Cassamance and Gambia
We wave goodbye to Guinea Bissau and head into the Cassamance region of Senegal, it's a breeze exiting out of Guinea Bissau but a bit of problem for us Aussies and Kiwis entering Senegal, it seems whilst I've been travelling the visa rules have changed and we now need a free visa issued from a Senegalese embassy at home, it takes a lot of convincing by our tour leader and her copping a fair amount of criticism for her ability to do her job but eventually they are willing to bend the rules enough to let us in but we need to find an embassy to get the visa as we exit out of Senegal to pop into Gambia then back in again, but for now we can at least enjoy the Cassamance region.
The Cassamance is tropical with the Cassamance river running through it, about 15km after crossing the border we head to its capital Ziguinchor just to stock up on supplies, it's a tough walk in the blistering heat to find a market stocking fresh fruit and vegetables, probably the hardest to find to date, little did we know the servo where the truck was parked had a veritable feast of frozen veggies, canned goods, ice cream and an assortment of everything else you could need, I think 'on the run' at home could learn a lot from them (Tracy just for you!) completely eliminates the need for a seperate supermarket with both the range and prices.
After our stock up we head to Elinkine, a small fishing village right on the estuary. Passing through the village and to our camp we see the fish market where all the fish is brought in and dried, it's quite a sight and quite a smell! Where we camp is right on the water giving us a beach like feel and a great view of the very colourful pirogues bringing in their catch and a really nice sunset to round out our days here, it's a really beautiful and peaceful spot to spend a couple of nights. We head over to the island, Ile de Karabane and just like the locals we all pile in to one pirogue completely overloading it (okay the locals could probably still squeeze quite a few more in), there areno life jackets on board so we stop at a military post nearby who are only too happy to lend us some life jackets. It's short trip across the river to the island where we present our passports and then are free to roam around. There is a small village on the island (and another military compound) which doesn't take much time to walk around, but is interesting with its haphazard sandy streets, the church dating back to the earliest days of Holy Ghost fathers (I tried to find a date in the Bradt guide and this is what it came up with!!) and the remnants of where slaves were formerly held, all surrounded by the idyllic coastline; it's a stunning location and as you leave the village and wander along the beach you can see how lively the island would have been before Ebola scared everyone off, the beach is lined with various bars, shops and restaurants all offering stunning views; only a few still remain open for the very small number of tourists that's are slowly starting to come back.
We leave the beautiful river behind and head to the coast, to the beachside town (and what seems quite a touristy place) of Cap Skirring. It's only a small town with many cafes, restaurants and tourist shops and a lot of mainly French tourists. We camped here at a 4-5 star resort on the beach overlooking the Atlantic ocean for two nights, in Elinkine I had the start of tonsillitis brewing; by the time we got to Cap Skirring it was here in full earnest so I spent all my time in Cap Skirring sleeping in the luxury of a 4-5 star room that I upgraded to, so I can't say too much about Cap Skirring but I can say the room at La Paillote Village hotel was fantastic as was the mango sorbet that Dawn, one of the people I've been travelling with since Accra was kind enough to donate to me.
Our final stop in the Cassamance is Abene, a tiny village in the north of the Cassamance, we stay at the Little Baobab, a camp run by an Englishman who several years ago travelled through the Cassamance, met a lovely local lady and decided to settle in Abene. Whilst there isn't much to the village itself the stay at Little Baobab and Simon's home is a highlight, on our first evening we are welcomed with some local dancing, with the guys drumming, women dancing and singing along with some of the local lads, this is all joined by the evil spirit kompo which looked like a weird dancing, spinning, haystack; Samaya a gorilla and Mabaly the bird spirit join the dancing, its highly infectious and a lot of fun. After dinner some of the local lads play the djembe (drums) for us and there is more dancing, the locals showing us how it's done and dragging us up to show how it's not done!
