Sometime in 2013, a friend of mine, suffering from the same disease as I am (“now where do we go next?”),told me she found cheap tickets to The Gambia, and will go with her boyfriend there during 2013-2014 winter holidays. My first reaction, trusting her choices, were: I am in! Only after we bought the tickets (and we convinced 2 other couples to join us, hard work, they were really not interested in a not-so-expensive-exotic-Christmas-and-New-Year holiday 🙂 ), I start to wonder : where the hell is The Gambia and what is there to see? Is it safe? Is it worth it? (Yes, yes, stupid me). Yep, that’s how I am 🙂 Of course with my perfect memory I would not be able to remember the details, so would like to thank Popix for writing an actual journal while we were there! I will try to keep it close to the truth ( including the completely true stories of : chased by alligators, chased by crabs, almost killed by an exploding tire, and barely escaping border patrol with guns and bombs). Too many things happened in 3 weeks, so you can read Senegal stories here.
As usual, boring details first : We flew Barcelona-Banjul-Barcelona with Vueling Airlines , cost around 340 euros (24 december-11 January) , and to Barcelona we either took Tarom or Wizzair, couple of days difference, so we had time to see a bit of Barcelona as well ( another time and post for those stories) . All tickets were bought 3 months in advance. During the 3 weeks we moved around using only road transportation.
For Gambia we did not require any visa at arrival, but things got complicated afterwards, and for Senegal, will explain later (funny stories). All I can say is: check 10 times visa requirements before visiting a country, and make sure you have a printout of those explanations, and a consulate number to contact, and cash, any type of cash is always good. 🙂
With the exception of the nights in Barcelona, and the first 2 nights in Banjul, we didn’t book or plan anything else from an accommodation or tours perspective. We only had a Lonely Planet guide, sometimes internet, but mostly feedback from people we met locally, planning one day after another, but no more than 48 hours plans :).We spent around 1000 euro in total, including the initial flights.
Now, let’s follow the memory lane, day by day, and at the end I will summarize you what I loved/didn’t love in Gambia, and if I will even go back.
After spending a couple of days in Barcelona, we flew to Banjul and arrived after midnight, in a crowded airport. Pretty easy passport check, and we meet our driver Martin, who takes us at Sukuta camping,in Serekunda, our accommodation pre-booked for the first 2 nights, until we get comfortable with the new environment and decide where to go next.
Our first morning in Gambia! And it’s Christmas day! Since we already shared our presents in Barcelona, and we weren’t in a celebratory mood, we had a nice normal breakfast, took a look around the camping to see it in daylight (it’s amazing!), and decided to walk to the beach and spend our first day there. After an hour of walking we finally reached the ocean (we probably took the longest road possible), a golden beach and one or 2 rustic terraces, perfect place to be lazy on a Christmas day. The boys made new friends, a local guy called Doggie, who told us a bit about Gambia and Senegal, and we drafted a plan for the next days in Gambia. It’s also the day when we discovered SONIA sauce, the most amazing thing, I am sorry I didn’t buy 100 bottles to bring home. It went perfect with fresh fish, just caught, and chips, on the beach.
In the evening we decide to go back to the camping, this time taking another road, a bit shorter, but very very dangerous!! Especially for tall women who can’t watch where they are stepping, and end up with a nice bruise and the fun of the locals watching her fell. Serekunda has no street lights, so it was pretty exciting to find the camping in complete darkness, while local kids were following up. But when you’d see them with a smile on their face, any fear evaporated. Our Christmas dinner consisted in ham and cheese sandwiches, beer and rum, and lot of excitement for what’s gonna happen.
2 of our friends didn’t come to the beach, and rented a scooter from the camping, and drove around, coming back with a nice plan for the next morning : going to Lamin Lodge breakfast, then a boat trip west of Banjul to see the mangroves.
