The Gambia: Basse Santa Su & Beyond

28th October - 4th November 2000


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I took a bush taxi to Basse Santa Su, a trip that only took a few hours; I arrived at lunchtime. Basse is the easternmost town in The Gambia located on the southern banks of the river. Today was Thursday, market day. The town was very lively and busy, a stark contrast to the laid back atmosphere of Georgetown. After checking into the Jem Hotel near the edge of town I went off to the bank to change some money. I was finding this country far more expensive than I planned; I had already spent my budget of £100 for the week in five days. I made my trip to the bank just in time. The town receives its electricity on a rotor system and the power was due to go off at two that afternoon and with it the commercial life of the town. Tonight was also to be a 'lights out' night; the town only receives power for about four evenings a week.

Late in the afternoon, once the heat of the day had subsided, I went for a stroll around town. I stopped at the bush taxi station to make some inquiries as to taxis making the trip across the Senegal border to Velingara. I planned to go to Tambacounda in the east of Senegal on Friday, which would then give me two days to get to Bamako for Sunday evening to meet up with Joanna. As I walked around town I was not bothered or pestered by anyone, it was as if no one could see me; the crowds of people went about their business oblivious to my presence. It lent the town a relaxed feeling despite the frenetic activity of market day. I ended up down by the river at a craft centre housed in an old warehouse called Traditions. The place was quiet and I went upstairs to sit on the balcony with a pot of tea to watch life go by on the river. The owner, as well as running the craft workshops, was also a keen bird watcher. While I sipped my tea she pointed out the rather rare Egyptian plover, also know as the crocodile bird, as they flew up and down the river. On the river the many small boats crisscrossed from bank to bank laden down with passengers, bicycles and mopeds.

That evening there was no food available at the hotel so the owner gave me the name of a recommended restaurant in town and I wandered out into the dark to find something to eat. There was a different feel to the town now it was dark. There were still crowds of people moving silently along the streets, the only illumination came from the headlights of passing cars. I passed a small rice paddy on the way to the town centre where fireflies darted about. In the dark I found it impossible to find this restaurant, so I stopped and asked a group of men sitting on a log beside the road. One of them shouted and a boy appeared who showed me the way. I walked through a curtain that served as a door into this shack. There were two tables covered in plastic tablecloths on either side of the room with a wooden bench in front of each and two oil lamps hanging from the ceiling. There were two other people eating at one of the tables. Behind the counter a large pot of stew was bubbling away on a charcoal fire. Tonight's menu was stew and bread. I was given a plastic bowl of stew and a hunk of bread and sat down to dinner. There was no cutlery and I proceeded to eat the stew with my fingers, soaking up the sauce with the bread. Despite the surroundings the meal was very good and very cheap. On the way back to the hotel I stopped at some roadside stalls, which were either lit with candles or oil lamps, to buy some bread, nuts and bananas for breakfast the next morning as I was going to be making an early to start to cross the border to Senegal.

I walked to the taxi station in the morning and arrived there at about 06.30. The yard was the only part of town that was busy that morning. I found a taxi doing the trip to Velingara amongst the many cars parked in the yard. The taxi was an old battered Peugeot 504. I went and sat on a wall and waited for more passengers to arrive. A couple of travellers from Slovenia, Matevz and Vesna, were also waiting there. We chatted and it turned out that they were waiting for the same taxi to depart. Today they were also going to Tambacounda in the east of Senegal and from there travelling to Bamako in Mali.

After about half an hour we had enough passengers to set off and we loaded our luggage onto the roof of the Peugeot. Our first problem of the day was trying to get the car started; the battery was flat and the engine refused to turn over. The car was pushed out into the road and a group of boys and some of the other passengers tried to jumpstart the car pushing it up and down the street. The only sign of life coming from the Peugeot was the occasional puff of black smoke from the exhaust pipe as the engine tried to cough into life. It was not going well and it was decided to push the car to the next street where there was a slight gradient down to the river. We followed the car while the boys pushed. Still the car would not start. Someone went off to find a spare battery. When they returned a boy sat on the engine holding the wires connecting the two batteries while everyone else pushed. Finally after another three attempts the car exploded into life in a cloud of smoke that left bystanders choking.

