We woke up to another day of paradise in The Gambia.
The sun filtered down through the canopy of vibrant trees, dappling the footpath ahead of us as we made our way to breakfast.
Footsteps Eco-Lodge was proving to be a very friendly place to stay. Last night, dinner was served for us at a large, round table. All guests had sat and eaten together, sharing tales of previous adventures.
Everyone had been so easy to talk to. I was drawn in by the many ventures they had taken. For many of them, The Gambia seemed to hold a special place in their hearts with some guests being frequent visitors to the lodge.
For dinner I had some fish for the second night in a row. Although I’m a keen meat-eater, I do try and try local, different foods whilst on holiday. On this trip, instead of meat I had been sticking to seafood as I knew it was locally-sourced and ethically-caught.
This morning, alongside my usual bottomless tea, I decided to try a mixed fruit smoothie. An adventurous move on my behalf. I do not like fruit at all but as the fruit was grown in the gardens in which we sat, I was prepared to give it a go.
I sipped the cold fruit smoothie through the cool metallic straw. As I suspected, fruit still wasn’t for me but I still made an effort to finish it off. The vitamins would probably do me a world of good!
I was also set on trying as much as I could from the breakfast menu so decided to have some porridge today.
The vibe in The Gambia is very much laid back and so I decided to give in to that restful state of mind and for the morning did very little at all. Before I knew it, my stomach was rumbling, demanding some lunch.
On the lunch menu at the lodge was fresh prawns and chips. Continuing with my daring streak, I ordered this.
I very much avoid prawns at all costs as it’s so easy to become sick from eating them. However, the food at Footsteps was proving to be very good and I knew the ingredients would be local so I decided to take the risk.
The prawns were exceptional! I didn’t get sick either.
Lewis ordered some poached eggs and roasted vegetables for himself. That also looked pretty good!
I’m not the kind to stick to eating every meal at my accommodation but for this short 3-night stint in The Gambia I wanted to have as relaxing a time as possible and take the hassle out of researching somewhere else to eat.
The fact that Footsteps grew so much produce that went into their meals as well was a big positive for me. Nothing beats organic home-grown veg!
I was also supporting a positive organisation as Footsteps only employ local staff who are paid fairly.
After lunch, it was time to get on with our day.
I still desperately needed cash in order to pay for our car rental tomorrow. I’d learnt that no local village had any means of withdrawing cash and my best bet would be to drive to Brikama town which was located a good 30 minutes away.
It may not have been how I imagined spending my second and last full day in The Gambia but I was determined to make the best of it.
We leapt into our shining Mitsubishi 4×4 and turned the key in the ignition. The engine growled as it came to life and the tyres churned on the soft sandy road.
I watched the trees as we passed them, thinking about all the animals that call them home. Footsteps is located at the edge of the Koofung Forest Park, an area of protected wilderness. The park is home to species of bird, monkey and deer.
As we hit the main coastal road, we found ourselves retracing our steps from the previous day when we journeyed to Serrekunda. I was starting to recognise the houses and villages which we passed.
I still found my adrenaline-pumping whenever a goat or cow would decide to cross the road in front of us.
A notable feature about The Gambia’s road networks is that they contain frequent Police road-blocks.
At various points along the key highways, Police will look at every passing vehicle and sometimes approach and ask questions or inspect it.
I’m not entirely sure why they do this – perhaps to keep a look out for suspicious activity, but I’d heard a couple of times that the road-blocks can be used as a means to obtain bribes, especially because they are not well-paid.
My encounters with the Police road-blocks had been nothing but pleasant. More often than not, the Police would merely wave us past, likely recognising that we were just tourists and not bothering to inspect us.
Occasionally the Police would approach our car and we would wind down the window. They would ask us where we were going and we would respond only for them to let us continue with our drive.
My best guess is that things only get messy if you are difficult at the road-blocks. I had overheard a man stayed at our lodge who said he was stopped at a road-block and was held for hours. He sounded very irate.
When faced with a road-block, I liked to be as friendly as possible, giving the officers friendly smiles and complying with their questions, if they had any. Our rental car also came with a document which I could hand to them which let them know everything with the car was legal. If they didn’t seem keen on moving-on until I gave them something, my last resort was to give them the document. One Police officer commented as I gave him the letter, “Oh it says ‘for the Police’. I like this letter!”
At the fishing village of Sanyang, we took a right turn which lead deeper in-land. Here things were less rural and we found ourselves passing village after village.
Jambanjãli village was alive with people. We’d perfectly timed our drive through the village with the closing of prayer at Jambanjãli Central Mosque. As chaotic as the streets were at that time, I found it very magical watching the villagers as they left the Mosque.
The next village we passed was Jalambang which despite being larger than Jambanjãli felt a lot quieter due to the timings we passed.
Next was the bustling town of Brikama and man, was it bustling.
It wasn’t quite as hectic as Serrekunda but the key roads that ran through the town were backed-up with traffic. Various stalls lined the roads.
At a cross-roads in the middle of the town, a Police officer was directing traffic across, trying to control the endless stream of cars which poured in from all four angles.
It wasn’t long before we found a bank. Sadly this bank was not able to assist us but they directed us to a bank that could deal with foreign cards. The directions they gave were clear and helpful. As we left the bank, we passed a group of people who greeted us with warm smiles. I happily returned the smiles, forever being humbled by the kindness of the people in The Gambia.
It wasn’t long until we reached the second bank and before long, I had withdrawn the cash that I needed. It had been a productive afternoon!
However, as we tried to reverse out of the parking-spot in front of the bank, we encountered a slight issue. It was near impossible to reverse out! Behind the spot was a busy main road which was alive with an array of traffic from cars to lorries to cyclists to pedestrians. It was chaos!
We must have waited in the car for several minutes, tentatively reversing every so often only to have to slam the brakes on again as another cyclist came out of nowhere. How on earth were we going to manage?
Just then a passer-by came up to the window. With his eyes on the traffic he started waving us out, following our car as we followed his aids. With the man’s help, we successfully managed to reverse out of a seemingly impossible situation.
He had been incredibly helpful. I knew (or at least thought I knew) how to thank people in Africa and opened up my wallet to grab a couple of notes. When I looked up however, the kind gentleman was walking away.
Lewis shouted from the car, trying to call him back so we could thank him. He mustn’t have heard as he didn’t turn around and quickly melted into the busy crowd.
I couldn’t believe it. A passer-by had offered help but then left quickly, without giving us chance to thank him. He must not have expected any gifts.
I started to feel ashamed of myself for thinking that in Africa any kind gesture is for a gift. Sometimes people just want to help.
My trip to The Gambia had turned my perception of Africa on its head. In Namibia I had found myself in so many situations where people were either begging or trying to offer services for bribes. Here, I hadn’t experienced any of that.
Africa is a huge continent and no two countries within it are the same. It’s wrong to generalise an entire continent based on limited experience within one country.
I couldn’t stop smiling. The Gambia really was proving to be ‘the smiling coast of Africa’.