The Gambia

25th of February 2019 – 23rd of March 2019: 

The border to the Gambia was only 200m from our overnight and we exited Senegal in no time. A few weeks ago, we met a Gambian in a taxi and kept contact since then. Shocked, we told him that we must pay 60 Euros per person for the visa for his small country and he promised to help us somehow. This morning, he started travelling to the border at 6 AM in Serrekunda to meet us before noon at the border to help us. Finally, we got our visa for 25 Euros, since he had an old school friend working at the borer who gave us a friend’s discount.  

Happy and appreciative about our new stamp in the passport, we started cycling on the roads of the Gambia after having lunch with Oj. As already in Senegal, children screamed “Toubab” (White people) from everywhere and ran towards us. The only difference was now that the next fragments of words from their mouths were “pen and “money” instead of “stylo” and “argent”. The landscape was suddenly clearly greener and occasionally there were water holes at which herds of cows killed their thirst. At some point, we crossed a huge, several hundred meters wide river that enters the Gambia River later.  

A strong wind from the East woke us up and therefore out of our adventurer dreams. At this moment, we regretted already that we did not mount our tent pegs last night. Despite strong headwind, we made good progress and soon reached a village with a small shop. The whole village noticed the presence of two completely in dust and sand covered Europeans. While eating our breakfast, minimum 30 children joined us and played, shyly looked at us or tried to communicate with us in English. Many of those children ride to school by bicycle and tried to keep up with us to ask what our name is or where we travel. 

In Farafenni, we ate chicken with French fries including salad and enjoyed a refreshing soft drink in a fast-food restaurant with loud, horrible music. A few kilometers later, we saw a huge tree, used the opportunity to pitch our tent below and relaxed in the shade all afternoon.  

The strong, dust-containing wind almost blew away our tent during the removal. However, we managed and started our daily routine afterwards. At a small village, we cycled to the river Gambia to see the full size of the important water source for the first time. At this river access, there was even a ferry to the other side and a few food stations, at which we ate our lunch. Out of the arriving ferry came mothers with their children on their back and many farm animals. A young sympathetic ferry mechanic gave us a bit from his fish sandwich to try and told us from his non-paying job. Adrian wanted to give away his jeans since Dakar and offered them to Ibrahim who put them on immediately.  

Other cyclists and locals told us we should ask at a village if we could sleep there instead of camping in the wild every night. Exactly this was our plan for today. A small village with three separate parts, without electricity and water only from the local well was our choice. After a few minutes, we realized that nobody spoke English, since only a few kids can go to school, because of missing money. With our hands and feet, we could explain that we did not need a hut and have a tent with us. After countless pictures and games with the kids from the village, the eldest of the village invited us to a portion of couscous.

At sunrise all the goats, sheep, ducks, dogs, chickens and Africans in the village woke us up in an ungentle way. It was highly interesting to observe that the small village without any electricity, equipped only with torches lives during the day and as soon as it is dark everyone goes to bed. In the morning, they offered us some self-mashed couscous with water and sugar, like the evening before. We said goodbye to all the villagers with a handshake and waved for a long time, until the hands disappeared behind the branches of the bushes. In Wassu, we took a quick look at the unspectacular stone circles built by a megalith culture in the 8th century.  

Around noon, we reached the small village of Lamin Koto from which one can reach Georgetown, the old capital, using a ferry. However, our plan was to cycle further upstream before visiting this city. In a family friendly restaurant, we ate the national dish “Domada” and talked with the very communicative kids returning home from school. Domoda contains meat with lots of rice and a relatively spicy peanut sauce. We bought some more food for the rest of the day and found a shady spot for relaxing and camping under a large tree.  

To refill our water reserves, we stopped at a small settlement consisting of small circular huts directly next to the road. The friendly family migrated from Guinea, supported by their donkeys pulling the wagon with all the belongings and started a new life here.  

In two different villages, we tried to either buy bread in several rural stores or a warm meal. However, we found out that there was no bread left anymore and there were no restaurants. A kind, limping Gambian invited us to his house, after we asked what his family normally eats. In the small village shops, one only finds biscuits, sweets or 50kg bags of rice. His wife offered us some kind of porridge and a glass of water. After we gave the family some money for the meal, our assumption that some families do not have enough food confirmed itself. On the Sandougou River, we found a perfect spot for the night and could finally wash our sweaty clothes and bodies in the turbid river containing crocodiles. On the hunt for dinner, we walked through the forest and found almost a dozen kids and teenagers dancing to local music while working on the rice and vegetables fields. We asked if it was possible to eat with them in the evening and promptly, a couple of hours later, someone from the village visited and brought us to his family where we could eat a warm meal in an authentic atmosphere.  

