The Gambia 1: Tanbi Wetlands

James & Amelia Gould
Thu 15 Nov 2007 09:36

071018 - 071020 The Gambia 1: Tanbi Wetlands


Once the official entry formalities were complete we gladly left the anchorage in Half Die and headed for the nearest thing The Gambia has to a marina in the upper reaches of Oyster Creek.  This was our first experience of mangrove creek navigation, and it was interesting to say the least!  The flat creek bank was lined on both sides by a monotonous row of mangroves, so it was difficult to appreciate exactly where we were (The GPS is no use as the chart datum is a little vague).  James was navigating, following the sketch in the pilot book (which was written in 1997 by a guy who lived in the Gambia in a very informal style – back of an envelope type instructions), while I was on the helm, following his steering instructions.  The creek was very narrow in parts, with very little room to turn if we did go down the wrong tributary by mistake.  We also discovered a problem with navigating a catamaran as wide as Rahula up a narrow creek – the echo-sounder (To non boaty people: it measures depth) is in the port hull, and we found that the port hull could be in 6m of water while the starboard hull is touching the mud on the other bank!  This is where the dagger-boards were very useful, as our echo-sounder stops registering depth below 3m – we kept both boards most of the way down, so that if one touched the bottom we knew it was getting shallow.  Then all we had to do was winch the grounded board up and float off into hopefully deeper water…


Navigating to Oyster Creek


Once Rahula was safely anchored in the creek our “ship’s agent”, Gee, employed by James to help clear formalities, appeared alongside to offer his services in getting diesel and water.  We negotiated a price for his labour, and handed over an array of jerry cans to refill our depleted diesel and water tanks. Then it was time to care for our stomachs and do some food shopping!


Oyster Creek is in the Tanbi Wetlands which are a network of saltwater creeks and mudflats at the mouth of the Gambia river.  The creek is a base for tourist boat trip operators and fishermen and was full of colourful wooden pirogues, sports fishing boats and the odd abandoned yacht (including some strange yachts;  according to one of the fisherman, one yachtsman ran his yacht aground and holed it in The Gambia so bought two pirogues, strapped them together, put the mast and rig from his yacht on it and sailed to Brazil!  J).  There is a small pier at the top of the creek which leads to a row of tin roof shacks housing the fishing trip operators, stalls selling tat, and the all important (for cold beers!) Harbour Café.  We left the dinghy in the care of Baba, the owner of the Harbour café, and went in search of food and cash.


Venturing ashore at Oyster Creek

Oyster Creek Shack

Oyster Creek Anchorage


We wanted to go to Serrekunda, the commercial capital of The Gambia, by picking up a bush taxi on the main Banjul to Serrekunda highway that passes across the top of Oyster Creek.  Unfortunately for us it was closing time in Banjul, so all the taxis were full to capacity.  While waiting we met Gee again, who suggested doing our shopping in Banjul instead, and offered to guide us around.  We immediately picked up a taxi and 20 minutes later found ourselves driving through the hot dusty streets of The Gambia’s capital.


(Bush Taxis are a classic African form of public transport.  They can be cars, mini buses or vans, and function like buses, following standard routes.  Unlike buses, passengers can get on or off at any point, and they do not follow a set timetable.  The vehicle is normally in a very sorry state with any form of comfort or safety equipment removed to make space for the maximum number of seats which will fit.  We ended up having quite a few adventures in this mode of transport…)

(I’ve owned worse…J)


Banjul was built at the mouth of the river Gambia on an island at the edge of the Tanbi Wetlands.  Its small geographical area has meant that despite being the capital it still has a small town atmosphere and has limited facilities (All the commerce has moved to Serrekunda instead).  The town is hot and dusty, lined with pot-holed streets fringed by rubbish.  The few proper buildings were dilapidated, though it was interesting spotting the odd colonial era detailing in the stone- or iron- work through the hand painted signs and layers of goods draped over every inch of wall.  The skyline was dominated by Arch 22, a massive and ugly monument built to commemorate the coup in 1994 where the current president came to power.  The monument cost US$1.15 million to build, a ridiculous amount considering the poverty in the rest of the country and a large bone of contention with most locals we talked to.


Our first priority was to change our wad of Euros to Dalasies, and after following Gee around several back streets and market stalls we found an old man sitting by a clothes stall that offered the best rate.  As in all of these sorts of places there is a black market for currency exchange for locals who can’t obtain foreign currency through official channels.  It is illegal, but as we were with a local we felt pretty safe and preferred making the most of our limited cash.  Once we presented our Euros the old man pulled out a huge wad of battered notes from under his long Muslim robe and started counting what was owed to us.  Money changing is obviously a profitable business!


