Just driving out of Dakar from the port brought home the best and the worst of this crazily busy city. What we saw from the coach window was a jarring mixture of the modern and the medieval, an unsettling juxtaposition of the shiny First World and the scruffy Third World. As we drove along smart toll highways that wouldn’t look out of place in France, we passed by dusty unpaved streets that can’t have been improved in the last 100 years.
The roads were packed with cars – from clapped out old Renaults, to modern SUVs. We saw crazily overcrowded minibuses with people grimly hanging off the sides, sharing the roads with ancient horse and carts. It reminded me of Egypt – a country that is similarly struggling to adjust to the modern world, and where society appears to be just as polarised.
We were heading to the Pink Lake – a lake that didn’t appear to have got the memo, and so looked more dirty brown than pink. But, we had a tremendous adventure along the way. At the lake, we transferred into a battered 4x4 truck that must have been at least 50 years old. It took our driver 5 minutes to hotwire the truck, as its battery laboured to even turn over. When I suggested that maybe we should get a truck that actually worked, I was told that this one was fine.
But, what we were greeted with was an amazing sight. The salt pans were being worked by a team of incredibly hard-working people filling huge buckets with salt from the lake and then carrying them on their heads to dump them onto great piles of salt. It was an almost medieval spectacle of the hardest of hard labour – the buckets weighed about 10 kilos (22 pounds) and they were doing a bucket load every couple of minutes. When I heard that they were earning maybe a couple of dollars a day, it made me feel very humbled. Suddenly our lives in the West seem very easy.
Then, when it was time to go, rather predictably, our ancient truck wouldn’t start. Then, the replacement truck (obviously their second best model) they sent over arrived with a flat tyre. This was just about able to give us a jump start, and we set off into the bleak sand dunes worrying that if we ever stopped, we would be marooned there forever.
We had a fascinating visit to a dusty sand-filled village where it seemed like there were twice as many children under 10 than there were adults, before we had a hair-raisingly bumpy ride across a beautiful beach and through some vertiginous dunes. Once we were back on the road, it became obvious that the bumpiness of our ride wasn’t just because of the rough conditions – our tyre wasn’t just flat, it had pretty much sheared off the wheel.
The state of our truck seemed to encapsulate my impressions of Senegal – exciting, colourful and wonderfully adventurous if you wanted to take it on, but woefully under-invested in, and malfunctioning to the point of total breakdown.
On our journey home, we were treated to a fabulously wild “Lion Dance” by some intimidatingly huge men – the audience of us 14 and about 500 enthusiastic villagers were treated to a wonderful if slightly bewildering spectacle.
Finally, the day was rounded off by a fantastic evening “Silversea Experience” on Goree Island, the old slave island off Dakar – as ever it was a sensory overload in a really magical location.