Romance in Casamance

In the late 80s, one of the characters in the Harry Enfield and Chums sketch show, Waynetta Slob, would respond to a request to open the door or answer the phone with “I am Smoking a Faaaag”. It was always delivered in a tone meaning “I am way too busy, do not disturb me”.

On the day we left Guinea-Bissau, my response to most demands on my time was “I am Cuddling a Caaaat”. Tiger was so terrified by every jolt of the truck and every zoom of a passing vehicle, he ended up in the crook of my arm, adored and adoring being tickled under his ears and chin. Cleo meanwhile found the darkest corner of the bed behind a sleeping bag to hide and snooze.

Tiger and me, chilling

Tiger and me, chilling

On Sat 27th Feb we set off to cross into our 16th country, Senegal. I lay down after lunch, conserving energy for the border crossing at the end of day, but it turned out to be the easiest one ever. There was only one set of police at the immigration post (writing our passport details into a book and stamping passports), then a carnet stamp at the customs post, and the same again the other side. Was it so quick and efficient because they have far more tourists passing this way or because it was nearly 5pm? Either way, we were through in less than an hour altogether, an absolute record.

We swiftly arrived in Ziguinchor, a surprisingly big town, where we were impressed by the number of traps drawn by donkeys, and bikes with massive loads. Senegalese people were looking better fed and better dressed. Women appeared more assertive; a supermodel-type passed us on a cream moped with long flowing hair flying looking like an advert. Men were definitely taller and better looking. The first soldier to stop us made his uniform look HOT. AND there was a patisserie. Sampson had to stop and buy a chocolate-covered pastry to celebrate being back in the Francophonie.

Impressive balancing act

Impressive balancing act 1

Impressive balancing act 2

Impressive balancing act 2

Driving through savanna...

Driving through savanna…

and salt plain...

and salt plain…

to river

to river…

and arable land

arable land…

and urban centre

and urban centre

A detour to check the surf was next on the agenda, so we pulled off by the side of the road to stay overnight by a mangrove-laden tributary of the Casamance river.

Ruby cooling off in the silky mud of the delta

Ruby cooling off in the silky mud of the delta

We were braced to take whole of next day to reach Cap Skirring but the wonderful tar road continued the whole way, so we arrived in time for lunch. We were shocked first by the poshness of the buildings, and then by the number of restaurants and tourists sitting in them. Ruby was horrified: “There are whities everywhere!”

Welcome to the holiday homes...

Welcome to the holiday homes…

of Cap Skirring, Senegal's prime tourist destination

of Cap Skirring, Senegal’s prime tourist destination

delightfully unpretentious

a delightfully unpretentious town

surrounded by beautiful countryside

surrounded by beautiful countryside

With the increase in the number of Europeans came a decrease in the African tradition of hospitality. For the first time since Ghana we were treated with suspicion by gatekeepers. At Club Med, Big Reg was forced to park outside the premises on a dangerous corner despite there being an enormous empty carpark available. Then we were left standing at the security boom for hours, not allowed to cross the threshold, waiting for staff that never came. The notable exception was M. Sega, who works in their IT dept and made contacts to get oil for us, bless him.

M. Sega, our friend at Club Med

M. Sega, our friend at Club Med…

shared a sense of humour with Sampson!

shared a sense of humour with Sampson!

Jean Charlemagne

Guide Jean Charlemagne was also very kind

While sitting in the truck outside the first day, a Boeing 737 came over low enough to block all light from the doorway for a moment. Sampson shrieked so loudly people across the road came out to see what was the matter! Zola couldn’t stop laughing…

We found the increased number of tourists and hence hustlers a bit overwhelming, so on the second day we headed out of town looking for a more remote spot. About 10km later, we took a random left down a sandy road hopefully towards the sea. Bouncing along 2km further down, I was half worried that we were about to get stuck and half loving this way we do things, striking off into the unknown on a whim, full of optimism. Of course we lucked out again: it was perfect.

Our own 'private' beach between Cap Skirring and Boucotte

Our own ‘private’ beach 10km from Cap Skirring

Not bad.

Not bad

We were welcomed by laid-back local Lamine Ndiaye

We were welcomed by laid-back local Lamine Ndiaye who came to chat most mornings

This spot, between Baie de Boucotte and Maya Plage, Sampson christened Kitten Point, as he and Zola managed to get a couple of waves that week.

Not big waves, but the boys had some fun...

Not big waves, but the boys had some fun…

But the water was a few degrees colder than we were used to - wetsuits were back!

even though the water was a few degrees colder than we were used to – brrr!

Ruby and I preferred to bike or walk

Ruby and I preferred to bike or walk

over the firm expanse of sand of a colour she characterised as 'chocolate spread'

over the firm expanse of sand of a colour she characterised as ‘chocolate spread’

with the other strolling...

with the other strolling…

mother and daughters

mothers and daughters

It wasn’t quite as quiet as we first supposed as there was a constant stream of passing lorries collecting shells and rocks for building materials – a labour one step more grueling than harvesting sand.