Once we had dirty Dalasies it was time to spend them, and we wandered through Albert Market searching for some fresh produce.  I naively had a list in my pocket, but I soon realised that I had to buy from the limited choice on offer.  The produce stalls were set up by women selling the surplus fruit and vegetables they grew in little allotments.  The quality wasn’t great, with flies, maggots and rot being a common sight (I won’t even begin to describe the smell…J) and things weren’t cheap – easily comparable with southern Europe supermarket prices.  I was later to discover that this is unusual in the Gambia, as other markets had good produce at rock bottom prices.


Back at Oyster Creek, Gee was intending to follow us to Rahula in another boat to deliver our diesel and water and even offered to give me a lift in this smart looking sports fishing boat.  He and another guy cast off the boat and drifted into the centre of the creek until it was deep enough to lower the engine.  Then the engine wouldn’t start!  James noticed them struggling with the engine, and went to their rescue with our quick reaction dinghy.  He towed the little boat alongside Rahula to drop off the jerry cans, then towed them back to the pier at Oyster Creek, to the sound of cheering and clapping from the other fishermen, who were amused that a westerner had to help a Gambian!  James earned a beer for his trouble (and had a thoroughly pleasant hour with ‘the boys’ around their fire drinking beer and very strong coffee mixed with sweet tea and served in shot glasses.  All the fishermen were very friendly and we had a lively chat until their rather large joints took effect, the conversation got silly and I thought it time to leave…J).


The following day we left Oyster Creek and sailed through a further maze of creeks and mangroves in the Tanbi Wetlands to Lamin Creek.  This is where Lamin Lodge is located, whose restaurant came highly recommended in our guidebook.  As we approached the bend in Lamin Creek where the lodge is located we spotted a number of yacht masts at the anchorage.  We became excited at the prospect of meeting some other yachties who have been cruising in The Gambia and would be keen to share their local knowledge and tell us about all the best secret anchorages.  As we approached the yachts we found them all deserted, laid up for the season by their European owners who went home to escape the rainy season.  The disappointment was reflected in a slight lapse in concentration that led us to steer the wrong side of the bend and run aground in full view of all the tourists in Lamin Lodge…  Luckily our dagger-boards saved the day and a few winds up on the winch had us afloat and away again…


The lodge was a large triple story building made of half-timber logs and thatch.  In some places the timber had been carved into sculptures of people or animals, and there were monkeys lurking on the windowsills.  The place had a rustic African charm, and we liked it immediately.   As the tourist season hadn’t yet started and we arrived unexpectedly we had to order dinner well in advance, having been offered a choice of two dishes – grilled fish or meat.  We had one of each, and both turned out to absolutely delicious, eaten in a perfect setting overlooking the mangroves as the sun set ahead of us.  The romance was only broken by the buzz of mosquitoes in our ears…



Lamin Lodge


While waiting for dinner to be prepared we went for a walk to Lamin village.  On leaving the lodge’s gates we were joined by Ibu, who was heading the same way, and who ended up showing us around the village.  As we entered the village we were immediately confronted by hoards of children shouting “Toubab” (white person), which was to become a regular feature of our visits to various Gambian villages.  The kids came up and held our hands, and soon we each had at least two small children hanging off each finger.  After a while the kids’ friendliness turned to shameless requests for pens, water bottles, sweets or money.  We refused all the demands, as we did not want to encourage the kids to beg from visiting tourists.  Instead we mentioned to Ibu that we had a load of old charts onboard that we would donate to the local school if they needed paper.  We preferred to give charity to an adult who would hopefully use it wisely.  This prompted a search around the village for the primary school teacher, who was eventually located sitting under a Baobab tree (a favourite occupation of Gambian men).  The teacher was very grateful for the charts, and explained that he could use big sheets of paper like that to teach the alphabet.  We ended up taking a bundle of charts ashore in every village we went to and seeking out the teacher to hand them over; they were always thankfully received.


Lamin was quite a large wealthy village by Gambian standards.  Unusually, the villagers had organised themselves to deal with the influx of tourists wanting to visit the wetlands and formed a kind of co-operative.  We learnt from Ibu that all the young men in the village without a profession must work on the tourist day trip boats for at least 5 years and all the money they earn (except tips) is collected by a “controller” and goes into the village fund to be spent on facilities.  A record is kept of their conduct during this employment, and at the end of the 5 years their record is examined before they are allocated the next job.  If they did well they are sent to work in the hotels as guides, and if they did badly they are sent to the Oyster factory.  This unusual collective approach had obviously benefited the village greatly, and showed the good side of tourism – bringing money into poor areas.  Unfortunately we found it was a very rare attitude in The Gambia.


Amelia & Ibu
Lamin “Internet Tree” - an African bill board

Lamin Village Kids