• Rwanda for a week May 22nd, 2011

    “The eyes of the stranger are wide open, but he sees only what he knows” (African proverb)

    Leaving the Congo was a whole lot easier than entering it. No delays, questions, form-filling or money requests. Surely there should have been one more bout with a bored immigration official? The procedure that had taken over an hour when entering the country was taking a few minutes as I left. Having prepared myself for such an interrogation it almost came as a disappointment to be on my way so quickly. As I wheeled the bike over a wooden bridge towards the Rwandan border I double-checked my passport had been stamped and looked over my shoulder. All clear.

    Travel in Africa would be boring if all borders were so easy to cross as this one. On the Rwandan side I joined an orderly queue, filled out an arrival card and watched my passport details being logged onto a computer before being welcomed and stamped into the country. No questions. And the visa? What visa? Rwanda lets British Nationals in the country for free – the first country in Africa I’ve enjoyed this privilege since entering The Gambia.

    The terrain on the other hand presented more of a challenge. Rwanda is dubbed the country of 1000 hills and it’s easy to see why. This small land-locked pocket of Africa is surely one of the most mountainous countries in the World. I could have tackled the contours on tarmac, for there are plenty of paved roads in the country, but instead followed a dirt track along the eastern shores of Lake Kivu.

    Welcome to Rwanda

    And it was scenic – incredibly so. One of the most scenic countries I think I’ve cycled through. From a traffic-free track green terraced slopes fell beneath me towards the shimmering blue surface of the lake. In the distance more mountains rose up from the western shores. The Congo might still have been close, but my surroundings were different. No longer was every hut composed of mud-brick walls and palm-leaved roofs. Villages had power and buildings made of concrete. Here the shops actually sold food and had signboards advertising coca-cola. Children remained curious and called Mzungu as I rode past, but there wasn’t the same amazement when I stopped.

    Looking down to Lake Kivu

    Lake Kivu

    Beside Lake Liku

    Bike taxi

    Young Rwandan face

    Young Rwandan boy

    Between villages the land was neatly tilled and heavily cultivated. A lush patchwork quilt of crops and plantations of tea covered the slopes, and I wondered why the land, equally as rich and fertile, was never like this in the Congo?

    Tea plantation at dawn

    Green Rwanda

    Tea plantation

    Tea pickers

    Tea picker

    Almost every village or town I went through had a memorial to the genocide. Given the level of development in terms of infrastructure and the comparative sense of peace and order that characterised the places I passed through, it was hard to fathom that 17 years ago some 1 million people, or approximately 20% of the country’s population, were brutally killed in the space of just 100 days.

    I wanted to ask those old enough to remember the genocide where they were and what they had to say about this terrible chapter in history, but it always seemed too sensitive a subject to bring up with a stranger. To be a Hutu or a Tutsi is not talked about now. Everyone is a Rwandan, but surely tribal differences must remain strong.

    Well a week in the country was just skimming the surface. I didn’t visit the capital, Kigali, which is reportedly one of the cleanest and most orderly of African capitals there are. Instead I continued to the far northern shores of Lake Kivu, where if I was travelling on a far different kind of budget I might have considered doing what many visitors to this part of the country do. To be honest though, $500 is a lot of money to hang out with a family of gorillas for a few hours, for that is what it costs for a permit to track mountain gorillas, and apparently there is no shortage of people willing to pay this sum. I briefly considered heading back across the border to the DRC and visiting Goma. For $200 one can climb up the volcano that put Goma in the World headlines in 2002 for blowing its top. But overall a week cycling Rwanda was reward enough. I’d happily come back for more calf-crunching punishment here.

    Primus time again

  • Into The Casamance June 9th, 2010

    One more night

    An enormous mosquito with blonde hair helped delay my departure from The Gambia. It circled the air, flying past a red dragon on wheels, a carriage carrying Cinderella and Elvis being pushed in a pram. These were just some of the contenders in the soap-box race at the International School. Students were pedalling laps of the school in a creative array of home-made vehicles.  Funds had been raised for the Against Malaria Foundation, so it was fitting that one of the students had come dressed for the part in wings, head and a nasty looking  antenna and proboscis. The event also provided a good excuse to stay a little longer.

