Niokolo-Koba Park - the longest day of our life
Trip Start Jan 30, 2008
27Trip End Jun 23, 2008
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So, the coffee/tea was chugged. Our bags were packed with what few snacks we could come up with the night before to last us through the next day, and we were ready to go. I was even wearing this cute little "safari" shirt with animals on it and everything! We quickly learn that our driver speaks literally no English, only broken French, but I wasn't too worried about it. After all, he was just the driver... it's not like we needed him for anything but his car. Riiiight?
Well, by 6:30 a.m. we were picking up the French couple from their hostel down the road also in Tambacounda and then we were off on our way to explore the park! We knew it would take about an hour and a half to get to the entrance of the park, and then another hour + once we were in the park to get to "Simenti" where most of the animals congregated. The drive to the park was beautiful... we got to see the sunrise and so many little teeny remote villages. Senegal is so much bigger than The Gambia, so the villages are much more spread out and "infrequent" along the main road. (Something that proved to be quite an issue later on in the day).
Well, I knew the entrance to the park was in a town called Dar Salaam, and when we drove into Dar Salaam, and then through Dar Salaam, and then out of Dar Salaam, I began to wonder what we were doing. I kept my mouth shut, though, figuring that the driver knew what he was doing. I then tried to doze off to keep my mind from worrying. Well, about 45 minutes to an hour later we came across an army checkpoint and the officer pulled the car over and asked the driver where he was going and where our park passes were. Well, the driver decides to point fingers at us... somehow blaming us for the fact that he didn't stop at the park entrance for us to get our passes, a guide, etc etc. After some discussion in French (thank GOD the French couple was there... my French got me by, but only in friendly conversation with the couple) we realized we had driven approximately 80 km in the wrong direction and needed to turn around and get back to Dar Salaam. At that point I closed my eyes again. At that point, Justin also noted that the gas meter was just above a ¼ tank, and we still needed to get to the park, spend approximately 8 hours driving around the park, and then get home. Well anyways, after about another hour we were back in Dar Salaam, stopped at the gate to pay our entrance fee, pick up a guide, and enter the park. Everything was smooth for the first 30 or so minutes. We even saw a few animals on our way to Simenti... some bush pigs (Pumba from The Lion King), some different deer and antelope looking things. Every time we saw an animal we stopped and turned off the car as to not scare it away, but one of the first things the driver said to us (he also only spoke French) was that we were not to get out of the car under any circumstances. So maybe 20 minutes after he says that, the driver turns off the car and we immediately hear this "hissing" noise and see steam coming from under the hood. Well of course we get out of the car, the driver opens the hood, and the radiator literally explodes. Water shoots up six feet in the air... all over everything. Then the driver turns to us and asks us if he can use our mineral water to put in his radiator! It's not like we had much of a choice, so within the first hour of us being in the park, our water reserves for the day are pretty much depleted. Well, I guess the water did the trick because soon we were back on the road.
After maybe 10-20 more minutes of driving we hear Justin bang on the roof (he's now riding in the cab of the truck) that we have a flat tire. Once again, we get out of the car, stand around for about 20 minutes while the driver and guide work together to change the tire, and we're on our way. We head right to Simenti, where there is not only the most animal wildlife but also water for the radiator at the well-established "Hotel de Simenti." We got to see some really neat animals while in Simenti, particularly around this one swamp/watering hole area. Justin got some great photos, and it really was a beautiful scene. After about an hour at Simenti we got back in the car and after about 20 minutes pulled into another camp, this time called "Camp de Lion". Apparently someone here would be able to fix the car. I remember it being about 1:30 at this time. Justin and I took a nice walk down to the river which was close by, got some good photos, and returned to the camp expecting to be on our way. Neither our guide nor our driver was anywhere in sight, but the French couple was sitting at the camp in the shade... not doing much of anything. I started asking questions like, "What are we doing here? Where is everyone? And when are we leaving?"... They had no answers but we found our guide and he informed us that since it's the middle of the day, not many animals are out so we'll be waiting until about 6 p.m. to continue on our way. I was pissed. There was no way I was going to sit at this little camp sight for 5 hours doing nothing! He agreed that if we wanted to leave by 3 that would be alright. So we spent the next couple of hours exploring the area... we even found a family of baboons down by the water and had a lot of fun watching them and capturing photos. Keep in mind, we were paying this guide to show us animals in the park, and he didn't even point us in the direction of animals while we were sitting there! We explored ourselves, no guidance what so ever. By 3 p.m. our guide came out (we think both he and the driver were sleeping) and told us we could be on our way. We went out to the car, were about to hop in, when we noticed that the front right tire was flat. Yup, we had just sat at this camp for two hours with a flat tire. Sooo we waited another 20 or so minutes while they changed the tire (again) and we were THEN on our way. Except instead of continuing on to see the rest of the park, we needed to go back to Hotel de Simenti so they could fix at least one of the now two flat tires incase it were to happen again. Also, apparently there was a chance we could find petrol there. Also, the car needed more water.
