Saloum Delta National Park: the Amazon of Senegal

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Saloum Delta National Park, Senegal

GPS: 13.80657307308, -16.756029809699

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Located between the Senegalese Petite Côte and The Gambia, the Saloum Delta National Park forms a labyrinth of meanders and natural islands surrounded by mangroves. Its fabulous delta was born from the confluence of the Saloum river and its main affluent, the Sine. Of great ecological value, the Park is sometimes nicknamed the Amazon of Senegal for its innumerable seaways of salt water called bolongs (natural waterways).

Endowed with an area of 760 km², the wet and protected areas of the Saloum delta attract thousands of migratory birds Senegal on the East Atlantic Flyway including many erratic species. With the Banc d’Arguin National Park (Mauritania) and the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary north of Saint-Louis (Senegal), the Saloum Delta National Park or Amazon of Senegal is naturally one of the most important ornithological sites in West Africa. It consists of a natural environment with an enchanting frame with its 200 islands or islets, its bolongs, its sandbanks, its bays, its lagoons, its mud flats, its vast mangrove areas, its Senegal tropical forests bathed by water and the powerful rays of the sun. The presence of shellfish (tumulus of shells produced under the era of former pre-colonial kingdoms as burial) testifies to a very ancient human occupation in the region. In the Middle Ages, this part of Senegal is dominated by two Serer kingdoms (the Sine and the Saloum). After having long resisted Muslims from Northern Africa (including the Almoravid dynasty in the 11th century), they were integrated into the Jolof Empire. This great territory extended from Mauritania to the basins of the Senegal and Gambia rivers (Senegambian zone) in the 16th century. The two Serer kingdoms regain their independence but the growing influence of European settlers (Portuguese, Dutch, French and British) in Senegal and the development of the slave trade upset the established order.

Due to its situation between the Atlantic Ocean and the Saloum lagoons, the Saloum Delta National Park or Amazon of Senegal forms a unique ecosystem worldwide and one of the richest in Africa. Its mangrove Senegal areas, nestled between land and sea, are particularly prolific in biomass and turn out to a natural refuge for around a hundred fish species. Certain beaches serve as a place of laying for several species of Senegal turtles 2022 (green sea, luth and loggerhead sea). Inhabited mainly by the Serer and Niominka people (the latter live in the Saloum islands), this magnificent Senegalese region is the epicentre of a fascinating culture, with great human traditions. It is also the heart of artisanal fishing activity and the centre of the peanut basin in Senegal. The wild lands of the Saloum Delta National Park or Amazon of Senegal, under the influence of the ocean environment, are today strongly threatened by deforestation, increased salinity of water, scarcity of fresh water, erosion coastal and the effects of climate change.

