The thought of trying to get out of Djiffer – stuck there on its sandy peninsula where the River Saloum flows into the Atlantic – sat at the back of my mind like the promise of tomorrow's hangover when the night is still young. Senegalese buses are enough to make anyone go weak at the knees, but when you're sitting there watching the African moonlight play over a serene beach right outside your bungalow's back door, they're even less enticing. Luckily we found an alternative, one far more suited to the lush surroundings of the Siné-Saloum Delta.
Sandwiched between the Petite Côte to the north and the Gambia to the south sits the Siné-Saloum Delta, a mangrove swamp formed by the Saloum and Siné rivers as they merge and flow into the Atlantic. It's a pretty area of islands, beaches, mangroves and mosquitoes, but it's not a lot of fun if you're a bus; there's a car ferry some 40km upstream from Djiffer, so from our beach paradise the only bus-based option was to backtrack some way north up the coast before heading southeast to go round the delta.
However, buses aren't the only way to get around, and the Siné-Saloum area is home to countless fishermen... and where there are fishermen there are pirogues. Your average pirogue is a long, thin canoe that's propelled by a stuttering outboard motor and a crazy local or two, and although it's about as far from luxurious cruising as you can get, it's a delightful way to navigate through the mangrove swamps. Within about five minutes of wandering into the bowels of hell that was Djiffer village, we were accosted by a hopeful young piroguier called André, who did his best to persuade us that his pirogue was the only sensible way to get upstream. Given the state of the belching hulks that were apparently the only buses heading north from Djiffer, he had a point, and we haggled for a bit before settling on a deal of CFA8000 per person to get to Foundiougne, home to the car ferry and buses that would take us south towards the Gambia.
This morning the four of us – me, Jeremy, Sarah and Chris – met André on the beach at 9am sharp, ready to head on up the river. We stowed our bags in the bows, wobbled into the middle of the boat as the waves slapped the sides, and waited while the three local crewmen heaved our pirogue into the slow-moving waters of the River Saloum. The motor coughed into life, and after a few precarious tilts that threatened to scupper our trip before it had even begun, we headed off in a northeasterly direction, against the flow of the lumbering river.
It was a scorching day, tempered only by the faint breeze caused by our movement through the tranquil waters of the wide river, so who can blame the boys for wasting no time at all in smoking three fat spliffs in quick succession, while they sat steering and grinning at the back of the boat? I figured that the river was wide, the visibility good and their experience probably greater than mine at steering a pirogue to Foundiougne, so the chances were that having stoned drivers wouldn't make any difference. I also figured that if anything was going to happen, it would be the will of Allah... and reassured by this, I relaxed into it.
The trip was uneventful and gloriously chilled out. The sun reflected off the river and torched our eyes, and three-and-a-half hours later we were frazzled, but the scenery was pleasant and the graceful feeling of gliding upstream was most relaxing. It wasn't long before the village of Foundiougne hove into view on the banks, and we set a course for the Campement le Baobab, our chosen spot for the night. We congratulated each other; we'd managed to avoid the sardine sweatboxes that pass for buses round these parts, and we'd seen a fair bit of the Siné-Saloum Delta into the bargain.
And then André's brother, who had taken the tiller, misjudged the riverbank totally and drove us straight into the wall of the campement, smashing a chunk of wood off the front of the pirogue and throwing the whole caboodle dangerously off-balance. The crew suddenly woke up, jolted out of their red-eyed stupor as surely as if one of them had dropped a spliff down the back of the sofa, and it was only André's quick thinking that saved the day; he jumped onto the jetty and stuck his leg out in a karate pose, leaning out just far enough for his cousin to grab it. Slowly things stopped rocking, and we all breathed again; our landing might have been clumsy, but we'd finally arrived.
Interestingly, their rude awakening didn't dampen our drivers' enthusiasm for playing the cadeau game. This appears to be obligatory for anyone who delivers toubabs to their destination, and starts off with the driver insisting on being paid more than was originally agreed; it's not couched in such rude terms, though, but takes the form of the taxi or pirogue driver asking for a cadeau ('present') on delivery. He might ask for a beer if you've just arrived somewhere that serves it, or he might just be after more money, claiming that it was a longer drive than agreed. For example, the guy who drove us from Joal to Palmarin tried to sting us for more cash when it was he who'd missed the turning and he who should have known where our hotel was, instead of driving around for kilometres trying to track it down; still, as the guys at the Palmarin campement said, these guys always ask for more, and 'that's just how it is.' And travellers like me always tell them to piss off from behind a glorious smile, which is just how it is from this end...
Luckily our hosts were too stoned to play cadeau for too long, and soon we'd booked into the campement and kicked back into the laid-back vibe of Foundiougne, yet another small village sitting on the tranquil banks of the River Saloum. Indeed, Foundiougne was almost too tranquil, as we discovered when we decided that a good way to kill the afternoon would be to take a short pirogue excursion even deeper into the mangroves forests. After waiting for André and his posse to leave – we didn't fancy crashing into mangrove forests and capsizing among the mosquitoes, to be honest – we wandered down the main street of Foundiougne and waited for the touts to make their offers. And we waited, and waited, and even when we walked down to the nerve-centre of pirogue activity, the fishing beach, and wandered around like rich toubabs with money to burn, the offers completely failed to come in.
Faced with a village where even the touts couldn't be bothered to engage, we repaired to the bar and kicked back until the moon had risen, the mosquitoes had feasted on white man's blood, and the effects of the sun and fresh air had kicked in. Sometimes you just have to accept that doing nothing is the right thing to do, especially when nothing's doing...