The Gambia is the smallest Country in mainland Africa, surrounded by Senegal where there have been troubled times, this beautiful Country is home to exotic birds and African crocodiles which are fascinating to see.
I went to The Gambia by mistake, well almost, I was hoping to get to The Dominican Republic but instead did a last minute detour to Gambia taking my best friend Hazel with me, we had never travelled together before, having been friends for years I knew it would be alright wherever we went, so when Hazel asked me that age old travel question: “Is it safe?” without any hesitation whatsoever I replied “Of Course”.
So we headed off to The Gambia and landed in a field to the welcome of the locals singing and dancing, it was an impressive greeting and we both felt honoured to walk through the procession as we collected our bags and then took a local yellow taxi to the hotel.
On arrival we threw our bags into each of our rooms then mutually decided to head straight to the beach to have a walk out, to get to the beach we were surprised to see barbed wire all the way along between the hotel and the beach itself, it looked inviting though so we climbed over and through the barbed wire and started to walk down the long stretch of sand.
Within about 2 minutes of walking a gang of very tall ‘hoodies’ appeared and began harassing us, there were five of them and they surrounded us and began asking for money, I said that clearly we had no money on us as we were wearing only bikini tops and shorts, however the situation suddenly turned rather sinister when the leader stated that he knew where we were staying and the room numbers, I argued that he could not possibly know that, but then he named the hotel and also, rather disturbingly as he had boasted, our room numbers.
This was very worrying, the only way they could know which rooms we were staying in was if the hotel people had given him that information, we did a sharp turn and started to walk back to the barbed wire into the hotel grounds, they followed us bating us but we walked on staunchly.
On the way we also saw a policeman, he had a gun on him and was clearly supposed to be ‘guarding’ the beach, however as we walked by him we witnessed a man offering him money, which was obviously a bribe, the policeman took the cash and then disappeared, this was not very reassuring and sadly from day one of our arrival we decided that the beach was not a safe place to be.
It was a real shame.
We did venture out onto the beach one more time, I really wanted my hair to be braided and so decided to brave it once more to the beach where the local women who had advertised in the hotel were said to be at 10am each day, sure enough they were there so we headed to them and I asked for them to braid my hair.
Hazel did not want hers done, so I sat down while the local women began to plat my hair into tiny strands,it was neither relaxing or comfortable though, instead it was painful as they had to plat the braids very tightly right to the scalp and as they platted we were once again joined by the gang of men who had harassed us on the beach the day before.
This time one of them came and sat beside me, he spoke in perfect English about how rich we were in comparison to the local people there and that we should gladly give our money to them, I attempted to have a conversation about how it was all relative, but it fell on death ears and he began to get angry with me, he took out a cigarette lighter from his pocket, held it to my hair and threatened to light it if I did not buy a necklace off the local women.
Needless to say I bought the necklace.
So far, I have painted a bleak picture of the Gambia, this is not the case, I can recall looking around me and seeing the most beautifully coloured exotic birds, I am not a birder, nor can I pretend to be, however I can fully appreciate the sheer number of species in the Gambia, according to local guide Dawda Barry basede at Kotu Creek Bridge there are around 500 species of birds and if you put the time in, can see up to 300 new species in a week, this seems incredible yet so exciting.
Following the experience of the beach gang and then the threatened hair burning, my friend and I had spent much of our time in the confines of the hotel gardens, not very adventurous, however these gardens were an absolute paradise full of beautiful birds, reptiles and amphibians, the plants were green and lush, the flowers exotic bright reds and pinks, just stunning, it was no hardship to stay there.
That very day another incident happened when a couple, who were on Honeymoon, came back to the hotel to say that they had been mugged, they were very shaken and would not leave the grounds after that.
However, I was determined not to be a prisoner of fear, so booked a ‘safe’ trip out to Janjanbureh Camp near Georgetown in the central river region of the Niamina East District, its Colonial name was Sir Charles MacCarthy and we set out very early in the morning 04:30am when it was still dark when we arrived at the river to sail down it and watch the wildlife. It was wonderful, we were in a small rowing boat with a man called ‘Moonlight’ he was a gentle soul with a lilting Caribbean accent and his knowledge on the wildlife, and indeed spotting it, was second to none.
