Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Smiling Coast of Africa

Before taking off, the manager of Keur Bamboung campsite warns us: the Gambian border is no walk in the park. The Gambian officials will try to rip us off, and we better remain very patient and cooperative, or else… On the Senegalese side of the border, a stampede of money-changers awaits us with ridiculous rates, but the officials are friendly and efficient. The Gambians top them, however. Right at the border post, the constant chanting of “Welcome to The Gambia, the Smiling Coast of Africa” begins and it stops only when you leave the country. Excellent branding, indeed. I don’t care if it may be a slogan invented by the country’s authoritarian president, it seems to suit its people well. We do pay a little fee for the “seen on arrival” stamp at the customs office, and are happy that the not so official-looking Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) guy waves us through after a while, leaving our luggage untouched, but that’s all we can complain about. In no time, we are cruising towards the Barra-Banjul ferry.

Amidst the hassle in changing money and buying ferry tickets, we get solicited by the next squad of DEA to have our luggage searched. No way to get around it this time. Biting my lip, I remain friendly and keep on smiling and joking. I see Isabel thinking the same: we are carrying a lot of prescription drugs, and there will certainly be something they don’t like. They are genuinely looking for illicit drugs though, and of course they don’t find any with us. As a result, they are very kind and curious about our travelling and motorbikes. One of the guys tells us that he rides a XT660 too. I don’t really believe him, until a blue XT660R joins us at the ferry. A policeman doesn’t tell stories! Ansu is lucky to ride one of two similar bikes in The Gambia for his job. Together, we ride off the ferry in the port of Banjul. At the gate, two suspicious-looking National Intelligence Agency guys try to stop us for another luggage check. I urge Isabel to open the throttle, but she is already caught in the crowd, and the guys are aggressively trying to hold her. I shout at Ansu before rushing back to Isabel. Our plea doesn’t impress her attackers much, but when Ansu identifies himself and tells them how we have been searched just before the ferry, they let go. Quite naturally, we are following Ansu out of town now. I ask him to drop us “at some place not too expensive”, but he takes us home instead. To our surprise, we meet his little brother, his British wife and her visiting British friends, sitting in a rocking chair in the garden, with their feet in a cold water bath. Home is where we are. We spend a great night and day with them.

Brother Kaka takes us to their family compound and shows us around the village. We ride the bikes onto a pristine white-sand-and-palm beach and for the remainder of the day, it’s all about sun and sea. We had planned to leave shortly after noon, but part of the ubiquitous “Gambia Experience” is the lack of time management, so it is getting dark when the bikes are fully tanked, loaded and ready for departure. No choice but to camp very nearby. The German-ran camp site is not our cup of tea, and we are happy to leave the following day via the south bank of the Gambia river towards the Trans-Gambia Highway (TGH). Tarmac stops all too soon, and our speed on the incredibly dusty gravel track slows down even more by the obligatory stops at police or military check points every 10 to 15 kms. Usually they are just interested in our bikes, but sometimes they ask us what we can offer them, or if we’ve just brought their lunch. Isabel wittily replies them that she brought her most beautiful gift: her smile… and it works invariably.

The ferry on the TGH in Mansa Konko brings us to the north bank. The landscape is different here: less green and not so swampy, but a little more hills and seemingly less populated. This road is perfectly tarred, but we have lost so much time on the dirt track that we reach Janjangbureh after more than an hour of riding in the dark. Isabel’s windscreen suffers a blow from a flying dog or bat, but that’s as bad as it gets. The camp site is lacking electricity, but it’s charm is lightyears away from the previous night, not the least because of the other guests: university lector and fellow motorbiker Mbay tells us stories about the Gambian kings, about Senegalese corruption and his Kenya memories… Habari? Mzuri! Early morning, the camp site is covered with mist from the river. Minutes later, it is raided by monkeys trying to steal beignets from the breakfast table. One succeeds...

I fix a loose hand guard on my bike (due to the corrugations on the dirt track) and we head further East, along the north bank. Most of the time, it is a nice gravel road, being less dusty and bumpy because of the near complete absence of motorized vehicles other than mopeds. To reach the ferry to Basse, we take a sandy donkey track that turns out to be a shortcut.

Eating a delicious dish of rice, vegetables and fish balls while waiting for the ferry, we are shocked to hear a US Peace Corps volunteer ask, while looking at our Alpinestars Tech 3 All Terrain boots: “Hi, are you guys skiing?” It is remarkable how The Gambia is packed with American and British NGO’s, while the rest of West-Africa is clearly the French’s playground. For us, Belgians with both English and French language skills, it’s all the more interesting to discover both… After the Gambian border, we switch back into French language mode (not without difficulties) and are welcomed back into Senegal. Again a passavant, but this time it is valid all the way to Mali, so there is no need to go to the central customs office in Dakar now. We cannot believe how easy and even agreeable all the border crossings have been until now. Where is all the hassle people have foretold us?

For more pics, see album "The Smiling Coast".


  1. Nicolaas brengt spanning en humor in het verhaal :D

    Dit lijkt allemaal zo irreëel... Een broeierig spannend verhaal... met onverwachte wendingen en ontmoetingen... voor velen zou dit een ideale ontdekking van Afrika kunnen zijn... Hoe te reizen, hoe te beleven en vooral hoe te ervaren... Je zou dit alles best tot een boek kunnen bundelen... (misschien hier en daar wat romantiseren ;) )

    Enfin, zoals zovelen wacht ik vol ongeduld op het volgende hoofdstuk... :D

    laat ons maar dromen... :P

  2. Dag lieverdjes,
    Blij te horen dat jullie goed en wel door mauretanie zijn geraakt na al die spannende verhalen op jullie blog. Hier is het uiteraard wat minder spannend behoudens 5x te zijn onder gesneeuwd in het Antwerpse (nog nooit zoveel sneeuw gezien in mijn leven, in België dan toch). Bij deze vele lieve kerstwensen en ook al kussen voor het nieuwe jaar.
    Xxxxxxx en warme knuffels van hanne en Jeroen.

  3. Wilfried en Rita31 December, 2010 17:41

    Isabel en Nicolaas,
    een leuk eindejaar en een nog veel leuker nieuw jaar! (Kan dat nog!!!???)
    Wij zijn klaar om oudjaar te vieren (ons bezoek is er bijna! :) ) Jullie vermoedelijk ook, ergens in het warme Afrika ...
    Geniet ervan en beste wensen voor 2011.
    We klinken hier op jullie gezondheid!