We woke up early in the morning, our transport to Lamin Lodge was waiting for us. We had a nice breakfast at Lamin: omelet, homemade butter and honey, homemade bread (tapalapa), doughnuts and coffee with milk. Very important tip: do not put sugar AND milk in the coffee, the milk is condensed and sweetened. Then we took the boat for a couple of hours ride, hoping to see some nice birds and animals. Unfortunately we are told it’s “winter”, 25 degrees, so the birds are hiding:). Nevertheless, the ride was great and relaxing, the mangroves are really weirdly plants, nice to look at haha. For lunch we came back to Lamin, where we had rice, pasta, fish and multiple amazing sauces. We ate like it was our last lunch, the food was amazing. Of course we didn’t forget about Sonia, and asked for her J After lunch we had another boat trip, this time going closer to the mangroves, on smaller channels, some of us even adventured to walk down a small piece of land, and they almost got stuck there due to the mud, leaving them with very nice, black, smelly, natural “socks” 🙂
Tired, dirty, filled with food, we “rolled ourselves” back to camping, but since the guys saw a local fish marked close by, we decided to have a barbecue with fish and rum(couldn’t find any vegetables to buy). We went to sleep quite early, knowing that it’s our last night here and who knows what other accommodation we’ll find next.
We woke up early, and after a quick breakfast, we said goodbye to Claudia and Joe, took our backpacks and went to the main street to find taxis to take us to Sukuta Police station, where we knew the bus station is (150 dalasi). Our first contact with an African bus station was traumatizing and scary, because there were lots of people, everyone screaming and wanting us to pick their transport. But after some minutes you realize this is how it’s done there, and that’s the way they negotiate and speak, so the fear disappears. They were really persistent, especially when they heard we want to travel to Georgetown, or Janjanbureh, local name. We finally find a guy willing to take us for 350 dalasi per person (around 7 euros), just us in the bus. Well, bus is a big word for the type of transport you can find in Gambia… But I will let the pictures speak for themselves.
The drive took around 7 hours, with one stop for lunch, worth mentioning: a place called Soma, on the side of the road, a local restaurant. Well, I wouldn’t really call it a restaurant, it was a small shack, with 2 tables, and 2 ladies sitting on the floor, eating with their hands from a bowl. Since it was the place recommended by our driver ( he ate with us), and we were starving, we ate there ( with the exception of 2 of us who decided to go to a local shot and buy chips and Coke, and live with that). But surprisingly the food was really good (again rice, fish and sauce), and really cheap: we paid around 400 dalasi for 7 people and 7 Coke/beers.
We reached Janjanbureh in the afternoon. Looking through our Lonely Planet guide, we find 2 accommodations, one preffered by the boys (right near the ferry), because they had cheap beer, and one preferred by the girls, on the other side of the river. Of course we end up at our pick, taking the ferry, mainly because you don’t sleep in beer, and that location was deplorable. We end up at Janjanbureh camp, after walking around 2km through forest, snakes, weird bird sounds and who knows what other animals, and it was the best decision made so far! The place is great, on the shore of Gambia river, welcoming people, small cabins made of mud and straws, with no lights ( just candles), no hot water, and some monkeys, which initially are nice and fun, but after a couple of minutes they transform is burglars, and steal an apple out of one of our backpacks! And that’s when we understood why there were lots of whips hanging around, to protect your food from the burglars. 🙂
We decide to stay here 2 nights, pick and pay our rooms, then head to dinner (breakfast and dinner included) pasta, rice, beef, sweet potatoes and of course Sonia. After this trip I stopped eating rice for 1 full year until my next adventure took me to Asia… After dinner we had a nice “show” with fireflies, and went to bed, hoping we can fall asleep soon as the birds and nature sounds around us were scary in the dark.
