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Senegal sojourn

Some of the enormous baobab trees.
Some of the enormous baobab trees. / A. FORBES
  • This colourful sub-Saharan nation is a visitor-friendly introduction to the vibrancy of West Africa

The chorus of voices, a powerful harmony of hope and joy, filled the courtyard of the grand house. The mixed choir, dressed in white robes and colourful woven sashes, sang heartfelt lyrics with an energy that was uplifting.

Gorée island - historical reconciliation

We had spent the morning strolling the narrow dusty lanes of the Unesco-designated Île de Gorée. This picturesque island, less than a kilometre long, sits out in the Atlantic, a short ferry ride from Dakar. Free of roads and cars, the island is a peaceful place, with charming colonial architecture, painted in weatherworn pastel shades. This living community, a thriving centre for the production and sale of Senegalese art and handicrafts, also represents probably the darkest chapter in West African history - the slave trade.

The highlight of the visit to Gorée island was the exceptional performance of the acclaimed Daniel Brottier choir - a remarkable welcome to the evocative House of Slaves (Maison des Esclaves), one of the last remaining 18th-century colonial slave trade houses on the island.

The property, which would have been one of so many that once stood in West Africa, has become a museum to the transatlantic slave trade. This memorial to the millions of Africans taken as slaves (up until the mid-19th century) is a requisite destination for travellers to Senegal. Nelson Mandela has visited; so did Pope John Paul II; and in 2013 Barack and Michelle Obama came to Gorée island. This is more than just a tourist destination; it feels like a place of pilgrimage, and of reconciliation with the past.

Gorée Island.

Gorée Island. / CARDINALIA COMUNICACIÓN

It was an unforgettable way to start my own journey in this West African republic. Visiting Senegal is to discover the authentic sub-Saharan Africa, a country of cultural and environmental diversity, excellent food, and in my limited experience, engaging, open people.

Dakar - art and wealth

I had arrived in Dakar. The capital city, once evocative of the famous rally, is now a metropolis more defined by its luxury hotels, restaurants, street art, galleries and nightlife. The city has covered much of the Cap-Vert peninsula, and its beaches provide a fascinating insight and snapshot of urban life. In the evenings the sandy bays are filled with families and friends socialising and exercising together. It's also the place to discover Senegal's national sport, wrestling. Youngsters, looking to realise their dream of becoming a national (and very well-paid) hero, are locked in combat - in ritualised fights that combine art and athletes. Accompanied by rhythmic drummers, the young men intersperse dance and choreographed movements with the sparring, grappling and throws of wrestling.

From Dakar the famous pink waters of Lac Rose (Lake Retba) are about an hour's drive away and, continuing north, one reaches the colonial charm of Saint Louis, the former capital of Senegal.

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Petite Côte - nature, fishermen and luxury resorts

Yet I headed south by road, discovering the 150 kilometres of the 'Petite Côte' (a favourite coast for surfers) and then arrived at the vast wetlands of the Siné-Saloum river delta national park.

The main roads leading out from the capital are well maintained modern highways, yet that is where any similarity with Europe ends.

In the towns the traffic frequently becomes intense, with taxis, buses and cars competing for space, sometimes also negotiating the crowded road with goats, long-horned cattle and typically with plenty of pedestrians who swiftly manoeuvre in and out of the traffic, traversing the street. It's hard to explain the energy of these urban interchanges - a cacophony of roadside radios, vehicle horns, vocal street traders, and the occasional mild dispute among drivers.

Ramshackle development reaches out into the countryside, with almost endless rows of tyre workshops, and unfinished buildings either side of the thoroughfare. Yet soon enough the road escapes into the lush rural landscape, often punctuated with modest hamlets of small traditional circular homes, with thatched roofs, clustered together behind high fences of branches and twigs. By the road kids play football - the sport is everywhere in Senegal, on TV, in the street and the subject of many conversations, almost eclipsing Senegal's obsession with wrestling.

Street scenes - authentic Senegal

The Daniel Brottier Choir.

The Daniel Brottier Choir. / CARDINALIA COMUNICACIÓN

The highway south is lined with timber stalls selling produce, often piled high with vegetables, tropical mangoes, papayas, citrus fruit, and bags of nuts. Stopping to buy Senegalese peanuts at a road crossing (they taste so fresh here, by the way), or a tasty snack of spicy dried ginger with coconut, is an opportunity to strike up a conversation with locals about anything from football to family life. If you put away your smartphone or camera, people are no longer shy. I found residents to be open, friendly and eager to engage and share a story. Remarkably Senegal is a country of tens of languages. Wolof is the most widely spoken, although French is the official language, one of the many legacies of colonial times. Together with Spanish or more often English, you can make a connection.

National Parks - nature on an African scale

Against the ever-growing urban sprawl, the Bandia Wildlife Reserve offers the peace of nature. It is a huge protected area that is found between Dakar, and the luxury beach resorts of Saly, on the Petit Côte. The nation is working to restore and rewild areas like the Bandia Wildlife Reserve where native species are being introduced and indigenous fauna protected - albeit in in the context of a wildlife park. These projects are in collaboration with landowners and hospitality businesses that offer wildlife experiences and safari lodge accommodation. Towering above everything are the iconic Baobabs. These massive trees, that can live hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years, are symbolic of this West African republic, probably more so than the dwindling numbers of West African lions.

Senegal is surprisingly not really regarded for its African wildlife, instead seen as more of a cultural destination. Yet its national parks are extraordinary. Continuing further south to the Unesco-listed Siné-Saloum national park, not far from the border with The Gambia, one leaves behind the contrived wilderness of the Bandia, and the commercialised safaris of the Fathala Wildlife Reserve and instead one is embraced by genuine nature on a truly impressive, African scale.

A Senegalese musician.

A Senegalese musician. / FORBES

Among the vast wetlands of the river deltas that spill out into the tidal waters of the Atlantic ocean, there are islands covered in hardwood trees, where the sounds of exotic bird calls fill the air. Dusk is the time to experience the remarkable phenomenon of birds going to roost among the mangrove trees. Overhead squadrons of pink-backed pelicans can be seen flying towards the security of isolated islands, where among the mangrove branches, sieges of goliath herons jostle for a perch. Private boat trips take visitors to the shores of these islands to witness the nightly ritual, before heading back to a wilderness hotel as the sun sets over the water.

Senegal - the stable gateway to West Africa

A flight of just four and half hours from Madrid takes one to the magic of this sub-Saharan nation. Senegal offers travellers a captivating African experience, from the sophistication of its capital Dakar; the wild spaces of its national parks; to the modern beach resorts of Saly.

This democratic country is among the most stable in Africa. Despite a questionable record on human rights, particularly towards LGBT citizens, freedom of worship is protected within this predominantly Muslim nation. Among the mosque towers in the cities one might also find a bell tower, or spire of a Catholic church. Alcohol is widely available too; visit a bar or nightclub and you'll be drinking among the Senegalese. It would appear that Muslims here are not as conservative as others in Africa.

However, travelling within a developing country such as this means one is directly confronted by the daily challenges of life in Africa. As one drives through Senegal there are frequent scenes that cruelly show the poverty, inequality, and environmental challenges in this part of the world.

Yet humans are remarkably resilient; and the powerful songs of the Daniel Brottier choir, which I experienced on my first day in Senegal, epitomised for me a confident nation, confronting and reconciling the country's colonial past and endeavouring to face the future with optimism and hope.