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Africa » Gambia » Western Division » Bintang
July 29th 2017
Published: July 29th 2017
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Me, Wildlife WalkMe, Wildlife WalkMe, Wildlife Walk

Bintang Bolong
Dear All

Greetings again from Toubacouta, in Senegal! I have just returned here after three more nights in The Gambia since my last entry, but I have returned to Senegal a day earlier than scheduled for a couple of reasons, which I’ll explain below. For the sake of variety, and also because most of this blog entry will be about my last few days in The Gambia, I’ve chosen to name it accordingly and have its location as Bintang, where I stayed a couple of nights ago, as most of my photos are also from there.

So last time I wrote I was spending my last evening in Bakau, before heading off upriver to explore deeper into The Gambia. On Thursday morning I caught a “gelly-gelly”, the Gambian form of a filled-to-the rafters, local clapped-out minibus form of transportation. It is the same kind as can be found in most developing countries around the world. There is invariably a driver half my age at the wheel, cigarette in mouth and loud music blaring from the radio, with a colleague in tow who miraculously combines hollering the vehicle’s destination in a low, monotone, drawled out voice to all and sundry,
Baobab TreeBaobab TreeBaobab Tree

Bintang Bolong
in this case “Brikama, Brikama, Brikama, Brikamaaaaa” (repeat), with taking fares from customers, loading up and unloading luggage onto the roof, and hanging off either the side of the vehicle or precariously holding onto the door at the back. Sometimes he gets off and has a chat with people, then runs to get back on the vehicle while it is still moving, adeptly stepping on and off as if he were a part of it. The luggage is piled up on top, often covered with a plastic tarpaulin, and everybody is jam-packed in, four to a bench-seat intended for three. I was lucky in that I got the front seat, next to the driver, for the journey, which not only afforded a good view and increased leg room, it was easier to be able to speak to the driver when you wanted to let him know where you were heading. The journey to Brikama only took an hour or so, but it felt like longer as it kept stopping and starting throughout the whole unplanned sprawl that envelops the Serekunda-Banjul urban agglomeration. At Brikama I was due to change “gelly-gelly”, though the transport interchange there was certainly not a place
Grey HornbillGrey HornbillGrey Hornbill

Bintang Bolong
for the faint-hearted, and has to rank as one of the most chaotic, stressful transport hubs I have ever been to. There were hundreds of minibuses, many arriving and leaving, all full to the rafters, many were just parked and stationary. Mixed in were the local travellers, all carrying large suitcases or, in the women’s cases, huge bundles on their heads. There were local street traders, some sat down displaying their wares on the space in front of them, others walking around using the same low, monotone, drawled out voice to advertise their wares, to all and sundry. And there was absolutely no form of signage, a seemingly chaotic, unorganised abyss of mayhem. I asked a number of people where to take the “gelly-gelly” to my next destination, Bintang, but it seemed that it had already left at 10am, and my next best option was to take one to the nearest main road, be dropped off there, and ring the Lodge where I was booked into to see what to do from there. I took this latter option, again very conveniently ending up with the front seat next to the driver. Once the bus had filled up and painstakingly made
MeMeMe