We wake up early, we slept pretty well, and no animals invaded our bed, or my hair, so all good! The owner of the lodge proposed us to go on a boat trip, with a guide, Amandu, to see hippopotamus and crocodiles. After a couple of hours on the boat, we only saw one far away crocodile and some birds. 2 American ladies were on the boat as well, working in Gambia for 6 more months, we tried to ask them for tips and tricks, but it seemed our taste in traveling were completely different, so we gave up. At Wassu, we went off the boat, wanting to see the Stone Circles, We decided to walk till there, we were warned by the Americans not to do it, but noooo, did the Romanians listen? What’s 2km walking distance? After 20 minutes we were almost dead of thirst and heat. Amandu kindly offers to run to the village and buy some water. After hours and hours (as it seemed), we reached the monuments, but since most of us were almost dead, only 2 of us managed to get it and take some pictures, the rest of us were satisfied with seeing them from the distance. Thank God for pictures, this way we can lie to people we actually saw the stones 🙂
On our way back to the ferry, we discovered an easier and authentic way to travel: “rented” a chariot with a donkey and a driver (please see the picture). Best 100 dalasi spent in our lives! We arrive too late at the boats, they all left, so we had to find a bus to take us to our lodge. There, terror: 2 busses filled with tourists just went in, so it was really busy and hectic. But we need to thank them, after dinner there was a show with local music and traditional dancers which probably wouldn’t have happened if there were only us there.
Our last night in Janjanbureh camp ended without any sleeping problems again. We have a long lazy breakfast, while we decide to leave, even though the owner Anne proposed to stay one more night and she would give us a free boat and guide to go again in search of hippopotamus and crocodiles. But we decide to leave for Senegal, and go to Tambacounda and see the national park of Niokolo Koba. We take a ghele-ghele (bus) for Basse with 100dalasi per person, then we negotiate another one for 1500 dalasi to Tambacounda. The roads were not actually roads, more like off-road adventures. We sometimes wondered if the driver is awake, or sleeping and playing need4speed in his dreams. We wanted to cross the border in Manda. At the last Gambian border, one of the guys there wanted to marry all of us, saying he always wanted a “white” wife J.We didn’t give in, had our passport stamped for exit, and left for Manda.
And… this is when the day started to take an unexpected turn: when we reach the “border” we realize it’s actually a one-man-hut, with no electricity or computer or internet, and we cannot take the visa from there. Being Romanians, we try to bribe the officer, but he nicely says even if he let us pass, there are road checks every couple of km going forward, and you cannot pass without the stamp visa on your passport. We need to go back to Banjul!! And get the visa there from the embassy. That’s how, late afternoon, we end up with the same crazy driver and same crazy roads, going back to Basse. Couple of hours and one tire blowout later, we reach Basse in the middle of the night. We would like to continue to Banjul, but we can’t negotiate a good price with the owner, so we give up and try to find accommodation.
We start calling some of the numbers in Lonely Planet, one of them said it’s free, but we got the old address in the guide, so we end up at a bar near the river. They guy whom we spoke on the phone comes to pick us up, but surprise! He’s actually a guide, and wants to show us more places to sleep and we can choose. We are tired, upset, hungry, and we start to become paranoid because we are taken to unknown places in the middle of the night. This is probably the only moment in Africa when we panicked a bit. The first accommodation was horrible, so the guy decides to take us to a “5 star” location. At that moment we would have paid anything just to be over and sleep. We arrive at a location which was actually nice, brand new, electricity, air conditioning, TV’s. Just perfect. We pay (500 dalasi per room) and get ready to take a shower and eat something really fast (they opened the kitchen for us). Surprise again! (Oh God! Can this day get any worse?). We have no water in the rooms, so we have to wash in a bucket! Even after 2 tries, the red dust from our skin still didn’t want to come off, so we just gave up. We argued with the owners ( “you lied to us” “why you do this to me” etc etc), we got our price reduced to 400 dalasi per room.
Did you think the night was over? Oh no! We discovered they did not sell any alcohol or cigarettes (it seems it was a religious hotel), so the guys have to go in town to guy some. When they come back, the last bad thing, and the worst that could have happened, happened: W. forgot his backpack (the baby as we called it) somewhere, which contained all their documents, money, cards, electronics, passports, so.. Everything!!
That was the moment when we realized we are surrounded by nice and helpful people, and that description will fit to all Gambians we met throughout our trip: everyone jumped to help, someone drove W. to the city to search for the backpack, someone else called the driver. We eventually found the backpack in the van, nobody touched it, and everything was there.
