Christmas in St. Louis

The office was closed for Christmas Day, which gave us a three-day weekend. A great opportunity to see something of the country, and as a bird-lover I could not resist the National Bird Reserve at Djoudj. Supposedly the third most important bird reserve in the world, it is a large area of fresh water which attracts hundreds of thousands of migratory birds during the winter season. Famous for it's enormous breeding-colony of pelicans, it is usually visited as a day-trip from St. Louis, another place I was keen to see.

Ex-pat colleagues recommended various reliable and reasonable taxi drivers for the journey to St. Louis. However I haven’t yet switched into living that way – and don’t know if I ever will. A taxi would cost ten times as much as a seat in a sept-place bush taxi, and would also insulate me from the country I am trying to be part of.

A sept-place is a Peugeot estate car, often in a pretty rickety state, which sets off on its journey when it has its full complement of seven passengers plus luggage. I took my place on the back seat of one waiting to depart. In another half-hour we filled the remaining places, whilst the amount of luggage and other cargo multiplied. Mostly this was sacks of unknown content, but I watched a sheep being bundled into one sack and tethered to the roof. Meanwhile the car was surrounded by a collection of vendors, offering watches, radios, mobile phones, bananas, biscuits, towels and socks – not all essential for a journey to St. Louis, surely?

Tip for travellers in Senegal – do not take the window seat in a sept-place during the period leading up to Tabaski. Sheep pee frequently and copiously, and the window seals rarely work. Thankfully this one’s rear end was on the opposite side of the vehicle to me.

St. Louis, a former capital of colonial Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania, is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shabby and decaying – the ornate balconies have mostly fallen off the walls, and the wooden shutters have rotted away – it is still a beautiful and atmospheric place. I happily wandered around its sandy streets for half a day.

It sits on an island in the River Senegal, with a narrow peninsula separating the river from the ocean (the river joins the ocean just a few miles further south). On the peninsula is an amazing little fishing village. Rows of colourful painted fishing boats sat along the water’s edge, beside them a huge area where the catch was being descaled and beheaded (and presumably gutted) by beautifully dressed women, before being placed on rickety wooden tables, old oil drums and various other surfaces to be variously dried or smoked. & all around the ground was piled high with fish heads, fish scales and discarded fish, together with dead rats, plastic rubbish and pools of what looked like a mixture of fish blood and oil. Dark smoke was blowing over the entire scene from various small fires. Impossible, really, to describe the scene. At the same time both amazingly picturesque but also quite hellish.

& all the time, “donnez-moi de l’argent” or “donnez-moi du cadeau” from the children. I hate being asked for money like that, but seeing the poverty around made me feel some sympathy.

The trip to Djoudj was very different, away from all the noise and people and into an unspoiled natural environment. I saw various herons, ibises, spoonbills and cormorants, plus yellow-billed storks, fish eagles, an osprey, white-faced whistling ducks and – the highlight of the visit – an enormous breeding colony of pelicans, the scrawny, sooty-coloured youngsters standing out from their parents on the flat-topped rocks where the nests were, with lines of adult birds flying in formation low across the surface of the water. No flamingos or crowned cranes this time (will have to go back later in the season for those) but still a superb trip.


Alison said...

Sounds an amazing Christmas. You are certainly braver than I. I do have a question though - what is Tabaski?

Louise said...

All I really know about Tabaski is as I described under 'First Impressions', but hopefully I will be an expert in a few years' time...

Bryan said...


Sounds fantastic - I can't say I am envious I like my home comforts too muc. And if my memory serves me right - we only ever went to 5 star hotels!! With the smog and poverty comments you should be used to that in Wapping!