Kaolack is a hot, dry, dusty and salty town in the middle of a vast expanse of salt flats. Everything you eat or drink has an overpowering salty taste and those people born in Kaolack can be
instantly recognised whenever you meet them, all over West Africa, by their brown teeth. Much fun can be had when a Toubab tells them where they come from .. and with a non-gleaming brown smile, they usually ask,
"How ever did you guess that ?"
On the outskirts of the town, Alaghi asked the driver to let us out .. mumbled something about having to visit a friend for a couple of minutes .. and disappeared
into a nearby compound.
Leaving me and a young inexperienced lad we had been helping to get to The Gambia for his first time of travelling there, standing beside a sizeable pile of luggage, containing valuable beads
and cameras etc. .. in the roughest part of town. We immediately became the target of
20 or so teenage ruffians, demanding money and looking quite threatening, not just solely because of their numbers. Getting angry
about their taunts and demands would perhaps have started a riot .. trying to humour them into a friendly exchange had no effect whatsoever ..
so we simply turned our backs on them and tried our best to ignore them.
Alaghi's couple of minutes visit ended up being around half an hour .. his minutes obviously being measured in GMT (Gambian Maybe Time) .. and most of that time was quite
uncomfortable. Not that I wasn't bigger and stronger than any of them, if it had come to physical restraints .. but the fact that I knew darn well, that to concentrate on one would allow others to steal any bags that we
weren't watching. Eventually this gang of urchins got fed up with being ignored and gradually wondered off to hassle a nearby vendor into opening his shop and getting his spinning-rods football table out for them to
play on. A nasty little bunch of yobs !
Alaghi returned, having conducted his business and we hired another taxi to take us to the Serrekunda-bound taxi garage. This was utter mayhem .. so keeping to the
tried and tested formula .. we bulldozed our way through a throng of touts and bumpsters to find the right taxi manager for the right car. Already sitting, hunched up in the rear, was a pleasant middle-aged Frenchman by
the name of Jean .. who had flown into Dakar that morning, hopped straight into a taxi and was heading for Casamance, via Banjul .. trying to complete his journey in one day.
More used to flying in and
out of this area of Africa .. he had yet to learn that bush taxi speak of 'we will be leaving soon'
doesn't really mean anything at all .. and tall people such as he .. fought tooth and nail to get seats with head and leg room in the front, or at least the centre row. A little bit of friendly persuasion to the taxi driver got him a slightly better centre row spot and after an hour or so we departed on the final leg of our journey.
The route to the Sénégalese border had recently been resurfaced and although our journey was hot, it was uneventful. No problems with any money-grabbing officials, who seem to operate at their
threatening best after dark, we reached the border posts at Karang ( Sénégal exit ) and Amdallai ( The Gambia entry point ) without problem.
Here, we all had our papers checked as usual, no money was
asked for and after another prolonged search for my passport entry and exit stamps .. accompanied by my sympathetic comments on the working environment in their Gambian immigration office, which looked as though it had
fairly recently had a serious fire inside .. we re-entered The Gambia.
I have been through this border post on many occasions and the fuss over getting reasonably priced and roadworthy
transport over the 10 kilometres to Barra and the ferry, never changes.
However many of you there are wanting to share a taxi .. their rules change to accommodate you .. but always to only being able to take
one less than the number in your group.
With Jean and the young lad, there were four of us. "Oh no! We are only allowed to take three passengers"( at an exorbitant price ) was their reply. The actual
fare is D15
per person and every time I get annoyed at their attempts to cheat the Toubab .. especially when I am tired after a long journey and just wanting to relax in the familiar surroundings of my second home.
Each time it is the same .. words to the effect of Go forth and multiply my good fellow. Do you think I just fell out of that palm tree?.. generate the reply that there is absolutely no other
transport available ! So you walk away and the taxi manager, who has been standing in the shadows letting the bumpster drivers try their luck .. walks up smiling, directs you to a 30 seater minibus .. takes your
D15 and you eventually trundle off down the road towards Barra.
In West Africa, Sénégal takes the prize for the best roads of entry and exit and for giving the best first impressions of their country. The
Gambia comes last by a long way with this abysmal route into Barra and the roads out of Basse. I think the Barra road must take the accolade for having not only the worst road surface but also the worst selection
of transport vehicles to conduct visitors into the country .. a situation that has remained the same for many years.
A bone-shaking, spine-jarring ride in a totally clapped-out vehicle, is the norm
.. with drivers seemingly hell-bent on hitting each and every one of the jagged potholes, liberally strewn over what, many years ago, was a good tarmac and shell mixture surface. No attempt ever seems to be made
to properly repair this route, despite a new and smooth road leading out of Barra in another direction. Whether it is left in this state as potential discouragement to any invaders driving tanks, I doubt .. but it
is certainly bad enough to delay them ! First impressions of the country to new arrivals and the fact that this route is the main route for the many traders and visitors coming to Banjul from Dakar and all points
north .. seems not to matter at all.
We rattled into Barra, found out that the ferry to Banjul would be leaving in around an hour's time .. bought our tickets ( @ D5 each ) and settled down
for coffee / tea, snacks and a little teasing of the female owner and her sister, in one of the many snack shacks at the terminal !
The ferry arrived on time and set off over the river to Banjul as we boarded, just in time.
This was Jean's first time in The Gambia, so he shared our taxi back to Serrekunda and I left him in the tender care
of Alaghi, to take him in to the Casamance taxi garage, which was on his way home. Jean was so pleased at having two expert
guides to show him the way quickly and cheaply into, through and out of a new country, in a tenth of the time that it would have taken him on his own .. that he offered to pay for our taxi .. a nice touch. I hope he arrived safely at his destination and that his wife had a trouble-free flight to join him a few days later.
Returning to my house .. hot, dusty and extremely tired .. for a refreshing shower and all the comforts of home .. I reflected not only on all the experiences we had been through in the previous three
weeks .. but that this, our final day of travelling .. had nearly been our final day on earth. The non-stop travelling from Bamako to Banjul had brought together all of the privations and dangers we had faced in the
previous weeks .. in a final attempt to defeat us.
However we had both survived intact. We had met, been helped by and made friends with, many fine people and had been reasonably successful against some
The treasured souvenirs
we had returned with and the superb photographic scenes I was privileged to be able to record, did outweigh the rougher parts. By no means had it been easy. Alternatively being frozen and roasted in one of the hottest areas of Africa .. being brought to a standstill when mountain climbing without sufficient preparation .. surviving on sometimes dodgy food .. taking risks that, on reflection, we shouldn't have even considered .. and often suffering for them .. being passengers in dangerous cars with one or two dangerous drivers ..
the heat, the dirt and the dust .. who knows what else could have happened to us ?
We must have been crazy !!!
Am I planning to go back and risk more of the same .. to explore other parts of the
Dogon area, see the cave dwellings, visit the fabled Timbuktu, venture into remote Burkina Faso to learn about their bronzes, experience life in Alaghi's even more remote home country of Niger .. with all the
frustrations, pitfalls and dangers associated with this type of travel ?
You bet I am .. Africa is an endless source of fascination to me, impossible to resist !