Well, this isn't how I envisaged my final post - sititng by myself in the computer labs at the ANU. Not quite West Africa, but I'd like to try to record something of my final ten days in the region. It's not going to make for particularly interesting reading, but I couldn't leave things where they were.
From memory, the ferry had just pulled in to Ziguinchor, the capital of the Casamance region of southern Senegal. Before I go on, I should probably try to describe what makes this region distinct from the rest of the country. Senegal, although only a relatively small country, scratches the southern tip of the Sahara at its northernmost point, straddles the Sahel, and, heading further south, reaches the tropical paradise of the Casamance on the other side of The Gambia. Being so environmentally distinct from the rest of the country, it's no surprise that it's different in various other ways. The most famous - or infamous - is that of ethno-cultural make-up. To the western media, this manifests most conspicuously in the form of rebel, separatist action, perpertrated by a number of local, predominantly ethnic Diola. A bit of clarification regarding the social and economic composition of Senegalese life would probably help at this point. Essentially, the French presence in Senegal was strongest (not surprisingly) in the capital, Dakar. This part of Senegal is, predominantally, inhabitated by ethnic Wolof. Consequently, during colonial times, they were favoured, far moreso than the Diola of the Casamance. In the post-colonial era, this has ensured that - through the political and economic strength of Dakar - a gradual Wolofisation of the entire country has ensued. It could be argued that the 1960s did not see the end of colonialism for the Diola of the Casamance, rather, that French colonialism was merely replaced by a Wolof version. It is this situation, with the Wolof language slowly but surely coming to dominate the streets and the marketplace of the Casamance, whereby many Diola have turned to armed conflict in an attempt to win independence, and preserve their distinct way of life. In the short time I was in this part of the world, many locals suggested that those who were fighting were not so much rebels with a cause, but rather, angry young men looking for a cause with which they could identify and associate. Regardless, I have to empathise with the apparent motivations portrayed, and this is through no animosity towards the Wolof. I just get the sh*ts with the idea of an area being exploited as this one does; being far more arable than anywhere else in the country, it is the nation's breadbasket (although a significant amount of food is still imported), yet all the money, infrastructure, development, etc, gets poured into Dakar.
So, having arrived in Ziguinchor, I headed for Cap Skirring, and 'the most beautiful beaches in Senegal' according to LP. I found my way quickly to the Gare Routiere, and was the second person to purchase a seat on the next available sept-place bound for 'Cap'. This meant that, for the first time in Senegal, I was not sitting in the ridiculously cramped back seat, but instead, I was able to enjoy the relative comfort of sitting behind the driver. I pondered this change of fortune as we made our way steadily beyond the outer limits of Ziguinchor, and onto the highway. At a certain point along the way, I felt a sudden and obscure drenching of my head and down the back of my shirt. The driver pulled over, and, checking the cargo stowed on the roof rack, the answer was revealed. A co-passenger had not fastened some of their cargo, and this bag, in turn, had not been properly secured by the driver. This is how I came to enjoy a bucketing of prawn juice (that's the correct term, right?), which had escaped the packaging, and was blown through the wound-down window as we drove along. Lucky it was laundry day, and lucky there are very few cats in the Casamance.
Arriving at Cap, I found my way to some very basic, but perfectly adequate, beachside accommodation. I made my way through the twenty metres or so of Garden of Eden-esque flora, and reached an opening to what was a truly stunning beach. Unfortunately, I thought, the weather being a bit overcast kind of spoiled things. Then I realised something else. It wasn't the weather, but the fact that I hate beaches. So I stood around for a few minutes and admired the beach, before heading back to the 'campement'. It was here I encountered a local bloke, Bass, who would, the following day, take a couple of poms out on a tour of the river and some of the islands - was I interested? Sure, beats hanging around at the beach. The following day the cab took myself, Bass, Paddy and Emily (mother/daughter) to the river where we set off on our journey. We took in five islands in total, and the day was nicely paced, with just the right amount of time at each destination. The first island we visited made me realise that we were far away from anywhere. Why? Insanely happy and welcoming children. The kids were fantastic everywhere in the region, but the lack of contact with tourists clearly showed in the unbridled joy of these local kids, who couldn't be stopped from climbing over their new friends. We eventually left this island (name escapes me right now), and headed for the site of the original French settlement in the region, Ill de Carabane. This island would have to be one of the more beautiful parts of the region, I thought, although I soon learnt that this was just par for the course. The photos (which I promise I will post as soon as I figure out how it all works) will do a much better job of showing the beauty of this, and the other islands visited. These islands really aren't too difficult to get to, but you have to know where to look. If I'm ever back in this part of the world, I'll be staying here for sure - eating, reading, eating, talking to the locals, eating, and playing with the kids is much more my scene than the beach.
The next day I ventured to Oussouye, a little further inland, and about half an hour away. This is the traditional Diola capital, and an extremely friendly (very) little town. Thankfully, it was big enough for Casamance VTT to call home. This establishment runs mountain-biking and kayaking tours of the region, and the following day, I set off on a tour, consisting of a 35km biking leg, and two hours of kayaking. I was one of three participants; Jean-Yves was a retired EU civil-servant, and Erik was a Belgian film maker. Two very different guys, but both fluent in English, and both fantastic company. Although challenging at times, this was a great day, with my most satisfying English conversation in weeks, while enjoying the perfect way to experience the spectacular local scenery, and meeting yet more wonderful locals. I realise it doesn't make for particularly interesting reading to say 'it was awesome', but there's not much more I can offer for the moment - again, photos will help enormously.
