sound effects recording in africa Asbjoern Andersen


Sound recordist George Vlad went on an incredible recording expedition to Senegal last year - and here, he shares the stories behind his recording adventures:
Written by George Vlad.
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Last year I went on a 3-week expedition to Senegal. To say that it was an enjoyable experience would be an understatement.

This was more than 1300 miles through desert, dry savanna, tropical savanna, tropical forest, wetland, mangrove forest, bustling cities, remote villages and anything in between

This was more than 1300 miles through desert, dry savanna, tropical savanna, tropical forest, wetland, mangrove forest, bustling cities, remote villages and anything in between. We traveled by car, truck, boat, donkey cart and on foot. We stayed in hotels, guest houses, a derelict research station!, mud huts, straw huts, Mauritanian tents and also wild-camped. Overall, it was as close to roughing it as it could get.

Preparing for the trip

After last year’s trip to South Africa, I knew I wanted to go back to the continent this year. This time I wanted to plan the logistics myself and to not spend the entire trip in one place anymore. I wanted to experience a different part of Africa and to record more facets of it, including man-made sound. I got all this and a lot more in Senegal, so much so that I never felt like I managed to record everything I wanted to.

A route that stretches over 2,000 km across Senegal.

Planning the route

I chose Senegal specifically because it offered a lot of variation in terms of landscapes and environments. It was different from Southern Africa where I’d already been, it wasn’t as touristy as Eastern Africa and I spoke French which is the official language besides Wolof.

A few of my friends entertained the thought of joining me at various stages of my preparation for the trip. In the end Matt from New York decided to join me so we met in Dakar in early November. I had booked the services of guide, driver, fixer and all-round great guy Youssou Badji whom I found on the Tripadvisor forums. He did an awesome job driving us around, answering all our questions, translating for us, finding the best spots to eat, sleep and record, and keeping us company for the entire duration of the trip.

Backpacks, recordings gear, and clothing lay on the floor.

Packing for the trip

Before departure I went through my usual process of preparing for a trip. I packed my Sennheiser DMS rig, my Sound Devices 633 and Mixpre 6, my Sony D100 handheld, 6 DPA lav mics, plus one Rycote Extended Ballgag in case I wanted to do some handheld recording with one of my MKH8040s. I also packed 60 m of 7pin XLR cable, loads of batteries and chargers of all sizes, 2 portable hard drives and my laptop. Having learnt from my trip to SA, this time I came prepared photography-wise, taking my Nikon DSLR and 70-200 lens.

Another lesson learnt in 2016 was never come to Africa without sunscreen. This time I had liters of it, along with a wide variety of Mosquito repellent (cream, oil, lotion, spray and even bracelets). This came in very handy as it seemed like the various mosquito types would react differently to each of these depending on location. Some of these products seemed to attract flies though, so at times I had to choose between the bites of mosquitoes and those of horseflies, blowflies, sandflies, Tsetse flies or other similarly vicious creatures. Fun times!

Cars and busses fill the streets.

Downtown Dakar

Landing in Dakar

As soon as I got out of the plane I was hit by the scorching heat, dust, smoke and myriad of smells (some pleasant, others not so much) that are so common in Dakar and Senegal. It was rush hour and traffic was a nightmare, but luckily Youssou seemed to enjoy driving in these conditions. I spent my first night trying to sleep in the crazy heat, wrestling with the mosquito net and cursing the AC unit that seemed to work only for a few minutes at a time.

On the next day I went shopping with Youssou, buying a couple of beach tents, camping equipment, dried food and toiletries. I was slowly getting used to the chaotic traffic, noise and smells, but also to the slowness with which anything could be done. We spent half a day just trying to find tents! Internet was useless for this, but in the end Youssou’s buddies helped us find a shop that sold them.

Different types of fruit sit on a stand.

Proper fresh fruit

Soon thereafter all my troubles seemed to have vanished. It was still incredibly hot, dusty and smoky but my body seemed to have accepted it and moved on. We purchased a lot of bottled water and fruit, and I did my best to keep hydrated which seems to have done the trick. This time around I was also well equipped with several types of sunscreen, mosquito repellent and antibacterial gel so I did not have to suffer like last year in SA.

