We left the Gambia with Chi and Jim (of the famed 6 day Diama border standoff). We decided to take one of the smaller borders between The Gambia and Senegal in the hopes that Jim could avoid a repeat of his earlier standoff. Our plan started well, we got to the border early and quickly set about making friends. Government officials in Africa are by and large extremely bored. Time and again we have found that the best way to get around bureaucracy and corruption is simply to strike up a conversation, make people laugh, chat about favourite football teams, motorbikes, our trip so far; entertain people and more often than not they will be friendly and helpful in return. On entering the country this plan had worked so well that a very senior and (initially) sour faced immigration officer ended up inviting us all to stay at his house. Now upon leaving The Gambia I found myself being invited into the living quarters of the only female and most senior immigration officer working at this tiny post. I had not realised that all of the staff live at the border. This officer had two small and sparsely decorated adjoining rooms, furnished with a single bed, a TV and a fridge. The bathroom facilities were shared with the other (all male) staff and were, she complained, disgusting. For many years she had worked at the Gambia’s northern border and had lived with her husband on the other side, in Senegal. Then one day without warning she was told that she was being posted to this remote border in the South. Her husband and eldest children still live in Senegal, she has not seen them in more than 4 months, only her youngest child lives with her at the border. I asked her how much she earnt, I had not expected it to be a great deal but was still shocked when she told me her salary was just 2000 Dalasi (£31) each month. Even taking into account the lower cost of living in The Gambia, this is still pitifully low. It made me realise how great the temptation toward corruption must be, even if just one tourist a month pays a 10 euro ‘service fee’ that is nearly a 33% increase on the officer’s monthly salary.
Whilst I was busy chatting Leon, Chi and Jim were sorting out our paperwork. When it became clear that we could not get the exit stamp on our carnet at this border (the Duane officer had left for the day and taken the only stamp with him) another officer hopped on the back of the bike and accompanied Leon on a 20km round trip down a terrible road to the nearest office where he could get this sorted! Eventually we left with a lot of new facebook friends and without having been asked to pay a penny. The road through no mans land was a sandy track, cutting through dense, green jungle. We passed two small checkpoints where some guys in army fatigues checked our passports and wrote our names in a book but nothing else. We continued, figuring that the official border post where we would get our visas, entry stamp and carnet stamp must be some way further on. After driving another 20km through the jungle, we emerged onto a main road and realised that either we had somehow managed to miss the border post (unlikely) or we had entered through a border which was not meant to be used by foreign tourists. Either way, we were now technically illegal immigrants in Senegal, having no visas and no documents for our vehicles. We considered briefly what to do, we could go and present ourselves to the police / immigration officers in town and explain what had happened but we knew this would be an open invitation for a hefty ‘fine.’ We could turn around, drive the 25km or so back to The Gambia and enter through another border, but besides the fact that none of us wanted to repeat a long, hot and difficult drive through the jungle we knew this too would involve some awkward conversations at the military checkpoints, not to mention having to negotiate another border. In the end we decided the best thing to do was just to continue on, if anyone queried our lack of documents we would feign polite ignorance and say that we used an official border, our details were written in a big book and so we assumed it was all fine. Just be on the safe side though we figured it was a good idea to speed through all future police checkpoints with a friendly wave and hope that no one chased after us.
The Cassamance region of Senegal is very different to the rest of the country, it’s inhabitants are mostly from the Jola ethnic group, who are non hierarchical and Christians or animists unlike the rest of Senegal who are predominantly Muslim. For many years there was conflict as Cassamance sought it’s independence, but following a ceasefire in 2014 the region is now mostly peaceful. In contrast to the generally arid, baobab dotted landscapes of the rest of the country, Cassamance is covered in dense green vegetation. We headed for Cap Skirring a beautiful, wide and sandy beach, along which cows and the occasional tourist peacefully roam. The drive was beautiful, the roads were lined with palm trees and cut through vast, watery, mangrove areas. In contrast to the other areas of Senegal we had visited it felt wilder and much less inhabited.
We managed to negotiate with the owner of a hotel to let us camp for free in the garden on the condition that we ate a of food and drank a lot of beer. We ended up staying for a week and did our best not to disappoint! All in all it was relaxing time, with most days spent surfing and sunbathing, apart from one night when we woke up at 3am to an extremely drunk (and possibly mentally unwell) guy trying to climb into our tent!
A short walk along the beach from where we stayed was the fishing port. As at the Port Du Peche, in Noukshott, Mauritania, men ran out into the waves to meet the returning boats, loading the day’s catch into crates which they ferried back and forth along the beach as fast as they could. In contrast to the Port Du Peche, nobody here minded me taking pictures, in fact a lot of people shouted for me to take their photo and happily stopped to chat. The men collecting the fish are paid 100 CFA ($0.17p) per trip and on a food day can make 2000 CFA ($3.40). I watched some young boys playing at being fisherman in the waves, whilst others just a few years older were hard at work tying bait lines and repairing nets. One of the women I spoke to told me the boys working were around 11 or 12 years old, they were sent away to work for a few months at a time by their families and would return to them at the end of the ‘fishing season.’
At our hotel we met Ismail, a Gambian guy who worked as a boat mechanic at a fancy resort and who, with his enormous and ever present grin, was the embodiment the Gambia’s nickname of ‘the smiling coast of Africa.’ That Friday night Leon made him his first (but certainly not last) rum cocktail and he took us out to a reggae party at a local bar. On Sunday when he had his day off he offered to take us out on his friends boat to visit some of the nearby islands. It was wonderfully relaxing, floating in the small wooden boat down deep blue waterways, dotted with many islands covered in lush green vegetation, stopping every now again to fish or to swim. The peaceful tranquility was broken only by Ismail’s friendly shout (every 10 minutes or so) of ‘Lion (Leon) you OK? KK (Chi) you OK? James (Jim) you OK? Brief (Ruth) you OK? This would invariably be followed by what soon became his motto, “If you’re OK, I’m OK!”
It was difficult to end what had been a very relaxing holiday, but it was time to get back on the road. Next stop Guinea Bissau and with only the small issue of how to exit Senegal without anyone noticing that we hadn’t legally entered it to overcome.