A lot of people have asked me if we chose our travel dates in order to avoid Mali’s presidential election scheduled for July 29th. The answer is no. I am not worried about my personal safety nor am I worried about widespread violence, at least not in Bamako.
Some would say that’s naive. A team of TV5 journalists was violently accosted at the airport on Sunday. That same night, unidentified gunmen attacked a delegation belonging to Aliou Diallo, one of the candidates. And over the weekend, the chief opposition party brought forth evidence of serious electoral fraud.
l’Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), the organization that audited the original – and presumably correct – electoral roll is now rushing a team to Bamako to try and get to the bottom of it. All of the voter cards were printed in France (a subject for another post), and no one seems to know whether the fictitious voter roll or the real one were sent to the print shop. The government is chalking it up to a “technical error,” and they are insisting that the correct cards were printed. All of this a week out from the election.
I recommend reading Bruce Whitehouse’s latest post. He makes three grim predictions – and that was before the allegations of electoral fraud surfaced! – and I mostly agree with him.
The first prediction is that voter turnout will be atrocious. I agree. Voter turnout has never reached 50% in Mali, and it’s often much lower. In 2013, it hit a high of 45%, when the population overwhelmingly supported IBK. This year, the vote will once again be held in July, when rural populations are tending to their fields. Bruce also rightly points out that the level of violence in the center and north will further depress turnout.
On top of all that, there is no candidate that has mobilized the population like IBK did in 2013. IBK is once again up for election, but he has long squandered his political capital. His flat-footed, visionless and incompetent government has overseen five years of worsening corruption, insecurity and impunity. A new interchange on the Segou highway is not going to help people forget that the state is absent in much of the country, and in places where it is present, it can’t deliver on basic social services.
Bruce’s second prediction is that IBK will win. IBK doesn’t have the political capital he had in 2013, but he has the biggest war chest, and as Bruce points out, he controls state media and has access to important patronage networks. The chief opposition candidate, Soumaila Cisse, has put together a large coalition, and he has racked up some crucial endorsements, including that of the still influential Ras Bath. But he’s still tied to the old political class and all of the baggage that comes with it.
If you would have asked me a year ago if IBK would be reelected, I would have said there’s not a chance. But with a fractured, apathetic electorate, and IBK spraying money around, co-opting whoever he can, I don’t know anymore. I don’t think IBK can win in the first round. If it goes to a second round, it will most likely be a repeat of 2013 – IBK vs. Soumaila Cisse. In that case, both candidates will aggressively pursue the votes of the eliminated parties. Money will flow, promises will be made.
I don’t know who will win. I’m not as confident as Bruce, who brought up the possibility of a first round victory. Then again, if IBK is bagging an extra 1.2 million imaginary votes, game over.
I unfortunately agree with Bruce’s third prediction, which is that the election might not matter anyway. I wrote this in 2013, as we were working on the SOS Democracy project. I was seriously optimistic about Mali’s future. Five years later, Mali’s deep systemic problems have only gotten worse. Even more troubling, the normally strong social fabric of Mali – the only thing holding things together in many places – has been absolutely shredded in some parts of the country.
I do find it encouraging that despite the current situation, there are still citizens like Coumba Bah, the founder and relentless leader of SOS Democracy in 2013, who continue to labor for Mali’s future. Their efforts can’t be overstated, but damn, it’s a steep hill to climb and the last five years have only made it more difficult.
In other news
Bintou, Andre and I are off to the states tonight. Our friends Kevin and Heike will be running the hostel. Ali will oversee the Postcards from Timbuktu project. Speaking of which, we recently added a new item to the site, custom calligraphy from Boubacar Sadeck, Timbuktu’s last master calligrapher. Here’s a video of him working on an order. If you are interested in getting one for yourself, you can do so here.
See you in the states or back in Mali in a few weeks!
Andre trying that guitar on for size. He’s almost there.
