The foreign office website warned against travel in Mauritania and I was told by a laughing Dutch guy in Seville that we’d be killed in the Western Sahara. But actually the country we were slightly nervous about was Senegal. We knew of at least two cyclists who’d been robbed in Senegal, one of whom was also stabbed.
And we had a lot demands from the Senegalise, but an outstretched hand was as menacing as the demands got. Sometimes, infact most days, we handed over a couple of biscuits to kids in rags with small buckets. I don’t know the score but it seems to be the way that some kids get their food. They’re not pushy, not aggressive, they just look hungry. Maybe we’re doing the wrong thing, certainly at best we’re providing a brief pause to their ongoing problem. Again in Africa we see poor distribution of wealth as huge 4x4s blast past us on the road, while on the verges the goat and cow herds lead their animals to pasture. Not all the animals make it and rotting livestock litters the verges, sometimes out of sight. The crosswind gives the game away though, that familiar stench that messed with our senses in Morocco. In the north, we saw the vultures keeping busy, the occasional skeletons in the grass their calling cards.
We came into Senegal near Saint Louis, an explosion of colour and sound after the desert shades of Mauritania. Our route took us to Zebrabar, a campsite far removed from the village it stands next to. Not for the first time I felt the embarassment of privilege, the insulation that the padding in my wallet provides. Zebrabar is a little oasis by a beautiful sandy banked river where the tourists can get away from the country they came to see. And despite my embarassment, we stayed an extra night.
Zebrabar is next to a national park where the birds parade their ostentatious plumage or make bizarre noises out of huge multi-coloured bills. Small lizards run up and down tree trunks and hundreds of crabs dig holes on the beach. It was easy to be lazy in the African heat with so much to divert the senses from pedalling a bike.
Travelling south, the landscape is predictably dry, the hot winds coming down from the Sahara and clear skies offering no resistance to the baking sun. The baobab trees are everywhere and, despite this, my eyes are still drawn to their strangeness. The baobab may be ugly but their fruit is beautiful. You can buy it frozen in little bags and it tastes like heaven. I had to buy another just to be sure.
The villages along the roadside are either simple straw huts or breeze block buildings, in compounds with reed fencing. To the ecologically minded these huts look at one with their environment, but then us western eco types often love what we don’t have to live in. Chickens forage in the dust and goats forage in the rubbish. In the south near the river, the villages have rich folliage and food growing space. People selling bits of surplus at the side of the road.
Every village we passed, we’d hear the calls of ‘Toubab’, which I understand means white person. Every time we stopped, we seemed to be surrounded within seconds and eventually we took to taking breaks between villages, seeking a bit of isolation where we could grab some refreshments undisturbed and indulge ourselves in the silence. We came here to see a bit of Africa but sometimes you need to see a bit of nothing inparticular. It’s helps keep your head and your mood where they need to be.
We ended each day in a large town looking for the cheapest hotel or auberge. Senegal is more expensive than Mauritania, which in turn was more expensive than Morocco. All of which surprised us. Still, they were all cheaper than the UK.
After the hills of Spain, the eternal coastline of Morocco and Western Sahara and the bus ride through Mauritania, Senegal was a mini cycle tour of its own, a week long ride through sub-Saharan Africa with a taste and flavour of what’s to come in the Gambia.