Don’t be so Senegal

Well, here we go. Welcome curious souls to my latest ridiculous escapade through foreign lands. Over the next three months (or eighty-two days to be exact), I plan on keeping you mildly amused with tales backpacking through Sub-Saharan Africa. From the emerging coastal capitals on the Atlantic to the vast deserted in-land nations of the Sahara, this trip will test my resolve (and patience) unlike any other!

I plan on visiting sixteen nations in total, with more than half requiring ridiculous visas of a bygone era, as I take a route that isn’t oft tread by the casual tourist. Hostels are few and far between, as are roads that don’t disappear every year during the rainy season. Mudslides, malaria, and mirages are highly likely, as is the chance of the odd bribe or three.

To add to the challenge, I’ll be participating in a full-length marathon four weeks into my trip. The Accra Marathon may not roll off the tongue like London or Paris, but it sure as hell is easier to enter. Eighty dollars and a high level of stupidity are all that’s required to tread the well-worn streets of the Ghanaian capital. Given the level of humidity (and my fitness), it will be a minor miracle if I make it to the finishing line before the Brexit deadline. Well, all of that is to come. But first, let’s begin with my arrival in the Senegalese capital on a stuffy and airless Thursday morn.

Day 1 – Dakar, Senegal

If you fly almost directly south from London in a straight line, eventually you will end up in Dakar, Senegal. And if you time it really badly, you’ll end up arriving at 1 am, and wishing you had booked a hostel with a twenty-four-hour check-in service. Prior to my trip I, in my infinite wisdom, did not consider this to be a necessity, as how uncomfortable could sleeping a night in a West African airport possibly be?

Not bad at all as it turns out. Having fended off a small group of men who attempted to befriend me in exchange for various services/fees (something which I would quickly become accustomed to), I found a sofa that didn’t have an armrest that would have lodged in my arse and shut my eyes. Despite being arisen every ten minutes by a tannoy reminding me not to leave baggage unattended (although, as it was in French, it could have been informing me of the local football score), I was quite satisfied with my bursts of slumber.

The journey from the airport to the hostel (a full seventy kilometres away) was about as eye-opening a trip as any I have ever undertaken. From being in the relative calm and tranquillity of Bristol not twenty-four hours prior, to the streets of a bustling, unfamiliar capital (where I stood out more than an American at a buffet) was quite the culture shock. Anyhow, I did find my hostel, I was very tired, and I slept like a baby – without a tannoy in earshot.

Day 2 – Dakar, Senegal

As mentioned earlier, I need visas. A lot of visas. So, what better way to explore my new surroundings than by searching for the Sierra Leonean Embassy somewhere on the outskirts of what is a quite enormous city. I was pointed in the direction of a ‘bus’ that was meant to take me closeby and hopped on. Despite this being only day two, I had already discovered that the local Senegalese buses made the chicken buses of Central America look like 50 Cent’s private Ferrari collection. The term ‘maximum capacity’ is not one I think I will hear often on this trip, as the bus filled to bursting point until the roof was the only space available (which I managed to avoid).

The usual embassy interrogation was quite the relief from the journey to get there and a quick trip to the bank was all that was required to obtain stamp number one (passport to be collected in three days of course). Unfortunately, this is how the first few weeks of the trip will go: find embassy, survive intense questioning, pay extortionate fee, wait for an overpaid (and usually overweight) diplomat to wave his magic stamp before moving on to the next. One refusal or delay could mean missing my Ghanaian marathon (what a bloody relief that would be).

Day 3 – Dakar, Senegal

Whilst Dakar isn’t exactly bursting with tourist hotspots and attractions, the few it does have seem to attract every foreigner in the city – the African Renaissance Monument being the star draw. The monument, completed in 2010, is Africa’s tallest and was built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence from France. I later discovered it was built entirely by North Korean workers at a quite astronomical cost. Which didn’t go down well in a country with high unemployment and poverty levels. But it looks wonderful so who cares?!

A Welshman, a Sierra Leonean and a Chechen walk into a Senegalese hostel, no not the start of a joke but the daily goings-on inside the Ngor International Hostel. My night was spent mostly in disbelief at the devastating tales of war that two of my bunkmates were sharing. One of his harrowing and gory memories of the Blood Diamond war which literally scarred his childhood, the other of being taught how to shoot an AK47 at six years old and told to kill Russians. I was then asked the story of my own childhood, but I thought hitting a badger on the school run didn’t quite compare. Only in hostels ey…

Day 4 – Dakar, Senegal

Day four and I was yet to experience what Dakar is most famous for: no not its quite raucous cattle markets, but beaches. Just a ten-minute saunter from my hostel awaited a pirogue to take me across to Ngor Island, a tiny landmass in the Atlantic Ocean where escaping the chaos of the capital became a distinct possibility (although sharing an overcrowded pirogue with fifty locals wasn’t exactly the epitome of relaxation).

