Having completed much of the coastal region research for the Gambia Bradt guide, I was eager to get up country. Dave Adams is a British chap whom I’d heard about for some time – we’d linked up on social media and I’d noticed he was running a kayaking project in Janjangbureh amongst other things. When he found a cheap source of second hand ones in the UK to bring over, I myself purchased four and we shipped them all together (once I’ve transport them down to Abene, I’ll be offering kayak trips in the surrounding swamps).
I met up with Dave and we got on like a house on fire – both full of ideas and passionate about our respective corners of this mighty region. So, I didn’t have to think too hard when he invited me to make a two day kayaking trip on the river Gambia. I spent much of my teenage years canoeing around the rivers of Oxford – there’s a number of weirs there, so we were able to practise white water skills in preparation for trips to rivers in south Wales and other places.
“There will be hippos, crocs and possibly pythons” warned Dave. Even more reason to go. I couldn’t wait.
Late one afternoon, Dave, myself and his friend/guide Cablaca crossed the river at Janjangbureh (I will talk about this historical town that was the British colonial centre in a later blog when I discuss other places along the river). Dave had negotiated a gelli-gelli (minibus) to our destination: Karantaba village, also the site of a Mungo Park memorial. Mungo Park, the Scottish explorer, had set off from here, having spent time learning local languages, in the late 1700’s on a journey to search for the source of the river Niger.
For 45 minutes or so, we clattered along red dusty tracks, past small villages of thatched mud round houses and not a lot else. Upon arrival at Cablaca’s uncle’s house in the village, we were surrounded by curious kids, unloaded our gear and went in search of a donkey and cart to transport the kayaks to the river.
The local donkey must have been busy on a business meeting, but it turned out we were only a five minute walk down to the rivers edge, so lugged everything there and paddled our way up to our campsite, very close to the Mungo memorial. Dark was descending when we arrived. It was warm, so I demonstrated to Dave and Cablaca my eskimo roll technique – something I haven’t tried since my late teenage years. I reckon I’d have done it if Dave had had spray decks (the waterproof skirt thing that stops water entering the cockpit. As it was, I went over and as I attempted to twist up, I just filled the vessel with water and got stuck. I dragged the boat up the muddy slope whilst Dave told me that when he’d come here earlier to research camping spots, he’d rescued a large python from a bit of nearby fishing net.
We cleared a bit of scrub in a clearing, pitched a large tent and started making a fire. As darkness descended, Ibou’s uncle arrived with a large metal bowl full of chicken and potatoes in a tasty sauce. Dave cracked a bottle of local whisky and we sat around the fire chatting into the night.
I was awoken by the bark of baboons. Actually this wasn’t the first time in recent months – whilst at Madina Lodge in Makasutu, the apes had made quite a commotion in the morning. It’s a sign of how interesting everything is that I forgot to mention it before. When I looked down to where we’d dragged the canoes up, I had the thought that it could have been a “hippo run,” although I suppose the presence of a fishing canoe suggests not.
We wanted to take a look at the Mungo Park memorial, so set off through the brush carrying our coffee mugs. Although the memorial is mentioned in guidebooks I can’t believe many tourists would make it out here. In fact, the metal plaque commemorating Parks has been ripped off and stolen in recent months. All that remains is a large concrete obelisk. Run down close up, but quite impressive when silhouetted against the big African sky. If any descendants of Mungo, or historical societies with an interest read this, I reckon for a very modest sum, the monument could be restored, perhaps along with a little education into the local village to enable them to recognise its significance and value as a tourist attraction.
We needed to get going, so headed back, loaded up our gear, bade farewell to Cablaca’s uncle who was keeping hold of the tent and so on and set off down stream.
Now, let me make one thing clear. This was a reconnaissance; a research trip to see what is possible. Our local “intelligence” had told us about tides (the river’s still tidal this far up – at least a couple of hundred miles up river, as the hornbill flies) and and the general consensus was that we’d be paddling along with a spring in our step due to favourable conditions. The intelligence turned out to be complete tosh and unless you’re an extreme endurance athlete, I expect the tour will be split into more easily manageable chunks by the time it’s sold as a package to tourists.
