One of the main attractions of The Gambia was its prime location in the midst of Senegal and despite such a short trip to the region I was determined to cross the border to see the sights of Senegal even if it was only a brief glimpse.
After some research (yay – I can do it!) I concluded that the best option for such whirlwind visit would be to Senegal’s version of the Serengeti and specifically, Fathala Wildlife Reserve. Admittedly, this part of Africa is not best known for its African wildlife and much of it is not native to Senegal, but with a weakness for animal spotting and a deep urge to see the French side of Africa, it seemed like the perfect option.
Selecting a Guide
Selecting a guide to go to Senegal and the Serengeti was a bit tougher than my previous trip to the local sights of The Gambia. European tourists on two-week package breaks are rarely accustomed to the reality of daily life in poor nations that lack the infrastructure and resources to make travel plain sailing. Consequently many have lodged complaints with the tourist board, their tour operators and online regarding the Banjul Ferry, the main transport option into the south part of northern Senegal.
Sadly, many of those tourists have gone so far as to demand repayment of their tour fees resulting in guides and local tour companies being out-of-pocket despite investing a day’s time, fuel and expense to get their visitors to Senegal and back.
The result: higher than usual prices for a ticket to Senegal and a reduced number of guides willing to take the risk that has become European tourists. After several days asking around we were put in contact with one company that would take us on a trip zebra spotting but not before an important warning: the Banjul Ferry was a local form of transport travelling with cattle and local people alike. It could be challenging and unpredictable. Perfect, I replied. Where do I sign up? (The company that took us was West African Tours and I’d recommend them without hesitation)
The Banjul to Barra Ferry
The part of the trip I was least looking forward to was the early morning start. With a tapalapa breakfast ordered (Gambian bread that has used an old French recipe and, despite thinking it not possible, made it better) and an alarm set for a time of morning that is still tucked away in darkness, we set off on our journey.
The ferry was scheduled to leave at 6.15 a.m. and sure enough, to my surprise, it did. The crossing takes place at the narrowest part of The Gambia River and in principle is a good way to connect the two countries, facilitating trade of food and clothing (the Gambian people have capitalized on their access to second-hand western clothes which are in demand in the area, particularly amongst the younger generations).
There are few other words to describe the Banjul to Barra ferry system than decrepit – a failed and unlikely to be replaced any time soon motor leaves one of the three ferries in the docks, idling unproductive while the high banks and low tide naturally wipe out the efficiency of the operating services. Taking the 6.15 a.m. ferry is a must if you want to increase your chances of crossing without getting stuck (a situation we found ourselves in on the return journey).
New Ferry Friends
As promised the Banjul Ferry filled quickly with a diverse cross-section of society that included the local people, farmers, traders, chickens, goats, a Christian mission group and a fair handful of tourists determined to not let the prospect of a bad ferry ride put them off seeing a new location.
For a journey that can take anywhere between 1 and 3 hours, depending on the tide, seating space is coveted and I really appreciated our guide’s tips for hitting the top decks quickly and finding a place to sit. It may have been one long stretch of wood, and it make have been filled with bottoms to twice its capacity, but it beat the alternative – hours spent crammed in as you might on the London tube, while ladies with giant bowls of fruit, water and palm products weave in and out on a regular loop.
I instantly noticed the group close to us looked very well dressed with bright colours, neat hems and a cut that screamed wealth and I was itching to strike up a conversation to find out more. Minutes later I had found out that they were a Christian mission group visiting from Nigeria. As the ladies fidgeted, uncomfortable in their high dress, my neighbours shifted once and then twice until I ended up with a young Gambian boy next to me. Kaba.
As interesting as the mission group was, it was Kaba that helped the boat journey pass as he explained in a way that a guide-book never could the different tribes in the area, the languages spoken and his history that had once included spending three months in Scotland during winter (beautiful but a bad idea we all agreed).
By the time the ferry finally slammed into the dock (I have a suspicion about how the other ferry’s motor broke), I had been renamed Binta, a popular name in the Mandinka tribe and my travel friend had changed from Karen to Fatu, meaning first-born. A few Mandinka words learned and we were set to explore Senegal.
Trucking to the Fathala Wildlife Reserve in Senegal
Every country with land borders has its border towns and from experience they are by and large much the same – a trading post where travellers can buy a drink, use the bathroom, stretch their legs in wait and grab a bite to eat before moving on to some (any) other place. These towns are both bustling and transient in the same breath and Barra, Senegal’s border town felt no different.
The border crossing was one of the easiest I’ve done, predominantly because the guide took our passports and dealt with the formalities for us while we – the tourists – were piled into a safari truck. It took a while to get over my ingrained worry at being parted from my passport but when I saw the guide return, the deal done, I relaxed into the sunshine.
What was a little more difficult to handle was the barrage of traders, aggressive in their insistence that you buy and, if not then, on the return journey. Cashew nuts were the main item on offer and caught off guard I agreed to take two bags, without bartering (that’s how off guard I was) for 200 Dalasi – $2.50! The bags were small and although native to Senegal I know I could have got a bigger bag for less money back home. Still, my excessive price was propping up at least a small corner of the local economy.
For the second wave of traders I got cornered into promising a purchase on the way home:
Me: I have some.
