Another New Year

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.

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River Allahein – at the border

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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.

The reptile expert

The reptile expert

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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

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Don’t ask! I have no idea of the significance of the golf club!

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I thought they were North American?

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Another exotic animal.....and another golf club!

Another exotic animal…..and another golf club!

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.

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Joe, ever the professional, nonchalantly demonstrates an overhead cast

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Helen looks on in awe. “Which way do I turn the handle?”

While Paul shows them both how to do it....

While Paul shows them both how to do it….

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As I’ve said before, “It’s a hard life being a volunteer in the Gambia!”

Escape from the city (Part 2)

As I walked down the lane I was met by a group of smiling Gambian ladies, apparently some of the staff going off duty, and soon emerged into a clearing where I had my first sight of the emblematic domed lodges. By now however I was being greeted by another smiling lady and was soon esconced in a comfortable chair on the terrace with a refreshing glass of wonjo juice. Two wonjos later, and following an excellent lunch, I met Maurice – one half of the team behind the vision of Sandele, and was soon being shown to palatial quarters in lodge no 2, quietly situated along with three similar lodges in the bush a few yards away.

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These lodges designed and created by Maurice and Geri using compressed earth blocks are each characterised by a large domed brick roof thus minimising the use of timber (deforestation is a major problem in the Gambia as the population cut down vast areas of trees for building and firewood leading to serious land degradation and erosion). This building technique was new to the Gambia and they had to import the block-making machine and send two local craftsmen to India to learn the skills necessary for construction – skills which since then have been put to use elsewhere, most notably in the construction of the Ebujan Theatre in Kanifing which is presently the largest brick domed structure in (West) Africa. Sandele is built on principles of sustainability, and this principle extends not only to the construction of the lodges which are equipped with solar water heating, composting toilets and water recycling, but also to solar panels and wind turbines to produce power, the employment of over 75% staff from the local community, sourcing of all food locally, support for local craftsmen, and establishment of a community development fund which receives a contribution for every bed/night booked. In addition when they began the creation of their dream, Maurice and Geri entered into an agreement whereby after 25 years the 26 hectares of land on which Sandele stands, together with everything on it, becomes the property of the community of Kartong.

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I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and inspecting my surroundings before enjoying the luxury of a HOT shower for the first time since I arrived in The Gambia, followed by dinner in good company on the terrace, and then retired to a huge half tester bed with crisp linen sheets and only the ocean for company, lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves instead of the usual loud music and drumming into the early hours to which I have become accustomed in Bakau.

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I was woken by bird song at first light and spent an hour wandering alone along the beach watching fishing boats in the distance and trying to pick out the birds in the thick vegetation of the forest. About nine o’clock, after taking breakfast in solitary splendour – it was a Sunday after all and my fellows were apparently taking advantage of a lie-in, I set off down the road to Kartong. The only traffic was on foot like myself, or on bicycles which approached slowly in the heat or crept up noiselessly behind. I met a few small children eager to greet me with the standard “Hello, how are you? What is your name?” and shake hands, and by ten I was turning off the tarmac down a wide red strip heading through the Bird Sanctuary towards the beach.  From time to time I had to step off the road to avoid the dust from a stream of tipper lorries carrying more red earth to where a bulldozer and a motor grader were making a new road section. It seems that a new mosque is being built here right on the coast and quite a way from any major habitation which seems an odd choice of site, particularly as there is an existing mosque which is currently being extended and refurbished on a sand dune next to the sea only a couple of miles away. When I had seen it the previous day I thought it was a luxury hotel being built, but it seems that the site is considered sacred since a visit by Khalifat’ul Tijanniyya Sheik Umar Taal a famous Islamic scholar, pilgrim and militant leader in the late 19th century. He visited Mecca between 1828 and 1831 then returned to West Africa and established his authority over a large area from Senegal to Nigeria attracting thousands of disciples from all over the region.

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Down on the strand I was alone apart from a solitary figure collecting sea shells and a small herd of cattle lying peacefully on the sand in the distance. I was nearly at the border with Senegal so turned north again for another walk along the deserted shoreline back to Sandele. All went well apart from having to avoid a few small purple jellyfish washed up at the water’s edge, but I thought I was in trouble when I saw the vultures gathering in front of me. As I plodded slowly towards them I could see what appeared to be a large white shape on the sand that from a distance could have been a plastic jerrycan but when I got closer I found it was the upturned shell of a dead turtle.

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The vultures didn’t seem too bothered by my presence and merely hopped away from my immediate vicinity and we sat and watched each other in silence. They made no attempt to feed, although something had pecked away part of the head and two legs, but just sat in a ragged group as if waiting for me to leave. One or two others circled overhead then also landed on the sand and scuttled towards the turtle then just stood patiently watching and waiting. I left them to it and continued my trek, along the way meeting up with Bubacarr and his friends sitting watching the ocean. They were apparently intending me to join them for more attayah but it was already midday and I was looking forward to lunch so I made my excuses saying that Maurice and Geri were expecting me and continued the last section back to Sandele!

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Another excellent lunch ensued followed by a tour with Geri who explained to me the principles on which Sandele was built, how the project had taken shape, and what plans there were for the future development of the area. I saw the machine from which the building blocks for the entire site are made, and visited some areas I had missed in my self guided inspection the previous afternoon, including the conference/student accommodation complete with a cool shady cloister, and the “temporary” restaurant dining area which will be dismantled block by block when the planned replacement is built. Finally and with some regret I bid farewell and accepted the offer of a lift back to Gunjur where I was lucky enough to catch a van to Brikama almost immediately and from there another back to my starting point in Bakau.