On July 25th, we are off to the states for Andre and Bintou’s second visit. We strategically chose a time of year when there is a very low risk of crossing paths with bomb cyclones or polar vortexes or any other absurdly named arctic weather event. We got lucky with last year’s October visit, but Bintou may have been forever traumatized by that one day of freezing rain right before we left Northeast Ohio. She claims that she still wants to see snow.
Here is our itinerary as we know it:
July 25th – Bamako to New York July 27th – New York to Cleveland July 27th to August 19th – Cleveland, with a side trip or two August 19th – Cleveland to New York August 21st – New York to Bamako
Andre is looking forward to seeing all his friends and relatives again, or maybe meeting you for the first time!
At the beginning of 2017, I put together a list of things I wanted to accomplish for the year. This is how I did:
✓ Introduce my mom to Andre and West Africa. Mission accomplished in February of last year, right before we left for our first jakarta safari.
✓ X Ride a scooter from Dakar to Accra. Made it to Guinea-Conakry before heading back up to Bamako. This was still a huge success. The trip was going very well, but I needed to get back to Bintou and Andre.
✓ Get my Malian passport. Or at least my Malian identity card. I got my Malian identity card, and it saved me a good chunk of change on our jakarta trip. I no longer need a visa for West African countries.
✓Keep going with Postcards from Timbuktu. The project hit a bit of a wall, but Ali and I have been coming up with ways to revive it. We also reached out to our email list and received heaps of great suggestions, some of which are now in play. We contacted a number of different websites/blogs that will possibly feature the project, inshallah. We have a new birthday card postcard that Ali made with a friend in the dunes near Timbuktu, and Bintou is now selling her handbags made with Dogon fabric on the site as well.
XUse the right hemisphere of my brain more often. Not even close on this one.
I should probably be typing this on a wooden keyboard, but I have to say the status quo is pretty damn good. My criteria for that conclusion is simple: 1. I am healthy 2. Bintou and Andre are healthy 3. I wake up every day without anxiety or dread. There is always room for improvement, but it’s hard to find fault with life when these three things are true.
Now if you had to twist my arm, I would still like to use the right hemisphere of my brain more often. Possibly not unrelated to that, it would be fantastic if Andre could go to bed just a leeetle bit earlier. He has never been a big fan of bedtime, but this 18 month sleep regression (something I never knew existed until last week) is almost making me beg for the days of colic. No, that’s not true. Jesus. What am I saying? Let’s go back to that gratitude thing. Thank fuck Andre does not have colic right now.
Here are a few plans and goals for this year:
Use the right hemisphere of my brain more often – Maybe if I make it the first thing on the list it will happen. Maybe if I’m also a bit more specific. This year, I’m going to buy a ngoni and learn how to play it.
Visit the states again – Andre has grown so much since we were there last year. We are planning for a late July-August visit.
More scooter safaris – Our last one of the 2017-2018 season was in February (read about it here). For the 2018-2019 season, all the dates are now up at scootwestafrica.com. We have sold out one trip already at the end of January. We are really looking forward to introducing more people to this under-visited corner of the world.
One community project – Between the hotel staff, the postcard project, and our river trips, we have a lot of contact with people that are seriously underserved by the state. While we provide an income to a lot of these people, it wouldn’t be that difficult to also fund a community project that would benefit a larger group. I think the best way to do this is to partner with an existing local association that is already doing effective work.
One year memorial for Boukary – This will be a September event in Bamako. After Boukary’s passing, I talked a lot with his friends and followers about continuing his work – or helping others to continue his work – and I’ve mostly done nothing about it. I would like to have an event in a public space to get people together to celebrate Boukary’s work and to look at ways for it to continue.
Now for a few pictures from 2018 thus far:
Bintou is a phenomenal mother. I really can’t say enough about her skills when it comes to raising a human being. Andre probably agrees with me 99.95% of the time. In some cases, like the photo above, he is less impressed.
He doesn’t seem to mind scarves, though.
