Senegal - Facts and Factoids

  • Senegal is the westernmost country in the mainland of the Old World, or Afro-Eurasia, and owes its name to the Senegal River, which borders it to the east and north.
  • ‘Senegal’ comes from the Wolof “Sunuu Gaal”, which means ‘Our Boat’  and the beautifully painted fishing boats pulled up on the sandy beaches all the down the coast are a highlight of this country.
  • The network of protected areas in Senegal covers about 25% of the national territory; there are six national parks, plus other types of protected areas.
  • Senegal is a secular state, but Islam is the predominant religion in the country, practised by approximately 94% of the population.
  • The country hosted the Paris–Dakar rally from 1979 until 2007. After that, Mauritania was deemed too dangerous to drive through and the event was moved to South America. It was still known as The Dakar.
  • The Senegalese are a colourful and beautiful race of people. Most of them are Wolofs, tall, lithe and willowy with high cheek bones. They remind me of the Ethiopians, which I had assumed was a little off- beam, but apparently, they are descendants of the same peoples, who wandered gradually across the Sahara.
  • Senegal is known as the Land of Teraanga. This means hospitality (but far more than this I'm assured. Sharing and Caring.)
  • The food is less interesting. The menu in Senegal, as down most of this coast, seems to boil down to a choice of chicken yassa (with onions and lemon) or fish. Fortunately, there’s a lot of fish.

Is Senegal Safe to Visit?

Senegal has one of the most stable governments in Africa and is considered a model for democracy in Africa. Senegal is the only country in West Africa never to have experienced a military coup. This is a relatively safe country to travel in, but pickpocketing and street crime are common in parts of Dakar, and Casamance, in the south, is still a little volatile, after the separatist movement there was subdued, by integrating the insurgents into the Senegalese army.

A Very Brief History of Senegal

Arab traders began to move into the area now known as Senegal in the ninth and tenth centuries. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to take an interest in Senegal in the mid-fifteenth century. But it was the French who took control in 1677, via the infamous slaving island, Gorée, although full scale colonization did not occur until the nineteenth century. There were ongoing altercations with the British and the Dutch. At one point the British seized St Louis, the French capital and this, and Gorée, were only returned on condition the French gave up slavery.

This remains a highly Francophile country. French is the official language (though everyone also speaks Wolof) and French chic and cuisine is the order of the day.  Much of the food that is piled high is imported from France.

Is Senegal a Poor Country?

Senegal’s main income comes from fish, phosphates, groundnuts(peanuts) and tourism.  In rural areas, 66 percent of the population are considered poor, as compared to 23 percent of the residents of capital Dakar. Nearly 75 percent of the population works in the agricultural sector, which is regularly threatened by drought.

What is There to See and Do in Senegal?

My first trip was a beach holiday at Saly

Senegal has a great deal to offer. On my second trip I'm travelling north to south, coming over the border on the coast at Mauritania:

  • To the excellent bird park at Djoudj
  • To the goregous ex capital of French West Africa, St Louis and the capital of the country, Dakar, taking in some of the route of the old Dakar rally along the coast
  • Visiting the game parks
  • And less well developed Casamance in the south

Getting into Senegal

 The border post, coming from Mauritania, is remarkably straightforward - I collect a stamp in my passport and a new guide – Mountaga, who is waiting on a bench by the immigration office.

Driving south from Gambia into Casamance. This part of Senega,l south of the River Gambia is poorer than the north. It used to belong to Portugal, who traded it to France. For quite some time the people here aspired to independence and there are still a lot of military around to keep the peace.


 The landscape of Casamance is green and partly forested, but again we spend much of the journey traversing causeways on saltwater estuaries and watching flamingoes, herons and fishing boats.  We’re moving into areas where the main religion is Christianity now and piglets cavort in the roads alongside the goats.

Ziguinchor, the main town in the area, spreads along the banks of the River Casamance. My hotel is delightfully situated on the banks, with a welcoming restaurant on the water. Not to mention sunbeds and a swimming pool. It’s a shame that half the hotel is under reconstruction. One wing is completely torn apart, drills whizzing, bricks flying as they demolish it, and they’re replacing the railings along the river and round the restaurant. Even when we eat. There are also some very pungent petrol fumes wafting in from the port, just a little further along. It doesn't deter the dolphins who turn up to perform,

Guide Mountaga turns up for dinner tonight, even though he’s not staying at my hotel. I resign myself to some stilted conversation, as he struggles with my English. But he spends the whole meal on his phone talking and messaging.