We picked up Matt at the airport, did some more shopping, got a bunch of cash and the next day we were ready to start the expedition. There was a very popular religious festival starting in central Senegal so all the roads were gridlocked. I would have liked to record this, but there were literally millions of people doing a pilgrimage to Touba so it was out of the question.

Instead of taking the main road North, Youssou decided to drive along the beach. At first this sounded like a crazy idea, especially since the “road” was only usable at low tide for a short period, but Youssou made it work. We did end up having to enlist the help of a few locals when the car got stuck in sand, but everyone seemed more than happy to come to our rescue.

Two people ride donkeys through the completely sand-covered desert hills.

Out for a stroll

Lompoul

Our first stop after we left Dakar was Campement du Desert in Lompoul. This is a small patch of desert a few hours North of Dakar. There are several camps here, of which Campement du Desert seemed the most welcoming and environmentally-friendly. Youssou had a contact here (as he did everywhere we went) who arranged for us to be picked up in the village. We initially wanted to stay for only one night, but when we arrived and saw how beautiful it was we decided to stay for two nights.

I wanted to stop here because this place was very similar to landscapes much further North in Mauritania. It was our only chance to record some “desert oasis” ambiences, as opposed to dry savannah which makes up most of the Northern part of the country.

Lompoul is not too far from the sea though, and I was mainly recording Double Mid-Side (which I decode to Surround). It wasn’t as easy as pointing the mics the other way, so we had to spend some time looking for a good recording spot where the waves weren’t audible. In the end we did an overnight session which featured mostly crickets and a few sparse birds. Perfect desert oasis ambience.

A large military truck has a bed for transporting travelers.

Saviem TP3

At Lompoul we also managed to record some generic village ambience with birds and people talking in Wolof, plus a 1969 Saviem 4×4 truck which sounded amazing! I managed to put together a library with the Saviem recordings, and you can listen to a short demo on soundcloud:

Overall, Lompoul was the perfect place to ease us into rougher parts of Senegal. Accommodation was in large Mauritanian tents with mosquito nets, there were outdoor bathrooms and showers, the food was great and there weren’t too many bugs. The highlight of our stay was a very enjoyable Djembe performance by a local group, which I obviously had to record:

There was no electricity in the tents but there was a bar where we could recharge phones and batteries. This was powered by means of solar panels and a Diesel generator that only seemed to run in the evenings. This was all right since we were recording quite far away from camp over a couple of hills and sand dunes. It however was already signaling an issue that only became apparent further down the road: the lack of access to electricity.

White buildings with round roofs sit in the desert.

Djoudj research station

Djoudj

After two fabulous nights at Lompoul we got into the car and drove further North, to Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary. Djoudj is a huge wetland area just South of the Sahara, which makes it the first stop for birds migrating from Europe towards Sub-Saharan Africa.

The 7 or so villages inside the park had all been relocated outside the park sometime in the 80s, and their inhabitants now work as guides and rangers. The place is as wild as it gets in Senegal, teeming with birds and mammals and relatively far away from civilization.

As part of the Park’s regulations we had to be accompanied by a local guide whenever we wanted to venture in the park. The guide that was assigned to us was extremely knowledgeable and knew the name of every bird in the park in more than 3 languages. His English wasn’t the best but he was very happy to converse with us in a mix of French, Wolof and English.

Behind the buildings there is a fence and flat fields.

Back yard

As soon as we arrived at Djoudj we found out that the hotel we were supposed to stay in was closed. The location looked and sounded awesome otherwise, so after a few calls Youssou managed to get us to stay at a derelict research station build in the 80s. Apparently they were thinking of repurposing it as a hotel, but it wasn’t nearly ready for guests as can be seen from the photo above.

