Saturday, 16 April 2016

Casamance & Northern Senegal: Cultural Traditions, Pristine Beaches, Cosmopoltan Dakar And Historic Touba

Bissau, the imaginatively named capital city of Guinea Bissau, proved to be a great place for us to relax after the rigours of our journey through the highlands of Guinea. For a capital city it's relatively quiet with a laid back and relaxing atmosphere amongst its fading colonial charm. 

From Bissau a short drive north took us over the border in to Senegal where we were delighted to be reunited with Alice R, who'd recently left the trip to return to the UK for a brief period. 

We now enjoyed a week exploring the beautiful Casamance region of Senegal to the south of Gambia. This part of the country is incredibly friendly and relaxed with a quiet pace of life, but offering us plenty of things to see and do. We spent our first 2 nights in Casamance camping in a tranquil fishing village close to the mouth of the river Casamance.

From here many of us took a boat over to Isle de Carabane for the day. Long inhabited by the Jola, the island saw Portuguese traders settle from the 16th century onwards before being colonised by the French in the 19th century, during which time the island was made the capital of Casamance for a brief period. During our visit we enjoyed walking around the island along the sandy beaches and stopping at the various historical sites. 

Our next stop was a village on the outskirts of the popular tourist resort of Cap Skiiring. The village is set just back from the coast leaving its long, sandy beach almost deserted. Some of us hired bikes to go exploring whilst others walked for hours along the beach or trekked inland to visit the neighbouring villages.

The enormous Baobab tree at the entrance to the village is used as a roundabout as shown in the photo below! Baobab trees here often survive to a grand old age, partly because their wood is of little use in construction as it's so soft and fleshy, and also because it doesn't burn particularly well so are therefore rarely felled by the locals.

From here we drove across the river into the northern part of Casamance. During the drive we were lucky enough to see a Koumpo on the way to a local village. The Koumpo is a feared forest spirit often used to give a warning to members of a community who need keeping in check! 

Fortunately Koumpos, despite being forest spirits, can be contacted by mobile phone and we were honoured to see a traditional Koumpo ceremony arranged for us by Simon, the owner of a campement we stay at in northern Casamance. Simon recently published a book about his first year living in the region called Squirting Milk at Chameleons, which offers a wonderful insight into the many traditions and beliefs that are still widely practiced in the Casamance today.

The centre piece of the ceremony involved the Koumpo spinning around a spike that came out if its head. It was hard to imagine what contortion of limbs was going on under all the leaves but it must have made the Koumpo pretty dizzy!

After the Koumpos performance we saw several primate-like creatures dance, of which the children in the village were as terrified by as they were the Koumpo!

Above, Mandy gives a tip to the creature. Below, a very brave man from the village gets involved in the ceremony!

The next day was Senegalese Independence day, and we saw the stilt dancer above on his way to a celebration in a local village.

Next we headed along the coast to a bustling fishing village where much of the abundant catch is smoked, or salted and dried, before being sent up country and beyond. The fish above were drying in the sun and were almost obscured by smoke from the fires. Below are fish which have already been smoked.  

The numerous pirogues bringing their catch in gave a lovely array of colour. Men who carry the fish from the pirogues to the shore are paid per load, resulting in a mad scramble as each boat comes in to dock. Others make a living by combing the beach for fish that are dropped along the way! 

Bringing the pirogues in to shore by rolling them over palm logs, as shown below, looked like very hard work indeed!

After Casamance we had hoped to visit Gambia as we usually do, but unfortunately we weren't able to this time due to the recent closure of the land border between Senegal and Gambia. This border has been closed for a number of weeks due to a dispute over the massive increase in the price that Senegalese vehicles are charged for the ferry crossing over the river Gambia. With no other option we were forced to make a detour around Gambia. 

Luckily we made good time and to the south of Dakar we spent a couple of nights on the Sine-Saloum delta, a wetland of some international importance for its impressive array of bird life. We explored the wetlands by pirogue and also visited an inland nature reserve by horse and cart. Below, a horse and cart carries a load off a fishing boat.

From here we spent the night further along the coast, at a hotel with a pool by the beach, for a relaxing last day before heading into the hustle and bustle of the Senegalese capital.

Above is a picture of Dakar's old colonial railway station, and below, the African Renaissance Monument. The latter was unveiled in 2010 to mark the 50th anniversary of Senegal's independence from France. It's the tallest statue in Africa at 49 meters and is made from 3cm thick sheets of bronze. This huge monument has faced a lot of criticism over the years, and was allegedly designed by a Romanian and built by a North Korean company at an estimated cost of $29 million USD.

Dakar is located on a peninsula sticking out into the Atlantic, and as shown in these photos a number of small fishing communities have therefore become part of the city as it's increased in size.

In Dakar we were sad to say goodbye to Alice R, Alice L, Mandy, Melissa, Douglas, Mike H, Mike G and Deborah, but pleased to say hello to Ian, Will, Scottish John, Canadian John, Hiro, Fred, Ida and Rowan. It's great to have so many previous passengers with us for our new trip up to Marrakech!

During our time in Dakar most of us visited île Gorée just a short ferry ride away. This picturesque island has changed hands numerous times over the centuries, have been initially administered by the Portuguese in the 15th century, before the Dutch, French and British all took their turn in taking control. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site and most known for its dark and tragic role in the slave trade. Today it makes for a fascinating and tranquil day-trip from Dakar.

From Dakar we headed east to Touba, home to the Mouride brotherhood, an Islamic Sufi order who make up approximately 40% of the population of Senegal. Below, Zoe, Alice and Lexi with their heads covered for a visit to Touba's grand mosque. The founder of the Mouride brotherhood, Amadou Bamba, is interred inside.

From Touba we drove north and returned to the coast, passing these piles of salt on the way. These are harvested in the dry season when the brackish waters subside.

We're now in St Louis, formerly the capital of Senegal and Mauritania until 1960 and located on a narrow island in the river Senegal. It's a great place to relax, take in the old colonial architecture and enjoy the local sea food, as we prepare for the long journey north across the Sahara desert.

In 2 weeks time we should be in Marrakech, Morocco, having crossed from West Africa into North Africa - there's a lot of sand about to come our way!

Many thanks to Alice and Lexi for some of the photos in this post!