Getting a Visa on a Dress Down Saturday

It’s the weekend and we’re obviously in holiday mode. Both new driver Malan and Mountaga are wearing shorts. Mountaga is nattily attired in a canary yellow tee shirt and a sparkly cloth cap in place of his usual trilby. I have to go and arrange my Guinea-Bissau visa this morning. I suggested we do it first thing, to make sure it is accomplished, especially as it is a Saturday. Mountaga assures me that the consulate opens at eight and that he has spoken to the consul, who is a friend of his. He is there waiting. Naturally, when we arrive at 8.30 it is all locked up. When the consul eventually saunters down the road, he too is wearing shorts. It must be dress down Saturday.

 The Diola Peoples of Casamance

Today we’re visiting the Diola peoples. First, a traditional large impluvium house built round a courtyard. It has a huge thatched roof and provides a home for 12 people. Only three are here at the moment and they seem indifferent to my presence, even though money has changed hands. We pass more saline creeks and plenty of paddy fields - the rice here doesn’t seem to mind the salt. Though apparently, it’s a poor variety. Next, to my surprise, an audience with the local king - a guard has gone in to seek approval. But he’s too busy with weekend visitors. I’m not sure I’m disappointed. I don’t know what I would have said to him. We pop down the road to the fetish house. Here the tom-tom telegraph is kept, a sacred source of messages to the tribe. Only one person is allowed to make it, carving out the wood and no-one must see him. It’s a sacred ritual.

Koumpo Dancing

The last item on the agenda today is a masked dance - Koumpo (known as Kumpo in Gambia) - to celebrate the harvest. The Koumpo is covered with palm leaves and wears a stick on the head. According to tradition, the Koumpo is a ghost who comes from the bois sacré (sacred wood). His real identity is a closely guarded secret and he may not be touched. Just in case, he defends himself with his stick by smashing and pointing. He speaks a private secret language and communicates with the spectators through an interpreter. His job is to encourage the community to act as good villagers and not participating in the feasting and dancing is viewed as anti-social behaviour.

So, the whole Diola village joins in, chanting in a circle. Men in sacking costumes, with animal masks, cavort around, to much laughter and the Koumpo whirls like a dervish, the palm leaves spinning round his stick. This is thought to bring good luck. It’s unlike any other dancing I’ve seen, and fascinating.

Mountaga jumps in front of my camera to video on his phone and then joins in with all the men, obscuring the other dancers and stomping along to the drums. He’s clearly having a good time. I ask him politely to try to keep out of my way while I’m filming so he goes off to sulk. At least I get a clear run at the remainder of the dancing

South From Casamance

Last night was no fun. I’ve picked up an upset stomach and my bowels were protesting. A persistent fly tormented me throughout, whirring past my face and even crawling up my nose at one point, when the sheet I was hiding under slipped down. He was small and nippy, and I didn’t have the energy to hunt him down. The traffic outside was busy, as the Saturday celebrations continued, and dogs yapped almost continually. When there was a lull, at 1.30, an Israeli party of 17 decided to start a party. So, I’m grumpy as we leave Senegal and head for Guinea-Bissau.

South of Dakar - Heading to the Game Parks of Senegal

Bandia and Fathala, both in Senegal, and both run by the same company, are considered to be the best game parks in West Africa. And that's where I'm heading next.

There’s a new motorway for part of the way from Dakar, (as well as a new airport), constructed since my last visit, which is welcome, as long as it lasts. This is the road to Mali and it’s very congested with trucks when it’s reduced again to single carriageway. Goats marauding on the verges make unexpected excursions onto the tarmac. Even on the autoroute, the lack of awareness of other drivers still makes me want to shut my eyes (again). Driver, Naji says he wants to shut his too.

The countryside is mainly flat savannah, dotted with trees. The villages are made up of square breeze block (often referred to as Chinese brick in Africa) houses with layered grass thatched roofs. The ground nut harvest is finished, and the millet is being brought in now.

