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Independent West Africa Travel Planner

A Detailed and Realistic Guide for the Budget Traveler

Pounding corn in Senegal

Pounding corn in Senegal.

Travelers mulling a first visit to Africa—but with limited time and budget—should consider West Africa. There are no big game parks, but most of the countries are small in size and you can cross a few borders on a short trip. Even if you are limited to one country, there will be an opportunity to experience several different ethnic groups, as their distribution bears no resemblance to the colonially imposed national borders.

Many countries are Francophone; the more French you speak, the less frustrated you will be. The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana and Nigeria are Anglophone, while Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde natives speak a Portuguese creole. There are several tribal languages spoken across the region, one of which usually serves as the lingua franca between groups (e.g., Hausa in Niger, Wolof in Senegal).

The Sahel, the zone south of the Sahara, is a mostly arid plain and savanna landscape that extends down through most of West Africa until the lush forests (or what is left of them) in the southern coastal areas along the Gulf of Guinea. Sunscreen is a must, and you will appreciate having along eye drops as well for the occasional stinging dust. Pack rugged clothing that hides dirt well.

Seasons vary somewhat in the region but the best time to visit is just after the rainy season, before the dry season gets too oppressive. This roughly correlates with the northern hemisphere summer/fall (wet) and winter/spring (dry), but verify optimal timing with specific countries.

With only a week or two, pick one country or a part thereof. If you have a few weeks, such combinations as Senegal-Mali, Ghana-Togo-Benin, or Mali-Niger are possible, but keep in mind that roads are horrible and it difficult to get anywhere fast. This overview will look specifically at Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau, and Guinea, four contiguous and small countries on the western coast that provide a good introduction to the region, especially for those with limited time.

The main overland transportation options are bush taxis; these are usually either minibuses or the faster but more expensive “sept-places.” The former may offer extra wiggle room, or can be packed tightly. The latter are seven-passenger Peugeot station wagons with front bucket seats and two additional rows of bench seats (three passengers each), the hindmost conveniently situated over the rear axle for maximum kidney-jarring effect. In most countries they stick to seven passengers and a driver; in Guinea they manage to painfully pack in 12 or more persons. Most vehicles are in horrible condition, and breakdowns are frequent.

Cities and towns will have at least one designated area from where bush taxis depart; these are usually referred to as the “gare routière” in Senegal, or “gare voiture” or “garage” in other countries, or “paragem” in Guinea Bissau.

Along with bush taxis, there are infrequent, full-sized long distance buses, but I found it difficult to get accurate information about their schedules. Another option, if you wish to so describe it, is the long distance cattle trucks that haul cargo and passengers on occasion. One would ride one of these not for the pleasure of it, but more for the opportunity provided to better understand how the natives experience travel on occasion.

For those who want to experiment with hitchhiking, it seems fairly easy in The Gambia, and not too bad in Senegal. It might be difficult in Bissau since few people have cars, and in Guinea you would want to stick to routes south of Labe. I got lifts from trucks and private vehicles alike, and only once did the driver accept my offer of payment (however, this is probably not the norm).

Despite being the poorest region of the world, West Africa is not cheap, and you often do not get value for money. The exception is Guinea, where you can get by at a basic level on $25 a day. Senegal in particular, but also Bissau and The Gambia, can pull $40-50 out of you daily without raising a sweat. Using a tent will save you money. While there are few organized campgrounds outside of Senegal, I heard from travelers that most villagers seemed delighted to have a tent pop up in their midst; permission is helpful, preferably from someone in some level of authority. Camping would not be advised in or around larger cities, though.

Travelers checks, U.S. dollars, and most other currencies will not do you much good outside of Dakar; you will need to bring euros, preferably cash. Given that the dollar has been tanking against the euro, this is more hard news. Much of West Africa uses a common currency tied to the euro, the CFA. Gambia uses dalasi, and Guinea uses its own franc. Prices noted here will be given in the local currency first, usually followed by the approximate U.S. dollar amount in parentheses.

