Entering the Sine-Saloum Delta

Mina2 in the Caribbean - Where's The Ice Gone?
Tim Barker
Wed 11 Nov 2009 12:44

Position: 13:56.080N 016:45.520W

Date: 8 November 2009


This was what we had all been waiting for – the trip into the vast delta of the two Senegalese rivers, the Sine and the Saloum. Travelling to exotic locations like Western Sahara and Dakar (the port capital of Senegal) was all very exciting, but our few days in the delta promised much, much more. The delta supports a few isolated villages which subsist on fishing but the marshlands and mangrove swamps are stuffed full of birds, plants and wildlife – a naturalist’s cornucopia – and I had the naturalist on board.


With tears in their eyes, Tom and Lawrence left for the airport on Friday evening. Just as well Lawrence was leaving. He had been on the boat for a full month (it had seemed like a full year) and we were becoming uncomfortably like a married couple – certainly the nagging was familiar.


In flies Colin, brim full of bullshit and wisdom, to take over the role of devoted and hard-working crew member (I do wish the other rally members wouldn’t say things like “Hi Colin, so you’re the next victim are you? And how long will you be lasting?”). His infinite talents include demon bird-spotting and he and Sine-Saloum delta are a partnership made in heaven.


But before he made it to this twitchers’ paradise, he had to make it from the airport to the hotel that was hosting the rally’s stay in Dakar. I had emailed him saying that it might be possible for me to arrange the hotel shuttle to pick him up. This was not the case, so I texted him with instructions on how to get a taxi. The text never got through – sadly. As he entered the arrivals hall, a young Senegalese gent beckoned him enthusiastically.

“ I have been sent to collect you”, said the young man, “What is your name?”

“Colin Andrews”

“Yes, yes, Colin Andrews, that’s right. The hotel has sent me. Now, you will need some currency. I will arrange to change it for you.”

The transaction was carried out before Colin’s eyes to see fair play. Colin assumed that his £50 was being changed by a bloke standing by a pillar with a large wad of notes in his hand, rather than at one of the foreign exchange booths, to achieve a better rate of exchange on his behalf.  Colin was grateful to have such a thoughtful guide and mentor looking after his interests.


Colin’s new best friend took him to a taxi and they both got in. Due to an uncharacteristic lapse, Colin had forgotten to bring a note of the name of the hotel. What luck he had been collected!

“Remind me”, said Colin after they had been driving for some time, “what is the name of the hotel we are going to?”

“I’m not sure” said the personable young man “they just called me and told me to collect you”. By now, the slightest alarm bells were beginning to ring. After driving into town through roads that looked like they had recently been shelled by Americans, and through a process of elimination, they arrived at the hotel an hour later. Colin was told that the taxi fare was 10,000 local Francs – quite a chunk out of the 16,600 he had got for his £50 (doubtless the honest currency dealer had had a momentary lapse as it should have been about 75,000 francs).  Then, having deposited Colin at the hotel, his guide told him that the fee for his valuable services would amount to a further 10,000. Colin was now beginning to smell a rat, and gave him only 5,000 (he only had 6,000 francs left anyway). The coup de grace of this budding entrepreneur was to take 5,000 off me saying that Colin hadn’t been able to pay him anything. So, Colin’s taxi trip had cost him one hour and £50 for what should have been 20 minutes and about £5. Welcome to Dakar, Colin!!


Meanwhile, I had spent all day getting my water-maker fixed and waiting for my repaired cruising chute to be delivered. The water-maker motor was delivered back to the boat at midday and, joy upon joy, I started to replenish the seriously depleted fresh water tanks. 2 ½ hours later it stopped again. The electrician was called again, re-fixed it but told me it should only be run for an hour at a time because it would get too hot (it was designed to run, and had been run for many years, in an incredibly hot engine room??).