Bandia Game Park

The early start has given the option of an additional stop at Bandia. Mountaga urges me to shell out for a safari truck and he and Naji then get in free, as my guides. Most of the wildlife has been imported from South Africa, but it’s fun to view from the open top vehicle and photograph the eland (Derby and Cape), horse antelope, giraffe, zebra, impala, buffalo, ostrich and monkeys, all performing around the picturesque giant baobabs, as required. There are some babies to oooh over and even a pair of rhino. The hyena and crocodile sightings are definitely cheating though, as they are housed in pens.

The Sine-Saloum Delta

Continuing south east the journey follows causeways over lengthy fingers of saltwater estuaries, much like those in the north. This is the huge Sine-Saloum Delta, which extends 45 miles along the coastline and 22 miles inland. (Not long after I last visited - in 2011- the delta was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. I’m sure there was no connection.) There are brackish channels linking over 200 islets, lots of mangrove forest and a vast expanse of dry forest.

The dry brown rolling hills are typical of the Sahel and there are assorted traditional villages, circular huts with mud walls lining the roads. We stop at one of the more traditional Mandingo villages the houses having mud walls, where I reprise my Pied Piper act. The children follow me around posing for pictures and an old man called Ibrahim kindly invites us into his house to look round. It’s dark when we finally arrive at Fathala. The carts don’t have any illumination at all and none of the cars and trucks dip their headlights. I’m shutting my eyes again.

Fathala Game Park

My tent at Fathala can only be described as posh. There’s even a stand-alone bathtub with super steaming hot water. I wake to the gibbering of vervet monkeys in the tree opposite. Streams of tiny babies literally bomb down from the branches and bob swiftly away. They are followed by a herd of derby eland, making more stately progress left to right.

My game drive here isn’t incident filled, but we stop for hot drinks in a clearing inhabited by a male rhinoceros, (who’s much too interested in our vehicle for my liking), some zebra and a couple of warthogs doing a Pumbaa impersonation. My guide says that the male accidentally killed the female with his horn when attempting to mate. He’s now lonesome and no-one is keen to let him try again. It’s no incentive to go any closer. And I’m feeling risk averse. I’ve already turned down an offer of a walk with the lions today. There are seven in a separate enclosure, but only two are up for close interaction. Maybe I’m a wimp, but I’ve read Albert and the Lion too many times. I’m happy to view them from safari cars. Though that’s not allowed in this case. (No lion pictures then.)

It’s a sad day as we now bid farewell to Naji, who delivers us over the Gambia border, to the banks of the River Gambia. He now faces a drive back to Morocco of 6 -7 days. He’s one of the best driver/guides I ever had. It feels like the end of an era.

Dakar is the vibrant post-independence capital of Senegal, but first I’m heading to the faded charm of Saint Louis, once the capital of French West Africa.

Saint Louis

It’s dark, coming from Djoudj Bird Park, as we head over the bridge onto the old Senegalese capital Saint Louis (it’s on an island) and my very lovely colonial hotel La Poste. It’s all verandas, palm trees and aeroplanes. Even the key fobs and bedside lights are tin aeroplane reliefs. This is where the pilots stayed when they did the Paris to Senegal air runs. It also has a very nice restaurant overlooking the Senegal River.

Saint Louis is referred to by the locals as Ndar, the Wolof word for island. Now the capital of Senegal's Saint-Louis Region, it has more glorious roots. It was the capital of the French colony of Senegal from 1673 until 1902 and French West Africa from 1895 until 1902, when the capital was moved to Dakar. From 1920 to 1957, it was also the capital of the neighbouring colony of Mauritania.

Far less important today, St Louis relies heavily on tourism, in part due to the city being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. It's also a centre for sugar production, and fishing. And not without its problems. It's thought that the city is heavily vulnerable to climate change—where sea level rise is expected to threaten the historical city centre. It's also claimed that over fishing is creating economic problems. And there's certainly plenty of fishing going on.

Touring St Louis

Currently Saint Louis retains a faded charm. There are plenty of balconied and shuttered colonial houses in faded ochre and pink. Some have been restored and are now up- market shops, cafes and galleries. Others, especially those by the waterside, have become boutique hotels. It’s mandatory to keep your house in good order – some of the owners have sold up, moved on and left the TLC to others who can afford it.