Andre the nomad
Andre le chef Dogon
A month or so ago Andre started crouching for photos. Sometimes he himself asks for a photo to be taken. He will say “photo” and then crouch. It’s his pose apparently. In fact, it has become really difficult to take a picture of him without him crouching.
See what I mean?
The Malian hot season is merciless, but there are a few positive tradeoffs, like mangoes, avocados, daily sunshine and a reduced mosquito population. It’s also been a good occasion for Andre to become an aquatic baby.
Andre hates his highchair. We have to eat at the coffee table so that he can sit in a regular chair.
Bintou graduated last month. All five of her dress and accessory designs were chosen for the catwalk at her graduation. I am seriously proud of her.
At the Camel we have had a wild first half of 2018. Incredible concerts (the one above is with Bwazan, Sulaiman Hakim and Omar Konate), river trips and reunions with some of our favorite people.
Kevin and Heike are back. We adore them and hope they never leave. They will leave, though. At least for a while. They are running self-guided overland trips in Morocco. You should check them out.
We have had some great trips on the river, including a May Day excursion down to Samaya where we hopped in truck inner-tubes and floated down the river.
Life is good, but all is not well in Mali. Hopefully the rest of 2018 is not like the previous year, or the first half of this one. Unfortunately, it remains hard to be optimistic, especially when it comes to the center and north of the country. There is supposedly an election that will take place in July. We’ll see… J’espere que la vie est belle chez vous.
My last post was a write-up of our first scooter trip with clients. We just wrapped up another one, this time a two week trip that included Guinea-Bissau. We had another great group – the best group as it was all friends of ours – and once again, we had too much fun.
I’m not going to talk much about the first half of the trip. It was similar to our previous safari in November, with a few additions and subtractions. We took out the bush camp and subbed in a night at Le Bazouk du Saloum, which turned out to be a great find by Matt. We also got the tides right for a beach ride near Kafoutine:
Due to security worries in the Casamance, all of which seem to have blown over, we played it safe and stuck to the main roads between Abené, Ziguinchor and Bissau. This didn’t stop us from having a ball in Senegal’s southern province.
But in this post, I want to talk about the second half of the trip. Matt and I were in Bissau a year earlier, but it was a brief visit. This would be another brief visit, but Carnival was on, and we were also going to the islands.
I remain seriously ignorant about the culture and history of Guinea-Bissau. And I certainly haven’t yet wrapped my head around the current political situation and the path that led to it. The country is often described as a poor and dysfunctional basket case. Sometimes people throw in “narco-state” to round out the description.
I do know that Guinea-Bissau is poor by any relevant economic standard. And tiny. The entire country has nearly the same population as Bamako. It desperately needs a working government, not the current stalemate that’s gripped the country since a 2012 coup d’état.
Infrastructure is seriously lacking. The traffic lights didn’t work in Bissau when we were there last year. They still weren’t working a year later. The electricity seems like it’s off more than it’s on. I spoke with one person that attributed the death of two family members to health worker strikes over the past year. And it doesn’t seem like anything much will change as long as the government is in limbo.
But Guinea-Bissau also has a few things going for it that make it one of my favorite places to visit. You can add the following narrative to my initial impressions I posted on this blog about a year ago.
We arrived in Bissau on Sunday. Carnival had started on Friday. We had no idea what traffic would be like, so we started early and hoped for a late afternoon arrival. It is a beautiful ride from Ziguinchor to Bissau. The road charges through dense jungle before opening up onto expansive floodplains. The soaring fromagier trees continue their march south from the Casamance.
For a group of six toubabs on scooters, the border crossing was laughably easy. All the Bissau-Guineans were in good spirits and plenty of “Boa Festa!”‘s (happy holidays) were exchanged. The good vibes continued in São Domingos, where I watched a customs officer crash into his colleague’s car. They both simply laughed about it. Despite the need for extra cash during carnival, we were not excessively taxed by any uniformed officials.
We stopped for lunch at the same bar in Ingoré that Matt and I visited a year earlier, where we drank cold super bocks and made our sandwiches on sacks of cement.
