Say Senegal or mention West Africa and misinformed mutterings of ebola start to spread quicker than the virus itself. Sitting on the western shoulder of Africa, Senegal is frequently overlooked by travellers – but for little good reason.
While the excellent birding and beaching in The Gambia – the country that slices Senegal’s coastline in two – attract thousands of tourists on organised tours and package holidays, Senegal simmers in the African sun with stretches of often-empty beaches (around 500km of them, in fact), with few tourists to be seen.
And it’s not just about the coastline. There are near-untouched deserts, steamy cities and some fascinating islands with captivating stories to tell. So if you’ve got no idea what to expect, let us tell you a few things you didn’t know about Senegal…
1. The Senegalese seriously know how to bake
Waking to the waft of pastry in the morning or sighting women carrying bundles of freshly-baked baguettes after breakfast is something you’d associate with a holiday in France. But this isn’t France, it’s Senegal, and the bakeries fill the early morning air with the tantalising smell of pastry and bread. A legacy left by the French, warm croissants and pains au chocolat make up the breakfast spreads in many a hotel or resort, as well as Senegalese homes. Baguettes are served with almost every meal, and patisseries showcasing impressive-looking cakes will have your mouth watering as you stroll past.
2. You can camp under a sky full of stars in the desert
Lodge de Lompoul sits in the middle of the Senegalese desert and it’s a world away from the big, brash city of Dakar. As the sun sets, crack open a cool Flag (West African lager), sit back, relax and watch the dunes turn from yellow to orange before they’re silhouetted against the night’s sky.
Three hours north of the capital, the small village of Lompoul sits on the edge of a desert of the same name. This smattering of huts and concrete and corrugated iron structures is a gateway to a strangely empty patch of yellow sand dunes in the middle of the forested landscape that backs the Senegalese coastline.
Leave your vehicle in Lompoul and jump into the camp’s 4×4 truck to traverse the steeply undulating, foliage-clad dunes – an exhilarating adventure in itself – before arriving at your luxury tent to spend a night in the wild.
3. Senegal’s natural attractions include a vivid pink lake
Blue, crystal-clear waters are beautiful, but what about bright pink? Thanks to its high salt content (up to forty per cent in places) caused by an algae called dunaliella salina, Lake Retba looks more like cloudy pink lemonade than a refreshing cool-blue pool. Don’t try swimming in it though: the salt is terrible for your skin, and the workers who gather the mineral have to cover themselves in shea butter before jumping in. It’s brighter at certain times of year (the dry season, mainly) and is made even more striking where parts of its banks are made up of bright-white salt.
The lake is a hive of activity all year round: men dig for salt under the water and women in brightly-coloured dresses carry buckets full of it on their heads from the waters to the metres-high mounds on the shore.
4. The country is a twitcher’s paradise
The Gambia gets most of the attention for birdwatching in West Africa, but Senegal also has its own haven for hundreds of winged creatures. The Parc National de la Langue de Barbarie, at the southern end of a long, thin, sandy peninsula near the border with Mauritania, is a reserve for over 160 different species of birds, from all kinds of terns and gulls to pelicans and pink flamingoes. Hire a pirogue (traditional canoe) and glide through the calm waters all afternoon for some excellent ornithological observation.
5. You can visit an island made from millions of shells
In the south of Senegal, a hundred kilometres from Dakar, Ile de Fadiouth is one of Senegal’s many little islands, set in the ocean between a peninsula and a warren of lush mangroves. But it’s not like the others that dot the Atlantic coastline here – this one is made of shells. The streets are paved with them, the houses decorated with them and the adjoining mini island, housing only the Christian-Muslim cemetery, is entirely made up of them. Take a stroll to the top of the highest mound of shells in the cemetery for a glorious view over the mangroves and azure waters.
6. Senegal hosts a famous jazz festival
Each year in May, the sleepy city of Saint Louis becomes overrun with strumming, scatting and singing musicians, ready to set the jazz standard high. The world-renowned Saint Louis Jazz festival has seen some of the biggest names in jazz take to the main stage in the city centre, and plenty of smaller acts performing in various venues around the city. Restaurants, hotels and bars are abuzz with musical excitement at this time of year; walk down the streets and you’ll hear jazz on every corner, whether it’s blaring out from a shop soundsystem or a jam session in someone’s back garden.
7. You can spot enormous baobabs over 1200 years old
Baobabs are everywhere in Senegal: from the national coat of arms to the city centres and the arid countryside. They’re peculiar-looking trees with fat trunks – that can grow up to 25 metres in circumference – and short stubby branches, and they can live for well over a thousand years. They’re a symbol of wisdom and longevity, the fruit is used to make a sweet, deep-red juice drink called bui and the bark makes strong rope. Whether they look as if they’re bursting from the tarmac of a busy city road, or they’re just standing silhouetted against a burning red sunset, baobabs are a bizarrely beautiful sight to be seen throughout the country.