Fruits of the labour – African Wild West:

George Vlad’s recording trip resulted in a huge, just-released African sound effects library, with 70 rich recordings totaling more than 6 hours, in both stereo and surround:
 
  • Nature & Countryside African Wild West Play Track 70+ sounds included, 365 mins total
    Rated 5.00 out of 5
    From: $90

    African Wild West is a collection of lush and immersive ambiences recorded in Senegal over the course of a 3-week trip in 2017. The library consists of 70 recordings totaling more than 6 hours, available both as stereo and surround. The recordings have been captured with a Sennheiser Double Mid-Side rig both at all times of day and night in the following locations:

    • Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary, an immense wetland teeming with wildlife
    • savanna areas in Northern, Eastern and Central Senegal
    • desert oases at Desert de Lompoul, Western Senegal
    • arid forests in Central Senegal
    • tropical forests in Niokolo-Koba National Park, South Eastern Senegal
    • the banks of the river Gambia
    • mangrove forests in the Saloum Delta, on the Atlantic coast
 

The caretaker/builder/cook was very helpful and accommodating and did everything he could to make our stay more enjoyable. The rooms were spacious enough and had mosquito nets and fans. The bathrooms were a little out of order so I had to mostly shower in the sink, but that was a small price to pay. Electricity was provided via solar panels and batteries, which usually charged enough during the day in order to provide power overnight.

As soon as we started recharging recorder batteries, laptops and smartphones this situation changed, and power went out around 2-3 am. At this point the lights and fans would turn off and back on every few minutes, which made for a very eerie experience in the middle of the night while half asleep. To make matters worse, it was over 30 degrees C/86 F and the mosquito nets at the windows were full of holes. This resulted in very rough sleep, but we decided to suck it up just because there was so much scope for recording.

Hundreds of pelicans sleep and preen themselves.

Pelican colony

In terms of recording, there was a large Great White Pelican colony here that I absolutely wanted to see and get good recordings of. In my 2017 trip to the Danube Delta in Romania I only got distant glimpses and photos of Pelicans, so I felt this time I could do better. After a night of bad sleep we took a boat to the Pelican roost together with a few other tourists and went to check out the Pelican colony.

There were a few hundred individuals on a man-made platform, plus many others coming and going. They didn’t seem too bothered by us or our boat, and the boatman was considerate enough to keep a good distance. The other tourists on the boat made it impossible to record anything though, so we had to find a way around it. We hired the boat just for ourselves and went on two more trips to this spot just to be able to get 10 to 15 minutes of good recordings, but it was all more than worth it.

Three men sit in a boat while one man records and another photographs.

Sound recording and photography

Apart from pelicans we also spotted plenty of African Fish Eagles, Ospreys, Flamingoes, lots of Herons, plus mammals such as Warthogs or Patas Monkeys. Listening back through my overnight recordings I discovered a few good Fish Eagle calls and several bits where Jackals or African Wolves call extensively. Otherwise there’s a lot of cricket action, occasional Heron calls, Nightjars, some frogs and songbirds.

On the second night I wanted to camp out on the edge of the water, but the guide advised against it since there were hyenas and huge pythons around. Listening back to my recordings I discovered a terrifying growl, which makes me think camping out would have been a bad idea.

Djoudj is also where I started to take my photography duty more seriously since my main rig was almost always out recording somewhere. I managed to get good shots of Ospreys, Fish Eagles, Storks, Pelicans, plus a lot of smaller birds such as Bee Eaters, Kingfishers etc.

The silhouette of a majectic fish eagle.

Fish Eagle against the setting sun

Driving East

After a couple of nights spent at Djoudj we figured we’d had enough and decided to move on. We drove East for the entire day, only stopping for lunch and to record a couple of interesting village markets. As we made progress inland, the land became more barren, the air became much drier and dustier, and wildlife became scarcer. Every once in a while we saw huge piles of plastic garbage, some of which had been set on fire.

Sadly during the day it was quite windy and too hot for wildlife to call, so there was little scope for recording. We were also a little behind schedule so we didn’t do a lot of wild recording in these parts.

The roads however were surprisingly good. They had recently been built by Chinese investors and didn’t see a lot of traffic. We passed through St Louis, an old colonial city which looked like at some point it had been an important part of the country. Further East we drove through endless dusty plains, cane sugar plantations and peanut crops until we arrived at Richard Toll.

A man recordings pedestrians on a rural road.