From February 2017
We arrived in Bula in the early afternoon. As we drove down the shaded road that runs through the town, I saw a boy wearing a clown mask chasing a girl. Both of them were shrieking with laughter. Carnival was on, and Bula was getting ready for a party. In the middle of the main traffic circle, a tower of speakers playing Patche di Rima with enough volume to wake the dead.
Bissau was the next stop. The city was still sleeping when we hit the main boulevard. There was little evidence of Carnival, but we just weren’t familiar with the rhythm yet.
We pulled into Hotel Kalliste. Matt and I stayed here a year earlier, and the place had endeared itself to us despite the fact that it is un peu fatigué. We parked our bikes in the restaurant and immediately ordered a round of mini super bocks. We had just completed the longest day of riding on the trip. It was a good occasion for a cold beer.
A Russian woman had taken over the food service since we were last at Kalliste, and she was seriously unimpressed with all the jakartas that were now parked in her restaurant. She warmed up to us, though, once she realized how many beers and prego sandwiches we would be consuming.
After a few beers, I went for a shower. Matt and I grabbed the rooms that were directly above the first floor nightclub in an attempt to spare our clients from the Angolan dance tracks that rattle the walls until 6AM. My room was flooded and the sink area of the bathroom seemed to be collapsing into the floor. This would be a problem if it did collapse as it would put me in the nightclub. Matt’s air conditioning was blowing hot air and the cleaning lady, Fatima, who we came to love, was repeatedly walking into his room unannounced.
Here’s the thing. The rooms could use some maintenance, a few coats of paint, some plumbing work. That’s true. But it’s also true that budget accommodation is hard to come by in Bissau. Fernando, the proprietor, actually respects his reservations (many others don’t, especially during Carnival), and thanks to the nightclub, the hotel has a generator and 24-hour electricity. Also, the rooms are clean. The real charm of Kalliste, though, is the eccentric cast of characters — both the clients and the staff. Kalliste is like a good friend that can’t get their shit together, but they are always great company, and they are always up for a drink and some mischief.
We eased into the first night of Carnival with an extravagant feast of grilled seafood at Oporto, a Portuguese restaurant around the corner. From there, we migrated to LP, a tiny bar named after the husband and wife owners, Lucille and Peter. LP was serving caipirinhas for 1500 cfa, and we indulged.
A proper caipirinha tropicale (which is the caipirinha most places in Bissau will give you by default) requires serious craftsmanship. At LP, one of the barmen was employed exclusively to make them, and let me say, they found the right man. It took him about 10 minutes to do a round. Each one came out brimming with fresh fruit, crushed ice and enough cana to kill a great dane. Lucille let us take over the sound system, and all of the staff joined us on an improvised dance floor.
The caipirinhas put us on a path. Before long, we were at Discoteca Tabanka and later, Balafon, the nightclub on the first floor of Kalliste. The good thing about ending the night at Balafon is that you can stumble up the stairs and fall into bed. In my case, that hopefully meant not falling through the floor back into the nightclub (sinking bathroom).
It was a heavy night, but we woke up ready to go the next day. We were either caught up in the inertia of Carnival or we still had cana in our bloodstreams.
Breakfast at Kalliste was a joy as usual. The prego sandwich is a revelation. Thinly sliced steak fried with garlic and onions in butter and olive oil, served on a Portuguese roll. Ok, and a super bock to wash it down.
Bissau was slow to rise, but we found an open one-table maquis next to a soccer pitch. This was the soundtrack in the taxi on the way there:
A Bissau-Guinean named Augusto Fidel was sitting at the bar’s only table, and he kindly let us join him. We chatted in our limited Portuguese and drank ice cold super bocks. Augusto ate a prego sandwich and educated us on life in Bissau.
Later in the afternoon, we went back to Kalliste to get ready for the parade. Carnival begins in villages and rural areas weeks before the party in Bissau. Regional winners gradually make their way to the capital to compete on the national stage. We heard rumors of a deflated Carnival atmosphere due to the fact that the government supposedly did not give out the promised prize money for the previous year’s winner. Whether that was true or not, the parade did not fail to impress.