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  • The delta and the Sine-Saloum islands are home to one of the richest ecosystems in Africa; the mixture of fresh water and seawater promoting great biodiversity
  • The picturesque villages of Palmarin Facao (Ngallou, Ngueth, Ngounoumane, Diakhanor and Djiffer, a busy fishing hamlet), Yayem, Simal, Djilor Djidiack, Toubacouta, Bassoul…; the islands of Dionewar, Niodior, Mar Lodj, Falia…; the small towns of Ndangane, Diofior, Sokone and Foundiougne
  • The many natural sites: the Point and the island of Sangomar, the community nature reserve of Palmarin, the salt wells of N’gallou, the Keur Bamboung marine protected area, the remains of shell clusters on the island of Dioron Boumak…
  • The natural landscapes of lagoons, mangroves, bolongs, forests…; wild beaches over several kilometres devoid of real estate constructions
  • Hiking activities (on foot, on horseback, in kayaking, in canoeing), bivouacs (in the bush or on the water) and fishing (in fresh water or in the ocean) ; pirogue or horse-drawn carriage excursions; flying over the region by tourist plane; the arrival show of fishermen in Djiffer ; the ride in a horse-drawn carriage at nightfall to observe hyenas (only visible in this delta); the colourful and traditional Serer wrestling tournament (without hitting)
  • The richness of the Serer’s culture and its traditional way of life (weaving, sculpture, dyeing, Sabar dancing, singing, gastronomy, artisanal fishing, wrestling tournaments, crops of millet and peanut, breeding reserves…) ; old attics fitted out on stilts to store millet (to protect crops from fire and rodents)
  • The variety of flora (baobabs, borassus, palm trees, coconut palms, mangroves, kapoks, mango trees, moringa, neem, eucalyptus…) and wildlife (hyenas, warthogs, African wildcats, turtles, monitor lizards, manatees, sea turtles, dolphins, fish…)
  • The abundance of sedentary or migratory birds and the profusion of aquatic avifauna (herons, greater flamingos, shorebirds, egrets, pelicans, gulls, Abyssinian roller, Yellow-crowned gonolek…)
  • The Palmarin celebration around August 15 and taking place over several days (series of festivities celebrating the rains); the numerous religious ceremonies punctuating the life of the villages (the Serer people have almost as many Christians as Muslims, who live in perfect harmony and share their mutual festivals)
  • Since ancient times, the Point of Sangomar has been a sacred place among the Serer populations (some always go there to honour their ancestors). In 1987, a tidal wave separated a strip of sand from this point from the rest of Petite Côte to form the island of Sangomar. Today, this uninhabited island is separated by about 5 kilometres from the rest of the continent and the distance continues to increase each year.
  • Nestled between the river and the ocean, Palmarin is the only place in Senegal where hyenas still live in the wild and have made their home in the mangrove. You have the opportunity to observe them at the end of the day in the community nature reserve accompanied by a local eco-guide while enjoying a superb sunset in the background.
  • The salt wells of Palmarin have been exploited since ancient times and this know-how is passed on from generation to generation. It is physical and arduous work which is exclusively carried out by the women of the village under a blazing sun. These brackish water wells are dug in the form of cones between the ocean and the bolongs within the community nature reserve. Due to the presence of micro algae, each well has a different colour which is easier to admire from the sky. At a time not so distant, the bags of salt harvested and dried were transported by pirogue to The Gambia to be exchanged for sugar. This non-iodized salt is mainly used for salting fish.
  • The baobab is a tree that is several hundred years old, even a thousand years old for the oldest specimens which are considered sacred. It is the national emblem of Senegal. This palaver tree, which rhythms Senegalese daily life, is particularly widespread in the Sine-Saloum region. Sources of myths and legends, the baobabs were the burial place of griots until the 20th century. This caste of poet-musicians was the repository of the oral tradition at a time when writing did not exist (it was also the bearer of news in the villages). The burial of griots could only take place in a baobab for fear that their remains would contaminate the soil. This custom was fought against by the French colonists and then declared forbidden in 1965 by presidential decree of Léopold Sédar Senghor. According to the griots, these grandiose trees are inhabited by one or more spirits, which is why they are feared, blessed and venerated by the population. During the Saloum kingdom, which was dominated by animist beliefs, the kings practised important rites that are still secretly guarded. The baobab was also a compulsory passage for children as they grew into adulthood (as part of the circumcision process). Today, it still occupies an important place in Senegalese popular culture. The leaves are used to prepare couscous (crushed and dried, they are transformed into a green powder called lalo) and can be infused to fight against fatigue and to treat conjunctivitis. The baobab fruit is very rich in vitamin C, calcium and antioxidants. It can be eaten as is or in the form of a fresh drink (bouye juice) and homemade ice cream. The pulp, which has an acidic taste, is not only used in cooking but also in the preparation of medicines (it is called Senegalese immodium because it stops diarrhoea), cosmetics and food supplements. The fruit of the baobab is nicknamed “monkey bread” because monkeys love it and the people of Palmarin suck on it all day.