    For those students, teachers and parents reading this, many thanks for your support. I don’t have any photos from the day so please send them to me.

    When I did finally get going I only made it 30km. Peter and Muna, who’d kindly let me doss in their enormous compound for the previous 10 days, suggested having lunch on the beach. Their English friends, visiting Africa for the first time, thought they had read about me back home. “There are quite a few of us. You probably read about that bloke on TVI suggested.

    Pale-faced and green-eyed our lives couldn’t have been more different. Rob worked as a tax-advisor in London and commuted daily from Cambridge at some god-forsaken hour. “You get used to it”, he remarked before I proposed packing it all in for a year and taking off.

    The five of us waited most of the afternoon for a shack within an undergrowth of casuarina trees to serve up grilled fish. When it finally came I decided to ask the proprietor if he minded me sleeping on the beach. “You’re very welcome. There is a night watchman and two dogs”. I trusted the dogs more. All afternoon they’d patrolled the beach, barking at the nearest whiff of an intruder approaching the palm-leaved shack. I noticed they never barked at white people. “You people are good to them” said the owner. I’d already told Peter and Muna, who I waved off shortly afterwards, that if I ever lived in Africa the first thing I’d do would be to get myself a few guard dogs. Less chance of them sleeping on the job.

    Sleeping on the beach

    Feeding Africa

    Bob Marley and Bribes

    “Come stop and have some Bob Marley”, came a drug-induced drawl from under a mango tree. I was half a kilometre from the border with Senegal. Smoking pot with several dread-locked bumpsters was not what I was thinking, although I did need to use up the remaining Gambian Dalasi I still had. Cashew nuts were what I had in mind. I was surrounded by the trees, but there was no sign of the nuts.

    It would have been easy to wave off 100 Dalasi (£2.50) to the immigration officer. She demanded it for a stamp in my passport. “I’ve been to The Gambia before. I don’t pay for stamps”, I calmly protested. “Yes, but you haven’t crossed this border before”. I briefly contemplated paying a compliment to the observational skills of this fat young woman, when another cut in “What is good for me”? I looked her up and down, wanted to say a good spanking for being so rude, before turning my attention back to the other woman who had  been flicking through my passport for the past five minutes, finally embossing a departure stamp before looking up and asking. “What country are you from?”

    Guns and girls

    Proceedings on the Senegalese side in the village of Seleti were a little more serious. A young soldier in tight green fatigues and a blue beret pointed his gun in the direction of the immigration office. He was sat in the back of a pick-up with half a dozen other soldiers.

    For the past few decades the Casamance has been dealing with a separatist movement never far from de-stabilising the region. Heading south I weaved between military road blocks consisting of palm trees and oil drums painted red and white. Vehicles were made to stop, but a call of Bonjour, Nagadef or Kasumai seemed adequate approval for a toubab on a bicycle.

    Other than the beautiful women and military presence, the first thing I noticed about the Casamance was how much greener it is than the Senegal further north. Huge cotton and mahogany trees flanked the roadside, dwarfing the palms, mangoes and cashews that also grow in abundance in the lush surroundings.

    Into the Casamance

    Between the dense thickets of greenery lay open rice fields, awaiting the rain before the planting season.

    Rain fell on my first night in the Casamance. I was camping under a thatched roof and unable to sleep due to  the sound of mangoes thudding as they fell out of  nearby trees and hit the ground. Breakfast for next few months is taken care of.

    Casamance camp

    The principal town in the Casamance is Ziguinchor, where I am now. It derives its name from when the Portuguese founded it in 1645. They called it ‘Cheguei e Charam’ (I come and they cry) to refer to the local people who cried at the sight of European slave masters coming to capture them.

