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Published: July 26th 2017
Me and a Crocodile
Kachikally Crocodile Pool, Bakau
Hello! And greetings from The Gambia, my 75th
country!! Perhaps this should be cause for some sort of celebration, definitely a landmark in my country counting, and well on my way it seems to completing my target now of reaching 100 before I retire (I have eased my earlier target of visiting every country on the map before I retire, for the sake of keeping life simple and more enjoyable!). But definitely an important number to reach, and very proud of myself to have seen so much thus far.
The Gambia is an interesting country – the smallest country on mainland Africa, at 11,295 sq km, and one of the very few in the world to continue using the definite article (particularly after Ukraine, Lebanon and Sudan all moved on from that). It is also a very oddly shaped country, no more than 48km from north to south, and stretching eastwards from the West African coast 480km, skirting the Gambia River pretty much every step of its way. Aside from the Atlantic coast on the West, it is all but completely surrounded by its larger neighbour, Senegal, on all other sides, and the two countries actually share
Abuko Nature Reserve
very much the same cultural roots, history, and peoples: both countries have sizeable populations of Mandinka, Wolof and Fula people. Yet despite its shared culture and history, it is the colonial period which separated the two. The French controlled modern-day Senegal, along with eight other West African nations, stretching from Senegal in the West, to Niger in the East, and forming what was called French West Africa. The British controlled four territories in West Africa: Nigeria, Ghana (at the time called the Gold Coast), Sierra Leone, and The Gambia. Whilst Senegal and The Gambia did try a stint of forming a union, the country of Senegambia between 1982 and 1989, it didn’t last long, and it is fascinating to see how different these two countries are simply because of their colonial histories. From my conversations with the local people here, the Senegalese seem to view the Gambians as quite serious, and non-smiling, the Gambians see the Senegalese as “meat-heads”. It is very interesting to note the similarities in opinions between the modern-day French and the modern-day English back in the Old World! Ah, the age-old Anglo-French issues, with an African flavour…!
The Gambia also appears to be an interesting
Red Colobus Monkey
Bijilo Forest Park
place to visit right now, having moved beyond its post-election concerns earlier on in the year, whereby following the country’s first democratic elections, the previous President Yahya Jammeh actually refused to leave office when he was out-voted by rival Adama Barrow, despite the latter having won a landslide victory of 31 out of the 53 seats. This, as I am sure many are aware, led to international condemnation and the threat of an ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) Mission entering the country to remove Jammeh from power. Fortunately this didn’t happen, but the threat of it forced Jammeh out, and Barrow and democracy in. And it seems the people are happy with this, with local slogan “#Gambia Has Decided” written on walls around town, and even forming a fridge-magnet souvenir in one of the shops I visited! Barrow in fact gave his first National Assembly address on Monday 24th
July, the day of my arrival in The Gambia, and my taxi actually drove past the National Assembly building at the time, awash with crowds, press and police. A very interesting time to visit indeed.
I am writing this one from a beautiful little boutique hotel, in the
quieter tourist corner of the main Gambian coastal resort called Bakau. Tourism seems to be at the heart of this country, in that this tourist agglomeration of towns including Kololi, Kotu, Fajara, Serekunda and Bakau only makes up for 1% of the country’s area, but is home to around a third of its population. It is the main built-up area of the country, and appears to be where everything is happening. You can find five-star hotels, top international restaurants, supermarkets and banks here, as well as the beautiful white-sanded, palm-treed beaches, yet apparently the rest of the country is a different story, and travel up-river is apparently very much like travel in the rest of Africa, perhaps even less developed. I shall find out more tomorrow, but outside of this tourist area, and going eastwards, electricity, water supplies, and Internet connections all slip away the further one journeys upriver. But it is actually sheer bliss being here on the Atlantic coast right now, enjoying the luxuries of the Roc Heights hotel at a cut-price off-season cost, and it was a sheer joy arriving here after what was quite a bitty, though still quite enjoyable, journey here.
On Monday morning
I set off from Toubacouta – my guide during my time there, Lamin, took me on his moped to the traffic junction where I caught a sept-place shared taxi around 12km to the Senegal-Gambia border. Although it was a hugely busy place in terms of local activity, I seemed to be the only traveller passing through, and the only person visiting the passport and customs offices. It was a breeze to exit Senegal, the official being most courteous and polite, though a bit trickier to enter The Gambia. I visited three different offices in total (not sure which each one was), within which a different person noted down rather seriously my passport details, a total of three times. In one of the offices, there was a very intimidating jail cell right in the middle of it, which made me feel ill at ease. A female official asked me for 10,000CFA, around £13, which I assumed was what was paid upon entering the country, a tax or customs duty of some sort. She took me to an office, where she gave me the money back, and then sat me down to speak with a rather important-looking official with a deep stare.