  • On the road between Joal and Samba Dia, you can see the largest baobab in the country. Surrounded by arts and crafts workshops, this 32-metre mastodon is not the oldest baobab in Senegal, despite its 850 years of existence. This sacred tree has been hollowing out over time and forms such a cavity inside that it is possible to accommodate a group of people (it can be accessed by sliding horizontally). According to the griots and oral traditions, the openings in the trunks were created by incantations and the rhythm of the drums during ritual ceremonies. The most imposing baobabs are able to store a large quantity of water in their trunks, which explains their nickname of “bottle tree”. A guided tour is possible on site by hiring a local guide (although beware of art dealers who tend to inflate the prices of the products they offer for sale).
  • The village of Djilor Djidjack is the birthplace of the Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor, who became the first president of the Republic of Senegal (1960-1980). Although it is in a state of abandonment, his maternal house can be visited with the help of a local guide (it is located in the village square).
  • Several fishing villages, including Djiffer, located at the southern end of the Petite Côte, are increasingly threatened by the inexorable rise in water levels.
  • The Sine-Saloum region has long suffered from being geographically isolated, even though it is located less than 200 kilometres south of Dakar. The western part of the delta, along the Petite Côte, is the most easily accessible from the Senegalese capital via Mbour, Joal-Fadiouth, Samba Dia then Palmarin (3 to 4 hours of transport). A motorway makes it easier to reach the town of Mbour from Dakar.
  • To reach the eastern part of the delta, it is preferable to use the bridge recently built in Fondiougne or to favour a pirogue crossing. During the rainy season (June to October), the last part of the section can sometimes be difficult although transport conditions have improved significantly in recent years.
  • This rural area of Senegal is devoid of banks so plan enough cash with you (the closest automatic cash dispenser are in M’bour and Fatick more than 1.5 hours away drive).
  • Before going there, remember to protect yourself from mosquitoes and other simulium, tsetse and maringouin flies, quite present in this tropical region.
  • Every Sunday morning, a tam-tam mass is held in the island village of Mar Lodj (access by pirogue only from Ndangane or Palmarin).
  • Carriage tours in the bush, on the beach or in search of hyenas, as well as picnics or horseback excursions can be organized by Diegane N’dong (+221 78 262 59 69). A native of Palmarin Ngounoumane, he will be happy to help you discover the many assets of this region and to put you in touch with people you can trust (pirogues, fishermen, restaurants, camps, visits…). Based in the neighbouring village of Palmarin Diakhanor, Philippe (+221 77 430 12 90) can accompany you by kayak in the heart of the mangrove. Close to nature, this soft activity will allow you to observe a large number of birds and benefit from his knowledge of the fauna and flora. This outing can be accompanied by a picnic (grilled fish on the beach) and/or a night under the stars on a deserted island.
  • If you want to eat a thiéboudiène on the beach and feel alone in the world, contact Baye (+221 76 298 87 85 or +221 77 221 67 54) who will concoct a succulent Senegalese national dish (which has just been classified as a UNESCO intangible heritage site) on the site of an abandoned and overgrown former 5-star camp called “Royal Lodge” in Palmarin.
  • If you are looking for a place to go out dancing, the “Paradise Night Club” in Ndangane offers lively evenings every weekend. A hundred metres away, the “Paradise VIP Lounge” contains a full bar-restaurant service (grill, Senegalese and Western cuisine, cocktails, tea room, concerts, events…) with swimming pool in an elegant and comfortable setting.
  • The shop “Chez Dado”, located at the entrance of the village of Palmarin Ngallou, has a wide range of African wax prints, accessories (bags…) and Serere prints (woven cloth). Koura and Diarra can also make your own personalized clothes (trousers, skirts, dresses, boubous, shirts, table or bed linen…).

Where to eat

  • Noné Siga
    (simple and inexpensive dishes)
  • La table de Niassam
    (delicious address)
  • Souimanga Lodge
    (refined cuisine)

Where to go

  • MAHICAO museum
    (unsuspected visit)
  • Ngueniene market
    (large coloured market)
  • Fadiouth
    (the shellfish island)

Where to stay

  • La Palmeraie de Ngor
    (in the middle of fan palms)
  • Hakuna Lodge
    (full of change of scenery)
  • Lodge des collines de Niassam
    (on water or in a baobab)