SENEGAL, GAMBIA & GUINEA BISSAU
A unique itinerary crossing three countries from “north to south” to experience a continuous change of climatic ecosystems and human environments.
Following the “uncertain border” between land and water, we move across an incredible variety of natural environments such as desert dunes, savannah, estuaries, forests, and mangrove swamps, ending with an exciting ocean navigation to discover and enjoy the Bijagos Archipelago. Birds will be a constant presence throughout the whole journey. Djoudj National Sanctuary in Senegal is one of the main migratory bird sanctuaries on earth and Gambia is a well-known birding destination.
HISTORY, PREHISTORY & TIMELESS VILLAGES
We will discover historical sites:
Dakar, contemporary metropolis, large capital, and an African intellectual center since the time before the independence. Gorée, an ancient slave-trade island;
Saint Louis, the first colonial capital of “French West Africa”;
Bolama, the Portuguese Guinea capital, forgotten on a remote island;
We will experience the encounter with “timeless” people as herders and remote villages. We will discover the largest monolith site on Earth.
ART, CULTURE & MUSIC
In the northern savannah, we will be invited to the camp of nomadic herders, and we will meet the largest religious and peaceful brotherhood that practices an African form of Islam that rejects fundamentalism and violence.
In the south, we will be introduced to animistic traditional religions, tribal kings, dancing masks, and remote tribes who still worship ancestor statues: a unique chance to enjoy tribal art in its original contest. In the animistic Casamance region, we will witness the celebrations of Diola masks, the incarnation of mythical spirits… Masquerade is a unique experience that involves the participation of the entire village in an intense mix of magic, music, and dances.
We will travel in different kinds of vehicles; each one chosen to optimize the different geographical and cultural environments and have fun. On the land, we will travel mainly on a comfortable air-conditioned minibus, and for short rides, we will experience 4WD vehicles, traditional calash, as optional, donkey chariots, and local taxis.
On the ocean, to the Bijagos archipelago, we will sail on modern speedboats.
Carnival is the main festivity in Guinea Bissau. Carnival is an incredible mix of African and Portuguese traditions. Carnival goes wild in the afternoon, and colorful masks from different areas and neighborhoods start their parade: sacred traditional masks, warriors dressed in crocodile skin and armed with arrows, modern masks made of papier-mâché, all surrounded by girls wearing only strings of glass beads around their waist. Hours of lively parades turn this carnival into an unforgettable experience, a real “fiesta popular” combining cheerful African spirit with Portuguese and Brazilian influences.
The schedule of the itinerary could have some minor variation due to eventual changes in the days of Carnival parades.
DAY 1: Dakar, the capital – SENEGAL
Arrival in Dakar and transfer to the hotel.
DAY 2: Dakar contemporary metropolis & Gorée, from Dakar to Gorée (transfers in town and ferry) – SENEGAL
Dakar, the large and vibrant African metropolis that was the cultural and intellectual capital of French West Africa. Reflecting on that period, the Presidential Palace and the IFAN Museum (Institut Francais d’Afrique Noire), hosting an important collection of African art objects. When it opened, the museum was directed by Theodor Monod, a celebrated Africanist and one of the greatest Sahara scholars.
We will visit the Musée des Civilisations Noirs. Opened in December 2018, is the realization of Léopold Sédar Senghor’s vision (the first president of independent Senegal, a poet, and a Nobel Prize winner). The museum represents the historical and contemporary worldwide cultures, art, and soul of Black people, which he called Negritude.
We will also see the Cathédrale Notre Dame des Victoires & Place de Souvenirs. The project to build the Dakar cathedral was initiated in 1910 to pay tribute to African combatants, the Cathedral was finally built in Neo-Sudanese style, a style inspired by the Sahara and Sub-Sahara adobe mosque architecture, and was consecrated on 2 February 1936.
Arrival at Dakar port to board a ferry and spend a night in Gorée, the island where slaves used to be crammed before being shipped to the Americas. Some restored buildings remain to bear witness of those times.
