Have you ever considered backpacking as an adult? It's never too late to pack up your things and head for the hills. Originally published in January 2016, one Vogue writer shares the thrills, and lessons, of a fortnight in Senegal.
Everyone has their favourite beach: maybe it's the one with the wildest waves, the clearest water, the most golden sands... But I've really found the perfect one. And it's not in Mustique or Formentera or Tulum. In fact, the essence of its perfectness is that you can only find it after a full day's hiking through rural villages, rice fields and swampy mangroves - and with all your belongings piled into a big, lumpy, uncomfortable rucksack. But then there it is: Pointe Saint-Georges, the only beach (I think) which has cows, goats and pigs all grazing bizarrely along the shore, cobalt-blue crabs scrambling in between their hooves, and not a soul in sight.
Lily James said recently that after filming wrapped on Cinderella, she needed to go off the grid. Months of relentless publicity had taken their toll, so she headed to southeast Asia for an old-fashioned backpackers' holiday, complete with budget youth hostels and requisite smattering of cockroaches. I hadn't just finished a high-grossing box-office film, but I had just broken up with a boyfriend. And so despite a grown-up job and limited holiday time, that same impulse to bury myself in an unfamiliar culture - rather than recline passively on a sun lounger - definitely appealed.
Given I had only 10 days, this wasn't going to be a grown-up gap year. But free from unwieldy luggage and panic-packed beauty bags, I reckoned I could cover enough ground for a suitably energising experience. As for my travel companion, I decided upon one of my best friends from university - not a choice to be taken lightly. A backpacking compadre must be practical enough to remind you to take your malaria tablets, empathetic enough to apply Anthisan to your derrière, and patient enough to buffer your broken French at the pharmacy when you're convinced you've contracted a tropical disease.
Despite a grown-up job and limited holiday time, that impulse to experience an unfamiliar culture - rather than recline passively on a sun lounger - definitely appealed.
After a few vague conversations over coffee, we decided upon Senegal. Mentioning the forthcoming trip to friends, the same question popped up - why there? Honestly, I'm still not really sure. Perhaps that was part of the allure - the adrenaline rush of pointing to a random spot on the map, packing up our things and jumping on a plane to a place we knew little about. My only research was geographical: it's on the western coast of Africa, bordered by Mauritania, Mali, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, and cut in half by the sliver of the Gambia, which juts in from the coast. Any other facts were gleaned many years ago from French textbooks: I remember reading vox pops of smiling Parisian teens talking about their tropical vacances au Sénégal. It's a former French colony, and plenty of in-the-know families still apparently hop over on direct flights from Charles de Gaulle.
I tracked down a friend who had worked at an NGO there and next sought travel advice - particularly on sartorial customs, as it's a primarily Muslim country. Apparently above-the-knee skirts were OK, but bare stomachs are a cultural no-no. When it comes to nightclubs, all is fair game - "the shorter, tighter and blingier the better", she emailed back. So into my rucksack I stuffed loose-fitting jumpsuits, tea dresses, cotton shirts and plenty of sports bras - wired undergarments have no place on the road. Shoes were edited down to flip-flops, beaten-up Converse, even more beaten-up Nikes, and the most feather-light heels I could find, for balmy nights of Senegalese mbalax(an exuberant mix of traditional drumming and club tracks). Make-up was limited to the emergency rations I keep in my desk drawer, while travel-size wash bag supplies were shared out between us.
We both agreed to leave our iPhones at home - no Instagramming every view, no Tweeting every experience. Armed only with disposable cameras and pay-as-you-go bricks, the only trouble with the happy-go-lucky attitude came when my outdated device packed in by the second day. If we wanted to explore separately, we'd have to meet back at public spots at specific times. On a tip from the NGO friend, if we got any unwanted male attention, we'd say we were "waiting for our husbands".
We agreed to leave our iPhones at home - no Instagramming every view, no Tweeting every experience - armed only with disposable cameras and pay-as-you-go devices.
