The dark side of Dakar

Armed with a couple of visas, Evgeny and I decided to do a small West-Africa trip around the Year End holiday season. The planning and organisation of the trip came with a few challenges and we knew in advance that quite some flexibility is required in Africa as things never go as planned. Our plane ticket set the start and end point for our trip in the town of Dakar, Senegal. Consequently, this defined our itinerary: Driving overland in clockwise direction from Senegal to Mali to Nigeria and along the West-African coast back to Senegal. We knew that this was an ambitious plan, but we kept an open mind in terms of changing the route, as long as we could manage to visit Mali – our main focus for this trip.

Dakar at night
Dakar at night

Setting off with a minimum of visas

The obstacles were numerous. Knowing a few email addresses of drivers in Dakar and in Bamako (Mali), we tried to organize transportation beforehand. Soon, we found out, that most of these agencies were not keen on conducting such a long trip. In general, the tourist agencies in Dakar tried to educate us about African roads and told us straight away that such a trip would be impossible to do. We had more luck in Bamako (Mali). Although all agencies were booked for the holiday season, one company gave me a phone number of drivers who were both reliable and might do such a trip. Evgeny and I decided to do what is best in such situations: Abandon organizing everything from home and go to the country. Organizing things while being in Africa is definitely easier.

The same applied for the visas. While I had most African embassies at my service here in Switzerland, things were quite different for Evgeny, who definitely had a hard time to find African embassies who would grant him a visa. While I came to Dakar armed with a multiple entry visa for Senegal and regular tourist visas for The Gambia, Mali and Ivory Coast – he only had succeeded in securing the multiple entry visa for Senegal. What was even worse: We arrived in Dakar on a late Saturday afternoon, all the embassies here were closed. Most notably the one for our next destination, The Gambia.

Senegal flag
Senegal flag

Getting things done

Nevertheless, we were happy to sit on the terrace, spoke about our various individual trips and laid out the options and our expectations we both had for this trip. Night fell quite quickly and suddenly all went dark. As we learned from the restaurant owner, electricity cuts happen quite frequently. As he was prepared for this, he went to the backyard and started the generator which provided the much needed light for his guests. Evgeny and I decided that we wanted to move on as quickly as possible, despite the fact that he had no visa. So we went to the “gare routière pompiers”, an area with bus and taxi drivers, where we wanted to hire a taxi for the trip to Banjul. At nighttime, without electricity in the entire town of Dakar, this area definitely is not for the faint of heart. Hundreds of cars, buses and their drivers are hanging around to negotiate transport fares with prospective customers. Only the occasional flashlight would illuminate shortly the scene. We were both sure to get mugged – here in this spot and during our first night in West Africa. But in a fatalist move we decided to go ahead and went from driver to driver to negotiate both the trip and the fare.

To our surprise, we quickly found a driver who agreed to bring us to Banjul for the fare we were willing to pay. As it was close to midnight, we asked him to drive us back to our hotel which was located smack downtown Dakar. From there, he picked us up – after a very short night – at 5 am. Sitting in the hired taxi, Evgeny and I smiled at each other. Happy to leave un-electrized and noisy Dakar behind us, we finally were on the road trip through West Africa. Six hours later, we arrived at the border between Senegal and The Gambia, where we had to change taxi. After a few foreseeable arguments, the taxi drivers exchanged some money since we paid for the whole trip – not only to the border.

Ferry in West Africa
Ferry in West Africa

Negotiating at the border

While Evgeny kept an eye on both the taxi and the luggage at this very busy border, I went with both passports inside. Knowing that Evgeny was missing his Gambian visa, I put up a poker face and was ready to pay some “bakshish”. The border agent looked first at my passport and stamped it, then he looked in the Russian passport for the Gambian visa. In French I explained to him that the embassy of the Gambia was closed for the week-end and politely asked if there was a way to obtain the visa here at the border. “The boss is eating”, come back in ten minutes. I went outside the customs building to change some local money on the black market and after my return, the boss was sitting at the desk – looking at the Russian passport. He was clearly fascinated by the exotic writing in Cyrillic letters and seemed to be more concerned about whether this was an official passport than the absence of the visa. After a few friendly words and some apologetic explanation about my unorganized friend, we agreed that he would get the visa for a processing fee of 10 US dollars. After he stamped the passport and I went back outside with the documents, I figured out that I paid more than four times as much for my official visa than Evgeny bribing his way into the country! Welcome to Africa.

After leaving the border, we took the ferry to the city of Banjul, capital of The Gambia. There we managed to get a room at the Jabo guesthouse which is located in the nice suburb of Bakau. This proved to be a wise choice (but that’s the topic of the upcoming blog entry).