Senegal

Dakar, Senegal weaver

Weaver in Dakar, Senegal.

You will likely begin your adventure in Dakar, Senegal’s thriving air and sea port and the major city in the region. The city is known for its rather French feel, and there are many restaurants, galleries, and music venues. The latter do not really come to life before midnight, so pace yourself. The former slave transshipment island of Goree, now a tranquil, even meditative spot, is just off the coast, and offers a welcome respite from Dakar’s trials.

Young men will approach you in the Dakar city center or markets and chat amicably, then answer questions and point you in the right direction and walk with you a bit, then ask for a huge tip or fee for being your “guide.” A wiry little young man named Malik was especially bad; such young men are pretty demanding even if their assistance has been minor. Eventually I figured out that if I smiled and shrugged “No français, no français,” no matter what language they threw at me, they’d eventually leave me alone.

Now for your first taste of sticker shock; meals in Dakar’s nicer restaurants run $20 plus per person. You can usually avoid this by eating on the street; just look for women with broad aluminum bowls and platters serving up meals to passersby. These will cost CFA 500 ($1.25). Some of most common are the national dish, thiéboudienne, (pronounced chee-boo-JEN; rice with fish), kaldou (rice and fish with a nice tomato sauce), and yassa (rice with veggies and thick sauce, and usually chicken parts).

Bottled water is also CFA 500 across the country, although I found it in a market for CFA 350; in the hinterlands it can run as much as CFA 1000. Other prices, which will vary: Small bag of peanuts, CFA 25; bananas, two for 100; oranges, four for 100 (25 cents).

Hotels in and around Dakar will start at about CFA 16,000 ($40), and you won’t get much for that. Auberge Keur Beer on Goree Island (CFA 20,000 or $50) has been recommended, and the hotels in the Yoff area near the airport are said to offer better value ($25 and up range). I was lucky enough to find a bed and breakfast run by a Senegalese/Dutch couple in the Sacré Coeur area between central Dakar and the airport. For CFA 10,000/single 15,000 double ($25/37.50), you get a clean room, hot water, and friendly hosts who treat you like a family member. You can contact Marjanne Seck via email at hepikniet@hotmail.com, or ring her at 773-696232, or her husband Pape at 774-045397. You can safely leave a change of clothing for the flight home with them as well.

Many banks, especially downtown, will change money and there are a few 24-hour ATMs as well. Take advantage of these, as it is more difficult to change currency the further you get from the coast. There are private money changers throughout West Africa, the only option on occasion, but I never got a better rate than the banks—and had to bargain for that.

You can get around town with the ubiquitous taxis (fares from CFA 500 to 3,000 to the airport; $1.25-7.50), but be wary of the drivers for short changing, and always be sure to haggle and fix the price before you get underway, including baggage charges. I preferred bouncing around in the rattling little blue and yellow van-type vehicles, or the slightly larger white minibuses, although getting just where you want to go can prove a challenge since they run all over the city and are not numbered. Just ask and hope for the best (fares between CFA 50 and 150; under 50 cents).

To get out of Dakar start early, as the traffic gets hopelessly congested and stays that way until well into the night. Options are the northern route to the provincial town of St. Louis; the southern route past marshlands, parks, and beach villages, or out east to the interior.

I spent two days hitchhiking east to Tambacounda with Malian truck drivers hauling goods from Dakar along one of the worst roads I found in West Africa. The same route would have taken 8-10 hours by sept-place for CFA 8,500 ($21.50), plus baggage fee. Baggage is always extra, from a few hundred to a couple of thousand CFA, although 1,000 ($2.50) seemed standard for my backpack. You can try to bargain but the more remote you get the harder it is.

