Upriver

During a more substantial excursion to Gunjur, about 50 km from Serekunda I said good bye to the ocean. This is a much less developed part of the beach. Teh day after I hit the road again and continued eastwards, upriver.

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There is one road on the north bank and one on the south bank of the river, the latter was the one I used. Confined within borders that were clearly thought up in Europe the country has a north to south diameter of only maybe 50 km, or less, following the Gambia river that defines it. Its borders were drawn with a compass at the distance a cannonball could be shot when fired from an English gun located on the river. Whether this is history or legend I don’t know.

 

It took me a half day ride to get away from what is essentially a large metropolitan area on the south bank of the Gambia estuary. Here is where most people chose to live. The development of the capital Banjul was doomed from the beginning. It was founded in 1816 as a settlement named Bathurst on a spot that was considered suitable to establish control over the abolition of the slave trade. Population numbers swelled as freed slaves settled there. Its location in the swamps however, and persistent drainage problems make this mosquito infested town an uncomfortable place to live. Most people come in on day trips, but chose to live further west and south along the coast and its hinterland. Further on population density decreases quickly beyond the town of Brikama. And another 50 km down the road the pylons continue but the cables they are supposed to carry finish, until the row of pylons disappears as well.

 

I was proud about my early start out of Brikama, but I only made it to the outskirts of town. Rrratsch. My chain was torn. I needed a place to fix it instantly and found the police station which provided some shade and a bench to spread out my things. The policemen were friendly and let me do my thing. After some effort to fix the old chain I decided to put a new one on, but by the time I was finished it approached midday.

 

Ideally one would want to travel on a boat to take in the beauty of the river however there is no regular upriver transport. Of course there are tours, but I could not find one that would take me and my bike one way, at a reasonable cost. The road on the south bank is not particularly scenic. To reveal the beauty of the river and its tributaries one has to go off the road, just about five to ten kilometres north, and there is plenty of opportunity. A place worth mentioning is in Bintang, which is located on the Bolong river. It’s just a few kilometres off the road and built on stilts in the Mangroves.

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This time the sound was familiar. Just as I hit the main road out of Bintang another spoke broke. Once more I taped it, this time in order to avoid the midday heat, and carried on. The tarmac ended soon after, but a graded road with stones on it was there, the paving imminent, which proved to be a formidable cycle path since cars couldn’t use it. What came after was a terrible ride. By now I have seen a few rough roads, but this one was by far the worst. On a bike, you only really need 25 cm of reasonable surface which is often there on the edges, but even this was rarely available on that road. It was corrugated at its full width, with plenty of potholes, some filled with deep sand hence barely visible. Needless to say I got worried about my back rim, as I negotiated this road slowly, but with considerable stress.

 

I consulted my guidebook for a nearby place to stay, and to replace the spoke and ended up in a town named Tendaba, right on the river, where a big camp for birdwatchers was located. It was not a place where I would have chosen to stay, but I was physically and mentally exhausted and then, they only gave me one night anyway. It was too late to either carry on or start fixing my bike and exhausted I went to the bar for a coffee and to contemplate how I would continue on this terrible road with my broken spoke.

 

A man shouted over a few tables and asked how the ride was. They had seen me up the road earlier. I walked over and said terrible, and started whining about my day, and the second breakdown in two days. This is how I met Paul and Axel, two expatriates living on the coast, a Brit (he sounded very English, but insisted he was a Scotsman) and a German (upper Bavarian, and I was delighted to hear familiar speech). Paul’s not closer specified court case was dragging on and Axel’s restaurant was out of business, so for some time they had found themselves doing little by day and drinking at a bar by night. To break this pattern, they had decided to go on a trip upcountry and get drunk in less familiar places. After some chatter they offered my a lift and I accepted to avoid the bad road until I could fix my spoke. Cool, I thought, sometimes problems go away that quickly. I went for dinner while Paul and Axel went for more beer.

 

In the morning I loaded the bike up on the roof rack but my new friends had a flat tire so they changed it and needed to replace the spare tire. While watching the guy in the roadside garage replacing their tire I thought to myself, this is why I don’t want anyone near my bike. In the absence of good equipment there was just brute force at work. We got going only by midday.

 

They took me all the way to Janjanbureh where we checked into a place. I did my washing while Paul and Axel went for a walk. I found them later in a bar not far from the hotel, with sixteen empty beer bottles on the table.

 

On the last Saturday of each month the Gambia holds Set Settal, or Operation Clean the Nation. It is a program aimed at bettering the rubbish problem and most businesses and schools close to foster cleaning of trash around compounds and in public areas. Transportation is entirely halted, including private cars and taxis, and enforced by the military. That morning I fixed my wheel. Paul and Axel were stuck until midday and had a few beers to kill the time. At one we gave our farewells and they headed off.

