I left Ziguinchor, a city in the south of Senegal, in a bush taxi to spent nine hours travelling through hot scrubby bush to Tambacounda, a scorching hot and dusty junction town on the very finger nail of the Gambia. The hotel I had chosen – primarily because it suited my somewhat meagre budget – turned out to have closed, but a friendly local man named Moussa, who lived in a shack nearby, offered me a bed in his family compound. He showed me to a dark room with a grubby mattress and a fan that merely swilled the hot, soupy atmosphere around. There were goats tied up in the corner, and children being scrubbed from head to toe in a large bowl in the middle of the room. It was perfect. The family was friendly and, come the evening, I joined them around a large bowl of rice and fish, dipping my hand in to eat like a local.
I think I mentioned the heat? In my years of travel, I don't think I've ever been quite so hot; sometimes it felt too hot to breathe. I simply lay down and felt the sweat trickle into my eyes and ears. I was hot. My mattress was hot. The towel soaked in water I used to try to cool myself was dry within twenty minutes. It was 45°C. Feverishly hot.
Now, Tambacounda is a functional town full of mechanic shops, a market, mounds of rubbish inhabited by rooting pigs, and little groups of kids who sat under trees studying the Quran written on wooden tablets. I bought a coke from a thoroughly miserable looking Mauritanian. As I left his shop I noticed the display of Osama Bin Laden stickers and posters. This was days after his death, and maybe the Mauritanian thought I was American.
I found a bar for a luke-cold beer, but when I placed it on the table, I may as well have put it on a hot plate. When the power wasn't out, the tv was showing a Brazilian soap opera which boasted far superior acting and production values than the popular Argentinean ones. Then there was a chat show, where the guests wore shades in a dark studio; the sun never sets in the land of the cool. I left early the next morning, giving high fives to the gaggle of kids, and headed off through the wonderfully named Nyokolo Koba national park. From the road I spied warthog, baboons and monkeys. I stopped at a village of mud huts on the banks of the River Gambia; a simple, rustic encampment where I was the only guest. It was idyllic. As I entered my hut, I noticed a lizard sleeping on my bed; I served it an eviction notice, then wandered down to the river where hippos wallowed and bare-breasted women washed clothes. A local man named Moussa (is everyone here called Moussa?), took me to his village of mud huts, where I was surrounded by kids shouting “toubab”, which means "white man". There were gold mines nearby from which muddy men returned, and me how they pan for gold. One man greeted me in English, and told me that he was from Sierra Leone. I told him that I'm English, to which he replied, "Ah, my colonial master!" I apologised. "It doesn’t matter," he replied. "You bring us Beckham!"
In the evening, the bush babies jumped around in the trees squealing, while the drums started in the nearby village, followed closely by the singing. The chant is started by female voices, and they spiral upwards to a cacophonous crescendo which is on the verge of collapsing when new voices start anew, and the whole process repeats. A sort of African rondo. It was too hot to sleep again, so I watched a couple of lizards use the circular wall of my hut as a wall of death, spiralling ever more quickly as if imitating the voices in the air.
Despite all the heat and dust, I wanted to go further, and decided to hire a motorbike. A few yards after climbing on board, I realised that the driver had even less experience than I did, and the next thing I knew, my knee and its skin covering were soon parted. Chastened and chafed, I moved onto a bush taxi, heading off into the nearby mountains. There I hiked through jungle and up hills to 100 metre waterfalls on the Guinea border and the remote animist villages of the Bedick and Bassari, tribes whose chiefs share their legends in the shade of giant baobob trees.
There I sat, drinking in the stories, content in the knowledge that the pain, the frustration and the heat were all hardships well worth enduring.
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Following an interesting if questionable early career of working in morgues and nudist clubs in Europe, Simon spent several years doing what everyone dreams of - pig farming in Vietnam. Returning to London, Simon spent time putting together a start-up social business, before moving on once again and finally his way to a more permanent home in Senegal. Visit www.simonfenton.blogspot.com to read more about Simon's adventures and life in western Africa.
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