Once on the island itself, I fleed the countless tissue sellers, yes tissues, and attempted to find the most secluded spot I could. With narrow streets and many hidden beaches, this was a fairly easy task. As I lay down my blue microfibre travel towel and produced an Agatha Christie, it felt like the first time I had been able to take a breath and fully appreciate my paradisiacal surroundings. The chaos of the capital, whilst trying to find my backpacking feet once more, has meant it has been a rather breathless first few days.

Day 5 – Dakar, Senegal

Another weekday, another visa run, as I made my return to the Sierra Leonean Embassy to pick up my passport before mincing across the frenzied capital to another embassy. This time it was Liberia, and a building so well hidden that a police officer standing two doors down from it couldn’t point me in the right direction. Eventually, I found the rather innocuous entrance and submitted my application with just seconds to spare. I was informed that an interview with the ambassador would take place tomorrow morning at nine o’clock sharp. I didn’t even pack a tie…

I then attempted a rather ambitious hour-long walk towards what I believed to be the centre of the city in the relentless afternoon heat. Whilst I had been informed that Dakar doesn’t really have a middle (you know, one with a quaint park, water feature and topiary shaped in the form of various birds), I didn’t think that could possibly be true in a city over one million strong. I followed my map app towards the little star in the middle of the maze, but it simply yielded more bric-a-brac market stalls, even busier roads and a slightly more distressing smell.

After an hour of searching, and with the soles of my shoes genuinely starting to melt, I decided to give up on my hunt. It was probably a good time to do so given that I almost passed out on the jam-packed bus journey home. I didn’t think anything could top the heat I felt on Tan Y Bwlch beach a few years ago, I was wrong.

Day 6 – Dakar, Senegal

Whilst I would have loved to have had a lie in this morn, Mr Donaly Malungu and I had a meeting first thing which I simply couldn’t get out of. Sigh! I dressed as smartly as I could (a clean T-shirt and hole-free trousers were the best I could muster), prepared my Liberian soliloquy and caught my regular ramshackle transport into the city.

I nervously awaited Mr Donaly Malungu’s arrival outside his office, before I was eventually shown in, and entered something like a scene from an Ali G movie. Ambassador, in full general garb, sat behind desk in grand room with large self-portrait hanging on the wall – perfect. Whilst the urge to titter was great, I sat down and awaited my interrogation. It began with a simple, “What will you do in Liberia?” and I launched full throttle into the speech I had prepared the night before. I was just about to start talking about the breath-taking mountain streams when Mr Donaly Malungu cut me short (looking bored stiff), shook my hand and told me I could collect my visa in a few hours. He had seen enough.

This was my final evening in Dakar, as I prepared to leave Senegal in the cool dead of night for The Gambia. Fortunately, it just so happened that the owner of the hostel (Tatiana) was also going in the very same direction at the very same time. Huzzah! This was incredibly useful as she did not stand for any special tourist prices or ticket scams, plus she could speak French (mine is rather rudimentary, to say the least). It wasn’t long before we found ourselves in a seven-person banger on our way south to the great Gambian border.

Day 7 – Dakar, Senegal to Serrekunda, The Gambia

We arrived at the border police station around 5 am, walked past several inmates lying prostrate in their cells, before getting stamped into country number two: The Gambia. It was another short bus ride to the port, where a ferry was required to take us across the vast river that splits this slither of a country in two (look at it on a map, it is rather bizarre).

We were two of the earliest in line for the first ferry of the day, yet we had to proceed to wait until it was full – which took two and a half hours. Having not slept a wink the night before, this was a fairly arduous experience, and I was even more grateful to have someone to chat to. Eventually, we made in onboard (along with about half the population of The Gambia) and endured the short choppy journey to the capital Banjul.

So, this is where you find me now, lying on a Gambian beach with a Julbrew in one hand and a large mosquito on the other. My first week in Africa has been an eye-opening experience, to say the least, and it’s beginning to dawn on me the challenge that awaits me over the coming months. If I make it back to Dakar by December having completed my Sub-Saharan circle (oh and that marathon), I’ll be one very thrilled (and exhausted) Welshman…


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