After Touba, we continued south towards Kaolak where we grabbed lunch at a Lebanese place that I’ve frequented before. Although Kaolak is a rubbish filled, fly ridden, dusty, hot as hell junction town (but that doesn’t mean I don’t like it), Le Brasero Chez Anouar is a small oasis and the elderly English speaking Lebanese guy that runs the place always comes to your table for a chat. I negotiated a small rust bucket taxi down to the border and on we went, hoping to reach Tendaba Camp on the banks of the river Gambia for dinner.
It was a considerably smoother ride than in the past, when pot holes outnumbered smooth tarmac – the road had mostly been resurfaced except for a section near the end, where we scooted off piste, through villages and past crowds of snot faced “toubab” screaming kids.
The border. Oh, the border. It’s not the worst I’ve been to, but it was a pain. Leaving Senegal wasn’t a problem. Perhaps the customs guys at the Gambian post were fed up at the results of the election which had taken place a few days earlier, despite the fact most people were dancing in the streets. Or perhaps they’re always out to make tourists lives miserable. As a Gambian resident I didn’t have a problem. Glyn and Sharon were traveling on British passports, meaning they should simply be stamped in without payment.
“You need a visa” declared the grumpy looking official.
“We’re British, we need no visa,” we replied.
“The Gambia has left the Commonwealth, you can no longer expect privileges,” replied a more senior looking guy.
Well, that’s nonsense – visa’s are free for EU members and it was nothing to do with the Commonwealth – although now we’re leaving the EU that may change. The official explained that they received one free entry at the airport, but once they leave for Senegal, they must buy a visa to reenter. Complete rubbish, so we just stood there. Then a jovial big guy sauntered in, took the passports and stamped them. Off we went and no more was said. As we got into the car, a couple of plains clothed lethargic guys came to inspect our baggage.
“We’re drug enforcement agents” they said, “come over here, we need to search your bags.”
We hauled out our backpacks and lugged them over to a concrete room. I opened mine and the guy started looking half heartedly. Given it was half full of my books, I was slightly concerned I’d have an issue with customs.
“Look, just give me some money and this’ll all be over,” said one. It was the most blatant and comical attempt at corruption I’ve encountered. In the event, I had no Gambian dalasi and only a 10,000 cfa Senegalese note – about £15. He wasn’t getting that, so I said I had no money.
“Oh, okay, off you go then.” He waved us away, not even bothering with Glyn and Sharon. Hilarious.
We didn’t have to wait too long for the ferry across the river. I was quite surprised to see much progress in the building of a bridge, for which Yaya Jammeh has added the name “Babala Mansa” to his long string of titles – bridge builder.
As we approached Tendaba camp on the south bank, the sun was setting. I’ve stayed at this popular tourist camp before and remember it as being pretty run down. It was, but this time it seemed friendlier. The staff were lovely and the chap giving out room keys even said “hello Simon” despite the fact I’d only been there once about two years previously. After taking our rooms, Glyn and Sharon getting their electricity fixed, and me getting the plumbing fixed, we went down to the bar for some julbrews and dinner – in my case wart hog in hot pepper sauce. Like a fool I added chilli sauce before tasting – it was already eye-wateringly hot.
The next morning we took an early breakfast and I was quite surprised to see a large EU funded land reclamation project. Where before there had been river and a stilted pier with a bar, was now a vast expanse of sand. One of the staff explained that the village was flooded every year so something had to be done. It looked relatively attractive right now, but then he said the plan was to concrete over the sand and create a huge artificial beach with sun loungers and umbrellas. Hmmm.
We had arranged an early morning boat trip across the river and around the Baobolong wetlands. Our guide was Bouba, and we set off in a small pirogue to glide through the mangroves, along small creeks and through swampy pastures past giant baobab trees.
Unlike last time when I saw crocodiles basking in the sun and monitor lizards lounging on overhanging branches, we only saw birdlife. But what bird life. Pelicans, various varieties of kingfish, herons and more. It’s a paradise for twitchers.
I enjoyed the company of Bouba and arranged to call him when I’d return in a few days as part of my Bradt guidebook research. He was from a small village in the nearby Kiang national park and promised to take me there.
We’d arranged another car to take us the hour or so down river towards Bintang Bolong. Halfway we broke down and once again found ourselves sitting by the roadside for a couple of hours. Some bearings had gone and it wasn’t going to be a quick bodge job, so we started trying to flag down passing cars. All just sped past without stopping though. The local villagers came out, bearing chairs and trying to help – the side of Africa that I love.
Eventually a gelli-gelli stopped and we all jumped aboard. It was a fun drive, chatting to people and having a toddler play with my hair, probably never having seen straight blond locks before. We’d booked rooms at the recently opened AbCa’s creek, a Dutch-Gambian lodge on the banks of a small river near Bintang Bolong. Luckily for us, the Dutch owner was free to pick us up at the road junction and drove us down to her small slice of paradise.
Clearly a lot of love and attention had gone into the place and there was an obvious European females attention to detail. Despite having started building a year or so after us, they had several very nice round houses, a large thatched restaurant, various relaxing areas, canoes and other bits and bobs. The star of the show was the location – a piece of river front where you might expect to find Tarzan’s tree house. Huge trees, mangroves, lolloping vines and chattering monkeys. A rope swing gave quick entry into the river and I felt right at home.
The grub wasn’t bad either. It was the final night of Glyn and Sharon’s two week visit and we celebrated with appropriate beverages. I was awake at 7am and went down to find a shimmering mist on the milky calm waters, monkeys and beautiful light.
Once back near the coast I took them to Lamin Lodge, a stilted wooden structure raised above the mangrove swamp, which at only 10 minutes or so from the airport is a great place to grab a final meal before a flight. You just have to make sure you take advantage of the available monkey sticks – you need to fight them off if you want any chance of keeping your meal intact.