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Pink water, salt and dunes – your own Dakar Rally

Published on 25 May 2018

We hired quad bikes so we could relive the Dakar Rally, the wind in our hair, slaloming between salt mountains on the shores of Lac Rose and skirting along the ocean at full speed. You can too.

For 30 years, the 5 km2 Lac Rose (aka Lake Retba) was the finishing point of the world-famous Dakar Rally (before it moved to South America). It was here that sportsmen like Cyril Neveu, Hubert Auriol, Stéphane Peterhansel and Cyril Despres won the rally’s motorcycle section. And it’s here that we decided to mix the beauty of the landscape—a sumptuous, Fauvist painting-like blend of pink water, blue sky and white salt mountains—with the thrill of kicking up dirt on quad bikes.

The saline Lac Rose is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by rolling sand dunes, 35 km north east of the capital. It gets its pink waters from Dunaliella salina, micro-algae that resist the harsh conditions by creating a red-coloured pigment. The pink is at its brightest between January and March when the winds are at their strongest, but we’re here in April when the colour is still vibrant and the hot, heavy air provides ideal conditions for salt mining.

The elegant choreography of salt collecting

Biking around the lake with our guide Koliba Sanfakha, it’s hard to keep our eyes off the glistening white mounds, piled like rough diamonds on the water’s edge. For five hours every morning, men—waist-deep in water—scrape the bottom of the lake with the baskets, raising them above their heads to pour the salt into their fishing boats. It’s a fascinating, sight – a veritable choreography of toil and movement.

A litre of water contains 380 grams of salt,” explains long-time resident Paté Wade as we stop to take a closer look. “Right now, about 500 men— mostly from Mali, Guinea, the Ivory Coast and Senegal— are mining it. More people come every year because there’s no limit to the amount of salt you can collect, and though the work is hard, it pays well.

In just one day, a salt miner can collect a tonne of salt, earning him about 20.000 CFT Francs (30,50 euros). A decent price in a country where the minimum monthly salary is around 52.500 CFA Francs (80 euros).

Though the mining is done by men, women are an integral part of the process, as they sort through the grains. “There are three types of salt,” explains Paté Wade. “The fleur de sel is the most sought-after, the rarest; the medium-sized grain is used here, while the biggest grains are exported as cold-weather road salts.

Parsley, turnips and…sand dunes

Five kilometres from the lake and images of cold-weather salting couldn’t be further from our thoughts. The air is sizzling and heavy, and the pink landscape has morphed into neat squares of irrigated agricultural land, where farmers tend to rows of sun-drenched cabbages, lettuce and potatoes—then further along, parsley, turnips and manioc.

Suddenly out of nowhere, a group of children chase after us. As we arrive in the village of Kerbala, we are met by the chief, Ali Alou Jigala. “Most of the farmers you saw live here,” he says with a smile. “Lots of fishermen too. We are nearly all Fulani. Life is quiet here. You tell visitors that everyone is welcome.

It’s a moving moment, drawn out by the children who climb onto the quads, pretending to drive them. The mother of one little boy has to prize his hands off the handlebars. He complains but waves goodbye with a grin.

Leaving the village, the scenery changes again, this time into great, golden sand dunes. The loose desert forces us to push the quads to the limit, accelerating to avoid sinking into the troughs of sand. With Koliba Sanfakha at our sides, we go up, we whizz down, slam left, slam right. It’s what we signed up for and we can’t wipe the smiles off our faces.

Rally sensations in Dakar’s dunes

In fact, it’s so exhilarating, it’s impossible not to try and go faster. On one wide turn, our wheels spin in the sand, so we have to turn the handlebars sharply to set them straight. Around another bend, we find ourselves in a section filled with trees. For here onwards, it’s an adrenaline-charged slalom between trunks and branches, endlessly ducking to avoid getting hit in the head. Some of us slow down; others throw caution to the wind.

At the top of one dune, we all stop to take in the view: neverending ocean, bordered by uninterrupted sand. “It stretches from Dakar, 25 km from here, to Saly, a beach resort 90 km away,” says Koliba Sanfakha. “For around 115 km you’re free to bathe in the sun, take a dip or quad bike to your heart’s content.”

We choose the latter, driving at top-speed on wet sand, the spray covering our faces.

Soon though, it’s time to leave. Backtracking through the dunes, we make every moment count—accelerating left, right, up and down—knowing that the fun must soon come to an end. And then, before we know it, we’re back at base, covered in sand and dust, and superlatively contented. Dakar Rally eat you heart out!