Traveling in Eastern Gambia - A Writer's Observations
October 4, 2011
"The Gambia is a Wonderfully-Relaxing Place"
Mark Moxon realized that when it came to tourist attractions, The Gambia provided a few offerings compared to, say, the wildlife bonanza of Botswana, the Victoria Falls of Zimbabwe, the Pyramids of Egypt, the historical city of Djenne, Mali, and the Virunga Mountains Gorillas of Rwanda. The Gambia still has one important asset going for its tourism: the 'friendliness' of its people.
The Gambia is a wonderfully-relaxing place. Just take a slow boat ride down the River Gambia to find out why
The blister bug bites I discovered on my last morning in Jangjang Bureh were just the beginning of a strangely frustrating day. I'd decided to head east to Basse Santa Su (commonly known as Basse) so I could cross the border into Senegal and then head northeast to Tambacounda to catch the train to Mali... and luckily the five other guests at the Jangjang Bureh Camp fancied a day out in Basse, too. I say 'luckily' because travelling as a group makes things much easier in Africa, not just because the onus of the trip is spread among the whole group, but because buses and bush taxis fill up much quicker when a group of you turns up at the station. I reckoned that it would take no more than an hour and a half to get to Basse, a very short trip by African standards.
Things went wrong pretty early on. One minute we were bargaining with the taxi man to take us the 2.5km across the island to the southern ferry, and the next thing I knew the other five threw up their hands in disgust at the amount the taxi man was asking and stomped off down the road, happy to walk to the ferry rather than pay. I had a full backpack; I wasn't terribly thrilled by the idea of walking 2.5km in the hot sun, but the others had already faded into the distance. Suddenly I'd gone from being one of many to being just one again. Great.
I managed to get to the ferry without waiting too long for the taxi to fill up, and as soon as it landed I leapt at the nearest bus tout and asked which one was heading for Basse. Surprisingly it seemed none of them were; instead I was ushered onto a bus for Bansang, a junction town on the way to Basse, where I would have to change. While I sat there waiting for the off, another bus pulled up, and the rest of the group appeared off the ferry and hopped straight into the new arrival, which sped off straight away; I was to learn later that this bus was going straight to Basse, and the arrival of five people had meant it could head straight off to Basse without further delay. Meanwhile I'd already paid and was stuck on the Bansang bus, waiting for the empty seats to fill up.
When we finally pulled out and I got to Bansang, I had to change to a minibus and wait for an hour for enough people to come along who wanted to go from Bansang to Basse. Finally the second bus left, and around two-and-a-half hours after the others had ditched me in Jangjang Bureh, I was in Basse. Typically, I bumped into the others straight away, and learned that they'd already been here for ages. Such is the power of travelling in a group, assuming it actually sticks together.
Impressions of Basse
'Never mind,' I thought, and picked a decent-sounding hotel from the book before heading off to explore Basse. Wondering what I could find to do in the Gambia's easternmost town, I started wandering round at random.
The town of Basse. Photo/Archives
Basse is nothing special to look at, but the people are simply wonderful. It's obviously a long way from the bumster areas of the Atlantic, because in Basse people are genuinely friendly and I didn't get any hassle from anyone about anything. I even walked through the bus station without any touts grabbing me and trying to persuade me to go somewhere, which was a first for me in this part of the world. I warmed to this dusty dump instantly.
My initial impressions were proved correct as I munched through some lunch at a restaurant called Traditions, pleasantly situated on the banks of the River Gambia in the north of town. My portable palmtop computer is the ultimate ice-breaker, especially when the fold-out keyboard comes out, and as soon as I started typing in the tranquillity of the restaurant, I noticed the young waiter looking over.
'It's a small computer,' I said, and showed him what I was doing. I demonstrated typing 'My name is Mark' on the screen, and then asked him how to spell his name, so I could type that in too. His name was Hamadi, and his friend who also wandered over for a look was called Mamoudou. They were delightful people, and apart from a quick bout of shopping and a short phone call home, I spent the whole afternoon chatting away with them. They were typically friendly Gambians (well, Mamoudou was from Guinea, but had lived in Basse for the last eight years, so the Gambian way had obviously rubbed off on him) and they were thrilled to get a reaction out of a toubab; too many tourists just ignored them, they said, and it was lovely to meet someone who was happy just to chat.
And I was happy to chat, too. The Gambians are delightful conversationalists and it was all too soon that I had to go back to my hotel for dinner, which I'd ordered for 7pm.