    Nowadays its a sleepy back-water, dotted with colonial relics badly in need of attention. Locals no longer cry at the sight of toubabs. Any reaction is more likely to involve an interest in selling a pirogue trip or a carving. Neither have much appeal. I’m off to Guinea Bissau.

    Ziguinchor water-front

    Pirogues at sunset

  • Return to The Gambia May 31st, 2010

    Cycling out of Dakar is best done quickly. This is something that could be said about cycling out of most cities in poor countries, where pollution, rather than prettiness is what one notices. The only reward is in saying that you’ve done it, if that really matters to anyone else. Fortunately there is only one major road, which makes it difficult to get lost, and no hills or confusing intersections to negotiate. Incidentally there are also no other cyclists on the road, which is interesting seeming that for most of Africa the bicycle represents transport for those who don’t have much money.

    The truth it seems is that the Senegalese don’t ride bicycles at all, if they can help it.“They’re too arrogant to be seen on bicycles”, a white face had told me when I first arrived in Dakar. That now seems like a long time ago. It was.

    Relief from the gauntlet of diesel-spewing trucks and speeding SUVs came after 40km. At this point we pulled off the highway and I felt Dakar was truly behind me. Need I mention that it was good to be back on the bike and finally leaving the city?

    Leaving Dakar with Jon

    At first I worried that my wrist would ache after a few hours. Instead it was my backside, but I could handle a little saddle soreness rather than finding out that my tendons wouldn’t be able to take the strain of riding a loaded bike.

    The bags are in fact much lighter now. I’d left books and shoes in The Gambia and sent my Mum home with a fleece jacket, gloves, woolly hat, thermal underwear and various other odds and ends I no longer needed. Minus water I now have less than 25kg loaded on the bike.

    When the traffic lightened the heat increased. Colourless thorny scrub-land, bleached from months of relentless sun and dust, stretched out to either side of the road. In a few months time rain will transform this burnt expanse into a sea of greenery. For now the land is dormant, awaiting that change of season.

    Jon, my Canadian cycling companion for the first week back on the road, soon regretted bringing a bicycle with narrow tyres. He’d toured with the same kind of tyres in India, Bangladesh, Mexico and across south-east Asia, and said he could count the total number of punctures from all these trips combined. I lost track of how many thorns embedded themselves in his tyres as we slowly rode south towards The Gambia.

    Duck-tape repairs

    The punctures meant we started late and stopped a lot. The rhythm suited me. I hadn’t envisaged being back on the bike until perhaps the beginning of June, so was glad his two-week trip to Senegal had kick-started my journey and that we were going slowly to begin with.

    We followed small roads along the coast at first, accompanied by the distinctive African aroma of dried fish. Coastal villages lay cloaked in smoke as tons of  fish received a char-grilling before being transported inland as far Burkina Faso and Niger.

    Fish smoking along the coast

    Out of the smoke

    Toubab coming through

    If punctures weren’t a reason for stopping, the heat was. Lunchtimes were long and lazy as we waited out the worst of the midday furnace. Ideally we should have been riding from 6am-11am, taking a 5-hour rest, then cycling for another 2-3 hours come about 4pm. In reality this never happened.

    Senegalese food ought not to be judged on appearance. Food during these lunch-time stops had all the finesse of a dog’s dinner, but for between $1-2 it was never too hard to hunt out a roadside shack serving a local dish, typically served by a woman who made sure she never went hungry herself.

    Couscous and fish stew

    On the topic of women, have I commented on the fact that that beauty is in abundance in Senegal? Even some of the smallest villages seem to have a shop selling cosmetic products and the latest off-the-back-of-a-truck bling from Europe. Beautification is a big part of Senegalese culture. People are proud of their appearance, including the men. In a country where the landscape offers few natural sights there is at least something to distract ones attention.

    Senegalese girl

    Mother and child

    It was good to have company on the road again. We frequently rode until it was dark, then laughed at the fact that we still had no idea where we would pitch the tent.  I’m usually stressing out by this stage when alone.

