Sunday 4th November 2012 – Lunch in Senegal
As the song goes, ‘only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun…’ Noel Coward couldn’t have gotten it more spot on. As we tied the Ally 811 canoes to the roof of the car, found the car keys (eventually), and gathered the troops up, it was already nearing 12.30pm – the hottest part of the day, reaching almost 100 degrees.
We had decided that we would take ‘The Twins’ (as we fondly call our two canoes – until we have an official naming ceremony with our two Gambian team mates, Abdou and Ebu) out for the day and on their inaugural voyage on a West African river – the Hallahine – which borders The Gambia and Senegal.
After being stopped by a bemused immigration officer in Kartong – intrigued by the two ‘toubab’ (European/white person) canoes on the roof of the car – we reached the small fishing port. And, with the help of several of the local guys, we got ‘The Twins’ ready to roll – or to paddle, as the case may be – into the Halahine river, which cuts through Kartong and borders the Casamance, Senegal.
Florio and Tony (a volunteer worker) – with Geri (who runs Sandele Eco Retreat) in the middle – took one canoe and I took the other, with the help of Pa Samba, one of the local guys, to help paddle, with Jesse (another volunteer) in the canoe with us.
Paddling with Pa Samba was quite an experience. Gambians paddle very differently from the way Florio and I have been taught. Whereas we coordinate – paddling 30-40 deep strokes on alternate sides of the canoe, whilst whoever sits at the stern (back) steers – Pa’s strokes were rapid, shallow (mind you, the river was so shallow in points, we could have gotten out and dragged the canoes!), 3 strokes max on each side, with very little steering technique as such. After half an hour of trying to keep up with Pa’s fast and furious pace, I gave up and paddled the way that I know how to. And, it kind of worked…albeit frustrating not to have the coordination.
We did a little ad-hock fishing on route too, as I spotted a dead fish floating on the surface of the water. Pa deftly scooped it out, hardly missing a stroke of the paddle. “Is it ok to eat?” I asked of the fat, bloated looking fish. “Yes, yes…of course, it is good!” he answers, whilst looking at me like I’m some kind of half-wit. Apparently, it’s only if the fish is not hard to the touch (or obviously rotten looking), it’s all good to eat. Who knew.
After abut 4km of paddling up the river, with Pa (in between plucking the odd dead fish out of the water) pointing out birds and monkeys on route, we docked in Senegal… illegally, I guess – there is no immigration border crossing post out on the river. Switching from Mandinka to French, we ordered ice cold Flag, local beers, and plate de pomme frites from the very affable Oussman, the owner of the small campement – ‘Le Tilibo Horizons’ (the sun on the horizon).
The above reminded of what some of our friends in New York – with the recent hurricane Sandy – having to charge their cell phones, iPads, iPhones, from car batteries out on the street. Everyday life here in West Africa…just not so much the i-gadget thingys though.
And so it was time to leave Senegal and make our way back, against the tide (damned hard work!), to Kartong, and legal once again, in The Gambia. At one point, mid-paddle, Pa, announced: “I catch the fish” and promptly hopped out of the canoe! We watched as Pa flayed around the shallow water, trying in vain to catch a live one this time.
When we got back to Kartong, the local guys were waiting for us ‘welcome back…nimbara, nimbara (how is the work)’. Without even having to lift a finger (or being allowed to is more like it…at times, these Gambian men can be very chivalrous), the guys took hold of the canoes and hoisted them out of the river. What ensued, Florio and I like to think, was akin to a blessing of sorts – for ‘The Twins’ – as the guys and women played instruments, sang, and danced around the canoes.
Then, it was time to leave. With ‘abaraka baci’s’ and ‘fonyato domandings’ (many thanks and see you later) all around, we all piled into Geri’s old Audi and headed back to a much needed and well-earned dinner at Sandele
On the way back, we were stopped at the same immigration post. This time by a different officer, to ask us where we have been – ‘ekatah munto?’ – and, of course, what do we have strapped to the hood of the car? Pretty obvious, one would think, no? Then he ‘suggested’ that we leave one canoe with him so that he can take it on the river. A little nervous laughter from us, inside the car – a straight face from him – until eventually he waved us on, with a smart salute. Sometimes, you just can’t tell whether the officers at the immigration, police or military check points are being serious or not – however, I suspect that there are times when they mean what they say and then just wait, watching whilst you squirm and think hard about how to respond. It makes you wonder how much they get away with, with less seasoned (or less-informed) travellers.
So, ‘The Twins’ have had there first experience on a West African river and now, Florio and I are eager to get them on the River Gambia next for the River Gambia Expedition…once our shipment of camping gear makes it to Banjul Port, that is. It’s running almost two weeks late at the moment. However, we are assured that the ship should be in by the 11th November – insh’Allah.
More updates on our ETD for Guinea coming as and when. But, for now, we remain on GMT – ‘Gambia Meantime’…alas, also known as ‘Gambia Maybe Time’.
Watch this space…