Beginning of the End
Things started to go wrong as soon as I got back to the inaccurately named Jem Hotel. The women who ran the establishment knocked on my door at 6.30 to apologise, but it turned out she couldn't cook me dinner after all, because the boy who had been supposed to paint the kitchen that morning hadn't started painting until the afternoon, and he wasn't going to be finished until tomorrow, so the kitchen was closed. I'd ordered dinner at the hotel because I hadn't been able to find any decent-looking restaurants in town, so this was a bit of a blow.
I had no choice, then, but to follow the concierge's advice and to wander south out of town until I found F&B's Restaurant, which she said might be able to serve me some food. I eventually tracked it down, well outside the town limits, in an unlit bar that was blanketed in empty bottles and a feeling of complete and utter desolation. I asked if they did food; they said they might be able to rustle up some fried chicken and chips if I wanted. There was nothing else for miles around; sure, I wanted.
The Bière la Gazelle they brought me was cold and smelled of fish, but I didn't care; this Senegalese brew isn't that great, but its saving grace is that it comes in a big 630ml bottle, which always helps to cushion the inevitable blow of the kind of establishment that serves it. I sucked on my beer, and when it arrived I devoured the chicken and chips so quickly I thought I'd celebrate with another beer. This time I got a Julbrew, The Gambia's finest beer, though the smell this time was of offal rather than fish.
While I ate and drank as if it was the end of the world – which was what it felt like – I noticed that F&B's was filling up with some distinctly shady customers. I don't have a sixth sense for these things – lack of exposure, I guess – but even I realised I'd ended up in the local knocking shop. When I went to pay, the chunky lady behind the bar was quite dismayed that I was leaving, as I'd obviously lent the place an air of respectability; I'd wondered why they'd shooed me out onto a table by the road so everyone walking past could see me enjoying my fishy Gazelle, and now I knew why. It was definitely time to go, and in my rush I didn't notice they'd forgotten to charge me for my food. Perhaps it was for the best...
By this time it was pitch black outside, and with a shock I realised that Basse isn't exactly flooded with electricity. At night the lucky shops with generators throw pools of strip-light onto the road, but most places are lit by kerosene lanterns, which make wandering round the town a delight. It also meant my toubab status was hidden by the night, so I could stalk the streets like an invisible man – not that Basse was any hassle anyway, but it still felt refreshing not to be gawked at all the time.
That night, as if to make sure I left Basse with only the best impressions, a family of fleas hopped out of my pillow and bit me to shreds. It was quite fascinating; at first I thought it was mosquitoes, as the fan was directly above the bed and it was impossible to put up my mosquito net. I lit a coil and tried to relax, but the sound of the hotel's generator at the end of the block kept nudging me awake, and the bites didn't stop, so by the time the generator was switched off at 1am and the fan died, I'd hardly slept at all.
Things didn't change. The generator had been masking the pumping bass from a huge sound system down the road – some kind of Saturday night bop, I presume – so for the next hour I was entertained by Gambian pop music at full volume, while what I thought were mosquitoes continued to lacerate my arms. I slipped into my sleeping bag liner in a vain attempt to stop the biting, but all it did was make me sweat more. I wondered if I would ever sleep.
Luckily the plug got pulled on the nearby rave at 2am and an eerie calm descended on the town, broken only by spasmodic barking and the odd truck bombing past. To my amazement, in the gloomy silence I heard clicking in my pillow; there it was, a definite regular snapping, a sound that reminded me of the seawater shrimps you hear when you're bunked down in the bottom of a steel-hulled yacht. In the context of my bed it sounded strangely like something... um... jumping. Yes, definitely jumping.
You've never seen me move so fast. Close inspection of my pillow with my torch showed that my bed had what looked like fleas. The little blighters were white and the size of pinheads, and when they bit it felt like a mild prick with a needle. I draped my sarong over the worst area and lay back, trying not to think about it too hard. Instead I idly wondered what would happen if a flea started biting me on my blister bites, and with this happy thought on the edge of my dreams I slipped into a long night of short bursts, wondering how the people of Basse could be so lovely when they were surrounded by such shit. It's not the first time I've found the most wonderful people in the armpits of the Earth, and I doubt it will be the last.
Basse to TambaCounda
I wasn't too annoyed that the fleas woke me up at the crack of dawn, because today I had to cross the border. Most travellers in Africa have a horror story or two about borders, bribes and bureaucracy, so I tend to assume that any journey that includes a border crossing will require more effort than normal. How right I turned out to be, though this time it wasn't down to the politics.