Here are a few pictures from Matt Schinske, who was on the trip with us:
See the foot in the air?
There is this whole rollerblade culture in Bissau. I love it.
The kids were scared.
Matt took many more incredible photos. I suggest following him on instagram here.
While the parade was wrapping up, we dipped over to the obelisk traffic circle. A stiltwalker was already steering terrified children that way. Older kids on rollerblades weaved through the sprinting crowd. The traffic circle had turned into a giant block party with caipirinha stands, women selling fried fish, and everyone from couples and families to groups of teenagers and younger kids, everyone wearing all manner of imaginative outfits.
Had a funny chat with these ladies as they drank their fan milk, and we drank our 1000 CFA caipirinhas.
These caipirinha mixologists were drinking as many as they were making.
The traffic circle block party was everything I love about living and traveling in this part of the world. Food and drink on the street and absolutely no barrier to human interaction. Guinea-Bissau is particularly good at this.
The following day, we left for the Bijagos Islands, an archipelago that the Portuguese struggled to subdue during the colonial period. Most of the islands have societies that are in part matriarchal. In many instances, women choose their husbands, and the husbands have little to no right of refusal. The islands are also known for flora and fauna – salt water hippos, for example – that evolved independently from species on the mainland.
We were booked into Lodge les Dauphins on the main island of Bubaque. Les Dauphins sent a speed boat to Bissau to pick us up, and from the moment we hopped on the boat to the moment we returned to Bissau, Eric and his team took exceptional care of us. I would highly recommend this lodge to anyone looking for mid-range accommodation.
Les Dauphins is primarily a fishing lodge, but the rooms are well appointed and clean, the restaurant is excellent, and I can’t speak highly enough of the staff. Nando, Monsieur Dos and Rose were all incredibly accommodating and helpful. Every day we were given platters of fresh oysters and hunks of seared fish in a delicious olive oil marinade. These were offered to us free of charge.
We spent our first evening in Bubaque drinking a few beers down at the port while watching a group of young boys catch fish after fish with nothing more than a piece of fishing line and a lure. They would throw the line in the water and pull out a fish. While much of the region has seen the total or near collapse of its fisheries (Senegal and Mauritania being an exception, but it’s quickly changing), there are still plenty of fish in the waters here. The entire archipelago has UNESCO biosphere status, but the treacherous currents, sandbars and radical tide changes have probably protected the islands from international trawlers more than anything else.
For our first full day on Bubaque, we rented bicycles – well, some of us did – and rode 18 kilometers to the other side of the island. Finding six functioning bicycles turned out to be a difficult task, so half the group hopped into a Chinese tricycle.
I was on a bicycle that probably had a permanent effect on my fertility. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful ride past palm plantations and family farms. We arrived at a quiet beach camp that was built by a Bissau-Guinean-American champion kickboxer named Adlino Costa. Mr. Costa wisely situated his establishment on a plot of untouched beach allowing for views of both the sunrise and the sunset.
We ate a lunch of calamari and garlic shrimp at a communal table made out of an oversized pirogue. I drank palm wine that was tapped within 100 meters of the beach camp. The barman occasionally brought me shots of cana, which in this case was straight firewater. It was already a great afternoon, and it was only going to get better.
I was not particularly looking forward to riding my dilapidated bicycle eighteen kilometers with a belly full of calamari, palm wine and cana. In fact, I almost vomited after about 200 meters. Matt Christie somehow found the strength to catch up to the Chinese tricycle, which towed him back to town. I felt like I was riding my bicycle underwater. It probably looked that way, too. Fortunately, Matt Schinske was also on the slow train.
There was no way we were going to pedal uninterrupted for eighteen kilometers, so we took a different approach, which was to stop every time we saw someone. The first stop was a small homestead where we indulged in more freshly tapped palm wine.
