I haven’t ridden a bicycle for several years, because at home in the UK I automatically jump into the car for longer trips, or for shorter distances I prefer to walk (unless I’m in a hurry, or feeling lazy). This weekend however my neighbours have been away and I borrowed a bicycle from them to allow me to cover a greater area than I have done previously on foot. Gambia is very flat with only about 100m difference between the highest and lowest points, and in the urban area there is only an occasional slope, so I thought it would be easy. I had however forgotten how uncomfortable a bike saddle can be, and my first day on the road reminded me why I had got rid of my own bike. Besides that it was a warm day and I was soon sweating in the heat.
The purpose of my exertions was to widen my search for a car. I have been here nearly six months now and not got very far out of the coastal strip, so decided a month or so ago to find a 4WD vehicle which I could use at weekends to explore “up country” where, apart from the main highway to the Kombos, the roads are often unpaved dirt tracks with large ruts and potholes, and at this time of year a lot of water. However although there are a lot of cars for sale in the Gambia, the search is not as easy as at home because although there are a few roadside sites where a few cars – presumably the property of a motor trader – are standing under a tree, the majority are widely scattered throughout the area, just parked by the road with a telephone number in the window and nothing more. As a result, if you find something which looks suitable, you first have to ring an unknown telephone number to find out what it is (diesel? petrol? age?) and most importantly whether it is within your budget, although you are always told it is “the starting price” which is I think sometimes inflated when the vendor thinks they are speaking to a “toubab”. Certainly second hand cars are quite a lot more expensive than similar ones would be at home, but of course they are all imported, mainly from the Netherlands, Germany, UK and Scandinavia, so there is a shipping cost built into the price as well as import duty, before the vendor takes any profit.
I had previously looked at several cars, but found nothing I thought would be good enough for my purpose (in other words get me around Gambia for a few months in some tough terrain without letting me down) except one Land Rover Discovery which was rather more than I wanted to pay – and sold within a week while I was waiting for the price to drop! Yesterday I saw one possible, although still in rather worse condition than I would like, and at an inflated price, and when I arrived home about 2pm I was exhausted by the heat and the effort and had to spend the next two hours rehydrating and recovering from my tour!
Today therefore I set off about 7.30 to avoid the heat, although it had rained heavily during the night and was rather cooler, and I took a different direction from the day before. For well over an hour I rode round the Serekunda area and saw nothing remotely of interest, then turned down a side road to head for the Brikama highway which I guessed would be running to my right. As I cycled onward the tarmac grew thinner and eventually petered out altogether leaving me to continue along dirt roads with flooded ruts and potholes and eventually I realized I was lost and so decided to pick up the next bit of tarmac I saw and follow wherever it led. (It must come out somewhere I recognise!) Gradually the ruts disappeared, the surface grew harder, the tarmac wider, and eventually I re-emerged more or less at the same point I had left twenty minutes earlier. So much for my short cut!
This time I decided to follow the longer route which I recognised from previous trips to the area, and so duly arrived at the Brikama highway, by which time it was starting to rain. As the downpour increased I took shelter under a nearby tree where I remained for 45 minutes or so as the heavens opened and the waters rose steadily on the dual carriageway in front of me. When I first took shelter the scene was quite normal – just another cloudburst
A few vehicles were still ploughing through – mainly four wheel drives and commercials, or the ubiquitous Mercedes taxis, but most decided instead to cut through the central reservation before the flooded section and continue on the opposite carriageway which was rather drier. Eventually the rain eased, and rolling up my trousers I waded into the flow and carried on cycling upriver with the rest of the traffic. The cyclists kept to the higher ground where the water was shallower and until we got out of the flood the motor traffic was slowed to our speed for fear of waterlogging. Ten minutes later the rain increased again and I had to head for a petrol station forecourt where several of us chatted under the canopy while the heavens opened once more accompanied by thunder and lightning and howling wind. Traffic was by now more or less at a standstill although here the flooding was a lot less severe, but at last the rain cleared and I continued on my way towards Tabokoto where I had seen a Landrover for sale as I passed on my journey to work in the mornings. A brief inspection showed that it had originated from Holland and looked quite sound, but the chassis number told me that it was a year newer than anything else I had looked at and with the updated TD5 engine, so I expect when I track down the owner that he will ask me rather more than I want to pay.
The question of how much I pay is also affected by the exchange rate. When I was first in the Gambia, £1 sterling was worth over 50 dalasis, and in fact I’ve seen it up to about 56 as the dalasis decreased in value. Recently however President Jammeh has closed all the foreign exchange bureaux and set an artificial exchange rate in an attempt to bolster the currency, with the result that all exchange has to be done through the banks, and this has in effect devalued my budget for a car by over 10%.
On the way home I had to shelter at the petrol station once more, and approaching the centre found that the flood water from one of the side roads was coming onto the highway in such quantities that it had filled the outbound side and was spilling over the central reservation onto the inbound carriageway.
The rain today had certainly kept me cooler than yesterday and I was quite wet, but by the time I arrived home I was thoroughly soaked thanks to just one inconsiderate van driver who passed by so close that he threw a huge wave over my head and utterly drenched me. All the other drivers who passed me and the other cyclists en route had overtaken wide and slow but I think this chap probably thought it was funny to soak me. He didn’t think it so amusing however when I caught up with him at the van terminus a few hundred yards further on and taught him a few new words. Still soaking, but having relieved my feelings I continued home and straight into the shower. It was a real pleasure to don clean dry clothes and have a nice cup of tea! I wasn’t much further forward in my search, but at least I had had some exercise, and I certainly saw a lot more from my bike than on foot or in a vehicle.