One of the villagers told us last night that he works for a Frenchmen, who offers accommodations nearby. We hardly woke up this morning and the friendly Frenchmen called Eric, visited us and invited us for lunch. With our loaded bicycles, we rode to his paradise just a few hundred meters from where we camped. We were surprised to hear that Eric offers hunting tours in the region and this activity seems to be popular among Europeans. Anyhow, we enjoyed the African French version of a 3-course meal and the beer with it.  

We thanked Eric for his generous invitation and cycled eastwards on the completely new road. During the first few kilometers, we found out that not the road had not completely asphalted yet and we had to accept the rough and dusty road quickly. Fabian did not see a short branch on the road and this piece of wood was stuck between his spokes on the front wheel. The result was a heavy fall. Luckily the front fender was more damaged that Fabian itself and we could continue without problems.  

Before our departure, a secondary teacher visited and invited us to his home to relax. We thanked him for his generous offer, but denied, since we wanted to reach the most eastern point of the Gambia to sleep at the riverside. The gravel road got narrower, we had to climb hills and every time a truck passed us, we were completely full of dust. After we left the cable ferry where the passengers had to pull the boat to the other side themselves, we ate breakfast in the first restaurant since a couple of days and talked with some locals.  

 

Fully energized, we followed a narrow trail along the Gambia River until we found an ideal spot. In the afternoon, we cooled down in the water, observed hundreds of cows drinking and people who went by. Fabian organized dinner in the nearby village, which took quite some time. Thanks to the kind support of half the village, he returned with a donated meal, fruits and breakfast. Before we went to sleep, we built a campfire, but the countless mosquitos pushed us into the secure tent quickly. 

Early in the morning, locals collected firewood and anglers checked their nets and baskets in the river, illuminated by the rising sun. A gravel road that was difficult to cycle, led us to the old colonial town called Basse Santa Su. In the extremely lively city, we realized that in this region most homes have a connection to the public power grid. After a lunch loaded with carbohydrates containing beans, potatoes and spaghetti, we pedaled ten kilometers further before we refilled our water bottles at a family’s house.  

The very obliging nature of the people in the Gambia surprises us every day once more. Instead of sending us to the next well, they gave us water from their own back up and even thanked us for that. One of the men showed us the construction of a well that was already five meters deep. A worker transported loosened rubble in a tedious way up to the surface and was full of dirt from top to bottom. A few meters further, we found a trail leading to an idyllic spot directly next to the river where we decided to stay.  

Already in the early morning, the nearby ferry port started operating and woke us up for the first time before sunrise. Back on the scorching asphalt, we finally profited from the wind that we cursed daily on the north side of the river.  

Shortly before Janjanbureh, called Georgetown before, we wanted to visit the Kunkilling Forest Park, since we heard that there are many types of birds and monkeys. We had problems finding the right way to the mentioned forest area and cycled on smaller and smaller trails in the direction of the river. Surrounded by many thorn bushes and trees, we decided to leave the bike and explore the park by foot. Shortly before we reached the river, red colobus monkeys jumped from one tree to the next. The sun stood at the zenith and burned down on us while we fought back to the main road sweating as if we just visited a sauna. Before reaching the asphalt road, Fabian realized that he had a flat tire, which he fixed immediately.  

One and a half hours and three patches later, we reached the old capital of Janjanbureh and refilled our energy reserves. In a shop where be bought bread, Musa, a local with dreadlocks asked us where we want to spend the night. After we told him that we plan to sleep in the bush, he quickly invited us to camp in his garden. Musa’s home turned out to be the perfect camping spot directly on the river.  

We enjoyed the beautiful spot directly next to the river and relaxed in the permanent shade of the mango trees. To cool down, we swam in the relatively chilly river and washed our sweaty cycling clothes. Additionally, Fabian’s tire was already flat again, which meant there was probably another leak in the tube. It turned out that one of the patches did not stick well and therefore air could escape.  

After we checked out the ruinous colonial buildings, Issa, a thin, bright local spoke to us and directly invited us for some tea at his home. While we had nice conversations, we got to know his family and his friend Kemo Bamba. His friend accompanied us home later and invited us to his house for a traditional dinner the next day.  