The next stop was a larger family’s household. They were shucking palm seeds, which would later be used to make palm oil. We bought a liter of cana from them for 1500 cfa, passing the bottle around and talking and joking in our limited Portuguese/Creole.
The mother was the first to be offered and the first to drink a glass of cana. A pair of young boys were doing the dishes and chopping up vegetables for the evening meal (tasks almost always performed by girls elsewhere in West Africa). First-hand evidence – albeit a small sample size – of the supposedly matriarchal culture on the islands.
We could have sat with this family all day, but we still had a long way to go and we were running out of daylight.
We continued to stop every time we crossed paths with someone on the road. We ran into these three women who were coming back from the fields.
We shared a bit of cana and gave them a cup to-go. We couldn’t say more than four or five words to each other, but they were lovely and very funny. We had several more stops before we made it back to town, each one more amusing than the next.
By the time we made it back to the radio tower, it was nearly impossible to keep the bikes upright and stay on the road. At dinner, Mel, a Spanish guy who runs a small restaurant and auberge called Sol de Mar, explained how he long ago swore off cana. According to Mel, cana gets you into trouble while you are drinking it and then devastates you the following day. I could see where he was coming from, but I wouldn’t trade away that afternoon for the world.
By the way, Mel is an incredible cook, and you should definitely arrange to eat there if you are in Bubaque. His restaurant is open from Thursday – Sunday, but if you tell him a day in advance, he may be able to whip something up for you on the other days. There is no menu, and Mel simply makes a meal with what he finds in the market, while drinking wine and regaling you with wild stories from the islands. For more Bubaque tips, Matt has put together an excellent guide here.
We spent our last day on Rubane, Bubaque’s next door neighbor. Ponta Anchaca is the luxury resort on the island, and while it was out of our price range for accommodation, we had no problem throwing down for a beachside lunch there. It was a great way to wrap up our time on the islands.
Tchau for now
There is a member of the American Embassy in Bamako who is a big cheerleader for Guinea-Bissau tourism. However, he calls the country an “acquired taste” for many western visitors. I can understand that perspective. The ramshackle port of Bubaque and the decaying buildings of Bissau may turn some people off. The potholed roads and power cuts certainly aren’t going to endear themselves to anyone. But spend some time with Bissau-Guineans, and it will all make sense. I look forward to spending a lot more time there.
Speaking of which, we just published our dates for the 2018-2019 season, including our 2019 Carnival trip to Bissau and our New Year’s trip to Casamance for the Abené music festival. You can check them out at scootwestafrica.com. You can also join our email list for all the latest on dates and new trips, along with stories and photos from the road:
After tooling around the campement and getting comfortable on the bikes, we rode through a few sandy streets before arriving at a small shawarma shack. After an unexpectedly delicious lunch of chicken sandwiches, we were ready for the salt flats south of Fatick.
This first stretch of road is immaculate tarmac framed by salt flats and distant palm trees. It is a beautiful ride and a great introduction to the trip. Traffic is light, and while you do need to watch out for the errant cow, you can mostly enjoy the scenery.
Several causeways indicated our arrival in the Sine-Saloum delta, a few hundred thousand hectares of mangroves and intersecting waterways. We had to cross one of these waterways on a boat.
All seven of us fit on board along with the bikes and a few additional local passengers
After the water crossing, we blasted towards Keur Saloum and arrived in time for sunset beers on the jetty.
One day in the books. No one fell off a bike and we finished the day drinking beers with this view. Not bad.
The following day, we headed south towards the Gambia. Before we got to the border we stopped off at the Fathala wildlife reserve. Matt and I cruised over to the Gambian border in order to make friends with the Gambian police and customs officers while the rest of the group went on a lion walk and a game drive.
Picture taken by Ben, one of the clients on the trip
We met up with the rest of the group afterwards for a pizza lunch. An ostrich wandered around the car park several meters away.
It was a short ride to the border from Fathala. Checking out of Senegal was easy enough, and our “friends” at the Gambian border didn’t hold us up on that side. We were then on our way to the ferry at Bara, where the Gambian river meets the Atlantic.
