27, 2022: The Other St. Louis
We started the day at 9:00. Since we did not get to visit Lac Rose on Day 1, we moved the tour to this morning.
An unbelievably old jeep pulled up in front of the hotel. We got in and sped off.
The ride took us over sand dunes. At every stop, the driver would open the hood to it wouldn´t overheat.
We then drove along the deserted beach. At a photo stop, two men appeared truly out of nowhere to try to sell us stuff. There is no peace in Africa!
We also briefly stopped at Lac Rose (officially Lake Retba) itself. This is the famous pink lake in all the postcards. The pink comes from an alga that turns pink when exposed to sunlight. The lake has a salinity that is even saltier than the Dead Sea. However, it was not pink due to an abnormally strong rainfall the past few months, which diluted the bacteria. However, in a few months the pink hue will return.
Lac Rose was historically the finish line of the Paris-Dakar rally. However, due to terrorism concerns in Mauritania, the rally was moved 10 years ago to South America and now Saudi Arabia. Today, the main activity happening at the lake is small-scale salt mining. The miners come from nearby countries such as Mali and can make a very good living as miners and ultimately return home rich. However, the activity takes a heavy toll on their health.
From there, it was a 5-hour drive north across the Sahel to St. Louis (pronounced San Louie), the French colonial capital of West Africa and oldest European city in the region. Having spent 4 years of my life in St. Louis, I was very excited for this.
However, our drive was impeded by the worst instance of police corruption I had seen. We were pulled over in a typical African roadblock. We had all the correct paperwork, but the police said he just wanted money, which we were forced to give. Another time, the officer said that since we had white people in the car, our driver must be rich and should give him money. Despicable! I am fully convinced that many people avoid visiting and doing business in Africa because of the corruption. So, the police might get a short-term gain but ultimately lose out.
During the lunch stop, we ran into a man dressed like Santa Claus. It may seem funny to see this in a country that is more than 95% Muslim, but it turns out that the Senegalese love Christmas. This love is spurned by their desire to be a tolerant and welcoming people. This is in the same vein as straight people in Western cities going to Pride celebrations and flying rainbow flags. Allyship.
Eventually we reached St. Louis by crossing the Pont Herderbe, built by the French in 1897.
St. Louis was founded in 1659, making it the oldest European city in all West Africa. Like the city in Missouri (and many other places), it is named for the 13th century French king and Crusader, Louis IX. The city of St. Louis soon became the capital of both Senegal and all French West Africa, a designation it held until 1902 when the capital moved to Dakar. Until 1957, it also was the capital of Mauritania, whose modern border lies just a few kilometers to the north. In 1975, Senegal became independent, and the city lost nearly all its clout and nearly all its budget for restoration. Since then, the buildings have been slowly decaying. The city got a big boost to its preservation efforts when it became Senegal´s fourth UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 but still feels run down.
St. Louis is situated on an island in the Senegal River and the adjacent peninsula which touches the beach. The island and peninsula are both long and very skinny. Due to the most unusual shape of the city, the optimal way to see the city has been determined to be by horse carriage, which we did.
The island contained many old French buildings interspersed with a few modern concrete ones. Included here are various colonial-era institutions such as the church, the grand mosque (believe it or not), language institutes and the second-best university in Senegal. The prettiest building was the government administrative center, but all the colonial buildings did have their charm.
The peninsula/ocean side of the city felt distinctly more African. It contained the produce/meat market, the fish market, and lots of housing. The streets here were noticeably more crowded than on the island and most buildings were not colonial, but rather built by the Senegalese…and not as pretty.
We timed our ride perfectly to see the madness of the fishing boats coming in for the day. The boats were elaborately painted. Many were decorated with the flag of a random country including the US, Canada, Spain and even Nazi Germany (I´m sure the locals don´t know what it meant).
Our guides then drove us to our beachfront hotel where we finally had some time to stretch the legs. I went for a run on the beach as the sun set. So beautiful!
We ate dinner in the hotel with offshore oil rig workers and went to bed after a long day.
December 28, 2022: The Djoudj and the Lompoul
We woke up before the sun to head up to the Djoudj Bird Sanctuary. The drive took 2 hours. The first hour was along a nicely paved road, but the second hour was on dirt.
Djoudj is a wetland just south of the Senegal River on the border with Mauritania. The Senegal River is the first major river south of the Sahara, which makes Djoudj a resting spot for migratory birds crossing the desert. More than 400 species of birds can be seen in Djoudj. Like St. Louis, Djoudj is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The easiest way to see the bird sanctuary is by boat through the backwaters. We were put on 2-hour tour. Unfortunately, we had to share the boat with a busload of Hungarian tourists (it took a long time to guess the nationality). The Hungarians had a guide speak to them through headphones, but our guide did nothing.
On our boat trip, we saw many birds such as flamingos, herons, and pelicans.
We also saw crocodiles!
The whole vibe was very similar to the Everglades in Florida, USA. While I enjoyed my time, 2 hours was enough.
We then had to drive 2 hours back to St. Louis for lunch.
From there, we had another 90-minute drive south to Lompoul, our destination for the night.
Lompoul is a tiny desert that is distinct and completely separate from the Sahara. After parking in a random village, we boarded a jeep with humongous tires with 8 other tourists. The jeep took off and we sped Mad Max style across the sand until we reached the dune field. After one unsuccessful attempt to climb the dune, we slide back down and took a flatter course and made it to our camp.
We stayed in a glamping desert camp at the edge of the dune field. Our tents had comfortable beds, albeit at a bit of a slope. The central area had a bar with chairs and big dining tent.
With limited daylight, we spent some time exploring the camp before catching a camel ride at sunset.
After the sunset we were able to mingle with some of the other travelers. Shockingly, we ran into a few Americans. The most memorable was a travel nurse from upstate New York who came to Senegal with no plan. While she seemed unprepared for how Africa works and the quality of accommodations, I have the utmost respect for her for choosing to live life on her terms. She said that her friends kept saying no to her travel ideas, so she decided to just go alone. In many ways, she reminded me of myself.
After a happy hour and a dinner of couscous, we gathered around a big campfire where local musicians and dancers performed. Eventually they let us join in and we had an immensely fun time doing the circle dances, which are a great workout.
The combination of the Mad Max jeep ride, the scenery of the endless sand dunes and the dancing made for a perfect night and honestly one of my favorite nights ever in Africa.
Let´s start with the good. Senegal has fantastic infrastructure by African standards. They are also used to tourism and therefore there is infrastructure (hotels, restaurants, guides) to make traveling comfortable and honestly possible for the masses. The sights and beaches I saw were all very good with the best spot unexpectedly being the Lompoul Desert. Finally, and probably the most important thing, Senegal is safe. It is (at the time of writing) the only safe country in the Sahel.
Like any place, there were some challenges as well. The sights are all very far from each other. While the blog post may make it seem like our days were busy, in fact 80% of our time was spend driving around in the car. I don´t think there is any way around this since the sights happen to be far away from each other.
I think part of my issue is that the tour felt like we were being shuttled around from activity to activity with no chance to take it all in. Even a few 10-minute breaks to walk around St. Louis or a random village would have added a lot to my enjoyment. Yes, this is poor guiding, but also is just as much my fault for not speaking up.
Next: We continue to Touba
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