Watching whimbrels eating crabs

With my friends Janette and Axel visiting me from Vienna, it was time to see a little more of Senegal. We took the ferry from Dakar to Ziguinchor in the southern Casamance region – a great introduction for my friends to Senegalese officialdom. I lost count of the number of times I had to show my passport to get onto the boat, but was still rather surprised to find that I had to hand it in as a deposit in return for a blanket for the first, overnight, part of the journey.

We opted for the middle priced ticket, which gave us beds in one of several 14-person dormitories with some rather grotty shared bathrooms. Pretty good value really (at £13 for residents) though I think it will be a nicer trip when the new boat starts operating in the spring. Next time I must remember to pack sandwiches.

It took some 15 hours to get to Ziguinchor, travelling down the coast of Senegal overnight and then turning, as the sun rose, along the Casamance River. On either side were mangroves, palm trees, baobabs and occasional fishing villages, and in the river and on its sandbanks were dolphins, flamingos, cormorants and terns. Ever since I arrived in Dakar people have been telling me that I need to travel to the countryside, and preferably to the Casamance, to see the real Senegal, and it was immediately obvious why.

We travelled in a quick loop round the key tourist spots of the lower Casamance – from Ziguinchor to Oussouye, Cap Skiring, and Isle de Karabane. Cap Skiring is a little different, with its massive white sandy beaches, its Club Med resort and a real tourist vibe, but elsewhere we were in little villages with cheap accommodation and friendly, welcoming people.

Despite the amount of travelling we did, it was a very relaxed trip. We seemed to spend a lot of time sitting over very long lunches, reading books, and watching birds. In Ziguinchor we watched whimbrels on the mudflats catching, washing and eating crabs, and the yellow-billed storks nesting in the trees. In Oussouye I watched a splendid sunbird (coloured iridescent copper, purple, blue and emerald) drinking from the bottles set up to collect palm sap, which ferments over the course of the day to form palm wine. From the pirogue in which we travelled to Isle de Karabane we watched spoonbills, ibises, pelicans, herons, ospreys and kingfishers, and on the island itself Janette and I cut short our dusk walk to watch little bee-eaters and bearded barbets in the trees - a pity I couldn’t get a decent photo of the barbets to show you their astonishing colours.

Yesterday it all came to an end (rather too quickly as I could have spent many more days on Isle de Karabane - see photo to the left) and I took a ‘sept-place’ taxi back to Dakar. Ten hours in a cramped car with stops only for the Gambia border crossings and the ferry across the River Gambia. Good preparation for tomorrow night when I start a 60-hour journey, via Paris, London and Bangkok, to Laos for my next short holiday

Festive Season

I had to come into the office today (to be online) as I just had to post something about yesterday evening. I am at long last on the British Embassy list of Dakar residents, and so was invited to an evening at 'The Residence' yesterday, for festive season mulled wine.

It was a good evening, I managed to make a couple of new friends (a girl working at Oxfam and a staff member from the Embassy) which will enlarge my social circle enormously! It was nothing like I expected, however - there weren't many guests, the ambassador himself was serving the mulled wine for part of the time, and he and his wife led us all in Christmas Carol singing, photocopied wordsheets handed round, accompanying music on a CD played on the laptop which didn't have enough volume for any of us to hear it. It was all wonderfully amateurish! Made me realise I have not sent any Christmas cards - and probably won't have time to now - sorry...

It will also be the Muslim festival of Tabaski here on 20 December, so the streets are starting to fill up with sheep, being fattened up for the grand slaughter. This is the current view outside my office.

A few days in Sierra Leone

I knew as we flew into Freetown that I was going to like Sierra Leone. The country seemed from the air to be a combination of tropical forest, rivers, and white sandy beaches, and then Freetown itself – unlike the flat capitals along the rest of this coast – seems to be a mass of colourful ramshackle buildings clinging to the sides of numerous very steep hills.

Lungi airport is the other side of a big river mouth from the city, so on arrival you are faced with a choice between a 45-minute ferry trip or a 7-minute flight in an old Russian military helicopter. The ferry has a bit of a reputation for being overcrowded and therefore unsafe, so despite the loss of a helicopter earlier this year (it crashed into the ground and burst into flames killing all 21 people on board) most people still recommend the flight.

Apparently they have no Operating Certificate – or alternatively the International Civil Aviation Authority had evaluated them a few weeks prior to the crash, and came up with a long list of things that needed to be fixed before they were safe to continue flying, but the helicopter company bribed officials shortly afterward to get permission to resume flying – depending on who you believe.

Sierra Leone is well-known for its corruption (one of the worst countries in the world), and it is certainly something that has made the operations of my own NGO very difficult here. But I took the helicopter, and as you are reading this you know that I made it across in one piece! It wasn’t my first time on a helicopter, as I took one in Australia to get from the mainland to Heron Island, but this was a rather different experience, with six or seven passengers seated along either side of its grey, military interior and the pilots in a cabin at the front. There were seatbelts but nobody told us to use them… along the side were portholes, several of them open, from where we had some lovely views of the coast. It was over all too quickly.

I wish I had longer here to actually see the place, and maybe to experience a little of the night life. There is laughter everywhere, and lots of music, and altogether it seems like a happy, fun place. Apparently the reaction for a lot of people, as the country recovers from a long and brutal civil war, is to party (although maybe not the double amputee begging at the airport). Next time I will stay for longer.

More on Niger

I sometimes feel guilty when I write something negative about a poor country. I’m supposed to be out here to help them and here I am publishing critical commentaries – reinforcing the stereotypes of poor, hopeless Africa. The people may be poor but they are also proud, so they don’t like foreigners focusing on their poverty. Hopefully I do also sometimes convey something of the vibrancy and the fascinating cultures of some of the places I visit.

The cultures that I would like to see in Niger are unfortunately some 1,000km away from the capital, and with the rebellion currently underway they are not in any case safe to visit. & unfortunately they are laying landmines so those areas may remain dangerous even when the conflict ends.

However I did manage to travel just a short distance north of Niamey on my first weekend here to spend a night at a little rural encampment next to the river. I love this river. It is so wide, and the waters flow so fast, yet the surface always seems calm and flat like a mirror so it always gives me a sense of rest and peace.

But I tore myself away from the yellow-headed bishops and pied kingfishers on the riverside to take advantage of a little tourist offering – an hour on a camel to the village of Boubon, a tour of the village, and a trip back along the river in a pirogue. I love riding camels, I find their rhythm very relaxing. The village is well-known for its pottery, and I spent a while watching a woman applying decorative patterns to a lovely big pot. She let me take her photo but unfortunately she didn’t have any of the wonderful facial family markings (tattoos and/or scars) that so many people still have in this region.

On the lovely relaxing journey back we saw a hippo.

What else? Well I also visited two museums – a tiny one in the town of Dosso, and the more famous one in Niamey. The latter had a surprisingly good fashion exhibition – a modern take on the traditional dress of Niger – and a detailed display on uranium mining which would probably have been fascinating had my French been a little better. Sadly the museum grounds also house a mini zoo. How people can imprison wild animals in tiny concrete cages is beyond me, and the sight of chimpanzees in cages smaller than my bathroom left me in tears.

But to get back to the positive note I was trying to maintain, I attach a photo here for the benefit of my Mum – not a great shot, but just to prove to her that I really am seeing kingfishers.