So, 20 minutes later (it's now after 4 p.m.) we're back in Simenti. We've already seen all there is to see there, so we relax in the pavilion area, dip our feet in the small pool, and I try to keep my cool (literally and figuratively). The water and drinks at these hotels and encampments were so expensive, so we tried our best to hold off on buying drinks, and instead took sips of what we had left of the (now hot) bottled water. While we were sitting around I heard a man with a British accent speaking to some other guests. I suddenly remembered that our professor back at St. Mary's, Bill Roberts, had told me about a British man who runs the hotel and is very friendly with Bill and the St. Mary's program. I jumped up, went right over to him and asked, "Do you happen to be Colvin Tooke?" I think he was a bit surprised, but it turned out that it was indeed him. I told him I was a St. Mary's student and he seemed very happy to see me. I then launched into the story of our day, and asked whether he had any suggestions/recommendations for us in terms of how we could get back to Tambacounda that night. He said that one of their trucks was going to Tambacounda, but not until the next morning... and that we would be welcome to stay there if need be. I thanked him and told him we would keep him informed. Then I went back to sit down and wait. Our driver, by this time, was also just sitting and waiting, which confused me slightly because I thought he was working on the car and that was the reason we were waiting around. Well maybe 30 minutes later, Colvin came back and said that I was in luck... in fact the hotel's truck would be leaving right THEN to go to Tambacounda! I was so excited. I immediately asked him if there were four spots in the truck (I wasn't about to leave the French couple behind) and was prepared to go. Our driver then noticed that we were trying to make other arrangements to get home and suddenly started raising his voice saying that, we had no reason to be looking for another way home. The car would be fine and we needed to go with him right now. Why we were then sitting there for no reason? I had/still have no idea.
We asked him about the petrol and he apparently said something about having enough to get out of the park, and we would stop in the first town and pick some up then. Well, I was not happy. In fact, as we started walking back towards the car I sort of lost it... I was angry so angry at the driver, but also now at myself because we had an opportunity to get home safely and I was being convinced not to take it. My gut was telling me to not get back in that car because I knew we wouldn't make it back safely. Justin helped calm me down and told me everything would be alright. The next thing I knew we were back in the car heading out of the park. It took us about an hour and a half to get to the gate, where we dropped our guide off and were back on the road. After driving past what looked like a town where they might have had petrol, I asked the French guy to ask the driver where we were going to stop to fill up. I was told that the driver said something along the lines of, "no need... we will be fine." I remember us all looking at each other, knowing well that we wouldn't be fine but not really having much control over the situation.
Well the next two or so hours really tested my faith in God. We exited the park around 5:30/6 p.m. so we definitely had at least an hour left of day light. There are about five small villages along the main road in between Tambacounda and Dar Salaam, where we entered the park. The car broke down twice after exiting the park (and at least twice on the way out of the park) but each time we literally rolled right into a village as the car was rolling to a stop. We were thus able to get water and continue on our way. Still no petrol, though. So our theme during this time, and actually throughout the entire day was, "well, it could be worse" because even though we were constantly fixing this stupid car, we were usually in a "safe" place around other people and where there was water if we got desperate enough. Also, once out of the park we had some cell phone service, although it was inconsistent. So after continuing on our way twice, we were about 10 km outside of the previous village when we saw a red light come on the dashboard and once again, we rolled to a stop. This time we were in the middle of no where. We also noticed that it was definitely getting dark, and the moon was rising quickly. After about 10 minutes of trying not to panic I realized that I could call Pape (the organizer back in Tambacounda) tell him the story, and he would come get us. So I go to get my cell phone and immediately notice that the little reception we had before is now gone. We were literally stuck.
Our "well, this could be worse" theme no longer applied. Not only did the driver not come prepared with enough water or petrol, but he also didn't have a cell phone or any sort of flash light. In less than 20 minutes it was officially dark, and no sort of progress whatsoever was being made. Every 10-20 minutes a car or truck would drive by, but our attempts to flag them down were all failing. I was starting to get nervous. At one point Justin took my phone and began running in the direction that we had previously had reception, but came back 10 minutes later having found nothing. While he was gone I saw our driver stick a twig into the gas tank to test the level of petrol. It was obvious to all of us what the real problem was, but I guess he was still in denial. Then I saw the headlights of another vehicle approaching and I decided I was going to stand in the middle of the road until it stopped and let us go with it. Well, luckily it did stop, and as soon as I saw the driver I immediately recognized the truck from Hotel de Simenti! It was the truck that I had wanted to go with hours before. I was elated because I knew they would take us with them. I couldn't understand what the drivers were saying to each other, but I heard a lot of yelling and a lot of "Tubab! Tubab!" which means "white man". I think the truck drivers were telling our driver that he was irresponsible because he knew it was unlikely that the car would make it back, yet he insisted that we go with him.