If you do not wish to make the entire bone-rattling journey in one shot, about half way is a nice enough hotel in Kaffrine for CFA 12,000 ($30): tents allowed for 5,000 ($10). The next town of Koungheul has a similarly nice hotel, the Auberge Kër Gan, starting at CFA 12,500 ($31.25), or the tidy little Auberge Le Paradis for CFA 8,000 ($20). All three are on the east ends of the towns.

Tambacounda, or Tamba, is the regional hub for eastern Senegal, and from here you continue east to Bamako in Mali, southeast to the huge Niokolo Koba National Park and the Bassari tribal lands, southwest to the Casamance area of Senegal, or back west to Basse Santa Su in The Gambia.

The main tourist draw is the national park, and Tamba is the main organizational base for a visit. There is a marginally useful park office, and the several hotels around the perimeter of Tamba organize day safaris. You can try to get in with one of these, or a group can try to organize a private vehicle. These options will cost around $50 and up per person, but you might find a tour for less. Most will do a safari through the bush and savanna, viewing species of antelope, warthogs, birds, and monkeys, with a midday stop for lunch. Solo travelers who can not find an option from Tamba can go to the village of Dar Salam, at the park entry, and hope to find something there (see national park box-in below). The cheapest place to stay in Tamba is the Bloc Gadec on the southwest end of town, which has a dorm for CFA 3,500 or private rooms for 7,000 ($8.75/17.50). Like many hotels in Senegal, mysteriously, most locals will not seem to know where it is. Keep asking if you can not find it.

Farther along to the southeast, the dusty town of Kedougou is something of a base for the rocky mountains and hiking region of the Bassari tribe. Many villages have campements, small compounds with huts usually built in the local style (tents welcome), where you live somewhat like a local while experiencing the area. Factor in fresh water access and consumption when planning any hikes.

One pleasant campement is found at the village of Dindéfélo, near the border of Guinea. Nearby, a 300-foot showery waterfall plunges from an escarpment, and a shy baboon troop lives in the area. I had the best value-for-money room in Senegal here, with huts going for CFA 2500 ($6.25). Meals, however, are CFA 3000, and bottled water is CFA 1000; both are much cheaper in the adjacent village (a café and shop are there). There is no regular public transport; try to hitch a ride with French day-trippers from Kedougou going to see the waterfall (see box-in on hiking from Guinea).

The western portion of Senegal is split by The Gambia, which sticks into the face of Senegal like a long, wayward finger, a classic case of imperial nation-making. The southwestern portion of Senegal is called Casamance, which until recently was the site of a simmering separatist rebellion and not always safe for travel. A peace accord has been holding for the past few years and no one I spoke with had any difficulty in travel there. I came overland from The Gambia to the main city, Ziguinchor, without incident; the only problem was the wheel falling off the sept-place at the Senegal border. From Ziguinchor, travelers can go west to the coast and the tourist beach resort of Cap Skiring and other coastal villages (or mountain bike around the pleasant little town of Oussouye and stay at the pleasant Auberge de Routard), east to Kolda and other parts of southern Senegal, or on south to Guinea Bissau.

Ziguinchor is not a bad town, nicely located on a riverfront and with a much slower pace than Dakar. Cheap accommodations are also a better value; try the Relais de Santhiaba, with simple rooftop singles and doubles for CFA 4000/6000 ($10/15), respectively. Across the roadway is the Auberge Casafrique, with rooms starting at CFA5000/7000. Both have restaurants, more expensive rooms with fan, bath, or air conditioning (up to CFA 12,000), and can arrange local boat tours. Both are out of the center, somewhat near the gare routière. There are a couple of banks to exchange money; you will want to do this before heading into Guinea Bissau, where there are few banks and no ATMs, at all.

The Gambia

Girl with milk in the Gambia

Girl with milk in The Gambia.

Before heading south into Bissau let’s backtrack and take a quick look at The Gambia. Africa’s smallest country is basically a broad river and a 12-mile deep buffer on each shore to the respective Senegal border, and a favored destination for international bird watchers. Over 500 species have been documented, and you will no doubt see hordes of the birders—who constitute their own, unique tribal culture—venturing about the waterways.