In the late afternoon of the next day, we met Kemo Bamba who showed us the vegetable garden of his wife, before he proudly showed us his home. In the living room, we enjoyed a delicious dinner with his kids and joked around with them. The smart father of three told us about his optimistic plans and surprised us with his unbelievable hospitality. For him it would be an honor to offer us his room for the next visit. Despite his monthly salary of around 30 Euros, he wants to continue school, build a house for tourists and provide the optimal education for his kids. An obstacle is that he must buy one 50kg bag of rice each month for his family for around 25 Euros.  

Fabians body got rid of many digested and less digested things out of all body openings during the night and was therefore very tired in the morning. After some rest and a cooling down in the water, he collected all the energy left and we decided to continue cycling. We said thank you to Musa for his humongous hospitality and wished him and Isabelle all the best.  

Directly during the first kilometers, we saw a pack of baboons disappearing in the forest, before we could take a picture. In the midday sun, we made good progress, even though, Fabian ran into the bush occasionally. After a refreshing beverage, we left the main road in the direction of the River Gambia National Park. In a small village, we asked if someone had information regarding a boat tour. The present men and children quickly called Lamin, who lives in Glasgow and is only on his annual visit in the Gambia. The sympathetic Europe expert explained us the situation and called some of his contacts to find out the price and availability for such a tour. For us the offer was too expensive and therefore he showed us a piece of land he owned directly on the riverbank, from where one could possibly see hippos and chimpanzees. We really liked the spot, decided to pitch our tent, and listened to the sounds of nature all night.  

After a night with an indescribable background noise, we woke up in the morning because red colobus monkeys jumped agile from branch to branch. It was very impressive to observe a species, which is more than 99% identical to us humans. To marvel the densely hemmed banks of the Gambia River from the inside of our tent was a unique experience. The rangers of the national park saw us on their patrol and were not so pleased with our overnight spot, since white tourist normally stay in the overpriced resorts. Luckily, we met Lamin the day before who provided us his land for the night.  

After a delicious breakfast in the village and the obligatory tea, we said goodbye and cycled the sandy road back to the main road. Full of sweat, we reached Kudang and ate a sandwich in the shade. Afterwards, we tackled the road to a small village on the Gambia River, where we hoped to find a cheaper option for a hippo expedition. After we had a nice conversation with the chief, he agreed to take us for a reasonable price with his dugout canoe without an engine. An authentic experience, since we had to amass water out of the boat every couple of minutes. Already after some minutes, the first head of a hippo appeared loudly out of the turbid river water. Impressive, how these gigantic animals sleep in the water and despite that graze on land. On the way back, we visited the chief’s island and afterwards enjoyed a freshly caught fish for dinner.  

Hundreds of animals that produced a lot of noise and walked freely around the village woke us up. We felt like being in a zoo or in an African documentary. Exactly like this, we imagined the villages in sub-Saharan Africa and now we were suddenly right in the middle of it and felt surprisingly comfortable. The chief repeated that we could stay as long as we wanted, even if it would be one or two years. At the same time, it was natural that we were well cared for and did not have to move a finger. Hospitality does not know any limit in the Gambia.  

Ibrahim showed us proudly the school and we talked with the teachers about the school system and the various subjects. In the afternoon, there was a parade because of the anniversary of the British Colonialization and most of the kids were dressed up and made up. The singing and dancing kids collected money in the whole village for a feast the next day. We followed the colorful and extremely loud group, equipped with cameras and a huge grin. The shy children had to sing or dance in front of half the village when encouraged by the head teacher.  

Ibrahim told us that it is possible to see hippos when they eat their 40-50kg of food in the dawn on the island opposite of the village. When we heard that, we told him immediately we would be interested and around 7.30 AM, we found ourselves on a boat made of wood and rowed across the river. Unfortunately, we did not see any hippos. However, we saw some monkeys and warthogs. A farmer offered us some fresh milk with couscous sweetened with a lot of sugar and afterwards, we returned to the village. The village is famous for its huge warehouses full of groundnuts from all over the region harvested during the rainy season in the summer.  

After a family picture with five of the nine children, we said goodbye to the chief and left the authentic village with a wave. Using Warmshowers, we were in contact with Mamadou, who invited us to stay in his village for a while. His extrovert and direct sister Suruwa welcomed us warmly and she dished up rice with fish immediately. In the afternoon, we played with the indefatigable kids, helped the women carry the heavy water canisters and grounded the peanuts for dinner.  