Recording rural ambiences

We spent the night at a hotel on the banks of the River Senegal, where we managed to get some laundry done and recharge our batteries. Food was excellent, we had air conditioning and we also managed to do some urban recording, which overall was a welcome change.

The hotel did laundry, but as is customary in Senegal they didn’t wash underwear. After some discussion with a waiter we ended up washing it ourselves at the hotel’s lavatory. This however caused an outrage for some of the personnel, possibly because we hung it to dry in plain view on an airing string. In the end they stopped making such a big fuss after we removed it from the string and took it back to our room.

The next day we continued to drive East towards Ourossogui. The road became bad shortly after we left the agricultural centres. At times it was easier to drive off-road than on, thanks to large potholes, corrugations, loose gravel and deep tire tracks. Having Youssou as a driver was a godsend since to him all this looked like piece of cake. We managed to reach Ourossogui just after dark and even found a hotel with AC. What more could we have asked for?

Two mechanics talk in their garage next to three cars in need of repair.

Getting the car fixed

Car problems became apparent the next day. After driving on corrugations and potholes at high speed, a screw had wriggled itself loose and no one seemed to stock this specific spare in town. We were yet to traverse the remotest part of the country so this wasn’t acceptable.

Youssou spent half a day trying to get this fixed, while me and Matt took to the streets on foot to find interesting stuff to record. We did some rural/urban recording, bought more supplies and when we got back the car had been fixed. We then had lunch in a hurry and then departed so as to not lose daylight. Little we realized that we hadn’t filled up with fuel, completely forgetting the first rule of overlanding: get fuel!
Ferlo

On Google Maps, Ferlo looks like a couple of green blobs with a few roads crossing it. Youssou had never been there and didn’t speak the local languages, but after talking about it with the locals in Ourossogui he was confident he could drive us to Tambacounda through Ferlo. The tarmac quickly turned to potholes and then dirt roads. We passed through a couple of villages, did some rural recording and then stopped seeing villages altogether. Progress became really slow, the dirt road became a track that meandered through the savannah, completely disappearing at times or splitting into two or three smaller tracks.

Six small huts outline the horizon.

Picturesque villages

After a while, the tracks started to cross through mud hut villages. The locals were very happy to see us and they all insisted on shaking our hands and talking to us, even though we only knew one Pulaar word: Jaarama (which means thank you). Asking for directions usually implied saying the name of the next village (as gathered from Google Maps or the paper map that Youssou had) and hoping the locals knew about it. It usually worked, although we often got conflicting information since there were many small roads connecting these villages.

During the day Ferlo was incredibly hot and a little windy. Wildlife was generally quiet, with only a few birds or insects calling here and there. It might have been interesting to record but at this point we had realized that we forgot to get fuel, so we were more concerned with getting to through Ferlo and to Tambacounda safely.

No one in the villages had cars or fuel. Some of them had “Jakarta” mopeds for emergencies. There was no traffic to speak of, as we only saw one car and a few donkey carts in two days of driving. Youssou devised a worst-case scenario plan in case we ran out of fuel before reaching the next town. He would walk to the next village, ask for a moped ride to Tambacounda where he would buy fuel and return to us. We had enough water and food to last a couple of days in Ferlo, but we weren’t too keen on delaying our trip again after we’d already spent days just driving and half a day trying to fix the car.

The sun sets in a dark orange sky.

Sun setting over Ferlo

Talking and thinking about this we barely noticed that the sun had almost reached the horizon and it was getting dark. We were less than halfway through our 240km route to Tambacounda so we decided to stop and wild camp. We had purchased beach tents, foam mats and sleeping bags in Dakar just for this purpose, so now was the time to use them.

Since it was already getting dark we just drove off the road for as long as we could, found a nice level bit and set up camp. It was a little difficult to find our way around but we managed to walk for a bit and find good spots to leave our rigs overnight. The soundscape was relatively sparse but soon the crickets picked up.

After a quick meal of fruit and biscuits we went to bed, Matt and me in our tents, Youssou in the car. Soon after, I started hearing movement underneath my tent. Matt did too, and it made us a little jumpy already. He ended up getting out of his tent and moving it around a few times until he stopped hearing stuff. I decided to power through it but then I started to hear animals in the distance.