Phewww… What a day … At 2.30 AM, after some beers outside the hotel, we went to bed and slept like babies.
We woke up at 6 AM, discovering our bed clothing were red (remember the water bucket shower, not that effective!). Nevermind. The hotel guys were nice enough to prepare us some breakfast sandwiches for the road, and we started our journey for Banjul.
We were expecting a 9-10 h hard drive, but we forgot our speedy Gonzales driver. We arrived earlier. On our way we started to search for accommodation near the embassy, and found one in Fajara.
Since no one was answering the phone, we just went there. Good luck: they had 4 rooms left, just for us, and the location was amazing: right on the beach, great small individual huts, a nice restaurant and a perfect vibe. Perfect Leybato Hotel, the best accommodation we had during our entire trip.Beer, rum, light dinner, some swimming, a nice sunset, and we are off to bed. Even though the sun was setting, it seemed it was finally shinning on our “travel road”.
8 AM – last day of the year. How would you like to spend it? Well, we spent it at the Senegalese embassy, applying for visa. Take pictures, fill in the documents, pay, then wait for a couple of hours until they are ready. It wasn’t so bad after all, some kids saw us and came to play with us, and we had a blast, even with the language barrier. One tip: don’t give gum to kids who have never seen one, they ended up swallowing it J We eventually get our visas, 2 of us decide to leave for Senegal now, the rest of us decide to stay one more night at Leybato and leave in the morning. W. strikes again, they forgot their passports, but we manage to find them in a cab. 🙂
We spend New Year’s Eve eating at a restaurant close by, then on the beach, with fireworks, local music and dancers next to a fire. Just perfect! Happy New Year!
Around 12 we managed to leave the hotel for the bus station, and start negotiations again. We want to get to Ziguinchor, then Cap Skirring,Casamance.
We stayed in Senegal until 7th of January, the whole adventure and opinions will be posted here.
It seems we are really cursed with borders and visas this trip. So we eventually manage to get from Dakar to the Gambian Border Karang, near Banjul, on the other side of the river, and guess what? We are not allowed to enter because we need a visa!! Turn by turn 3 people enter to discuss, and here is the problem: if you are flying with a specific airline, you are automatically considered a tourist, and no visa is required to stay. But if you want to enter by foot in Gambia, Romanians need to have a pre-approval letter and pay for a visa. We initially thought they are trying to fool us, but we called the Romanian embassy in Senegal and they told us to listen, because they change the rules often. They eventually agree that, if we pay the visa, they forget about the pre-approval paper. Now, that’s also a problem, we didn’t have that many dalasi (20 euro per person), but they agree to receive any type of money, so we start gathering from each of us all the money we had: dalasi, CFA, euro, dollars, and eventually managed to get somehow 160 euros. After around an hour we get our visas, we take 2 cabs to Banjul ferry and start running to the ferry, with all our backpacks on our backs, as people said it’s the last ferry for the day, and we wanted to get to Leybato for the night.
Feeling like winners, we get onto the crowded ferry and find a place to put our backpacks, and we wait… And we wait… We spend some time watching some men working hard to carry materials to some pirogues (huge canoes for transport). After an hour we realize the ferry becomes emptier and emptier and everyone goes to the pirogues. We finally find a ferry-worker who says there are small chances the ferry to leave tonight, because it is broken. So … irony… we need to get to the pirogues where those men were working and we stared at them all that time.
When we get on the beach near the pirogues, we realize they are quite far and you can’t walk to them, so some local men had to put their heads between our legs and carry us to the boats. A bit of a panic, but lots of respect for those men, carrying us with our backpacks, to the boats and throwing us on board. Of course they ask for money for the service, 5 dalasi per person. The boat ride was 40 dalasi per person, but with an additional 40 for the backpacks 🙂 Now… Imagine us for an hour sitting in that boat, with no visibility, getting dark, surrounded by women, men, kids, chickens, and backpacks, praying to get there in one piece. After an hour we got on the other side, and panic again, we had to be carried to the shore, by jumping on the backs of men. I said pass, and just jumped straight in the water with my backpack, the water wasn’t that deep, reaching the hips.
