It’s stupid o’clock when we have to check in at Gatwick, but the upside is we’ll arrive in the afternoon and have time to explore the hotel and beach before darkness descends.
The flight is a mere 6 hours – (sigh) – but we are given a tasty hot meal. The other interesting point is that The Gambia is on GMT, making it easy on the ol’ body clock.
Leaving the cold of an English February morning and stepping out into 36° and brilliant sunshine was shock enough, though expected and appreciated! It always seems to take forever to clear airports and, although Banjul is comparatively small, it took ages as all our luggage had to be scanned individually before we could leave. Not sure if this was a result of the recent ‘situation’…!
Once on the coach it was time to relax, drinking the bottles of water thoughtfully provided by The Gambia Experience (part of Serenity Holidays), and fanning ourselves with the delightful handmade fans we’d been given.
The drive took us along roads bordered by tin-roofed shacks, sheltering both animals and humans, and almost palatial houses owned by the wealthy, most often by members of the government, I later learned. I’d expected to see this dichotomy as it’s par for the course in Africa, but what touched me most were the smiles on the faces of even the poorest Gambians, particularly the children.
This was prominent throughout out stay and was quite humbling.
There are few tarmacked roads in The Gambia and once we’d left the road referred to by our guide as their very own M25, we were on dusty dirt roads towards the hotels. Ours, Kombo Beach, seemed to be at the end of such a road, featuring a cluster of bars, a craft market and restaurants hoping to feed off the guests of the three hotels in the area. The hotel has a typical African appearance, with thatch-roofed areas encompassing the main restaurants, semi-open to the outside and surrounding the pool. The bedrooms were set apart in boring concrete blocks, but arranged to give everyone at least a glimpse of the sea and, even better, the sound of the waves on the shore.
The beach was feet away, dotted with the obligatory palm trees on the huge stretch of golden sand. Bliss!
Although a number of tribal languages are spoken in The Gambia, the official language is English, taught at school to those lucky enough to attend. Most of the children we met did speak some English, but not all. I think they all knew the words ‘Hello!’ and ‘Welcome to The Gambia!’ It did feel slightly surreal to hear small, black children addressing us in English and then jabber to each other in a local language. I wonder if they receive the message early on that tourists are crucial to their economy?!
I heard from fellow travellers, who’d been caught up in the emergency evacuation and had since returned for a full holiday, that the locals had been devastated by the event. Whole areas, particularly on the coast, were totally dependent on tourism for income. No wonder we were made to feel so welcome. But The Gambia has long been known as ‘The Smiling Face of Africa’. I’m sure their fantastic climate helps, too.
It’s a very laid-back culture and they operate under their own version of GMT – Gambia Maybe Time ☺
The only negative was the constant attention of ‘bumsters’, people trying to sell you something, from fruit to taxis to trips. Begging is illegal and the poorest have to make money however they can, hence the selling. You get used to it and they’re always polite and do take the hint if you continue to say ‘no’.
The highlights of the holiday were the trips. We went on 3 organised ones and one self-planned with a taxi driver who acted as guide for no extra charge. Ladies, this is a great way to travel if alone. The local taxis have a sign displaying their charges for various destinations and the price includes 2 hours waiting time! If only this happened here! So you could go out in the evening for a meal, which we did, and the driver would hang around while you ate and bring you back.
All for the equivalent of less than £10.
Our driver also took us to a big market in another town, escorting us round it so we didn’t get lost or pestered, and then took us to Tanji where the fishing boats come in every day with their catch. This was something else! The beach was crowded with people waiting to buy, either for themselves or to sell on, and there was a colourful food market offering fruit and vegetables. Apparently the poorest locals are given free fish by the fishermen. I think the Gambians have a lot to teach us!
Our first proper trip was appropriately called The Lazy Day trip. We embarked on a wooden boat to amble by motor down the estuaries of the River Gambia to admire the mangroves and bird life. Although the day was cloudy it didn’t matter, it was hot with a gentle breeze, and all we had to do was look, drink and eat. Gosh, life is so hard sometimes, isn’t it? Something new we learned was that oysters grow on the roots of the mangroves in the salt water section of the river and are more visible at low tide. In the season, about now, women go out in wooden canoes and harvest the oysters before boiling them, ready to eat. I didn’t get to try any and think I’ll stick to ones grown over here.
With the lunch cooked on board we were served copious amounts of bubbly and orange juice – lovely!
The big trip of the holiday was a safari in Senegal and we went on my birthday. I thought it would be a fun thing to do to celebrate, but it meant getting up at 5.30am! So no birthday lie-in. And no breakfast ☹ A coach took us to Banjul, the capital, to catch the early morning ferry to Bara, on the opposite bank of the River Gambia, which dissects the country into two more or less equal parts. From Bara it’s about an hour’s drive to the Senegalese border.
The fun started as we waited, tired and hungry, for the ferry. We were surrounded by numerous vehicles of all shapes and sizes, some topped off with bundles and household items, as well as a crowd of foot passengers. As this was the only morning ferry, it was popular. A smallish ferry began to approach the dock and seemed to have a novice seaman at the helm as it twisted and turned towards us. After much right a bit, then left a bit, it finally drifted away!
Then we saw a big ferry approaching from Bara and the mystery was explained.
The captain must have seen the large waiting crowd and vehicles and decided he couldn’t cope, leaving it to the big chap heading over. So, then we had to wait for the vehicles, people and animals to be disgorged before we could rush for the limited seats on the upper deck. What a relief to finally sit down, away from goats, wheelie suitcases and vans. As the ferry set sail, women came round with freshly baked cakes and I quickly grabbed one for my breakfast.
A few yards out and we saw small local boats unloading passengers nearby and it transpired they were the alternative ferries bringing people across the river for the same price as the big ferry – about 50p – and if they wanted to keep their feet dry, were carried to shore for an extra 50p. The boats didn’t look too stable and there were no obvious lifejackets, but it was quicker than our ferry!
To be continued...
See part 1 here.