Crocodiles, Tigerfish, a Redhead, and to Much Dust

Erik Oline - Senegal


February 10, 2018

 

Wow. I knew that independent travel in Senegal was going to be nuts, I just had no idea that it would be as amazing as it turned out to be. Here’s a quick recap of the crazy past few weeks.

It all started on November 10th. That day I was indulging myself in the luxury of extremely slow city-of-Thies Wifi. On that day I called one of my closest friends and worlds most extreme redheads, the impeccable Mr. Cedar Barnes. On the phone that day I somewhat jokingly invited him to come to Senegal. We both thought it would be a pretty fun idea, but didn’t act on it that day. On November 17th, the next time I was on Wifi, I had received a message from Cedar. The messages went as follows: first was a photo of potential dates of airline tickets to Senegal with the question “I need confirmation on you m8” followed this was followed only two hours later by “Bought it, sorry didn’t wait”. Two hours after that there was the comical message “That cool?” Hmmmm. I am currently living on a mango farm in Rural Senegal and Cedar had given me two hours to reply, typical. And on that note, one of my best Friends from high school was visiting me in Senegal.

As soon as I told my host family I had a friend coming they got all excited, my host family loves whenever I bring a friend over, and they were extremely excited to host a friend of mine who had come all the way from the States. The energy and vibes were flowing strong when I dragged a very jetlagged and tired Cedar into the family compound. It was so fun mixing two different part of my life; up until this point my Senegalese life was completely separate from my life at home, and mixing two of my favorite things in life; Senegal and a best friend from home, was 10-fold better than I ever could have imagined. One of my favorite moments came on the first night when my host dad was telling Cedar, through me as a translator, that Cedar was lucky to be have me as a friend in Africa, because I’m a ‘real African’, and I quote what my host dad said next, “NDongo, Moom moo nuyul” –Ndongo, he’s black. And that was one of my favorite moments in Senegal; getting called black by my host dad. Everybody got a huge laugh out of that.

After getting acquainted with my host family and losing the jetlag, the real journey began. Cedar, Nick, Sophie, Avi, Kevin, and I all had planned out a trip to the Kedougou region of Senegal. Kedougou is filled with rivers, giant national parks, cliffs, waterfalls, great food, and an abundance of dust, all located conveniently within a 13-hour bus ride. Per usual, absolutely nothing went as planned, in other words everything went perfectly.

We had to travel to Dakar a day before catching a bus that would leave the next morning. We didn’t make it even halfway to Dakar before our first slip-up. We had booked the wrong night at the hotel in Dakar. Hmmmm. No worries, free cancelation. When the morning rolled around, we found out that the bus we had planned on taking had never really existed. Hmmmm. After a bit of a discussion we just decided to go to the garage and see what options we had. It turned out that we were in luck, there was a bus leaving for exactly where we wanted to go, the city of Tambacounda, but it left at 8:30 that night; it was 9:45 am. Hmmmm. 11 short hours later the wheels on the bus finally started going around. And an even shorter 13 hour later we rolled into Tambacounda. Between the six of us I think we shared around three hours of sleep, but aside from the heavy bags under out eyes spirits were high. Our next stop was Niokolo Kobo national park, another 100 km to the south, and naturally no public transportation. Hmmmm. We eventually found our steed: a rusted-out Peugeot 7-seater that filled with diesel fumes whenever it dropped any amount of speed. Lucky for us there were only about 15 villages between Tambacounda and the park, and each village was equipped with several large speed bumps that proved quite effective in suffocating all passengers inside the little Peugeot. Hmmmm.

Once we were inside the park we were able to sit on top of the car which made seeing animals easier along with allowing our lungs to function to their normal capacity. Sitting on top of that little Peugeot we saw several different types of gazelles and antelopes, a few groups of baboons and other monkey, some meercats and several small types of deer. Cedar and Nick claim to have seen a leopard, but it had vanished before I could confirm any rumors. After 37 km of riding on top of the car we rolled into our little encampment. We probably looked ridiculous, six full grown white humans crammed onto the top of one Peugeot, it probably didn’t help our case that we hadn’t called the encampment ahead of arriving. Hmmmm.

