There are some places on this earth that resonate with the soul – for me the tiny country of The Gambia has turned out to be one of those places. Along with the big hitters of Namibia, Botswana and Portugal it has catapulted itself into my top 5 favourite places!
Who can say why some countries wheedle into your heart and refuse to budge whilst others leave you cold, but this trip is showing that they very clearly do. Whether it’s because they speak English, the lovely climate, the fact that all the people love the British, the stunning countryside…or more likely a combination of all of it, from the moment we arrived at the border I fell in love.
The border between Senegal and The Gambia was easy, it took less than 90 minutes. Many of the border officials asked my name and practiced with it like it was a precious gift ‘Jen-if-fer’, smiling and welcoming. The change in attitude and atmosphere in the 10m of no-man’s land between leaving Senegal and entering The Gambia was staggering.
15 minutes from the border we needed to catch a ferry across the river to the tiny capital city of Banjul. For all the ease of the border the ferry was carnage! We were funnelled into the car queue which was relatively organised, albeit slow, but we could expect to cross in 2-3 hours or so. The truck, however, was classed as a lorry, put in a scrum of lorries and told it was be a couple of days before they would cross! Steve and I appealed to the ferry-queue officials that it was actually a bus and moreover travelling together with the Landrover. Surprisingly we got traction and sympathy, however it wasn’t until a modest amount of money and an orange changed hands 3 hours later that we were both finally waved in through the gates together.
The wait had been stinkingly hot and a little frustrating but great fun! The one thing Gambians love more than the English is Landrovers! We were offered a good price for Henry 4 or 5 times as we sat queuing and every other person came up to chat, compliment or just look round. The Sidetracked blog details were shared many times as well as contact details ‘just in case…’.
Once through the inner gates we waited another hour and a half for the ferry. A can of pop bought us special attention to ensure we were put on the same ferry as the truck, a local safari guide adopted us and chewed the fat through the window for an hour and a pickup truck arrived with election officials with microphones playing loud music and giving public information about how to vote and advice on avoiding violence during the upcoming presidential elections. It felt like a party, we didn’t stop smiling!
In fact the presidential election was taking place whilst we were there and was everywhere – posters, political rallies, speeches – the talk of the town. People spoke of it with a mix of pride and enthusiasm – not one person we spoke to was voting for anyone other than the sitting president and there was an air of excitement.
Once off the ‘party ferry’ we drove straight through the small capital city of Banjul into a different town ten times the size where we were camping for the next couple of nights. Banjul was a city of clean, wide roads, little traffic and an air of calm. The larger town of Serrekunda was rather different! A street market ran for about 5 km and we didn’t get over 10km for nearly two hours as we crushed through the throng of people, donkeys and goods. I was struck, however, at how quiet it was – there was no loud shouting, car horns, babble of chatter. Everyone was going about their business calmly and quietly, just a low hum of activity – it was lovely.
The campsite was fantastic – clean, spacious, quiet, all we could hear was birds and crickets, after Dakar it was bliss!
The next day was a fun taxi ride through the dusty back streets to the Guinean Embassy for yet more visas but this time the embassy was cool, quiet, friendly and helpful. There were a few issues but we were away by 3pm heading to the Monkey Sanctuary.
What an afternoon! Vervet and Red Colobus monkeys roamed the reserve in their hundreds. Along with the entrance ticket we were sold bags of peanuts – and the monkeys knew it! I have never met such well behaved monkeys in my life, famed for their aggression and noise these lovely little creatures came up and gently took the peanuts out of your hand. The more relaxed you were the more gentle they were, they even looked you in the eye whilst taking them as if to say thank you. There are always some that misbehave of course and a few of us ended up with monkeys on our shoulders, heads or backs – always gentle, no scratching or biting – and a couple ran up behind unexpecting tourists and snatched whole bags of nuts from hands or pockets!
After a lazy morning the next day we started off for an Eco Camp which was to be home for the next couple of days. The approach to the camp was bumpy and tight and when we arrived it looked desolate as though no-one had been there for years. Overgrown outside, inside mosaic floors that had once been carefully laid but were now crumbling, toilets with hornets nests for occupants….and no beer!
Some of the group wanted to leave the next day but a list of activities was produced and we managed to get everyone agreed on a village tour and cooking lesson the next day along with swimming in the salt lake.
In the end we actually stayed three nights as we were heading straight from there back into Senegal and the borders remained closed until the results of the presidential election were announced. And it turned out to be absolutely lovely!
The village runs the eco camp and shares any profits (not much since COVID sadly) between paying their taxes, supporting the women’s vegetable farm and the school amongst other good causes voted on democratically. We met the chief and the kids were genuinely excited to meet us and were the first so far to ask for nothing from us other than photos.
We had a guided tour of the school, 500 children from 5 different villages attend up to the age of 15 at which point they go to the High School until they´re 18 – all paid for by the Government.
Only four of us went to the cooking lesson but it was wonderful. A lovely, down to earth woman and her three daughters taught us to cook peanut chicken – it took 2.5 hours and tasted all the better for the care and attention. And there were cats…
On the way back from the cooking I was walking back through the village when I heard my name being called. I turned round to find three of the young girls I´d met that morning smiling, waving and calling ´Jennifer´! I went over and they put their hands out to hold mine and smile up at me. I welled up just a little – I was standing in the middle of a small African village in The Gambia and three girls recognise me, remember my name and are pleased to see me.
Stuck inside closed borders the next day, we organised a day trip to James Island, now renamed Kunte Kinte Island by the locals. A strange place, eroded by the sea over time but still eery with an atmosphere of claustrophobia and past brutality.
The village that owns the island is the village where Kunte Kinte was abducted from – a small museum and restaurant mark the history. The village was small, dusty and understated, all the young girls held my hand carefully guiding me to the museum and back, practising my name and telling me they loved me!
The boat trip itself there and back was beautiful, an hour and a half through mangroves with oysters growing on the groves and flocks of birds over head.
But finally we had to leave the Eco Camp and The Gambia and head back to southern Senegal. I told all the border officials I didn’t want to leave and they said they didn’t want me to go! I wasn’t looking forward to going back to Senegal after such a fabulous few days in my new home-from-home but we were heading for Casamance which is considered to be very different culturally from northern Senegal.
The border was easy and first impressions of Casamance were indeed very different from the north. Still no warm smiles from the people but lush landscape, green and covered with beautiful marshes and rice paddy fields.
We were heading to the long, pristine beaches of Cap Skirring and after some fun and games found a camp site overlooking the sea.
The next day we broke some record somewhere by securing a visa in 1.5 hours flat and spent the rest of the afternoon just luxuriating on the beach, shared with more cows than people, and taking a well earned break from doing anything much at all.
Next stop, Guinea-Bissau, deeper into the unknown and crossing into the tropics for the first time. Hot, humid, breaking new ground – the UK with all our friends, family and (apparently) snow is seeming very far away…..