Calum's Road Celebrations
Safely through Mauritania, the 7 riders were able to be more open about their location, and pictures and blogs were updated more fully. We knew that they'd had a few days R'n'R at the Zebrabar in Senegal, and were heading for the Gambian border on schedule at the end of January.
Meanwhile, I and another WAG were the only two partners heading out to see them, and we met up over a few drinks in a travel hotel near Manchester airport, ready for the long and early flight to Banjul. We landed on time, and were met by the tour operator. We changed some money into local Dalasi, a process which seemed to take about 10 minutes each, before heading to our coach, a process which cost a few Dalasi as the porters jostled for our business.
About 30 minutes later, we arrived at the Palma Rima hotel. It had been a cheap package holiday, as that was the best way to get flights, but we were a little dismayed by the shabbiness of the rooms in the hotel: no aircon, no toiletries, a dribbly shower and a rather peculiar smell. Never mind, we thought, as we changed into swimming costumes and hit the rather lovely pool and sipped cold beers at the friendly poolside bar. We had different guide books, so we compared notes to work out our exact location, and where the nearest recommended restaurant was.
Emerging from the hotel we were instantly surrounded by bumsters, who proved impossible to shake off until we reached the beach 100 m down the road. We sat in Solomon's Beach Bar and watched in awe as the sun slipped gracefully into the Atlantic, waves curling onto soft white sand, and palm trees swaying in the gentle breeze. The owner, Ousman, was very helpful and friendly, and even offered to walk us back to the hotel, as the same bumsters were still hanging around outside his beach bar. But we were big girls, and made it under our own steam to the marvellous Shiraz restaurant, where we enjoyed a superb selection of Lebanese/ Greek tapas, including baba ganosh, garlic potatoes and houmous.
We had been given the number of Musa, our driver, who was due to pick us up next day and take us to the village of Sambel Kunda, where the bikers were now installed as guests of the Horse and Donkey Trust, and had been greeted with cheering crowds on their arrival. We rang Musa thinking we'd suggest a start of about 9 or 10, and were a little taken aback when he said he'd pick us up at 6 am! Another early start then.
We drove in the dark into dusty Banjul, and down some rather pot-holed roads to the ferry terminal. There are two main roads in The Gambia, one which runs along the north side of the river, and one in the south. Although the south one would have been shorter length-wise for our trip, and wouldn't have involved crossing the river, Musa explained that it was currently so bad that the journey would take three times as long.
Musa left to organise tickets, which I gathered required paying some rather large bribes for a place in the queue, and Katherine and I were left in the car, watching the bustle of activity as ladies carrying laundry bags on their heads, young men pushing handcarts, and beat-up old vans piled high with luggage on their roofs all jostled for position in some rather aggressive queuing. The ferry staff used every last square inch of space on board, and there was no room even to open a car door to get out and stretch our legs. When we finally boarded it was well after 9 o'clock, and we used the 45 minute crossing time to catch up on a little snooze. We didn't feel like stopping in Barra, a noisy dusty town on the northern shore, but carried on instead to Farafenni. This is the border town that the bikers had come through a few days earlier, and Katherine and I were both struck by how completely different it was to anywhere in the world we had ever visited, and between us we'd chalked up quite a few travellers miles!
Musa stopped at a chop shop, one of the tiny little cafés on the main street, where a young chef would chop and fry your choice of ingredients. Our Western sensibilities bristled at the lack of hygiene around the solitary chopping knife and board in use, and we took one look at the flies buzzing round the meat before ordering a couple of omelettes. They were served in a sliced baguette, wrapped in half a sheet of newspaper—no cutlery, no plates, no napkins. The whole environment felt completely alien to me (but in a good way!) and I desperately wanted to take some photos, but the idea of producing my iPhone and starting to snap pictures just seemed wrong.
We drove on through the wide open bush, goats and cows occasionally crossing our path, for a few more hours until we reached the riverside village of Kuntaur, where Musa announced that we would transfer to a boat. A much smaller boat than the big ferry, this little dinghy with its bamboo cane roof and outboard motor was ably captained by N'Fally, whose keen eyesight was able to pick out some interesting wildlife for us en route, including a rather large python curled around a tree. It really was fabulous to be ferried on the beautiful wide river Gambia, with the sun glinting on the water, and the prodigious birdlife flitting in the tall green trees.
