We motored down the Gambia, pursued as always by hungry mosquitos and tsetse flies and not, as we’d hoped, by the wind. We had more confidence in the depths and got closer to the shores than we had on our ascent. Slim green bee-eaters with orange wings dripped from bare branches and swooped around the boat. Ospreys watched from others, or soared, occasionally dropping to run a single claw on the water’s surface before returning to the trees. On the grasslands between and beyond the mangrove trees egrets, herons and ibises congregated, and now and then we’d see a whole tree covered in black storks with white heads or tiny brown finches. There was plenty to see and nothing to do, and we happily took our turns on the tiller, enjoying the light and movement of the day before the evening’s oppressive heat and mosquito nets enclosed us.
One morning, in the narrow creek where we’d anchored behind an island, there was the faintest breath of wind. Though it wasn’t enough to get us anywhere in particular, Rich decided to sail the boat. Meanwhile I rowed ahead in little Fanny to look for breakfast, enjoying the rare coolness on the air. As Gwen dawdled at under a knot with her barely ruffled wings outstretched, I nipped ahead between the mangrove shores, chasing bird calls and investigating bouncing branches that might be monkeys. A couple of miles later I came to a junction in the river and couldn’t explore much further without potentially losing Gwen, so I turned back, and on the way met a couple of boys in a fishing canoe. They were wearing woolly hats. We exchanged greetings in Mandinka. They didn’t speak English. They passed me the catfish they’d caught. I held it and gave it back with an encouraging smile and “abaracka” thanks (I didn’t want to buy it, and I was a bit confused). I started rowing, and they started paddling beside me, so I raced them for a while, laughing and not embarrassing myself too much as I lost, and was rewarded by them with the consolation prize of the remainder of a packet of biscuits they’d been eating. As Gwen sailed slowly up to us I called to Rich to chuck them a pack from our own dry store, and thus our weird cultural exchange was complete. Rich chucked me a rope, I got back on board, and we started the engine, eating biscuits for breakfast as we went.
We’d stocked up a little in Wassu but there’d been a limited choice and we were now short on fresh veg. When we got to the ferry crossing we’d passed on the way upriver we spied a few sellers with carts, and I decided to go for another dinghy adventure in search of food. This time we anchored Gwen first, and Rich stayed on board as I rowed away. As I approached the ferry stop a couple of men called out to me
“Move your boat, the ferry is coming”
“It’s okay, I am nearly there” I called back.
“No, your big boat” and they pointed to Gwen, who was at least 150m away from any logical line between the ferry terminals on either side of the river. I rowed back a little and called out to Rich to move, and he hoisted the anchor and started the engine while the ferry started its journey from the opposite shore. It was so poorly powered that a tug boat was pushing it upstream towards and in front of Gwen, after which the tug released the ferry, leaving it to drift downstream whilst battling forwards across the river as best it could. By the time it made it to my side I was ashore and buying soft bananas and cooked eggs, forcing myself not to look as it slid noisily sideways in to the slipway near where I had tied Fanny to a rock.
I rowed back to Gwen, hurrying to get her moved before the ferry could make a return journey. Rich threw me a rope and I pulled myself in, clinging to Gwen’s side as she motored forward, but it was painful and difficult to keep a grip whilst keeping balance and moving. “I should be able to tow you with the rope” he called, so I let go of Gwen and stayed holding the line he’d thrown me. The dinghy jerked then tipped, and water started to pour over one side as I struggled to right it while gripping the rope. Rich yelled that I should move my weight to the front, but the only way I could do that was to throw my body off the centre seat and stretch it over the front one. I was lying on my back, one outstretched arm holding on to a rope and the other grasping the boat, getting soaked, when Rich realised it wasn’t working and slowed down the engine so I could tie Fanny on and get on board.
“That was ridiculous” he said, once I and my goods were safely in the cockpit.
“I know, right! The food nearly got wet.” I laughed.
“The dinghy nearly capsized” he replied.
The ferry did its strange dance across and we disappeared down the river.
A couple of days later, having spent time in a tiny fishing village with excellent phone reception and a creek full of shy birds with funny necks, and having gained a whole lot of bites from tiny flies that seemed capable of penetrating mosquito nets, we arrived at Tendaba Lodge. It was the first tourist hostel we’d seen and its open high ceilinged restaurant, where we gratefully devoured a buffet breakfast and lunch, was full of old white people on birdwatching holidays. We hadn’t seen this many tubaubs in the whole of the last month, and we smiled at them with curiosity. They didn’t smile back. Each table was weighed down by an arsenal of binoculars, heavy cameras and huge zoom lenses that looked like rocket launchers, and the atmosphere felt serious, earnest and purposeful. When Rich finally plucked up the courage to ask if we could borrow a bird book from a Dutch lady she agreed with a lovely smile and he got to find out the names of most of the creatures we’ve seen since we’ve been here. A minute later, without being asked, her English friend’s book also appeared on our table, beside me. “You can bring this back to my room. I don’t know what we’re fucking doing this afternoon, sitting in a tiny hot room with five other people staring at a pond I think”. We laughed and decided maybe the birders weren’t so scary after all.