Front row seats for the Gambia River crossing to Banjul. The ferry was laden with trucks, livestock, vendors selling cashews and bissap, walk on passengers, and our jakarta crew.
Arriving on the other side, we skipped out of the port and headed down the riverside road that leads to the main highway to Serrekunda.
In the Gambia, we stayed at a funny resort-type place right on the beach. There was bingo and karaoke and plenty of cold Julbrews, Gambia’s national beer. It was well situated, not too far from the Senegambia strip and its bars and restaurants, but far enough from its madness. The view wasn’t bad, either:
Picture taken by Ben
Our arrival in the Gambia corresponded with Matt’s 44th birthday. Let’s just say it was a festive 36 hours. After the birthday extravaganza and some beach and pool time, we were ready to get back on the road. The next stop was Abené, in the Casamance, which meant we needed to cross back into Senegal.
I was somewhat hungover but looking forward to what was one of the highlights of our trip when we did it back in February: heading south on an oceanside road, crossing through fishing villages and the Tanji bird reserve and then crossing the border in a dugout canoe.
Cruising through Kartong, the last stop in the Gambia
After we checked out of the Gambia, we met up with our old friends Lamine and Aicha. Lamine manages the canoe crossing and Aicha runs a small shop and bar on the side of the river, a great place to have a beer while waiting for your turn to cross.
Drone view of the river crossing taken by Oumou the drone (RIP) back in February 2017
Once on the other side, we would have about 10 kilometers through the jungle on narrow sand paths. This is without a doubt the trickiest bit of riding on the trip, but it’s also a lot of fun.
There was an almost seamless transition between the jungle and the village of Abené. A few houses popped up and suddenly we were on the main drag through town, with relaxed maquis, reggae bars, and women selling locally made fruit preserves and chili sauce. We bisected the town and returned to the sand paths that lead to the Little Baobab.
At the Little Baobab, we were warmly greeted by Khady and family before being treated to a delicious lunch of yassa and rice.
Photos by Ben
After lunch, we cruised up to the “official” border crossing in order to get stamps in our passports. Matt and I then proceeded to Senegalese customs to get new laissez-passers for our Malian bikes while the group went back to Abené to explore.
Me in the roots of Abené’s Bantom Wora tree in February.
Ben took this picture of a sunset beer on the beach.
For dinner, Khady and the girls served us a platter of grilled monkfish with chips and salad. It was heavenly. Matt and I both turned in early while the group went down to Freedom Sound to check out the Wednesday night jam session with local musicians.
After a delicious breakfast, Matt and I set out for Kafountine to begin preparations for an ambitious bush camp followed by a trip through the mangroves. Meanwhile, the group had the morning to relax and wander Abené.
Matt had lined up a 50 kilometer boat trip through the waterways of the Casamance. The plan was to take an afternoon beach ride on the bikes and then hop on a boat. That evening we would camp on the beach in a grove of baobabs. The following day we would cruise through the mangroves until we got to the Casamance River and the island of Carabane. There was a certain amount of risk that Aliou the boatman’s motor would shit the bed and we would be stranded on a sand bank somewhere.
I can’t get enough monkfish when I am in Casamance. The brochettes at Chez Kathy are particularly special, with Kathy’s house citron marinade. You don’t need to tell me what a monkfish looks like. I know. It’s too tasty, though.
After lunch, we rode to the port of Kafountine, cruising past mountains of smoked and dried fish on our way to the beach south of the village.
Getting ready for a beach ride
Things went a bit sideways on the beach ride. Up to this point, the trip was lacking in close calls I suppose. One bike sucked up a bit of saltwater and stalled. As Matt brought that bike back to life, the rest of the group rode several kilometers down the beach, where they found a bloated, decomposing dolphin – not exactly the most auspicious sight to come across. I eventually caught up to the rest of the group to signal that we needed to turn back (the tide was coming up) and then a second bike went down. Matt revived the first, but the second refused to start, and he ended up dragging it half way down the beach.