A caleche ride marks me out very clearly as a tourist, but I stand out like a sore thumb anyway. It’s a long ride - there are two islands forming the city - north and south. And it’s a safer place to experiment with video, which doesn’t always go down well with the locals. The little horse pulling us isn’t wildly cooperative, but I don’t blame him. The cars give no quarter and come dangerously close to his head and his driver isn’t hugely enthusiastic, bowing his head and dozing whenever we come to a halt.

The rivers are crammed full of fishing boats, the banks lined with coils of nets being unravelled and mended. The crumbling area where the fishermen live are the most lively and colourful, the streets thronging. Goats join in the general melee, wandering over anything and everything, or sleeping piled up against each other along all the walls. A few of the shops have pelicans as pets – there are plenty of fish for them to eat. The birds, with their waggling wings, are much bigger than the toddlers who are running around and there are some interesting spats when the children come too close.

Finally, we wander over the main bridge into downtown – the original it replaced was designed by Eiffel of tower fame. On the east bank there’s the Aire Populaire with its bustling street markets and fish stalls – this is where the suburban residents do most of their shopping.

Driving the Paris to Dakar Rally Route

South to the western most point of mainland Africa - Cape Manuel in Dakar. We pick up the beach at Cayar, which is the biggest fishing village in Senegal. It’s another lively and colourful affair, with boats being dragged up the beach to the accompaniment of chanting. My attempts to video receive a mixed reaction. Some of the fishermen offer a thumbs up or even demand photos. Others throw sand. To be fair, it must be irritating being filmed when you're struggling to get your boat to shift. The fish are unloaded onto huge mats on the beach. Long legged dungareed runners carry crates on their heads from the boats to the mats; disc shaped sponges built into their headgear, to support the weight.

Then we motor along the sandy ridges of beach, following the last 19 kilometres of the Paris to Dakar Rally - when guide Mountaga and driver Naji have actually worked out how to get on to the sand, through the edge of the town and then the alongside the bumps of the dunes. They have assured me that the tide is perfect for driving, but are now making ‘I’m not so sure’ noises. The water is certainly coming in fast. I’m drenched at one point, as the waves splutter through the window. Discretion is the better part of valour. We eventually lurch off the sand and halt at Lac Rose.

Lac Rose

The lake is a must-see on all the tourist routes. The activity is all around the salt hills on one corner of the shore. The bottom is a metre of solid sodium chloride, which is brought to shore in boats, carried onto land by women with plastic baskets on their heads, poured into heaps and bagged. The name means Pink Lake, but it’s a very brown pink.  I suppose you have to take it all with a pinch of salt.


A quick tour of Dakar itself - another West African city built on a peninsula. It replaced Saint-Louis as the capital of French West African in1902 and in 1960, it became the capital of the independent Republic of Senegal. Highlights are several mosques - we whizz past the towering green minarets of the Sheikh Oumar Foutiyou Tall mosque. There are of course several colonial buildings, still being used for national and civic purposes. One of the finest is an abandoned railway station.

There’s a fruit and vegetable market under a dome. I thought Mountaga said it used to be a discotheque, though that seems unlikely. There’s also a craft market where there are some persistent vendors and some ‘free’ gifts. Mountaga loves to chat, engaging with them all and he has no qualms about accepting a bracelet without paying. Later he becomes embroiled for some minutes with a man selling cotton collapsible shelving units in the street.  (The sort you might find in Ikea). The poor salesman is perplexed when we clamber into the car without having made a purchase.

There’s little else of note to report except that my hotel has a rooftop bar and restaurant and it does very good caipirinhas.

Goree Island

I’ve been persuaded that I should be ready to depart at an uncivilised hour this morning, so we can catch a seven thirty ferry to Goree Island. This is where Dakar actually began. The original Portuguese settlement here was developed as an Atlantic slave trading station. It changed hands between the Dutch, the French and the English at different times and ended up with the French.

To replace trade in slaves, the French promoted peanut cultivation on the mainland. As the peanut trade boomed, the tiny Gorée Island port proved inadequate and the traders moved to the mainland and settled there.