The following morning we set off 60 miles southsou’east to the Sine-Saloum delta. Two hours into the passage and the water maker motor packed up again. It was going to be a hot, sweaty and largely unwashed stay in the delta. The entrance to the delta used to lie at the bottom of a very long peninsula. In 1987 there was an incredible storm. The tempestuous seas burst through the middle of the narrow peninsula, destroying a village with great loss of life and leaving the bottom end of the peninsula an island, separated from the mainland by a narrow passage. The fleet rendezvoused off the entrance to the passage and were led through by a pirogue, one of the long, narrow, wooden boats used by the local fishermen. We anchored off the small fishing village of Djifer


Early the next day all the rally crews assembled on the beach. Being Sunday, we were going to church. The previous afternoon, I had taken Colin by dinghy round the fleet to introduce him to our friends. Thoughtfully, he had brought from the UK a number of (rather superior) poppies for Remembrance Day and had been able to give one to each of the British boats. A fleet of pirogues had been pulled up on the beach. We all piled in and off we went up river to a small settlement where we disembarked and clambered on to pony carts and went a further two miles to a small village with a Catholic church to attend an African Mass. The African hymns sung by the large church choir, accompanied by the Senegalese Djumbo drums were hauntingly beautiful. The church was packed with the village congregation.  The village is indescribably poor with large families living in tiny thatched shacks. Yet they all turned out for church in their immaculately clean, ironed and vibrantly colourful Sunday best. At 11am the British contingent went through our traditional two minutes of reflective thought for the fallen of the world’s wars, including the many Sengalese soldiers who had died in the service of France. The whole service was a wonderful and deeply moving experience.


To judge the people of Senegal by the standards of the sharp, greedy vultures of Dakar would be a gross injustice. The village people were very inquisitive and warmly friendly. Speaking in French, they wanted to know our names, where we lived, had we all arrived by boat etc. Equally they were keen to answer our questions about them and their way of life.


In the middle of the village stood a tall drum made from the trunk of a tree and tightly covered with a goat skin. This was the village tom-tom and is the only means of communicating with the outside world. Only the village elders have the right to use it and the children are not even allowed to touch it. When someone dies or there is a fire, or some other emergency, the tom-tom is used to communicate with the next village 12 kilometers away. The next village would then pass the message on to the next village and so on.


We stopped for a while under two large trees, one a Fromage tree from which the tom-toms are made, the other a Boab tree. Their trunks had intertwined. They were sacred to the villagers, representing the unity of the community’s two religions – Islam and Christianity.


The villagers loved photographs being taken of them and looking at the results on the camera screen. The children were a particular delight, running along beside us, and holding our hands as we walked through the village. Inquisitive about our poppies, it wasn’t long before they were complementing the intricately plaited hair of the girl children. The Senegalese are tall, slim and high cheek-boned and they walk with a long gait, ramrod straight. Whilst being desperately poor, the rivers abound with fish and shell food so they don’t go hungry. The overall impression was of a handsome dignified, and largely content community.


On our return we walked round the village of Djifer which is strung along the peninsula opposite our anchorage. This community lives entirely off the fishing in the river and out to sea. The shore was lined with pirogues in varying states of disrepair in which they go up to 20 miles offshore with nets, lines or lobster pots. Behind the line of pirogues were stageings covered with fishing nets on which lay serried ranks of salted fish drying in the tropical sun. Once cured, these fish are taken on donkey carts to markets as far away as Dakar to be sold. There were also great boxes of sea snails, shell fish and oysters (which grow in abundance on the submerged roots of the mangroves by the riverside). The impressive smell was reminiscent of the fishing villages in the Lofoten Islands in Norway where they too lived from dried and salt-cured fish. Further back from the beach were enormous piles of discarded shells. These are left to completely dry out and are then crushed into calcium powder used to make cement bricks for building their homes.


This is the real Senegal, not the sanitised tourist holiday lodges that most visitors see, with their generator powered air-conditioning and orchestrated tourist experiences.  To see the dire conditions in which these delightful people live, and their lack of resources, has been an eye-opening and truly humbling experience.