39 – In the rivers of Senegal
39 – In the rivers of Senegal

39 – In the rivers of Senegal

Anecdotes and experiences made during our month sailing with Illika in the rivers of Senegal, the Siné-Saloum and the Casamance.

Cruising in the rivers

We move manly with a rising tide, so if ever we get stuck, the rising tide will help to free us. And with our draft of 1,80m we prefer to be at the crucial passages when the tide is rather high. In such passages we always put on the engine, otherwise we try to sail when the river is wide enough, and the depths are ok. But despite all precaution, it anyway will happen at one point! When you see the sounder going up rapidly from over 3 m to 0, 3m under the keel, you know it’s too late to stop in time.

Kissing the mud

If you know it will happen at some point, better get it over with at the beginning…

From our in between stop from Dakar, we approach the Siné-Saloum delta with clear waypoints to follow (positions you mark on your GPS plotter). As the sandbanks shift constantly the navigation systems, maps and books are not reliable. So, sailors who went the same way a few days earlier, had sent their route. We decide not to follow them exactly and manage to kiss the muddy sea floor, which is a quite freaky sensation when you first experience it!

We do it again!

A couple of days later we head up the tidal river at approaching high tide and decide at the last moment to follow other GPS-positions received to accede to a river arm not everyone goes to. As we turn into the river a little too far up, it happens again. I’ve had enough of this and want to go home instantly! Backwards gear, out again, next approach is better and after a few hours of feeling ourselves up the river, we anchor safely in front of N’Dangan.

And again…

A few weeks later, slowly cruising along in a narrow bolong in the Casamance, we get stuck seriously. So the boys jump in the dinghy, we attach a rope in front and try to free Illika by pulling her (unsuccessfully) with the dinghy… it must have been quite a picture! Even using bow thruster and engine at maximum, we can’t free the boat. On top of that the current of the rising tide is pushing us into the sandbank. Luckily a hush of wind comes up. We set the sail and either that, or the fact that the tide is still rising, we manage to get free. Ouf… this time it was close!

The moutmout challenge

You certainly know about mosquitos and flies and other dodos in Africa. So do we, and we follow the advice and instinct to put up our mosquito nets at all moments possible, also at the entrance of the boat, which is frankly not very practical for moving around. But necessary.

We didn’t know about moutmouts though, the tiny flies that squeeze themselves through the netting! And earwigs that fly and swimm? Or little black beatles that come in swarms and die in your plate or during the night all over your cockpit? Pesty things like that can make a peaceful dinner into a stressful evening! So you end up sitting in a very hot boat with just enough light to make sure that you’re not about to eat an insect with your forkful of food…

Teaming up

After a few days hopping along, we are by coincidence anchored with the 2 catamarans we had been in contact with in Dakar, we decide to attempt the route “at the back” through the bolongs, the three boats together. We had looked at this route several times on the maps and thought it would not be possible for us with Illika, monohull with 1,80m draft. But with the two cats we can take the chance. Pictures below taken from our app https://www.noforeignland.com/boat/illika

Siné-Saloum Delta with our track
Casamance River with our track

It’s a great experience, not only because they “open” the passage by communicating by VHF radio if the depth measured is ok for us, but also because we spend a lot of great moments together. We won’t forget the evenings in the different places, afternoons and sunsets around a campfire, playing drums and dancing with locals, enjoying set meals at some “camp”, having a dip in the hotel pool or discussing technical or navigational issues while having a drink on one of the boats. Thank you TOUKA and ORION!

The first half of Orion’s YouTube video in the following link will give you an overview of the few weeks spent together.


Animals and nature

Mangroves and… mangroves. Both Sine-Saloum and Casamance have, due to decreasing rainfalls and less incoming freshwater, turned into hyperhaline estuaries (I had to look that one up!). In fact the seawater comes up for hundreds of kilometres inland forming a labyrinth of mangroves, little islands and shallow sandbanks. It’s magical to get lost in little river arms with the dinghy and then switch of the engine and listen to the silence…

Behind the mangroves, we found sandy or dry areas with paths leading to some houses or small villages, some fruit or palm trees, baobabs and rice fields.

As, kind of expected: no crocs. According to locals, they are small and very shy, and more of them live further up the river… We see lots of dolphins though and maybe very, very, very far away a back of a manatee. At a couple of occasions a few monkeys run away on the beach when we approach with the dinghy. And we see lots of different birds: beautiful, elegant, colourful, fierce, cheerful, chatty… some hovering over the water ready to dive, others standing very still in the water waiting for a fish to swim up close. Crabs are seen on every little patch of sand or mud, when the tide goes down.

Check out what Oliver has to say, too: 39a – Camp fires


We have some fantastic anchorages in very calm waters, but always keeping in mind the currents and the hight of the tides. The morning and evening atmospheres are breath taking and we’ve taken so many photos of sunsets with our boats! But we will not bore you too much with that. We normally anchored at “navily” anchorages (an app for sailors, created by all users, indicating anchorages and what you can find there), but sometimes we just decide on a new one, that we then add to “navily”.

Often the anchorages are close to a village or in front of a lodge/camp. We have a great souvenir of evenings at Papis, at the Keur Saloum lodge and in the catholic village of Nioumoune and a few wild places with the crews from our catamaran friends ORION and TOUKA.

Kassumai? Kassumai barre!

How are you? I’m well!

All over we go, we feel very welcome. We talk to many people, try to integrate, help fishermen with nets and pulling boats on shore, show interest in their lives and family, buy fruit, vegetables and eggs from different locals and get the ordered bread in the morning from the bread maker fresh from his “drum” oven. We even participate in the rice harvesting one afternoon, share a traditional meal with a family, go and watch a (very loud) wrestling tournament, visit several schools and are invited to a 20th birthday party! Kinding-Kandang (cheers in Diola). All very enriching!

Alexander’s reports will tell you a bit more:  39b – The children of Senegal…

By the time you read this, we’ll be looking for crocodiles, sea hippos and manatees around the Bijagos Islands.


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