Time out in Toubakouta
I decided that the few days’ rest I was due from work could be well spent amongst the mangrove creeks of the Siné-Saloum delta, a few hours south of Dakar. My guide-book recommended Keur Bamboung, a little campement on the Isle de Sipo run by an association of villagers as part of their management of the Protected Marine Area of which it is part. A bit more expensive than the backpacker haunts I am used to staying at, but justifiable as all profits go towards the running of the Marine Area, including patrols by local former fisherman to ensure that no-one fishes there.
The area operates above all as a safe haven for young fish, which can hide from predators amongst the roots of the mangrove trees. Fish stocks in Senegal are now dangerously low (fishing being the country’s number one economic activity following big price falls for agricultural products), such that there are few adult fish left and so the fishermen are now catching the young, before they have even reached sexual maturity and thus before they can reproduce. The Marine Protected Area was established in 2003, after a couple of years spent familiarising local communities with the problems and the need for this protection. Already a couple of dozen species which had been fished out have reappeared, the mangroves are flourishing (now villagers understand how important it is not to cut them down) and the salinity of the water in the creeks is reducing (thanks to the mangroves which take in salt through their roots).
Thus I didn’t get the seafood feast I would have liked – but in every other way (including the food) my stay there was wonderful.
I was the only tourist there, this being the low season, so I had the full-time attention of one of the camp guides. I suppose this did have its down-side (listening to him tell me repeatedly, ‘from his heart’ how much he loved me and how he would wait – for decades if necessary – until I changed my mind and decided I wanted to be with him) but he was a good guide. The scenery is actually quite varied, so our walks took us through savannah, mud-flats, forest, and on one memorable walk, knee-deep in water through some of the narrow creeks between the mangroves.
We saw warthogs, monkeys, a mongoose, plus – and this sample of the birds I saw is specially for Nick, to whom it should mean something – blue breasted kingfishers, Western grey plantain-eaters, Senegal thick-knees, yellow-crowned gonoleks, a cardinal woodpecker, double-spurred francolins, green wood-hoopoes and Bruce’s green pigeons (or yellow-bellied fruit pigeons if working from an old bird book). But it certainly isn’t necessary to be a bird-lover to have fun there. I also swam in the lagoon in front of the campement, took out a canoe for a while one morning, and slept like a log for four nights as there is only the lights from the stars and the occasional cry of a hyena to keep you awake.
Some of the stories the guide told me were interesting too. He pointed out a baobab tree covered with fruit. This is normally eaten (or made into a juice), but this particular baobab was the home of bad spirits so nobody would go near it. I asked how the people knew that the bad spirits resided in that particular tree, and was told it was because sometimes at night the tree glowed. Apparently bad spirits often live in trees – and sometimes when people sheltered under a big tree during thunderstorms they would be killed – burnt by the spirits.
Whilst not wanting to argue with someone’s beliefs, I had to explain that lightning always strikes the tallest thing around, and so sheltering under the biggest tree was dangerous. I mentioned the lightning conductors found on tall buildings. The guide was fascinated, saying he had seen the antenna on tall building but never knew their purpose. Unfortunately he took this give-and-take of information between us as a further sign that we were meant for eachother.
I also paid a bit extra one day to take a trip to the Isle aux Oiseaux. This was a couple of hours away in a launch, past pelicans, cormorants, ospreys and flamingos, and accompanied for a short time by a school of dolphins. To me it was an incredible place, although probably only one for the bird-lovers. It is a pretty flat island, covered with a succulent plant some 3-4 inches tall, with a few mangroves on one side and sandy beaches all around. It is also the nesting ground for thousands of gulls and terns, and this is the nesting season.
To my surprise, my guide took me right across the island, through the middle of the nesting ground. We stepped carefully to avoid treading on any of the nests or the young chicks, while an angry mob of adult birds wheeled around our heads screaming at us. I did feel a bit strange being there – worried that our presence might disturb the birds, especially when the guide picked up a few of the chicks so that I could take a closer look – but he was a guide so I suppose it must have been okay. I was also a bit worried some of the adults might actually attack us, especially as the caspian terns had wicked-looking beaks, but they didn’t – again, I suppose the guide knew what he was doing.