The Portuguese were the first to establish a presence on Gorée in 1450, where they built a small stone chapel. After the decline of the slave trade from Senegal in the 1770s and 1780s, the island became an important port for the shipment of peanuts, Arabic gum, ivory, and other products of legitimate trade. Thanks to the nice breeze, and the many restaurants and shops, Gorée today has become a pleasant and trendy location. In the late afternoon and evening, when the other tourists are gone, we will experience the real feeling of this special island.
DAY 3: Lac Rose and fisherman villages, from Gorée to Lac Rose (ferry and drive 100 km– driving time 3 hrs.) – SENEGAL
Waking up in Gorée before the crowd arrives is a pleasure, as strolling in the tiny stone-paved alleys of this historical settlement.
Ferry to Dakar and drive to Lac Rose, a shallow saltwater lake surrounded by dunes, also known as Lac Retba.
Miles of exciting drive on the beach by 4×4 (depending on tides) will bring us to discover the largest fisherman village in Senegal. More than 4500 wooden painted pirogues come to the shore with the catch of the day… On the beach the fisherman sells to the local market women, after we meet the artisans carving the large pirogues, the painters decorating them with bright colors, and if we are lucky the “local saint” for final blessing before sailing…
DAY 4: Saint Louis, from Lac Rose to St. Louis (210 km – driving time 5 hrs.) – SENEGAL
Saint Louis, known to locals as Ndar, is a charming ancient town that was a French territory from 1673 until 1895 and the capital of all French West Africa colonies from 1895 until 1902 when the capital was moved to Dakar. From 1920 to 1957, it also served as the capital of the neighboring colony of Mauritania.
It has been the former base of the “Aeropostale” airmail pioneer operation between Europe, Africa, and South America. Saint Exupéry, the famous writer, and author of “The Little Prince”, was one of Aeropostale’s pilots following this route.
Located on two islands between the Senegal River and the ocean at the southern edge of the Sahara, rich in three centuries of history, cultural background, geography, and architecture, Saint-Louis is a “bridge” between the savanna and the desert, the ocean, the river, and the inland, between tradition and modernity, Islam and Christianity, Europe and Africa.
Home to a society with a distinctive lifestyle, Saint-Louis has retained its unique identity. “No one comes without falling in love with the city”, proudly say its people who consider Saint-Louis as the birthplace of Senegalese Teranga, the Wolof word for hospitability.
The best way to visit the narrow lanes of Saint Louis is by calash, just as locals do, and walk in the fisherman’s quarters. Time to stroll in the tiny avenues and enjoy the unique atmosphere of this old town.
We will spend the night at the historic hotel of the town – built in 1895 and now fully renovated – it was here that all Aeropostale pilots use to stay.
DAY 5: Bird sanctuary & Nomadic tribes, from St. Louis to Ferlo desert (150 km – driving time 4 hrs.) – SENEGAL
Early morning departure northwards to discover Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary (Parc National des Oiseaux du Djoudj), a natural oasis formed by hundreds of miles of partially flooded lands that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This “humid paradise” between the Sahara and Ferlo desert, is the best habitat and nesting site for over a million migratory and resident birds – lies on the southeastern bank of the Senegal River and offers a range of wetland habitats that are attended by many migrating birds, some getting here after crossing the Sahara. Out of more than 400 species, pelicans and flamingos are the most common, whereas aquatic warblers are a bit less conspicuous – migrating here from Europe, this park is their single most important wintering site yet discovered. Apart from birds, there is also a wide range of wildlife such as warthogs and crocodiles. Motorboat excursion led by a local guide-ornithologist.
Depending on the season, considering the time of migrations and level of water, the visit to Djoudj may be replaced by a similar experience in Langue de Barbarie, a thin, sandy peninsula, adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean, located in western Senegal, in the neighborhoods of the city of Saint-Louis. The peninsula separates the ocean from the final section of the Senegal River. The Langue de Barbarie National Park is home to an abundant variety of bird species and three species of turtle, including the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle.
