This weekend I took a trip up country or as it is generally known “I went on trek”. I have for some time been looking for a vehicle in which to explore the Gambia, but have not yet bought one, and as a result I have not yet been very far out of the Kombos because of the difficulty of transport. So this weekend I hired an Isuzu 4WD and went up to Basse, with Joe and Munya, a couple of other VSO volunteers. Basse is towards the eastern end of the Gambia, about 280 miles from Banjul, and it is possible to get there by public transport – in fact one of my VSO colleagues who works at Basse travels down to the bright lights here for a break on a regular basis, but I don’t envy her the experience. The trip is made in a converted van with bench seats (I can’t really describe them as minibuses) which leaves early in the morning and arrives about seven hours later. The passengers are usually packed quite tightly, there is no air conditioning to ameliorate the heat, and the suspension on many of the vehicles is pretty poor due to the treatment they receive on Gambian roads. The road along the south bank from Banjul is tarmac for most of the way, with the exception of a short stretch of perhaps ten or fifteen miles approaching the town of Soma, and hopefully this will soon also be improved. When I was last there some time before the rains there was much activity with motor graders scraping the dusty red laterite to a level finish followed by pavers and rollers laying a smooth topcoat of asphalt. Work had to be suspended for the wet season, but it will no doubt resume when conditions allow and there will then be a good road all the way to Basse. Our own trip in a comfortable vehicle (but still no A/C) took about five hours which is pretty good going, particularly as there are a number of checkpoints to be negotiated, some police, some immigration, some military. I’m not sure what they are looking for, possibly drugs, possibly Senegalese separatists, but in many cases it seemed just a formality to stop at the barrier where a very polite official saluted, asked where we were going and where we had come from, looked round the vehicle and occupants, and then waved us on with good wishes for a safe journey. In other places we were asked for our identity papers, insurance certificate, and driving licence, and the first time this happened the officer wasn’t sure whether Joe’s international driving licence was valid (it is), and had to ring HQ to check before letting us pass. On the following day we passed the same checkpoint twice and then the inspection was rather more cursory as it was the same team on duty, but on Sunday on our way back to the coast there had obviously been a shift change and we were again pulled over and details checked. Again, one of the officers was dubious about Joe’s licence, but after discussion with one of his colleagues he accepted Joe’s word about the validity being checking with higher authority the previous day.
When we reached Basse Santa Su it seemed like the end of the road – the tarmac strip ends at the outskirts of the only road into town and from then on we had to fight our way along a narrow muddy track crowded with people, animals, and vehicles of all sizes. The congestion was exacerbated by the fact that they were digging trenches about 5’ deep along the side and making concrete storm gutters, and as the spoil that had been excavated was piled alongside, in most places there was no room for vehicles to pass. Then of course there was the hazard of our fellow road users to negotiate as most drivers here seem to stop wherever the mood takes them, preferably on a corner, or at the narrowest spot, just to have a chat or go and do some shopping. We had been intending to find accommodation through the guide books but in the event our VSO colleague Jane offered to put us up in her compound so we spent the weekend student style on mattresses on the floor.
On Saturday, having initially had to push our vehicle after getting stuck in the mud in the back streets of Basse, we drove back west to Janjanbureh to visit the “slave warehouse” where we were shown round a dilapidated riverside store and told how slaves were imprisoned in the cellar before being put on a boat to be sent overseas. One of our guide books said that in fact the warehouse was built after slavery had been abolished and certainly there were a number of cast iron Victorian pillars which seemed to support that idea, and as our guide showed us a collection of rusty old handcuffs and bits of chain, together with a rather more modern scaffolding clamp (made in the UK) which he assured us was some form of manacle, I took what he said with a pinch of salt. Whatever the truth, he spun a good yarn, and collected some money from us so at least we helped support the local economy! He then took us to see the Governor’s house – a fine colonial building which has recently been refurbished with offices and accommodation for the regional Governor above. The Governor has however been obliged to move out as apparently the President took a liking to the place on a recent visit and has appropriated it for himself!
The car ferry across the river at Janjanbureh will accommodate four cars and apparently waits until there is a load before proceeding so we sat and ate roast maize from the street sellers while some more locals tried to part us from some more cash. After a while however they seemed to accept “I cannot give to everyone” although two young boys did insist on giving me their email address and taking mine. This has happened to me before in the Gambia although nobody has ever emailed me so I wonder if this is the equivalent of adding “friends” to your Facebook account.
A short drive on the north bank brought us to the stone circles at Wassu built about 2,500 years ago. As in our own culture, the Gambian ancestors erected pillars of stone – in this case laterite quarried only a few yards away – in circles, although in this case the pillars were erected in the African iron age, rather than the British stone age as at Stonehenge in my own country. The scale is rather different too – at Wassu the circles were probably only four or five metres in diameter and the stones themselves are rather smaller, the largest protruding only about 2.6m from the ground. The guide was very informative and there was a small on site museum showing details from an archaeological dig in the 1970’s where I also learned that similar circles can be found in France, Senegal, Mali, and Tanzania. I find it fascinating that various different civilizations, at totally different times, and in widely separated countries have all decided to build similar circles. The details are different but the basic principle appears to be the same and they are usually associated with burials or some kind of religious ceremony, often having stones aligned with the sun, moon and stars.
Our drive home from Basse the following day was uneventful, with the same checkpoints as before, some waving us through after a cursory glance, others being more rigorous in their inspections. I suppose a car on Banjul number plates containing three European volunteers, none of whom are fluent in local languages, is not the most suspicious vehicle on the road. Between Kanilai (birthplace of President Jammeh) and Brikama, the road was lined at intervals with soldiers so we assumed His Excellency would soon be returning to the State House from his weekend residence and I kept a wary eye in the mirror for blue lights – the Presidential motorcade travels at speed, heavily armed for any eventuality, and other vehicles are advised to get off the road if they see it coming!
In the event we arrived home about 4pm without incident (apart from nearly running out of fuel before Brikama), and I promptly fell asleep for three hours. Obviously too much excitement!