Me and Youssou
Keur Youssou, Toubacouta
He also noted down my details, and looked me in the eye saying “no-one, nobody should ask you for money to come in to The Gambia, you pay nothing, nothing” – he was referring to the 10,000CFA I gave to his colleague. He then looked at me quite seriously and said “if you do that again, I will charge you for corrupting a police officer” – his exact words! I said I’m sorry and I didn’t realise, though I felt it better not to attempt to explain that it was actually she who asked it of me, not the other way round – I thought it best to avoid a discussion, be humble and move on. It seems to me now that this was perhaps a more practical way of showing me that corruption and bribery is not (no longer?) tolerated in The Gambia anymore. Though the injustice of the event was rather annoying… After this, a helpful pointer from a local guy led me to a Gambian shared taxi, which took me the 20km or so from the border to the riverside port of Barra, where a ferry crossing takes you across the mouth of the Gambia River estuary
Me and Lamin
Keur Youssou, Toubacouta
and onto the country’s capital city, Banjul. This ferry journey was actually quite pleasant, and rather a relief, as I’d spent the evening before quietly having kittens about it. The FCO actually has a travel advisory warning about using the ferry – there have been a couple of fatal accidents on it over the past ten years or so, and it also regularly breaks down en route – one time this happened, it drifted on the river overnight…! It is also highly unreliable because of its breakdowns, and because of this, a few months ago, when a ferry did arrive, there was a stampede of local people trying to get on it, in which two people were killed. So I was doing all this reading and research on it the evening before, and my worry was ultimately lifted by a sundowner beer and a cigarette on the Hotel Keur Saloum’s pier overlooking a Sine-Saloum Delta river, thinking “what will be will be”. My guide Lamin also told me that they’d bought a new ferry, and the crossings now were very regular. In fact, this was most true, and no sooner had I arrived than the ferry, a brand new ferry
in fact, set off. About ten minutes into the journey though it stopped, and my heart sank, for about half an hour. It then continued very sedately, before stopping again at the other end, for another half an hour or so, before finally landing. Some sea cartographers I just happened to talk with yesterday at my hotel told me that the new ferry has a much deeper hull than the old ferry, and thus it has to wait till the tide is high in certain places before it can cross. Hmmm… Anyway, an interesting journey. After leaving the ferry, I took a final taxi ride another 15km or so to my final destination, Bakau, although the hotel where I tried to make a booking did not look at all welcoming upon arrival, so I checked into the nearby Roc Heights Lodge having scored a discount from £40 per night to £30, and wallowed in the air-conditioned, balconied and white-sheeted luxury of the place, with fridge, huge bathroom, sitting area, and tea/coffee-making facilities – ah, this is the life!!
I forgot to say that on Sunday evening, I actually did manage to see the bioluminescent plankton on the river near
Toubacouta – it was amazing!! Little lights sparked up in the water when you moved your hand in it, like miniature fireworks. I’ve never seen anything like it, though unfortunately it wouldn’t have been possible to capture it on camera.
So I have spent the past two full days exploring The Gambian tourist strip, off-season. This is actually really saying much, as so many places are closed down, presumably until the tourist season which begins again in November and runs until around April. There are hardly any tourists around, and absolutely no travellers that I’ve seen or met. It is very quiet, and I’ve really enjoyed exploring these places, without having to share them with what I would imagine to be hundreds of other “toubabs”! I have still met some interesting people, and my first night at the Roc Heights Lodge was just fascinating, and felt throughout like I was in the middle of an Agatha Christie novel. I was the first to arrive in the hotel, but around evening time, just as the sun went down and a thunderstorm hit overhead and lasted all night, other guests started to arrive. Firstly a middle-aged American lady with a short
Chinese guy in tow, followed by an English lady and French guy, the afore-mentioned sea cartographers who are here to help the local authorities create a more accurate depth-map of the Gambia River in the hope of running public ferry services inland, and finally an American guy called Bill from New York, living in Dakar and working there for the United Nations World Food Programme. Coupling these interesting characters from all walks of life and countries, with the classic dark wooden and carpeted décor of the place, along with the thunderstorm, I half expected there to be a murder that night, and for Hercule Poirot himself to show up…! It was most uncanny. But very interesting people to meet with and talk to.