From eastern Gambia, the geographically logical way to get into Senegal is to head south from Basse Santa Su, crossing the border south of Sabi and rattling on to the Senegalese town of Vélingara. From there a good road connects you to Tambacounda in eastern Senegal, which is where I hope to join the Dakar-Bamako train, bound for Mali. On the map it looks deceptively simple... but it would, wouldn't it?
From Basse to Vélingara is around 25km, so at a brisk walking pace of say 5km/h, a not unreasonable speed without a heavy pack, one could theoretically cover the distance in just over five hours. If I ever have the misfortune to end up among the fleas of Basse again, I may well bear this in mind; it'd be a darn sight quicker than taking public transport.
The main bus station in Basse where I completely failed to get any hassle from ticket-selling touts
But I didn't know this when I got up this morning; as far as I was concerned the fleas had given me a wonderfully early start to the day, and it was barely 8am by the time I hoisted my pack onto my back and struck out for Basse's bus station I felt pretty confident that I'd reach Tamba in good time; the sun was shining, the people were smiling their bonjours all along the road, and I was about to change country, which always gives me a strange kind of thrill. What could possibly go wrong?
I'm glad you asked that, because one of the great things about being a writer is the therapeutic effect one gets from getting it all down on paper, and after the journey from Basse to Vélingara, a bit of therapy wouldn't go amiss.
The first sign that things weren't going to be that easy was when I asked the station master where the bush taxis for Vélingara could be found. He looked at me with a surprisingly un-Gambian grumpiness and said, 'No taxis today.'
'No taxis?' I said.
'No taxis', he said, and waved me away with an almost Senegalese dismissal. But after an entire night spent partying with a pillow full of fleas, I wasn't going to take any shit from anyone, so I asked him if there were any buses I could take.
'Yes,' he said, practically drowning me in information.
'Can I buy a ticket from you, then?' I asked, and he grudgingly wrote a ticket out for me, took D35 from my balled fist, and turned back to something far more important, namely staring into the middle distance and smoking a stubby high tar cigarette.
'Um,' I ventured. 'Which bus is it, please?'
'Uh,' he grunted, pointing at the bus in front of him with an irritated wag of his finger.
'What, this one?' I said.
'Uh,' he said, and terminated the conversation with a withering look that barely concealed his smirk.
'Oh shit,' I thought as I turned to the bus. 'This is going to hurt.'
The selection of rusting vehicles at Basse Santa Su's bus station didn't exactly fill me with confidence
Cars gently rusting into nothing are a common enough sight in developing countries; cars come to places like Africa to die, but first they're flogged to within inches of their lives, and then a few inches beyond that. Most cars get stripped and their parts recycled – everything is worth something to somebody out here – but a fair number of vehicles simply grind to a halt and gasp their last gasps by the side of the road, and get left there for the sand to blast them into modern African sculptures for passing bus passengers to admire. I'd genuinely thought the bus opposite the grumpy chief was one of these vehicles, a sad little van with a history but no future, but it turned out that this rust bucket was supposed to get me across the border. I couldn't believe it.
Not only that, it appeared as if I was the only person idiotic enough to be heading to Vélingara that day. The bus was little more than an open-sided van with plank benches down the sides, and I felt a bit silly placing my hat at the end of one of the benches to reserve my spot. My backpack looked distinctly lonely perched on top of the rust-riddled roof, and I wondered if this little beauty was ever going to fill up, let alone start.
My ticket proclaimed that I'd bought a seat on the 7.30 bus to Vélingara, but it was already 8.15 and I was the only one waiting. This didn't bode well, so I idled away the time by changing my remaining dalasis into CFAs with a tout, buying a bottle of water, and putting a brave face on things. People slowly trickled in, each of them buying a ticket and doing a double-take at the rusting hulk they'd bought a seat in. After an hour the driver cranked open the bonnet and filled the radiator up with water, and I marveled at the optimism being shown in the various lumps of grimy rust, held together by all sort of makeshift mechanics. One guy in the queue caught my eye as I admired the mess under the bonnet. 'I am thinking you do not have vehicles like this in your country,' he said with a touch of pride, and I nodded. I guess being proud of your rust buckets is a good idea; it's that or get depressed about them, I suppose, and the first option is far more Gambian.
One by one the sarongs, bags and hats appeared on the seats, and by 9.30 the 7.30 bus was ready to depart. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad after all; I'd been expecting a much longer wait.
Room for More
Without waiting to be told twice I leapt into our trusty rust bucket, and sucked in my ribs as we crammed six people along each bench, with another passenger sitting at the front of the rear cabin, his back to the driver. Two women hopped into the front passenger seat, one of them holding a child, and I did a quick body count: we had four in the front plus 13 in the back, making 17 in total.