Coastal Gambia features typical big-money beach resorts with package tourists from Europe, and a few parks and reserves. The capital, Banjul, not on my itinerary, is said to have a small town feel. There are parallel highways on both sides of the river. Going upcountry, meaning east to the interior, the highway on the north side is now paved; there are even lines on the road. This goes as far as the ferry crossing at Janjan (or Jangjang) Bureh (formerly Georgetown); from there the road is nicely paved on the south side all the way to Basse Santa Su. Via the fastest transport, it takes about six hours to cross the country, but don’t set your watch by this. And only take the southwest “highway” if your options are limited; its potholes are some of the nastiest in West Africa.

There are several camps, lodges and parks to visit along the broad, smooth river. The river itself is surprisingly bereft of traffic; I saw only a small, Greek-flagged passenger ship and a private yacht in six days. Barges go up as far as Basse on occasion to bring in goods and haul out peanuts in season. But mostly you will see a few fishermen or birders in dugouts crossing the waters.

I made only two stops in The Gambia. One was the Tendaba Camp, next to Tendaba village and the Kiang West National Park, toward the western end of the river. A nice hut with bath at the camp costs 280 dalasi ($14, at the roughly $1 to 20 dalasi rate), and meals run $5 to $15; you may be able to find cheaper meals in the village, but everyone knows how much tourists pay at the camp and there are few vendors.

A dugout canoe can be hired from the camp (two-hour minimum) with a guide for 800 dalasi ($40; a tip is also expected), or query a birders’ group if they will let you tour with them. Along with birds, you may see crocodiles, monkeys, and, rarely, hippos.

A guide can also be hired to hike into the Kiang West National Park; a half-day costs 450 dalasi ($22.50, which can be split among two or three people per guide). Be careful when arranging fees, especially with more than one person. Get it in writing the day before and confirm the morning of the hike. Safari trucks also go into the park; ask at the reception if any groups are going. Along with birds, a colony of baboons can be found in the park; other small mammals are occasionally sighted.

To reach Tendaba with the least pain, take the north coast road to Farafenni, then the ferry to the south shore ($2 for the ferry, and about the same for shared taxi connections on each end), and then a taxi or minibus (2 hours, $3) from the town of Soma to Kwinella village. From there it is another 90-minute hike through scrubby but pretty countryside, or ask someone from the village to take you on a horse or motorbike (fee negotiable). Reaching other camps and lodges in The Gambia involves similar connections, or some offer a shuttle for $20-30.

At the end of the highway in eastern Gambia is the jumbled but pleasantly situated town of Basse Santa Su, on the river’s south side. Upon arrival, head to the ferry crossing and you will find local guide Mamadou Sow, an ethnic Fula better known as “Mama.” He can ferry you across the river (5 dalasi), provide information on local accommodations, give you a river tour, and help you find cheap meals and palm wine. Of all the “guides” I had in West Africa, his services were ultimately the most useful and comprehensive. He charges 200 dalasi ($10) hourly for boat tours of the river, but he’ll probably kick back a bit of that to you after the tour in the form of some palm wine at a local bar. He is, in short, what we quaintly call in the west, a “character.”

The two cheap accommodations in Basse are the basic Basse Guesthouse and the warehouse Traditions, each for 150 ($7.50), while on the north side of the river, nice huts and friendly service can be had for a price, 350 ($17.50), at the Fulladu Camp.

Transport in The Gambia will cost, variably, about $1 per hour traveled, plus $1 or so for your baggage. Meals from street vendors run about 15 dalasi (75 cents), while bottled water is 25, a bean paste sandwich is 10, bottled sodas are 10-15, and a small bag of peanuts is 1 dalasi. One could get a fair look at the country in 10 days; my 6 days were a bit short but provided a rough overview. Overall, the country is a bit cheaper and friendlier than Senegal, but I was told to keep a wary eye on my gear.

