Just a short 1 minute walk from the Senegal immigration area and I found myself at what looked like it could be Gambia immigration, but I wasn’t really sure. I approached and one of the policemen standing outside ushered me inside, after first inquiring about my well being. He took me to a room at the back of the building where a man in a white shirt asked for my passport and said, “Oh, I’m looking for a wife from your country! I’m Amadou”. What else could I do but laugh awkwardly?
Amadou wrote down my passport details in his record book, gave me his number and told me to go to another room to get stamped. Now that’s where the fun started. The man in this room asked the standard questions about the reasons for visiting and duration of stay, then pulled out a piece of paper to check if my country was on the list of countries requiring a visa, which of course it wasn’t. He then stated, “You used to need a visa, but no more. Now you have to pay for an entry stamp.” Hmm, seemed like another one of those not so subtle bribe request situations. I informed him that I knew what he was saying was wrong and he just nodded, stamped my passport and let me go. I was in Gambia!
Kez = 2, African Border Corruption = 0
Despite the implied marriage proposal and the sneaky bribe request, this was probably one of the most efficient border crossings in Africa yet. I was in the immigration ‘shack’, (I’m not sure it qualifies as a building), for less than 10 minutes. From there, I walked to the taxi station and got a seat in a shared taxi to Barra for 100 Dalasis, or around €2, where I got the Ferry to Banjul, the capital of Gambia, for 45 Dalasis (€0.80).
As far as ferries go, this one wasn’t large, with room for probably only 30 cars, squeezed in Africa style, and only 1 open-air passenger deck. It chugs along rather slowly, so you only feel a slight breeze as you move. This gives you time to relax and enjoy the view over the Gambia River, which was actually quite stunning at sunset. You can see Banjul on the other side of the river for most of the 30 minute trip.
The bubble of serenity that I now had surrounding me was instantly popped upon stepping into the Banjul port. Within seconds I was engulfed by a sea of taxi drivers, who were probably the most in-your-face of any in Africa so far. Luckily my host was waiting for me, but I was still getting taxi offers almost all the way to his friend’s car. One thing about this port is that there is no lighting past the ferry arrival area, so everyone was using the light from their phones to navigate through the muddy streets.
Glad to be in a more comfortable car on the way to Brikama in southern Gambia, I was happily chatting to my host, until we pulled into a service station and he informed me that I would have to pay 300 Dalasis (€6) for his friend’s fuel. Putting aside the fact a taxi would’ve charged less for the same distance, when my host had said he’d pick me up from the port, he’d not mentioned anything about it being at my expense. The driver was clearly just using me as a way to pay for his weekly fuel. I was not at all happy with paying it, but I was so tired by that point that I didn’t want to argue and begrudgingly handed over the money.
When we arrived at my host’s place in Brikama, in the southern part of Gambia, the power was out due to the rains we had encountered on the way down. All the restaurants on the main road were still open though, so I ate delicious specially made food in the dark. My host kept saying that the power would be back on soon, but I was asleep before it was.
Heading to the Mountains?
My host had offered to accompany me to the mountains in the east of Gambia, so I could go for a hike. He said he had a friend with a car that could take us, which I agreed to after checking that this friend wasn’t expecting me to pay for his fuel. It turns out this friend had something to do and wouldn’t be available until the afternoon, which would be too late to be able to get there and back in one day.
It was time for plan B, go to the local bus station to get a minibus heading east. We waited quite a while for the bus to fill up with people. It was very squishy and uncomfortable. I didn’t even have a complete seat to myself and I was sitting right above the wheel, so I couldn’t even put my feet on the floor. Let’s just say that my back hated me after that ride! Once it was full, we waited some more while the workers loaded a fridge, TV and some plastic barrels onto the roof. Maybe someone was moving house?
Along the road, there were several police checkpoints, with the first being at a town about 6km away, where the road to the border intersected with the road we were on. When he entered the bus, I gave the policeman, let’s call him Mr Grumpypants, my ID as instructed. He then started complaining that I should show him my passport, even though no one else in the bus needed to show a passport. He eventually just accepted the ID, but then we had to wait while he took some locals that had no ID into the station to give them some papers to get them through the checkpoints ahead.
In stark contrast to Mr Grumpypants, the police officer at the last checkpoint, let’s call him Mr Happypants, was happy when anyone made the effort to produce their documents and individually thanked everyone as they showed their ID by saying, “Thank you very much for showing me your ID”.