After hearing a specific call a few times I was convinced it was hyenas, so I told Matt to zip his tent up and not get out until morning. It sounded like a crazy cackling, and being in a tent in the middle of nowhere made everything we heard seem more menacing that it really was. To top it off Matt said he saw lights in the distance, although he couldn’t be sure.

Men prepare tents near their Jeep.

Wild camping is fun

Needless to say we didn’t get much sleep. Between the odd calls that we kept hearing, the movement underneath our tents, the lights in the distance and just being in that remote place, I think I didn’t sleep for more than a couple of hours.

When dawn finally came, the weird call that we heard through the night was accompanied by curiously familiar sounds of roosters, donkeys and other farm animals. After a little while we realized it was actually a goat! We were basically in a village back yard. And the movement underneath our tents was caused by big beetles moving around.

We had a quick breakfast, packed everything and hopped in the car for more driving. The landscape didn’t change much, with more dry savanna grasses dotted by huge baobabs on the menu. The wind had picked up a bit so there wasn’t a lot of scope for recording. Every once in while we’d spot a huge eagle or Vulture so we would stop and I’d try to get a good photo.

Dry trees are all that can be seen along the flat desert.

Burnt forest

Soon after, we started seeing more trees which turned into quite a dense forest. The track was very easy to miss, which caused a lot of backtracking and stopping in villages to ask directions. This would have been fun, but since we were almost out of fuel we couldn’t quite enjoy it. We were driving only in first and second gear and rarely went over 20 kph. All these factors made the situation a little stressful, and the unbearable heat certainly didn’t help.

At this point driving got even worse, if that can be imagined. Even driving at an impossibly slow pace, Youssou couldn’t avoid branches and even tree trunks that had grown on the sides of the road. The car was getting hit and scraped on a regular basis, the dashboard indicator showed an empty fuel tank and we were still 100km away from Tambacounda.

Somehow we powered through though. We gave up stopping to record or take photos, Youssou did his best to use as little fuel as possible (which at times meant he didn’t change to lower gear to avoid branches or potholes – poor car!) and at 3 pm we arrived at a fuel station in the bustling metropolis of Tambacounda!

An all terrain vehicle stops at a gas pump.

A fuel station at long last!

Tambacounda

The car looked like it had taken a beating, we felt like we had taken a beating, but none of this mattered! We were out of Ferlo and back to civilization! We found a guest house, went for a quick lunch and promptly went out for some urban recording.

On our way to Tamba, we had spotted a nice looking forested area just outside the city. We decided to wake up at 3 AM the next day and go out recording since it looked really promising. We weren’t too keen on driving back through the impossibly narrow tracks, but as soon as we got out of the city and into the forest we realized it sounded brilliant. No distant farm animals, no engines, only us and the crickets.

After driving North for an hour or so we found a nice spot to record in. We stopped the car, walked for about half a mile and set up our rigs. At this point we heard a chattering call high up in the trees. A Senegalese Bushbaby had spotted us and came close to inspect what we were up to. We left our rigs and got back to the car to catch up on some sleep. After he made sure we weren’t making anymore noise, the Bushbaby did a 5-minute chattering performance for us. What an accommodating little fellow!

Tall grass line the ground underneath orange and green trees.

Foret de Tambacounda Nord

Back at the car, we had our tents with us so we set them up and went to catch some sleep. After an hour or so I slowly woke up to the sound of hundreds of Vinaceous Doves calling through the forest. Couple this with my exhaustion and it made for a very surreal waking-dream experience. Listening back to the recording I’m instantly transported there.

Around 8 the soundscape had become a little less interesting so we decided to pack up and head back to town for breakfast. On our way back we noticed someone was setting fire to the dry grass on the side of the track, so we stopped and got some nice recordings of that as well. It was interesting to see all the insects fleeing from the fire and scores of birds chasing them, mainly Long Tailed Glossy Starlings and Abyssinian Rollers.

A mechanic sits under the hood of the car working.