Bissau

A Carnival in Bissau

A Carnival in Bissau.

South of Senegal along the Atlantic Coast is the little wedge of Guinea Bissau, a country only recently emerged from a civil war. Currently somewhat notorious as a transshipment point for drugs to Europe from South America, the quiet capital town of Bissau offers a respite from the pushy touts, visa-seekers, and "guides" of Senegal and The Gambia. Not that it is much cheaper than Senegal. Visitors will find few bargains, despite its poverty.

There is not much to Bissau itself, but you can spend a day wandering the streets, looking through the markets, and seeing what is left of the presidential palace and the old Amura fortress near the port. The best value for money is the Pensão Creola on the Praça Ché Guevara (if no one knows where it is, just keep asking for the "plaza" near the "mercado central"). A shared room, with electricity and running water, costs CFA 7000 ($17.50).

The main reason to come to Bissau is to go on to the Archipélago dos Bijagós. If you have a lot of time you can explore some of the national parks; the park in the northwest at the Rio Cacheu, and the Cantanhez sacred forest near Jemberem in the southwest sound particularly compelling.

There are two Bissau ports from where watercraft part to the archipelago. Go to either during daylight hours to inquire if a boat will be going the next day. The first is downtown at the bottom of Av. Amilcar Cabral, then left. You are never more than 10 minutes from anywhere in Bissau so just ask someone to point you in the direction of the porto. About a mile from town along the coast to the right is the Porto Rampa, where the fishermen bring in their catch. The market there is interesting in its own right, and large wooden canoas launch from there twice a week to Bubaque, the island hub to the other islands. Currently, canoas depart Tuesday and Friday or Saturday to Bubaque, and return to Porto Rampa the following days (5 hours, CFA 2500, $6.25).

An actual, comfortable passenger ship, the “Expresso dos Bijagós,” is currently running weekly between the port in Bissau and Bubaque (3 hours, CFA 3500, $8.75). It’s worth checking into but such boats seem to have a very short life span along the coast. (The much-heralded Senegal ferry “Wilis” that ran between Dakar and Ziguinchor for a couple of years, and was a favorite with tourists, ceased operation during my visit.)

From Bubaque you can reach many of the other islands although you will need time, since schedules fluctuate. Two national parks, Orango and Joao Vieira, are popular with tourists although accommodations and meals can prove tricky. Throughout the islands are several high-end hotels designed for wealthy French fishermen; these run upwards of $100 a night for room and board.

I stayed on Bubaque at the Casa Creola, owned by the same Swiss-Bissau couple that runs the Pensão Creola on the mainland. The simple but clean cottage sits on a bluff above the beach and is perfect for a relaxing rest. The water comes from tubs and there is battery lighting and candle power, and there is a kitchen to attempt some local meals. You can rent their bike for CFA 3000 ($7.50) daily, an inflatable kayak for 5000 (fishing rod included), and the room itself is 3000.

Given the boat schedules, do not count on visiting the islands in less than five days. Nonetheless, unscheduled canoas routinely go between Bubaque and the mainland.

There are two main routes in and out of Guinea Bissau: northbound to Ziguinchor in Senegal (4-5 hours, about CFA 6000 [$15] with baggage, while a minibus is about $3 less and 2 hours more), or eastbound to Koundara in Guinea. The latter involves several legs (logistics and prices, shown in dollars here, are typical of travel between many West African cities). Catch a morning shared minibus from Bissau for 10 minutes to the “paragem” on the airport road out of town (25 cents). A sept-place to the town of Gabu will take about 2½ hours ($10), then change for a vehicle to the Guinea border (another 3 hours or so, $12.50). Get stamped out of Bissau and walk the 2 kilometer dirt road to the Guinea customs if no vehicle is waiting. It is a bit far to walk on to the village of Sareboïdo but you should be able to catch a passing taxi for $1-2. Starting in Gabu you will find black marketers willing to change your cash to Guinea francs at often-ridiculous rates. If you do not have Guinea francs ($1 = GF 4,310) by the time you reach Sareboïdo, ask the sept-place driver to find someone who will change currency. From there, it’s about 90 minutes to the hectic crossroads town of Koundara ($3). All in all, the trip will take about 10 hours, and cost roughly $30. If you are going all the way to Conakry, the capital of Guinea, a direct sept-place departs from Gabu for CFA 40,000 (just under $100; it’s roughly 24 hours, but no one will hazard an estimate).

