Ten minutes’ walk from where ceiling fans stir potted plants as diners savour steak brochette and seafood bisque, women wrapped in multicoloured fabrics wade out from a riverbank slimy and stinking from decades of drying and salting fish, to meet a pirogue returning with a late catch. Such are the disparities of life in Saint-Louis, in the Republic of Senegal. And herein lay the frustrations and fascinations of this West African country.
Senegal meets few of the requisites for a relaxing holiday or a “normal” honeymoon. Travelling is not easy here, even in a group; rather, my new husband and I are visiting Senegal, and the Gambia, which it enfolds, for an adventure in cultures very different from our own.
Day three of a two-week Peregrine tour of Senegal and The Gambia puts eight travellers and guide Mohammed in a Toyota Coaster heading north from Senegal’s sprawling capital, Dakar. (Peregrine’s ground tour operated only this once; they now run adventure cruise tours that do not visit Saint-Louis.) Sharing the smooth-ish bitumen with donkey carts, trucks, and crowded public mini-buses with live sheep on their roofs, we drive through towns swamped by plastic rubbish and bristling with satellite dishes, and pass clusters of solar panel-capped thatched huts set amid harvest-ready corn and millet. We see countless weaver birds attending bauble-like nests on acacias and a trio of vultures hunched over road-kill before we cross Gustave Eiffel-designed Pont (bridge) Faidherbe and stop outside Hotel de la Poste in Saint-Louis.
Founded in 1659, on the river island of N’Dar, Saint-Louis was the first permanent French settlement in Africa. It became a wealthy centre for trade in goods and slaves, with a vibrant metis (Franco-African Creole) culture. The capital of Senegal until 1957, three years before the majority Muslim country’s independence, Saint-Louis was briefly capital of French West Africa but its status waned from 1902 when Dakar took that title.
Saint-Louis was also a fuelling stop on the colonial airmail route to Africa and South America, and the pilots, including Jean Mermoz, who made the first trans-Atlantic flight between Africa and South America in 1930, stayed at La Poste. Period posters and photographs decorate the hotel’s walls and the dining room ceiling is painted with a map of the mail route. Aeronautical nostalgia continues in the rooms, with B&W portraits of pilots and air conditioners that sound like propeller engines.
An hour after checking in we regroup in the lobby for a walking tour.
Saint-Louis has long since outgrown N’Dar island, colonising the mainland and the Langue de Barbarie Peninsula, a sand spit running 600km down the Atlantic Coast. From Place Faidherbe, the town square and main venue for the renowned Saint-Louis Jazz Festival, held each May, Mohammed leads us across the muddy Senegal River to the sand-spit suburbs.
Dozens of colourful pirogues stripe the riverbank. Afternoon sun gilds children dripping from a swim while others chant verses in an open-air Koran school. And sheep and goats are everywhere, oblivious to their roles in the upcoming Tabaski Festival, which celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to prove his faith, before God provided a sheep instead. Moslems are expected to buy the biggest sheep they can afford, says Mohammed, who spent $100 on an animal for his family in Mali. “And God knows if you don’t pay enough!”
Grazing among the sheep to be killed, their meat then shared with family and friends, are robust red-collared animals. These lucky sheep are pampered because the longer they live the better their owners’ fortunes.
Further along the sandy road are new homes that Mohammed says cost over $150,000; they belong to fishers who started with one boat and now run half a dozen. The women who dry and salt their catches day after day for local sale and export earn dramatically less, however, yet the three we come upon working amid racks of fish heads and fillets covered in flies still smile broadly for photographs.
We escape the squelchy fish market in need of a lungful of sea breeze however a chorus of voices and rhythmic drumming divert us. It’s an all-singing, all-dancing dusk wedding party for twin brides married in the mosque earlier (our language skills don’t run to finding out where the new husbands are). There is gold and beading everywhere and I feel embarrassingly underdressed in sandals and fisherman’s pants.
At 2km long and 400m wide, Saint-Louis island is easily explored on foot, but horse-drawn carriages are popular too so our second afternoon is spent clip-clopping the town’s length. We stop at the 1828 cathedral and the twenty-years younger Grande Mosque with its distinctly Christian clock tower. Everyone admires, and some of us buy, lengths of Manjak (Catholic ethnic minority) textiles at Ateliers d’Art. Weavers string looms across a small yard around the corner, two days’ work selling in the shop for about $20.
And every street we roll along is lined with double- and triple-storey buildings with wrought iron lace-trimmed wooden balconies and shuttered ground-floor doors outside many of which sit women roasting peanuts in hot sand over braziers. The nuts are scrumptiously dry and crunchy.
Saint-Louis was World Heritage listed in 2000, but while some buildings have been/are being restored, many need urgent work. What we need, though, is refreshment, so it’s back to Hotel de la Poste’s Safari Bar for a very colonial gin and tonic among glass-eyed animal heads.
Emirates flies to Madrid, Spain, from where Iberia connects to Dakar via the Canary Islands.
Stay at Hotel de La Poste: https://www.hoteldelapostesaintlouis.com (French only)