 

I did a bit of sightseeing when I took the fixed bike for a test ride in the late afternoon, the other colonial town in the country I thought might have some appeal. At least, until recently, it was named Georgetown, is located on an island in the river. There are some historically looking structures, half broken down that they try to sell as a slave house and a slave market but were in fact constructed well after slavery was abolished. The story doesn’t add up and is probably fiction. I was rather disappointed with the place.

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It is very visible here, at a town of some size, that the power had stopped some 200 km ahead of there. By sunset a few generators come on and strangely light up a limited number of shops, bars and hotels, some lights here and there in the otherwise pitch black Janjanbureh night.

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The easternmost border crossing I had found was near Basse Santa Su where I headed the next day. The road was good but the police got annoying. On a stretch of no more than 30 kilometres there were five roadblocks, each seeking trouble and trying to extract bribes by asking for the ‘mandatory license’ for my bike and one policeman even claimed it was an offence not to carry a fire extinguisher. They were all fairly easily sat out however over time I have to admit I got very annoyed.

 

I found a place for the night in a private house what is probably best described as a bed and breakfast place. I was sitting over dinner when the proprietor fetched some water and said he was going for prayer. I had forgotten about the 7 o’clock prayer and said, this time? So we chatted about prayer times for a minute, before he asked ‘Are you interested in Islam?’ ‘Yes’ I answered, meaning I like to learn and understand. ‘We can have a wander down to the mosque later and you confess.’ Oops, that was a bit quick, I thought. Later, sitting out on the street my host gave me a lesson which was quite interesting, and I found out he was the Imam. Later the chat drifted off to more mundane topics. I heard the rats in the ceiling when I retreated to bed and hoped that they would stay there when I fell asleep. I woke up in the middle of the night and when I switched the light on a few of them were running away. In the entrance hall I saw someone sleeping on the floor. Strange I thought, but went for a pee and back to sleep. The next morning I got up early and found some rat droppings, my plastic bags torn and my bread half eaten. Out of the room I saw who had been sleeping on the floor and that was the landlord and his wife. Weird, I thought, renting out rooms and sleeping on the floor in the hall themselves.

 

The road to the border was extremely rough, or, it wasn’t really a road at all. The ten kilometres to the border took me two hours, where I got half an exit stamp because they had run out of ink, another hour of pushing across no man’s land, and I was happy to enter back into Senegal.

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Gambia, or the part upcountry had been a bit of an effort. Primarily because of my breakdowns I guess, that left me in an unusually short fused mind set, but partly because I found circumstances more difficult than before on this trip. There is such stark contrast between the sparkling beach resorts in the west and the rough roads, corrupt police and lack of basic infrastructure upcountry. No major problems, all in all, but it came unexpectedly to me and it is the big contrast in such a small country that makes it strange. Since my French is strictly limited (and by then it wouldn’t have taken much to catch up to a similar level with Wolof) an ‘anglophone’ country was of course a plus. However I had the impression that the level of English most Gambians speak is significantly lower than the level of French they speak in Senegal. What was certainly not a problem, in the wide absence of taps, was the availability of water. Most is coming from communal wells (that is Saudi pumps on top of German boreholes) and you just stop in a village and fill up. Easy. And the quality is better than from the taps earlier.

 

After no man’s land it was back to familiar territory. The immigration process was easy, ‘Bienvenue en Senegal’, said a not overly stressed policeman lying on a bench in the shade obviously happy about some distraction. He served me a mug of water while he went off to stamp me in. In a joint effort we put some credit on my mobile phone which he had given me in exchange for my Gambian sim card. The road remained rough for another nine kilometres to Velingara before I hit an excellent tarmac road again and it was seemingly all downhill for the hundred kilometres to Tambacounda.

 

It was the day after the elections that I entered Senegal for the second time. Was that a smart move? Well, I had thought about this before. However the part of the country I entered is a lot more remote than the coast, and even if the outcome had sparked violence in Dakar, I deemed it was highly unlikely that these few backvelders here would start clashing with the authorities, or setting their grass thatched mud brick round houses on fire. As well, had there been trouble, they would have probably told me at the border. To bring the story about Senegal politics to an end… In Senegal, like in France, or in Austria, or many other countries where the president is determined by general elections, a candidate needs to achieve more than half of the votes. Neither of them did so there will be another round, when I don’t know but it will be well after I will have left the country.

