Armed with a map of the country obtained in Banjul – an unwieldy chart one metre long, detailed, but out of date (1980) – we have travelled virtually the entire length and breadth on the country in the last fortnight. Perhaps this is no great shakes, however, when you consider that the country in question is The Gambia – a ribbon of land with an area of less than 12000 square kilometres (less than a tenth the size of England). We set off rather late on 13th January – 4pm – but in our eagerness to get away from the Barra brothel, covered 50km in the cool evening. Our rapid progress was also thanks to splendid new tarmac donated by – The People’s Republic of China! Don’t they have enough of their own roads to build?
The tarmac ran out at Kerewan as, unfortunately, did the daylight. We had been unavoidably detained helping a schoolgirl get home – by pumping up a flat tyre, deflated by a slow puncture over many weeks we think! She and her classmates were returning from the afternoon shift at the local school – capacity and possibly parents’ demands for children to help with the family farm / business mean this double school day is common round here. Poor teachers! The friendly policeman at the Kerewan checkpoint indicated a shortcut to an unexpected “campement” and, in the dark, we pushed our bikes along in
deep sand – tall grass on either side. 2 km later, just as we were wondering where we were going and the cracking twigs underfoot were starting to unnerve Anna, lights appeared and whitewashed round houses came into view, as did a swimming pool! With self contained huts, en-suite bathrooms and staff to wheel your bikes it was all rather more touristy and luxurious than we had imagined.
After Kerewan we travelled slowly along the north bank of the river through peaceful grasslands, wetlands and forest. The road is made of laterite and is bumpy but rideable – the main menace is the dust created by passing vehicles but thankfully there is only about one of those every half hour, discounting donkey carts and ox-carts and horses ridden bareback (plenty of all those). As a result of this bad road people are friendly and curious, and wildlife is unperturbed by humans close by – too bad they are levelling the piste for tarmac then. We are having trouble keeping abreast of all the languages spoken here as The Gambia seems to harbour incredible ethnic diversity despite the small size of the country. You start the day saying “good morning” in Mandinka, buy your lunchtime bread in Fula and greet a shepherd, as you pitch your tent, in Wolof! We camped wild most nights as the countryside is so pleasant, water plentiful (and kids eager to lead you to the village well and pump enormous quantities of water for you – much more than the 15 litres we need for a night’s camping), and ,well, there’s nowhere else to stay really. On the quiet stretches bright blue Abyssinian rollers perch the highway and hornbills roost in the baobabs, waking us up at dawn unless the small inhabitants of nearby hamlets find us first! We were rather exhausted by the road and heat though, so decided to rest in Janjanbureh on an island in mid-river before crossing to the south bank and heading back to Banjul along a paved road, with the prevailing wind behind us.
Janjanbureh, known as Georgetown in previous years and during its time as a major centre in the slave trade, is a bitof a sleepy backwater. Marooned on an island in the river, it seems temporally removed from the rest of the world as well. Colonial buildings crumble at the water’s edge, little boats ferry goods and people across the water and there’s a sleepy, not-much-going-on feel to the place. We stayed at a “restaurant” with 2 rooms for rent, but were frequently the only people there as the proprietor was out seeing his mates rather than cooking up meals! Hardly surprising that he doesn’t cater for a dozen at a time as the kitchen consisted of a small room, with three fire-blackened stones in one corner, a coke-crate (ie chair) in another corner, a pile of firewood and a broody chicken in the final corner. The hen seemed unperturbed when we cooked our own dinner in there using our camp stoves – probably amused by our attempts to make pancakes (moderately disastrous), although the okra leaf and onion filling was surprisingly tasty. No really.
The south bank was, perhaps surprisingly, quite different to the landscape north of the river, with lots of wild forested areas, the continuing ornithological bonanza as well as red colobus monkeys foraging for fruit high in the branches or scampering across the road. Unfortunately, there were quite a few ants and mosquitos too, but the tent’s insect net repels them so we haven’t been too troubled, and hopefully the Lariam is keeping down our chances of contracting malaria…. We had a rather genteel evening in a french-run hunting lodge the night after crossing to the south bank, which was a bit unusual! Arriving late afternoon in the splendidly named village of Pakali Ba, we saw a sign to an eco tourism lodge so followed the track, with the intention of asking if we could camp. We ended up in a little thatched hut, simple but swish, for a much reduced rate and were invited to dinner by our hosts! This concisted of 3 courses of French style food (minus the “what we shot today” brochettes for Anna) with wine and, they insisted, cognac to help us sleep! The assembled were the owners Martine and Pascale plus half a dozen French hunters over for a ten day warthog-bashing holiday. All rather bizarre and maybe smacking a bit of The Empire, but they did all seem quite eco conscious and very aware of not diminishing populations of endangered species etc…. Luke was very happy looking things up in the encyclopaedia of African mammals that was on hand – the zoologist in him is still alive it seems! They even gave us a ride in the motorboat on the river at dusk, but it was mainly mangroves roots and hippo paw prints and birds screeching out of the way as the noise of the motor shattered the stillness – bikes are much better stealth vehicles for seeing wildlife, we decieded! So we retired to bed at midnight rather tired, unaccustomed to all that good food and alcohol. We were soon roused again for another meal, though – a large breakfast which included excellent spiced banana jam made by our hostess. Sorry, I think all these updates must read a bit like a food magazine, we do seem to go on about food a lot…
Following a bumpy but otherwise uneventful ride back to the capital, we have had a spectacularly lazy week in Banjul, reading our way through the bookshelf of English novels in the guest house, picking up various visas for the next few weeks, and watching the fishing boats come and go on the beach below our window. We’ll leave here on Sunday morning, all being well, and make our way down through Casamance to Bissau in Guinea-Bissau, where we hope to catch a ferry out to the mysterious-sounding Bijagos Islands for a few days… Hopefully Senegal Take II will be more pleasant than our first sojourn there! More news, as always, to follow!