Con Air Senegal

Last week, I clandestinely crept aboard an iron ore train with its destination deep inside the vacuous heart of the great desert. This week, which I have controversially split into two posts, will be my last – as I come full circle with a return to my very first West African metropolis: Dakar.

Day 71 – Nouakchott, Mauritania to Dakar, Senegal

My final week-and-a-bit in West Africa and boy has it been a hectic seventy-or-so days. Sixteen nations (well fifteen as it currently stands) have given me the honour of wandering through their sacred and unique lands. Despite fragile democracies, corrupt law enforcement, dodgy dictators and awful infrastructure, the locals have welcomed me in each and every one… mostly. Eleven weeks ago, I began my diary by writing that West Africa is a region ‘oft shirked by the casual backpacker’. I now know why. It has been an immeasurable challenge from start to finish. But, if you persevere, the rewards it offers are unlike any found anywhere else on earth. Seeing a frolicking hippo in its natural habitat, for example, although popping down Wind Street on a Saturday night will afford a quite similar experience.

But I must pause my reminiscent soliloquy for now, as I still have a many number of virtuous ambitions to accomplish in my final few days. Not least returning to Dakar. Which is easier said than done. The road from the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott to the River Sénégal (which marks the border between the two nations) wasn’t as depraved as many that I have encountered. Yes, one extremely pernickety police officer ordered the driver of our minibus to detach and pull down every single item of luggage that was extremely securely strapped to the roof for probing (including the portable oven and the one-tonne bag of rice which took several days, and men, to hoist up there to begin with). This delayed us by ninety minutes or so, which was a pittance in comparison to the border itself.

Rosso. Oh, Rosso. I had been warned about the infamous Rosso border by every traveller, hostel owner, cleric and imam this side of Ouagadougou – and lord did it live up to its dire billing. From the moment the minibus doors are flung open, to the moment you kill yourself by asking one of the local cart-donkeys to trample you to death, it is a frenzy of epic proportions. The word ‘queue’ is not one yet to have graced the vocabulary of the immigration officers at Rosso, and so one must clamber and shout and throw one’s passport in the face of one of the torpid and apathetic border officials for anything to get done – which took me several hours. The pirogue across the River Sénégal, which in boarding resulted in the ripping of my favourite trousers (along the crotch no less) and the flooding of my favourite footwear, was a breeze in comparison. Welcome back, Senegal.

Day 72 – Dakar, Senegal

Seventy-two days ago, I arrived at the Ngor International Hostel in Dakar full of youthful enthusiasm and a keen eagerness for the journey ahead. I return, seventy-two days later, with all the enthusiasm and eagerness of a lethargic koala with diabetes. However, this was only intended to be a fleeting visit. To say hello to Tatiana, the welcoming owner who accompanied me on my trip to The Gambia many moons ago, and to show her how much hair my convalescing scalp had grown. For I had a flight booked in the evening which would take me to a brand-new and exciting environ. To a place of mysterious islands and volcanic activity. To a place of fire and rock and ash. Only, Air Senegal had other ideas.

I turned up at Blaise Diagne International Airport with bags packed and ticket in hand. The first sign of trouble was when my flight was absent from the list of flights on the large departure screens. This did not trouble me unduly, however, as my flight had been absent from this list twice before in Africa, only to discover it was running as normal. This time, I was out of luck. The Air Senegal check-in desks were barer than at a sanctuary for grizzlies, with not a soul around to bark my disgust at or to point my finger at in a contemptuous manner. I waited over an hour for the ‘Ground Operations Manager’, a title so staggeringly unfitting that it makes POTUS look appropriate, to provide me with some form of compensation. Two nights in a five-star hotel on Dakar’s beachfront ought to do it.

Day 73 – Dakar, Senegal

I was conned. If this was five-star, the Drovers Arms is six. It may have indeed enjoyed a more glorious past, about fifteen million years ago, but the hotel had long fallen apart at the seams. Seams filled by all manner of insects, arachnids and daddy longlegs (not sure which repulsive category they fall into). However, with all my meals paid for (unfortunately not the liquids), I decided to treat the following twenty-four hours as a ground squirrel would treat the twenty-four days before hibernation – gorging on nuts for his or her life before collapsing in a food-induced coma for several months.

Looking at the photos of this hotel, you may be warped into saying, “It looks alright that does” or “the Drovers Arms can’t hold a candle to that place”. Well, that says more about my photography skills than it does about the habitability of Le Virage Hotel. Give me the chance of getting glassed in the face over breakfast or contracting chlamydia from the sullied Drovers sheets any day. Oh, and the food was shit. I do hope they invite me back for a follow-up review in the near future.

Day 74 – Dakar, Senegal to Praia, Cabo Verde

Attempt number two. This time my flight was lit up on the screens and I didn’t need to feign indignance to get free stuff from the ground operations manager, or indeed any other manager for that matter, for I was going to fly. I downed my habitual ‘flight beers’ and boarded that jam-packed bus that takes you on a tour of the entire airport concourse before finally deciding that it would be useful to drop you off at your plane – which is usually somewhere in the next county. This is always a nerve-racking moment. Not knowing if my plane would be propelled by large, robust jet engines designed by God or infinitesimal, insubstantial propellers made by the Devil himself. Luckily, God had forgiven me for praying for snow in Bamako Cathedral – we were jet-propelled my friends.

So, this mysterious nation that I gave the big build-up to earlier in the post is none other than Cabo Verde (or Cape Verde for the uncultured amongst us). A small cluster of volcanic islands set about an hour’s flight west of the African mainland. A former Portuguese colony, it would be here (so I was told) that I would feel Europe’s inexorable influence on West Africa more than anywhere else. And within seconds of landing, I was proved correct as I was greeted by one of these bloody signs… (yes, I know I photographed the same thing in Niamey, but that particular sign must have been placed in pure irony).

The capital of this island nation is Praia, which itself lies on the island of Santiago – my home until tomorrow. Now, I have been to many places in my life where twenty-four hours were nowhere near long enough: the Grand Canyon, Donghwasa Buddhist Temple, that Honduran massage parlour. Praia, for all its laid-back charm and curious colonial architecture, would not be joining that illustrious list. The Plateau, or City Centre as the ruffians call it, is an agreeable enough spot, with cafés and restaurants and parks that wouldn’t look out of place in the suburbs of Porto or Lisbon. However, the vast majority of visitors, myself included, use the Cabo Verdean capital simply as a transport hub – a link to far greater things…

J

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