Bintang Bolong Lodge
its exit through the chaos, the driver stopping every ten metres or so to have a chat with someone, pick something up, or drop something off, it was a surprisingly quick journey to a tiny village called Killy, where I was dropped off on the roadside and left alone with my bags wondering what on earth had brought me to this far outcrop of civilisation. I sat down on a bench to figure out my next move, when slowly but surely the local village’s children made their way out of their houses as they realised, and began to tell each other, that a (crazy) “toubab” had just arrived in their village. They were very cute and friendly, they seem to always ask over here for a “minty”, but not aggressively – it seems that someone somewhere down the line told them that this is what you generally ask a toubab for. I rang the Lodge, and spoke to Solo, who told me that he was not around, but was actually back in Serekunda, where I’d just come from, if I wanted a lift…! Darn – that would have been really handy a couple of hours earlier, but not too helpful
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Bintang Bolong Lodge
there. He told me to seek out a local guy in the village called “Aladi”, and a nearby girl knew him as he was her step-father. She called for him, and about four guys came out of a local hut, one with a knife (!), but presumably only because he was chopping vegetables as he was actually the friendliest of all of them. Aladi was there, and said he was going off to find someone who had some transport to take me to the Bintang Bolong Lodge, about 6km off the main road from there. After twenty minutes of cute chatter with the local children, asking them what their name was and vice versa quite a number of times, Aladi returned with an African version of a Harley Davidson rider – a cool guy, wearing all black and dark sunglasses, with a huge momma of a motorbike. He would take me to the Bintang Bolong Lodge, and after quite a long and heated argument on my phone (I bought a local SIM card) with Solo, agreed on the price of 100 Gambian Dalasi (just less than £2). He strapped on my backpack, I hopped on the back, and we rode
Me, WalkwayMe, WalkwayMe, Walkway

Bintang Bolong Lodge
in style off the main road, through a few local villages, and onto the Bintang Bolong Lodge. Considering this was only a three-hour journey or so in total, and only around 85km or so from the tourist coast, it couldn’t have felt more other worldly, and definitely as the guide book says, Upriver Gambia, even this opening part to it, is a whole different ballgame, and very similar to the “real Africa”. Quite a memorable journey indeed.

So I had booked to stay at the Bintang Bolong Lodge for three nights, though upon arrival I felt that this was rather optimistic, and said I’d either stay for one or two nights. I wasn’t sure whether it was just a huge shock from my air-conditioned, boutique hotel in Gambia tourist-central, or whether the place really was a dive. I think it was a mixture of the two. The Lodge is actually quite spectacularly located, built upon stilts over a mangrove wetland overlooking the Bintang Bolong, a creek which forms a major tributary of the Gambia River. But as many of its TripAdvisor reviews suggest, it really is a place that once was, and appears pretty much past its heyday now.
My Room, on the LeftMy Room, on the LeftMy Room, on the Left

Bintang Bolong Lodge
It didn’t help that I’d arrived in the off-season, with half the restaurant area under repair, and no other tourists around to be able to do trips with. This meant that the thing that I had mainly come to do, a visit to the nearby Kunta Kinteh Island (or James Island), a notorious slave-trading centre on an island in the middle of the Gambia River, was out of my reach at a whopping 5000 Dalasi (around £80). Had I done the trip with, say, five other travellers, it would only have cost about £13, and thus well worth it. But there were simply no other travellers there at the time (apart from three who arrived later, as I’ll mention below, but were actually only stopping there en route to Senegal). I opted for a leisurely paddle up the creek that evening with a local guide, and a beautiful walk around the wetland area observing even more beautiful Gambian birdlife. I also thus opted to stay just one night there to return to Bakau the next day, and see if there was any possibility of doing the James Island trip instead from there. Incidentally, as I found out yesterday, this was
My RoomMy RoomMy Room

Bintang Bolong Lodge
also not possible even in tourist-central, as there are simply no other travellers or tourists at this time…!

I did enjoy my stay in the Bintang Bolong Lodge, though certainly glad it was only for one night. My cabin was spectacularly sited on the banks of the creek - lush, quiet and very tranquil. It was mega-hot though, with a corrugated tin iron roof, and no electricity during the daytime, thus with no working fan. When the electricity came back on again around 5pm, with my fan working and mosquito net in place, I actually had a very good night’s sleep. And after I returned from the boat trip, a travelling group had arrived which brought some form of life to the place. There are indeed many benefits to travelling in the low-season, such as good discounts and avoiding tourist hordes, but when it is absolutely dead quiet, with no chance of doing tours and things, then these are certainly the major drawbacks.