The strong, dusty wind forced the inhabitants of the village to their protected inner courtyard and therefore the streets were deserted. After breakfast, which contained rice again, like the last two meals, we started the search for some of the popular hibiscus juice. With the help of several people, we found a house where the women told us to come back in a few hours and the homemade juice would be ready. In the afternoon, we pealed peanuts, played football on the football field containing lots of rubbish and spiky items and ate another meal containing rice. The children of our hosts gave us a hard time to relax, except they were in school or we send them away since we wanted to read or just have some rest.  

Suruwa criticized us a couple of times that we do not speak any words in Mandinka, one of the national languages besides English. Moments later, we proudly practiced our new vocabulary in the village with children and adults. We already visited a couple of schools in the Gambia, but this did not stop us from visiting the one in Dankunku. Even before we entered the school area, the kids ran screaming towards us and the lessons in most classrooms were disturbed in no time. Shocked, we saw the mess in the library. All kinds of books were on top of each other and nobody seemed to have an overview. One of the French teachers was from Guinea, was very fascinated of our trip, and gave us his phone number in case we need help when arriving there. Most of the kids in the Gambia learn English, French and Arabic in school and speak several local languages at home.  

We said thank you to the family of Surawa who offered us a full board, despite not knowing us at all and they did not even except any money for it. Of course, we reimbursed the poor family for the food they cooked and wished them all the best. 

Today, we cycled more than 80km for the first time in a while and tested if we still got enough endurance. Despite the high temperatures above 35 degrees, we made good progress and found an ideal spot for the night in the late afternoon.  

As soon as we sat on the dusty bicycles again, we heard Toubab, Toubab from everywhere and tried to wave at all the sources of the loud screaming evenly, like most of the previous days. At a small village, we left the main road and turned into a narrow path, which brought us to the headquarters of the Kiang West National Park. There, we found out that all the park rangers were gone for the weekend and we either had to cycle to another remote entrance or had to discover the park on our own. A tiny waterhole not far from the entrance was equipped with a small house to observe the thirsty animals. A huge group of baboons slowly approached the waterhole shyly and slowly only a couple of minutes after we arrived. Only when we wanted to continue, the smart animals walked to the water and satisfied their thirst.  

Because of this long break, we had to cycle in the hottest time of the day and could only cool down in the shade from time to time. The water in our bottles was boiling hot after an hour and we did not even want to drink from it anymore. At a broad and due to the flood, salty tributary of the Gambia River, we found a camping spot behind a mangrove forest. Before that, we visited a lodge, which is popular for tourists since they offer beautiful accommodations on top of stilts. 

By our means, we packed our pushbikes relatively early and cycled on the perfectly asphalted road in the direction of Serekunda. Generally, the main roads are in an extremely good quality since a couple of months and for every touring cyclist a dream. Only in the last few days, the traffic increased steadily, but was still no comparison to Senegal’s main transport axis.  

In the early afternoon, we reached the chaotic suburbs of Serekunda. Since a long time, we did not see a city and were a bit overwhelmed in the beginning with all the impressions. Before we cycled to our hosts, we made a short stop at a bakery owned by a Swiss. Jörg, our cycling friend who travels through Africa as well, worked here for a couple of days as a change. Shortly after, the Swiss family warmly welcomed us. As a surprise, Christoph, Anja and their 3 kids invited us to a typical Swiss cheese fondue and enjoyed the variety to all the rice in the last days.  

We really enjoyed the first shower and sleeping on a mattress since Dakar, which was already a month back. We appreciated the hospitality of the Swiss family and the interesting conversations with the Gambian experts. In the small, self-built hockey pitch, we played a dusty version of hockey several times with many kids.  

We whipped the bicycles into shape and gave them a proper shower. The coast and the capital Banjul, we discovered during a daily trip exceptionally without luggage. The coastline is full of Dutch people, Englishmen and other Europeans who get to know the Gambia from another perspective than us. After a refreshing swim in the sea, we explored the port including Albert market in the capital city.  

After cleaning the bicycle, the day before, Adrian realized suddenly, that his rear brake showed some problems. After taking a closer look, we concluded that there must be air in the brake system and therefore we had to bleed it. After two trips to the city, Adrian found sewing machine oil as an alternative to brake liquid and a syringe including a plastic tube. A bicycle mechanic, who helped us already in Sevilla with lots of passion, even helped us in the Gambia during a video call. He gave us helpful tips, even when his English level is rather low. After trying to solve the problem once more, the brake effect improved and the bicycle was roadworthy again.  

After more than four months without any precipitation, we had to set back our sunny day counter. It rained only for a moment and intense, but it is still not normal to experience rain in this region in March.  

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