When it came to the logistics of packing, we looked to Marie Kondo levels of precision: roll, never fold, and pack the heaviest items on top - it's more comfortable on the back and frees space by squashing things below. Bring more books than you think (unless you have a Kindle - but battered books are so much more romantic) and dispense them along your journey. To the person currently racing through my worn copy of The Girl on the Train in that café below the Gambian border: you're welcome.
As to our itinerary, we did relatively little planning, in keeping with the Into the Wild-inspired spirit of teenage travels. When it came to accommodation, we booked a studio for the first few nights to gather our bearings - Airbnb exists in the most unlikely places - then after that went via local suggestions. Our hosts met us off the plane in the capital, Dakar: the wife was a French former ballet dancer, the husband a Senegalese chef who ran the kitchen in their restaurant below. Over the next few days, as we explored the city - full of exotic food stalls, ambling cattle and chaotic traffic - we'd often pop down for freshly grilled thiof in yassa sauce (regional fish cooked in a onion-garlic-mustard-paprika marinade, with lots of peanut oil).
However, I soon realised my well-meaning black, brown and navy linens were completely out of place. As Duro Olowu and rising labels like Tiffany Amber, Madison Knight and Lanre Da Silva Ajayi all show, African fashion is awash with some of the most vibrant prints on earth. Every man and woman - whether a street vendor, student or government official - was dressed to the nines in tightly tailored outfits of dazzling batik-dyed fabrics. Especially on Fridays, when people congregate for prayers at the mosque: think three-piece suits of gown, tunic and trousers for the men, and long peplum skirts with matching head-ties and handbags for the women.
Thus the travel wardrobe grew exponentially. For the rest of our trip, we went to Senegal's biggest fabric market and had a skirt, dress and pair of trousers made to measure for a thrifty £12. By day four I'd bought a mesmerising tie-dye T-shirt from a roadside stall.
Over aperitifs in broken Franglais, our Airbnb hosts set us up with enough recommendations to last the length of our stay. From there we spent each night in a new home, travelling by car, bus and brightly painted fishing boat up and down the country, haggling for every taxi ride. Each evening, we unfurled the mosquito net, tucked it under every corner with hospital-bed precision, and woke up riddled with bites anyway. We bobbed along the salty pink waters of Lac Rose - more saline than the Dead Sea - cross-legged like mini Buddhas, and watched traditional Senegalese wrestling with handsome Italian Médecins Sans Frontières doctors (a sure-fire cure for heartbreak).
Despite the relatively short time abroad, we managed to pack in enough anecdotes to last until the next adventure. Leaping off a boat in the Casamance River fully clothed to chase, in vain, after a school of dolphins; stumbling upon an Animist village plastered in posters praising the regional king. In fact the only crunch points with my fellow traveller came at moments of irrational hunger: travelling between remote towns in sweaty sept places (battered old seven-seater Peugeots, the main mode of public transport), with no idea how many stops the driver will make, or how far away dinner is, will push a woman to the brink (if you want to remain friends, travel with snacks).
Now recalling it all from my grey London desk, what did I treasure the most? A full 10 days spent with my best friend in the most secluded, unspoilt spots I'd ever encountered, talking about everything and nothing over shisha and beers: the throwing aside of everyday habits, the feeling of freedom that comes with travelling light, the trepidation of what your next bed might look like. It's true, you can't out-run your problems - but it's certainly fun to try.
Tips for the road:
Weigh your backpack on the bathroom scales before you go. Stick to well below a third of your bodyweight.
If travelling with a friend, share wash bag essentials - hand sanitiser, wet wipes, insect repellent, suncream, aftersun etc - between your bags.
Make-up kits should be no bigger than the stash you keep in your gym bag. Slip in one lipstick for a dash of glamour in an unlikely spot.
Pack at least one lightweight "night-out" outfit - you never know when it will come in handy.
Leave your iPhone at home; you will only be tempted to Instagram every spot, and many won't have reception anyway.
Some of the best sightseeing happens on public transport: you might not find any sort of official timetable, so don't be afraid to ask locals for route advice.