The Gambia 4: Back down the river
071026 – 071106 The Gambia 4: Back down the river
We spent five days cruising back down the river, stopping at the places we missed on the trip up river. We spotted lots more hippos, including the family we saw on the way up (got just as excited!), and ticked off more birds on our Bingo card. As we passed the River Gambia National Park the park warden came over to say hello, but as he came alongside the baboon in his boat had other ideas, and we nearly got ourselves another crew member! The park warden chased the baboon around our cockpit and back onto his boat before waving us goodbye.
The first night we anchored opposite Kuntaur village and within minutes of laying our anchor we were approached by a group of teenage kids in a dug out canoe. We offered them some of our watermelon, and once we explained that we weren’t going to give them any money/pens/school books things relaxed and we got chatting. The conversation led on to religion and we were given an in depth lecture on the ways of Islam. Unfortunately the kids seemed completely unaware of any other religions, but had some interesting views nonetheless. The most galling was the “women belong in the home, men and women are not equal”, which I tried to counter, totally unsuccessfully (Bright chap that one…J). When I mentioned how hard Gambian women appear to work, spending all their days looking after hoards of children, pounding corn, washing, cooking, working in the fields, (while the men just sit under trees!) I was told this was “just housework”. At which point I gave up the cause and went inside to cook dinner…
The following day we headed ashore early in the morning to visit the Wassu Stone Circles, a Gambian national landmark. We walked through the village followed by the now usual gaggle of children (which was larger than normal as Kuntaur has the largest fertility rate in the country – 7 kids per woman!). We were even offered some of these kids by their mothers, but were put off by the wailing! (“I want a brown baby!”, just like Madonna…). We soon found ourselves in open rice fields, lilies growing where the rice failed. It was the first time we were on our own ashore in The Gambia, and it felt good. We followed the vague directions given to us in the village, and asked others along the way. We found everyone was friendly and happy to help, directions always being given related to a large tree or “the road” which was the only bit of tarmac for miles around. After a pleasant 2 KM walk we found the circles – a collection of eleven stone rings around burial mounds. It was more impressive than the circle at Lamin Koto, and the site had an interesting museum which gave some information on the archaeology of the place. We were told it was good luck to place a small stone on top of the stone pillars so we searched the site for a suitable pebble – so many people had done this before that small stones were hard to come by! (See, Gambian’s have no business sense. Anywhere else there would be a man selling perfect small stones to unassuming tourists, with some of the stones engraved with a pithy statement or craved into the shape of an African mammal.) We made our wish, took some pictures and left. We aren’t the kind of tourists who hang around to “feel the vibe”.
The rest of the journey we stopped for the night in small creeks which fed into the main river. Once Rahula was safely at anchor we would launch the kayak and go for a paddle around the creek, looking out for hippos and avoiding the crocodiles. Our favourite one of these creeks was the Mandoori Bolon which was in the Bao Bolon Wetland Reserve. This is The Gambia’s largest protected area and comprises of a maze of creeks, surrounded by salt marshes and savannah woodland. Our kayak along Mandoori Creek was magical; we saw more birds than anywhere else, flying so close we could count the feathers. One Kingfisher swooped down to the water to catch a fish 5m from the end of the kayak. We spotted a herd of marsh antelopes racing across the grass. This was real nature in action, and this time we had the patience to watch it (Well, what we mean is that it was all there on a plate and we didn’t have to wait too long! J).
At anchor in Mandoori Creek
On other nights we were forced to anchor near a village, in order to stock up on provisions, diesel and water. In Kau-ur the village was a little way in land, and once we walked there and bought what we needed we had the problem of how to get back the 25 litres of diesel we had just bought. There wasn’t a taxi in sight, though there were plenty of offers to carry our jerry can for a fee. Eventually we came across a compound with a donkey cart, and they agreed to take us to the river bank (for a fee!). So once the donkey was lashed in, we piled our goods onto the cart and hopped on for the bumpy ride back. It was not a sight for anyone who sponsors the RSPCA…
Donkey Cart Diesel Delivery
In Ballingo we had to walk 9 miles each way to the nearest town with any sort of produce market. Again there were no taxis (or donkey carts) and for a while we enjoyed the leg stretch. Unfortunately the walk back, after a long day at the market was rather exhausting. Once back in the village we met a teacher from Basse, who was forced to leave his job and come to Ballingo to help his elder brother run a fishing business. It seemed crazy that with all the unemployment in the village they had to take someone away from his profession to help, but apparently his brother did not trust anyone else in the village. The teacher explained to me that part of The Gambia’s problems stem from the fact that Gambian men can have up to four wives, and, with no birth control, tend to have a lot of children. The men often can’t support all these kids, so they pick a “favourite” which they sponsor through school. The rest of the gaggle has to be supported by their mothers, who receive some money from their husband. That, at least, explained why Gambian women work so hard, and why the kids always seek a “sponsor”.
The final tourist attractions we visited was James Island and the towns of Albreda and Juffureh. These are all places where the African slave trade took place, and have become immortalised by Alex Haley’s novel, Roots. A whole industry has sprung up around “Roots pilgrims” – black people coming to Africa to seek out their family’s history and genealogy, and we were braced for tourist hell. Luckily for us the tourist season hadn’t yet started, so the sights were empty and hawkers few. The first sight we visited was James Island, anchoring off at a respectable distance and going ashore to inspect the ruins of Fort James. The island was one of the first European settlements in West Africa and has been owned by the Portuguese, French and British, who used it as a trading post. It was the last piece of African soil many slaves bound for the Americas stood on. The island is now considerably smaller, the river eating away at its rock, and only a few outer walls remain of the fort built in 1651.
In Albreda and Juffureh we visited other slave trade relics such as market buildings, and a museum of slavery full of black African nationalism. It was interesting, but we couldn’t escape the Roots connection, with everything geared around characters from the book who have become legends (neither of us had read the book, or seen the TV series…). These villages were the nearest tourists who visit the coast get to up country Gambia, and the villagers had even made a little mock compound of thatched mud huts to show westerners how they “used to live”. This surprised us, as only a few days before we wandered through a village that really did look like that, and was still fully inhabited! The other tourist concession was a “Craft Market” full of wood carvings. We refused all offers to buy carvings of elephants, giraffes, and other animals definitely not present in West Africa, but succumbed to a little wooden hippo…
That completed our round trip of The Gambia River. We sailed back into Oyster Creek the following day (having tried to enter at low tide, run aground several times while trying to find the channel in, then anchored to wait for more water while James surveyed the area from the dinghy…) (One for our FCD3 Grids/Prism/FLOC returns… J). We spent several days there, resting after the long slog up and down the river and getting a “civilisation fix”. Our first stop was the tourist resort along the coast for a good western meal of meat and chips. We also found a large, well-stocked supermarket in Serrekunda (I am sure I heard angels sing when I entered, as I felt the aircon brush my face and saw the shelves sagging with clean food). Though we did, after 3 weeks in the Gambia of eating the local food and drinking the local water rather ironically get our first bout of Banjul Belly after eating a frozen pizza bought at one of the supermarkets…
It was great to see the sea again, and once we were able to eat solids again we set sail for the Cape Verde islands, glad to leave Africa behind, but pleased to have visited.
Final JulBrew in Touristville