But we didn’t know that yet. The wind was blowing into our backs at least, and off we went. I was surprised how quickly my muscle memory came back and I was soon in the swing of things.
One of my biggest surprises during my Gambian explorations is how little the river seems to be used. Aside from a few ferries from north to south bank and back and a few tourist vessels taking people on localised bird watching or fishing trips, there’s barely any traffic on the river and hardly any villages directly on its banks. For hours we paddled alongside jungle more reminiscent of equatorial Congo than a region just south of the Sahel, with little sign of human life aside from a small Malian fishing vessel.
I lost count of the number of monkeys, mostly red colobus, that I saw throughout the day. And the bird life, oh the birdlife. Even as an only slightly interested novice twitcher, I was blown away. A minor concern was hippos, the creature that many say is the most dangerous in all of Africa. Cablaca was a bit of a star who could spot hippo at a hundred canoe strokes. I soon also learnt to look out for the tell tale trail of bubbles. Get too close and they’d emerge, snorting and blowing like a flatulent whale. We saw perhaps 8 or 10 through out the day, all from a safe distance, except for one that I reckon I must have gone straight over before it raised it’s head right behind me, snorted and caused me to accelerate without looking back.
Cablaca was great but did have that African trait of telling you what you want to hear.
“How far to Bansang, the town we intended to stop for lunch?”
“Just round the corner.”
The corner was a couple of kilometres away – which is quite a lot when you’re paddling. We’d reach the corner, only to see another two or three kilometre stretch before the next bend with no sign of habitation. It was like climbing a mountain.
It was about 1pm when the town finally came into view and we past a couple of fisherman laying nets and ignored the crowds of kids on the opposite banks beckoning us to cross over for a closer look. A slightly crumbling white hotel that seemed to be slipping into the river was our destination: Bintou’s Paradise hotel.
Although I had an ass that felt like I’d spent the day in prison, before relaxing, I was determined to do the guide book research and went off on a tour of the rooms, all whilst trying to simply maintain an upright position. Rather than lunch, Dave ordered us all a couple of beers. Despite it’s slightly run down appearance, the upstairs verandah with views across the river could be described with words such as paradise and I spent a long while watching the car ferry where a group of men pull the entire vessel across the river on a pulley system:
Then, we went back to work, pushing our way through the crowds of kids and teenagers that appeared to use the dock as somewhere to shower and wash their clothes. We’d come about 20km and had another 20km or so to go – well, that’s what we’d calculated. I don’t think the calculations took into account the bends in the river.
Where I saw a palm tree and reflection, my friend Jamie Freeman saw monsters. But then his brother is a hobbit.
For miles past Bansang, we were paddling alongside mall forest gardens, each with a rickety home made jettys. The water here was fresh – indeed you could just scoop and drink with a hand (which I did with no unwanted consequences) and it tasted pure and sweet. The river widened, the sun was lowering in the sky and it still seemed like we had an age to go. More hippos, more monkeys and despite the discomfort, I felt as free and happy as ever. I was also looking forward to arrival, very cold beer, something good to eat and preferably a nice massage, but that wasn’t likely and never happened.
The colours of the sky more than made up for any discomfort.
Both Dave and I were flagging – like me, he hadn’t paddled much for ages. Eventually, we arrived into Janjangbureh camp, a tourist camp a kilometre or two upstream from the town. We knew we couldn’t go much further and paddled in, pulled up and dragged ourselves out of the boats, legs like jelly and almost collapsing. Meanwhile Cablaca jumped out with a spring in his step and immediately dropped to the floor to perform ten press ups. Show off.
The sense of achievement was massive though – but we both agreed the next days trip – further than todays – would be impossible. So we’ll do that at a later date. I soon recovered and did my guide book duties at Janjangbureh camp before the manager there loaded the kayaks into his boat and motored us back to town – I think he could see that five minutes more physical exertion might finish us off.
Dave’s website will be coming soon at this address if you fancy a little bit of this.