I was asked recently what I had done to celebrate the New Year and the answer is “not a lot really!”. I spent a couple of days at the very end of December staying at Boboi, a small lodge down the coast near Kartong, so most of the time I sat under the palm trees relaxing and enjoying the peace and quiet. I’ve been there before to get away from the noise of the Kombo and it’s amazing what a difference there is in a short distance down the coast. The journey from Bakau is done comfortably in an hour and it feels like a world away. Gone are the crowded streets and noise of my home neighbourhood in Mamakoto, gone is the “Costa-like” atmosphere of the Senegambia area where the big European style tourist hotels are situated, and in their place are three or four Gambian round houses set among palm trees just off the beach, together with a couple of tree houses and a small bar. I’ve only stayed in the round houses (which cost about £24 a night including breakfast of bread and fruit) as I prefer somewhere with shower and toilet attached, but for those on a tighter budget half that price will rent a tree house although if you’re caught short in the night you have to climb down the steps in the dark and walk across the yard!
If you’re looking for a lively time forget it (although there was a party one night about ten minutes walk down the beach, but in typical Gambian fashion it didn’t start until about 10pm and then continued until the early hours), but for a relaxing break I would highly recommend it. On New Year’s Eve I drove a few miles further south down to the very end of the Gambia – past the military checkpoints and immigration officers to the River Allahein which forms the border with Senegal and sat on the bank watching a local with a canoe ferrying passengers backwards and forwards to Casamance. Two young German travellers were wanting to cross to Senegal but had some difficulty with the boatman who insisted on charging them considerably more than the locals. They looked to me like penniless students, but to him they were obviously rich Europeans! The area on the other side of the river is disputed territory where the separatists are fighting for independence and an area where our Government advises UK citizens only to travel on certain routes and then only in daylight hours to avoid the possibility of hijackings and robbery. It all looked peaceful enough from my side, just a chap on a motorbike waiting to pick someone up from the ferry.
That afternoon it was windy and overcast so I went to visit the nearby Reptile Farm which has a good collection of snakes, crocodiles, turtles and the like. It is the only such place in the Gambia and is set up as a research and education centre. Our guide obviously knew the science but was also very entertaining, and as you can see from the picture I too was able to demonstrate my extensive knowledge of rock pythons.
At present they are conducting a survey of crocodiles to ascertain the balance between the crocodile population and the fish stocks (crocodiles are a protected species but it is thought their numbers are getting too high in the Gambia) so it is possible to book an afternoon learning about crocodiles and how to handle little ones and then take part in a night safari in a boat on the river counting the beasts. Sounds like fun!
We had talked about going to Senegambia that evening to see the New Year in – apparently the hotels have a big firework display, but it is also apparently very crowded and when, as I drove home past Senegambia that afternoon I saw three fire engines parked up ready for the festivities I thought it better to stay away. (I hear there was only one small restaurant fire!). In the event we had a bar meal near home – including pancake for dessert as it was a special occasion – and then went home to bed, only to be woken about midnight by what sounded like World War Three. I felt I should go outside to watch the fireworks …..so promptly rolled over and went back to sleep.
On New Years Day a number of us went to Banjul to see the “hunting” celebrations. There are various hunting societies (which in days gone by actually went into the bush to hunt wild animals and then exhibited what they had caught/killed) who process round their own neighbourhood with a dancer dressed as an animal followed by the rest of the members some of who have weapons, and then at New Year gather in the capital for a kind of competition. Most of the afternoon was spent just watching the crowds milling about backwards and forwards with the occasional “animal” going past and by 7pm I was ready for home. The costumes were quite remarkable, although mostly fairly similar apart from the head, but apart from that I failed to see what the locals were finding so exciting about the event, and the crush was indescribable as we struggled to get out and find our way back to the car
Last Sunday however was just the opposite. One of my neighbours had organised a boat trip so about twenty of us assembled at 9am on the riverbank with picnics and fishing tackle and spent the next seven hours pottering about the creeks enjoying the sun or moored in the middle of the river sitting idly fishing and barbecuing our lunch.
As I’ve said before, “It’s a hard life being a volunteer in the Gambia!”