Fixing the car again

Back in Tambacounda we had a quick breakfast and went out to look for interesting things to record. At this point Youssou announced us that we had car troubles again. The coolant temperature would go up fast and the coolant would start spewing out after driving for 10-20 minutes. According to Youssou, the car mechanics in town weren’t reliable enough so he took it upon himself to fix the car. With glue and wire. This seems to have done the trick for the moment, so we were able to use the car again.

In the evening we visited a local tribe that lived a few miles outside the town, without electricity or running water. They were incredibly happy to have us over and to talk to us. They showed a lot of interest in our recording rigs and were quite impressed when we played back recordings from other places in the country. A very enjoyable way to spend the evening.

We weren’t too keen on staying in Tambacounda for longer though, since the fires that we had recorded that morning had spread and now the entire town was covered in a smoky dusty cloud that made it painful to breathe. Consequently the next morning we packed our stuff and left for our next destination.

Lush green trees with thick roots outline a green river.

A welcome landscape change

Niokolo-Koba National Park

In a couple of hours we arrived at Wassadou, on the river Gambia and at the edge of Niokolo Koba national park. After more than a week in the desert and dry savanna, the green landscape was a welcome change. The air was cooler and more humid, wildlife seemed more active during the day and we seemed to have more energy overall.

We got to the camp around noon. While lunch was prepared we went for a short recce and immediately fell in love with the place. Niokolo Koba is the largest national park in Senegal and is basically a huge chunk of tropical forest on the banks of the river Gambia. There has been little development inside and all the villages have been relocated to its edges. Wassadou was merely on the edge of the park but it already offered a lush soundscape the likes of which we hadn’t yet heard in the country.

Lunch was delicious. In fact, everything about this place was great. We spent 4 days in NK and it was our definite favorite of all the places we stayed at in Senegal. There was no AC, but temperatures were never as high as in the Northern part. We stayed in traditional mud huts, which were comfy and had good mosquito nets. The only thing I didn’t quite like is that the shower used water from the river, but that’s a small price to pay for being in such a remote place.

Light fog floats above a river at dawn.

Dawn on the river Gambia

We recorded overnight on each of the 4 nights we spent at NK. On the second day we drove to a camp at the center of the park, where we got acquainted with fierce Tsetse flies that chased our car in swarms of hundreds. A few of them managed to get in through the impossibly small crack in the window and they promptly bit each of us before we managed to kill them creating gruesome blood splatter.

The camp here was much less glamorous, with straw huts and a makeshift shower. Food took ages to prepare (on an open wood fire) but was still delicious. I don’t know how they made it, but in 3 weeks of eating rice or couscous with chicken or fish we never got bored or sick of it.

As usual in these places, we had to have a park guide with us at all times. He was very talkative and knew a lot about the place, its history and its wildlife. He even guided us through a road that hadn’t been used for years and was practically hidden by overgrown grasses and trees.

A wild boar stands in the shade near two white huts.

Not that glamorous lodging

There were warthogs strolling around the kitchen area and by our huts, but they seemed harmless. There were crocodiles and hippos in the water though, so we were warned to be careful when venturing outside camp. We were also made aware that there were hyenas, leopards and lions in the park, and on occasion they came close to camp.

Unfortunately we never got a good recording of mammals at NK. A group of Italian tourists spent half a day in the park and were practically chased away by lions, but we weren’t that lucky. Such is wildlife spotting I guess.

The soundscape here was not radically different from the one at Wassadou. There was no boat noise and no distant traffic though, which meant 100% of a 12-hour overnight session recorded is pristine ambience with no anthropophony. As everywhere else in Senegal, there were loads of crickets, cicadas and other stridulating insects, game birds such as Helmeted Guineafowl, lots of dove species, Scops Owls, Nightjars and many others.

Three men observe the natural setting from a drifting canoe.

Boat ride

After the night spent at the centre of the park, our batteries were depleted and we needed a shower. We hopped into the car and drove through the forest and Tsetse fly swarms back to Wassadou. Here we took a few boat tours while our batteries were charging. Wildlife spotting was good, with hippos and crocodiles easily seen, and baboons roaming about and calling from trees at camp.