The ferry is very quiet and the many craft stalls that line the paths are not yet manned, so it’s a peaceful visit, admiring the renovated buildings and the view from the old castle at the top. The infamous slave quarters are under restoration. Mountaga says 25 to 30 million slaves came through here; according to Wikipedia he means 30 thousand – though still a shockingly high figure. They’re going to allow access to the buildings for a few hours, later today but we’ll be gone by then, so I’m only able to peek in the door, before being shooed away, ‘Because it’s dangerous’. There’s only one man sweeping inside. Whereas in the street we’re showered with rubble, as a workman hammers a chisel into the stuccoed wall opposite. Now that is dangerous.

The next incoming ferry is crammed, confirming that we made the right decision. Tourists pour off the boat, most of them African-Americans. Plenty of seats on our ride back. But we pass an additional jam-packed ferry that they’ve put on to cope with demand. It’s going to be bedlam for the rest of the day.

Now we're driving to the game parks. This is why we had to leave early - I hope they're worth it.....

Djoudj Bird Park

Djoudj, just over the northern border from Mauritania is one of the biggest ornithological parks in the world, with over 350 different species of bird. I’m told it’s famed for colonies of nesting pelicans and flamingoes.

Djoudj is the southern part of the Mauritanian Diawling National Park. This half of the Senegal River delta is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is home to some 1.5 million birds of 365 species, such as the white pelican, the purple heron, the African spoonbill, the great egret and the cormorant. It's the first Atlantic stop-over after migration and a refuge for birds after crossing the Sahara Desert.

I've been met, coming over the border from Mauritania by Senegalese guide Mountaga, dapper in his hat.

First, we’re greeted enthusiastically by more capering warthogs, it’s almost as if they’re trained in reception duties. We cruise up a small river lined with lotus flowers, birds emerging continually from the greenery: herons of several kinds, kingfishers, crakes, snakebirds and datars. The ranger who’s accompanied us recites their names solemnly. I want to squeak, ‘Gannet on a stick,’ Monty Python style, but no-one else would get the joke.

Pelican Season

The highlight is an island at the mouth of the river, crammed full of nesting white backed pelicans. Their eggs and emerging tiny black chicks are hidden from view by the swarm of bodies. They jiggle excitably, yellow pouch beaks quivering and billowing. Every so often they lumber overhead, mewling, in ungainly fashion. As I’ve said before they remind me of the squat Airbus A380s. Both look an unlikely prospect for getting into the air. There’s just time to head to the viewing platform to admire the flamingos feeding in the lagoons. (Lesser and greater in separate distant flocks, though the lesser are darker pink, so less is more, according to the ranger). There are fewer of these – they don’t breed till spring.

Now we drive to the coast, to St Louis.


We've driven north to Senegal, taking the ferry from The Gambia. Saly (or Saly Portudal) is billed as the premiere tourist destination 'in all of West Africa'. Saly was originally a Portuguese trading post known as Porto de Ale. The resort area was created in February 1984 and tourism began to take off in Senegal.

Le Saly Hotel

The hotel is attractive, with thatched bungalow style rooms. hey have windows like huge round eyes. There’s a stout woven fence between the sunbed area in the grounds of Le Saly Hotel and the beach and swimming pool. It very soon becomes apparent why this is necessary. Morning and evening the beach is alive with local men exercising, body building and playing football. I’ve read that wrestling is the most popular sport in Senegal and has become a national obsession. It seems to me that the whole population aspires to a wrestler’s physique. There is a great deal of posturing, and much sweating. It’s hot and humid, even at breakfast.

As the gymnasium disperses the middle of the day is given over to touts selling their wares. They’re naturally more interested in interacting with the tourists, rather than just posing. The whole is a colourful spectacle, (the costumes are flamboyant and wonderful) though increasingly exhausting, as the noise never ceases. It’s also a huge deterrent from walking on the beach, although once past the throng it’s interesting to watch the sailfish, marlin and tuna being unloaded from the gaudy fishing boats. Like the Gambia, the sands are broad, but brown, and the sea a murky grey. It’s not the prettiest of beaches. but rather, grand and palm lined.

Around Saly

The area now abounds with tourist attractions. wild life parks like Bandia, a golf course and a craft market. To the east, at Saly Niakhniakhal, the seafront is lined with restaurants and villas. There's even an art gallery.

The Road to Dakar

The road north to Dakar, the capital of Senegal, is slow and winding and the traffic round Dakar itself appalling. We almost miss our plane home. No wonder they cancelled the rally….

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