Yesterday I spent the morning visiting the nearby Kachikally Crocodile Pool, a very small pool deep in the middle of the local neighbourhood behind the seafront of (off-season) touristy Bakau, populated by around a hundred crocodiles. These are believed to be sacred to the local Bakau people, who have kept watch over the pool since around the 16th
century, and is considered a place of good fortune, particularly for childless women. The amazing thing about them
Ferry to Banjul
The ferry going in the opposite direction, back to Barra
is that they are tame, and you can actually touch them!! They are fed so much fish apparently, that they don’t need to feed themselves, and thus do not attack humans who come to visit them. I very gingerly poised myself next to one for a photo, placing a couple of tentative fingers on its hard back for a photo. It was quite scary, and not something that your instinct would normally allow you to do when seeing these fearsome creatures. Its back was really hard, but its side and legs were actually covered with quite soft, and cold skin. You were not allowed to touch their heads though, and had to have a guide with you when approaching the crocodiles. Still, what an experience! After this, I caught a couple of local minibuses to the nearby Abuko Nature Reserve, where I spent a lovely, if hot, two hours being shown around by a guide called Moustafa. Abuko is one of the top spots in the country for birdwatching, and during my visit we managed to spot an oriole warbler, blue-bellied roller, fly finch, herons, hornbills, and a green turaco – this latter one in particular was a rare sighting.
I can certainly see the attraction in birdwatching now, and I took some good pictures, even if I say so myself. We also saw a number of columns of army ants, or driver ants, crossing the paths. These ants look harmless enough, like any old ants, and are quite tiny – but they are in actual fact very dangerous apparently. If you step on the column, they will all climb up your foot and leg and bite you. They have been known to strip chickens to the bone, and there is apparently a story of a tethered horse having been stripped to the bone too… There were also a number of hyenas kept in cages there, apparently unable to return to the wild as they’d either been orphaned, kept as pets, or injured, who were actually quite hilarious to watch as they chattered amongst themselves and dug holes in the ground. The rest of the day was spent both pool-side at my lodge, and in air-conditioned bliss, with a delightful evening catching up with the sea cartographers, and hearing their stories of travelling the world with their fascinating line of work. The last depth-map of the River Gambia was made
Seen from the ferry to Banjul
in 1922 apparently, so they are here to help update it, and as mentioned in the hope that The Gambia can begin a public ferry system upriver – such a great idea, given that the whole country is pretty much centred on the river – I’m surprised they haven’t thought of it before.
And another interesting day today, spending the morning at the Bijilo Forest Park, home to monkeys including the delightful and shy red colobus, as well as even more birds. This was with a female guide called Ayesha, who along with telling me about the local wildlife, spent the rest of our walk around complaining about the laziness of Gambian men, including her ex-husband. And this time, we spotted grey hornbills, a red-billed hornbill, yellow crowned gonolek, white crown robin-chat, and blackcap babbler. I could really get into this birdwatching thing! Our walk was also accompanied by numerous green monkeys, who are habituated to tourists and come to them in the hope of being given food in the form of peanuts. I wasn’t sure about the ethics of feeding so-called wild monkeys, so I declined on the peanuts, which didn’t make the monkeys less interested – they
were in fact lovely, and not at all aggressive as I have often experienced monkeys wanting food to be. After this, a short walk around tourist-central here in The Gambia – a J-shaped pair of roads known as the “Senegambia Strip”. Again, rather desolate in the off-season, but still managed to enjoy lunch at the local top-class hotel, the Kairaba Beach Hotel, as well as take a peek at its (badly-eroded) beach area, and a short trip to the Right Choice Supermarket, to stock up on a few luxuries including milk, yoghurt, crisps, shortbread and chocolate!
I am currently once again in air-conditioned bliss, enjoying said choice delights from a local international food supplier, and writing up this blog entry. Tomorrow morning, I plan to catch a couple of local buses/shared taxis, one to nearby Brikama, and then change there to another one heading inland and upriver, to a place called the Bintang Bolong Lodge, where I am booked in for the next three nights. I must have emailed about six or seven upriver lodges in the area, but this one was the only one which got back to me, leading me to assume that the others are closed
for the off-season. I am hoping for a few days of upriver, Gambian bush, exploring local wetland areas and wildlife, and perhaps a trip to the nearby James Island, a former slaving fortress built on an island in the middle of the Gambian River, around 30km upriver from the Atlantic Ocean. The lodge told me that they have had Wifi installed this month, so I’m hoping to be able to write my next blog from there. But if not, and as mentioned communications and the like are all rather limited in upriver Gambia, I will probably write up upon my return to Senegal, where I hope to be headed again on Sunday.
So I will sign out for now, and look forward to writing up more adventures on my journey again soon.
All the best, and hooray for 75!!
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