Guinea

Boys in Guinea

Boys clowning in Guinea.

In Guinea, the prices drop by at least half and the friendliness factor goes up, making it the favorite stop of many travelers I met. There are few or no high-end tourists, and not all that many budget travelers, so the citizenry do not perceive you as a walking ATM. There are coasts to the west, savanna to the east, jungles and the Mt Nimba Nature Reserve to the south, and highlands in the center and north.

Many of the hotels I saw in Guinea were classic developing-world dives. But unlike neighboring countries, you are only charged accordingly. There are only two hotels in Koundara; flip a coin because they are pretty similar. I chose the Gangan, which has no electricity and only bucket baths, but it’s less than $4.

The main point of being in Koundara is to get somewhere else, either south to Labe, north to Senegal, or back west to Bissau. This is the main travel route into Senegal, but that is not saying much. Various bush taxis and trucks ply the bumpy route up to the Senegalese town of Diaoubé, near Kolda, for around $10 (8-10 hours, at least).

The sept-places are maniacally crowded in Guinea. Recall that sept-place means “seven passengers,” except in Guinea where it somehow means “twelve passengers.” And this does not include the two or three (or more) helpers and others who manage to hang on the back bumper or roof during the journey.

The Guinea highlands are known as the Fouta Djalon, and in the center lies the large, uninteresting town of Labé. The bush taxi from Koundara takes 12 hours, including breakdowns and lunch stops (GF 75,000, about $18, including baggage), along a dirt road that at times is smooth (a road grader and steam roller were in operation along one section). The locals warned it was not safe to go on to Dalaba at night, so I holed up in another dive, the Hotel Indépendance, splitting a dismal room with a Senegalese traveler for GF 30,000 ($3.50 each). There was electricity but no running water, and the ghastly bathroom had probably not been cleaned in years.

The sept-place (or should we say douze-place?) to Dalaba the next morning was GF 19,000 (2 hours, $4.50) with no baggage charge, perhaps because my Senegalese travel mate was organizing the fare.

From Labe south, the roads in Guinea are paved, which you will much appreciate when jammed in a rattling old Peugeot. Dalaba and the village of Pita are the best-known bases for hiking in the highlands. Pita is probably better overall, but Dalaba is a bit larger, has a tourist office, and also had my favorite hotel of the entire journey, the Hotel Tangama. For GF 35000 ($8.75) a night I had my own clean room and bath, with electricity and actual hot, running water. Cheaper rooms with shared bath are also available but are often full with conference attendees, who seem to often book the hotel.

The tourist office is a minute’s walk from the hotel. You can buy a small guidebook to hikes in the area for about $7.50, about the same price as hiring a guide for a day. There are several part and full day hikes to waterfalls, lakes, and forests, often passing through local villages. I talked to a French family who spent six days hiking and camping near villages in a loop around Pita, and were welcomed enthusiastically by all the villages where they pitched camp.

I was out of time so I made for Mali (often called Mali-ville to prevent confusion with the country of same name) to the north. Someone had suggested that, rather than take the rough road from there to Senegal, one should just walk.

Mali is a quiet town with a thriving regional market on Sunday and a fantastic view of the night sky. But the most compelling reason to go is a natural rock formation, the Dame de Mali. The local legend is that a woman was cheating on her husband and was subsequently frozen in grief in the mountainside. Her 100-foot profile is startlingly realistic.