Either way, in less than five minutes we were all sitting in the back of this truck, and were once again on the road. It must have been close to 9 p.m. at this point. It was a really neat sensation, sitting in the back of this huge industrial truck (the kind with tarps that cover the sides, but the tarps were rolled up) with empty coke bottles, tires, gallons for water, petrol, and whatever other supplies the hotel might need. I told Justin that I felt like some sort of refugee, escaping my country at night in the back of a truck. The moon was bright, the wind was whipping through my hair, and I was finally able to smile again. After only maybe 10 minutes we stopped in the next town and the driver was telling me to get out. I was confused, because I knew that truck was going all the way to Tambacounda, so I was hoping it would just take us with it all the way. I guess the driver's plan was to get petrol in this town, go back to his car to fill up, and then come get us. I wasn't really thinking about much of anything besides getting some cold water so I got out of the truck without too much resistance. After, of course, checking to make sure I had cell phone reception in case anything ELSE was to go wrong. As soon as I was out of the truck I called Pape and told him where we were (after asking some locals... I, myself, had no idea where we were) and that he needed to come pick us up. I didn't tell him anything besides the fact that the car was broken and we were not going to take it home. He seemed to understand and said he would be on his way. Apparently we were only 30 km from Tambacounda by this time. For some reason Pape continued to call me about five times over the next hour, asking where the driver was, and how we were doing. Each time I made it very clear that the driver was not with us and that we were waiting for him (Pape) to come get us himself. Each time he responded, "Yes, yes no problem. I'm on my way". After maybe an hour of waiting Pape finally showed up in his own car. I was so happy to see him, although extremely pissed off because he was ultimately the one responsible for such a horrible day. We drove in complete silence all the way back to Tambacounda. I was surprised, expecting Pape to at least ask how our day was, but there was no conversation whatsoever. He must have known how our day had gone, just by the way it ended. Well we arrived back in Tambacounda just before midnight, and Pape asked the French couple if they wanted to be dropped at their hotel. They then said that we were all hoping to sit down and talk about our day, so we would like to go back to Pape's hotel, where the arrangements had been made the day before.
By the way (little side note) while everything was going down throughout he day, we had been discussing what we were going to do about it, and with each additional problem we had "joked" about asking for another 10,000 CFA back. Between the four of us we had paid 120,000 CFA for this trip! That's over $300. We ended up having so many problems that we joked about how really Pape should be paying US for the day.
So we walked into Pape's office, and asked for a full refund. We knew we weren't going to get it, but we figured we might as well start big. Pape seemed shocked. We laid out every detail of our day (the driver was not there at first, but showed up after maybe 30 minutes of debate) and told him how unjust it was that we paid him all this money ahead of time for a day spent fixing a car. He seemed to understand our concerns, but only offered us 30,000 CFA back (between the four of us...) That was totally unreasonable and we weren't going to accept. Well, to make a long story short, we sat there for approximately two hours going back and forth. The French couple would speak to him in French, he would respond in French. Then Justin would speak to him in English, he would respond in English. He held fast at 30,000 CFA but we lowered our demands to 60,000 CFA (half of our money). It took a long time... and Justin did some amazing arguing. It was truly an amazing sight to see. Justin was so angry, but kept his cool and explained everything in business terms. He told Pape that we know many people in the area (really, we only knew Colvin... but it was still a good strategy) and that he didn't want to have to start making phone calls about the poor service of his business. He then whipped out his passport, opened it to the front page, and sent me to go get money for the phone so he could call the Embassy. It was only about five minutes after I got back and Justin had the number dialed that Pape quickly agreed... threw 30,000 CFA at us, 30,000 at the French couple, and stormed out of there. We stood out in front of the hotel for a minute or two, saying our goodbyes and exchanging information with the couple. We all sort of just shook our heads in shock at what had just happened. It was close to 2 a.m. and our day had finally come to an end. And as we were standing there saying goodbye, Pape got in his car and sped away... or tried to. About 50 meters out of the parking lot we saw him slow down, and noticed that his rear right tire was flat. We immediately said our goodbyes and bolted in opposite directions, only imagining how furious Pape must be.
Well, we walked the one km back to our hotel and arrived just before 2 a.m. Justin and I were both so happy to have gotten at least some of our money back. All in all it was an interesting day. I would never do it again, but I feel like I learned a lot, and my will was definitely tested more than it's ever been.