The road was fairly decent most of the way and the scenery on the drive was quite mesmerising. Occasionally, kids playing on the side of the road would point and wave as the bus drove past. Even a girl who had been using the local water pump to lift her off the ground, stopped and excitedly jumped up and down while waving.
Once in Soma, my host took me to the place where he grew up and we met his friend Lamin, who was to be our guide up the mountain. While there, I saw some interesting lizards with yellow heads and blue/grey bodies that did this cute little head bobbing thing whenever they stopped running. Do you think they’d let me take one home with me?
Lamin took us to property nearby, where we met another Lamin and got some water for the trek. Now we were ready to go, but we had one more stop to make at another property, where Lamin asked a man, who was building a wall, permission to enter the mountain area. He explained to me that the man was the caretaker of the area and bad things would happen if we didn’t get his permission. Fair enough.
With all formalities now taken care of, I was eager to hit the Gambian mountains, although I couldn’t seem to see any nearby. After inquiring as to the location of the mountains, it became clear that my local friends were not actually aware of the difference between hills and mountains. We ended up walking up 2 small hills that only rose about 70m above the surrounding area. Not the big workout and panoramic view I was hoping for, but still lovely all the same.
On the way back to Brikama in the west of Gambia, we got the public bus, which turned out to be much cheaper, quicker and most importantly, more comfortable than the sardine tin we’d been subjected to on the way there. I guess the fact that the public bus was waved through every police checkpoint and only made limited stops to let passengers on and off shaved a lot of time off the trip.
Crossing the Border from Gambia to Senegal
Getting to the border from Brikama was relatively cheap (around 150 Dalasis or €2.50, I think) and easy, as far as these things go in Africa. Of course, there was time waiting for the seats in the taxi to fill up, but the good thing was that this car would be taking me all the way to a bus station in Senegal and not just leaving me at the border.
At the Gambian immigration post, the officers seemed more interested in chatting with me than checking my passport. They were pretty relaxed and had actually started planning my return trip for me. I kinda got the feeling that they didn’t get non-Africans passing through that border often. I had to cut the chat short because my taxi was waiting for me, so we could move on to Senegal. Before I left, one of the immigration officers gave me his phone number. Maybe it’s a Gambia thing to check someone’s passport then give them your phone number?
In a few words – Waving and smiling kids
Language – English and local language
Currency – Gambian Dalasi (GMD)
WiFi availability – 📶📶
When the power is on, WiFi is available at restaurants, but I can’t comment on the speed as the power was out almost every night I was there.
Transport – 🚗🚗🚗
🚘 The old, squeezy shared taxis of Senegal seemed to have been replaced in Gambia by slightly younger, more sensibly loaded taxis.
🚐 Vans are available, but as in many other African countries, won’t leave until they are full. They are quite old and the metal framed seats are covered with a thin layer of padding that does nothing to protect you from the frame.
🚍 By far the cheapest and most comfortable option is the public buses. They also tend to be quicker than the for-hire vans as they leave whether they are full or not.
Roads – 🛣 🛣 🛣
The intercity roads were all sealed and fairly well maintained, whereas suburban roads tended to be made of dirt and some of them didn’t fare well after rains.
Scenery – 🌳🏞🌳🏞🌳
The Gambia is much more tropical and green than the countries to the north and has almost no trace of dust.
Prices – 💰
Another great place to visit on a budget. Snack size servings of tropical fruits like coconut and mango were readily available from roadside sellers for 5 Dalasi (€0.80) and a meal from a restaurant could be found for around 200 (€3.50)
Checkpoints – 🛑
I only encountered one checkpoint, about 5km out of Brikama, near the border area.
Border efficiency – 🛃🛃🛃🛃
Although the crossing into Gambia only took about 10 minutes, it required speaking to 3 different officers in 3 different rooms.
Leaving Gambia was also relatively quick. The hardest part was trying to stop the officers chatting to me after they’d stamped me out.
Corruption level – ⚠
Gambians will try to get money out of you, but won’t press the issue if you don’t want to hand over your cash. When entering Gambia, a cheeky officer tried to tell me and some Europeans that we needed to pay for an entry stamp, but happily stamped our passport and let us go when we refused.
Overall – 👍👍👍