It was a long and uncomfortable journey. Me, a friend of mine, and six more locals together with the driver, squashed inside that wrecked old car, we drove throughout an entire day amidst great portions of flat, arid land till we finally reached Tambacounda city, deep in the Senegalese hinterland, by late afternoon.
After a good stretching, we got laden with our stuff and started walking through the dusty and still torrid streets of the city in search of accommodation. Given that Tambacounda is a fairly big city, I was expecting that mission of ours to be a simple one, but, after all, it proved to be all but that.
The map was showing up a great number of hotels and guest-houses, but after getting to their respective locations, one after another, we would only find some abandoned, ravaged buildings, if not a sheer empty piece of land. Having walked quite some distance and tried several locations of alleged hotels, we finally found an existent one… apparently existent at least. It was a three-storey building with a “hotel” sign on it, but was hermetically sealed and no one gave any response to our prolonged shouting and drumming on the door.
As we sat aground for the while, waiting to see if anyone would appear, we saw that young man approaching us from the distance. That guy, Abdallah, was meant from there on to be in our constant company. We first asked him whether he knew of any hotel, and he promptly led us to an existent and functioning one nearby. We then, after hearing of that hotel’s insane pricing, asked him whether he knew any place we could stay for a reasonable price. He so offered to give us a room in his house for 15.000 CFA, which was much better than what we could have hoped to pay in any hotel in this city. We agreed and a while later we were settled in his house.
The house was located in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. All the inhabitants of the various houses along that street were basically of one extended family, and all welcomed us warm-heartedly. We spent the rest of the day playing with the super-excited to see us children out in the street, and the evening in the yard of the house across the street smoking weed and watching Senegal playing for Copa Africa with a bunch of Abdallah’s cousins.
Abdallah’s house was a typical for the area small house. There was a small backyard where the women were cooking, washing and performing various other household jobs. By the corner, there were two small cabins: one with a squat toilet and another with a water bucket for showering. In the interior, there was one separated room – which was the one allotted to us – and the rest of the house was one-piece with some ten kids and as many adults occupying its floor to sleep here and there. They didn’t seem to mind us at all coming in and out every so often. They were all keeping on with their normal lives as like we were not there. A late night, for example, you’d come out of the room to go to the toilet, and all the women would sit watching soap-opera, leaning against the wall with their boobs naked. And next morning, you’d come out of the room again, beholding on the same spot a group of men bowing and prostrating for their morning prayer.
The room we got was fine. It had plenty of space and a double bed. Those little mice that were constantly roaming around it were completely harmless and inoffensive, so there was no reason to be bothered about them. The only downside was the mosquitos. The first night, being unprepared, a squad of them raged through the whole night on me. But the second night we got supplied with a mosquito coil and I can only imagine them deserting the battleground in panic.
Thus being bereft of great portions of our blood, a while before that first night was to give way to the day, 4 o’ clock am, we were up and ready for the expedition we had planned. Abdallah had from the previous day arranged for us a Mitsubishi L200 to rent for 100.000 CFA – Dear it was but I doubt we could have found anything better. So, the three of us together with that other bloke who fetched the car, we started driving farther east surrounded by the black night. Our destination was the Niokolo-Koba National Park.
By daybreak, we had made it to the park’s entrance. We needed to wait for some time for the staff to wake up, and then we proceeded to the office for the registration. We paid 5.000 per person entrance fee, another 10.000 for the car, and yet another 10.000 for the guide we were compelled to have with us. All was set and we drove into the park.
My original idea was to drive through the park and end up in Mount Assirik (a 311 m tall rock in the middle of the otherwise all-flat area of the park) by sunset, the ascent of which would have surely made the whole trip worth its effort, as I had great doubts we were going to spot any significant amount of wildlife. Monsieur le guide, however, had a different idea. He said that we could not make it to the mountain, as we were obliged to leave the park before sunset. And he guaranteed he could spot the animals for us. I still had my doubts about that, and thought for a while to ignore him and do my own thing, but he, after all, convinced me and I let him direct our route.
We drove for a while perceiving no life other than ours. At a point, monsieur le guide told me to stop the car aside. I first thought he had noticed some sign of animals, but I got disappointed and frustrated to find out we had only stopped to see a heap of stone debris which at a time was the house he grew up in. He presented that to us with a very emotional air – like it was the first time to see it since his childhood and was not coming there every second day with every group of tourists assigned to him – and like it was the highlight of our trip… but honestly, I did not care a whit about where he grew up.
For the rest of the day, we kept driving round and round, stopping at various places for Monsieur le guide to greet some acquaintances of him. Throughout the whole day, we only saw birds, baboons, a few antelopes from the distance, and one boar, which was fine, but nothing too impressive. The landscapes, with their buxom forests and plains and the Gambia River with its various tributaries flowing through them and depositing lakes and ponds here and there, were definitely pretty. But, overall, the whole trip did not really worth its cost and effort. And I would not recommend it to anyone.
We were back in Tambacounda by evening, where we spent our time interacting with the people of Abdallah’s neighborhood and walking around other parts of the city. Next morning, we were heading back towards the city’s bus station, ready to wander towards new parts of that country.