The highlight of our visit to Senegal?
Not the food, which was amazing (with an emphasis on fresh seafood). Nor the people who are warm, friendly and very proud of their country. Nor the the spectacular and upside-down-looking baobab trees, the wildlife or the varied scenery.
It was simply seeing life lived fully openly and actively in every village and town. (See the short video I embedded below.) Everyone on the street. Women in spectacularly beautiful dresses walking with incredible dignity carrying anything from containers of water to piles of firewood on their heads. Children playing in the dirt, kicking a soccer ball around or lined up in a courtyard for school lessons. Men in flowing boubous fingering beads. Vendors selling peanuts, sweet and juicy tangerines, and just about everything else under the sun. (In the chaotic traffic circles in Dakar—the traffic barely moving not just because of the sheer number of vehicles but because of the mix of cars, horse carts, motorcycles, buses and bicycles—you can find everything from full bed sets to baby clothes to CDs to kitchen containers.) Men and boys rolling down the road in their two-wheeled charrettes (sometimes pulled by a horse but more often by a donkey), a load of wood or sacks of grain or concrete next to a driver perched casually on the side of the vehicle with one foot dangling in the air. The shop in every town with a pile of disassembled cars and car parts, men pounding away with hammers as they worked to keep ancient vehicles functioning or built new vehicles from parts of dead vehicles—a lesson for the Wasteful West in true recycling. (We actually saw someone driving a car down the road with no doors or steering wheel: the driver had a lug wrench attached to the steering column as a de facto steering wheel.) The mosque with its minaret (at least in larger towns). The buses and taxis decorated elaborately with symbols and words promoting the Sufi brotherhood the owner supported.
It was beautiful, breathtaking and occasionally a little overwhelming. It was also a fantastic entree to Africa.
The instant we mentioned we were going to Senegal (or had just been), we’d get the same somewhat bemused question: “Why Senegal?” It’s not a country that comes up on the typical tourist’s radar (although that may be changing: Dakar was included in National Geographic’s “Where to travel in 2019” and in Lonely Planet’s “Top 10 cities to visit in 2019“), and when folks make their first visits to Africa, they tend to head to South Africa, the safaris of Kenya and Tanzania, or the increasingly popular gorilla tours in Rwanda and Uganda.
For us, it was simple: we have a friend who was posted to Senegal for her job. Add to that the fact that I’ve always loved Senegalese music (back to when I first heard Youssou N’Dour) and we speak some French—and it was an easy decision.
There’s a beautiful brand-new airport in Ndiass (a bit more than an hour inland from Dakar, although a new airport train is under construction that will make this about 50 minutes). Air France flies a couple of times per day from CDG. There’s also a direct flight from Dulles on South African, and a direct Delta flight from JFK. We went Air France as we were combining our trip with a visit to Ulla’s family in Germany.
You’ll find a lot of advice online about getting around Senegal. To summarize: it’s a bit tricky as there’s very little public transportation between cities and towns, no trains and no long distance coaches. Car rentals are limited and expensive, which is okay as driving in Senegal can be a bit challenging just given the sheer number of things one could hit: chickens, children, carts, goats, motorcycles (called “Jakartas”), donkeys, vendors, buses and taxis in wildly varying condition.
I recommend hiring a driver. Our driver (whom we found via the first ecolodge we stayed at) was excellent. He had a very good new car, was a superb and safe driver, and stayed with us for three days. The cost was less than $200, which was cheaper than renting a car for that time!
If you don’t want to do that and want an authentic experience, you’ll find a gazillion taxis of different styles and levels of maintenance. Fares MUST be negotiated in advance and you’ll need to press hard for a lower price. The cheapest options are the ancient station wagons but they jam a lot of people in for longer trips and just the thought made me claustrophobic.
There are also a huge number of mini-buses of sometimes dubious vintage. But trying to figure your way around via those would be a real challenge, unless your French is excellent and you have a good map.
Note that while the roads are quite good (at least where we were driving, we generally had two-lane paved roads), progress is often slow because of the numerous villages and towns. Each one will have multiple speed bumps to keep traffic under control and sometimes the roads deteriorate within the towns themselves.