 

I do my trip in sections, meaning, I only plan ahead so far and lay out particular stages. Tambacounda was the end of a stage, and when you look on a map you can understand why. It is a big junction town, where many roads come together. The next stage is from there to Bamako. There are several routes between Tambacounda and Bamako. The most obvious is the big road from Dakar, which is unappealing as probably all the lorries transporting goods from the port in Dakar further inland use it. The upside of course would be that one can safely assume it is a good paved and well travelled road. From Kayes another road branches off and continues south-eastwards from there, roughly along the Dakar-Niger Railway line. That area I hear is fairly scenic, but the road is not as good. The appeal however being that in case I lost interest, I could load the bike up and continue on the train. The Dakar-Niger Railway was something of a traveller’s classic. After decades of underinvestment and the degrading of tracks and rolling stock passenger service has come to a halt recently after an accident on the Dakar to Tambacounda section. Freight trains are still running on the line, as I could observe in Tambacounda, so this accident might just be a convenient excuse for the Canadian operator to delay major investment. Anyway, the dream is dead, for the time being, but passenger trains are still running between Kayes and Bamako hence the mentioned developments would not restrict any of my particular travel plans. The third possibility was to go south-eastwards through the Niokolo-Koba park, Senegal’s major National park and further to Kedougou, from where I would find a way into Mali. It seemed the most interesting and safest, albeit possibly also most difficult route, since maps were quite contradictory on the roads in the area. Rich’s comment on my previous blog post convinced me otherwise, he had found a new road connecting Kedougou and Kita, so my preferred route seems easier than expected and the decision was made.

 

I left Tambacounda after a days break on the Route National 7, that cuts through the Niokolo-Koba National Park. I didn’t get much further than 70 km though, at the Dar Salam gate I was turned away, no entry, and no traverse on a bicycle. I should have inquired beforehand. I headed back to Wassadou, where I booked a prohibitively expensive tour of the park, and they would set me off in Mako, on the other end of the park, in the evening with my bike.

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We headed off early. This is Senegal’s premier national park comprising 9000 kilometres squared around the Gambia river and its tributaries, the Niokolo and the Koba rivers. It is inhabited by a number of big mammals. It doesn’t seem to be crowded with tourists, the whole day we saw no other vehicle. The landscape is pretty, with dense woods, Savannah and bamboo tunnels. I saw monkeys, baboons, warthogs, bushbucks, cobs, hippos and crocodiles. There are also lions, leopards, and elephants in the park, but those are only seen about once a year, it’s very few of them. Poaching is a problem, and, albeit nobody said this explicitly, I got the impression that the few park rangers are not greatly interested in patrolling the more remote parts of the park. It was a nice day out however it is no comparison to the parks in southern Africa. Animal sightings here are infrequent and most of them are not the more exciting ones one would expect in Africa. None of the kitties I was so throughly warned about when they denied me entrance to the park I could see. Further more much of the area around the roads was burned down. I was told this is done on purpose as a safety measure, as fires would be difficult to control in the dry season. Well, what do I know, but I wondered about the ethics of conservation, if parts of the park are set on fire on purpose.

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On that note I saw several bush fires along the way. These sightings started in the Gambia, and continued in eastern Senegal. So far I could not figure out whether the grass is set on fire on purpose or by accident. I never saw people trying to extinguish them, in fact I never saw people around the fires at all.

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Otherwise, in general the Savannah looks a fair bit healthier here than further north and west, where large herds of goats and sheep roam the rather bare and sandy land where only patches of very short grass remain left. Presumably a population that grows at a tropical rate consumes an increasing number of animals which in turn consume more grass, boosting desertification in the fragile Sahel where a sufficient food supply is so dependent on the scarce and unreliable rains. But what do I know? Those religious about ‘global warming’ will have a different diagnosis for the problem.

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When you move up any river in the world, you invariably end up in mountainous terrain. And the ride to Kedougou was some of the most scenic, surrounded by the majestic hills, some nice bush and the road crosses the Gambia river several times. Over night I stayed on the banks of the river a lot, and regularly saw and heard the hippos which seem to be all over the place, and the occasional crocodile. It is a really attractive part of the world.

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Other than expected I am still rolling on road tires. There were sections that I had wished for wider ones, particularly between Basse and Veingara, as well as further up between Toubacouta and Karrang, or just after Gandiol. None of these sections were however longer than 70 km, so I never considered it worth the effort changing the tires. On that note, my original tires, the Panasonic Tour Guard, were a disappointing piece of equipment. One ripped after less than 3000 km in the Rif Mountains, and I replaced it by a cheap chinese nylon tire. It doesn’t fit perfectly and wobbles a bit when fully inflated, but I think it was me who screwed it, never fold a tire that isn’t foldable. However by now it has made over 4000 km on worse roads already, and there was only one puncture. On a different, but still technical note… I had two broken spokes in relatively short time and I have the nasty feeling it was not the last one. I have no idea why spokes break, so I don’t know what to do to avoid it in the future. If anybody has an idea, please get in touch.

 

The last city of significance in eastern Senegal is Kedougou, where I am typing these lines. It’s hard to believe though, as this is a collection of traditional houses and dusty roads, with little infrastructure. From here I will find the sparkling new road, and will head further eastwards towards Bamako.

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