An even more stirring view is from the mountain above the Dame; the escarpment plummets away for a 180-degree view out to the savanna and Senegal, and lots of small villages below. Bring a picnic lunch and enjoy the rare cool breezes.

There are three sleeping options in town. Most pleasant is the Hotel Indigo, east and uphill about 15 minutes out of town, with nice huts for $15/$17.50 (single/double). The basic Dame de Mali Hotel, west and just uphill, 5 minutes from the town center, has rooms starting at $3.75. The third option is a room in the home of the local tourist office manager, Oumar Sadio Souaré; he might offer you a simple space for $2.50.

Near the Indigo is a nice-looking hotel under construction; it may be done by the time you get there; ask Mr. Souaré. You will also need to press him to reluctantly tell you the locations of the other hotels in town; no one seems to know and townsfolk will refer you back to him. He owns the basic Campement Bev near a village with a fabulous view of the Dame, great for those wishing to rough it, and he’ll try to get you to stay there. If you go, carry your own food and water; meals can be had at the village, and it will certainly be tranquil.

Mr. Souaré will also organize a guide/porter to take you into Senegal from Mali. Details are in the box-in below. Alternatively, a 4WD jeep departs on Mondays for Kedougou in Senegal for GF 65000 ($16; 4 hours), and at odd times during the week.

Meals from street stalls in Guinea will be under $1. Bottled water is 75 cents, oranges are eight for 25 cents, finger bananas are four for 25 cents, and a papaya will cost just over 50 cents.

Travel Guides, Research, and Maps

I usually swear by the Lonely Planet guides, but I found their West Africa guide factually inaccurate at times, and often overly optimistic and enthusiastic about certain destinations. The Rough Guide series puts out a similarly priced West Africa guide, which I have not seen. Reviews are mixed on both guides. The travelers’ grapevine is also a bit sparse through much of the region.

The best option is to tap the grapevine before you go; log on to the Thorntree section of the Lonely Planet website. A few expats seem to provide the bulk of great insider information. For more in-depth information about volunteering, working, and cultural immersion, check the archives of the Transitions Abroad website (Editor's note: See the article on Traveling Responsibly in West Africa).

Michelin offers a map of all of north and west Africa, which did not look detailed enough for my needs. I purchased a map of Senegal/Gambia online from International Travel Maps. I highly recommend bringing whatever map(s) you can get your hands on. For Guinea, I photocopied a page out of my world atlas, and even that was useful.

Health

There is not enough space to go into the details of all the vaccines and medications you need to arrange. Check the web or yellow pages to see if there is a travelers’ clinic in your area; the CDC website also lists recommendations for each country. My malaria tablets probably saved me a couple of times; two long-term travelers I met were not so lucky. Surprisingly, I did not get really sick in 5 weeks; I did try to maintain a vegetarian diet when possible. Take water purification tablets or a filter pump, which can save you money in the long run. I drank untreated well water twice, without harm.

Visas

Senegal requires no visa for most western countries. The Gambian Embassy in Washington charges $100 for a multiple-entry visa, but a Gambian checkpoint officer said a visa could be obtained at the border for only 200 dalasi ($10) or so. This would no doubt entail some uncertainty and bribery, so weigh your options. The Guinean Embassy also charges $100, but you should find visas cheaper in bordering countries. Guinea Bissau visas have to be obtained at the border; I got mine in a few minutes at the consular office in Ziguinchor (Senegal), for $25. You will need passport photos for all visa applications.

Flights to West Africa

Major airports in West Africa are Dakar (Senegal), Abidjan (Ivory Coast), Accra (Ghana) and Lagos (Nigeria), through which you can connect to many other cities in the region. Most flights from the U.S. will depart from New York JFK, and most connect through Europe or Morocco (JFK-Dakar starts at around $1300, but travel times can be 20 hours and up). South Africa Airways has direct flights to Dakar from JFK and Washington-Dulles (around $1450). Delta has a direct flight from Atlanta that will set you back over $2,000.

