The Gambia Part 1: New friends and border crossings

We left Dakar with Chi, a new friend, Marco and a savage hangover after our leaving party. By midday we starting to flag in the heat. Fortunately when we stopped for lunch we were spotted by Pablo, possibly the most French Frenchman I have ever met. On hearing about our trip he immediately invited us back to his place for a siesta, I hesitated briefly, being slightly suspicious of a man dressed in white jeans, white trainers and a white t shirt, but faced with the option of continuing in the baking sun, agreed.

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Leaving Dakar, Marco weaving his way past bicycles, scooters, trucks and horse drawn carts

It turned out to be an excellent decision, Pablo lived in the most amazing house which he had designed. It was constructed around a gigantic 800 year old baobab tree. It seemed like a strange existence, floating around this incredible house, a glass of pastis permanently in hand, with only his 3 alsatians and various employees for company; but he seemed content. We ended up staying and spent a sleepless night listening to the creaks and groans of the house, the whining of mosquitos and some scratching and scurrying, the source of which I tried not to think to hard about. 

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We set off the following morning, heading for the Gambian border. It was a long an incredibly hot drive, but it was fun to travel with other bikers for a change. Standing in the queue to get our exit stamp we got chatting to a local woman, we told her we had driven here from London and she looked at us in amazement, ‘how many years did that take?’  Outside the immigration and customs buildings there were 40 or so street kids begging. Earlier that day we had stopped at a petrol station and bought a drink and some snacks, a gang of kids had lurked nearby watching our every move. As soon as we got up to leave they pounced on the almost empty packet of peanuts we had left, there were just 3 nuts left in the bottom of the bag but the boy who got to them first sprinted away shoving the nuts into his mouth as fast as he could before any of the other boys could catch him. It was incredibly sad to see as it was obvious that they had not eaten in a long time. I knew it was not helpful to give the children money but I resolved that next time I would buy them some food. This was why faced with the children at the border I bought a packet of biscuits and beckoned one child over indicating that he should share them amongst the others. Unfortunately my plan backfired somewhat as the poor child holding the biscuits instantly disappeared under a hail of blows as the other children wrestled him to the ground. I stood on helplessly watching the mini riot I had inadvertently started. Eventually one child emerged from the pile victorious and sprinted off across the border to The Gambia, the biscuits held aloft in his tiny fist, the others following in hot pursuit. On the Gambian side I got chatting to one of the border officials who turned out to be child protection officer. He explained that a lot of children are trafficked from Senegal over the border to Gambia and visa versa. Many are sent by their families to Madrassa’s (Koranic schools), the families believe the children will be looked after and receive an education, but instead the immams send the children out begging or to sell firewood and keep their earnings. He said it was important not to give children any money as this only encourages these practices, I asked about food and he explained this would most often be taken by force by the biggest child (as I had just witnessed). 

From the moment we crossed no mans land and entered the Gambian side of the border, it felt different; more militarised. Waiting in the office to get our visas we spotted a Wanted poster, featuring various generals and highly ranked military officials, presumably who were involved in the attempted coup. In the middle of my conversation with the child protection officer he suddenly fell silent, I looked about confused and spotted the group of soldiers marching purposefully towards us. Around us everyone had ceased what they were doing at the sight of the soldiers and stood silent and motionless, cars stopped in the middle of the street; it looked as if time had been frozen. One exception to this was an old man on his bicycle, who continued on his way apparently oblivious to the angry stares and hissed reprimands directed at him. I liked to think this was his own subtle form of political protest. We all watched as the Gambian flag, which had been flying about the immigration office was carefully lowered and with much fanfare and saluting was carefully folded and marched away. Chi who was stood next me remarked that he thought the ceremony was beautiful. To me ‘beautiful’ seemed like a strange adjective to use, but perhaps Chinese and Gambians have more in common that you might think. 

By the time we crossed the border and sorted out visas it was getting dark. We just missed the bridge, which unusually for anything in Africa closed promptly at 7pm and instead took the ferry. We stayed overnight at a scout camp and the following day drove to Bartukundu, a small village by the coast. On the way we passed numerous police and military checkpoints, frequently they would ask if we had brought them a present? Our standard answer: the gift of God’s love. Alternatively we would tell them our friend was following and he had all the presents; poor Marco bringing up the rear couldn’t work out why the police were so convinced he had something for them!

In Bartunkundu we met up with John and Manon, a Dutch couple in their late 50’s/early 60’s, they had only recently met but decided to sell everything and set off travel Africa in their Defender. They had rented a house in the village and invited us to camp overnight in their garden. We spent a very pleasant evening drinking wine and listening to John’s amazing stories of being imprisoned in Chad in the 70’s, taking up mountain climbing for the first time in his 40’s and making 3 solo attempts to climb Annapurna (the 10th highest and statistically the most dangerous mountain in the world). The following day we set off to visit our friend Ebrima in his village. 

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Pictured: Manon, John, Ruth, Jim, Chi, Marco, Leon

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