Drug searches, detours and damaged ferries (November 2013)


Our first experiences in Gambia left a bit of a sour taste. The border crossing was quite easy with cheerful officials and only the obligatory false fee of 5000CFA on the Senegalese side which we never paid. After immigration, customs and police and being told to be able to leave now the big boss came out to demand a drug search of our vehicle. We thought that fair enough but it turned out to take an hour mainly explaining what every medication we had with us was for. The principal of Jasmines oral contraceptive was a bit hard to explain. After all why would you not want to have as many children as possible as most Africans do. The guys were friendly enough though and finally sent us on our way to Barra to cross the Gambia River to Banjul.

About 20 minutes later we arrived and were immediately surrounded by fixers and other false friends. Unfortunately one of them turned out to be another drug officer. We had ignored him for a while before as we just wanted to park up and he was not wearing uniform and only having a badge anybody could forfeit with Paint. Obviously that did not make him a friendlier person and we were about to have our second full search of the car in just 20 minutes and 20km driven. He demanded that we take everything out of the car and bring it into his office. Explaining him that we had just had the same treatment at the border and did not even have the chance to pick up any drugs in between did not help. He lied about having called the border post about the matter which made Jasmine extremely angry and the poor guy was in for a bit of a yelling session. So he truly tried to get hold of somebody at the border to not lose his face but to no avail. Fabian just brought the first load of camping chairs and underwear into the office when his boss turned up. Apparently we had made enough noise for him to take over and we could take our stuff back to the car. Another time every single medication in our first aid box had to be explained before we were let go.

Afterwards we got told that the ferry was not running at the moment. Of the three ferries on duty two were just getting new engines fitted and the third one decided to break down with engine failure as well. We decided to wait for a day as there was supposedly a good chance that it would be fixed during the night. The head of port security took it upon himself to babysit us during the wait and we ended up spending the night at his compound. Barra is not a place we would have wanted to stay at any longer than necessary so we were happy to spend the evening there and meet his family and neighbours. His wife cooked the traditional Gambian dish Domoda (Rice with peanut sauce and fish in this case) and grilled some fish we got earlier for helping to haul in a fisherman’s pirogue.

Obviously the ferry was still not running the next day so we headed inland towards Farafenni and the next closest crossing of the Gambia River. The drive on the north bank of the river was simply beautiful, full of green and life with little villages along the way. Senegal had already been quite densely vegetated but Gambia played in another league again. It took a couple of hours to reach the other side of the river as all the traffic heading for Banjul was redirected to Farafenni. The night was spent directly at the river at Tendaba Camp. At this time of the year the River Gambia can almost appear to be a lake because of its wideness and it is hard to make out any flow.

From Tendaba we went straight to the capital Banjul and Serrekunda to its south. Police and military checkpoints were very frequent on both sides of the river to and from Farafenni. We would like to mention two occasions that stood out.

In Farafenni about 100m of the main road were declared for emergency access only with another lane to its left. Anybody driving on it gets stopped by the police who are just waiting to top up their salary. The police station is directly next to it so Fabian had to follow into the office where some Americans were arguing with the chief about the exact same offense. There was a bit of a good cop bad cop thing going on between the two policemen and the good cop suggested to hand over some contribution to the chiefs breakfast to make the fine go away. Instead Fabian gave him a bit of frankness about his opinion on Gambian officials and how little welcome we felt in their country so far. The good cop was a bit simple minded and confirmed how much he liked to fine people for this offense and especially his own countrymen which he was very proud of. In the end we talked our way out of it and were let go.

On the south bank we were stopped by military personnel who were very suspicious about the suction cups holding our iPod and the navigation netbook. They were convinced that it was video cameras and it took a bit of time to prove to them we were no spies. Funnily just half a meter higher on the outside of the windscreen our GoPro video camera was attached which they did not even notice. 🙂

At the moment we are staying at Sukuta Camping close to Serrekunda, Gambias biggest city. As usual we are walking everywhere and the Gambians themselves were extremely friendly so far. A greeting and question for the wellbeing is the least you can expect from anybody you pass.

We also got our visa for Sierra Leone in Banjul which is quite expensive with 100USD per person but was issued on the same day instead of the usual three day process.

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