A bicycle ride

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

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Gambia_0608A 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.

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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.

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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………….

On The Beach

On Easter Monday I visited Banjul for the first time together with four of my fellow volunteers as we had heard there was to be a kite festival on the beach with barbecues and “food and drink at reasonable prices” starting at noon. The cheapest way to get there is by “gelli-gelli” which is another kind of taxi, basically a battered minibus, usually of Japanese origin (although I have seen a few Ford Transits among the ubiquitous Nissans) and of indeterminate age, sometimes with a name stencilled on it, and with a sliding side door which usually looks as though it comes from another vehicle. I suspect this is often the case as these vans have a hard life driving round the urban area constantly stopping and starting on request, loading and unloading every few minutes, and that side door must take a lot of wear, so will have probably been replaced several times. In the UK most of these vans would be classed as 12-seaters, but here they are fitted with another seat by the side door which folds up to give access to the rear and then down again to accommodate another passenger.  Usually there are about 15 passengers together with whatever luggage each person is carrying.

Leaning out of the side window as this vehicle approaches is a young man shouting the destination or route of travel, although sometimes this takes a little understanding as the cry is abbreviated rather like the newspaper sellers on the streets at home, but I now know that “Wessfeelah” is the major junction at Westfields where the taxis and vans congregate and where you can change to another route. Serekunda and Bakau are rather easier cries to understand. The young man also acts as conductor and needs a good memory as passengers pay at varying times during the trip, so he has to remember who has paid and who has not, who still wants change, and at the same time (unless the van is fully occupied) drum up trade by shouting for more passengers.

On Monday we met up at Westfields about 11am and joined the throng of travellers jostling for space on the vans. It was rather akin to entering a rugby scrum but our little group was immediately grabbed by one of the touts who make it their purpose to find you a seat and get you on a van, and after lots of banging on van doors and shouting, (mostly “Come, come” or Wait, wait”), and several near misses when we were beaten to spaces by other passengers, he managed to install us all on the same van by the simple expedient of ejecting a rival. Even so the conductor was all for removing one of our group too, as rather surprisingly he said there were too many on the seat (only five of us in space for three!), but someone sat a child on their knee and one of us moved into the space, honour was satisfied and our Bank Holiday jaunt to the seaside began.

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The first sight as you enter the capital is Arch 22 which was erected to commemorate the Revolution of 22nd July 1994 when the young army Captain Yahya Jammeh took power in a bloodless coup. (The young captain later resigned from the army and became President, an office he still holds). There we disembarked and walked across the road to the long sandy beaches – deserted except for a small flock of sheep and a solitary fruit juice seller. We turned north and walked along the water’s edge until we came to the old market area where a couple of fishing boats were unloading against a backdrop of small boats loaded with passengers crossing the mouth of the River Gambia from Banjul to Barra, and a large cargo ship steaming slowly upstream to the port. The water looked very choppy, the river estuary is very wide, the boats rather small, and few of the passengers had life jackets. I was grateful to have my feet on terra firma and thought “rather them than me”.

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We had seen no sign of any kites so we spent some time wandering through the fruit and vegetable stalls (a rather more peaceful pastime than in the frenetic atmosphere of Serekunda market) and being invited to inspect the contents of each craft stall by the owner who seemed baffled by the idea that I might not actually want to buy any bracelets, wooden carvings, bags, or sand paintings.

We made various enquiries about the kite festival and at last found someone who had heard about it and said it would be behind the cemetery, back near our starting point at Arch 22 so we cut back to the beach and walked south again, Atlantic breakers on one side and empty sand stretching into the distance in front. It was now 2pm and I had given up hope of any festival, or anything to eat, until all at once a single solitary blue kite appeared in the sky ahead and we came across a handful of people setting up stall around a cluster of tent canopies. We were saved!

The barbecued chicken was good, and as we sipped our soft drinks (about 40p a bottle from a well known global CCompany), the locals began to arrive. By 5pm it reminded me of photos of post war Britain – whole families sitting on the beach in their Sunday best. Meanwhile “DJ Mose” played non-stop music, and a procession of dignitaries made speeches from the stage. I don’t know what was said but there were a lot of names mentioned, and much applause.

We had splashed out £2.40 for two home made kites from a stall so teamed up with some of the local children and set off down the beach where Helen ran a Play School for the little girls – drawing in the sand and finding out the Wolof names for various animals while the boys flew kites.

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The winds were perfect for flying but after a while my team’s kite crashed beyond repair although the volunteers were still in with a chance of a prize for highest kite (thanks to Joe’s unfair advantage of an extra long ball of string!) until at it’s full extent the string came off the handle (Joe said that Munya accidentally let go) and our hopes floated off towards Banjul.

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By now the beach was alive, the girls were parading in groups – dressed to kill and swaying their hips to the music while the boys affected a marked lack of interest, extended family groups were catching up with news from friends and relations, and a colleague of Helen had produced some bottles of palm wine. It took about an hour to extricate her (and Joe) from the party but unfortunately two of our group are vegetarian and had found nothing to eat all day, so it was time to leave before we had to carry them! It was only 7pm, the place was hopping and as we walked back up the road to Banjul to find a van ride home it seemed as if the entire population was walking in the opposite direction heading for the beach.

I bet it was a hell of a party.