Road Tripping in West Africa: The Journey is Half the Fun
I knew it was going to be a long road trip and that I needed to pack light. What I didn’t know is that I was embarking on a week of 100+ degree weather, cold showers, no mirrors and one of the greatest adventures I’d ever had.
It can be liberating not to see yourself for an entire week. The time I once spent meticulously placing the curls in my natural hair or analyzing my pores was repurposed for early morning walks and market haggling. But let me back up. I live in Dakar, Senegal, even many locals don’t know where Kédougou is, so when I told my fiancé where I was going, he just sort of looked at me with an “hmm, really?” face. I went anyway.
Rule # 1 For Public Transport, Leave Early to Get a Good Seat
I left at 5 am. Groggy and slightly irritable I arrived at one of Dakar’s largest public vehicle garages, Baux Maraîchers Pickine. The easiest way to travel throughout Senegal, which is also true for many other West African countries, is by sept place, an old station wagon with three rows of seating instead of two, large enough to not so comfortably fit seven passengers and a driver. I knew it would be hot whenever I arrived, since the arid terrain of Kedougou is vastly different from the cool seaside peninsular winds of Senegal’s capital, Dakar, so I packed light and wore layers. And as always, whenever I travel, always bring a scarf.
Rule # 2: Pack Light, Wear Layers & ALWAYS BRING A SCARF
Crammed in the far back of an eight-seater car at 6am is not exactly how I enjoy spending my Sunday mornings. But, one thing I love about traveling around Senegal is being surprised by the wonderful people you can meet. Senegal is known as the country of “Teranga,” which means “hospitality” in local language. For the most part, people you meet are kind, welcoming and eager to know your story and to share theirs.
Rule # 3: Always Have Small Bills and Change. Also, Pack Fruit and Water
Two hours into the drive we made our first pit stop at a gas station. There, women armed with oranges, bananas, and small bags of water encircled the car, shoving their merchandise in through the cracked windows shouting competitive prices for their goods. My thirsty travel companions hurriedly searched for change as the driver filled his tank, and after some swift transactions, we were back on the road.
Most of the southeast stretching road connecting Dakar and Kédougou is paved, ensuring a smooth ride. Along the way, travelers are guaranteed to see some savannah-like landscape, baobab trees, herds of cattle (often in the middle of the road), and dust clouds.
When taking public transport, one must change cars in Tambacounda, roughly 8-10 hours into the road trip. Tambacounda is a large region in southern Senegal, also known as the hottest region in the country. The stop over time can be as short or as long as you’d like. I usually take some time to stretch my legs, visit the small market located in the car park and get some thiebou djiene around lunchtime.
Rule #4 Eat Like a Local
One benefit to leaving so early is that you are guaranteed to arrive right around lunchtime, which in Senegal, starts around 13:30. Thiebou Djiene, literally meaning rice and fish, is one of three staple dishes of Senegal. Other countries have created their own name for the rice, but nothing compares to the real thing. Different regions like to put their personal spin on it, but the essential ingredients are still the same.
- Root Vegetables (cabbage, carrots, eggplant, cassava)
- Tamarind sauce
- And tomato…
all cooked in the same pot.
Over the next hour and a half, as I waited for the sept place to fill up, I took a break at the back of the garage and ordered Senegal’s traditional dish with a southern flare. As someone who likes to take it easy on the red meats, “thieb,” as its known locally, is the perfect medium between filling and easy on the stomach. My stopover in Tambacounda was my first time having thieb with black-eyed peas. Tambacounda is visually very similar to other southern cities in the country, in that the center is home to a few banks, a police station, and a hospital. Every day hundreds of motorcycle bound locals can be seen bustling about the city center. Tambacounda is a tourist destination as it is the closest point to Senegal’s largest national reserve park known as Niokolo-Koba.
The park is a world heritage site is home to rare animals and plant life indigenous to West Africa, covering nearly 2.5 million acres of land. One can expect to see variations of monkeys, 350 species of birds, lions, leopards, antelopes and the occasional elephant. Habitants on either side of the park joke that there are only phantom elephants because in the past 10 years there has only been one siting of an elephant in the park. The person who saw the elephant later uploaded a video of the sighting, but aside from the person who filmed it, no one else bore witness to the spotting.
Rule # 5: Always travel during the day
The road between Tambacounda and Kédougou is rocky, bumpy, and missing altogether in certain areas. For a safe road trip, it is important to travel this stretch of the route during the day. Many accidents happen at night because of large trucks stationed on the side of the road that smaller cars don’t see in time. Also, after the rainy season (June through August) the potholes can get large enough to engulf the entire front end of a car.
Roughly two hours after the park you will arrive on the red dusted roads of Kédougou center. Circular clay brick huts with straw rooves called “campements” are the main infrastructure sprinkled throughout the region. Occasionally one can find hotels with a different, more western style of construction, but the more traditional home is preferred since the straw of palm trees or hay bales keep the home cool from the sweltering sun rays. Because Kedougou is known to reach an upwards of 100 degrees or more every day, hot water is rarely found if not completely non-existent in the entire region. But after a day of exploration in the sun, a cool shower feels refreshing.
Rule # 6 Always Fill Water Reserves, and Carry a Water Bottle!
Kédougou is Senegal’s newest region, established in 2008. Because the region is so isolated, aid and infrastructure including consistent water and electricity arrive here last. But, I found that every day while waking to a cold shower, no mirror and spotty cell reception, I was in the perfect place to disconnect from the world and get even more in touch with nature.
What to expect:
The population is only 18,000. Enjoy having a little privacy!
Pulaar Fouta is predominant spoken language, though I was been able to get by on the little Wolof I know and my French, without issue.
There are so many vegetables and fruits! Mangos blossom here before they make their way up north to the major cities so take advantage of the amazing produce.
Rule # 7: Have Fun
Though Kedougou center is dry, hot and red, the only exception being the hints of green sprinkled along the Gambian river that cuts through the region, the farther south you go the more green you see. Kedougou borders the Guinea Conakry border. Waterfalls, cliffs, and a cooler climate are just some of the extremely wonderful things that await the truly adventurous traveler.
At the end of my trip, I found that despite the distance, my cross-country road trip was more than worth getting in touch with this beautiful country and myself, cold showers and all.