From Houston to Sydney 2013

West Africa



Of all the countries I have visited in West Africa, Gambia is by far the most tourist-friendly – which is not always a good thing from my perspective.  I am staying at one of dozens of hotels that line the coastal strip to the south-west of Banjul (the capital city), and all the hotels seem to have large numbers of guests from abroad, mainly the UK.  The quantity and quality of the tourist infrastructure in Gambia leaves all the other West African nations I have seen far behind; in this respect, Gambia is a stark contrast to all the other parts of West Africa that I have visited on this trip.

The hotel where I am staying (the Sheraton) was my third choice.  I couldn’t afford my first choice, which was an ecotourism lodge set in the rainforest beside the Gambia River.  My second choice, which was on the coastal strip and highly rated by Trip Advisor, was booked out months ago when I tried to make a reservation.

The Sheraton is lovely; it is by far the most comfortable hotel I have stayed in during this trip to West Africa, being clean and spacious, having reliable hot water and a big bed with a sublime mattress, and even having tea, coffee, shampoo, and a hair dryer in the room (probably useful for guests who actually have hair).  It is located beside the beach, and the sea breezes are heavenly, especially given that Gambia’s air is so clean; most the smoke from wood fires that blankets most urban areas in West Africa is notably absent here.  The architecture is inspired by traditional West African village structures, and being set amidst a grove of huge, naturally growing baobab trees, the expansive hotel bears more than a passing nod to the appearance of a Dogon village.

With English as the standard language, I can understand why Gambia would be so attractive to British holiday makers who, from my observations, are spending most of their days sunbaking, swimming or walking on the beach rather than going out to explore Gambia’s cultural attractions. 

After my late arrival last night, I slept in a little this morning before going to enjoy a delicious buffet breakfast.  There was moment of mild excitement during breakfast when a couple of English women started screaming.  The cause of the turmoil was a medium sized rat running across the floor of the restaurant.  The screaming alerted some hotel staff, who began chasing the rat, but they were unsuccessful; the rat just seemed to disappear somewhere or other.  It was a helpful lesson for me – I learnt that European women could scream just as loudly when they see a rat as West African women can scream when they see a camera raised in the markets.

I decided to begin the day by compensating for yesterday’s lack of exercise with a walk along the beach in front of the hotel.  The tide was low and the sand was firm and flat, suggesting a fairly low energy beach.  However, the backdrop of the beach, which was a steeply sided, heavily eroded cliff that had claimed several large baobab trees by undercutting, suggested that this shoreline succumbs to an extremely high-energy regime during storms.

I walked for about an hour, going southwards as far as a small fishing settlement where some small, brightly painted boats were anchored.  I was told by some of the local fishermen that they were from Ghana, which seemed plausible though surprising.

My main objective today was not the beach walk, however – it was a visit to Gambia’s capital city, Banjul.  The drive to Banjul from my hotel was 23 kilometres each way, so I organised a local taxi driver to undertake the trip, drive me to three spots in the city, and return to the hotel for an agreed price of 1200 dalasi (yes, another country, another currency, this time one of the world’s most obscure – the dalasi, which divides into 100 bututs; I am yet to see a butut).  The driver’s name was Madi Mboge, but he usually goes by his nickname, which is Gambia Energy, or Energy for short.  Energy is extremely keen to drive me again over the next few days, or with a group if I return next year, and as a result, I have his postal address, his mobile phone number and his three e-mail addresses.

Our vintage Mercedes-Benz must have been low on fuel, because Energy asked for the first 200 dalasi immediately and we stopped to add fuel to the car.  Either the fuel gauge wasn’t working or 200 dalasi worth of petrol wasn’t sufficient to bring the pointer up as far as the empty mark; I would rank either scenario as being equally probable.

