‘What’s it like’ is a mini-series of blogs answering the burning questions about African countries which don’t enjoy a huge amount of good publicity in the world of travel and media.
There’s just something about Senegal, it oozes charm and elegance. There’s a wonderfully diverse range of things to see, the food is fantastic and the people are impossibly good-looking. What’s not to love?
Where is it?
Senegal is a coastal West African country which shares its borders with Mauritania and Mali to the north and east, and Guinea and Guinea-Bissau to the south. That means it enjoys a bit of the dry heat from the desert in the north, and starts getting greener and steamier the further south you head.
What can I see there?
So much stuff! There’s a lot going on in Senegal, whether you’re a city person, prefer to get amongst untouched nature or sprawl on an empty beach, you’ll find a place you could happily linger for weeks on end.
In the former colonial capital of Saint Louis, the pastel paint of the old French-style buildings is peeling, and Saint Louis is ushering in a new era of vibrant African art and music. There are myriad shops selling locally made art, (I particularly loved the women-run La Liane l’atelier des femmes), and wildly painted pirogues cram the river’s edge. There’s an incredibly relaxed vibe in the UNESCO protected old town of Ile de N’Dar, and you can sit down to a delicious traditional Senegalese meal at a cozy restaurant for a ridiculously low price. Taking a lazy stroll down the lanes is a delightful and hassle-free experience, and on the wider streets you’ll dodge yellow taxis, horse drawn carts and the kaleidoscopic local buses called car rapides (rapidity not guaranteed). All things considered, Saint Louis has got to be one of the most atmospheric cities in West Africa.
The interior of Senegal can be unbearably hot and humid at certain times of year, but it’s time to embrace all the aesthetic problems that come with 38 degrees, because a trip to Wassadou is absolutely worth it. Look for hippos on the edge of The Gambia river, or spend an afternoon watching a 200-strong gang of baboons play in the afternoon sun. There’s a huge array of bird life in Senegal, so you’ve got a perfectly good reason to crack open a glistening La Gazelle beer, sit back and do nothing on the pretext of ‘important wildlife research.’
Yes, the town of Cap Skirring is a smidge touristy (by West African standards, forget about battling crowds), but get yourself a kilometre or so away from the fishing boats and you’ve got miles of perfectly clean beach patrolled only by herds of cows who traverse the sand in their hundreds and always seem to know exactly where they’re going. Gaps in the pines provide perfect spaces for wild camping, so you can nod off with the sound of the waves just metres away.
Just a few minutes drive away from Cap Skirring is the tiny village of Diembéring, which boasts a huge and majestic Kapok tree smack bang in the village square, welcoming locals and lively festivals.
Are the people nice?
Yes! They’re also some of the sharpest dressers in West Africa, men strut the streets in traditional-style suits made from the brightest possible prints, while women rock tailor-made dresses and matching head wraps fitted to perfection. Aesthetics is everything in Senegal, they are sport obsessed, with football, basketball and traditional Senegalese wrestling being the most popular, and you can spot Adonis-like figures pounding the pavement or doing endless amounts of crunches on the beach at all hours of the day. A traditional wrestling match is absolutely worth seeing, boys as young as four square off against each other to see who’ll hit the dirt first, but it’s all in good fun and sportsmanship.
The Senegalese, particularly men and boys, love having their photo taken, and if you walk around with a camera for a few minutes you’ll likely be asked to take a few lads pictures while they pose the house down. Women and girls are a bit more shy and might hang around curiously until you ask them yourself. The vast majority of Senegalese are Muslim (around 92%), but it’s practised in a much more relaxed way than in Morocco or Mauritania, meaning there are still plenty of opportunities for beer and booty-shaking.
Is the food good?
Hell. Yes. Senegalese food is straight up delicious. Like a lot of African meals, sometimes it doesn’t look like much, but what you lose in pretentious plating is made up for with delicious flavours. Yassa poulet (braised chicken with lemony onion sauce), mafe (peanut based sauce with rice) and thieboudienne (fish with vegetables and tomato sauce) are all incredible and available at just about every restaurant and local chop shop for as little as 1000 cfa (NZD $2.60/1.50 euro). Other than the local beers, the best way to beat the heat is with a frozen bissap juice, small plastic sachets of icy purple liquid, made from hibiscus leaves, sugar and water. They taste better than just about any ice block on the market, and you can pick them up for next to nothing.
Is it safe?
Yes. Some governments still warn against travel to the Cassamance region, and while the gun mounts and soldiers are still there, the separatist conflict of the 80s seems very much in the past. Senegalese men are charmers, and will invariably try and chat/inquire about your marital status if you are travelling alone as a woman, but they are usually very respectful, and often want nothing more than a selfie with you. Your biggest risk is petty crime in Dakar.
Full disclosure, our car was broken into while we spent the night in an auberge in Yoff, but judging by the loot that was stolen and the way they cleaned up after themselves, my guess was that it was carried out by a group of nervous and somewhat remorseful teenagers.
Where can I stay?
It’s far from the cheapest camping option in West Africa, but a stay at Zebrabar is an experience in its own right, and you don’t even need to leave the grounds to view pelicans floating on the river Senegal, or cheeky monkeys hovering in the trees. A half hour drive from the centre of Saint Louis, Zebrabar is on the edge of the Parc de la Langue de Barbarie, so you can emerge from your bungalow or tent and head straight to a hammock overlooking the water, or climb to the top of the viewing tower for a 360 degree sunset. For overlanders, it’s the perfect meeting point to hook-up with other travellers, and there’s even a mini-garage with a ramp where you can work on your vehicle. Further down country, it’s super easy to camp just about anywhere, and if you’re daring enough, you can drive almost all the way from Saint Louis to Dakar along the beach at low-tide, and pull over for an idyllic night of wild camping along the way.
VERDICT: Should you go? Oui, Waaw and Ha (yes, yes and yes in French, Wolof and Mandinka)
PS. You can check out our visual diary from Senegal here.