Our second day in Abene takes us on a short drive to the fishing village of Kafountine, to be honest as much as I loved Elinkine the smell of the fish being dried out I thought was enough to turn me off all future fishing villages, but the flies, the drying fish smell, the colourful fishing pirogues, women hard at work pounding or cleaning in the shoreline, men busy with their nets or dragging their pirogues back up the sand dunes made for an interesting visit that just overloaded the senses, so much to see, hear and smell, it was another of my highlights of this trip so far. Just off from the fish market and still along the coast is a collection of crumbling, deserted buildings still with a lot of their pastel colour artwork in tact, this adds a different dimension yet again and I'm fascinated by what is left of these buildings and why they have been just abandoned in such a busy and picturesque spot.
The evening brings us back to Abene where Simon has arranged to have a local band come and play for us, it's another great evening of drumming and dancing and a perfect way to end our time in the Cassamance.
Our time in Senegal isn't finished yet but before we travel to the northern part of Senegal we take a very small peek at what Gambia has to offer us, we only spend 3 days there which is a shame as it turns out to be a very welcoming country with the people really keen to meet you, have a chat and just welcome you to their country.
Entering into Gambia us Aussies have a bit of an issue, usually any countries part of the commonwealth including Australia are granted free entry, but according to the list they have Australia is now part of eastern or western Europe and therefore doesn't fall into one of the exempt countries, it doesn't help to point to the map that is right near the list clearly showing Australia isn't part of Europe, the list says it is, so therefore we must pay the 70usd to enter.
With my new shiny visa in hand, we head to Brikama and the Marakissa River Camp, where the lovely lady there is only to happy to whip us up a buffet style lunch with little notice, it's a beautiful spot right in the river where we see a crocodile just sunning himself but the real highlight is the birds, so many different species of birds, I'm no big bird watcher but seeing so many different types in such a small area gave the place and a really peaceful and tranquil feel.
I'm glad I enjoyed the peace as we headed back into Brikama and the Konte Kundah music school, as we step off the truck we are greeted by women hollering, dancing and hugging us, it is quite the welcome! Once we are inside the complex it is more dancing and a local band playing, it's very loud but a lot of fun, more so as you can see this is more for the locals to enjoy themselves as opposed to putting a performance on for us, they seem to get a huge kick out of 'out dancing each other' and we are mere spectators getting to watch and be caught up by their enthusiasm.
The school is run by a local family who have a long tradition and heritage in the Kora (a musical instrument made from a calabash covered with cow skin, it sort of resembles a harp but sounds more like a guitar with a gentle almost blues like feel) and have now set up a school to teach it to both locals and those wanting to learn from overseas. One of the brothers, Charlie, in the family has moved to the UK and introduced the music there through his band, with the Kora itself still being handmade by his family members here in Gambia. A local band plays some of their music for us before we sit down to a shared meal of rice and fish that we eat with our hand as per the local way, after dinner us the highlight of the evening and the main reason for a quick trip into Gambia, Charlie and his family play the Kira and sing for us, with the power out and them performing solely for us, it is truly an intimate and memorable experience.
Us Aussies and the New Zealanders (the 'Senegalese Six') leave the group briefly, and take a trip to Fajara just outside the capital Banjul to visit the Senegal embassy to try and sort our visa situation out. It turns out to not be free but only about 6 Aussie bucks, requires us to go and get passport photos and photocopies of our passport done and then completely a ridiculously long form. Once all this hooha is done he tells us it will be ready at 3pm (5-6hours), but we manage to convince him to have them done by 1pm so that we can make our imaginary pirogue ride. With time on our hands whilst we wait for the beauracratic nonsense to occur we take the opportunity to head into Banjul, passing through Serrekunda, Gambia's largest town which was completely chaotic with the usual street sellers sprawled about amongst the pedestrian and vehicle traffic. Banjul itself wasn't anything remarkable, a fairly quiet capital compared to some other African cities.
With visas in hand we rejoin the group for our last stop in Gambia, Tendaba where we camp next toThe Gambia river, for a bit of the birdwatching the area is known for. Given the heat most take the opportunity to just relax and chill out for the couple of nights we are here before heading back into Senegal.