In the afternoon continue to the Ferlo Desert to discover the arid region where nomadic Fulani tribes herd large droves of zebu. The Fulani (also called Peul) are the largest nomadic tribe roaming West African Savannahs, living in a vast area from Senegal to Chad. Their origins are still covered with mystery. They all share a common aristocratic cult for beauty and elegance. In the afternoon a local guide will join us for a visit to the neighboring villages and shelters. When the herds come back, we might even be invited to witness the milking process.
DAY 6: Tuba Brotherhood, from Ferlo desert to Kabacoto (240 km – driving time 5 hrs.)- SENEGAL
The rarely visited holy town of Tuba (Touba) is the right place to appreciate the hospitality of an African brotherhood. Touba inhabitants follow Muridism and the town itself is a sort of theocratic “state within the state”, ruled by a Caliph. The founder of Mouridi brotherhood was a Sufi named Amhadou Bàmba Mbake.
Amhadou Bàmba founded Touba in 1887. The holy site remained a tiny, isolated place in the wilderness until his death and burial at the site of the Great Mosque, 40 years later. The Great Mosque was finally completed in 1963 and since its inauguration, the city has grown at a rapid pace: from under 5,000 inhabitants in 1964, the population was officially estimated at 529,000 in 2007
The Mourides have a large social and economic impact in Senegal: thanks to their peaceful (and African) vision of Islam, Muridism, with other brotherhoods following the cult of Marabouts, has become the bastion that protects Senegal from radical Islam.
During the Grand Magal, the annual pilgrimage, the town is visited by four million pilgrims.
Mourides welcome any interest in their traditions. Yet since Tuba is a sacred town, all visitors should accept traditional rules. Therefore, we must apply a considerate dress code: not smoke, not drink alcohol and not listen to music during the visit. If we follow these rules, we will be welcomed. A Baye Fall, a member of a colorful branch of Muridism, will accompany us during the visit.
DAY 7: Stone circles, from Kabacoto to Banjul (240 km – driving time 6 hrs.) – SENEGAL-GAMBIA
Early departure, we will leave the main road to discover the unique megalithic site of Sine Ngayene, as part of the Senegambian stone circles, which lie in The Gambia and in central Senegal.
According to UNESCO, the Senegambian stone circles are “the largest concentration of stone circles seen anywhere in the world.” These sites represent an extraordinary concentration of more than 1,100 stone and related tumuli spread over a territory of 100 km wide and 350 km in length, on the north bank of the Gambia River.
After The Gambia border formalities, we will drive to the Banjul area.
DAY 8: Gambian birds and sacred masks, from Banjul to Ziguinchor (160 km – driving time 4 hrs.) – GAMBIA-SENEGAL
Gambia is renowned as a bird-watching destination. With an ornithological guide, we will discover different species of African birds in their habitat.
Drive to the southern border with the Casamance region of Senegal.
We will leave the main track to join a remote village. We have lunch in the village, prepared by a local family to enjoy the Senegalese gastronomy and improve the local community economy.
If we are lucky, in the afternoon masks leave the sacred forest to dance for an enthusiastic local crowd. Masks are part of the animistic Diola culture, people fear and respect masks, and consider them spirits who play an important role in solving conflicts between villagers.
Evening arrival to our comfortable hotel on the banks of Casamance River that will be our base for two days dedicated to discovering Casamance.
DAY 9: On the edge, from Ziguinchor to Bissau (220 km – driving time 7 hrs.)– SENEGAL – GUINEA BISSAU
Early departure for a long but interesting day. Guinea Bissau border crossing.
The road will bring us south to a unique ecosystem where Bolon (sea arms) penetrate the land for more than a hundred miles creating a large temporary flooding area. The borders between saltwater, land, and freshwater are uncertain and change with the tides. 23% of Guinea Bissau territory is under the water during the high tide end emerges during the low tide… On the way to Bissau stop at Bula to meet a traditional king, called Regolo, and learn about the culture of his tribe.
