Brighton2capetown - The Gambia

Brighton to Cape Town Overland by Motorcycle

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The Gambia

6th November

We were also stamped into The Gambia without fee, but only after a thorough search of the bikes' panniers by customs officials interested in how many mobile phones we'd brought to sell. Interestingly they didn't search through the tankbags, so if you're interested in selling a few 8310s in The Gambia, that's clearly the way to get them in. The carnets were also stamped into the country without charge and there was a nice opportunity for Dan to lay his bike down in some soft sand in a hole outside the immigration office before heading off down the truly awful Gambian highway towards Barra, the point from which you catch the ferry to Banjul.
As we cautiously made our way down what had now become the dirt track into Barra, we could see the hawkers begin to descend. There were hawkers who were keen to help us buy tickets (the concept of a ticket office which sells tickets is clearly beyond most tourists) and another, who genuinely introduced himself as Del-boy who was keen to sell us the most expensive drinks in West Africa, trying to convince us there were only about twenty-five Gambian Delassi to the Pound Sterling, when in fact the rate is just over forty. As it turned out, the ticket-assistant-hawkers got it completely wrong, and after having got us to buy nine pedestrian tickets (two for each bike, one for each rider), we were greeted by an official who not only realised that we'd paid exactly double what we needed to, but also knew a less tortuous route to the ticket office and had it sorted out and us refunded in no time. For reference, it is possible to buy a ticket for a bike and rider, and pay for it in CFA if you've not been able to get any Delassi in advance. The tickets cost 300 CFA each, which is a bit over 30 pence for nearly an hour of charging across the estuary at a thrill-seeking 6mph (as confirmed by GPS).
Once on the south side of the river, we were headed for Camping Sukuta near Serrekunda, just outside Banjul. The roads through and immediately outside Banjul were what you'd expect of any capital city except Nouakchott - nice, smooth tarmac. Once down the road in Serrekunda however, it's a different story - the main street through the middle is the worst stretch of road we've seen yet - rutted dirt track with enormous potholes and just the occasional scrap of tarmac strategically placed to give you a hard, sharp edge to hit. The campsite we were headed to is another overlanding haunt, and was the place that had got our hopes up with signs for a campsite when we did our unexpectedly long day to Dakhla in Western Sahara. We'd seen "Camping Sukuta" painted on rocks at the side of the road and thought that maybe there was a campsite closer than the 800km point for the day. No place name or distance was given at that stage though, and it was only when we saw the same campsite name in Mauritania that we spotted "The Gambia" written after it. The place was still being advertised through Senegal, and we figured that advertising persistance on such an international scale deserved our custom.
Once we'd arrived and set up, we discovered that the Gambian roads had very nearly taken first blood in the form of Dan's rear tyre - a large proportion of a Schweppes tonic water bottle was lodged in the side...

18th November

On Monday 5th November, we ventured into the tourist mecca of The Gambia, a place called Senegambia. Just up the road from our campsite in Sukuta you can find shirtless overweight europeans in abundance, food and drink priced firmly out of reach of the local population, a fleet of special, high-priced taxis and the worst internet café we've used to date. If this seems like a negative take on the place, we need to put that into context. We've been merrily travelling through The "Real" Gambia, and Senegambia is not The Gambia, in the same way that Corfu town is not what the rest of Corfu island is like. The Gambia mostly has an unfussed, easy-going air as it goes about its affairs, not unlike the Carribean in fact. Senegambia tries to replicate that, but the employees of all the bars and restaurants constantly touting for business gets a little tiresome. With the exception of the shirtless europeans, it's not unpleasant, but neither is it real. It is, however, useful for its facilities if not its ambience.

It's interesting to note that the roads where the tourist buses travel are in great condition, beautiful smooth tarmac with white lines down the middle. Throughout the rest of The "Real" Gambia the towns' main streets are shocking dusty tracks with deep potholes and sand, littered with rubbish and broken glass. Nowhere is the shiny, international veneer so thin as in a poor country such as The Gambia.

In the West Africa of today the mobile phone is ubiquitous. In Europe we are still convinced the mobile is a premium telecommunications solution for sophisticated people. Out here it's the only solution as geographically a conventional cable-based phone system is just not economically viable. In a sense, the investment made to get the technology established by early-adopting first-worlders willing to purchase expensive tariffs and handsets has really helped the African community. Africa has embraced the mobile and not just the convenience but all of the commercial trappings of personalised handsets, ringtones and the littering of pre-pay top-up cards everywhere. So far, the only issue any of us have had with mobile phone use in Africa has been the lack of roaming arrangements made by 3 in the UK, which has rendered Dan's phone an expensive hire-purchase alarm clock in most countries so far.

Our journey across the continent has also served to make it even more apparent to us just how important transport is. There is no transport equivalent of the mobile phone. Even now in our advanced technological age, in order to move people around with any efficiency, you still need expensive infrastructure. The Gambia clearly doesn't have the money to invest in roads and there's no railway either. This is what makes charities such as the one we're supporting with this trip, Riders for Health, so relevant. In a country in which people habitually get around by clinging to the back of a moving van on a pot-holed dirt track or walk long distances in the heat, providing effective means to transport medical supplies and personnel makes an unimaginable difference.