There were many birds too, including Fish Eagles and Palm Nut Vultures, several species of Bee Eaters and Rollers, Kingfishers (including Giant ones the size of a duck), and even an African Eagle Owl that called for a couple of hours in a tree by my hut.

We tried to do another night in the centre of the park, but an overzealous park ranger had noticed our recording gear and asked us to pay for a filming permit. The price for this was around £750 per person per day, so we politely declined. The alternative was to drive back to Tambacounda, find an official and convince them to create a sound recording permit for us. This could have taken days so we gave up going back to the park completely.

George Vlad faces his boom mic toward the ground in a dense forest.

Waiting for the baboons

Another problem was power. There was no electricity at all inside the park, and at Wassadou there was limited charging capability. We were able to recharge batteries and phones at the bar, but power wasn’t always available. This caused some problems, especially for Matt who only had one NP and a few AA batteries. I was better prepared, having brought 4 L-Type batteries for my 633, more than 20 AAs for my D100 plus a powerbank for my Mixpre 6.

I didn’t run into a situation where I couldn’t record because of lack of power, but a few times I had to make do with half-depleted batteries. Matt missed a few good opportunities because of this though, and on top of the battery issue, his Zoom H4n went through batteries so fast that he never managed to record a full overnight session with it.

While we were busy finding good spots and recording, Youssou was trying to fix the car again. It was overheating and spewing coolant again, and no-one seemed to find the cause. After taking the engine apart a few times he discovered the culprit: the radiator was chock full of tiny seeds from our trip through Ferlo. So much so that it couldn’t cool down the engine anymore. He spent an entire day picking all the seeds out of it and then the car was ready for more overlanding.

The dark blue water is lined by dark green trees and brush.

Delta du Saloum

Saloum Delta

Our stay at Niokolo-Koba was pleasant and fruitful, but after 4 nights spent here we had to move on. We hopped into the car and drove all the way to the Saloum Delta on the Atlantic coast. We stayed at Keur Bamboung, a remote place on an island in the Delta, surrounded by tropical and mangrove forest. At first sight this seemed perfect for sound recording, however we would soon discover that there was quite a lot of boat traffic at random times of both day and night.

Another issue we noticed as soon as we got on the island is extensive fires that the locals lit. They were apparently burning dried vegetation to avoid larger wildfires. These fires already seemed huge though, making enough noise to be heard from miles away. This kept me from recording on one night since the low rumble made my recordings sound awful, and I was afraid the fires might reach my rig during the night.

At times we could also hear the call to prayer from a distant village. It wasn’t close enough to get good recordings of, but neither far enough for it to not affect our recordings. A little annoying overall, but we could live with it.

Apart from that the place was excellent. It was relatively hot, but not that hot to become unpleasant. The huts we stayed in were quite large and comfy and all beds had mosquito nets. They came with local roommates though, mostly birds and geckos that nested in the thatched roof, but also mice and rats. These somehow got into my luggage, but the only thing that they decided to gnaw on was my toothpaste and dental floss.

A path leads into a forest on a bright blue day.

Mangrove and Tropical forest

According to the locals, hyenas roamed about the island and were quite vocal. With this in mind we looked for a recording spot and on our 2nd overnight we managed to get good Hyena calls from no too far away. Sadly a good part of the dawn choruses recorded here are mixed with distant boat noise and calls to prayer, so this will require a lot of listening and editing.

Power was another problem at Keur Bamboung. This spot was strictly solar, with batteries that charged during the day and were depleted around 10-11 pm. These batteries weren’t powerful enough to recharge our recorder batteries or even laptops, so we had to send our stuff to the village by boat and then get it back in the evening. I managed to recharge my USB-C powerbank however, which I could use to recharge my laptop and to power my Mixpre 6. Again, I had no problem recording whenever I wanted but Matt missed a few good opportunities because he didn’t have enough spare batteries (even after I lent him some of my AAs).

Since we didn’t do a lot of recording during the day, we got the chance to chill out a little, to enjoy the (relatively) mild weather, to do some exploring and quite a lot of photography. Youssou had the opportunity to prepare more Senegalese-style mint tea for us which we really enjoyed.