The bay to our right was pickled with shells

The bay to our right was pickled with shells

where a score of workers such as Mamadou here spend their days in the back breaking labour...

where a score of labourers such as Mamadou here spend their days in the back-breaking work…

of scraping shell fragments into piles, which they carry to bigger piles, to be taken by lorries for building materials

of scraping shell fragments into piles, which they carry to bigger piles, to be taken by lorries for building materials

Holidaying Europeans ventured out of their villas to wander up and down the beach, or thundered past us on quad bikes, but they never stopped to chat. The exception was Frenchman Dionsys Portheault, staying in the village with friends, who came every day to swim. He plans to buy a truck and invited us to stay with him near Nice, fingers crossed!

The vast beaches of Cap Skirring are perfect for quad biking over, if you don't mind disturbing the birds

The vast beaches of Cap Skirring are perfect for quad biking, if you don’t mind disturbing the peace…

… or the birds

… or the birds

We were eating much better. Cap Skirring had a lovely market, with a vast increase in the quality and range of veg on offer, huge tomatoes and carrots and even haricots verts, so we’d stocked up. But I was battling hot flushes and insomnia, struggling to sleep on the slight slope with my head down.

Children being kind to their ailing ma...

Children being kind to their wimpy ma…

Ruby even attempted to make me gluten-free versions of their favourite biscuits...

Ruby even attempted to make me gluten-free versions of their favourite biscuits…

the legendary Biskrem, from Turkey - quite an achievement with only a frying pan

the legendary Biskrem, from Turkey, R2 a pack – quite an achievement with only a frying pan!

One day Ruby was taking photos of the kittens dozing on my feet, and I had a shocking revelation that my ankles looked like an old lady’s. Sampson told me he’d had a similar reality check recently on catching sight of his upper arms. We did well to seize the day and set off on this trek when we did – I’m not sure we’d get it together now!

Definitely verging on the senile already

Definitely verging on the senile already

Zola was stroppy. He was having his first real teenage sulks for no reason other than to assert his independence. Thankfully, he responds well to a firm reminder of lines not to be crossed. Unlike his sister…

Morning exercise is vital to launch Zola's day in a cheery mood

Morning exercise is vital to launch Zola’s day into a positive mood

Zola asked me whether I’d ever thought about having a tattoo done and I said I was once very keen but could never settle on one design that I knew I’d love forever. He said simply “I’d have you on one arm and Dad on the other”. I tried not to squeeze him to death.

Back in town on the hunt for waste vegetable oil, we located La Paillote, the diametric opposite of Club Med in atmosphere. We were given a warm welcome by Lucie Jacquot and her father Christian, who not only donated oil but chased up others for us and sent his driver to collect it.

Big Reg just squeezed into La Paillote

Big Reg just squeezed into La Paillote

Lucie reminded us of Audrey Tautou's Amélie, both chic and adorable

Les Jacquots, pére et fille. Lucie reminded us of Audrey Tautou’s Amélie, both chic and adorable

What a gorgeous hotel...

What a gorgeous hotel…

the definition of tranquilité...

the definition of tranquilité…

with superb views...

with superb views…

and style - I highly recommend it for a holiday

and style

Overcast skies don’t allow the pics to do justice to the beauty of the place; I would love to take my Mom there for a holiday. Thanks to their kindness and wifi, I was also able to load a long overdue blog.

Cap Skirring is located in la Basse Casamance, the region below the river

Cap Skirring is located in la Basse Casamance, the region below the river

This southern, greener part of Senegal is isolated from the rest of the more Sahelian country to the north by The Gambia and its river snaking between. Casamance feels very remote from Dakar and only five years ago there was ongoing conflict in support of independence for the region. I was sad we didn’t have more time to explore the delta around the Casamance river, and learn more about their unique cultural traditions, as I felt we didn’t fully tap into the romance of the more rural areas, beautifully expressed by others.

There was free wifi on offer in many of the cafés in town, our first return to an almost first world feeling, with free peanuts and everything. When the kids arrived after school, a local rasta greeted us and his friend, about 25, was so delighted to see Zola’s dreadlocks he came over with a “Respect!” and hugged him. I said that was all very well, but it was me who made ‘em – so he hugged me as well!

Cap Skirring's main drag...

Cap Skirring’s main drag…

does quite a line in Rastarants

does quite a line in Rastarants

and a relaxed vibe

and a relaxed holiday vibe

Big Reg felt quite at home

Big Reg felt quite at home

The kids and I had a wander down the main drag checking out the bijou art galleries, clothes shops and cafés. At the ‘Maison de Cuir’ Zola was fascinated to see a cobbler cutting soft leather for sandals by hand.

We bumped into Edwige Sarandji who we’d met the day before and I said “Oh I’m so glad to see you again, I so wished I’d taken photo of you” and she said “Me too!” They came inside to eat their lunch and when I saw her improvising with La Vache Qui Rit and walnut sandwiches for her toddler Gaia, I knew Edwige was one of us.

