Niokolo-Koba, Senegal, October 28 - 30, 2007

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
Trip End Jan 05, 2008

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

It was a very long two day ride on paved but badly pot-holed roads from Dakar to Niokolo-Koba National Park, Senegal's premier national park located deep in the country's southeastern interior.  We quickly left Dakar's semi-sophistication and French-tinged flavor for interior Senegal's mud hut family compounds and villages with thatched roofs.  We shopped for plenty off food and drinks for the days ahead of us at a nice Lebanese-owned supermarket before we left Dakar and camped on the way one night near a village in brushy country with picturesque baobab trees.  Somehow I ended up in the same cook group with Richard, a professional chef from Australia, so the two of us razzle-dazzled everyone with the first night's camp dinner - Geschnetzeltes (Zurich-style creamed veal stew), mashed potatoes, and ratatouille.
We continued on the next day via the badly pot-holed road through Tambacounda, eastern Senegal's largest city.  Most of the distance was sparsely populated with only occasional villages with thatched roof dwellings and extended family compounds.  Senegal supposedly has the world's highest rate of polygamous marriage with up to half of women involved in polygamous marriages.  Under Islam a man is permitted to have up to four wives but only under very specific conditions that include his ability to provide adequately for each wife and the family he has with her.  African Islam is somewhat more relaxed about things than Middle Eastern Islam, so some Senegalese men have more than five wives.  Hmmm, this must make for an excess supply of men who can't find wives in Senegal.  Maybe that's why so many Senegalese dudes move to Italy and France to sell knockoff handbags and wristwatches on the sidewalks. 
In rural areas wives in polygamous marriages all live together in the same compound with their children, each with her own hut, and take turns doing the chores.  At some point a first wife goes out in search of an appropriate second and subordinate wife for her husband to do work around the compound.  I suppose it's not that odd.  I know many people in America who are at points in their marriages where the wife would happily search for a second wife for her husband to do the household chores and drive the kids around while she shops and lunches with friends - sort of like a servant wife.  The concept has potential to really catch on among America's upper middle class.
From the junction with the main road it was a long drive on a narrow dirt road through steamy insect-ridden forest to Simenti, site of Niokolo-Koba's main campground and hotel deep in the park's interior.  The hotel manager was a British man named Colvin, who arrived at Niokolo-Koba several years earlier to revive the hotel's business but has since become involved in community development and promoting eco-tourism in the region.   
Colvin explained park history and ecology to us before our safari drive and river boat cruise.  Niokolo-Koba National Park is quite large at about 3,000 square miles but represents a classic case of over-exploitation of a community-owned resource.  When the park was established, rice-growing villages were forced to relocate to lands outside the park.  Before the park was established locals had strict rules in place regarding who in a village could hunt game and how the catch was to be distributed among villagers.  Once moved to poorer corn (maize) growing land, however, they no longer felt ownership over the resource and exploited it to the maximum through poaching.  Where there were once large herds of wild animals, they have ironically been decimated since the national park's creation. 
We split into two groups for our wildlife viewing day, one group taking the game drive in Daphne in the morning and the cruise on the Niokolo-Koba River in the later afternoon, the other doing the outings in opposite order.  Although not an unpleasant day, the wildlife was rather underwhelming.  I saw some birds and a crocodile on the boat ride and a few hippo faces and backs in the water until they submerged as we approached.  Some vervet monkeys also rampaged through the hotel's river-viewing patio and empty swimming pool, and we spotted a warthog and a marauding troupe of baboons on our game drive, but that was it for wildlife. 
In contrast to the relative dearth of charismatic megafauna at Niokolo-Koba, the park still has an amazing variety of avian life which sent our two avid birders, Blair and Ian, into a state of ecstasy.  Although there was a "Birds of West Africa" guide on the truck, Colvin had additional books on the park's birdlife.  Blair and Ian looked like two teen boys with their first porn magazine as they perused these bird guides.  "Ooooh, look at that one.  I saw one of those in Mozambique.  She was a beaut!" 
"Great day and four new species.  You should have seen her, mate!"
"What would be the best place for getting a view of one of these?" Ian asked Colvin as he pointed to the picture of some nondescript little bird in the book.
On our way from Niokolo-Koba to the Malian border we made a stop for some marketing in Tambacounda, the main town in Senegal's interior and an excruciatingly hot and dusty place that sees few foreign travelers and, hence, has a very low hassle factor.  It was strangely impossible to exchange Euros for the CFAs I needed to buy bar stock at all the town's banks, but outside of one I met a man who knew of a merchant who would exchange money.  He didn't speak any English but asked me if I spoke Spanish, so we hablaed a bit.  He took me down a crowded alley to a storefront where a merchant exchanged 100 Euros for a rather good rate.  No one would exchange U.S. Dollars, though, and I think I was the only one in the group who managed to exchange any money at all in that town. 
The road to the border crossing at Kidira/Diboli was a rather good one and the border formalities turned out to be rather clean, quick, and straightforward.  Reflecting upon my stay in the country, I have to say that I generally enjoyed Senegal but didn't find the so-called "Land of Hospitality" to stand out as a uniquely friendly place.
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