In the internet café in Senegambia, we spotted a couple, one of whom was wearing a Horizons Unlimited t-shirt - clearly Dan and Linz who had been about a week ahead of us going through Mauritania into Senegal. It was great to meet up with them, and it turned out they were now travelling with Mikey Beckett, who had visited Dan at home a week or so before we left to compare plans and bikes. Sure enough, Mikey turned up within a few minutes, and a plan was quickly hatched for the six of us to spend the evening as a group having a bite to eat and a few drinks.

After a thoroughly entertaining evening exchanging travel anecdotes and experiences so far, we caught a taxi back to the campsite - an amusing experience in itself. As we weren't going back to one of the resort hotels, we felt justified as before in ignoring the over-priced tourist taxis, and made our way out of the controlled tourist street to the main road where the local taxis congregated. Here we bartered hard for a good price back to Sukuta, and agreed on 65 Delasi (£1.60) as it was after midnight. The driver reappeared with his motor, an amusingly delapidated late seventies Merc of great character, and we got in and made ourselves comfortable. Ed habitually reached over his shoulder, only to then exclaim "How much did you get for the seatbelts?" to which the driver just grinned. The military police checkpoint that had appeared since sun-down spotted the white men in the back and flagged down the taxi to ask for a gift from our hotel, so we politely explained as best we could in our inebriated state that we were too poor to stay in a hotel and were staying at a campsite where we were unable to steal bathrobes. We were waved on with a sigh.

As we approached the turning for the campsite, the taxi was clearly running into trouble. The rear axle was still singing the same tune as before, but it was now driving the engine, not the other way round. The driver frantically de-clutched and the world went dark as he switched off the headlamps to give a fighting chance to the starter motor as we continued our coast to a halt. It began to become apparent that we were about to push start our own taxi. We hopped out before the car stopped completely and began to push, which against all probability and expectation, actually worked. The driver turned round to pick us up and take us back towards the turning we'd missed, but we explained that we were close enough, and overpaid him with a 100 Delasi note out of sympathy.

Everywhere you go in The Gambia, you see permanent signs heralding the "13 years of prosperity and accomplishments" unde president Yahya Jammeh. Jammeh came to power on 22nd July 1994 as a young Lieutenant spearheading a military coup after troops returning from service in Liberia were left unpaid by an administrative oversight. As the majority of Gambians were no worse off under the new regime (once the UK authorities had been pacified with a promise of an election and the important tourist traffic restarted) no one has really seemed bothered by the fact that he has remained in power ever since, and his popularity has shown no signs of waning in subsequent elections. The propaganda everywhere is a little odd to even the most broad-minded of European eyes however: "H.E. Doctor Colonol (Rtd) Yahya A. J. J. Jammeh - turning The Gambia into an economic super power".

Another common slogan, "The nation's health is his priority" grates particularly, given that he has become a self-styled faith-healer-cum-witch-doctor holding frequent sessions during which he administers herbal remedies and lectures the ill on ways in which they can improve their health by not eating imported foods. The remedies are apparently of his own concoction and according to the health minister and government doctors are very effective at healing the various maladies for which they're no doubt individually tailored. Worryingly, the local media report that he is also gaining a great deal of respect and support as far away as mainland Europe, the UK and the US for his successes in curing HIV and AIDS. The damaging effect this propaganda has, is of course devastating. To those who believe it, HIV is nolonger an incurable condition, so precautions to avoid it need nolonger be taken. We don’t know whether HIV statistics for The Gambia over the last few years have been accurately collated, but one may suspect that if they have, they don't look good.

The approach we take to our own health and safety has not been affected by our recently acquired knowledge of the miracle-healing president. Unlike a lot of motorcyclists living or travelling out here, we still wear all our protective gear whenever we go anywhere on the bikes, no matter how tempting it may be to nip into town in shorts and t-shirt. If we don't want to be carrying helmets and jackets or wandering around in boots and armoured trousers, we simply take a taxi instead. "All the gear, all the time" or "ATGATT" has become a bit of a cliché on the UK motorcycle scene, but even though the climate out here may tempt us to cut down in an attempt to keep cool, it seems more important than ever to minimise the risks however possible.

On Dan's 30th birthday, we had an appointment with the Nigerian embassy to pick up our visas, and then we'd invited ourselves to visit the Riders operation in Serrekunda. Our visa interviews were waived as the ambassador had just been talking to other-Dan, Linz and Mikey who had the previous appointment, and had clearly charmed him as he promised he and his staff they would "Pray for the success of the mission behind our journey".

It was no surprise that all the other four british motorcyclists were also interested in visiting Riders, so it was that Therese Drammah, director of operations in The Gambia was faced with six grubby overlanders knocking on her office door. She took time to explain a little about the operation in The Gambia, and it's scale (they are responsible for managing the maintenance, fuel supply and rider and driver training for all the health service vehicles in the entire country), and passed us to a colleague who showed us round the very impressive workshops and parts stores.

