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

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