    Through lack of other options it looked like we would end up in an enclosure reeking of donkey turd on one night. That was until the chief’s son from a nearby hut had seen our torchlight and greeted us with a large wooden baton. Shortly afterwards we were led into a compound of several thatched mud-brick dwellings and shown where it was safe to pitch the tents. Evening entertainment for a dozen faces. I envisage a similar scenario for myself in the months ahead, preferably avoiding the greeting with a baton.

    On another night we took a fancy to an establishment that served up an enormous plate of couscous, fish stew and had cold beers. The proprietress waited for us to digest our meals before informing us that it would cost $20 to sleep on the floor. Bargaining failed, so we set off at 9pm and pedalled off into the darkness, pitching the tents an hour later beside several baobab trees.

    At camp

    Savana camp

    Other than the punctures the frustration came with the frequent calls of ‘Donnez moi’ from the roadside. Young and old, male and female – it didn’t matter. It is clearly a matter of course that as a toubab (white person) in Senegal there will be constant demands for your possessions. Eventually, and it didn’t take very long, they became repeated so often I ended up receiving them like greetings. I won’t miss this aspect of Senegal.

    Donnez moi toubab

    Meeting the locals

    The plans to cycle much of the route I’d initially walked in The Gambia changed when Jon decided it just wasn’t fun riding on dirt roads with narrow tyres. We arrived in the village of Aljamdu, where I’d stayed several weeks before, camped in a compound full of animals (pigs, goats, ducks, chickens, dogs) and left early the next morning for the ferry to Banjul.

    Ferry crossing to Banjul

    Two days later Jon took a shared taxi back to Dakar. That was after meeting Peter and Muna, an English couple who’d driven down to The Gambia six months ago. “We saw your bikes on the beach and thought you must have a story”. Good time to get a beer I suggested.

    Tripod set-up

  • A short walk in The Gambia May 7th, 2010

    Bed-sharing and bed-nets

    I slept with a fireman at the end of my first day’s walk in The Gambia. That is to say we shared the same bed – his bed. I assumed that finding a hotel in a capital city would be easy. Not so in Banjul. This city has a population of less then 35,000. I walked most of its main streets within an hour, after having walked 15km along a deserted beach, and soon realised that beyond a few colonial buildings there was little else to detain a visitor.  Not a hotel in sight. I later thought it might be the World’s smallest capital, but have just checked and found that honour goes to Adamstown, if that counts.

    I’ve never slept in a fire-station before. I made the suggestion, half-jokingly, as I greeted several bored-looking officers sitting in front of a faded red truck that had clearly been there since the days of British rule. They offered me a glass of attaya. In return I shared out some cashew nuts I’d just bought from a market stall, relieved that my quest to find somewhere to sleep for the night had been solved.

    Or at least I thought so. It was dark by the time I was shown my room. This  wasn’t within the fire-station. Instead I had to walk several kilometres to a large compound. It  resembled an army barracks – high concrete walls, barbed wire,  rows of concrete bungalow blocks. “Many government employees live here”, explained my host, Mr Bakari Fatty, who seemed very happy to be welcoming a toubab into his house.

    Bakari spent most of the evening talking about football. As well as being a fire-man and a credit-control officer for some financial institution he was a referee for the country’s football league. His house consisted of two airless rooms, the bare concrete walls of which were covered with newspaper cuttings showing his favourite footballers – Ronaldo, Roony, Beckham. “Which team do you support”? he wanted to know. I told him the underdogs.  “Not Manchester United then”, he asked as his referee shirts were unfolded and proudly displayed for my attention.

    I went to sleep early, but woke during the night thinking a rat was crawling across my feet. Instead it was Bakari playing footsie. He was sound asleep next to me in the double bed and even managed to sleep right through the deafening call-to-prayer at 5am.