Banjul certainly does not rank as one of the great capital cities of the world.  It is located on a small island (St Mary’s Island) in the Gambia River which a British officer, Captain Alexander Grant, purchased from the king of Kombo in 1816 to establish a base from which the British navy could control the slave trade.  Barracks were built, a town (initially known as Bathurst) was laid out, and an artillery battery was established to control access to the Gambia River from the Atlantic Ocean.  Today, most of the British buildings remain and Bathurst has become Banjul, Gambia’s capital, with a population of 35,000 people.

One of my guidebooks (the Rough Guide) describes Banjul somewhat disparagingly in these words: “At no time of year is little Banjul a prepossessing place.  Its tarmac streets seem to pump out heat in the dry season, and its alleys become a chaos of red mud and puddles during the rains.  The dilapidated assemblage of corrugated iron and peeling paint, and a lattice of open drains deep in the backstreets, with no slopes to drain them, complete a somewhat melancholy picture…  If you have to be here, compensations are scant.  To be won over by Banjul you need a little patience, and perhaps a specialist interest in West African architecture or history”.

My reaction to the guidebook’s comment would simply be – it isn’t THAT bad!  I found the air clean, the people extremely relaxed, friendly and hospitable, and the sights – well, quaint.

Our first stop in Banjul was Arch 22.  This huge, 35 metre high cream coloured concrete structure marks the entry point into the city of Banjul along the one and only road that joins the city to the rest of the world.  It was built to celebrate the military coup of 22nd July 1994 (hence the name), and took two years to complete.  Whatever its external aesthetics, it offers the best (in fact, the only) elevated views over Banjul.

Unfortunately, none of the four lifts (elevators) work any more because the structure has twisted as it has sunk downwards into soft sediment upon which it was built.  Nonetheless, the climb up the stairs was not difficult and the views from the top made the effort well worth it.  This is the place from which Banjul shows itself at its best.  There is also a small museum in a room at the top of the arch, but I doubt anyone would climb the stairs if that were the only reward at the summit.

Our second stop was the National Museum.  Housed in a tiny colonial building with creaky wooden floor boards and authentic, un-retouched British-era paint on the ceilings and walls, the museum is small and badly lit, with a decaying collection of dusty exhibits and yellowing photographs that seem completely appropriate in the context.  Anyone used to a touch-and-feel interactive display would be disappointed within about 10 seconds, but this is a genuine colonial-era museum set out in the traditional colonial manner – dark, narrow corridors with fading photos, many photographs of apparently once-important people, many examples of significant documents in old glass-fronted picture frames, mould on the walls, but amongst everything, some unexpected gems (such as historical maps and some tribal crafts) that are genuinely enlightening.  I especially liked the display of the current President’s school uniforms and the set of Encyclopedia Britannica volumes that he used as a boy.  Unlike several of the museums visited on this trip, photography is allowed within the museum (which, as you probably know, I see as a very positive feature).

The third and final visit in Banjul was to the Royal Albert Market.  This was a markedly calmer and more orderly market that most of the others I have visited in West Africa, and the people were relaxed and friendly than elsewhere.  There was a large section towards the rear of the market with crafts and souvenirs that seemed reasonably priced (although I didn’t start any negotiations to confirm this), and I saw far more genuine artisans working on wooden articles and textiles than I encountered in the sum total of all the ‘artisans’ villages’ I visited in Francophone West Africa.

This market was very much intended for local people, with shoes, household goods and food occupying most of the land, and some fascinating zones such as the carpenters (who seem to specialise in huge and elaborate bed bases) and the tailors – there must have been a couple of hundred people (mostly men) working with old sewing machines in small, open-fronted stalls making clothes.

Before I went into Banjul today, the receptionist at the hotel told me that two hours would be more than enough to see everything.  He was fairly close to the mark.  I returned to the hotel and relaxed for a while before going on another short afternoon beach walk.  The heat in Gambia seems far less intense than other places I have been visiting (and today’s maximum temperature was just 30 degrees Celsius), so like this morning’s walk, my beach walk in the afternoon sea breeze was pure delight.


29 January 2014

Day 33 - Banjul, Gambia