The Gambia: Arriving in Banjul
28th October - 4th November 2000
It was still dark and the rain was falling steadily as I waited for the taxi in the early hours of Saturday morning outside my friends flat in Southfields, south London. It looked like it would be another typical autumn day, grey, cold and wet. On the way to the airport the radio was playing in the taxi. The DJ was talking about the impending doom of the onset of winter and the fact that the clocks would be going back an hour this weekend. His final piece of advice to listeners who could not cope with the endless dark, grey days ahead was to travel south to find some winter sunshine. We were just turning into Heathrow airport; I turned to the driver and said, 'Now there's a good idea.'
A quick dash through the rain and I was in the terminal building and checked into my flight to Banjul in The Gambia. Today I felt confident that, for me at least, the weather could only improve. I was embarking on a six week road trip through West Africa; starting in Banjul, The Gambia and finishing in Accra, Ghana and travelling through the east of Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso on the way. It was not a direct flight to Africa. The first leg took me as far as Brussels where I stopped for an hour and a half to change aircraft. The second leg took me to Conakry in Guinea, where we refuelled before taking the last flight of forty-five minutes to Banjul. We descended into Banjul International Airport across the green, lush forests of the Casamance region of southern Senegal. Ahead of us I could see the large estuary of the River Gambia flowing out into the Atlantic Ocean. The only thought going through my head now was; what am I going to do tomorrow? I put that thought out of my head and concentrated on today; we were only a few minutes from arriving, forty minutes ahead of schedule. Local time was now 18.00.
Stepping off the plane and onto the tarmac I was hit by the heat. In a little over ten hours I found myself transported from the cold of London to the tropical warmth of West Africa. I smiled in the excitement of being somewhere new and totally alien to my environment at home. The formalities at the airport, which was small but modern, an investment in the countries tourist industry, did not take long and I soon found myself haggling for a taxi to take me to a hotel. The only way to get to the city or the Atlantic resorts, from the airport is to take a green tourist taxi. I had decided to stay outside the city but away from the resorts and took a taxi to the Malawi Guesthouse just off Pipeline road between Fajara and Serekunda.
The sun was just setting as the taxi pulled up in the sandy street outside the guesthouse and parked under a palm tree. I checked in and opted for a room at the back of the building; I thought it would be quieter here away from the bar and the restaurant. I soon realised my first mistake as I was lying in my room. The generator was started up, which was just outside in the rear courtyard. It sounded like someone had parked a tractor in the courtyard. The sound of generators and electricity shortages would become a daily feature of life during my trip through The Gambia.
I sat down that evening for dinner at the restaurant and met the owner of the guesthouse, Mohammed. He asked me where I was from, I replied, 'From England.' 'I know that', he said, 'where in England?' It was then that the penny dropped. His accent was terribly familiar. It turned out he was originally from Petersfield in Hampshire. He had moved out to The Gambia in the early nineteen eighties, converted to Islam and changed his name from Robert to Mohammed. Wearing his white robes and cap and with a long beard he looked very much like a local, except for the tanned white skin. His roots from southern England explained the menu at the restaurant; pie, chips and beans, chilli, burger and chips, roast of the day as well as some traditional Gambian fare. Last year he had made the hajj to Mecca, taking one of his staff at the guesthouse with him. It was fascinating to hear him recount his stories of his travels in Saudi Arabia and especially to Mecca, a city that is closed to infidels.
I spent two days at the Malawi guesthouse acclimatising to my new surroundings. On my first night the generator was finally turned off at around midnight and I fell asleep in a room that gradually became warmer and warmer now that the ceiling fan was no longer working. By the morning the heat felt stifling. The mornings I spent at the guesthouse sitting out in the garden. After a very hectic last week at work back home it was nice to just sit down with a book and relax. The restaurant became very busy at lunchtime on Sunday. Mohammed's roast Sunday lunches seemed to be a local institution with the ex-pats as well as the locals.