Riders are able to influence the models of bikes and ambulances bought by the government so they can maintain relevant parts stocks. Therese showed us some photos of the state of the workshop when Riders took over the operation, and the difference was astonishing. Previously, the place had looked like a scrapyard - the concept of preventative maintenance simply doesn't exist in Africa, and the ambulances went there to die. The majority of the continent gives vehicles a real hammering in various ways, but they get no attention until they break. This approach to fleet maintenance is what Riders have tackled with their operation, and to great effect.

It was a great novelty for us to see an effective workshop in Africa and we were very impressed. If you've been enjoying reading our story and have been waiting for a convenient time to donate to our justgiving site, now would be ideal - we can vouch for the effectiveness of the place and it's an ideal birthday present for Dan!

Acting on advice received from several sources, we abandoned our plan to travel along the south side of the river, and crossed back to the north bank. The road along the south side is alledgedly particularly bad, a previously metalled road that is now potholed to oblivion. The standard african technique for roadbuilding appears to be to spread a 3/4 inch layer of tarmac over a piste and hope for the best. This works fine for a while, but as soon as the surface is broken, perhaps by the suspension collapsing under a neglected Renault, the dirt underneath just falls apart and the rot sets in.

The road on the north side was pretty good, and took us swiftly and easily to Janjangburgh, on the north bank of the river by the island of Georgetown. It was a real novelty to ride in a group of six, and we must have been an even more eye catching sight than usual with our matchiing Africa Twins, other-Dan and Linz's matching DR-Zs, Chris' CCM 404 and Mikey's BMW R1200GS.

When we arrived in Janjangburgh we were accosted by the usual hawkers keen to sell us a ferry ticket, or arrange us a campsite. We already knew the name of the campsite we wanted to stay at, didn't fancy the sound of the alternatives being offered and once we'd found the sign by the water's edge, we were able to follow a sandy dirt track to the campsite.

The same gaggle of excited kids and youths ran with us as a crowd, surrounding all the bikes and generally got in the way. The lack of machine control exhibited by some of the riders whilst tackling the sandier sections didn't fuss the kids who maintained a safe 4mm clearance either side of each floundering 350kg laden beast at all times. At the other end of this adrenaline fuelled gauntlet run, we found a nice camp, with a selection of thatched bungalows for rent, a reasonable camping rate, a troupe of very cute wild monkeys and some outstandingly mediocre plumbing. There was a party of spanish tourists staying in the bungalows that were due back from their river excursion shortly, and we had just enough time to get a round of soft drinks down and the first round of beers in before they descended. When they did, we glanced across from the bar to notice that a few took the opportunity to have their photos taken with our bikes as an amusing contrast to their charter-flight and tour-bus approach to Gambian tourism.

After an interesting and partly accurate historical chat with a local over a sandwich and a beer, we retired to our tents for the night. We'd been careful to follow local advice and fit the flysheets over the inner mosquito nets to protect ourselves from the potential monkey-derived rainfall, and by morning there were a few tell-tale damp patches around the tents and a good smear of something more solid on other-Dan and Linz's flysheet. Not so cute now, those monkeys...

We prepared our breakfast of bread and petrochemical-based jam substitute, and Chris put his down to take the opportunity to get some footage of a particularly adventurous monkey with his camcorder.

Clearly more familiar than Chris with the scripts of nineteen-seventies comedy shows, another monkey grabbed Chris' breakfast and sprinted high up into a tree with it, thus providing the rest of us with even better photographic potential.

We covered the 100yds back to the water's edge to catch the ferry over to the island and waited. Within four seconds, there was a crowd of people keen to broker our passage, one keen to negotiate on our behalf to allow us to pay in local currency. The policy of requiring foreigners to pay with foreign currency was one we were familiar with from the Banjul ferry, where foreign registered vehicles were only allowed to travel with tickets bought in foreign currency, for slightly more than the monetary value of the tickets sold to the locals. It was explained to us that here there was a tariff, which specified the price in each currency. We were never shown this tariff, but it was explained that it would be €5 per bike, or £5, or US$5, or presumably ¥5. Five of any currency of your choice, except the CFA we had, with which they were sufficiently familiar to demand 5000. Eventually our "broker" agreed to secure our passage for 25 Delasi per bike (approximately 60p) but when he was accompanied to the ship's captain (a grand title for the man pulling the levers on a rusty barge, but we'll go with that) to buy the tickets, it became apparent that we were only being charged the local rate of 7 Delasi per bike anyway. In an attempt to protect his fee, the self-appointed broker quickly explained that he had phoned ahead to the ferry on the other side of the island to ensure we'd only pay 7 Delasi there too, but he was politely but firmly despatched without payment.

Once south of the river, there wasn't far to go before hitting the edge of the smallest country in Africa. The road took us some distance before finally degenerating into a dirt track to the border. After a spot of lunch at the side of the piste we continued to improve our sandy-piste-riding skills all the way to the border. Here we were stamped out of The Gambia, without charge, but as usual there was a request for a fee to stamp the bikes' carnets. This we eventually bartered down to 80 Delasi for the six bikes (less than 40p per bike) and we couldn't be bothered to try and get the fee lower. We were informed there that the track continued as a sandy piste beyond the border post a few hundred metres further on, well into Senegal.