Jan 25 – 27, 2009
From Tamba we figured that we were only about three hours driving time to our next border crossing, this one into The Gambia. After hearing about the appalling state of the main road from Tamba to Dakar, we smugly thought that we had made the better choice by traveling along the southerly route though Senegal. But the road we took, the main and only road, deteriorated to the point where we were doing some of our best slalom driving in months.
We also had our first run-in with the notoriously corrupt police of Senegal. First he was upset at our inability to speak to him in French (even though he spoke good English), and proceeded to lecture us. Second, he wanted to see our Carnet (which Senegal no longer requires, and which Customs had refused to stamp when we entered the country, saying it wasn’t necessary) which of course gave him another excuse to yell at us. He took our Carnet and placed it on the dashboard of his car where Don quickly retrieved it through the window from the other side. After a stand-off of about a ½ hour, he finally got tired of us and let us go (with no request for a bribe, by the way).
Our crossing to the border of The Gambia was notable for the fact that this main border crossing is accessed via a road that is little better than a rough, sandy, dusty off-road two-track.
Our concern about entering The Gambia without the required visa evaporated when the inspectors stamped our passports and told us that we could get the visa at an Immigration Office in the next town. We also received what turned out to be the most detailed inspection of our vehicle to date, but no demands for “gifts”. The customs officers, all four of them, were just interested to see what “an American home” looks like, what kind of things we couldn’t live without.
Upon arrival in Basse, the main town, we found the immigration police, but were unable to get our visas as they didn’t have a visa stamp available. The good news was that we could get the visa at another post before we left the country. Our next challenge was changing money on a Sunday with the banks closed and no ATM machines. In The Gambia changing on the “black market” is technically illegal, but we were not only directed to use their services, but were actually escorted to the changers’ office by the immigration official. Even more interesting, the office was right across the street from the police station. So what is illegal about this?
Next we followed our GPS to coordinates to the only camping area in town, which was located on the grounds of a one hundred year old colonial warehouse right on the Gambia River overlooking the very interesting ferry port. This will be our home for the next few days as we catch up with all the domestic chores that we have put off since Burkina Faso – now four countries ago.
In between cleaning and doing our laundry, we watched the ferry go back and forth across the river and we watched the local women doing their laundry, literally pounding the clothes on rocks.
One late afternoon we wandered into town, getting thoroughly dusty as the town has no paved streets – or at least no pavement that we could see through the sand that covered the town.
Jan 28, 2009
We finally left town and followed the river downstream to our next camp in Janjanbureh.
Passing through one of the many small towns, we passed several police stops and a customs stop. As is our rule, we try not to stop as this might open us up to some type of attempt at a shakedown. So what we do is slow down, roll our window down so that we can be seen, and wave to the nice official as we drive off. Most times we get a wave back, once in a while they flag us down to inspect our documents. The thought here is if something is amiss, they can demand a “fine”.
Now as we passed the customs stop, we waved to the two guys sitting out front and drove past. As we approached the far side of town, a motorcycle pulled up next to us with an irate, young customs officer yelling at us for not stopping. He, once again today, took our carnet and ordered us to return to his office. At his office he demanded to make a search of our truck hoping that we wouldn’t want to be delayed and that we’d offer him a “fine” to be allowed to go on. Being wise to his game, we just settled in for a wait and cooperated with his demands.
After about 30 minutes, he stopped his search and told Don that if we had just slowed down and waved, we could have avoided this whole issue, but now we would have to pay a fine. When Don told him we had in fact slowed and waved, he claimed we had not. At that point, Don decided he’d had enough and acted upset. Don told the official that he was calling him (Don) a liar, and then demanded that he call his captain on his mobile phone. Well, the official realized that his game was up, gave Don back our carnet and told him to leave. Sometimes taking the offensive is the right tact to take.