    Fireman Fatty and his football boots

    The following morning Bakari joined me in Banjul’s main market. I’d gone to buy a mosquito net. For someone raising funds to prevent the disease I thought it would be wise to arm myself with one for the walk upcountry.  I was also interested to see what kind of nets were being sold and for how much. My tent, which is currently in Dakar, has acted as a great barrier to insects at night.

    I wanted to explain to both Bakari and the market seller that I was supporting a charity helping to prevent Malaria, but Bakari was more interested in bargaining for a live Guinea Fowl in a nearby stall and the market seller was half-blind and deaf. I did discover that the nets were hand-made and at £4 were probably too expensive for most families, at least in rural areas, to afford.

    The market seller was able to make several nets a day. I wondered whether the distribution of free nets by foreign charities would put someone like this out of business, but also realised that if malaria is going to be stamped out in African countries, it is distribution by mass (ie thousands of nets) that will make the difference. The other reality is that market forces mean insecticide treated bednets can also be sourced for cheaper elsewhere. I bought my net and thanked my aged market seller before walking to the ferry port to cross the Gambia River.

    Mosquito net man

    Cashewing in

    I walked little more than a kilometre on my second day. Rather than sweating under the sun and walking eastwards up-country I sat under the shade of a Mahogany tree and read several chapters of one of the books I’d brought with me. Surrounding me were more mature trees and tropical flowers in a garden belonging to a Spanish family who’d made The Gambia their home for the past 5 years. The father had found me soon after walking off the ferry then offered me a lift when I said I was walking to the village where he lived, 10km away.  “You want to walk? In this heat”. It was already late morning so I jumped into his car.

    Ahmed had created a guest-house and farm, building it up from scratch with the idea to involve local people in agricultural practices. He was also in the process of constructing an Islamic school. Both he and his wife had stories to tell.  “What  this country has is peace. I can say that’s a lot in Africa”, explained his wife. They had already talked about the work ethic of most people, the difficulty of making friends and knowing who to trust. It didn’t seem an easy life. They were ready to leave, as was I, but by the time we had told our stories it was siesta time and I had a bed to myself this time.

    The tarmac stopped abruptly when I turned off the main road the next morning and began walking on a sandy track. A man wielding a machete caught my attention up ahead.  He was at the roadside talking to a group of women making baskets from palm leaves. The mango season is beginning here and these baskets are used to transport mangoes from villages to the markets.

    End of the tarmac

    Meeting with a machete part II

    I called out “Sumandabede”,  a morning greeting in Mandinka, and received  a beaming smile in return. Thirty minutes later I was sat within the shade of a cashew tree plantation and surrounded by hundreds of red and yellow cashew fruits.  The green seeds, which contain the nut as most people  know, were being sorted into a separate container to be  roasted, whilst the fruit was  collected before being pounded in a wooden trough. “We are Christian here”, explained Machete-wielding Musa, who walked me around the plantation and showed me the distillation apparatus used to make cashew wine. The last distillation apparatus I’d seen was during a tour of  the Remy Martin house in Cognac. This was a little more primitive, consisting of a metal drum, supported over a wood fire and a few canes and tubes  held together with duct tape. The finished product – ‘Firewater’, was an acquired taste.

    I told Musa I preferred the fruit and fresh juice. I’d read somewhere that it has 10 times  greater concentration of vitamin C  in it than orange juice. Pity it starts to ferment quickly and there is no power for refrigeration out here. I sat, watched and helped for several more hours as cashew fruit continued to drop every so often with a dull thud onto the soft bed of leaves around me.

    Later on I watched as the mother roasted the seeds above a wood-fuelled fire. First there was smoke, then a ball of flames as the oil within the seeds caught fire.  At this point the iron pan was kicked off the stones and the now black seeds cooled in the sand. We then collected them and  began a time-consuming process of carefully cracking each one open to release the roasted nut within. I could now see why cashews aren’t cheap.

