December 29, 2022: The Delta
Sine and Saloum were two rival kingdoms of the Serrer tribe. The region surrounds the large brackish Saloum River Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our trip to Sine Saloum started on the south side of the delta in the town of Toubakouta. We checked in to our hotel and walked to a dock. There we boarded a motorized canoe to take us around.
The landscape was lush and was a stark contrast to the arid Sahel and deserts of northern Senegal.
The trip took 30 minutes to reach the Shell Island. True to the name, this island is covered in shells. The trees seemingly grow out of the shells.
We did a quick hike on the island to see a baobab tree, an iconic African tree. Baobabs are some of the widest trees in the world and can live to be over 1,000 years old. Baobab trees hold special significance to Senegalese and Serrer people. Before they became Muslim, the Serrer would bury their poets, artists, and musicians inside the massive trees. This baobab was not in a town, so there were no dead people inside. The guide of another group found a fruit for us to try.
On the way back, we stopped at a mangrove grove covered in birds- it looked like egrets but I don´t know. There were so many birds that the trees were half-white. And yes, it smelled horrible.
We arrived back at the dock past sunset and got back to the hotel just in time for dinner. Our three-course meal turned out to be the best food of the entire trip. The highlight was the seafood taco appetizer. Paul, who had been skeptical of hotel food, was very pleased.
December 30, 2022: Walking with Lions
The day started with one a most unusual adventure: a trip to the Fathala Wildlife Reserve. The reserve was located near the Gambia border just 20 minutes south of our hotel.
The highlight of the reserve, and the reason most people go, is to walk with the lions. This is apparently the only place in West Africa where you can do this. The park is just north of the Gambia border and attracts many of the package tours of European tourists.
After checking in and weirdly not signing any forms, we gathered with our guides and the 10 other tourists. The guides explained that the lions were sent from South Africa (where the owners are from). They have been trained to be around humans, but there are some very specific precautions that must be taken. 1) You must carry a stick. The lions are trained to respect anybody carrying a stick. If you drop the stick, bad things could happen. 2) No sunglasses as the lions need to be able to see your eyes and that your eyes are above theirs. 3) No bags because if you drop the bag then your eyes will be below theirs.
We were told that the lions eat the meat of dead donkeys and therefore do not associate killing things with food. We were also told that they eat every 5 days and luckily were fed yesterday. So far, they have not had a single incident in 10+ years.
With that, we walked through a very ominous gate and into the lion zone. We were soon met by two lions napping on the ground. We were told that the reserve has 5 lions but for safety reasons, only two can be taken out at one time.
One by one we took pictures with the lions.
We then walked with the lions down a path. Every 45 seconds, we would swap places so one person could be filmed walking behind the lions. Eventually we reached a tree. One lion leaped into the tree with force that I have never seen in any animal.
After taking pictures with the lions in the tree, we continued down the path with them until everybody had their chance to walk with them. At that point, we left. I have no idea where the lions went.
Out of the lion zone, we then got on safari jeeps and went on a tour of the rest of the reserve. There were rhinos, giraffes, gazelles, warthogs and more. Most of these animals are not native to the region. The rarest animal was the rhino. The sanctuary used to have two, but the male rhino killed the female because she would not mate with him! While we did not see as many animals as the guide had hoped, riding around in the jeep was pleasant.
Later, after some research, I learned that South Africa has a large captive lion industry with an estimated 10,000 lions. Many so-called “sanctuaries” abuse the lions and keep them in small cages. Some do treat the lions with dignity and respect. The employees at Fathala claim to treat the lions with respect. But because I did not get to see where the lions live, it was hard to say whether Fathala is a good or bad sanctuary.
We then drove back to Toubakouta for lunch and some time at the pool.
In the afternoon, we drove 30 minutes southwest to the village of Missirah. The village would be unremarkable if not for the enormous tower kapok. It is the largest tree in Senegal.