Edwige and Gaia have lunch

Edwige and Gaia have lunch

Edwige was born in the Central African Republic, and her parents moved to France when she was a child. She feels her own daughter can’t be brought up to fully appreciate the diversity of her cultural background in Paris, so this single mum was brave enough to bring her 3 year old on a 24 hour bus from Dakar in search of a vrai African experience for her.

Edwige was excited because she’d just found the perfect little place to rent, a ground floor flat with a garden, twice the size and half the price she pays in France. She hopes to come back in 6 months to live here for a year and farm vegetables. We wish her all the luck in the world and hope she keeps in touch.

Bonne chance ma courageuse!

Bonne chance mes courageuses!

That afternoon, Cleo fell asleep on my lap. It felt like such an achievement – to attract her, I had become the epitome of Calm. A week in Casamance can do that for you.

On the road back to Ziguinchor, Sampson stopped a little late at a Halte Gendarme sign that hadn’t been there on the way in. A 6ft 3” burly uniform came bearing down, hoping to bust us for brake lights but they were working perfectly. So he asked to see papers. It was an ‘Everyone out, time to put on a show’ situation but as we crossed the road, Burly came between me and Ruby and said to her suggestively “Are you up for it?” in English. She was behind me and I didn’t hear him say it, only saw him lean in over her as I turned back to check what was happening.

She stopped dead in the middle of the road and totally stood her ground, looking him coolly in the eye. She told me afterwards she clenched her fist but restrained herself from punching him. I prattled on through my ‘merry ignorant’ routine and eventually Burly ‘let us off’ for not stopping immediately and we clambered back into the cab feeling a bit wobbly.

This sounds far less challenging than other situations with officials we’ve been in on this leg of the journey, but it was by far the most intimidating, because of the threatening-rape vibes emanating from this guy. I realised if Burly had wanted to, he could have made an excuse to take Ruby off somewhere and there was practically nothing I could do about it. I felt thoroughly shaken.

Suddenly he was at my window, up on the step: “Does this really use palm oil?” Sampson showed him the drips on the tank and invited him to smell the smoke as he revved. Burly cracked a huge smile and waved us on. Sampson tried not to screech away.

That evening we stopped at the side of the same river as on the way here, and Zola had a go at being a flow-rider i.e. tried to surf the tide going back out to sea.

Sampson challenges Zola to surf the running tide

Sampson challenges Zola to surf the running tide

anything for a laugh

anything for a laugh…

not wildly successful...

not wildly successful…

but a wonderful way to cool off and chill out

but a wonderful way to cool off and chill out

Check the difference between my camera on full zoom...

Check the difference between my camera on full zoom…

and Tim's camera close-ups!

and Tim’s close-up!

Tim's camera has inspired Sampson...

Tim’s camera has inspired Sampson…

to become a bit of a twitcher!

to become a bit of a twitcher!

He was chuffed with this one

He was chuffed with this one

In the morning, singing along to Aretha Franklin, I was feeling so happy, so looking forward to next bite of the journey, this fascinating Senegal/Gambia/Senegal sandwich.

Back in Ziguinchor, we found ourselves outside the ferry port – a huge boat had just arrived and there were hundreds of people spilling off. I had to wait for an official to come through the chaos to check the size of Big Reg. Finally I was taken to the ticket office where a bloke on a computer asked details of the vehicle and quoted me 350000FCA – R7000. Whaaat? Just to cross the Casamance? I was considering whether we could appeal to the ferry company for sponsorship when the penny dropped. The journey time was 16 hours – this wasn’t nipping across the river, this was the sea ferry to Dakar! Derrrrrrrr.

What a fool – I remembered asking at the Guinea-Bissau Embassy in Conakry about how to cross the rivers en route, and the answer was all were bridges until the ferry to Banjul. How had I forgotten? It was hilarious – feeling great to have ‘saved’ such a lot of money, we got back in the truck and drove straight over the bridge!

The ferry port at Ziguinchor

The ferry port at Ziguinchor

So relieved we only had to drive over this bridge to cross the Casamance!

So relieved we only had to drive over this bridge to cross the Casamance…

and not take the Aline Sitoe Diatta after all!

and not take the Aline Sitoe Diatta after all!

In September 2002, the Ziguinchor-Dakar ferry MV Le Joola capsized, with a loss of 1863 lives, several hundred more than the Titanic. It was operated by the Senegalese military and official capacity was 580 people. The majority of those on board were students returning to school and college. The Prime Minister was disgraced and sacked. If you’ve not heard of this disaster, ask yourself why no-one’s yet made a movie about it?

The next policeman was much more amenable and warned us that the border with The Gambia was closed to lorries because of an ongoing dispute between governments. This was the second time the possibility of being denied access had been mentioned to us, so it was a bit worrying. He said you might be lucky, particularly if you could, you know, “Jouez le jeu” i.e. play the game. Did he mean ‘follow the rules’ or ‘talk your way through it’? I think he could tell we were better at the latter.

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One Response to Romance in Casamance

  1. john says:

    If Zola does go ahead with a Tattoo (don’t recommend it) make sure it’s a flattering image!

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