Having absolutely loved my last full day in Senegal, I woke for the final time in the Francophone world, said good-bye to my campement's pet gazelle, and jumped on the next transport to Ziguinchor, before heading to the Gambian border. Remember how I mentioned this place had seen some separatist action? Well, there had been some conflict only a few weeks before I arrived, with five deaths as a result. A far happier outcome had been the fact that there were nearly no Frenchies as a result - only Jean-Yves, in fact. Well, everything comes with a price, and between Ziguinchor and the border, our bush taxi was stopped several times, and each time I had to unpack absolutely everything while the man with the rifle looked on. These soldiers were never anything other than polite, professional and friendly - I suspect an Aussie passport helps in this kind of scenario. This contrasted somewhat with my experience once in The Gambia. At the border, I was required to pay my first and only bribe for the entire 58 days. It was only a few dollars, and nothing no other westerner has to pay, to the point that this custom is recognised in the travel guide. So in effect, I avoided all bribes for my entire time in the region, albeit with one close shave in Mali, of course.
My destination was the 'Atlantic Resorts' or 'Kombos', about 14 km from the capital, Banjul. The Gambia is a slither of land around the river after which it is named, and being six hours flight from London and the closest English-speaking nation among several former French colonies, this place is package-tour central. To be honest, it was a bit weird, but what did I care? I was going to be playing golf in a couple of days, and I had deliberately chosen somewhere like this to spend my last four days. And I have to say, it was a huge relief to be back in the English-speaking world, although the start could have been a little curly. Our bush taxi was pulled over (again) and the Gambian soldier with the world's biggest rifle asked me to open my pack. Gambian officials have a terrible repuation for bribery, and I was sure that this was going to get ugly, especially when he showed me across the road and behind the trees, to a couple of colleagues, and out of sight from the road. I finished showing him all my stuff, and yes, he wanted something - the ten month old chewing gum that was still calling my pack home. Dodged a (giant) bullet there, I thought.
Eventually, we arrived in Serekunda, and I found my way to Fajara, where my guesthouse was located. My last four days, and I was hoping for somewhere nice. It was nice enough, but I felt a little ripped off. So early the next morning, I started hunting for new digs. After a couple of hours of exploring, I came across the Fajara Golf Apartments. Wow. It was a small, but an unbelievably well equipped, apartment, and just perfect for me to relax over the next few days, all for the same price as my stained guesthouse room. This place was amazing. It had all (both) the basics; a mozzie net and a bed, but had some luxuries too. Like a fridge. And a TV. And several rooms. That is, to say, my own space! And it was spotless. Okay, it won't get confused for the Hilton, but given the places where I'd been staying, it was exactly what I was after.
Golf was fantastic, dodging snakes, goats, cattle, etc, and there were a number of holes overlooking the ocean. Having two African caddies was kind of weird though (as far as defeating stereotypes go), but phuck, they knew their stuff. My final day was spent on a tour up the river to the village of Juffure, the home of author Alex Haley's ancestor,
a Kinte. The tour was full of package tour folk, who (at least the ones I met) were extremely lovely, but I was shocked at the way they were lapping up the most contrived piece of 'false-back' tourism I'd ever seen. At any rate, I thought more about this kind of tourism, and all I could think was thank god it exists - all the more of everything else for me to enjoy myself.
I didn't really feel like doing much over these last few days, to be honest, and I reconciled myself to the fact that if I didn't get to Banjul, or to Juffure, or up the river, or to the beach, or even to play golf, then I didn't care. In the end, I did all of these, but the greatest thing I did, and phuck me, I'm happy I did, was to just stop countless random people in the street and talked whatever sh*t with them that they wanted. This was the very best way I could have possibly spent these last few days, as after all, ask anyone who has been to this part of the world, and to a person, they will all agree - its defining characteristic its people, their unlimited love and generosity, and their inability to treat you as though you're anything but royalty. They have absolutely nothing - but it's all yours.
I've decided not to think too much about my time in Africa just yet, and just let things come to me as I naturally reflect over the next little while. I keep looking at my photos though, and I'll come and graze on these posts, so the memory doesn't disappear too quickly. Who am I kidding - I won't be forgetting any of this experience any time soon, and this is, in no small part, thanks to the kindness of people on this forum, for letting me share this with you. I had initially decided that I wouldn't send these posts to family and friends, as I didn't want to impose my pedestrian recollections on them. For the positive responses here, though, I extend my sincere and genuine gratitude. Without these, I would not have considered what I'd written worthy of consumption by others. Instead, I have forwarded them to loved ones, who in turn have forwarded them to many more. To my unlimited surprise, they have been extremely well received. It's all been quite strange, really. People I have known for decades have been able to get to know me better, and there are some at work who were forwarded these who now begrudgingly treat me with a bit of respect. This is not to say that these posts are classic travel tales, by any means. Rather, they have given me an outlet to share with everyone, a certain part of the world and its people, both of which are very special to me.
I promise to make photos available sooner rather than later.
All the best, from Canberra.