The encampment we were commandeering for the night was on a small hill overlooking the Gambia river. It was so refreshing seeing fresh water in abundance after 3 months of no rain or rivers in Thies. Across the river we saw a large Crocodile, maybe 12 ft, sunning itself on the opposite bank. Immediately after seeing the croc we hatched the idea to go swimming, it had been hot and dusty sitting on top of that car in the sun for more than an hour. We asked a Senegalese special forces officer, that was doubling as a park ranger, if we could go swimming in the river to cool off and manage to not get devoured at the same time. He said go for it. Hmmmm. We bush-wacked our way to the river out onto a small rock outcropping. With much reassurance from the park ranger we hesitantly got into the water knowing that there was a 12 ft croc a safe 100 yds upstream. I had waded over halfway across and was up to my waist when a movement downstream caught my eye. The movement turned out to be a 9 ft croc slithering into the same water I was swimming in about 25 yards away from where I was currently standing. Hmmmm. By this point in time the opposite bank was closer so I scrambled over to it as quietly as I could. When I looked back the croc had disappeared underwater without a trace. Hmmmm. The trip back across the river was much harder, because I was going as fast as possible with minimal splashing. Not an easy feat when your heart is making the same vibrating pattern as a jackhammer. Hmmmm. We all made it back somewhat to Cedar’s disappointment who would have loved to catch a crocodile attack on camera. The rest of the afternoon we caught up on sleep and enjoyed the refreshing breeze coming off the water. That evening we hopped back on top of our little Peugeot which we had begun to love despite its previous efforts to suffocate us. We saw many more large game animals in the dried-up lakebeds now that the temperature had begun dropping in the evening.

Even with seeing all these amazing animals that I had never expected to see, the only animal I concerned myself with was Hydrocynus vittatus: West African Tigerfish. For the past five months in Senegal, I have not been able to go fishing, I think this is the longest stretch of my life without fishing since the first time I picked up a rod. I’ve tried to push fly-fishing to the back of my mind as much as possible. My only way to help alleviate the withdrawals is to take my rod out to the farm and practice casting every few weeks. A side effect of the malaria medication I’m taking is extremely vivid dreams; I probably dream about fishing five or six times a week. I think at this point My fly-fishing habits could be clinically diagnosed as an addiction, and they’d probably be right. I knew that this trip to Kedougou would be my only chance to go fishing while in Senegal, and it also happens that the Gambia River in Senegal is home to one of the world’s most aggressive freshwater sportfish; cue the Tigerfish. If the photo above wasn’t enough to convince how vicious these fish can be, one or two scrolls down google images should do the trick. Tigerfish have been reported attacking humans in the Congo and Zambezi rivers. They have a menacing set of razor sharp teeth attached to a double-jointed jaw bone so they can open their mouths wider than most other predatory fish. Tigerfish were also the first fish to be recorded leaping out of the water to snatch birds flying by for a quick meal. Ever since I saw an episode of River Monsters air several years ago I have been determined to catch a Tigerfish on fly gear. So naturally I brought way too much fishing gear 7,500 miles from home to entertain the hope that I could possibly get the chance to cast for one of these brutes.

My first encounter with a Tigerfish came at an untimely moment. It was the first evening in Niokolo Koba park, and the six of us were walking a suspension bridge maybe 40 ft above a small tributary creek below. I was looking down into the green depths of the water when I saw it, a Tigerfish plain as day. It wasn’t even that big, maybe two or three pounds, but it was enough to cause small amount of hyperventilation that I kept under control so my friends wouldn’t begin practicing CPR on me. The only problem was I HAD LEFT MY ROD BACK AT THE ENCAMPEMENT! Hmmmm. I couldn’t believe it; I finally see my prize and I couldn’t even attempt to catch it. My second encounter came later that night. I was grabbing a coke out of the ice-box when I opened a drawer and there sitting on a plate ready to prepare for eating was a Tigerfish. Hmmmm. I immediately asked the Ranger if it was legal to fish inside the park, he gave me a weird look and told me that’s where he gets his fish every day. It was already past dark so I couldn’t attempt that night, but at first light the next morning I was on the water. I fished for a bit over an hour with no luck at all before we had to leave. I would have to post-pone my odyssey.

That day we headed back out of the park. On the drive out we had several groups of baboons swinging in the tree canopy above us but no other large game animals. After Niokolo Koba National park we headed to the village of Dindefelo 150 km to the southeast. I had read online that the upcoming road was bad, but nothing could have prepared us for the oncoming onslaught. It took 6 hours to get 100 km to Kedougou city. Hmmmm. The road consisted mostly of dirt with some random spires of asphalt that were just tall enough to need to be avoided and prove that at one point there had been some sort of paved road there. We would just begin to get up to speed when a posse of potholes would slow us down again filling the car with lovely diesel fumes. Hmmmm. After being on that road I am certain the moon landings were faked. Why bother to go to the moon when you can find craters just as deep and wide on the road to Kedougou. The only consistency we found on that road was the dust. It was endless, deep, thick, impenetrable. At first we attempted to fight back by rolling up the windows and fanning the air. All efforts to fan the dust just ended up kicking up more, and even with the windows up, the dust would find its way in through the rusted-out holes in the car chassis. Soon, in order to not suffocate we rolled the windows back down and just accepted that we and everything inside the car was going to get caked in dust. The only chance we had to get a breath of fresh air was when we had to hop out and change the flat tire. Thank god for small miracles right? Hmmmm. When we finally arrived at the encampment in Dindefelo we were all covered in dust from head to toe. Our backpacks in the trunk of the car suffered the worst; there was easily 1/3 inch of dust covering everyone’s bags. We created a small dust storm just by shaking the dust off before we went inside.