    Cashew fruit

    Cashew fruits

    Sorting nuts from fruit

    Cashew fruit crushing

    Roasting cashew seeds

    Musa later showed me his banana plantation and voiced his plans to build  a guest house. It was ambitious. He wanted a sponsor. Did I know anyone? I steered the conversation towards the other toubab living in his compound. He was a Peace Corps volunteer. I didn’t meet him until later that evening. He’d been away for the day. I feared I might be encroaching on his territory.

    The compound was small and basic – no electricity, water across the road from a well,  open-fire kitchen, pit latrine. He was out here for two years. Not an easy task. He had various projects on the go, one of which was honey production. There were dozens of hives and believed hundreds of litres of honey could be harvested. It  merely required effort and planning amongst members of the community he was living within. I wished him luck. I didn’t expect to see him again when I set off early the next morning, but was back again the same night.

    Banana man Musa

    Lost and Found

    “Have another look. Maybe you’ll find it”. The contents of my back-pack lay scattered on the stone floor beneath my feet. I checked for the third time and repeated to the proprietor of the small restaurant, Julfereh’s only one, that no, my passport was clearly not there. It must have been stolen. I hadn’t checked since setting off on my walk four days previously whether it was in  the backpack. How could this be possible? The backpack had barely been out of my sight, other then when I slept. I sat thinking that Africa was conspiring against me again.

    Several hours of walking had brought me from Musa’s compound to this small village, which sits on the banks of the River Gambia and is famed on the tourist trail for appearing in Alex Haley’s novel Roots. There was not another toubab in sight on this day. But now I had to return. Retrace my steps. All the way to the British embassy perhaps.

    Road to Julfereh

    I jumped in the first mini-bus heading back. There was no sign of my passport 15km back up the dirt track at Musa’s.  The Peace Core volunteer was out harvesting honey. He returned just before sunset with bee bites covering his forehead and shouting at a procession of children who had followed him like the bees, back to the compound. 

    I slept there again that night  and the next morning took the first mini-bus back to the main road. The Spaniard’s house was a short walk out into the bush.  It was Friday and I was envisioning the rush and stress that would follow later in the day, racing to get to the British embassy before it’s midday closure.

    Ahmed was waiting for me when I arrived, stamping his foot when he saw me at the gates and throwing his hands in the air. “It’s here. You left it in the middle of the floor of your room”. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, then began apologising for my idiocy.  Part of me still wanted to think that it had been taken out of my bag when I left it there for a few hours following my siesta several days before. Whoever could have taken it (one of their employees?) and later placed it back I don’t know. I’ve had to leave hundreds of rooms over the years and do a spot check of my belongings. Perhaps at 6.30am on this particular morning with a lack of light I’d been more careless.

    Immigration Idiocy

    My month long stamp to stay in the Gambia was almost up. Returning with a new 28 days should have been a simple process. In theory I merely needed to cross out of The Gambia into Senegal and then re-enter with a new stamp.

    I walked and later hitched a lift with a community development officer (one of the few Gambians I met who wasn’t looking for a way to leave The Gambia) to the junction town of Farafenni.  The Senegalese border lay 2 km up the road.

    “Where are you going”, asked the young officer lifting himself up from the couch and taking my passport. “Senegal. But I’m coming back”. My passport was then stamped with another entry stamp. “But I’m leaving the country, not entering. This is the wrong stamp”.

    The process of events that took place over the next several hours could fill many pages. It involved returning to the immigration office in Farafenni and having my passport taken off me, before another incompetent, but far more senior officer came up with the conclusion that I was evading state rules by not extending my original stamp in Banjul, something that I would have had to pay for. I later returned to the border, left the country with an exit stamp, calmed my nerves with a cigarette and a coke in Senegal for 10 minutes before re-crossing into The Gambia.

    The problem then was that having already been given an entry stamp (the wrong kind) I couldn’t receive another entry stamp into the country on the same day. I needed I tourist stamp, not a transit entry stamp. I returned to Farafenni’s immigration office. Apparently they had the stamp I needed, but by this stage so many people had become involved and no-one was willing to accept the blame for giving me the wrong stamp in the first place.