Where to Go
Hustling and bustling, but relatively safe and clean, Dakar is a great introduction to an African city. We spent a total of about three days there in two different segments. We spent one day exploring the Almadies neighborhood where we stayed with our friends. Highlights are the African Renaissance Monument and the Mamelles Lighthouse, each located opposite one another on the hills called Les Mamelles (yes, that means “breasts”). There’s also a bit of a beach scene (including some good surfing) but we didn’t have time to check it out. (My wife was supposed to take surfing lessons but had a bit of a stomach bug.)
The highlight of Dakar was our visit to Gorée Island. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site on an island in the harbor that was a major slave trading base. There’s an old fort on one point near the ferry landing, the remains of a more modern French fort abandoned when Senegal became independent (now taken over as housing for local residents), lovely quiet flower-lined streets (no cars) and, most moving of all, the House of Slaves where you can see the “Door to Nowhere,” the gate through which slaves were loaded onto ships never to see their homes or families again.
Gorée is a short ferry ride from downtown. We ended up paying a guy to give us a tour, but that’s absolutely not necessary. He did provide a lot of good information. Downtown itself is worth a visit with the central market (the smells were a bit overwhelming), several interesting art galleries, the Presidential Palace, and just the general hustle and bustle of a big city. There were also the regular number of street hustlers but they were easily dealt with.
My one disappointment is that we never made it to a music club. They don’t get going until late and neither my wife or I are late night people. Given time and inclination, I would have loved to visit Just 4U where Youssou N’Dour has been known to show up.
This ecolodge, consisting of big Bedouin-style tents in the sand dunes a few miles inland from the Atlantic a couple of hours north of Dakar, was an absolute highlight of the trip. While they offer many different activities (from renting 4x4s to explore the dunes, to camel rides, to beach visits), we ended up doing almost nothing! It was so beautiful and peaceful just to lie in the hammocks and watch the ever changing light on the dunes. We’d occasionally get up and wander around the dunes to admire the flora that miraculously survives in this environment.
The food was extraordinary and they had live traditional music both nights we were there. We also attempted to slide down the dunes but it was a lot more challenging than it looked!
Another UNESCO World Heritage location, the Saloum Delta is located on the coast south of Dakar and north of The Gambia (which sticks like a finger into Senegal). It’s a maze of rivers and channels lined with mangroves and bursting with bird life that all lead into the Atlantic. We entered from the fishing village of Djiffer, spectacularly situated on the sandy tip of the shoreline (but sadly rather covered in garbage) and enjoyed a half-day of exploring in a traditional pirogue, the spectacularly painted, large dugout boats used for fishing and general transportation in Senegal.
We stayed in a nearby ecolodge called Les Collines de Niassam. They offer a variety of accommodation, including huts built in baobab trees and on stilts over the lagoon. We opted for the latter and it was lovely.
Fathala Wildlife Reserve
Senegal isn’t as known for wildlife as the countries of East Africa, but it still has some pockets of wildlife. We visited Fathala Wildlife Reserve, which is located to the south very near the border with The Gambia. It’s a fairly plush place, with large safari-style tents that are impeccably decorated and feature both an indoor bathtub and an outdoor shower. The tents are connected to cosy and relaxing reception area, dining room, bar and pool complex by a wooden walkway. The whole thing is surrounded by electric fences to keep the critters away (especially Kevin the Rhino!) and we were strongly encouraged not to step off the walkway due to the presence of multiple poisonous snakes.
From the main complex we saw warthogs, Western Giant Eland (the largest of the antelope species), roan antelope and red paths monkeys, not to mention Kevin, the massive rhino. We also did a morning lion tour and saw their two female lions, and an afternoon safari during which we saw giraffes, zebras, and most of the other animals mentioned above. And throughout we saw an amazing number of spectacular birds, including the Abyssinian roller, our favorite.
Pierre de Lisse
My final visit (Ulla had gone to Germany to meet her family by this point) was a day spent at the Pierre de Lisse, a quiet, laid-back resort hotel in the coastal town of Popenguine, about 45 minutes from the airport. I had a half-day layover between my flight back from Cape Verde and my return flight to Paris, so my friends suggested spending some time at this place. It was lovely! By having lunch there, I was able to use all the facilities for free so I spent a highly relaxing afternoon wandering the beach, reading by the pool, and enjoying the local beer.
What We Missed
My only regret is that we didn’t get to St. Louis. Located on the very northwestern tip of Senegal on the Atlantic and next to Mauritania, it’s a beautiful colonial city that’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site. We had thought of visiting from Ecolodge Lompoul but were too busy not being busy to do so!