Visually the Gambia is a continuation of Senegal. The road is smooth and small villages cling to its fringes, simple rendered buildings with corrugated roofs set in dusty compounds with a few trees and a lot of people. The roadside is lined with people selling produce, people walking and people shouting ‘toubab’ as we come pedalling through. We’re heading for Bara where the Banjul ferry leaves. It’s not far because nowhere in the Gambia is far. It’s a tiny country that stretches out for a few kilometres either side of the river banks.
Sometimes in Africa you get the feeling that every friendly greeting is a prelude to a request – for money, food, the bike, whatever. But then somebody will just be friendly because that’s the way they are. And it can be a surprise. And then I feel guilty that I make the wrong assumptions. But then it’s in the nature of assumptions to be wrong, just like it seems to be in the nature of people to make them.
Bara is a port town, a lively non-descript collection of shops strung along the winding main street. Bicycles seem to be the main mode of transport. Trucks are lined up by the port gates waiting for access. We’re collared by a guy with bad news. The main ferry will take hours to arrive. But luckily for us he can help. And he’s holding the bike bars ready to lead us to the solution to the problem he’s told us we’ve got. But the problem he’s got is that I don’t like people grabbing the bike. I’m polite about not going with him and move the bike away from his slightly over enthusiastic grasp. We turn and go in the opposite direction just like any clueless tourist would. Luckily the opposite direction is the booking office for the main ferry. We buy our ticket and wait in the relative calm beyond the port gates.
Here we get chatting to a few locals with no hidden agenda and before long they’re singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Janyis. Today is her 50th. When we tell them we’ve cycled 4000km, one of the guys asks if we see the devil. He’s been told that English people do. We laugh until we realise he’s serious, then we laugh again in a slightly more nervous, slightly less genuine way and basically tell him that no, we don’t see the devil.
When we join the queue to embark, we’re behind the sheep but in front of the cow. We watch the ferry arrive at what looks like the speed of an incoming tide. It’s packed. When they drop the gate everybody gets off and everybody gets on at the same time. It’s hectic but we take our place with the rest of the cargo.
The trip over begins with frozen baobab juice followed by another, followed by two cakes and two bags of salted peanuts, another ‘Happy Birthday’ and an hour of chatter with everyone surrounding us and the tandem. By the time we reach Banjul, we’ve decided we love the Gambia.
Our guesthouse for the night is Radio Syd’s on the main road out of Banjul. With the beach as a backdrop we celebrate Janyis’ birthday with homemade leek and potato soup followed by fruit salad and a Gambian beer.
The ‘smiling coast’ of Africa is how they describe the Gambia. It’s an easy ride south through the tourist area and then into where it gets more like Africa again. Another sweltering day, another day on the bike but this will be the last one for a while. Today we arrive at the Wonder Years Centre Of Excellence in Medina Salaam where we’ll spend a month helping them kick start a new bicycle recycling project with bikes donated by Re-Cycle, a nifty little charity based in England. More about these projects in the next post.