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 ?"
Factfile 33: Nowadays, Kaolack has developed into a much more modern town. The birthplace of Mariame, my wife of many years, home to her famiily and many friends from my frequent visits.
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.
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.
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.
The ferry arrived on time and set off over the river to Banjul as we boarded, just in time.
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 not-so-nice characters.
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 ?