DAY 10: Bissau, Carnival, Bissau (transfers in town) – GUINEA BISSAU
Tour of Bissau, tiny and intriguing capital.
We start our visits by walking by Bissau Vehlo, the old Portuguese quarter with an atmosphere reminding us of past Portuguese days and where we can experience the mix of African and Portuguese souls. In old wooden cafés, we can taste Portuguese wines and watch Portuguese news. We continue to the Presidential Palace, the Catholic Cathedral, Fortaleza Amura, Independence Monument, and Che Guevara Square to end in an open-air bar known for the best mojito in town…
We get ready for the spectacular parade which will be going in the late afternoon. Colorful masks from different areas and neighborhoods start their parade: sacred traditional masks, warriors dressed in crocodile skin and armed with arrows, modern masks made of papier-mâché, all surrounded by girls wearing only strings of glass beads around their waist. Hours of lively parades turn this carnival into an unforgettable experience, a real “fiesta popular” combining cheerful African spirit with Portuguese and Brazilian influences.
DAY 11: From the ghost capital to the Bijagos Archipelago, from Bissau to Rubane (speed boat) – GUINEA BISSAU
Aboard a speedboat, we start three days of sailing to discover the Bijagos Archipelago with its remote islands and isolated human settlements. The Bijagos Archipelago is located approximately 40 miles offshore and, with its 88 islands (of which only 21 are permanently inhabited), is the largest archipelago in Africa. With its wild and pristine landscapes, its genuine tribal culture, and its unique fauna, Bijagos is a “geographical jewel”.
Due to the remoteness of the destination, the lack of transportation, and the deep attachment to the local traditions, the Bijagos inhabitants have been little influenced by the external world: during ceremonies, women still wear the saiya – a traditional skirt made of straw – and the rhythm of life in villages is given by initiations and secret ceremonies – for example, young men have to go through a seven-year initiation rite during which they live in a “convent” without any contact with women.
Our first stop will be Bolama Island, the former capital of Portuguese Guinea from 1871 to 1941 before it was moved to Bissau. This transfer was needed due to the shortage of fresh water in Bolama.
When the Portuguese left, native people came to live in the town which is now falling apart and is partly invaded by tropical vegetation. It was originally built following the plans of a «Castrum Romanum» (Roman citadel) so today we can witness its large sunny lethargic avenues, its empty squares, its dry fountains, its bush-like gardens, and its large administrative buildings in neo-Palladian style. In the Governor’s Palace, we can still admire columns in the classic style … where now goats graze! The Bissau-Guinean government is aiming for it to be designated the nation’s first World Heritage Site.
Bolama, although inhabited, is plunged into the fairy-tale atmosphere of a still-inhabited ghost town.
Due to the tide, the visit of Bolama can be postposed to day 14.
Arrival at Rubane / Bubaque Islands in a comfortable hotel that will be our base for three days of discovering Bijagos Archipelago.
DAY 12: Dancing masks – GUINEA BISSAU
Morning relax or walk to visit the inland of Rubane Island and its small village.
After lunch we visit the largest village in the archipelago, Bubaque, the only one connected to the continent by a ferry once a week: unpaved alleys, a tiny colorful market, local bars and traders, and the tiny ethnographic museum dedicated to Bijagos culture. After the visit, we will reach an isolated village to experience the Vaca Bruto initiation mask ceremonies with large participation from the villagers.
DAY 13: Islander life (speed boat) – GUINEA BISSAU
Day to enjoy the archipelago way of life: relax at the wild beach, a walk to explore villages and luxuriant vegetation, or excursion to the neighboring Soga Island.
DAY 14: Bissau, from Rubane to Bissau (speed boat) – GUINEA BISSAU
Transfer back to Bissau.
In the evening, transfer to the airport for the flight out.