On our second day in The Gambia, we assembled with four Brits who were scheduled to join us on our trip upriver, and getting to know them turned out to be the best thing about our Gambian experience. Today’s guide, also named Bakary, helped us spot birds along the 1.5-hour drive to the Bintang Bolon where we were to meet the boat. He was a young guy who liked to crack his knuckles and clean his ears with a sharp toothpick while we bumped along the very bad road, calling to mind the “Off-Road Tattooing” segment from Jackass: The Movie.
Cream of Cream Soup
Eventually we boarded the Safari Queen, a spacious fiberglass boat with a shade canopy, for the four-hour trip on the Gambia River to Tendaba Camp, about a third of the way up the river’s length on the south bank, for an overnight’s stay. This camp was another jewel featuring dirty rooms, surly staff, lousy food (one notable dish being the tasteless “cream of cream” soup with no discernible ingredients beyond a white sauce), no hot water and bath towels that smelled like a dirty dog. At least we had mosquito nets on the beds but the woefully thin sheets seemed less than clean. In the late afternoon we hopped on a motorized pirogue for a birding excursion among the bolon on the opposite bank, and at least this jaunt was enjoyable. We spotted a half-dozen new birds and hundreds of my favorite little amphibians — mudskippers.
The following day we continued on the Safari Queen a short distance more to the ferry-crossing town of Farafenni on the north bank, at which point we then got off the boat for a several-hour drive. The road leading into “downtown” Farafenni was the most badly potholed piece of pavement I have ever witnessed — perhaps it had been bombed? — and I got uncontrollable giggles from the mad jiggling we endured sitting at the back of the van. In town, goats and pigs wandered the dusty streets and donkey carts were the preferred mode of transport. Past town a new road was under construction and appeared to be finished but it was blocked off with rocks every so often, forcing all traffic to use the rough dirt shoulder instead.
The landscape here was dry savannah peppered with baobab trees, distinctive for their hanging, gourd-like fruits. Occasional tiny hamlets of mud-brick huts with thatch roofs dotted the countryside. Larger towns featured police checkpoints that required us to stop and offer a pen to continue on, which I suppose is a small price to pay. (These pen shakedowns occurred on our return journey as well.) Eventually we came to the town of Kuntaur and got on another boat, the wooden, double-decker Lady Hippo, to continue upriver once again. Apparently the whole journey by boat would have taken too much time because of all the twists and turns in this part of the river. This time we were able to cruise closer to the bank and scan the thick jungle vegetation for birds and monkeys much more effectively.
How About Another Cold Shower?
Nearing dusk we arrived at Bird Safari Camp on McCarthy Island in mid-river, and it was a slight step up from Tendaba Camp but once again had cold-water showers (when there was water that flowed) in the dirty, bug-ridden stone cottages and even worse food. I was concerned I’d develop scurvy from the lack of fruits and vegetables for so many days. This place had a swimming pool but I didn’t even consider dipping a toe into the brown water covered in water skaters — yech! We spent three nights here and barely kept ourselves busy with bird-watching on the island, as we had already seen much of what was around. Two members of our group opted to stay on for another two days and I can’t imagine what they did for the duration. All in all, the whole experience was not worth the time.
We then retraced our steps downriver, first on the Lady Hippo to Kuntar and then the bumpy, dusty drive to Kuntaur, but at Farafenni we were in for a surprise: because there were only four of us they gave us not the Safari Queen but a rickety, leaky little wooden skiff. I watched with growing alarm as the boat took on water and the captain continuously baled out water collecting in the rear of the boat. I was convinced we’d capsize but luckily we made it to Tendaba Camp after an hour or so, the captain’s right arm noticeably tired.
The next morning we had to get back on that little deathtrap of a skiff for another two and a half hours to get to Bintang Bolon, and this time the water was very choppy and we got soaked from the cold spray. Also, I had come down with some tummy woes the night before but was able to hold myself together until we got back onto dry land. We had just the drive to Banjul to endure, then a few hours rest at the Safari Garden Hotel before getting on the plane that would whisk us away from The Gambia and end our suffering. We had hoped to take showers at the hotel, but guess what? There was no water at all in the entire neighborhood for several hours. We had to dip buckets into the swimming pool just to get water to flush the toilets. A fine farewell to a perfectly ghastly journey.