By chance, while researching a trip to West Africa to attend Benin’s annual Voodoo Festival, I stumbled upon an opportunity to enjoy a special tour aboard the historic and charming Bou El Mogdad. By adding in a flight to Dakar I was able to take this cultural week-long river voyage.
As I board “The Bou”, I am quickly enchanted with her old world charm. I find my cabin and take note of its lovely dark wood, louvered wooden shutters and a comfy-looking double bed. Shared showers and bathrooms are down the outside passageway. I locate the bar on the uppermost deck and find that is already sharing its charms with fellow passengers enjoying welcome drinks under the open African sky.
In her day, the Bou El Mogdad transported goods, delivered mail, food, drinking water and raw material to the colonial trading posts before there were roads. Today she transports tourists. With only twenty-five cabins, we are a small group.
In our seven days, I am charmed by Senegal’s river secrets – the Toucouleurs villages, nomadic Fulani tribes, traditional Peulh villages and the Wolof village of Dagana. From Podor, we travel the river to Saint Louis, a seven day journey revealing the two river worlds of Senegal and Mauritania. Travelling solo, I struggle with conversation until I find French passengers who speak better English than my high school French.
Mid-journey, “tiep bou dien” (rice with fish) is served up as a riverside picnic under mango trees where we are entertained by local musicians and villagers selling handmade jewelry and souvenirs.
I am shocked when we visit a large sugar cane factory to watch the burning of the canes. Acres of fires are lit and as I choke on the billowing black smoke that completely fills the sky, I am filled with resentment for the harm to the environment, yet remind myself that this sugar cane is the main source of income for the area … and these are poor people.
We canoe through the Djoudj Bird Park with a knowledgeable guide introducing us to egrets, cormorants and purple heron. This is a wetland habitat for about three million migrating birds. We watch in awe as flocks of pink flamingoes take flight over huge pods of pelicans.
As we tie up in Saint Louis, the locals crowd the quay, selling their wares, intent on relieving of us our last bits of currency. I like this little town; it has a “vibe” to it and I see many small streets being splashed with colorful paint as shops are upgraded, perhaps for an anticipated new influx of tourists.
Senegal’s last secret is revealed in Dakar, at Ile de Goree. It looks a very charming, car-free island village with cobblestone lanes to meander and a robust outdoor tourist market. But history tells otherwise, for this tiny Atlantic island was once the largest slave trading center on the West African coast.
This heartbreaking secret, I wish I didn’t know.
Peggy Wright, CTC, CITM, CATS is ‘The Travel Agent Next Door.’