Once N'Fally had deposited us on the far shore and further down, near Baboon Island, we waited for the next stage of our journey. This wasn't a holiday we kept telling each other, it was an adventure. A noise in the distance announced the arrival of Dai as a pillion passenger on a little 125 bike, accompanied by a horse and cart ready to take us to the final stage. I hadn't seen Dai for over 5 weeks, so there was much hugging and greeting. We piled all the bags onto the cart, and Dai and I squeezed on as well, and we trotted along the dusty track, with children smiling and waving to us as we passed. We arrived at last at the Horse and Donkey compound, a two storey building with no electricity, some running water, but thankfully a gas powered fridge containing lots of cold beer!
Hello hugs dispensed to all of the riders, we caught up on our travellers' tales as we wandered around the village, meeting the headmaster of the school, seeing where the injured donkeys were cared for, and the new clinic that had recently been built. A couple of the village elders arrived and presented a pair of live chickens, to honour us ladies. I'd never felt so privileged or honoured in my life.
My ankles had been quite badly bitten by mosquitoes, and each foot bore a little anklet of itchy red welts. I had to use ear plugs to get some sleep, because aside from the noisy beer drinkers there were cocks crowing, horses braying, bells around the necks of cows clanking as well as that prodigious birdlife...
Breakfast in SK consisted of freshly made bread from the village, with spready cheese and preserves. I was delighted to find a jar of Marmite that Heather, the English woman who runs the place, had brought out with her. We continued making friends in the village, and saw where the solar powered battery charger was located. Mike, one of the bikers, was a familiar face in the village and nearby, as he installs these vital power sources. Later, we were formally introduced to the local Imam, and various speeches were made and translated. All the villagers are so excited about the prospect of getting their road back to a usable condition: currently its poor state of repair is making it difficult to take their crops to market, or to get to the nearest hospital.
The next day, the guys set off on their bikes again to spend a few days on the coast. Katherine and I had to wait for a couple of hours until Musa could get to us, but a troop of baboons arrived and started playing in the back garden, which amused us for a while, and then I helped with some book-keeping tasks. Our journey was the reverse of the one we'd done a few days earlier, except that by the time we'd reached Barra at 6 pm, it looked like there was little chance of getting the taxi on board the ferry. After waiting in the queue for two hours, we agreed to cross as foot passengers, and had brought one of the young men from SK with us as a chaperone. Musa had already phoned a colleague to pick us up at the Banjul terminal, to save any anxious taxi-hunting and bargaining.
And so at about 9.30 that evening we were ushered into the Ocean Bay resort on Cape Point, Gambia's only 5 star establishment. The seven bikes were neatly lined up outside it, and the guys were lined up at the bar with a couple of cold bottles of Julbrew, the local beer. Mike's wife had still been following his GPS tracker, and texted him to make sure she wasn't mistaken as to his locality. Ooops, busted!
The contrast between the plush modern hotel and the mud huts with straw roofs where we'd just been could hardly have been starker. And it was embarrassing to see how rudely some of our fellow guests treated the staff: The Gambia is an English speaking country, but despite being greeted warmly in English by the omelette chef, one woman proceeded to reply 'Hola!' before pointing at the sign that read 'omelette' and saying 'Deux'. Honestly!
We spent our remaining few days lounging by the pool, taking walks along the beautiful beach, and eating in wherever our guide books recommended. In the Clay Oven, reputedly the finest Indian in West Africa, we found a bottle of Jägermeister behind the bar, and ordered a round of shots to toast absent friends. The most prominent of these was Johnny, a Skye native and a huge fan of that tipple, and since the whole adventure was his idea to begin with it was rather poignant that he hadn't been able to make it in the end. The owner cheerfully gave us the rest of the bottle to finish off.
On the Saturday morning the guys rode their bikes out to Banjul airport to arrange for them to be shipped home. When they got back to the hotel their faces told how dejected and bereft they felt, having said goodbye to their faithful daily companions of the past five weeks, who'd seen them through hot and cold, thick and thin, desert and city. Over drinks Heather revealed that the Horse and Donkey had a house nearby, and in its garage was a motorbike and ambulance side-car. It was destined for the clinic in SK, but hadn't quite made it yet. Well, the bikers swiftly downed their Julbrews and practically sprinted round to the house, where they spent several happy hours getting batteries charged up and checking tyre pressures, before turning on the all-important flashy red light and taking it for a spin. I could read the look in Dai's eyes, and I knew he was already planning to come back out here very soon in order to take this fantastic bit of kit to where it was needed, and to run some classes in motorcycle maintenance for the local guys.