In the afternoon I went off to the Abuko Nature Reserve near the airport. I walked down to the pipeline road and picked up a shared taxi the couple of kilometres to Westfield Junction in Serekunda. Serekunda is the hub of the countries transport network and Westfield Junction is where the main roads meet. Serekunda has become the unofficial capital, mainly because Banjul, which is situated on an island, hasn't the space to expand. Serekunda has a very urban African feel to it, colourful markets and crowds of people thronging the roads. It is a very low-rise city, and really didn't feel like a city at all. There were not many large buildings, just a few banks overlooking Westfield Junction. The rest of the buildings were either small concrete houses or corrugated iron shacks. I worked my way through the crowds of people and eventually found a mini-bus going to Brikama, which dropped me off at the gates of the Nature Reserve.
For a park of only 105 hectares it has some very diverse vegetation. There is a stream that flows through the park, which allows both forest and savannah species to thrive here. I paid my entrance fee and walked into the park. It wasn't busy; I was the only person there. The path loops around the park and takes about two hours to walk around slowly if you appreciate the vegetation and wildlife on the way. In the centre is a lake fed by the stream, which is home to the crocodiles. From a hide overlooking the lake I waited patiently for the wildlife to make an appearance. Ripples suddenly appeared on the surface of the lake and in the distance I could see a crocodile slowly swim across the lake and down towards the hide. It swam past the hide and then disappeared back under water. The trees surrounding the lake were full of birds, some darting down to the lake to pick off insects. About 270 species of birds have been recorded in this one small park. Around the park I saw many monkeys. Trees would suddenly explode into life as I walked past, monkeys scurrying away in the branches. There are about 140 monkeys in the park from three species, the green, the patas and the red colobus monkey.
The following day I went off to Banjul. The city is very small with a population of about 50,000. Again I took a shared taxi to Westfield Junction and from there picked up a mini-bus going to the city and was dropped off on July 22 Drive outside the National Museum. I walked into the museum and felt rather guilty at disturbing the staff to buy a ticket. The girl behind the ticket desk offered me her services as a maid. I declined the offer and the staff left the building again to sit out in the garden and continue what they were doing before I disturbed them. The museum was fairly small but had some interesting exhibits on the local African peoples, the environment and the colonial period. Upstairs were many dusty old photos of former colonial governors as well as old tea sets, stamped with the royal crest, sitting in glass cases. After about an hour I left the museum and continued walking into the centre of the city and MacCarthy Square. The city was much quieter than I thought it would be, although as I approached Albert Market the streets became more crowded. That is when an out of work tourist guide from the coastal resorts found me.
I found it impossible to shake off this impromptu guide and resigned myself to being shown around the market. The market is the largest in the country and is the vibrant heart of the city. Everything was for sell here from fabrics and clothes to electrical goods and souvenirs. I'll give my guide his credit, he did seem knowledgeable but I still would of preferred to wander the market at my own speed by myself. At times it felt that he was following me around (which I suppose he was) rather than me following my guide. Eventually the only way I found to get rid of him was to leave the market and to tell him that I was returning to my hotel. After giving him a donation to help feed his child I walked back up July 22 Drive.
At the edge of the city I stopped at Arch 22, a massive gateway into the city built to commemorate the military coup of 22 July 1994 led by Lt Yahya Jammeh. In an apparently bloodless coup Lt Jammeh seized power from President Jawara, who had been in power since independence from Britain in 1965. In 1996 multiparty elections were held and Lt Jammeh's party, the renamed Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, won and Jammeh was installed as the democratically elected president. The arch is 35 metres high and is the tallest building in Banjul. It consists of a balcony and triangular roof sitting on eight giant columns, four on either side. A lift takes you up inside one of the columns to the balcony where there is a coffee shop. Stairs from here take you further up to a small museum, which seemed to have borrowed most of its exhibits from the National Museum just down the road. Right at the top of the building are two small balconies, which had excellent views over the city, the river, harbour and the ocean.
Continue reading this journey: Upcountry to Georgetown