It was nice to talk with this newly-arrived group, though I felt very uncomfortable around the girl. There was a French guy and a Senegalese guy who’d met at university in France around 15 years
My RoomMy RoomMy Room

Bintang Bolong Lodge
ago, who were travelling together in Senegal. Somehow they had met an English girl in Casamance, who had tagged along with them, though as the French guy explained to me, they didn’t welcome her company, they felt she had attached herself to them, they had made many hints that they did not want this, and had even become quite rude to her, but she still didn’t “get the hint”. When the girl joined us for dinner, I knew exactly what they meant about her. She exuded such negative energy it was palpable, and very very uncomfortable for such a sensitive guy like myself. When the conversation was going nicely, she would say something which was so self-centred it was awkward. I felt quite sorry for the two guys who had probably wanted some time together to travel, and seemed very decent people. It was actually quite fortunate that they were headed to Banjul the next day, and my mind was made up that I would join them in their taxi that they’d hired for two days, paying a nominal part of their fee, and return to air-conditioned, white-sheeted boutique luxury. Just as an example of the self-centred, awkward nature of
My TerraceMy TerraceMy Terrace

Bintang Bolong Lodge
the girl, when they asked me whether I’d decided to come with them or not (I said I’d take some time to think about it), and I said yes, she said “yay, I will now have three husbands”. Awkward, extremely self-centred, and just very very uncomfortable.

So after a really good night’s sleep in the mangroves, and a nice breakfast with omelette (the first time on my trip so far, most breakfasts include just bread and butter here), we boarded their comfortable taxi, to make the three-hour, quite painful journey I’d just made the day before in just one hour. It was a very awkward journey though, as I ended up sitting next to the English girl (the other two had left that space free, funnily enough). I spent the journey having a really deep and meaningful conversation with the French guy, whilst more and more having to be rude myself to the English girl as I felt her parasitically moving on from the two guys to myself. She said at the beginning of the journey she thought she’d spend time in Bakau (the exact same place I was headed for), she asked for my guidebook, asked where I
View from my TerraceView from my TerraceView from my Terrace

Bintang Bolong Lodge
was staying, and I knew where it was all leading to. She made me feel ill. I very rarely say such things about people, but her negativity was just palpable, and crying out to me to be avoided. I ended up having to lie to her about where I was going to stay, and asking the driver to let me out of the taxi somewhere inconvenient so as to avoid having to do anything or go anywhere with her. I was actually quite pleased for the two guys as I knew how relieved they’d be feeling that she was moving on from them, but hell would have to freeze over before I would even contemplate going anywhere with her. I did end up totally ignoring her, she was parasitic. It really was such a relief to get out of that taxi, and get out of it alone, take another taxi myself, and go to my hotel in Bakau and to be away from that source of negativity. I had visions of meeting her the next day on the ferry back to Senegal, or that she’d even turn up to check into my hotel, and in fact I did see her
RestaurantRestaurantRestaurant

Bintang Bolong Lodge
when I was going to get some lunch earlier today, before coming here just now, and all but ignored her questions of “where are you staying”, “which hotel are you in”, “where are you going now”, “what are your plans” – all I said was “ok then, bye bye”, and had no qualms about being so rude to someone so distasteful. I am sorry to go on about this so much, but just writing about it helps me feel better – this really was a negative, negative experience.

Ah, but bliss was achieved when I checked once more into the Roc Heights Lodge yesterday afternoon, and just enjoyed a down-day for the rest of the day, and actually also this morning. I normally plan to do my travelling in the morning, but I couldn’t today as it was decided yesterday that the country, for the first time under current, newly-elected president Adama Barrow, that there’d be “National Clean The Country Day” once more. I joke not. Under the previous administration, the last Saturday of the month was devoted, between 9am and 1pm, to cleaning up the place. No-one was allowed to travel, to keep the roads free from traffic,
View from RestaurantView from RestaurantView from Restaurant

Bintang Bolong Lodge
so that all public sector employees could club together and clean up the rubbish and the streets. Other people are also encouraged to clean the areas outside of their houses. This had stopped following the elections in April, but yesterday it was announced that “National Clean The Country Day” would begin again, and begin again this morning, between 9am and 1pm. So because there was no transport, no taxis or ferry services (it was actually very peaceful around town, quite lovely in fact), I had even more, very welcome, down-time at Roc Heights Lodge, until 1pm, when the hotel’s minibus took me to the ferry port to continue my journey, back to Senegal.

