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Senegal by the Seat of your Pants

My trip to Senegal turned out to be a bit of a farce, but it could be of interest to anyone else planning an ultra-budget trip to West Africa.


The first rule of traveling in Africa happens to be the same as the first rule of hitchhiking: Don’t be in a hurry.

If you try to hitchhike somewhere and you’re in a hurry, you ain’t gonna get there in time. The hitchhiking gods will always make sure of that.

If you try to travel in Africa and you’re in a hurry, you ain’t gonna get there in time. the Africans will always make sure of that.

OK, maybe it’s not the African people who are to blame so much as ourselves (Westerners) with our too-high expectations of what public transport can and should be. If I’ve paid for a bus ticket, for example, I assume that the bus driver will take me where I want to go. The last thing I expect him to do is get into an argument on his mobile phone, pull the bus to a halt, get out, and begin walking back down the road alone, hurling insults at the passengers. In Senegal, I was compelled to suspend all such assumptions. And in the end I was forced to adopt a hitchhiker’s mindset, even though I wasn’t hitchhiking: “I have a will to get there, ergo I will arrive there”. To ask how or how soon is just foolish.

This trip was just a quick bit of fun, but an important question hung in the balance: Is it possible to travel further into Africa with no money?

I did try hitchhiking in the beginning, but it didn’t take me long to give up. Public transport isn’t exactly cheap, but one starts to count the cost of sunburnt skin, dehydration, how much you paid for the plane tickets versus how many days you’re wasting standing by the roadside.

I’d allowed myself only two weeks to do a circuit of the country, with a hiking trip in the middle. I knew I was setting myself up for failure with such a short amount of time, but I needed to redeem myself after a failed attempt to reach Mali a year before.

After attending a few music concerts in Dakar, I put my plans into action. A whole day of hitchhiking and I was still within spitting distance of the capital city, so I flagged down a minibus which took me to Kaolack before dark. A teenage kid drove me to the outskirts of the town on his motorbike, where I hiked out into the baobab woods around the river delta to camp. This was my first chance to meet with Africa on its own terms; to pitch my tent on the dried silty river bank, bathe myself in DEET, and listen to what truths the country had to tell.


I caught a shared taxi to Tambacounda in the morning, and then boarded a bus which would take me to Niokolo-Koba National Park, where I planned on going hiking.

“When are we going to leave?” I asked the bus driver, as I was paying for my ticket.

“Five minutes,” he said. Bullshit, I thought, but that was his answer and I knew I wouldn’t get a different one.

I waited for two hours at that bus station. Inside or outside the bus, the heat was oppressive. African bus stations are hives of micro-commerce, and women and children constantly circulate with plastic bags full of water and homemade popsicles made with hibiscus juice. I consumed as much as I could. Once I reached the national park I would have to walk 12 miles in 100 degree heat with no access to water, so it was of life-or-death importance that I remain hydrated beforehand.

After 2 hours the bus started off. We made it about a mile outside of town before the bus driver, who’d been arguing in bitter tones over his cellphone, stopped the bus at a gas station and walked away. I was struck dumb. Nobody else on the bus seemed worried. They filed out and crossed the road to stand in the shade and smoke. I was jealous of the smokers, who had cigarettes both as entertainment and as a means to calm their nerves. It was getting dark, and I was on the verge of a breakdown.

“I can drive the bus if they need someone to drive,” I said to one man.

“Be patient, that’s all,” he said.


I was getting really worried about water. Already I felt dehydrated, and I had only 5 liters to last me those 12 miles.

Eventually a different driver came hiking up the road. It was pitch black by the time we reached the village of Dienoun Diala, on the edge of the national park. But the bus wasn’t stopping.

“Can I get out here, please?” I asked the conductor.

“You must be joking, there’s nothing in this village,” he said.

“I want to go to the national park.”

“If you want to go into the park you’re required to have a guide. The park headquarters is in the next town.”

“Exactly,” I said, “I don’t want a guide. Can’t I just get out here?”

He rolled his eyes and told the driver to stop.

I clambered out of the crowded bus and stepped out onto the darkened highway. I took a quick drink from my first water bottle. Big mistake. A voice called to me from above: “Monsieur!”

I looked up. There were half a dozen men on the roof of the bus, clinging to the luggage netting. Coated eyes to toes in dust, they looked miserable.

Un peu de l’eau, monsieur?

I could have refused, but I needed the good-will of whatever spirits were lurking in those woods. I passed the bottle up to the men and they passed it around. It came back empty

The sense of smell, more than anything else, can bring back memories. Not long ago I was doing yard-work for my father-in-law trying to cut back a bunch of bamboo. I took hold of the dry stalks and began snapping them off. With each snap, a little cloud of dust puffed up. The smell hit me and I stopped working, thinking back to that night of mild terror, crashing blindly through the forest, breaking down stalks of bamboo to make a path for myself and my pack, choking on dust and groping for tree trunks.


