The Gambia: Upcountry to Georgetown
28th October - 4th November 2000
The following weekend on Sunday I had arranged to meet my friend Joanna in Bamako, Mali. She only had a couple of weeks off work and was flying directly into the country. Today was Tuesday and I decided it was time that I began by road trip to Bamako. I checked out of the Malawi Guesthouse and found a taxi on pipeline road. I told the driver I wanted to take a bus going upcountry to Georgetown. I expected to be dropped off in the centre of Serekunda near Westfield Junction where most of the transport seemed to congregate. Instead I was dropped off at a bus depot on the other side of town. The driver assured me this was the place to catch a bus going upcountry. I had my doubts. In my experience of travelling, bus and taxi stations are places of chaotic crowds, hawkers, touts and an assortment of every kind of vehicle you can imagine. Instead this place was devoid of crowds and the other paraphernalia I would of expected. It was the Gambia Public Transport Corporation (GPTC) depot, a yard full of busses but no passengers. I walked up to the gate and asked the security officer if I was in the right place. He said yes and then brought a chair out of his office for me to sit on while I waited, and waited, and waited.
During this time a couple of other passengers turned up, which reassured me that I was in the right place. One man was taking the bus all the way to Basse Santa Su and was his first trip upcountry. He found out that most of the busses leave early in the morning. I had got there at nine and still missed them. The express bus we were now waiting for had broken down and was being fixed in the depot. Two mechanics worked on the bus for hours and eventually the engine exploded into life in a cloud of smoke. We thought at last we would be on our way, but when the bus stopped at the gates where we were waiting patiently, we were told that it was going for a test drive to see if the repairs had worked.
It was then that someone came up with the idea of sending out another bus to do the trip upcountry. So about ten minutes after the express bus left for its test drive, a rather old battered local bus with wooden seats stopped at the gate and we climbed aboard. One thing I noticed before boarding was the missing wheel nut on one of the wheels. On this whole trip I would become paranoid about missing wheel nuts and bald tyres. Nearly every bus was missing a wheel nut. Someone, somewhere in Africa must have a warehouse full of wheel nuts. The bus pulled out of the yard and I felt the euphoria of moving at last after waiting for nearly four hours. The euphoria didn't last long when we stopped at the bus stop about a hundred metres down the road where all the other passengers were waiting.
There are two main roads in The Gambia, one follows the north bank of the river and is a rather rough dirt road which frequently washes away during the rainy season; the other follows the south bank and is tarred and would be the road I would be travelling today. I sat next to the man who was making his first trip to Basse Santa Su and chatted for the first hour or so of the journey. At the first town we stopped at the bus was surrounded by women selling food and drinks from baskets and trays balanced on their heads. Lunch at last. I bought some bananas and bread through the window of the bus and managed to banish the hunger pains that had been building up inside me.
Late in the afternoon we stopped at the town of Soma, about halfway between Banjul and Georgetown. Soma is a crossroads town; this is where the Trans-Gambia Highway from Senegal passes through the country. We had time to get off and stretch our legs. In a tree overlooking the GPTC yard a large flock of vultures sat staring at us, no doubt eyeing up the food waste being thrown to the ground. The journey so far had been very green with patches of forest beside the road and small villages of round mud huts with conical straw roofs, set beside fields of millet and where we were near the river, or a tributary, rice paddies.
The road was not the smoothest and was badly potholed in places. Sitting on a hard wooden seat was becoming increasingly more uncomfortable. The sun set behind us and we still had not reached our destination. The bus continued to rattle and shake it's way down the road until it finally pulled up beside the river next to the ferry to Georgetown.
It was dark; there was no street lighting, only a few shacks alongside the road with oil lamps burning. On the bus there was also a Dutch couple; they dragged their rather oversize suitcases down to the river and climbed into the small foot passenger ferry. Meanwhile my travelling companion, who was continuing the journey to Basse Santa Su, wanted me to take a photo of the two of us. While we were doing this I missed the small ferry. I walked down to the river and sat on a log and waited for another boat to make the crossing. While sitting there a guide from Georgetown found me. He would prove to be invaluable as we made the final leg of the journey into town. The car ferry was moored on our side of the river and soon a car appeared to make the crossing. The ferry was very small; it could only carry a couple of cars at a time. Unfortunately the engine had broken some time ago, so in return for free passage the foot passengers, including myself, hauled the ferry across the river using a cable moored to a tree on the other side.
