Getting out of Dakar…

First step: lengthy negotiation with a taxi driver, whom I managed to slightly mollify by greeting him in Wolof and offering cigarettes. Our man brought me here:

gare routière (courtesy: Flickr)

Looks calm and serene, hm? In reality your car will be surrounded by a whirling crowd of vendors who sell everything. It’s like a giant open air supermarket – except that this one is in never-ending motion: talking, shouting, insisting, walking, running, thrusting items in your face (and they do that to absolutely everyone), haggling and that whole hyperactive crowd will be trying to sell you their wares until the taxi is out of the station. If my life depended on it I would do exactly the same….

Now, a word about the car.

a brand new bush taxi

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a Peugeot 504. First one produced in France in 1968, last one in Kenya and Nigeria – in 2006. I wonder why they ever stopped.

This is also Africa’s most enduring vehicle. It can negotiate roads about as well as any FourWheelDrive. I have driven it across sand roads, dirt roads, dry river beds, empty, full of passengers – this car can do it all. And it’s easy to use and maintain. Which is why I guess governments and development bureaucrats insist on expensive, complicated 4WDs that hardly ever leave town…and transport entrepreneurs still haven’t found a decent replacement for this beauty. As a result, your 2010 taxi is likely to look like this…

a real life bush taxi (by neddoscope on Flickr)

Mine was actually rather better looking.

6:30 in the evening, we have finally left the “gare routière” – and these cars don’t leave until they are full. One man up front. Me slumped against the window with a lady next to me who nods off as soon as we are moving – next to a grumpy elderly man in a big garb. Behind us: two sportsmanlike youngish lads and a very fashion-conscious lady.

Off. We. Go. Well………..

embouteillage!!!! (elo mopty on Flickr)

Ten minutes into the trip… and it’s the all-pervasive, inevitable, dreaded, hellish traffic jam. Something out of that classic 1976 Italian film, L’Ingorgo. But worse. Exhaust fumes. Noise. More vendors. A pair of singing boys has decided to target our taxi for prayers. They are ear-piercingly loud and expect to be rewarded for their efforts. It’s a widespread form of begging, something Senegalese frown upon, although giving alms is one of their duties as Muslims.

This takes all of two hours to clear. Meanwhile, we have all smoked the equivalent of 40 cigarettes and looking ahead there’s nothing but more cars, taxis, “cars rapides”, lorries and carts. But at least, we’re moving. Sort of.

By the time we reach Rufisque, an old run-down settlement between the road and the sea, our average speed has increased to a massive 14km/hour. It’s 8:30 and dark. Bad news for the next stretch.

Now the road has one lane for one direction each and an alternating lane in the middle for those who want to take turns overtaking. Except that in Senegal you don’t take turns. You GO. Until someone hurtling in the opposite direction flashes his lights and tells you to get the hell back to YOUR lane.

I hate this stretch of road with a passion…but traffic’s very thick tonight and when we reach Thiès, the next large town, we are cruising at the eye-watering velocity of 36 km/hour. This could get dangerous…

Except – it didn’t. At half past midnight we cruised into breezy and chilly Saint Louis and my first priority was of course to get my back sorted out and into shape. First destination: the bar. Found one on the river, next to this.

Blessed bliss!

Senegal’s most famous bridge. But Pont Faidherbe is falling apart (no maintenance does that) and it’s being replaced. So hurry if you still want to see the famous landmark.

Saint Louis Airport is just outside the town. I live next to Dakar Airport. Flying to Saint Louis would take all of 30 minutes. 50 euros one way? I’d pay. And so would half the passengers I was with. So…

…and I honestly don’t care who it is… Got the picture yet?

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