Alan, Ian and I went to the ferry to cross to the north bank of the River Gambia. The street leading up to the jetty was empty, so I drove up towards the boat. A youth appeared and sternly told me to reverse back and wait. So I reversed back a few feet. Then he waved me forward onto the boat. I’ve probably used up half a tank of petrol in recent year, reversing back and forth a few inches to please some official.
After a repeat performance of yesterdays charade, this time with a gappy toothed police man in wrap arounds who demanded his slice of the toubab pie, we boarded the ferry and crossed to the other side, heading for the village of Kuntaur. I tried to be clever by turning off at the sign for Kuntaur. This lead us across a dry bumpy route across rice fields, through a bleached out landscape and into an impoverished village where no one seemed to speak English. Eventually a young boy came forward and politely pointed us on our way. When we eventually reached it, Kuntaur was a pleasant little place – a few baobabs against the rivers edge where brightly dressed women washed clothes, boys played and dug out canoes were moored up begging to be photographed. There was a pleasant little tourist camp on the river banks and we popped in to enquire about the availability of a boat to visit the nearby Baboon Islands. A boat man was procured, a price negotiated and he explained that given the tide, we’d be better off going in the afternoon. The Baboon Islands are cunningly named – they’re actually the home to some 109 chimpanzees, which tend to come down to the rivers edge to feed in the late afternoon. So, we decided to spend the night at this lodge instead of our original plan.
We had a morning to kill and so visited the nearby Wassu Stone Circles. These are Stonehenge like megaliths – several circles of varying sizes and shapes were spread over a small area of grassland. Far more impressive than I’d ever imagined. Like Stonehenge, their meaning is not entirely understood, although it is thought they were burial sites.
In the afternoon, Amadou, our boatman, turned up and we set off up river, hugging the south bank and watching kingfisher, heron and other bird species as we passed palm forests and tall papyrus like grass. Before long the palms became taller and even more magnificent.
Giant trees were visible through the dark jungle, and vines hung down over the river. As we approached a large island in the river, we saw a chimp sat high up on the crown of a palm tree. Then we heard hooting and a few more swung down. This was nature – it was impossible to get a decent clear photo, but fascinating to watch them swinging around – large bald chaps and small pink faced babies. We moved around the corner towards a sandbank where a three ton hippo was sprawled, sunning itself before wallowing back into the water. We then crossed to a different island where an even larger chimp family was swinging around.
Chimps were originally native here but had died out in recent years. They’ve now been reintroduced to the area – some from Niokolokoba and others that were pets or trafficked and caught by the authorities. As always, it was wonderful to see these animals free in their natural environment.
The sun was setting as we returned – another magical moment to sit and enjoy the peace. Fireflies buzzed around as we ate our fish and rice and as usual we were asleep in bed by about 8.30pm.
We continued in the morning with our original plan of going to Tendaba camp, a couple of hours east of Banjul. I was up early and watched the sun rise over the river as a soft old man’s voice sang nearby, kingfishers dived for breakfast and a lone fisherman in his dug out cast his net. After a fine breakfast, we drove north to Farafenni. At the first checkpoint we were asked if we had room to carry the local headmaster. Indeed we did, and now Souleyman Sanyang is my newest best friend. He told us all about the local school system and problems he faces and I promised to visit his school next time I’m in the area. The Farafenni to Soma river crossing is the main artery between Dakar and Ziguinchor, but luckily for us, traffic is reduced due to the Senegal-Gambia border dispute. We turned up just as one ferry left, but didn’t have long to wait and it was fascinating to watch the port activity. Once across, we continued to Tendaba Camp where we’d originally planned to stay the previous evening. In retrospect, I’m glad we didn’t as it was a fairly shabby place on the edge of some mud flats. As a base for visiting the local mangrove swamps and river trips, it would be fine, but we’ve done that so contented ourselves with a drink or two. Originally a hunting camp in the seventies, it’s now fixed on the tourist trail and hosts groups up from the coast for a day or two.
We continued to Bintang Bolong, the stilt hutted camp on the river bank from where I’d set out from three weeks earlier. Although a little shabby, the location can’t be beaten and we relaxed before the onslaught that would be Banjul.
After so long on the road in remote areas, the Smiling Coast was indeed a shock to the system. As we walked, dazed and confused, through Senegambia, an old chubby Brit with a beer gut, tats and a string vest walked arm in arm between two tall miniskirted beauties. “Every Gambian girls dream”, sighed Alan.
Retreating from Sodom and Gomorrah, we contented ourselves strolling through forests chock a block with monkeys, visiting the sacred crocodile pool and relaxing on empty beaches. The trip was at an end and over a final breakfast, my friend Hami, a griot kora player, came to sing, play and tell us the legends about which he sang. He’s tipped to be a star and we had a private audience which was magical.
Afterwards I had to return to the airport. No relaxing for this toubab, as my next guests were arriving.