A week in Senegal

I’d never been to Senegal in West Africa, but I had read about it being one of the most politically stable and supposedly advanced countries in the continent and a popular tourist destination for the French (unsurprisingly, since it used to be a colony and it’s the official language). But it never seemed such a must-see destination to merit the hassle and cost of flights via Paris, Madrid or Lisbon. So when I discovered that one airline (TUI) had introduced the first direct flights from London, I had to go! 

Country number 144 for me. 

Not many others shared my enthusiasm, I discovered. Waiting at the boarding gate at Gatwick, I counted just 60 of us for a 190 seat aircraft. More than two-thirds empty. About a third of those looked like they were visiting friends and family. TUI, of course, sells package holidays. They’re obviously not selling very well to Senegal! We travelled independently, flight only, making all our own arrangements as usual, and may very well have been the only ones. The non-stop flight takes 6 hours. There’s no business class; we paid a small supplement for “extra space” seats (which just means more legroom) which for such a long flight was definitely worth it, as regular rows have a very cramped pitch.

First impressions were good. A very large, modern and almost empty airport and very quick immigration (no visas or entry cards required). The airport lies roughly midway between Dakar, the capital, and Saly, where the package holiday hotels are. The motorway that connects the three is new, wide and largely empty. We went first to Dakar, which is 60km and about one hour’s drive.

The second impression, gained from the drive into and around the city, is not so good. Senegal is a country under construction. Everywhere you look there are unfinished buildings. So much so that it can be hard to spot a building that looks finished. It’s common to find such unfinished houses in countries where many younger people have emigrated to richer countries for work, but I’ve never seen so many as here. Expats buy or inherit a patch of land, and send money back home every year to build another bit of their retirement dream home; foundations one year, ground floor walls another, and so on. It can take decades to finish a house that way. It makes for an ugly city – and an ugly country, as such unfinished properties are visible along every road we drove, even out in the middle of the country. The ugliness is partly simply because they’re unfinished, partly because of the building materials used (grey concrete blocks), partly because there is no planning, no consistency of shape or size, no judgement of what might be attractive or not.

It’s not just the towns and cities – I caught glimpses of a few cemeteries, and they resembled miniature versions of the towns. Can graves really be ‘under construction’ long term?

A tour of Dakar city involves a lot of driving, perhaps exacerbated in our case because our hotel in Almadies was about 7km from the centre, so more than 30 minutes each way. There aren’t many interesting sights, and we weren’t tempted to spend any time visiting museums or walking around. (An unfortunate experience on our first evening discouraged us too.) 

Dakar is dominated by the Monument a la Renaissance Africaine, a monumental monument if ever there was one. It’s claimed to be the second biggest statue in the world, after one in India. It represents a man, a woman and a child, built in bronze and stone, allegedly designed by the first President of the republic, and built by North Korean contractors (now that in itself is unusual). It sits atop a small hill (described as one of the city’s “breasts”, the other, adjacent, is topped by a lighthouse). There are 200 steps from the road up to the base, and one can then climb another 200 steps or so inside the statue (rather like the Statue of Liberty, I suppose) to reach the man’s hat, which one can then walk around, no doubt with a splendid view of the city. However, it wasn’t sufficient draw to encourage me to risk my dodgy knee by making the climb.

In terms of public buildings of note there’s the Cathedral (which looks like it should be a mosque), the museum of African Art, the city hall, the parliament building and supreme court. The French influence is obvious, but none are particularly attractive. Our guided tour stopped at a market built around a beach where fishing boats land. Fish is still sold directly from the boat in the late afternoon, we were told, but the market area is now purely tourist orientated. We felt bad for the dozens of stall holders, since we were the only tourists, and not interested in buying anything.

Another market was the real thing, though, a duodecahedron-shaped building (12 sides – I think) with stalls inside ranged in concentric circles – fruit and vegetables nearest the outside, fish and meat in the middle. All quite hygienic and civilised by African city standards. Even though it was well past the main shopping time (apparently 6 – 11) it was still pretty busy.

The highlight of Dakar is a visit to Gorée Island, about 2km and a twenty minute ferry ride from the city quay.

Gorée is a complete contrast to Dakar. The island was the first World Heritage Site in Africa, and all the buildings are certainly old; it’s very attractive, and there are no motor vehicles on the island. It’s quite small, 900 metres long and 300 wide, and its claim to infamy is as the main slave trading post in the 1600s and 1700s, during which time it changed hands from Portuguese to French to British to Dutch to French – but always with the same trade. There were originally about 40 “slave houses” but now there is only one, which is maintained as a historic monument. Similar to one we visited many years ago in Zanzibar, it basically comprises dark cells and a “door of no return”; quite depressing to think about.

The next day we travelled north to Saint-Louis, the most historic city, close to the border with Mauritania. The drive took about 5 hours; when they finish the motorway it will be 3 or less. There are no domestic flights in Senegal. Saint-Louis is in three parts. The big main city is on the mainland, with a population of 2 or 3 million. The touristic part, however, is the Saint-Louis island, a long and narrow strip of land, an island in the river, reached from the mainland by a 300m bridge across the Senegal River. This part is packed with historic buildings, and is a quiet oasis away from the main city. From there, another bridge crosses to a long isthmus of land called Hydrobase, one side facing the river and the island, the other facing the sea. This long strip of land continues north all the way to Mauritania, but we went south to where it ends with sandy beaches. The route south along Hydrobase to our hotel proved the most spectacular part of the visit, through the fishing community which populate the isthmus– a total shock to the senses! First a chaotic street scene, hordes of brightly-dressed people, countless sheep (they look like goats, being short-haired), and horse buggies in lieu of taxis. Further on, after passing a market, the real fishing community; boats hauled up on the beach on both river and sea sides, the road running between them, any parking spaces packed in with grid-locked refrigerated trucks, either unloading ice to the boats or loading fish to take to market or for export. Crowds of women selling boxes of fish, men repairing nets, children playing games, and sheep. Sheep everywhere. A Dante-esque vision that, other than the refrigerated trucks, cannot have changed for centuries.

Our guide told us a great deal about the community there. The Senegalese are proud of their historic inclusivity, where the 90%+ Muslim majority live in harmony with the Christian minority. Here in Saint-Louis, the population was 100% Muslim, and old-fashioned at that – no toleration of anything remotely ‘woke’ here. I got the clear impression that our guide would have lynched anyone LGBTQ+ he might come into contact with, at the same time as claiming to be liberal (in contrast to the local fishing community, who would cut deviants up and feed them to the sharks).

Whilst I did manage to take plenty of pictures, I was warned to be discreet, and in some places told to put the camera away. It offends the local community, but their attitude is allegedly aggravated because of a lingering hatred of some French photographer who allegedly made a fortune from postcards (which they saw as exploitation).

Back in the old town on the island, we did what all tourists do there, and take a horse and carriage ride around town. I’ve seen horse and carriage rides for tourists in many cities, but I don’t think we’ve ever been on one ourselves before – if we have, it’s a long time ago. More comfortable than I had expected.  It’s an enjoyable ride, but there’s not really a lot to see, and the streets are similar to each other – but it’s undoubtedly historic. The most attractive area is the waterfront facing the big city, and that is where most of the boutique hotels are sited.

The next day we left Saint-Louis early for the Parc des Oiseaux de Djouj – a bird sanctuary, claimed to be the biggest and best in Africa. Senegal might be Africa, but it doesn’t have fauna like elephants or big cats. I’m no twitcher, but I like seeing birds too.

It takes about 2 hours to get there, the first 30km by asphalted road, followed by nearer 40km of dirt track, most of it in reasonably good condition. The attraction of the park to the birds is the vast expanses of water – even though we visited in the dry season, when the lakes have shrunk, it’s still immense. We toured in a “pirogue”, a long narrow boat with a partial tent roof to keep off the worst of the sun. Most of the birds are migratory; the Djouj is the first expanse of fresh water south of the Sahara, so those that don’t stay are making a pit stop on the way south or north. At peak times, there are claimed to be two or three million birds in residence (I suppose someone counted them). There were not so many when we were there, but still a lot, and it was an enjoyable morning on the water. There are many types of bird – especially water birds like ibis, heron, waders, etc. – but the park is famous for its population of grey pelicans, who nest here and then leave in May when the hatchlings can fly. The parents can’t wait – from a distance, we saw jackals swimming out to catch and feed on chicks.

Our final destination was Saly, the tourist resort East of Dakar and the airport. Benidorm it isn’t, but this is where the beach hotels are. The beaches themselves are wide and sandy, and popular with locals. We didn’t stay in a beachfront resort, but in a hotel set a few hundred metres back from the water. Saly town is ugly; there are a very few bars and restaurants, and only one or two that attracted us. The one we went to was half full with elderly European men accompanied by young Senegalese women.

Unlike Dakar, the beachfront fish restaurants in Saly, rated so highly on TripAdvisor, looked run down – and some were downright derelict. The only “posh” restaurant is down a dirt track and hidden behind high walls, with a sign repelling those who didn’t have a reservation. I’m not sure it was even still in operation! I hope that any holidaymakers who come on a package to stay for a fortnight really like their hotel and are happy to stay there all the time, because if they’ve not got prior experience of  developing countries, going for a walk outside would probably not be worth the trouble, and might shock them. On our flight back there were at least two couples who had rebooked to come back early.

Traveller's Tips

  • Take Euros cash. There is a fixed exchange rate to the Central African Franc of 640-650 so bureaux de change won’t rob you. Hotels and restaurants will accept Euro notes up to €50 denomination.
  • Mobile roaming costs are prohibitive (Senegal is not included in any “world” package) and getting a SIM card is bureaucratic, so (assuming you have a modern smartphone) get an eSIM and suitable data package from Ubigi (no, they are not paying me to promote them!), and before you go send all incoming calls to voicemail and switch the data to the eSIM.
  • Hotels are very expensive. Always book direct with hotels via their own websites – it’s never more expensive (and often a bit cheaper) than the big booking agents and far more trustworthy.
  • Get the Bradt guide – it’s the only guidebook dedicated to the country, and we found it comprehensive and largely up to date.
  • There are long distance buses but they can’t be booked from outside the country (I tried!) and frankly you’ll need a local agent to make arrangements to get around outside Dakar. If you’re interested, message me and I’ll tell you my experience and recommendations.
  • The food is better than you might expect, and reflects a French influence. Stick to fish. Everywhere, even in the humblest shack restaurant, it is fresh, and cooked and presented well. Oh, and breakfast croissants are generally excellent.
  • Wine (by the glass, anyway) is expensive and awful. Stick to beer – ‘33’ is the best in my opinion (‘Gazelle’ is weak and flavourless).