    At one stage I thought a fight would break out as various immigration officers from the border argued with their colleagues in the office in Farafenni. People I hadn’t even seen earlier in the day decided it would be fun to get involved by raising their voices and pointing fingers at me, shouting “This is because of you”. I had to stop myself from laughing at the school-yard antics and remind myself that my passport still needed the correct stamp.

    It eventually came, but not before another mistake had been made. They hadn’t changed the date. It was May 1st, not April 29th. I might have asked for an apology, but knew that would have been asking for more trouble.

    A cold beer was badly needed. I was directed to a bar called ‘Peace and Love’. It looked like a bomb-shelter from the outside – half of these local bars in Africa do. The beer was cold but it was far from a relaxing drink. Three bare-chested and blood-shot eyed locals decided to pull a chair up. “Buy me a beer?” asked one who inserted “innit” at the end of everything he said. “Why?” I asked. “Because you’re white and my friend”. I soon finished the beer and left.

    Ferry Guide

    I had company leaving Farafenni the next morning. Abdullah was 16 and said he was going to be my guide. I found him helping out at a bike-work shop the previous day. He’d shown me where the bar was and a cheap guest-house. I bought him a coke and now he had it in his head that he was returning to Banjul with me. “I’ve travelled to Casamance by myself before. I can teach you Wolof”. I told him I was learning Mandinka. “I can speak that as well”.


    Farafenni lies on the trans-Gambia highway, a busy thoroughfare for traffic coming from Senegal and Casamance (the latter is part of Senegal but lies south of The Gambia).  All traffic must cross the river, over which a single ferry operates. Trucks and buses sat in a queue for more than a mile back from the river on either side.

    Queue for the river crossing

    Abdullah joined me for the 6km dust-filled walk to wait for the boat. I told him I was leaving at 7am. There was a knock at my door at 6.30am. “Can I come with you to Banjul”? By now I realised he was serious. I said no. He was too young. He should be at school. He said his family couldn’t afford it. “Aren’t government schools free”? I said surprised. “Only for girls”. That was equally surprising, but true apparently.

    Fishing boats on the River Gambia

    By the river

    I paid for his ticket across the river. When we walked off onto the south bank there was a change in his appearance. Several people recognised him and asked what he was doing. He looked nervous. His mobile started ringing. It was his Mum asking where he was. “I have to go now. My breakfast is ready”. I gave him his fair for the journey back and continued alone.

    Farewell Abdullah

    Dust Road

    I’d now reached the conclusion that walking in The Gambia was a dull affair. The landscape is almost entirely flat and there are very few features, other than the river. Sure there is a variety of trees – Mahogany, Baobab, Mango, Cashew, and a varied array of wild birds to admire, but there is nothing striking in the monotony of savana and occasionally mangrove that extend either side of it’s flowing artery.

    It was the people that was keeping me motivated. That and the fact that every day was different, spontaneous and unpredictable. Whilst one village might be predominantly Mandinka speaking and Muslim, the next could be Christian and full of Jolas and Pulas. There are more than half a dozen ethnic groups in The Gambia and it was the learning of new phrases as I passed from one village to the next, and the encounters  and conversations I was having with their inhabitants, that made the walk special.

    Young pula-speaking couple

    Jola kids

    Mangoes to the market

    A toubab walking alone in the heat with a back-pack obviously draws a lot of attention from people. Much like a toubab cycling in this part of the World. The difference when you walk is that everything is more intense. You can cycle through a village and wave at the people watching you, whereas walking you will have to speak to them. I might have several conversations of varying lengths with people and not cover more than a km in the space of a few hours.

    Most Gambians I met were curious, hospitable and greeted me with wide smiles. At the same time many asked, directly or indirectly, how I might help them to get to England or Europe. Men sat under the shade of mango trees with nothing to do. Said they had no job. One asked why I could enter The Gambia so easily but he couldn’t to the same in my country. I said something about the weather being too cold for him and the world being an unfair place.