Thick smoke lines the bottom of the sky and blocks the sunlight.

Smoke blocking out the sun

At this point it was time to drive back to Dakar, where we spent another couple of days recording urban ambiences and even Youssou’s Toyota Land Cruiser. After 3 weeks in Senegal it was time to fly back to London via Paris.

Takeaways

This trip opened my eyes to a few aspects of field recording and overland travel that I had never considered. For example, I had completely overlooked the issue of access to electricity. Luckily my gear is generally much more power-efficient than entry level devices, but Matt’s Zoom H4n was a complete disappointment. It went through batteries at an incredible pace, which resulted in much frustration for him. Next time I’ll bring even more batteries and a solar charger (which I already had but didn’t think much of so I left at home). Also, when buying gear, power efficiency will be of even more importance.

Finding a local fixer is often overlooked, but it can make the difference between a successful field recording trip and failure. Youssou was an awesome guide and driver, but also instrumental in gaining access to certain places or objects. He negotiated prices and terms, translated, made tea, kept us company and took care of a lot of things so we could focus on recording. Needless to say, next time I’m traveling to a similarly remote place I will try to find a local fixer.

George Vlad takes a selfy as another man drives.

Before we realized we were out of fuel

Relying too much on Youssou became a problem though. Not that he wasn’t up to it, but at times he had way too much to deal with and could have used some help. For example, when we forgot to refuel or when no one thought about the possibility of grass seeds getting lodged into the radiator. I’ve done my share of off-road driving and I read a lot about it, so both these problems were known to me. However, I was focused on recording and relied solely on Youssou to take care of these aspects. This almost landed us in trouble, as being stranded in remote places such as Ferlo wouldn’t have been enjoyable, and grass seeds and bits can catch on fire underneath the car. Next time I will try to avoid focusing 100% on recording.

Laundry became an issue a few times, as already mentioned. Next time I will need a clear plan before I run out of underwear or t-shirts. Likewise, we could have managed food and water better. Luckily we were never far away from a kitchen, and Senegalese were always incredibly welcoming.

Similarly, clean water for washing was a problem at Wassadou. Since the water was directly taken from the river, it was unsuitable for washing our faces. Come to think of it, it was unsuitable for washing period, since it may have been infested with Schistosoma, a parasite that you don’t want to know more about. Buying numerous bottles of water isn’t environmentally friendly, I know, but may save me a bigger headache so I’ll think about it next time.

From the passenger seat, one can see two men trying to clear a path through the brush.

Is this really a road?

Relying too much on Google Maps and similar apps is also a bad idea. If these apps show a road somewhere, that doesn’t really mean there is a road there. Driving through Ferlo took a lot of time and almost caught us unprepared because we didn’t do enough research beforehand.

If a location is remote, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be free from man-made noise. Boats are ubiquitous anywhere there’s deep enough water. If there are mosques around, the call to prayer will be heard miles away. If there are villages around, you will record happy donkeys and roosters, no question about it. My solution to this issue is simply to record for long periods (10 hours or more) and to keep moving until I find the best recording spots.

Senegal was just awesome, quite the opposite of what the impression of a West African country might be. 99% of the people we met were extremely friendly and generous. People stopped us on the street to ask where we were from and to welcome us to their country. We never felt unsafe or in any sort of danger. The food was delicious everywhere we ate. The wildlife spotting was great, and the soundscapes were so diverse and lush!

I’m surely forgetting a lot about the trip. It was 3 weeks full of adventure, unplanned events, interesting encounters and obviously, sound recording. I got home with a nice suntan, more than 500GB of recordings, photos and video, a few knick-knacks and loads of good memories from Senegal.

I’m hoping to go back to West Africa to visit the South-Western part of Senegal (Casamance), The Gambia and Guinea Bissau soon. Until then I’ll have to go through all my recordings and put together a comprehensive library. More photos available on my Facebook page. Hope you enjoyed reading about my adventures!

 

A big thanks to George Vlad for sharing his exciting experiences and recordings from Senegal! Hear his African Wild West library here, and find out more about his company, Mindful Audio, here.

 

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