So after taking the ferry again (this time it took longer, with a wait time of around an hour, probably due to the catching-up of things after the quiet morning), a taxi to the border, a much friendlier and easier border crossing this time (especially from the Gambian side, who said they hoped I had a good time in their country, and that I would return to the “Smiling Coast of Africa” again – a step up from being threatened with a corruption offence the previous
My Guide, OmarMy Guide, OmarMy Guide, Omar

Bintang Bolong
time!), and another taxi from the border, I have arrived once more in the delightful Keur Youssou again in Toubacouta. Here, I have picked up my bag of medicine and a few other things again (I feel quite complete again now – though still a good idea, it did feel strange leaving things behind…!), to continue my journey through Senegal tomorrow.

It actually feels really nice to be back in Senegal – I may be wrong, and just basing my experience on only two places, Dakar and Toubacouta, but things do seem calmer, less hectic, and with far less “bumsters”, or local touts who really are a nuisance. I plan to just stay the night here in Toubacouta, and head up to a city called Touba tomorrow for two nights. Touba is the spiritual heart of Senegal, and the home of the country’s most important Sufi Muslim order, the Mourides. It is visited by some tourists, but certainly not on the tourist trail, and I feel a visit there may well be quite interesting. After two nights there, I plan to move on to Saly, this time Senegal’s tourist-central, but with mostly French clientele as opposed to English and
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Bintang Bolong
North European. I plan to write up my next entry from there, probably with more tales to tell.

So, although I haven’t really done too much in terms of tourism these last few days, I am glad to have written up this entry, as it certainly has helped to get a few things (one main thing) off my mind. Writing certainly helps, and as mentioned here in my profile, alongside keeping in touch with people in terms of my travels, it also very much helps to keep me sane on the road.

So thank you for reading, and until the next time – a bientot 😊

Alex


Additional photos below
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Baobab TreeBaobab Tree
Baobab Tree

Bintang Bolong
Me, Wildlife WalkMe, Wildlife Walk
Me, Wildlife Walk

Bintang Bolong
Omar, my GuideOmar, my Guide
Omar, my Guide

Bintang Bolong
"Lopsta" Bird?"Lopsta" Bird?
"Lopsta" Bird?

Bintang Bolong


30th July 2017

Photo shoot The Gambia
We often struggle where to publish a blog from when we've been to more than one location. Your logic is sound. We should write a blog about all the characters that have been trusted to drive us in amazing countries around the world .... now that would be a colorful blog. Your motorcycle ride sounded interesting. This trip sounds memorable and off the beaten path...just what you were looking for. Toxic travelers are to be avoided at all cost (even if you have to lie) Life is too short to put up with that and it is your trip. What a great trip up the river to enjoy the wildlife.
31st July 2017

Drivers and Toxic Travellers
Thank you Merry, lovely encouragement to read as I travel. I love the point about the people entrusted to take us on our journeys, these are indeed special people :) And thanks also for the comment on "Toxic Travellers" - an excellent word for them! I'm looking forward very much to reading your blog and seeing photos from your upcoming trip to Central Asia!! All the best with the packing and preparation :D
29th November 2020
Grey Hornbill

You beat us there with about 6 months
I am looking through some of your older blogs. I see that you went to the Gambia about half a year before we were there. We actually didn't enjoy Senegal/Gambia all that much and have no plans on going back. How about you? /Ake
29th November 2020
Grey Hornbill

Six Months
Wow, small world, with just six months separating our visits! Lol, I have exactly the same to say about Senegal/Gambia - I didn't like them much, and have no plans at all to return. At least we can say we've been to West Africa now...!

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