Our only plan for the day was to make our way north from Dakar to St Louis, Senegal in the north so we could continue to Nouakchott, Mauritania the next day. It would probably have been much easier to fly, but the only airline on the route that sells seats is Mauritania Airlines which does not seem to be bookable anywhere online, and several calls to their supposed office in Dakar also went unanswered. The flights clearly exist and can be purchased, but the difficulty of doing so was enough of a pain that we opted to go the overland route. When I worked in Dakar a few years ago everyone told me how nice St Louis was supposed to be, so this would be a perfect excuse to see it.
Getting to St Louis is pretty straight forward. First, you have to take a taxi to the Gare Routiere in Dakar, and from there you can pick up a taxi all the way to St Louis. We ended up hailing a taxi right outside the Radisson mid-morning, and I offered the driver 5,000 CFA for the ride, which a google search indicated was the going rate since the station is quite a way out of town. The driver was happy to accept 5,000 for the ride (about $9) and off we went.
The station was indeed quite a way out of town, nearly 30km and it took the better part of an hour to get there. Of course, the minute we got out of the car we were swarmed with the local taxi touts asking where we were going. I told them St Louis, and we wanted to buy an entire taxi. The other option is to wait for a taxi to fill up. The sept place (seven seat) taxis are really cramped old converted Renault or Peugeot station wagons with two rows of seats that they cram three people into, and if you’re the lucky seventh you get to ride shot gun. The going rate is 5,000 CFA per seat plus another 500 CFA for each bag. I offered one of the drivers 40,000 CFA to buy out the whole taxi if he would leave right now and take us all the way to the hotel instead of the taxi station in St Louis, and he agreed.
We were off…sort of…we got stuck behind a number of donkey carts on the way out of town…
After about two hours of driving the temperature had risen from a pleasant low-70s fahrenheit in Dakar to nearly 100 degrees around Thies halfway to St Louis. It was scorching hot in the taxi, and the front seat where I was sitting had no padding left and the steel crossbars in the seat were jamming into my back and legs. I was glad when the driver said he wanted to stop and buy some mangos:
Apparently it was mango season, because they were everywhere on the drive:
I also took this opportunity to switch to the second row of seats in the back to get a little bit of padding. The back seats are definitely not made for tall people, and I had to kind of lay sideways in the seat to not jam my head into the roof of the car, but it was much more comfortable than the front seat. It was tolerable for the four hours or so we were in the car, but anything much longer I’m not too sure how I would have fared.
Of course, most of the drive was pretty bland on the scenery front:
The drive also took much longer than it should of because the road was covered in random speed bumps everywhere. Fortunately our driver was aware of them and slowed down for them (instead of using the common method of revving it and trying to go over them quickly) but it made for a much longer trip than we expected. After nearly five hours we finally made it to St Louis.
Our driver didn’t know where our hotel was in St Louis, but thanks to google maps (which was thankfully accurate unlike many times in Africa) I was able to direct him to it. We asked him if he wanted to drive us to the Mauritania border in the morning, and he agreed to although he didn’t seem to be too excited by the prospect.
As soon as we got out of the taxi, we were swarmed by a couple of guys eager to show us where the door of the hotel was. Um, thanks? “Oh, and also, I have taxi, I will take you to the border tomorrow.” Thanks, so helpful…so supposedly we now had two different groups of guys eager to take us to the border. Plan and backup plan set we went into the Jamm hotel which was a nicely restored group of buildings that had been converted into four rooms around a nice open air courtyard. We met the charming owner and host Yves, got settled in the rooms, and since it was already late afternoon headed out for a walk. Yves asked if we were ok having aperitifs at 7:30p which sounded good, so off we wandered.
It was hard leaving, because in the 10 minutes we were at the hotel Ian, aka the cat whisperer, had already been claimed by Yves’ cat:
Out for a walk, and the first view was the Faidherbe Bridge, which connects the island of St Louis to the mainland. The bridge was opened in 1897 and supposedly built by Gustav Eiffel of the Eiffel Tower, but there’s no proof at all that he was at all involved in its design:
Around the main square in town, where we startled a couple of stray goats:
After walking for a bit we stopped at the Flamingo Hotel which had a outdoor patio right on the river. Ian learned the very important lesson that you don’t leave your glass uncovered next to the river, because the local flies are intent on getting drunk.
After one beer we were tired of the flies so wandered to the Hotel de la Poste which was old colonial hotel across the street from the grand old post office. Unfortunately, there is nothing grand at all about the post office these days to the point it really wasn’t even photo-worthy. St Louis used to be the capital of Senegambia before it was moved to Dakar, so it was an important transit point in West Africa. I tried my hand at flying the old French mail route at the Hotel de la Poste:
After walking for a couple of hours we headed back to the hotel, where Yves had set up for aperitifs in the library of the house. There was only one other guest staying at the time (so three of four rooms were occupied) and he was visiting from France and spending a couple of weeks in Senegal. Yves speaks a little bit of English, but the other guest didn’t so unfortunately Ian was sort of left out of the chat. Drinks were offered by the fantastic lady who managed the hotel. I opted for the Ti’ Punch which was pretty potent with rum and some local juices and we chatted for nearly an hour over drinks.
Yves was a fantastic host and when he found out we were going on to Mauritania in the morning shared his stories of driving from France to St Louis via Mauritania. Supposedly this used to be easier to do, but now that the situation in northern Mauritania is quite unstable and Western Sahara also is a bit dicey in the south he didn’t know if it was still safe. This meant now to get back to France involves the five hour drive to Dakar, a hotel for an overnight, then a six plus hour flight to Paris and then connecting on. He also shared recommendations on places to eat and we ended up going to La Kora Chez Peggy which ended up being a quite popular place.
As usual, I ended up with the Croque Madame (which they had named the Sandwiche La Kora) which was one of the better ones I’ve ever had and went perfectly with a bottle of the house red wine. For dessert, they recommended the mango tart with homemade mango ice cream, and how could I say no since they were apparently in season. It was absolutely delicious and I wanted another one:
Headed back to the Jamm Hotel, and promptly passed out. Long overland travel days always exhaust me, and we wanted to get a relatively early start the next day since the trip to Nouakchott was supposedly quite long and could take most of the day depending on customs and immigration at the border…