As it got light the sky changed from inky black to indigo, to brown, to red to orange, it was quite remarkable to see and a dawn that I will never forget, the trip out was so relaxing and felt wonderful to sit in the rowing boat where all you hear are the sounds of the birds and Moonlight as he rowed as the water gently lapped over the oars.
It had been a day of bliss, however on the way back it was not quite so blissful as we taxied through a village where people were throwing fire bombs across the road, I was pretty anxious about this given that the car was full of potentially explosive petrol, however the driver seemed to think it was the ‘norm’ and continued on, saying calmly, duck here, duck here, which we duly did, all was well and we got back in one piece and celebrated back at the hotel where there was a buffet evening of the finest delicacies accompanied by Rum.
Oddly at night some strange things did happen which were slightly disconcerting, the phone in my room would ring and on answering it you could hear someone breathing but there was no answer to my questioning ‘hellos’ my friend Hazel had the same thing happen and we both found it a little sinister as though someone was calling to see if the rooms were occupied, potential robbers perhaps or just someone having a game with the tourists, either way I found it unsettling.
The next day we ventured out again, this time taking a taxi to Kachikally Crocodile Pool, in Gambia Crocodiles are seen as sacred as the people of Gambia believe that they hold the power to fertility in women, in this pit area there are 78 adult Nile Crocodiles which live in the larger water pool and bask in the hot sun on the bank, you can climb down to stroke one of the older, tamer ones if you dare, I was desperate to climb down and have a go, so down I went.
It is just a crumbly, muddy embankment which I climbed down and then walked towards a large crocodile who was sunbathing, he was very majestic and I started to stroke him, his scales were hard and spiky feeling, it felt such a privilege to be this close to one, I was the only person down there, but I was quite happy.
That is, until a large crocodile suddenly came out of the water and took an active interest in me, in fact it headed straight towards me, there was an Australian guy up on the bank who started shouting at me to move and come back up, but I was transfixed by this thing and seemed unable to move, luckily this man came down and literally grabbed me and led me back up out of the pit, I was very glad he had done that, as I honestly do not think I would have moved, crocodiles have always provided me with a strange, almost hypnotic, fascination.
I still have two legs.
The next day we stayed around the hotel and went to the Observatory to see the planets, well Hazel went, unfortunately I was suffering from a sickness bug and had been projectile vomiting for most of the evening, I eventually recovered but missed the stars and planets which was most disappointing. However the evening was not lost as we met a group of guys from NASA, they were interesting to talk to and had many stories to tell us and the evening was passed around a camp fire with rum and good stories.
We only saw them that evening for the next morning we were due to fly home, we packed and took a taxi back to the airfield where there were two wooden tables and guards checking luggage, we were called to a table each and told to empty out all the contents of our back packs.
The man who was checking mine was very grim faced, he spoke perfect English and made it very obvious that he thought we had drugs on us, we did not.
He went through everything, even squeezing out my toothpaste from its tube, I started to protest and say that we would miss the plane but he did not care, he seemed intent on ‘finding something one me’ it seemed, or certainly felt that way.
Then something really great happened, the guys from NASA showed up, they had come to see us off, I thought that was a great gesture since we had only shared some stories around the fire the night before, yet they had made the effort to come and see us off, when I walked over to Tom to thank him, he expressed that they knew we would face these problems upon leaving as we did not have men with us,so that had come to make sure we were ok.
I was extremely grateful to them for that and relieved also as the man who was strategically and pedantically checking through my things suddenly stopped and stuffed everything back into my back pack gesturing for me to go, upon seeing the guys he had totally changed tack and we were free to leave and board the waiting plane.
I would like to say that I enjoyed the Gambia, but I did not enjoy the feeling of threat that seemed to be with us all the way through the trip, if it had not been for the guys from NASA I believe that we would have missed our flight out and that those men were going to detain us just to be awkward, it is one of those things but nonetheless it stays in the memory.
However, Moonlight was a wonderful, gentle local man who I will remember fondly, the beauty of the area and the abundance of wildlife was very impressive, perhaps I will go back one day, I hope that the tourist areas become safer and that relations between the beach gangs and tourists softens and I believe that over time, they will.