Three days later I crawled out of the forest like Wile E. Coyote crawls out of a smoking crater. I'd avoided crippling sunburn by wearing long sleeves and pants despite 110º heat. The days I'd spent hiking through burnt-over forest had left me coated in ash. I was dehydrated and hallucinating about fanta. I resembled a grilled fish.

After the initial 12 miles I’d found the river all right, but my $80 Katadyn water filter had broken, and I didn’t trust my iodine tablets, so I boiled everything. The problem was that in 110 degree heat, the boiled water never really cooled, so drinking it contributed to my heat exhaustion.


Halfway through the 3rd day I’d spotted a lion on the opposite bank of the river. Unsure how well lions could swim, I’d spent the remainder of the afternoon up a tree, drinking iodine-treated crocodile piss river water, carving a spear, and assuring myself I’d write nothing about any of this on my personal blog, which my wife, or potential employers, might read.


Now that I’d had my fun, I turned myself in to the ranger station at the heart of the park so I could pay the entry fee and get a ride out of there. (NB I don’t recommend this kind of optimism when breaking the law in Africa, but in my case it worked out.) The rangers didn’t believe I’d walked all that way, but my photos proved my story, and also satisfied them that I wasn’t a poacher. The head ranger wasn’t very happy with my conduct, but I explained that I worked for the American NPS and I didn’t want to cheat anyone. As well as paying the entry fee I gave him my hat with National Park Service written on it, which was close enough to Parc Service Nationale to make him happy.


They said they could arrange a lift for me, but I’d have to wait there till the next day. Their camp was near the spot where the Niokolo-Koba joins the Gambia, a really beautiful spot. Someone caught a fish and they cooked it up for dinner. We spent the evening drinking tea, playing guitar, and watching their satellite TV.


The next day one of the rangers took me back to the main highway on their badass motorbike. I entertained fantasies of having a bike like this to explore western Africa at my leisure.



Senegal fades from Sahara in the north to sahel in the middle to the tropics in the south. I’d just rounded the tip of Gambia, and was entering the tropical region. A 7-hour bus ride from Tambacounda brought me into the Casamance, a separatist region which has recently seen a failed revolution, and which now enjoys an oppressive police presence. Fortunately I spent the taxi ride sitting next to a Peace Corps Volunteer, who gave me the low-down on a lot of stuff I’d been ignorant about. The road changed from scrubby savanna to lush cultivated land. Fields of wheat along both sides of the road were ringed with enormous trees of mango, cashews, and flowering hibiscus. We asked the taxi to stop every time we passed kids selling mangoes or hibiscus juice by the roadside. The PCV girl made me try fermented cashew juice, which was wonderful.

I found myself in an awkward situation. I needed to be in Dakar in five day’s time to catch my flight home. blocking my way was the nation of Gambia, a useless slip of a country founded mainly to annoy the French (The British actually sailed a ship up the Gambia river firing cannons left and right. Where the cannon-shot fell, they drew the border, with no regard for cultural or historic boundaries).

Gambia is a diplomatic nightmare and I had no way of crossing it. I sat on a beach in Ziguinchor (or the pile of plastic trash where the beach used to be) and ate four mangoes, flicking peel into the water while I thought about what I should do. I realized the best option would be to shell out for a flight back to Dakar, which for now would allow me five days of freedom in Casamance. I then hopped on a boat out into the mangrove swamps where I could forget about how much money I’d spent on this trip.


After I spent a couple days swatting at mosquitoes and walking on beaches, a family I stayed with on Ile de Carabane offered me a place in their boat to Cap Skirring, Casamance’s tourist hub. I was happy not to have to deal with any more taxis or bus drivers.


Cap Skirring is interesting. Evidently it sees a lot of tourism, but I was there at the off-season. I couldn’t decide if that was better or worse. The only tourists I saw there were old French men and women, each arm-in-arm with a young Senegalese sugar-baby. But overall it seemed like a very good place for young backpackers. There’s a strong rasta culture among the young locals.

I bought a bag of mangoes and walked down to the beach, which was alive with guitar music. The only stretch of beach accessible from town belongs to the fishermen, who have a pleasant little shanty-town set up on it, and all their boats lined up on the sand. Luxury hotels outside the town keep their beaches clean of trash and undesirable humans, but I was content here.

I hung out with some restauranteurs who had closed up shop for the season. One of them contented himself with sitting on a pile of fishing nets playing guitar, and I recorded him.


