As soon as we got back from exploring the delights of Fadiout, Jeremy, Sarah and I tried to track down transport to Palmarin, a pleasant-sounding spot down the coast that the Lonely Planet, bless its cotton socks, describes as 'superb'. After shitty accommodation, a squalid beach, awful humidity and an island made of shells that turned out to be little more than an island made of shells, our spirits needed lifting.
I've looked it up in the dictionary, and the French for 'superb' is superbe, or at a pinch magnifique. This rather scuppers my theory that the author of my guidebook asked the locals for a description and lost something in translation, because however poor your French, you can't get confused about the meaning of superbe. Whatever the explanation, Palmarin isn't superbe and it isn't magnifique; it's awful.
I can't be too critical of my guidebook as the researcher would have visited Palmarin at least three years before we did and three years is a long time, but when we finally rolled up at the Campement de Palmarin – after our taxi driver took us for a number of detours on the way, none of them intentional and none of them adding anything in any way to any of our lives – I couldn't help wondering why the guidebook had gone for 'superb' when 'run-down', 'dirty' or even 'desolate' would have been so much more accurate. And I've never thought of toilets that dysfunctional as being superb, but at least it was better than Joal, because the beach at Palmarin had hardly any litter. It did have a strange kind of red seaweed that made the sea look like as if there'd been a radioactive spillage nearby – and indeed there was the rusting hulk of an old fishing trawler aground just south of our section of the beach, which was a nice touch – but the beach itself was passable.
The rest of the campement was slightly worse for wear, though. The 37 huts arranged in rows behind the beach were functional but hardly luxurious, and the concrete beds we dumped our stuff on had obviously been built some time ago. The one shower that managed to produce anything other than a slight drizzle was fine, if you like showering in salt water with an appreciative audience of mosquitoes, and toilets are always much more fun when they don't flush, but at least the proprietors were keen. It felt like we'd woken them from hibernation, which we quite possibly had as we were clearly the first tourists to stumble on the campement for some time, but they smiled, they brought us reasonably cold beers from the fridge, and they only tried to sell us boat tours a couple of times every half an hour. Things could have been much worse.
Irritatingly, a few hours later they were just that. We'd explored the beach, eaten the evening meal of chicken and chips and were looking forward to a good night's sleep before heading further south in the morning, when we realised that our rooms weren't actually rooms after all, they were saunas. Concrete bunkers are fine if they have fans and windows, but if they have nothing other than a couple of portholes, they're, well, concrete bunkers. If people actually liked concrete bunkers then those bloody inner-city architects from the sixties would all be OBEs by now, but history shows that we don't like concrete bunkers, and the architects have never been allowed to forget it. Concrete bunkers in hot, humid climates are a step beyond even tower blocks, and Palmarin's huts are superb and magnificent examples of how concrete can be successfully used as a psychological weapon. It was a long night.
The Beautiful Coast in Danger
At breakfast the next morning – if one can call dry baguette, frozen butter and instant coffee 'breakfast' – I spotted a possible explanation on the wall for the dilapidated state of Palmarin. Instead of the normal posters depicting beautiful pirogue trips through luscious mangrove swamps or idyllic shots of beaches with clean, golden sands and stunning blue water, the campement's restaurant walls sported a hand-painted montage of three beach scenes, ominously entitled La Belle Côte en Danger, 1995-2000. The top scene, captioned with the year 1995, showed a nice little beach-hut complex, with tourists splashing around in the sea, lying on the beach reading, and generally having a good time; indeed, one guy looked like he was rolling a spliff, though this was possibly an indication of the artist's lack of hand-painting skills than a true representation of life in Palmarin, circa 1995. Even the fishing trawler was in one piece, though the fact it was in the picture at all implies it had run aground even before these halcyon days. Perhaps it doubled as an aquatic adventure playground back then; whatever, it looked like a positive addition to the scene, so rosy were the artist's coloured spectacles. One could almost call it superbe, or at a pinch, magnifique.
The second and third paintings, though, told a very different story. They showed a sorry scene in which the fishing trawler had broken in two, the trees had blown down, the huts had been smashed and pushed into the sea, and not one tourist could be seen happily rolling on the beach. It clearly implied that some kind of natural disaster had hit the place between 1995 and 2000, which probably explained why things were a little run-down in Palmarin.
It didn't take long to get confirmation. I decided to wander down the beach to get a photo of the beached fishing trawler, it being the nearest thing to a tourist attraction in Palmarin, and a few hundred yards south of the campement lay the ruins of a bunch of concrete huts, the same ones that were depicted in the painting in the campement's restaurant. A large concrete disk lay smashed on the edge of the sea, once home to an idyllic seaside hut but now home only to some hardy sea-faring weeds and the rusting remains of the concrete's reinforcements. The whole place looked thoroughly forlorn, and suddenly everything made sense.
The big storm was back in 1997, during the year of El Niño, and it not only lacerated the Belle Côte round Palmarin, it also washed away a sizeable portion of the peninsula to the south of Djiffer, some 15km south of Palmarin. Djiffer now lies at the southernmost tip of this peninsula, and an island further to the south, perched in the mouth of the River Saloum, shows where the end of the peninsula used to be. No wonder Palmarin looks so forlorn; Mother Nature really hit it hard, and that's why it's anything but superb.
It still doesn't explain why they built concrete bunkers instead of beach huts, though...