The following morning we walked about a kilometer to Cascade Dindefelo, a towering waterfall that is easily 150 yards tall with a nice swimming hole at the bottom. The water collecting in the pool below the falls was the coldest water I have felt in Senegal, let alone swim in. We spent the morning there swimming, taking photos, and removing whatever dust was left behind that our bucket shower the night before couldn’t remove. Walking back down towards Dindefelo we all felt refreshed now that we were free of our outer-layer of dust. The next two days we spent racking up the miles on the countless hiking trails surrounding Dindefelo, replacing all the dust we had just been cleansed of. We visited two more waterfalls and several picturesque villages on top of a bluff overlooking Dindefelo several hundred yards below.  All in all we put about 35 kilometer on the trail in those two days, just taking in the surrounding beauty and soaking up the fresh air that Dindefelo had to offer.

When the day came to leave we were all pretty bummed. Dindefelo truly is a special place and we felt we had only scratched the surface of what it has to offer. On the drive home we made our last stop for a mid-morning swim back in the Gambia river. For everyone else this meant on last place to indulge in fresh water before heading back to the aqua-void (trust me that’s a word) region of Thies. For me this meant I had one last shot at realizing my goal of catching Tigerfish that had eluded me a few days before. While everyone was applying sun-screen or changing into swimming gear I was practically sprinting down to the water’s edge knowing that again I had limited time on the water. So I could start fishing immediately I had prepared my gear ahead of time. (For anyone who cares, 7 wt rod with shooting line attached to a 10 ft t-17 sinking tip, using a 3ft 20lb maxima leader with 12 inches of metal bite-proof wire, attached to a black and red couser minnow). The first 30 minutes went by without incident, but when I moved down to a different riffle on my first cast something pulled back, hard. And as quickly as it had come it was gone. Hmmmm. I was shocked, then angered at my lack of concentration. I had brought my rod and reel halfway around the world to catch a Tigerfish and I had just missed what probably was my only chance. That feeling had soon dissipated though and it left a feeling of mild contentness (trust me again that’s a word), Even if I hadn’t landed a Tigerfish I had gotten a bite, and that’s more than what most fly-fishermen could say. On my final cast before I joined my friends in the water I shot my line out as far as I could at a downstream angle. As soon as I started retrieving my fly something hit it hard, much harder than the first strike; and this time it didn’t let go. Right from the get-go I was holding onto my rod with all my strength, in all of my 13 years of fly fishing I have never felt anything pull as hard as what was tearing off downstream. The drag on my reel was screaming so fast I thought it was going to melt the metal. It had pulled out close to 60 ft of line off the reel when it first jumped, and I got my first glimpse of it. Sure enough it was a Tigerfish. I could see it clearly because it had jumped at eye level, about 5 ft above the water. It repeated its acrobatic display several times, and each time I only could hold and hope that it didn’t spit the hook. Over several minutes we danced back and forth, I would regain line, only for him to take off downstream again. By this time my frantic, adrenalin filled screaming had naturally got the attention of my friends who were rushing over to see how bad the crocodile had gotten me. Again, sadly to Cedar’s dismay, they didn’t find an alligator attack victim, but they did find a weird tall guy ginning ear to ear holding out an 8lb Tigerfish. I had done it. The fish at the top of my catch-list for so many years was literally in my hands. I couldn’t believe it, I was shaking from a mix of adrenalin and awe for beauty of the creature I was holding. A few photos and congratulations from my friends later it was time to return my prize back to the depths where it belongs. A quick kiss goodbye and it sunk back down into the river out of site.

The rest of the day I was on an elevated status of life. It is not every day that you complete a life-long goal that has been in the back of your mind for almost half your life. I replayed the memory of fighting and landing that Tigerfish over and over in my head, not only because it is one of my favorite memories inside my head, but also because there was not much else to do on the 14-hour drive home. All the dust and misery of sitting in a rusted-out Peugeot for 14 hours couldn’t break how great I was feeling. When we rolled into Thies at the convenient time of 2:30 am I was still glowing from my accomplishment. Everybody soon parted ways leaving me and Cedar Stranded in Thies with no way to get home. We were sitting outside an internet café stealing the internet which was much faster now since we were the only two on it, when our savoir arrived. I honestly forgot his name, he was just some extremely nice guy I started talking to who invited us over to his house to make tea until it was light out. And that was how the adventure ended; sitting next to a teapot trying not to doze off from lack of sleep. At one point I looked over at Cedar and said: “here’s to the adventure of our lives” and gave him a high-5. We locked eyes both remembering the inside joke from March of last year and both said in unison: “and here’s to the next one”. Another high-5 followed.

 

Erik Oline