The beach was buzzing with fishermen who’d returned from their morning’s work. Small fires were popping up here and there, and women with baskets of fish on their heads were busy unloading the beached pirogues. I walked down toward the water to get a better look at the boats, when a couple of guys squatting by a fire whistled me over.

“Come eat with us,” they said. “We’re having lunch.”

This was one of those caricature moments of travel, when you can’t believe your luck. These guys were Usman and Hamed, cool young dudes who’d been fishing for most of their adult lives. They’d sold their catch, and were cooking the left-overs, an exotic melange of fresh sea creatures.


“Actually I’m trained to work at a restaurant,” Usman said, as he used his fingers to flip the fish over on the hot coals, “but where are the restaurants?”

We tore apart fish, crustaceans, snails, singeing our greasy fingers as we plucked them off the coals. I sat back in a gluttonous ecstasy, sucking clean the legs of a crab.


“That was just an appetizer,” said Usman, smiling “Come with us, we’re going for a proper lunch.”

I hoped he was joking, but he took me to a three-walled beach shack made out of wicker and bamboo. There were about 10 other guys there, one of whom was “le capitain” of their fishing boat. The captain’s wife had fixed an enormous platter to be eaten by everyone. She was a very cool lady. It was a pleasing contrast to the Arabic world, where women never dine with men, to see this lady nudging men out of her way, grabbing bigger fistfuls of rice than anyone, and making jokes at our expense. Her kids were adorable too, and I made myself useful by keeping them occupied shouting “comment tu t’appelle!” and giggling while their mother washed dishes.

I was allowed to sleep in the beach shack, with my belongings hidden under a pile of fishing net.

Hamed mentioned that if I paid the captain, I could go out with them on the next morning’s fishing trip. Waking up at 5am, however, I found they’d decided conditions weren’t right to go out. I’ve never been more disappointed. I still passed a nice day with Usman, exploring the outlying villages and chopping vegetables for lunch and dinner. That night a group of us sat on the front step of a derelict building on the beach, eating haut-cuisine by the light of our cell phones and singing:

Manamanama, eh eh
Waka waka eh eh
Manamanama zangalewa
‘Cause this is Africa

To be very clear, I gave money to all these people, to Usman, the Captain and his wife. Though they may not have expected payment from me as a guest, I didn’t want to eat them out of house and home and sleep on their property without chipping in a little something.

On the plane back to Dakar I looked out the window at the mangroves, the savannah, the villages. I felt confident I’d made the best possible use of two weeks there. But I was a little unsettled on how I’d been flying by the seat of my pants the whole time; how quick I’d been to anger at the hustlers of Dakar, a different breed than I’m used to, and the bewildering conduct of bus and taxi drivers. Senegal is often called “Africa for beginners” (an appellation also often attached to Ghana) but apart from the happy few days at Cap Skirring, I’d felt like an emotional wreck half the time I was in Senegal, and the other half I was lying immobilized from the heat. Was I cut out for traveling any deeper into Africa? I’m still not sure. I lack a lot of the ascetic qualities of really successful travelers. I consider myself an experience-hardened hitchhiker, but I couldn’t even last two days by the roadsides in Senegal. And I’m left wondering whether ultra-budget travel in Africa is even possible.

What I need is a sweet Honda bike, a tolerance for heat, and a lot less of a temper.

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Oct 16, 2015
this was an awesome read, can't thank you enough! the authentic detail is riveting
Click here to buy one of our amazing custom bandanas!

Tony Pro

Aug 24, 2015
Hey wow, nice article,

Currently hitchiking from Paris to Dakar ( Now in morocco ) thanks for all this useful information !

safe travel

Awesome man; that's such a legendary route, some day I'll attempt it myself if I ever have enough time to spare. Def do a write-up when you're done.
You picked the best time of year to be in Morocco; I wish I were there so bad it hurts.


I'm a d-bag and got banned.
May 23, 2018
Winthrop, IA
Asceticism is an eastern philosophy. Westerners, I think, should learn to love materialism rather than consumerism, which I consider to be the religion of western capitalism.

Materialism = finite natural resources and climatology

Consumerism - Consume technology, consumption brings the cost down, there is a recursion, flying cars.


Oct 24, 2015
Exeter, United Kingdom
I'm hoping to go to Morrocco sometime soon - it's pretty affordable from the UK..... ever since we spent a month in Egypt I've wanted to visit other Muslim countries - the Egyptian people we met were incredibly warm and friendly.... strange coz the newspapers said nothing but angry Western hating terrorists from Turkey to Pakistan !

Tony Pro

Aug 24, 2015
Yeah nah, Moroccans love everybody. If you play your cards right you can get tickets from London for around 30 quid each way, and it's quite cheap to live there (plus hitchhiking is easy). If you end up going and want a travel buddy, give me a ping.

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