Monday, May 9, 2011

Driving to the Gambia

Banjul, Gambia
8 May 2011

This morning a couple friends and I piled into my Landcruiser and headed south to the Gambia. Sunday morning is the best time to leave Dakar as there was no traffic and we made it to Mbour within an hour. As we got further away from Dakar the roads steadily got worse, and after Kaolack we were swerving all over the road to avoid the road craters that could swallow whole one of the decrepit yellow taxis we passed on the road. After a while we gave up on the semi-paved road and traveled on the dirt track beside the road with everyone else.

The border crossing was nothing spectacular- we stopped at the police station where they wrote our info into an old ledger, stamped our passports, then we drove around the barrier in the Gambia. In Gambia the immigration officials seemed surprised to see us and used their cell phone to call for advice from their boss. 30 minutes later we were on our way again.

At least the Gambians didn't pretend to pave their roads and their wide dirt highway was much easier on the bones. Within 20 mins we were at the river ferry crossing (after being held up by an armed Gambian Soldier asking for money to buy a cold soda). The booth to buy tickets to cross the river on the boat was at the edge of town, which we had missed and discovered once we were in line. Thankfully, as the boat was about to load, they sold us a $4 ticket and we drove right onto the ferry. We were joined by a number of car rapides, taxis, sept-places, and pedestrians for the quick 15 min ride across the river. As usual in Africa anywhere there are people and cars we were swarmed by vendors selling cold drinks, cookies, underwear, and anything else you could think of.

Once on the southern bank of the river we got back on a dirt road and raced west across the countryside to Banjul. It seemed that every 15 mins or so we encountered a police or military checkpoint where would be questioned about who we were, where we were from, where we were going, and why. Eventually a supervisor would wave us through and we would be off again. About 50km east of Banjul the road evolved into pavement- the dirt road was covered with more dirt a couple inches thick, then rolled over with a steam roller to smooth it out, then oiled, and eventually a couple inches of asphalt would cap the surface. The resulting road was smooth and shiny, but I wonder how long it will last.

In Banjul we were stopped by a very rare and surprising sight in Africa: a working stoplight that was respected by traffic! I sat in shock behind other cars halted by a red light with no crossing traffic and no police in sight. It was a nice welcome to Banjul and soon we arrived at our fancy hotel on the beach. The entire trip took 9 hours from Dakar to Banjul including the ferry ride, border crossing, and multiple checkpoints in the Gambia.

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