After a quick count in the craziness, we are still 8, we get 2 cabs and straight to Leybato, where, lucky again, we find 4 rooms free, and we go straight to bed.
We all started the day with only one thought: relax on the beach and move as little as possible (with the exception of W. and P. who of course wanted to explore and rent a scooter, and found one for the afternoon). So we spend the entire day on the beach, drinking rum cola, and telling stories. Sometimes the best memories come from doing nothing 🙂
After one full day of doing nothing, we needed some action so this day was spend wandering around with our scooters/atv’s : we went to a bird resort, through a forest, which lead to the ocean, where the beach was covered with small crabs. We spent some time to hunt those crabs down until we got tired. After that we went to Abuko nature reserve, where we wanted to see crocodiles, snakes, monkeys and other animals. Great place, recommend it, even though, again, we haven’t seen any crocodiles or snakes. I really don’t know why they hid from us again, I really don’t own any crocodile or snake skin item 🙂
We get back to Leybato during the evening, and spend rest of the night like lazy turtles at the bar.
We woke up early in the morning, very important day: today we are definitely seeing crocodiles. We will go to the Crocodile Pool in Banjul! We split into 3 groups, but we eventually go in the same places, different times : we start with the crocodile pool, where we finally see lots of crocodiles, unfortunately all sleeping, or drugged, we got to touch a few and take some nice selfies J) ; we also went to the Serekunda Market, pretty crazy place, very crowded, but worth seeing once. You could find anything to buy: from clothes, shoes, accessories, fruits, raw meat… You get the picture.
As you know already how the roads are in Gambia, we had 3 exploding tires, and one scooter completely breaking, so one group eventually ended up coming back with a taxi, and leaving one of the scooters in a mechanic shop (we think), with 6 men trying to fix it and eventually breaking it into pieces J We told the owner to come and get it himself, since it broke.
We get together for dinner at the hotel, and for a well-deserved rum-cola, telling today’s stories and adventures.
Last day in Gambia. With the exception of W. and P., we are planning to do nothing and be lazy again on the beach. What can go wrong right? Our flight leaves at 12 AM, so we spend the entire day zipping cocktails and sunbathing. We have our last nice dinner at Leybato, then we leave for the airport.
Or at least some of us, because one of the cabs can’t get up the hills to get out of Leybato’s yard, so we have to push the taxi up the hill. And that’s how we ruined our last clean clothes, kept for the way back and airplanes. On top of this, A. has an allergic reaction to the sun, so she spends her last day scratching and itching. After a 4h flight, when no-one could sleep, we reached Barcelona: electricity, pharmacy, civilization. And us with the smell of Africa and our dirty clothes 🙂
More pictures can be found on Facebook here.
So… Did I like Gambia? DEFINITELY YES! They are the nicest people I’ve met in my life (besides the Vietnamese), and their country is definitely different: raw and untouched. It is not easy to travel from one place to another, the cars are old, and the roads are really bad. People sometimes speak very loudly, use a lot of body language and gestures, but that does not mean they are angry, it’s just their way to speaking. They negotiate everything. I never felt cheated and I rarely felt unsafe, mostly because of my limited thinking and cultural differences, and not because the people were dangerous.
Go to Gambia for the nature and the animals, for the rural way of living, with no electricity or hot water, or internet, or phone coverage. Go before it gets transformed in a westernized version and “improved” by civilization.
And don’t plan it in details, well maybe with the exception of visas information :). Who knew we would be spending so many nice nights at Leybato? Or ended up eating one of the best foods in the middle of nowhere, on the side of the road. See the entire country from west to east.
And when you come back, be thankful for all the things you have and makes your life easier, but you take for granted. And also realize that most of the things you have you over-appreciate, you can live as good without constant internet connection or phone, just the 2 simple examples. You learn again to spend time with the people around you and really connect.