January 21, Thursday, we begin a three day trip across the whole country to Niokolo Koba National Park and back, a distance one way of 604 km or 375 miles. That morning two new, four-wheel-drive vehicles appear on the street in front of the residence. Thierno drives one, Dane the other, all the way there and back. I take charge of packing the rear ends full of our gear. Thierno and the soldiers try to help me and adjust to my opinions. With some trial and error, late-packed boxes, last trips to the bathroom and impatience by those of us ready to go at least an hour ago, our two-van caravan rumbles up Avenue Diop and hangs a right onto the Route de la Pyrotechnic. We head north up the new highway to the freeway interchange, one of two in Senegal, and west out highway N1. For the first time we get to see the hinterland, the real Senegal for most of its inhabitants. The road is two lanes wide, mostly well-maintained pavement.
Once past Rufisque, an old industrial town on the south "little coast" of the cape, we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by strange, stumpy looking trees--a huge forest of baobabs, as unique a landscape as I have ever seen. They are spaced out on the bone dry landscape, looking half dead, except I don't know what they are supposed to look like alive. The baobabs are waiting for the rainy season of June to September to leaf out. The story we heard was that an angry God yanked up a normal tree, turned it upside down, and shoved it back into the ground. That's as good an explanation as any for this tree, revered by natives so much that it is not cut for firewood and must die of old age. Its leaves, bark, fruit, and flowers are useful.
The baobab is characterized by a fat trunk with a tubular surface coming up to a line about six or more feet above the ground, then a round trunk rises six or more feet higher. The trunk branches abruptly into short stumpy limbs with short twigs for branches. Its angular stark beauty contrasts sharply with the dense leafiness and fine branching of American trees. Baobabs can live over 1,000 years and become huge. We stop and take pictures; in fact, we go a little nuts over baobabs. They become much less common as we travel east.
Hour after hour on the road tells us how flat and dry Senegal is, with some areas more populated than others. At Fatick we cross the short Saloum River, which to our right and the south widens out into a huge delta with its own national park and a large number of European vacation hotels and pensions. We break for a drink at Kaolack, the peanut capitol of Senegal. Peanuts are not much in evidence; it's not the season. Drought has been reducing the crop, but peanut oil is still a major export. (Peanut butter seems to be an American thing.) Many kilometers onward we pass through more provincial towns, Kaffrine, Koungheul, and finally the big one, Tambacounda, with its modem hotel and airport. The towns have some traffic, including trucks and little horse-drawn two-wheel carts. We stop for a late lunch.
Other patterns emerge. The typical country dwelling is a compound mostly fenced off with matting. Within the compound are one or more trees such as kad (Acacia albida), seng (Acacia raddiana) or oul, that provide year-round shade for outdoor living. Such trees are also protected from the saw, and their rounded green profiles are usually the first sign of a settlement ahead. There is a small oven, a circular hut with a conical thatched roof, and small animal corrals. Running around on the loose are small sheep and goats, which look very similar, but, as the American Ambassador pointed out, the goats have little tails that go up and they get off the road quickly, while sheep tails go down and they are very dumb and slow.
At Tambacounda we head south and east toward Niokolo Koba, seeing a monkey or two along the way. We turn off the main road at Dar Salam, a native village with a kiosk ticket office manned by park rangers. As I climb out of the passenger seat I am greeted as the ambassador, which is quickly straightened out. We tour an adjacent rural education center staffed by a Peace Corps volunteer. It has an architectural oddity, a building looking like a big hut but built of cement block, with a sleeping room, kitchen-dining area, and class room.
We meet our guide, the Assistant Park Director (Conservateur adjoint), Lieutenant Boucar Ndiaye (this is the third Ndiaye we've met), who lives in Tambacounda and turns out to be of the same ethnicity as Thierno Ndiaye. He is a small, well-dressed man with fluent French and some English. He is very knowledgeable about the park and its wildlife, and rides up front with Dane to keep an eye out. There is a close connection between the park administration, the rangers, and the military.
We enter the park, which has an area of 913,000 hectares (2.26 million acres, or 3,525 square miles). The park itself is much more wooded than what we have been seeing, but it is a dry forest, fairly flat, with spaced out, mostly small trees, maybe 20 to 30 feet high, and lots of leaf litter on the ground. Once in a while we see a big termite mound. The narrow dirt track leads on and on along level ground until finally we reach Simenti, a hotel/motel resort on the Gambia River.
Time is getting on, Dane is anxious to get out on the river in a pirogue, which in this case is a small metal boat with an outboard motor. Our guide, Boucar, is up front, the motorman behind, and all of us in the middle. The hunt for hippos is on.
Simenti is located
where two arcs of the Gambia meet. Downstream a mile is a high rock ledge
which holds up the river, creating a lake-like area for both arcs. We are
only a little below the elevation of the main forest floor. The banks of
the river are heavily forested, much more so than anything else we've seen--a
hint of an African jungle.
We troll slowly
up the first arc, seeing some birds and maybe a crocodile, and getting
tired of seeing the surface of the water with no hippos. It is very pleasant-setting
sun, calm water, green walls of the wide river, peaceful and quiet. We
pass back and head slowly down the lower arc, and give up.
As we head back, biggish birds in twos and threes come swooping over head, from up river and down, to land in one particular tree off to our right. They sail smoothly and silently to the tree, and when they land all sorts of squawking breaks loose, quiets down, then erupts again with the next landings. The grace of the overhead flight contrasts sharply with the shrill racket from the tree.
Behind us two big eyes surface above the water. We had been seeing a bit of extra swirl in the water under some branches. We had some suspicions. And there they were, or at least one was. In the fading light we strained our eyeballs to see their eyeballs and used our imaginations to visualize the bulk beneath the surface. A little bit of hippo is better than none.We eat an oddly civilized European style dinner on the restaurant veranda overlooking the river, and retire to our rooms, which were cement block round buildings, in imitation of a native hut, with a bed or two in the center and a closet and bathroom behind a partition wall.HOME UP DOWN