The staff of the lodge tried to sell us a river trip, but we were the wrong market – we’d had enough of the water. Even though it’s completely the wrong time of year to see anything in the long underbrush of the national park we decided that a safari trip to its grasslands and forests would be worth blowing a week’s budget on instead. Three of us rode in the open back of a 4×4 through dusty villages and countryside, standing or sitting on a couple of cushioned crates, calling hellos to the kids that called our names “tubaub, tubaub” until we reached the national park. Our companion and guide, Haruna, was a young conservationist with enthusiasm for every sound, smell and sight that he or we noticed. He got the driver to stop whenever a bird or primate came near and took us for various wanders by foot where we’d peer at footprints in the clay mud, pause gasping at the sounds of approaching (but invisible) baboons or point out colobus monkeys clamoring in treetops. For most of the trip we saw very little fauna at all, but the cool feeling of freedom in the air gushing past as we ducked beneath branches and the fresh smell of dry grasses and leaves were worth the price of the trip alone. We stayed with Haruna until after dark, sharing stories of travels and impressions of nature as he dismissed the driver and we walked the last leg. Fanny, messing about in our absence, had nearly been drowned under the jetty, but we rescued her just in time and she got us home.
As Gwen pushed on towards Banjul the river got saltier and the big dark dolphins returned. Pelicans could be seen, improbably perching their great masses on the delicate branches of mangrove bushes, flying low paths between tree stump posts, or at their funniest drifting along in the current like fairground ride vessels. We had been having plenty of fun, but we needed a rest. The water had become more shallow so our attention to the pilot guide and depth sounder had to be greater. We pushed on for two long days by motor, suffering worse than we should in the heat with our itchy bitten legs, grumpy and oversensitive at the slightest criticism or grumble from the other. Wearied by moaning and dripping with sweat, we finally got close to Banjul.
After a night anchored outside the little bolon that leads to Lamin Lodge we navigated our way in, spotting the Lodge from well outside the maze of mangroves by the masts of a dozen yachts that are abandoned in the water around it. Edging up to it we were greeted by G-Boy, a thin rasta with a calming voice who joined us by paddleboard. He said he was the harbourmaster so we took his advice on where to anchor, and we stopped, and breathed, ready to spend five days relaxing more deeply and satisfyingly than I knew Richard even could.
The wooden lodge itself is on three levels and looks like a set from Hook. A bridge from the land or a jetty from the sea bring you to the entrance where a man called Bamba plays complex djembe beats and sings welcomes to guests all day. On the next floor is the bar, in the corner of which sits the wild looking but softly spoken old German guy who built the place after sailing to Gambia in the 80s, usually with a few guests or locals. Monkeys climb around the ramshackle structure, fighting over stolen scraps, making nervous advances at the customers and shrieking or hissing when brushed away. At the top is a seating area which is often full of day trippers with their guides, eating fish or chicken with rice and drinking JulBrew, the Gambian beer. Behind the lodge there is another bar for the locals where we spent a lot of time because of their cheap food, and then the village.
Morning breezes would wake us with cool air, and in the evenings there were few enough mosquitoes to spend a bit of time outside in the cockpit. We went full tourist and stopped cooking for ourselves except for a little snack before bed. One of us would pick up bread and beans for breakfast while the other made coffee, and in the afternoons we’d watch crap television from our hard drive, make drawings, play cards, sing songs with our ukuleles, and watch the water and the monkeys from the Lodge’s bar. G-Boy helped us track down some deisel and water, and I had some amazing yellow trousers made for me by a tailor that Bamba introduced me to. Rich researched a bunch of sustainable farming information and boat ideas that we’ve been idly mumbling about for months. Mostly we did nothing. It was great.
But we were going to have to leave some time. Our visas are going to run out on Monday, so yesterday we motored back to Oyster Creek and are now making preparations for our departure, which is as dependent on us working out how to sign out of the country as it is on the wind or tide. Our time in The Gambia has been filled with surprises and joys, kindnesses and beautiful sights, and yet we feel ready to go. We’re looking forward to sailing, washing in salt water and feeling the wind on our faces. In particular we look forward to swimming again once we’ve reached our destination, something we’ve never had the confidence to do for fear of bilharzia, crocodiles and sewage in the muddy waters of the Gambia. To do that, we’ll have to make it to a bay. There’s a chance, though very small, that we might not be able to sail close enough to the wind to make it to the Cape Verdes in any sensible time, so we’ve stocked up with enough water for the whole Atlantic crossing just in case! I’ll let you know how we get on from wherever we end up.
In the meantime, here’s a few last wildlife pictures from The Gambia:
And here’s a grainy phone photo of the best trousers in the world: