Sunday, March 4, 2018

St. Louis, Senegal

The vegetation grew increasingly sparse with the baobabs few and far between and the soil more and more sandy as I closed in on Mauritania and the Sahara.  But the litter became even more spectacular thanks to the traffic along this main road and the regular dots of civilization and the steady winds bringing it to congregating points.

With the abundance of litter strewn far and wide attracting my attention I hardly missed the baobabs.  But the kids shouting out "taubab" with the emphasis on "bab" as I passed kept the spirit of the baobabs alive.  It is a somewhat cheery term for whites in these parts, in contrast to the rather harsh "mzungu" of East Africa and the downright austere "blanco" of Guinea-Bissau.

West Africa might be the land-based equivalent of the huge gathering point in the Pacific for oceanic garbage.  It is hard to imagine so much could be generated just in this region.  Somehow the winds must bring it here from all over.

I took a slight detour after I left Dakar to Lac Rose, twenty miles outside the city along the coast.  It is an attraction due to its sometimes pink-hued waters due to red algae and its heavy salt concentration, ten times that of the ocean.  It is also noteworthy having been the finishing point for the almost mythical Paris-Dakar race.

The race was last run to Dakar in 2007 after security threats in Mauritania caused its cancellation in 2008. It had such appeal, peaking in 2005 with 688 competitors, it is still run (by the same organization that conducts The Tour de France) in South America through the desert terrain of Argentina and Chile.

At one end of the four-mile long lake by the large parking lot where the race used to end a handful of touts descended on me trying to recruit me to a hotel or a boat ride or to buy some souvenirs.  They don't get much business with no direct, easy way to reach the lake, though it does provide a welcome antidote of tranquility to the mayhem of Dakar and has a handful of hotels.

Salt production seems to provide more revenue than tourism.

There were several clusters of workers raking and sacking and loading the salt.

After biking several miles along the sandy dirt road hugging the shore of the lake I headed back to the main road for eight or nine miles on sandy roads that had me pushing my bike in equal measures to riding it, giving me a taste what it would be like to ride across the unpaved roads of the Sahara.  When I met a couple of Brazilians who'd just ridden down from Morocco across Mauritania, who said the roads of Mauritania were dreadful, requiring a considerable amount of pushing their bikes through the sand, Mauritania lost its allure for me.  I had a further taste of pushing my bike through the sand the two nights I camped on my way to St. Louis.  Unlike further inland on my ride to Mali, where I was able to ride on the hard dirt when I left the road to camp, it was a tough slog pushing my bike through the sand trying to get to a tree before a car came along.

At least the road was in tip top shape, recently repaved.  There were no broken down trucks awaiting repairs unlike all the other roads I've ridden in Senegal and Mali, just the carcasses of cows and donkeys and the occssional car.

St. Louis is on an island reached by crossing a bridge whose arches were designed by Gustave Eiffel.

Eiffel architecture turns up all over.  I saw a prefabricated church of his creation in South America, but missed out last year on a fireplace he designed in Madagascar.  This bridge was actually intended for the Danibe, but when that project fell through, it ended up here in Senegal in 1897.

After crossing the bridge I crossed a second to the sister island of St. Louis, a much longer and narrower island defending it from the winds and ravages of the Atlantic where there was a hotel with a campground just off the beach.  I was thrilled to discover three cyclists who had come down from Morocco and Mauritania--two thirty-year old Brazilians and a twenty-year old Belgian, fresh out of high school on his first tour.  They had met in Morocco and had ridden together since.  They were relieved to cross into Senegal and its smooth roads after the nightmare of Mauritania, not just the horrible roads, but all the police checks and the ban on wild camping, having to pitch their tents at a police check every night.  

With the extra abundance of garbage along the road I had collected a load more of colorful and distinctive fabric fragments for Janina that needed washing.  A thirty-year old Australia woman who'd been on the road for six years was also doing her wash.  She was highly impressed by my project and found the fabrics most appealing.  I told her Janina knew what I was doing and had encouraged me, but like those t-shirts "My parents went to Sydney (or wherever) and all they brought me was this lousy t-shirt," there is always the danger Janina will say, "You spent a month-and-a-half in Africa and all you brought me was a bunch of rags you found along the road."

After doing my wash I had time for an initial exploration of the main island of St. Louis and its old colonial architecture that earned it World Heritage status.  All the glory of the two-storied, balconied buildings that lined a few of its streets was long gone and further dampened by the dirt and sand on the streets, but compared to the utterly lackluster present-day construction they do stand out and warrant some recognition.

But the old city is relatively quiet, almost semi-abandoned compared to the nearby thickly populated shanty towns that are more characteristic of Senegal.

I'll continue my explorations tomorrow and see if I can verify that Mauritania issues visas at the border and whether I wish to give it a dabble before having to be back in Dakar in a week for my flight home. 


Andrew said...

This has been an interesting trip to vicariously enjoy via your blog George. I'm quite happy not to be there but you've certainly managed to convey the reality of the place. Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari painted a pretty grim picture of Africa but he's so cerebral you can't really take anything he says at face value. I mean, he must have conversations with people and scurry away to write it all down. Or he makes it up. Either way, he certainly didn't manage to portray Africa as quite the rubbish dump that you have :)

george christensen said...

Andrew: The litter issue may have escalated since Theroux's latest Africa trip, or maybe it wasn't so dramatic in the regions he visited. It certainly wasn't of these proportions when I circled Lake Victoria or my time in South Africa and neighboring countries or Madagascar last year. My memory of Dark Star was Theroux railing against giving aid to Africa.