Eventually, we all made it to Aliou’s boat. We got the bikes on and then cracked open a few beers once the motor started successfully.
We dipped into the mangroves before heading back out towards the ocean. Before we hit the Atlantic, we stopped off at a grove of baobabs that Matt had previously scouted some weeks previous. This would be our first bush camp of the trip.
We set up the tents and dipped into the beers while I concocted a poor man’s beef bourguignon. After an entertaining storytime session around the fire, we passed out to the sound of waves lapping the shore and Bob’s epic snoring.
Aliou and his co-pilot, Paul, stayed up all night drinking wine and fishing for catfish. I woke up at different points in the night and heard them cackling down at the beach.
Bob whipped up a delicious breakfast scramble with local chorizo and bacon that we found in a Kafountine mini market.
After breakfast, we loaded up the boat and began the 50 kilometer journey through the mangroves to the Casamance River and the island of Carabane.
Let me tell you something, if you are into birds, this is your trip.
Photo taken by Bob
Some of the mangroves narrowed to just a few meters wide. The tide was going out as we approached the Casamance River, but we only got stuck once. The motor also stalled, but Aliou was able to get it going long before we ran out of beer.
Approaching the island of Carabane, 57 square kilometers that feel like they’ve been plucked out of the Caribbean. There are no cars on the island and only a handful of guesthouses and maquis.
We stayed at Chez Hellena, a simple family-run guesthouse right on the beach. As soon as we arrived, Hellena served us enormous gambas followed by a capitain yassa with rice, all washed down with cold gazelles.
In the evening, we found a family-run maquis around the corner from Chez Hellena. Family-run is a theme on this island. Most businesses are run straight out of the house. I was able to score some cachaça from Bissau at Chez Irene.
Back at Chez Hellena we were once again treated to a meal fit for royalty. Hellena’s nieces and nephews danced around the sandy bar as Hellena sat playing cards with another guest. The Casamance River mingled with the Atlantic a few meters away. I was really growing fond of this place.
In the morning, we said goodbye to Hellena and her sweet family and hopped back on the boat. We were heading to Elinkin, back on the mainland.
Arriving in Elinkin
After the bikes got a bit of a washing, it was time to get back on the road. Thankfully, all of jakartas started without issue. We had a beautiful ride through southern Casamance in store.
By lunch time we were in Ziguinchor, the last stop on the trip. We went straight to le Perroquet, an auberge situated directly on the river.
It’s hard to beat having a sundowner on the sandy patio of the Perroquet while fishermen prepare their boats and you decide between the gambas sauteed with garlic or the monkfish filet for dinner.
Moonrise over the Casamance River
We had a few celebratory drinks on the patio of the Perroquet and then a delicious chicken yassa lunch. Afterwards, we had a wander around town with the jakartas, ending up at a small maquis called “One Foot in the Water,” which was being run by a friendly dude from Bissau.
In the evening, another glorious meal at the Perroquet followed by a stop at one of Ziguinchor’s only nightclubs, which was amusing until we ran out of steam. We ended the night lounging on the patio of the Perroquet as the moon loomed over the river.
The following day, Matt drove the bikes back to Abené with the crew from the Little Baobab, and I took the group to the port of Ziguinchor, where they would catch the ferry back to Dakar.
All things considered, the trip went incredibly well. We had a great group. We didn’t get stranded on a sand bar in the mangroves. No one crashed into a cow or a donkey cart. Every day brought a different scene with a new cast of characters. And some of my favorite aspects of West Africa – the ease at which you can have casual interactions, the joie de vivre, the hospitality and openness towards strangers – truly left their mark.
This is a trip we want to do many more times. Hopefully not just with dudes (no offense to those on the trip).
I'm Phil. I live in Mali, where I run a hotel and restaurant. I also teach people how to draw camels. If you like what you see on this site, you can subscribe by RSS or email. You can also follow me on twitter:
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