Trader: Then later
Me: Sure (flippant wave of the hand)
Be warned, these ‘later’ deals are no more casual than a fully binding contract. The trader will find you and you won’t be making any friends if you do back out of the deal as I did – I was hit with a scowl and some harsh words that felt like a physical blow.
With the traders growing smaller in the distance we took the 30 minute journey to the National Park watching poverty levels increase as we went. Using GDP numbers as an indicator of wealth or poverty, Senegal sat in 161st place out of 182 countries in 2012. That compares to 1st and 8th position for the USA and UK respectively during the same year. Consequently, it’s fair to say that Senegal is not a rich country and this was evident from the fleeting glances I stole as we rumbled through one small village after another looking out at huts providing shelter, communal taps (ironically ever leaking) and wild animals promising the best form of dinner.
Yet, as I’ve witnessed round much of the world in lesser developed countries, in places where resources are low there seems to be an inverse increase in the availability of smiles and waves. Children raced along the roadside waving their arms until they practically fell off and even the occasional adult or teenage boy would proffer a coy smile. By the time we neared the park my arm was sore from responding in kind and my cheeks were pinched into a smile at the welcome of strangers that was so warm and so rare in my home country.
Fathala Wildlife Reserve in Senegal
As I’ve mentioned, Senegal is not known for its wildlife. In fact, Serengeti is a term that technically applies to the region between Tanzania and Kenya on the other side of the continent where the animals run wild. Nevertheless, the Fathala Wildlife Reserve brought me into close (enough) contact with a number of animals I’d never seen in the wild before.
You don’t always know until you’re in the midst of these situations what the environmental approach of a park is and I cringed as we ploughed down one baby sapling after another in the spirit of tracking down the animals, the guides on walkie-talkies directing the way. As branches were decapitated and young tree trunks crushed under the weight of the truck tyres I couldn’t help voice my concern at the lack of sustainable tourism that I seemed to have gotten caught up in. “Don’t worry,” the guide reassured me, “it all gets burned once a year anyway. If we don’t burn it, we lose the animals and then we lose the tourists.”
My heart dipped wishing that little fact had been in the National Park’s pamphlet but as I looked around at the spanning hectares of land that stretched as far as 6,000 hectares, most of which is preserved for breeding, I tried to console my conscience at the practice.
A Walk With the Lions
My next controversial activity was the optional extra of walking with lion cubs. There are reputed to be only 5 places in the world where this is possible but not everyone in our truck was comfortable with the idea given the cubs had been reared to minimise the chances of tourists being mauled. However, I was swayed when I found out that there was a large group of cubs that were rotated making their exposure to humans limited. So, conscience once again appeased, I set off on the walk.
The first thing that hit me was the heat, which was quite different on the ground walking through the sandy scrub compared to bouncing over terrain in a truck. And the cubs showed their dislike for the sun by seeking shade whenever they could. For around 20 minutes we strolled with the reluctant cubs as I grew increasingly uncomfortable with my involvement in the walk. I had envisioned a natural stroll with the potential for a photo opportunity if circumstances arose. What I witnessed was cubs teased to perform with the rarely given reward of meat.
As the cubs heaved themselves into the unnatural habitat of trees for the group of tourists to pose, I slunk into the background carefully stroking the male cub, hilariously named Tiger, who was more stubborn and took the occasional break in the shade of a tree.
I’m not saying the cubs were treated badly, it was evident from the handlers that they cared for the cubs like family, but the scenario felt overall too contrived and unnatural for me, though everyone else in the group seemed happy with their shots, which were impressive.
The Return Barra to Banjul Ferry
The return ferry to Banjul was quite the experience. Having got lucky with our outbound journey, we got to witness the frustrations of the ineffectiveness of the ferry on the way back. Arriving in time for the 2.30 p.m. boat, we found that the ferry had been docked since 11 a.m. unable to unload the cars due to the low tide.
For three hours we waited in the heat. At first we were ushered to a café seemingly built for western tourists, the menu complete with tea, pie and chips (no joke). After 30 minutes and having realized the bar was out of the local beer, Julbrew (how else does one pass the long wait for a ferry?) I broke free, into the market and, as my unique skill would have it, managed to find a backstreet bar (quite impressive I thought in a predominantly Muslim country). The dark and cool interior with murals on the walls and tiled seats and tables was beautiful in its simplicity. The Jewlbrews were cold and the company of the bar owner fun as we tried to practice our minimal Mandinka words.
Then we received word: the ferry was set to leave and we dashed off ready to make our way back. Of course, it took a further hour and a half before we finally boarded, during which time we interacted with the local people, I attempted the impossible task of balancing a bowl on my head (to the amusement of the people around me) and eventually look up residence on the filthy floor knowing the wait was endless.
By the time we were permitted to board, my small bag made for a quick embarkation compared to the people carrying grain sacks or herding animals and once again I secured a seat. Even when the boat was full to capacity more people crammed on filling pockets of space not previously seen. Despite the long, hot and dusty wait, the crossing was blissfully swift at just an hour and before long I was under the (brown) water of my hotel shower, the dirt of the day rinsing away.
Many people don’t make the journey into Senegal because of the ferry, which seems ludicrous to me. In a part of Africa where tourism is high and genuine interactions with local life is filtered, there is no better way to see the real sights of the country. My only regret is I didn’t have the time to make it to Dakar, but that is the best part of travel – for every place I visit, I discover another place I want to see.