Mbour happened by accident. Not the city itself; I’m sure that was planned, at least to some extent (not that you’d know it from the mesmerizing chaos of the fish market), but our visit to it. It was a late-night phone call to my boyfriend Gez, him in Sheffield, me in Dakar, in which we excitedly discussed plans for his 10-day visit, which involved half the country by the time we’d hung up. It was only when doing some more practical planning that I began to think that perhaps getting to the Casamance and back, as well as exploring the entirety of Dakar and its surrounding islands was a tad ambitious. (Having just returned from a solo trip to the Casamance, I can verify this!) After a bit more random Googling and poring over maps of Senegal, we agreed upon Mbour as the location for our Senegalese getaway. It wasn’t too far from Dakar, there were some hotels with swimming pools – after a hot, dusty month tramping around Dakar, Saint-Louis and Thies, I was practically hallucinating swimming pools – and it seemed that there were a few bits of nature around. For us, that ticked all the boxes, and those were the limits of our expectations.
The dazzling contrasts in Mbour.
Well, from the moment we arrived, Mbour knocked our socks off. First was the hotel. We’d chosen one specifically in Mbour and not in neighbouring Saly, known as the tourist capital of Senegal, precisely because we had no great desire to be in the tourist capital. Instead of the sterile developments of ‘California-style’ hotels we drove past in Saly, we found ourselves in the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Hotel Club Safari right in the middle of Mbour. Just metres from the entrance, the sea glittered, and on the beach, beyond a joyous spray of fuschia flowers, young wrestlers – wrestling is one of Senegal’s national sports – were in training. One rather interesting exercise was backwards squat-jumping uphill – quite a feat when Gez and I struggled to walk forwards up the same sandy bank.
It also had the requisite pool – and what a pool it was. Nothing came close to the feeling of plunging into that cool blue oasis after the onslaught of Mbour’s magnificent, maze-like market, where beyond glittering costume jewellery in a full rainbow of colours, piles of fish were being unequivocally dispatched by women wielding hefty knives, to full splattering effect. That more or less sums up Mbour: the constant contrasts between sensory assaults, full of heat, noise and fish guts, and sublime moments of peace and tranquility, when you’re floating in an utterly calm swimming pool, the surface ruffled only by the slight breeze, and you gaze up at a vision of palm fronds and fluffy white clouds.
Then there was the Lagune de la Somone. Imagine, if you will, a country in which litter forms an almost constant part of the general scenery, whether in the middle of a city or in the middle of nowhere. Black plastic bags hang from tree branches like scraggy crows, plastic bottles, packaging and other assorted detritus line the roadsides, the sandy, open spaces where kids play football, the beaches, the rivers. Now imagine, that somewhere in that same country there is a nature reserve with an utterly clean beach, composed of the softest, finest sand, forming a ribbon between the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, where surfers play, and a mangrove-filled lagoon home to exotic birds, and not a piece of rubbish in sight. That is the Lagune de la Somone, just a 20-minute drive from central Mbour.
From the first moment, Gez and I were both hooked – he by the wildlife, me, catching a glimpse of colourful sails, by the prospect of windsurfing. So naturally, we required two visits. On the first we took a boat trip, just the two of us and a very friendly, knowledgeable guide, through the lagoon, for the princely sum of 12,000 francs CFA, or approximately £13. On one sandbank of an island, the sand seemed to move and shift before our eyes. As we got closer, it turned out to be hundreds of tiny, purple crabs scuttling away from the sound of us approaching. We hung shell-wishes on a sacred baobab tree, and spotted herons and pelicans, as well as an entire flock of white birds (keen bird-watcher here, ahem) which fluttered about like confetti.
On the second visit, I took to the water to reacquaint myself with what has to be my favourite sport – windsurfing. I’m very much a novice still, and it took a sail change and a few shaky starts, but slowly I got back into the swing of it and went scudding back and forth across the bay, under the patient tutelage of the surf shack owner, Omar. Gez, meanwhile, had found himself a comfy hammock and a cold beer to while away the time. So by the time I was back on dry land, we were both ridiculously blissed out, and we settled in the restaurant area of Omar’s surf school/bar/restaurant, Le Soleil. We dined on succulent fish kebabs and rice with yassa – while the waitress, sporting a braided mohawk dyed in the colours of the Senegalese flag, serenaded us with a song mostly in Wolof, but with a chorus which went something along the lines of “I loveeey, loveeeey, loveeey love yooouuu,” using a bottle opener as a microphone. She was so charming, but at the same time, so did not give a damn what anyone thought about her, and rocked an absolutely unique style. I wanted to be her a little bit, but it was fun just spending time in her aura of cool.
We had one more place to visit during our Mbour sojourn, and that was the Bandia Nature Reserve. But that is a story for another day, and if you like the Lion King, it’s one worth reading. If it doesn’t get you singing Circle of Life, nothing will, so stay tuned.