It had been a relaxing two days although my legs ached from all the walking, and it certainly won’t be the last time I visit Sandele. Perhaps the next time I’ll have more time and be able to stay a little longer.

Escape from the city (Part 1)

As I had hoped it was a case of third time lucky this weekend and finally after two postponements I managed my first trip away. I caught a van from Bakau to Serrekunda, and then set off on foot in what I hoped was the direction of Dippa Kunda as I had been told that the route I was going on began at “Dippa garasi” – the taxi/van terminus in Dippa. After a brisk walk and several stops to ask the way I found myself outside Dippa Kunda police station where I met OJ (at least I think that is what he said) an extremely helpful young policeman who not only escorted me to the right van park, but also took charge of buying a ticket for me and with much handshaking saw me installed on the correct vehicle – a rather dilapidated looking Mercedes van with a large roof rack. By now it was 8.30 and within about 15 minutes our transport was full, the roof rack stacked high with sundry luggage including about eight 5-gallon jerrycans skilfully roped together on the roadside by a lady with two small children, and with a crunch of gears and much horn blowing we swayed off over the bumpy ground and made our way onto the road. The first section of the route we weaved our way through heavy traffic but very soon, as we were passing through Sukuta, the traffic thinned, the houses grew further apart, and we began to climb up through Brufut Heights, a pleasant area on the outskirts of the urban sprawl where there was much new construction in progress, along with billboards urging us to buy a plot there. We crossed Brusubi turntable (which at home we would call a roundabout, and which is a notable landmark here simply because it’s the only one in the country) and continued through the suburbs towards Ghana Town and the countryside beyond. The road was a good tarmac strip – I could not only see it over the driver’s shoulder, but also through the holes in the floor beneath my feet – and we made good progress as we sped southwards down the coast through the Tanji River Reserve. This area of tidal lagoons, mangrove swamps, coastal scrub and dry savannah has been protected since 1993 because of the variety of bird life and is a popular haunt for “twitchers” as over 300 different species of bird have been recorded here including 34 birds of prey. Tanji was not my destination today however, and we continued south to Sanyang where we deposited the pile of jerrycans, two children and mother and made a short detour to collect more passengers, then back onto the tarmac for the short distance to Gunjur. Here we disembarked at a petrol station where there appeared to be a couple of fruit stalls, a bunch of small boys playing football, two empty taxis, and nothing else, so I began to walk.

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About a mile down the road I found a sign pointing into the bush indicating a women’s garden project with solar borehole sponsored by a Dutch group and I set off to investigate. A sandy track led past a couple of compounds where the children greeted me with the usual shouts of “toubab” and disappeared into the scrub. After five minutes walking and no sign of the gardens I gained a friend, a young man on a bicycle who attached himself to me to act as my guide, and after asking directions in Mandinka (him, not me) from a couple of ladies with the usual large loads on their heads we ended up back near my starting point, in a large garden with a number of ladies drawing water by bucket from concrete lined wells, and the only man in sight watering bananas from a hosepipe connected to an elevated storage tank filled from the well by a solar panel powered pump.Gambia_0189

After a short inspection and thanking those present, we retraced our steps, crossed the road and entered Gunjur which turned out to be quite a large settlement, but set back in the bush away from the roadside which is why I had not spotted it before. Here we enjoyed a bottle of pop in the marketplace before yet again I retraced my steps and began to walk south towards Kartong.

As I stepped out along the roadside I came up with two young men from Guinea Conakry who were working in the Gambia and for the next half hour we chatted as we walked until we came to the village of Madina Salaam where I left them and turned off to follow a track down towards the beach.

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At the end of the track I came to Hotel Nemasu, hoping to find a cold drink, but seeing no-one by the bar I continued onto the beach which appeared deserted apart from two dogs enjoying the shade of a thatched umbrella, and I joined them on a sun lounger while I surveyed the scene and opened my bottle of squash. I was soon joined by Lamin from Nemasu who had come to tidy up round the sunloungers and was as surprised by my presence as I was by his. The dogs too were delighted to have some attention after a quiet morning and we sat together for a while until I decided to move on.

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As I walked south again in the edge of the waves I was joined by the only other person in sight, a young man by the name of Bubacarr Chune who walked with me for what seemed like miles telling me his life story without seeing another soul until he could steer me skilfully into “About Time”, a small bar in the sand dunes newly set up very recently by one of his friends. The owner and another friend – a couple of Bob Marley lookalikes – were drinking attaya (what a surprise!), so after the usual complimentary glass I felt I should splash out on four bottles of pop and was treated to a drumming session by my new found friend. I had walked a long distance and was glad of a rest in the shade but Bubacarr was keen to take me to “the lagoons” so after a brief respite we set off south again, fortunately only a short distance through the dunes until we came to some old sand pits which he seemed surprised to find were dry. I persuaded my young companion that I had gone far enough for the day and after another half hour walking back northwards along an almost deserted road we parted company – he to walk back to his grandmother’s house in Gunjur, and I to turn west into a sandy lane marked by the sign showing three concentric rings for Sandele Bay eco-retreat…………..

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To be continued………….