Nestled between the Guinean and Malian borders in Senegal’s southeast, Kédougou is the furthest region from the nation’s capital, Dakar. It has by far the smallest population of Senegal’s 14 regions, and the most dramatic scenery. With its deep forests, meandering rivers and vast floodplains, imposing cliffs, striking waterfalls and hidden caves, Kédougou is unlike any other region in the country.
Niokolo-Koba National Park is older than Senegal itself. Established in 1954, six years before independence, this 9,065 square kilometre UNESCO World Heritage site epitomises West African nature reserves: wild, badly protected, underfunded and a beguiling lottery.
According to guide Keikauta Sonako, who was born in the park, “The elephants have disappeared, no one has seen them [he suspects poachers]… and there are about 60 lions left in the park.” At its peak, the park was rich in mammals, birds and human settlements. Now, animals have been poached and villages have been forced to relocate, but an enchanting wildness remains.
Unkempt trails wind through the park with ever-changing flora: sparse dry bushes, thick palm forests, arching bamboos the height of lorries. The tracks are scattered with dry grass and huge palm husks like horns. “Rich nutrient soil, filled with iron, helps the plants grow,” says Sonako, but each December the rangers carry out controlled burning so that people can see the animals moving about more easily, as “the humidity stops the spread of fires”.
The elephant and lion numbers may have dwindled, but other animals have thrived. Antelopes bounce between trees. Baboon families traipse through the undergrowth, tails up, bums out. Crocodiles skulk across the marshy lakes while pelicans, herons and guinea fowl totter by the water’s edge. In the Gambia river, which runs through the park, sets of suspicious eyes pop out of the green water, as the groan, grumble and guttural gurgle of the lazing hippos breaks the silence.
Giant waterfalls attract tourists like bees to honey, and Dindéfelo’s 100m high cascade is undoubtedly southeastern Senegal’s biggest draw. Yet the remote Dindéfelo region is sparsely populated with visitors and offers much more than its eponymous falls.
Nestled at the foot of an imposing massif, Dindéfelo village is a wide spread of stone huts with high thatched roofs. On the summit plateau is a similar sight, only 120m higher. Here, villagers keep livestock and travel around on bikes. Dried riverbeds weave through fields of termite-created mushrooms. The Dents de Dindé (“Dindé’s teeth”) stand tall and jagged over the valley, condors roosting in its crags.
Each day, men, women and children climb down from the plateau to tend to land, head to market and go to school. Some 30 years ago, the caves that dot the cliff face provided a safe haven for Fula people fleeing persecution during the Guinea-Bissau Civil War. The network of grottos and hollows lies hidden behind a forest canopy, which also masks the resplendent falls that land in a deep pool as watery mist glistens off the granite.
Cliffs, plateaus and floodplains are a far cry from the flat Sahelian scrubland of the north and the low-lying river basins of Casamance. Extreme temperatures, regularly exceeding 40C, and long periods of drought add more layers of complexity for those that live in Kédougou. But, since the 11th century, the Bassari, Bedik and Fula tribes have risen to the unique challenges.
In 2012, UNESCO praised the tribes for developing “specific cultures and habitats symbiotic with their surrounding natural environment” and granted the area World Heritage status. In a testament to human endeavour, villagers commute from the hills to the floodplains to sow crops, such as fonio, fetch fresh water and attend ancient animist rituals. As many West African tribes succumbed to colonialisation and slavery, these tribes harnessed their remote and difficult location to keep long-held tribal traditions and beliefs alive.
These cultural idiosyncrasies, together with the jaw-droppingly stunning scenery, come together to create a unique region that is well worth the journey from Dakar.
Time of year
Visiting in the rainy season (June to October) is difficult, as most roads are not tarred and become impassable. Meanwhile, Kédougou is hotter than the rest of the country, with temperatures often exceeding 40C in the autumn and spring. In Dindéfelo, for example, it’s too hot for mosquitoes most of the year, so locals tend to sleep outside under the star-filled sky. As such, the best time to visit is during the winter and early spring (December to April) when daytime temperatures are around 25–30C.
Kédougou has a small airfield that occasionally offers flights to Dakar. They happen at most twice a week and last one hour, but check online, as airline companies seem to operate the route on a whim.
Most visitors go by road. Kédougou is 700km from Dakar, but thanks to the recent tarmacking of the road between Tambacounda and Kédougou town, the journey can be completed smoothly in around 11 hours. Overnight buses travel to Kédougou two or three times a week, but for those driving, it’s recommended that you break up the journey at either Tambacounda or the Niokolo-Koba National Park.
Kédougou town offers a handful of air-conditioned hotels with swimming pools, but don’t expect to find anything similar in the villages. Here, small encampments with stone huts, thatched roofs and outside showers (if you’re lucky) are the order of the day. Each camp will be able to organise a local guide and provide home-cooked meals, but check beforehand whether electricity is available.
Visitors should head to Niokolo-Koba National Park in the early morning or at dusk for the best animal viewing. As such, it helps to find accommodation close by. There are a number of camps on the park’s peripheries, but Campement Wassadou occupies an eye-catching spot on a bend of the Gambia river.