Friday, February 19, 2010
After our final day in Dakar, my boyfriend and I got back in our taxi for the long drive down the hot dusty coast of Senegal. Passing small villages with cinder block buildings and thatched roofed huts, donkey carts moving slowly down the roadside, and towns full of colorful tourist shops, we eventually came to the end of the paved road. Not stopping there, we pushed further south along a potholed red dirt track flanked on either side by dry brush punctuated by centuries old baobab trees.
After what seemed like an interminable stretch of time through uninhabited bush, we finally arrived in Palmarin, a large nature reserve in Senegal. Palmarin is situated on the coast at the northern edge of the vast network of rivers, runoffs, and mangroves that comprise the Sine-Saloum Delta.
Our final destination in Senegal was Les Collines de Niassam, an eco resort in the Palmarin reserve. Les Collines had come highly recommended by a former coworker of mine that had spent several years living in Senegal. With its tree house rooms and over-lagoon bungalows, it looked like the perfect place to relax after the long drive from Dakar.
We arrived at Les Collines de Niassam in the heat of the afternoon and followed a member of staff down a path made of white seashells to our room. It was a free-standing open-air bungalow with a thatched roof, an interior terrace, and beautifully carved wooden furniture.
We set down our bags and left the room to explore the rest of the resort. Walking along the shell-covered pathways, we passed huge baobabs, a large shallow lagoon across which stood a stretch of white sand and bush, and a curvilinear swimming pool surrounded by wooden deck chairs and palm-frond cabanas.
Our navigation complete, we settled in by the pool and started to relax. All around us a million different kinds of birds sang their songs as they took turns drinking water from the pool. A giant monitor lizard slithered by in search of a hiding place, and the lodge’s resident dogs wandered over to say hello.
In the evening we enjoyed cocktails outside the dining room, then found ourselves a table on the seashells that faced the lagoon. Dinner consisted of gazpacho, grilled fish with gratin dauphinoise (my artery-clogging cuisine of choice!), and a tropical fruit Royal Crumble.
We looked around us while we were eating and noticed that every table was full. If Senegal (and the rest of the world, for that matter) was experiencing a downturn in tourism, Les Collines de Niassam certainly didn’t know it.
The following morning we slept in as late as the local bird population would let us, and awoke to the sounds of cooing doves and chirping hornbills. Our breakfast, a basket of small freshly-baked baguettes, fresh grapefruit and bissap juice, and tea, was delivered to our room so that we could eat on the terrace.
At 10 our hot water arrived in buckets, and I took my first ever bucket shower. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, but it was nice to have a hot shower.
We spent the rest of the morning by the pool. I finished reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was the first of the two books I brought with me, and started on The Wings of the Dove, which should keep me busy until I get back to London. My boyfriend, who recently made the long overdue admission that he loves his Blackberry more than he loves me, entertained himself by reading whatever mindless drivel he found on the Internet.
In the afternoon we went for a walk along the lagoon, passing by huge salt flats, bleached crab skeletons, and grazing herds of local zebu.
We had a late lunch of fresh fish and a delicious salad, then got Ayurvedic massages before walking out to the ocean at sunset. All along the path to the ocean were pools of salt water that the locals used to harvest salt. They came in a plethora of different colors, from rust red to light pink to crystal white.
We reached the ocean after about twenty minutes, then turned back to walk to the lodge before dark. The colors of the early evening were beautiful, illuminating the sparkling waters of the lagoons and the sky behind the trees.
Our second evening at Les Collines de Niassam was similar to the first. We again enjoyed cocktails on the terrace and a dinner of tomato soup with egg, shrimp curry with couscous, and a fruit tart for dessert.
The next morning we savored breakfast in our room and took our second bucket shower, which proved a bit easier than the first (I think there’s really a technique to it, but I hope to never take enough bucket showers that I ever master it). Afterward we packed our bags and moved to a tree house room, which was pretty spectacular.
Consisting of three stories, the tree house had a ground floor bathroom with a baobab trunk for shower walls, a first floor terrace with a hammock and a small table, and a top floor bedroom with views out over the lagoon and into the baobab branches. I felt like I was living a story from an adventure book. It was definitely one of the most unique hotel rooms I’ve ever stayed in.
Our afternoon activity of the day was a river safari through the Sine River. A local guide took us birding in a large motorized pirogue, pointing out the different species of heron, egret, tern, eagle, kingfisher, and bee eater as we passed each along the mangrove-lined waters.
The safari was the picture of peace, with still water, bright sunshine, and absolute quiet except for the calls of the birds, the narration of our guide, and my attempts at translation from French to English for my boyfriend’s benefit.
The tide was ebbing as we started our safari, and at one point our guide pointed out that all of the roots of the mangrove trees that lined the river were covered with oysters. The lower the tide went, the more we could see the whitish-gray shells of the oysters clinging onto the brown stalks. There were millions of them.
I mentioned to our guide that we enjoy a good oyster now and again, and he promptly told the skipper to pull over by a clutch of mangroves. The two of them started breaking the roots off one of the trees, piling oyster-covered sticks into the boat. “We will stop at a beach to eat oysters,” he smiled. I couldn’t wait.
Our pirogue journeyed on past sand bars dotted with downy white egrets and out to a wider stretch of the Sine River. Eventually we came to the point where the Sine River and the larger Saloum River meet, with a visible line in the water where the two streams cross. From there we could see the tip of the Palmarin peninsula and the point at which the Sine-Saloum River meets the Atlantic Ocean.
We pulled up to a beautiful white-sand beach and took a walk to look for sand crabs as our guide and the skipper made a fire to BBQ our oysters. The grilling done, we tucked into a plate of delicious salty shellfish.
Back at Les Collines de Niassam, we enjoyed our final sundowners and a dinner of fish soup with garlic croutons, a large grilled fish steak with baked potatoes, and a dessert of the richest chocolate mousse I’ve ever tasted.
Our night in the tree house passed relatively smoothly despite a bit of draftiness and a midnight trip down to the terrace to stop the hammock from banging into the railing whenever the wind blew.
We woke up this morning to enjoy our final breakfast in the tree and savor our last bit of relaxation by the pool. We needed the relaxation, too, because what we experienced next was some unexpected trouble. To be continued…