An early morning start was necessary to ensure a seat for our return trip to Banjul, the capital city of The Gambia. Tobaski, now only a few days away, meant that thousands of people were
travelling. Many merchants and traders, hoping to take advantage of the last "grand spend" for many months, would be transporting their wares from one country to the next.
The Summer rainy season generally means a reduction in the numbers of tourists and tourist generated income, which for many of the young hotel / restaurant workers, guides and market traders,
means a return to the land to prepare for the onset of the rains in July and much hard work helping their families on the farms.
Tobaski is a bonanza time for tailors and hairdressers, who work late into the night to keep up with demand. Also for the herdsmen and cattle dealers trying to sell the previous twelve months
production of animal breeding. Many people set off on long journeys to visit their families, far away from their places of work, for a few days of feasting and celebration, while they still have money in their
All of this results in massive movements of people, animals and goods ... concentrated in the totally congested centres of transport. Dakar taxi-garage, an area of about 6 football pitches, was a
seething mass of humanity and vehicles. Men, women and children constantly pestering you to buy their offerings ... arguments over who was going to sit in which seat with drivers' assistants trying to coerce
unwilling travellers to take the last remaining rear seat places ( the ones behind the centre seats, designed for midgets, with little legroom and virtually no headroom ) so that they could depart.
Absolute mayhem, needing a good deal of firmness of character, lots of patience, attention to one's belongings and a mastery of the finer points of French "slang" to ensure one's purpose and desires
are eventually accomplished.
An invaluable assistance was the provision of signs, marking their
destinations, at the head of each row of taxis ... giving a similar scene to an assembly of athletes at the opening of an Olympic Games. Our seats finally secured, we slowly headed off towards the outskirts of Dakar in a series of long tailbacks of traffic and clouds of exhaust fumes, accompanied by deafening sirens and hooters .. through streets lined with as many animals as humans.
The journey towards Kaolak at first follows the coastline ... the Atlantic Ocean is the source of many fruitful fishing industries and much needed tourist revenue ... but more
importantly to travellers, it provides a beautiful cooling sea breeze. Turning inland to follow the railway line which eventually leads to Bamako in Mali ( last seen on the Tambacounda to Kidira leg of our
journey ) this breeze disappeared and the temperature shot up to well over 40 degrees C.
The highlights of this part of the journey were to pass through a hauntingly beautiful forest of bare-branched Baobab
trees, waiting for the onset of the rainy season to produce their foliage and large marrow-shaped fruits, which hang on long tendrils. A lovely blue and white Mosque
standing out against a clear blue sky and a morose driver who obviously had major problems in his life.
Most West African taxi drivers are usually full of chat and good humour ... building up an
enjoyable camaraderie between fellow travelling strangers into a party atmosphere.
Our chauffeur for the day was not of this character. Silent, unsmiling, hell-bent on trying to complete the 6-7 hour
journey without stopping, whilst rigidly maintaining a boringly slow
55 kph, he possessed an unnerving habit of constantly swaying his head between interior mirror and door mirror. Hour after hour, perspiring
profusely in the heat ... it was not the most pleasant of experiences.
By the time we reached Kaolak, we had had enough. Demanding a stop for liquid refreshment, we fell out of
our cramped conditions and enjoyed a welcome leg-stretch and cool Coke at a petrol station, whilst looking across the enormous Salt Flats, stretching into the far distance.
Kaolak is a sprawling mixture of warehouses, shops and
taxis ... the centre for salt production in this part of West Africa and the manufacture of a strange type of black soap. Everything in Kaolak tastes of salt ... the water, the food, the wanja, even the
air tastes salty. An interesting phenomenon is that prolonged exposure to these salty conditions turns the colour of the local inhabitant's teeth to a chocolate brown. Whereas most Africans have a mouthful of
super hard, bright white teeth ... the envy of many of us from the so-called "developed" nations.
On meeting a new friend, anywhere in the West African area and receiving a radiant brown smile
... "Ahaa, you must come from Kaolak ?" is normally answered with
"Yes I do, how ever did you know that ?" !!
2016 Udate: Although some brown-toothed 'Kaolakians' are still seen today, conditions as regards the salt contaminating everything have vastly improved, as has local dentistry.
Travellers can find taxi and minibus connections from here to Soma ( Mans Conk ) and onwards to Ziguinchor in Casamance, via the Trans-Gambian Highway. Turn East towards Mali or North East to
drive or board the train to Touba, where the Magal is held annually.
The Magal is a large Muslim Festival, second only in importance to the Haj in Mecca, for the literally millions of locals that endure the journey, packed into high-sided trucks, to attend. Whilst not a Muslim, I attended this fascinating gathering a couple of years ago ...
the subject of another tale ... perhaps.
Another few kilometres of decent paved roads and then the potholes took over. Funds for road maintenance and repair are always limited in this area, but I often question why the final few
kilometres of road leading into and out of the Senegalese and Gambian borders are like bomb-sites. Most other countries world-wide, ensure that the first and final impressions of a country leave a pleasant
memory ... no such effort is made here.
All taxis and minibuses eventually leave the main road and take to the bush ... weaving through tiny villages, scattering pedestrians and livestock in all
directions. Giving a constant source of entertainment to the waving / car-chasing children and a lot of dust to the rest of the village.
2016 Update: Over the past few years, efforts have been made to
repair these roads and thankfully they are now a credit to both countries.
Arriving at long last at the border crossing points near Barra ... our chauffeur rapidly
disappeared into the distance, with the same scowl on his face, to hopefully sort out his problems and get a life. Passport controls and customs were completed without problem and a warm welcome back to The Gambia came from the Immigration Officials, money changers, opportunist small children seeking spare loose change and vendors with their little mobile bar-b-que trolleys, full of glowing charcoal and red-hot spicy meat.
Hot food in those temperatures was a little superfluous !