Not surprisingly, the rusty old van that tried to get us to Senegal broke down before we left The Gambia
But it didn't stop there. Someone else climbed in and sat on the spare tire in the back, followed by another hopeful who sat on my feet, and three more likely lads grabbed the roof at the back and leapt on the bumper. By now we were up to 22 people inside a tiny little van, and that didn't count the ticket boy whom I'd last seen on the roof; but at least we were ready for the off. A quick push start shocked the engine into life and sent a cloud of acrid exhaust into the back of the cabin, and like a lifetime smoker hacking the morning out of his lungs, we hit the road (though with the suspension as it was, most of the time it felt more like the road was hitting us).
I missed most of the countryside on the approach to the Gambian border post as all I could see was a bunch of crushed locals bouncing along with the potholes, but half an hour into our bumpy ride I got a chance to see what the fuss was all about, as the back wheel nuts fell off and rolled away into the desert along with the wheel. We piled out into the scorching heat and instantly ran for the shelter of the surrounding scrub, while the ticket boy went looking for the wheel and nuts. The tire turned out to be completely flat, which had no doubt helped to loosen the nuts, so the driver rolled out the spare tire and jacked the bus up on a log, while the other men squatted round the tire, scratching their Islamic beards and arguing over how to fix it, as men do the world over.
Luckily the ticket boy found the nuts in the middle of the dusty road, so after a pit-stop of only 15 minutes we were ready to pack back into the bus once more. A push start later we were on our way to the Gambian border post, where we had to stop, pile out again, and get our ID cards and passports out; then it was into no-man's land to the Senegalese border, where all the luggage had to be unstrapped, approved by customs, and the ID cards and passports handed to the Senegalese border official for stamping; and then all the luggage had to be packed onto the roof once again, ready for the final stretch to Vélingara. As border crossings go, it was really quite slick, but that's not saying much.
All the bumping and grinding did serve a purpose, though. When I got to Vélingara and had to wait a further hour-and-a-half for the bush taxi to Tambacounda to fill up (this time there were no buses), it seemed like luxury; the bush taxi was comfortable, the road was in excellent condition and the journey much quicker. By the time I arrived in Tamba the feeling was starting to creep back into my buttocks, and I'd made it into eastern Senegal in one piece. Which is more than can be said for the battered old bucket that got me there...
Thoughts on Leaving
I liked The Gambia, though I can't quite put my finger on why. There's not a great deal to see, and there's nothing world class in terms of attractions, but the people are delightful, the atmosphere is laid-back, and the fact that they speak English is a positive bonus for someone whose French is shaky at best.
I'm pretty hopeful for the place, too. It's a poor country and its international debt sucks up most of its income – no surprises there, then – but it feels optimistic, and I hope this optimism reflects a bright future for the place. As far as travelling goes, The Gambia is great once you ignore the awful main highway and the complete lack of a boat service along the placid River Gambia, which conspire to make it a deeply unpleasant challenge to escape from the touristy west coast without taking a sanitized tour. Back in Basse, I asked Hamadi why there wasn't a regular passenger boat service along the river, and he told me it was because most Gambians won't travel by boat, as a lot of them can't swim and are afraid of water. I couldn't believe it, given the way the river defines the very shape of the country, but perhaps the river's crocodiles, snakes and hippos have something to do with it.
Relaxing on the River Gambia
However it appears that things might change, as there are plans to resurface the worst stretch of the highway, and a regular boat service might be starting up in the tourist season. The latter is a particularly good idea; given The Gambia's shape and the way the river wanders right through the heart of everything, decent river transport would transform the country. With places like Jangjang Bureh rediscovering their colonial past at the same time, tourism in The Gambia could really benefit.
I hope it does, because tourism that's run by local companies can only help the economy, and that's got to be good news for the locals. Tourism on the Atlantic coast mainly makes money for foreign companies – only 10 to 15 per cent of The Gambia's gross national product is from tourism, which is a lot lower than the turnover should produce. The lack of pleasant public transport helps to feed this stranglehold, but given a boat service and a decent highway, independent travelers could start spending their money here in sizeable amounts, and money spent locally goes directly into the economy.
If anywhere deserves this kind of break, it's delightful little countries like The Gambia. If it only had a Taj Mahal or a Timbuktu, it would be paradise.
Mark Moxon, an avid traveler, is a UK-based freelance web developer, producer and journalist.
Editor's Note: This article and all photos except one (indicated) were published by the author in 2002.