    In another village I sat alongside an elderly man who gave me a bagful of cashew seeds, which we later roasted together on another open fire.  He tuned in to listen to the BBC World service afterwards whilst I lay in a daze listening to the reporter cover a story about poverty in the Welsh valleys. He was interviewing an Indian who had taken over managing one of the steel works there. When asked about the future of the valleys and the people there the Indian philosophically remarked “Everyone has a boarding pass in this World, but we just don’t know what the seat number is or the boarding time”.  Watching the mother carrying firewood and later collecting water from a stand-pump across the road I thought how far from the truth that was for most people here.

    The road began to take a toll on my feet on the south bank. I was walking in sandles with very little cushioning. Blisters were developing between the layer of red dust that soon settled on my feet. The road was being re-paved. It badly needed it.

    African feet

    I continued to walk and hitch my way back towards the coast, staying with two Peace Corp volunteers for one more evening. They were coming to the end of their service and both seemed pretty proficient in Mandinka. Something to put on the resume, although perhaps not all that useful back home.

    For me such ethnic languages hold more importance. Mankinka, Wolof and Pula in particular are spoken in many west African countries. Small phrases  and the whole host of greetings break the ice and go a long way.

    I’m now back in urban Gambia and planning my return to Dakar next week. My wrist, albeit still stiff, continues to make a gradual improvement. Tomorrow will be eight weeks since the attack. Several weeks ago a Canadian cyclist I met in Laos said he wanted to join me on the road for a few weeks. He’s flying into Dakar on the 16th May. It’s a bit premature, but I’m well ready to move on south.

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  • R&R in The Gambia April 14th, 2010

    Apologies for the hiatus. I’ve moved on to The Gambia – a tiny anglophone slither of land sandwiched between Senegal. European minds really thought this one out when they carved the continent up. It’s Africa’s smallest country, I think, dubbed the smiling coast, and could be cycled across in half a day.

    Unfortunately cycling is not yet an option. The bike and most of my gear  I’ve left back in Dakar – several hundred kilometres north of here.

    Over a month has now past since the machete attack that severed four of the extensor tendons in my left wrist. The scar looks clean, but full recovery is a long way off. The swelling continues to go down and there is a gradual improvement in the flexibility of both fingers and wrist. It’s still too early to  know when I’ll feel strong and confident enough to re-start cycling.

    I travelled here by shared taxi – a 6hr journey through baobab-dotted savanna, followed by a ferry crossing over the Gambia River. I expected more discomfort from the battered seven-seater Peugeot estate. The other passengers sat silently, breaking into voice when the car hit a pot-hole too quickly or narrowly missed colliding with a cow crossing the road.

    One of the passengers introduced himself as Tony, told me he was Gambian and that his Mum lived in Dakar. It was refreshing to have an English conversation with an African. It’s been a long time coming. He instructed me to follow him once the taxi finished it’s journey. This was a mistake, for I found myself in another taxi heading into The Gambia without an entry stamp in my passport. In the chaos of money-changers and fruit-sellers at the border I’d walked right past Gambian immigration unnoticed.

    Tony didn’t think this was a problem. I told him it would be. When I bid him an early goodbye and returned to the border the immigration officers agreed, but were far more interested to hear about my machete wounds. “Senegal is a dangerous place. Those people cannot be trusted”, voiced one of the officers whilst kicking a squawking chicken from under his desk.

    An hour later with my free entry stamp I was standing on a ferry crossing the River Gambia. Amongst the locals were a handful of white faces. I met and got talking to two young Australians. They called themselves ‘Amateurs in Africa’ – backpacking through the continent with less French than me and hoping to make it for the World cup.

    I’ve been here a week now, as has my Mum. She’s joined me in India and Egypt before, although this holiday looks likely to involve less travel. I’ve been taking a break from the computer, not least because Internet connection is painfully slow. Mungo Park’s trials and tribulations in travelling this part of the continent over 200 years ago currently dominates the reading matter. Lots more to follow.

    Clean scars

    Holiday reading