The three of us, Matevz, Vesna and myself stood staring at the car in silence. Smoke was appearing from everywhere around the car as the driver revved up the engine in an attempt to keep it alive. This must have been the most dilapidated car I had ever driven in. The whole car was shaking and rattling as the engine roared and smoked. We squeezed into the car; smoke was billowing out from around the bonnet and was even coming through the dashboard and into the car. The smell of burning oil was intense. We set off out of town not knowing whether the car would make it to Senegal.

Once we left Basse Santa Su and turned off onto the road to the border it suddenly became apparent why the car was in such a bad state of repair. The road was little more than a dirt track. In places the road was fairly wide, but this was only because cars had been taking detours around the large potholes. There was a slow moving truck in front of us throwing up a cloud of dust, which was also choking us together with the smoke coming through the dashboard. We couldn't close the windows in the car because either there was no window or the winder was missing. We managed eventually to pass the truck. The landscape in the east of the country was very different than that from nearer the coast. We had left the forest region behind us and were now travelling through savannah. Tall grass grew right up to the road and was taller than the car. Amongst the interspersed trees were small villages and fields of millet and maize, which was being harvested.

The car stopped alongside a couple of huts beside the road. We had arrived at the Gambian border post. About three border guards were sitting on a bench under a large shady tree. We all wandered slowly across the road to one of the huts, giving the border guards time to get organised to process our passports. Our vehicle was the only one at the border post and it didn't take long for all us to complete the immigration formalities, once the guard managed to find his ink stamp in his desk. There was no barrier across the road; local villagers past by on their bicycles quite freely. We were now in no-mans land as our driver sped off down the dirt track to Senegal; at times it felt like we were part of some trans-Africa rally as we left The Gambia behind us in a cloud of dust.

A few kilometres along the road we arrived at the Senegal border post. The border guards seemed busier here than their counterparts just down the road in The Gambia. The buildings were larger and there was even a barrier across the road stopping us from preceding any further. We all sat in one of the buildings on a long wooden bench leaving our passports and identity papers in a pile on the desk for the immigration officer to sift through. After twenty minutes or so we were all officially in Senegal and we continued on our way to Velingara.

We didn't stop long in Velingara. Our taxi terminated on one side of town and transport on to Tambacounda left from the other. We all crammed into a town taxi for the short trip across town and from there picked up a minibus for the final two-hour trip along a nice smooth tarred road. We arrived in town along Avenue Leopold Senghor and passed by the guesthouse Chez Dessert where we planned to stay. I quickly shouted at the driver to drop us off here and we walked the few hundred metres back up the road to the guesthouse. There the owner, a large lady with an even larger personality, greeted us.

She immediately reminded me of Whoopi Goldberg. She was sitting outside the front of her house, the small annexe, which was the guesthouse, was to one side of the courtyard. Her daughters and grand children surrounded her in the courtyard. Her daughters were busy preparing lunch and a large pot of stew was bubbling away on a charcoal fire as well as another pot of rice. The smell of cooking floated in the air around the yard. Matevz and Vesna took the last room at the guesthouse, I think there were only three rooms, so the owner let me stay in one of her daughter's rooms in the house. Once I had dropped my bag off in the room I walked back out into the courtyard and commented on how nice the smell of the food cooking was. I was immediately invited to sit down with the family to join them for lunch. The food was as good as it smelled as we all sat on the ground in a circle around a large bowl and helped ourselves with our hands.

Later in the afternoon I walked into town to check out my transport options to the Mali frontier for tomorrow morning. The town was large and it took me a long time to walk to where the taxi station should have been for transport heading east. I couldn't find it and it was too hot to keep wandering around, so I strolled slowly back to the guesthouse and made a mental note to take a taxi in the morning; the driver would surely know where I wanted to go.

This journey continued across the border through Senegal and on to Mali.

Continue reading this journey: Tambacounda to Bamako