After taking pictures with the tree, I bought an old Serrer ritual mask from a vendor. Having negotiated for many masks, I now really enjoy the process. Originally, he asked for €100, an absurd price. I countered with $20. He then came way down to €50. I then countered with $40 aka €38, which he accepted. So, I brought him down 62% off his first price. He still did well with me – the real price is probably around $10, but I am happy because I really like design and the fact that it is actually a local mask. Most of the masks in the shop were actually imports from Cameroon.
There are two keys to negotiating in Africa. 1. Always smile and keep your cool. Getting angry will show the shopkeeper that you are an amateur. 2. You must be willing to walk away. Otherwise, you lose all leverage.
For dinner, we had burgers at the hotel. Again, it was a stellar meal and was honestly one of the best burgers I have had in my life.
December 31, 2022: Joal Fadiouth
Today was our last day in Senegal. Even though we only had 5 days in the country, it felt like a long time. This is probably because we drove so much.
The day began with a trip to the border with The Gambia. Jordan was continuing his trip with the same company for another 10 days to visit The Gambia, southern Senegal, and Guinea Bissau.
At the border, we were met by Barry, the owner of the company. He picked up Jordan and accompanied him onward.
Next, it was a 5-hour drive to reach out next destination. While Joal Fadiouth is only 90 kilometers as the crow flies, there are no direct roads and we had to drive all the way around the delta.
Our first stop was the largest baobab in Senegal.
The tree is estimated to be 500 years old. It had a natural hole that led to a room. The room was occupied by hundreds of bats who at the time were sleeping on the ceiling. That combined with the knowledge that I was standing directly on the graves of ancient singers and poets made the tree a very creepy and smelly place.
Outside, I purchased a mask made from the fruit of the tree.
We then reached the coast and got lunch at a seafood restaurant. There, we chatted a bit more with our guide, Ali, who had remained rather mysterious throughout the entire trip. He explained that he grew up in Senegal and his parents were both university professors. Ali then went to school in Belgium and France where he ultimately received his PHD in philosophy.
While not planned, he moved back to Senegal to take care of his aging parents. Still, he was able to publish multiple books and articles on philosophy when not guiding. While living here, he uncovered corruption from a cabinet minister who spent public money on extravagant personal purchases. Ali then decided to write an article in the paper explaining his findings. While the findings were confirmed to be true, the minister sued him and had him tried for defamation. The court case became a national story because it was the first time that a civilian stood up to a powerful politician on corruption. Ali ended up winning the case and became a celebrity. Throughout the trip people would come up, shake Ali´s hand, and tell us that he is a good man. Now we know why.
We then took a locally guided tour of Fadiouth Island. The island is connected to the town of Joal by a very long footbridge. The island is completely made of shells. On the island is a village, one of just two towns in Senegal that has a Catholic majority.
Our guide showed us the town square, the church, the shines and the sacred baobab tree.
Afterwards, we walked on a footbridge to another island containing the interfaith cemetery. It has both Catholic and Muslim graves, something that the townspeople are very proud of. Since the island is also completely made of shells, the graves are aboveground.
It was then time to head home. We stopped briefly at Ali´s sister´s house in Mbour before getting dinner in the touristy beach town of Saly. Then we headed to the airport for our 2am flight back to New York.
We celebrated the new year in the airport lounge. When the clock struck midnight, everybody cheered and I shot gunned a beer. But otherwise it was a very chill atmosphere. We boarded at 1:00 and by 5:00 we were back in cold New York.
Sine Saloum is a fantastic destination. It has a lush landscape, a strong yet accessible culture and enough activities for travelers.
The lion walk, despite the questionable moral situation, was the highlight and one of the most unique things I have ever done. I also loved seeing the trees and the boat ride.
Had I had more time, I would have loved to visit some of the tribes that live in the delta including some rare matriarchal tribes.
Senegal as a whole is also a great destination. It is safe and has good tourist infrastructure. The one gripe is that the distances between most sights are long. Every day, we spent at least 4-5 hours in the car. The other major downside is the corruption, which is shockingly brazen. Having missed Senegal´s most famous attractions: Dakar and Casamance, I would definitely be open to coming back one day.