The Sept Place -
Part One 02/02/03
Sept Places, or "Seven
Places", are the backbone of the transport system for long distance
travellers in Senegal. A typical Sept Place will be a mostly white or blue 7-seater
Peugeot. The model is hard to determine as these cars have all seen better
days. Windscreens vary from cracked, through very cracked to how in the hell
doesn't that collapse inwards on top of us?" The chances of finding a sept
place with an intact windscreen must be a thousand to one, and on the sole
occasion when I was lucky enough to travel in that thousandth vehicle, where
through the inevitable statistical likelihood the windscreen was actually in
on unbroken piece, I was amazed to see that the screen had been scoured by
time into a sort of semi-opaque screen that defied safe driving (which of
course is not a requirement for sept place drivers)
Each of these cards is as
individual as its driver; it will have uncomfortable seats manufactured in
local shops no larger than the average toilet cubicle, and will be marred
with a thousand unpainted weld lines which mark the steady and oft-halted
progression of the vehicle's disintegration.
Getting a place in a sept
place involves first selecting the right on in the face of many helpful
gentlemen who will want you to pay them for something that you would rather
not have help with in the first place, because you are of course, to them,
no more than a potential source of income. The "gare routier" where you
catch these beasts from are inevitably full of low-lifes, but by a strange
contradiction luggage seems to be sacrosanct, especially once it has
entrusted it to the vehicle driver or luggage loader. Once you have found
the right sept place for your route you must find the ticket seller (fixed
price) and at the same time negotiate for your actual seat and the extra
that you pay to the driver for your luggage.
If you are more than
four-foot three it is impossible to spend more than an hour in the three
rear seats without suffering permanent damage to you spine. For the rest of
us the options are the middle row, or the "suicide-seat". Needless to say
the good seats fill up first, and you will need to be absolutely sure of
your place, usually by sitting in it, until the vehicle is ready to leave.
About now you will realise that you are sitting on the sunny side - I don't
know how this happens, but it always does.
On taking my seat I
always like to look at the odometer. The average mileage, if you can record
mileage in kilometres, will be somewhere between and 200,000 and 500,000
kilometres . The vehicle may have travelled far further, but no odometer I
ever saw was still working beyond this point.
The vehicles leave on a
strict African timetable, which is to say that they go when they are full.
There is never a sure indication as to when this will be, but it is likely
to be on the same day, and you can say no more than that.
The journeys are all as
different as the vehicles themselves, so let us say that I am travelling
from say Tambacounda to Kaolack, a journey which I remember most for the
First a bit about
Talibes. Talibes are the little boys with tins who are everywhere, begging
for their living. Their tins contain whatever they can fill them with -
sugar, butter, your change... They are not strictly speaking beggars, but
students of the Koran under the charge of a teacher, and begging is an
exercise in humility, as well as a useful earner for their master.
So I'm picking up a few ,
when a boy comes up to me and starts singing. munches for the journey, which
will be four-and-a-half hours long. It was, I think, a religious song, and
he sang it beautifully, so I dropped to one knee to meet his level, and
listened him out. And at the end, as a reward for the entertainment as well
as the originality of his approach, I rewarded him with a cake that had cost
me CFA50, or about five English pence. "How refreshing" I thought. the
singing, not the cake.
Later, having obtained my
prized second row-by-the-window seat, I was waiting for the sept place to
fill up when I spotted something remarkable - a mountain of a woman - moving
towards the car. I knew instantly wand with that kind of resigned certainty,
that she was to become a very close acquaintance of mine in the least
pleasant way, and my instincts were spot on. Within the hour, with the
vehicle now full in the most literal sense, and with yours truly pressed
hard by a mass of female flesh against a door with the most dubious catch
I'd ever seen, we were ready to depart.
Depart, is however, a
relative term. We departed from our spot in the "gare routier", to the sweet
strains of two Talibes who had taken station by my window, and drove to the
filling station, because why not fill up until you've got a full load of
paying passengers. Filling up is not simple for some reason, and involves
shouting in Wolof and lots of angry gestures. There is a stir among a small
group of Talibes who come over and start regaling us with verses from the
Koran. Unbelievably, two more people cram in to the taxi taking our payload
to ten including the driver, or twelve if you count the lady next to me a
three. Then it's back to the "gare routier" for more discussion, people
getting in and out, and a chorus of Talibe singing.
Ten minutes later we take
the dusty potholed road out of Tamba, and what a site we must have made as
we scraped along on the lower parts of the suspension, all to the rising
chorus of some fifty Talibes who were running behind us, tins in their hands
and hope in their faces....
Arrived here Wednesday
evening after noticing that the clutch managed to both slip in high gear,
and jerk and judder in low gear. The on the outskirts of town the engine
temperature soared, and I had to let the engine cool before getting getting
to our auberge.
By lucky chance a group
of daring individuals who had just completed the Plymouth to Dakar rally
were staying there, and the next morning Rich, one of their mechanics
checked out the engine for me.
The news is not good - it
seems the radiator hadn't been filled from the high point, but only from the
reservoir, when the radiator was refitted (we poured a gallon and a half of
water into the system before it was full) and the result is almost certainly
a blown cylinder head gasket at least.
Marc, the garage owner
suggested we get a tow back to Ngor to get it checked out and hopefully
repaired, but as we were unable to sort anything out before the weekend we
decided to press on to Tambacounda by 'sept-place', the 7 seater Puegots
used as communal taxis here, where we finally met Richard.
After discussing options
Roxana and Richard decided to head on to Guinea while I return to Ngor to
try to get the car sorted out - this may take a couple of weeks. After an
entertaining breakfast where Richard demonstrated his haggling prowess we
jumped into our various dilapidated forms of transport and went our separate
We'd met an American in
Atar by the unlikely name of William Wallace, who gave us the details of the
Peace Corps compound here, which was very lucky as it meant that I was able
to leave the car there, an I'll be based there till Monday when I hope to be
able to get a tow arranged.