Continuing onto Janjanbureh we had to cross the Gambia River on two different ferries. This is because there is an island in the middle and ferries on either side. Now we’ve been on a lot of ferries, but the first one of these two made us very nervous. It was extremely small (just barely the size of our truck) and appeared to list to one side. Great. With much trepidation Kim drove on to the ferry and it started across the river. This ferry ride was fairly short and went across along a cable because the current is very strong. Once again the ferry captain stopped halfway across to renegotiate our fare. At about this point Kim was having fits over wanting to get off the ferry. Don, however, kept his cool and, using the locals who were on his side, negotiated the requested fare in half. Once everyone was happy, the ferry continued on its way. Kim, however, was not happy until the Fuso was once again on solid ground. The second ferry was actually no issue other than on the far side of the river, we had to back off the ferry up a very steep ramp. Everybody out of the way!
At Janjanbureh, we camped at a resort that let us stay for free as long as we would eat in their restaurant. This was very similar to our experiences in Central America, and a great excuse to eat some local cuisine and not do our own cooking. And even better we spent a terrific evening chatting with other travelers from Hungary and Slovenia.
Oh yes, while we were there we had to lock up the Fuso good and tight and hold on to our valuables because of all the thieves around – dozens of small monkeys that would take anything they could - but they didn’t get anything from us. So we must be smarter than the average monkey.
Jan 29, 2009
On the north shore of the Gambia River the road is as good as any highway in the United States or Europe, which means that in a country as small as The Gambia, we crossed nearly half the country in one day.
Along the way we stopped at the Wassu stone circles site which is the main megalithic site in The Gambia. The circles are formed by pillars of hardened laterite that were apparently levered into place and stood upright. Not much is known about these sites other than that burials occurred here. The site was peaceful and interesting to walk around and the museum was informative.
It is believed that this region of The Gambia and Senegal has the largest concentration of stone circles. The consistency of the sites suggests that they are the work of a single culture whose identity is unknown. The circles contain between 10 and 24 cylindrical pillars, and all the pillars in the same circle are of the same height. Through the use of carbon dating, it is known that the circles where built over a period of 1,500 years, ending around 1200 AD.
Due to the compact size of the country, we were finding no acceptable bushcamps and not wishing to spend our last night in the country in the parking lot of a noisy hotel in the center of a city, we decided to cross the border back into Senegal.
But first we (still) had to get our visa to enter The Gambia. After discussing the matter with the immigration official, we were allowed to pay him directly the fee for the visas without having to return to the last town we passed through and find the immigration officials there.
We crossed the border quickly as we don’t need visas for Senegal, but this time we insisted on getting our Carnet signed by the Customs official. We continued on for about an hour on appalling roadways looking for a good bush camp before finding a great spot along the shore of a reservoir.
Jan 30 – 31, 2009
It’s official, we have voted Senegal as having the absolute worst roads of any of the countries in West Africa. We think that it is embarrassing for the government that they allow their highways to deteriorate to the point that there are more holes in the pavement than there is pavement.
As we got closer to Dakar, the capital, the state of the roads improved but the traffic increased. Oh well. We arrived in Thies, a city built by the French in colonial times where many colonial building still stand. We found an old hotel, not currently open, where we believed we had been allowed to spend the night camped, but after returning from dinner we were asked to leave by the new guardian (night watchman). Obviously we had a miscommunication despite our best efforts to communicate in French.
So in the dark, we set off on a fool’s mission to find a new camp/parking spot. We made our way to a small auberge (hotel) where the owner gave us directions to an actual camping area.
We made it to the camping area and had to navigate our way under trees, through narrow gates and around construction debris into their parking area. Hallelujah, we made it.
We decided to spend another day recuperating from our drive and trials of last night. Leaving the Fuso parked, we took a taxi into town to do some shopping at the markets. During the night our refrigerator finally gave up the ghost and died.
Feb 1, 2009
We spent the morning working on the fridge with the goal of replacing the main computer control board. Luckily we had saved the replacement control board that Dometic had sent us when our first fridge died in Brazil. But as it worked out, this fridge is equipped with a different control board so we had to spend a couple of hours rewiring the fridge to accept the old style control board.
Success! The fridge not only works again, but for some reason the old style control board appears to draw less power than the “new” board. This may give our batteries a nice boost since there will be lower power drains on them.
Finally leaving, we found our route temporarily blocked by a herd of cattle - right in the middle of the city. Getting back out onto the highway, we drove north to the edge of St. Louis where we set up camp at Zebra Bar, an institution among overland travelers in Senegal.