It was very hot and humid. Sweat was pouring from me as the ferry silently slipped across the river as we all tugged on the cable. A couple of cars were waiting on the other side, a taxi and a minibus. I climbed aboard the minibus with my guide for the journey of a couple of kilometres into town. I told my guide I was going to the Baobolong Camp on the edge of town, next to the river. He stopped the bus at a corner in the dark. We were in Georgetown. There was no street lighting in the town; it was so dark I couldn't make out any buildings. I knew from studying a map of the town earlier in the day that the Camp was down a side road to the east of the first corner in town. I was confident that that was where we were now. The two of us walked in the dark down a dirt road. As we walked people appeared out of the blackness along the road. I could hear voices and other sounds of town life around me but found it hard to see anything in the gloom. Some dim lights were burning in the windows of buildings we passed, but it was not enough to illuminate the way for us.
After about half a kilometre we came to some bright lights and the entrance to the Baobolong Camp. I had finally completed the first leg of my long journey through West Africa. I checked into a small chalet and returned to the reception and bought my guide a drink to thank him for getting me here. I would of never found the place in the dark without him. We went into the dining room to sit down and cool off with our drinks and found the Dutch couple and their guide already there. We were the only three guests at the camp.
I was eager the next morning to go out and explore the new town I had arrived in. I was intrigued after my arrival last night in the dark. Georgetown is situated on the northern shore of MacCarthy Island, an island that measures 10km long and 2.5km wide. Ferries connect the town to both the southern and northern banks of the River Gambia. During the colonial period the town was an important administrative centre. Today it is a quite tranquil place trying hard to attract tourists from the coastal resorts to enjoy the abundance of bird life and other wildlife that can be found along the banks of the river. I was expecting to find a rather grand, if somewhat decaying old colonial town with some old buildings lining the main street. Instead as Joany, Willem and myself walked through town we only found a collection of corrugated iron shacks lining the main street. Down by the waterfront are some old colonial warehouses, which the locals call the slave house. This is more a story to interest tourists rather than fact. The warehouses were built in the second half of the 19th century whereas slavery was abolished in the British colonies in 1807. Today the warehouses are unused and are slowly falling apart as the surrounding forest reclaims them.
We decided that morning to hire a boat to take us out on the river. Back at the Baobolong Camp we set our guides, who showed us into town the night before, the task of finding a boat. Joany drove a very hard bargain with the guides and we eventually got the boat for a couple of hours at the price we wanted. The boat didn't seem the most seaworthy and Joany joked by asking me if I had any corks to plug the holes. We sailed off downstream; one of our guides busied himself plugging the holes in the boat and mopping up the water seeping in with a large sponge. The outboard motor screaming at the back of the boat did its best to scare off most of the birds and any animals we were likely to see. It was reported that hippos could be regularly found wallowing in the river at the western end of the island, and it was here we were headed. We reached the end of the island and turned off the outboard motor and let the boat drift on the current keeping our eyes peeled for the elusive hippos. After half an hour or so the hippos remained elusive so we turned back for Georgetown, stopping along the way at another camp 3 km from Georgetown for a couple of cold beers.
I spent two nights at the Baobolong Camp. It was a very nice relaxed place to stay and the owner, Laurence, was very helpful and friendly. During the afternoon it was just too hot and humid to do much so I found a shady tree and dozed off for a few hours. Sleeping under shady trees seemed to be a national pastime in The Gambia and I soon got the hang of it. Within a matter of days I had it mastered and truly felt like one of the locals. On our second evening we were still the only three guests at the camp and Laurence made us a large buffet dinner of rice, millet, salad and a stew in peanut sauce. It was delicious. I retired to my chalet that evening. You know that you are near a river when you have to clear your room of frogs before going to bed; they were everywhere - at least they helped to keep the insect population down.
The next morning we took the minibus back to the ferry crossing and once again hauled the ferry across the river to the other side to wait for some transport to arrive. Joany and Willem were taking a bus back to Soma where they would change and take a bus to the Casamance region of Senegal. They were on their way to Guinea-Bissau. When I returned home I received an email from Joany. While in Guinea-Bissau an army general attempted to seize power and they spent two days sheltering in a hotel room while the bullets were flying. The attempted coup was defeated and when the borders reopened they headed back to the much safer rebellious Casamance.
Continue reading this journey: Basse Santa Su & Beyond