Flights from JFK to Accra and Lagos will start at around $1300 as well, but study the connections and overall trip durations before booking. Flights from the U.S. west coast will cost an additional $300+. Take these figures as comparisons; no telling what fuel increases will occur in the near future. I used Mobissimo Travel (www.mobissimo.com) to find my fare to Dakar, but there are many other sites (kayak, vayama) to try. Iberia Airlines connecting through Madrid will come up often in searches as a low fare option. You may also find package tours from Paris or London going to coastal resorts; punch keywords like “package holidays Gambia” into a web search engine.

Niokolo Koba National Park

Solo travelers to Senegal’s 900,000-hectare (2.2 million acre) Niokolo Koba National Park who are unable to find transport from Tambacounda have the option of traveling to the park’s entry at the village of Dar Salam to find a lift. There is no public transport into the park, and service vehicles do not pass frequently inside.

You may be able to get in with a group of travelers staying at the Dar Salam village campement (accommodations featuring rustic, native-style huts) next to the park office. They can organize a small pickup truck for park daytrips (about $40-50 per person). The campement is friendly, clean and has good meals for $5-10. Huts with fan and bath are $20, single or double; camping is $12.50. There is not much in the village itself in terms of food, besides a small shop selling cookies, crackers, and bottled water.

Alternatively, wait at the park entry office starting at 7 a.m. There will usually be at least one tour bus, and one or two privately hired vehicles; ask them directly if you can hitch a ride into the park with them. There are surprisingly few visitors, maybe two or three vehicles a day. You will have to pay the $5 daily park entry fee, but should not have to pay the mandatory daily guide fee ($15) since the group has that covered in their package.

Once you find a ride, you can either stay with the group for a day-long park tour (negotiate your fare early on) and return to the Dar Salam campement in the afternoon, or better, drop yourself off at the Camp du Lion campement during the lunch break there.

I caught a ride in with a tourist group and spent the first half-day with them before getting dropped at Camp du Lion. The $12.50 fare was a relative bargain, and we saw various birds, a baboon troop, warthogs, antelope, and two eland in the bush.

Huts at the camp are basic, dusty, and cost $20 nightly, single or double. There is no electricity so bring candles, and the water flows from buckets (you can swim in the adjacent Gambia River, though). Meals are $4 to $10. Bring water purification tablets or a filter; local water is free. Soft drinks and beer are also available.

You can also stay at the hotel complex at Simenti 6 kilometers away, but you have to decide on the first day because walking between the two, or anywhere else in the park for that matter, is not allowed. Rooms at the hotel start at $37.50 for a simple single. The hotel is situated along the river and marshy watering holes where deer, small antelope, warthogs, and an aray of birds hang out. Your transport into the park will pass here first, stopping at the hides on the edge of the watering holes before lunch.

The advantage of Camp du Lion is its remoteness and natural feel. After the lunch crowds continue on their safaris, a troop of vervet monkeys descends to look for scraps, and the occasional baboon or warthog passes through the edge of camp. You will hear the hippos grunting through the early evening, and at night, we heard the howls and roars of a lion fighting with the baboons.

Ask the friendly camp manager, Diame Fadya, to take you to the river to see the hippos (far upstream though: not much of a view). Better still, he will take you out at dawn and if you are lucky, a hippo will be returning nearby from the night’s foraging in the bush.

I caught a ride back out after two nights with four French business students who had hired their own pickup truck; they did not accept money but I tipped their guide and driver. If you have overstayed your permit, you will need to pay at the gate on the way out; the guards inside the park will make sure this is done.

The park officials do not really like solo travelers visiting the park on their own, but it is tolerated. Be prepared to pay a “tip” here and there to smooth transactions with drivers and guides; the park officials themselves seemed quite honest and did not look overtly for tips.