A bump wakes me from my uncomfortable slumber. I’ve unbuckled my safety belt so I could rest my head on the seat next to me for a few minutes of sleep, contorting my body but somehow managing to nod off nevertheless. According to the nurse who prescribed my malaria tablets, travellers to Africa are 30 times more likely to be injured or die in a road accident than they are to fall ill, so I like to stay strapped in if conditions allow. Now I’m half asleep, looking out of the window of our minibus, massaging my leg back to life. The road has changed. We’ve turned off the asphalt to a red dirt track that will take us to one of the many army check points in southern Senegal. There, we’ll all have to get out and present our passports, then cross the checkpoint on foot before hopping back into the van, continuing on our enormous detour on the way back to Dakar. The grey darkness of the night has given way to a tentative dawn that starts to colour in the landscape in washed-out hues: the soaking rice paddies still pale green, the sky a non-descript grey, offset by a pinkish cloud formation that heralds the rising sun on the far side of this continent.
Everybody’s asleep. The gentle snoring blends with the hum of the engine, overlaid with a squeaking noise from the back of uncertain provenance, but probably of no concern. Only Bapa, the kid who drives us, is awake, content to cover mile after mile never speaking a word, until the next time a cop asks him for our tatty registration papers, to which he will add the obligatory bribe of CFA 1,000 (£1.30). “If I had a secret, I would tell it to you”, I attempt to joke with him, but Bapa’s deadpan face remains unmoved.
We’ve had a 5am start. It’s going to be a long journey as we head from the very south of Senegal back to the capital.
The river Gambia is just to the north of us and the most straightforward thing would be to cross it somewhere near the coast. But there’s no bridge and the ferry is notoriously slow, setting off only once it’s full. More than that, the Gambia is a sovereign state of its own, jutting into francophone Senegal like a crooked finger pointing to the past.
The British claimed the river and the land surrounding it as a colony, and to this date, the Gambia seems to do its best to discourage being used a transit route by putting up barriers of bureaucracy and corruption. As a result, we have to drive around this tiny country, heading east all the way to Tambacounda before turning westwards to the coast again, the whole diversion adding five hours to our 18-hour journey. A bridge or even a reliable ferry service would do wonders to the regional economy, but even in 2017, no-one holds their breath.
We’ve left Cap Skirring behind and wish we could have stayed at this unspoilt beachside resort, which plays host to a Club Med and even boasts an international airport. The sandy beach here is sheer endless and beautifully clean, the water calm and pleasantly warm. If you’re looking for a tropical paradise, this is it: forget Saly and Warang.
On the night of our arrival, Yass lays on a performance of local djembe drummers right there on the beach after the dark – we dance around a fire to rhythms as old as the land itself, beneath the glow of a crescent moon. Once the performance is over, we head back to our run-down hotel, the Mussuwam. While the others talk, I peel off from the group and stand on the terrace, watching the moon turn orange as if it were on fire, then sink slowly into the sea – I never even knew that moonsets existed. The magical moment is ruined completely when Justin arrives holding his mobile aloft into the starry sky. “Look, I have an app that identifies constellations when you point your phone at them”, he says proudly like a schoolboy who’s just been given his first chemistry set. He might as well have sat on a fart cushion during my moment of transcendental bliss. Who knows how close I was to a life-changing epiphany as God himself pursed his lips close to my ears to tell me the great secret of human existence?
The Mussuwam is like a backdrop for a film, one of the last stops on the line, not off the grid but barely on it either. Lazy reggae beats fill the air, a few patrons are scattered around nursing their beers, talking in low voices or looking, bored, at their phones. In the corner is a handbag-sized billiards table. Who knows when the walls were last given a lick of paint – the chipped and scuffed azure and white give the place atmosphere, as does the floor with its mosaic tiles. Then there is the cream-coloured bar counter, stocked with a respectable display of libations. The barman is called Six and reveals gappy, stubby brown teeth when he smiles, and he smiles often. I suspect he helps himself to bottles of “Gazelle” beer as enthusiastically as he serves us, taking care to log all purchases in an A5 notebook. The furniture consists of a lounging corner with a coffee table, around which four wooden comfy chairs have been placed. Apart from this, there are metal chairs and tables painted the same blue as the walls.
You could sit here for hours and days in perfect contentment, watching the ever-changing sea and sky, listening to the waves breaking on the shore. The part of me that wandered off in search of peace had found a place to anchor.
Outside, the drummers have started playing again. They beat their djembes drinking beer – a spliff is passed around as everyone here is a rastaman. I’m told the weed is local and in plentiful supply – there’s even an island nearby that’s entirely dedicated to the cultivation of the herb.
Oscar wears his dreadlocks short these days. They peek out from underneath a snapback baseball hat that bears the legend “Super Crew”. He’s of compact build but strong, and has a jovial manner about him that makes you feel at ease the minute he smiles and offers you a swig of his beer or a puff of his African cigarette. He’s moved here from the Gambia and speaks a heavily-accented English patois, but that doesn’t stop us from communicating.
As soon as we walk in, Oscar, who works in some capacity or other at the bar, seems genuinely delighted. With the alcohol freely flowing, he becomes ever more affectionate, taking a special liking to me in particular. He loves it when Justin gives me the giggles with his surreal stories, anecdotes, snatches of comedy and song. Justin barely had the chance to tell us, a propos nothing, “My father had one eye…” when I double up in hysterical laughter. Oscar looks at me quizzically but Justin continues undeterred. “My father had one eye, where one quarter was a different colour from the rest. It’s a rare genetic variation he had in common with David Bowie.” This explanation makes me laugh even harder. I am almost curled up on the floor, gasping for air. “I love dis man”, says Oscar, looking at me, unable to contain myself, “cause he fonny, he focking fonny. Man who like to laugh.” Then he high-fives and fist-bumps me before clutching me in an almost violent bear-hug. “Give me your heart, give me your heart!”, exclaims as he squeezes the air out of my lungs. Another favourite of his is Tanya, who has now started to dance to the drums, cigarette in hand. “Dis is free woman”, says Oscar approvingly, “de free woman, him like smoke and dance.”
In the meantime, I’ve composed myself and sat down next to Jean, the master drummer whose chiselled muscular arms and rough, callused hands can only be achieved by one who beats the taut skin of the djembe for hours every day. Many foreigners come here, sometimes staying for months, living cheaply, learning how to master this instrument. It sounds tempting to shut up shop in London and escape here to the winter sun, to a place too unimportant and remote to be troubled by the outside world. Jean has performed all over Africa and travelled as far as Bali and Australia – it’s incredible to think that I’m being shown the first simple rhythms by a virtuoso as accomplished as him. At the end of the night, my fingers swollen from the drumming, I retreat to my room, which is as basic as could be, with a solid bit of foam for a mattress and wiring that could see me dance like an electrocuted chicken, (the way I did on the beach, if Yass’s assessment is accurate). By this stage of our trip, I don’t even bother with the mosquito net any more, nor do I miss the luxury of air con or a fan. Instead, I fall asleep to African voices talking outside, protected and at home.