Entering Gambia From Northern Senegal
Just a short walk from the Senegal immigration area and I found myself at what looked like it could be Gambia immigration. I wasn’t really sure. I approached and one of the policemen standing outside ushered me inside. Not before inquiring about my well being. He took me to a room at the back of the building. There a man in a white shirt asked for my passport. He then 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. Then he gave me his phone 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. Then he pulled out a piece of paper to check if my country was on the list of countries requiring a visa. Of course, it wasn’t, I had checked beforehand! 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. He just nodded, stamped my passport and let me go. I was now in Gambia, West Africa’s smallest country!
Kez = 2, African Border Corruption = 0
Crossing the Gambia River from Barra to Banjul
Despite the implied marriage proposal and the sneaky bribe request, this was the most efficient border crossing 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. It cost 100 Dalasis, or around €2. From there I got the Ferry to the Gambian capital Banjul for 45 Dalasis (€0.80).
As far as ferries go, this one wasn’t large. It had with room for around 30 cars, squeezed in Africa style. Then there was one open-air passenger deck. The ferry chugged along rather slowly, so there was only feel a slight breeze. That provided time to relax and enjoy the view over the Gambia River. It 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 had been surrounding me was instantly popped upon stepping into the Banjul port. Within seconds I was engulfed by a sea of taxi drivers. they 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. Everyone was using the lights from their phones to navigate through the muddy streets.
Getting to Brikama
Now 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. 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, my host hadn’t mentioned that picking me up from the port would be at my expense. Fuel in Gambia is very cheap. 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 too tired 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 some cheap and delicious specially made food in the dark. My host kept saying that the power would be back on soon. It was still out by the time I fell asleep.
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. I agreed to this only after checking that this friend wasn’t expecting me to pay for his weekly fuel. It turns out this friend had something to do and wouldn’t be available until the afternoon. That would be too late to make it a day trip.
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. That meant that my short legs couldn’t even reach 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?
Police Stops Along the Way
Along the road, there were a few police stops. The first was in a town about 6km away, where the road to the Southern Senegal border intersected with the road we were on. When the officer, Mr Grumpypants, entered the bus I gave him my ID as instructed. He then started complaining that I should show him my passport. When I pointed out that he asked for ID and I had given him a valid government ID he grumpily accepted it. We then had to wait while he took some locals that had no ID into the station. They needed to get papers to get them through the checkpoints ahead.
In stark contrast, the officer at the last stop, Mr Happypants, was excited when anyone produced their documents. He individually thanked everyone as they showed their ID by saying, “Thank you very much for showing me your ID”. He also said every thank you with a big smile and nod.
The road was smooth 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. They did this cute little head bobbing thing whenever they stopped running. I decided at that moment that I wanted to take one home. Do you think they’d let 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. There 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 to do with spirits would happen if we didn’t get his permission. Fair enough.
Making Mountains out of Molehills
With all formalities now taken care of, I was eager to hit the Gambian mountains. But where were they? I couldn’t see any! 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 stop 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 Southern Senegal
Getting to the border from Brikama was relatively cheap (around 150 Dalasis or €2.50) 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. One good thing about this taxi was that it would be taking me all the way to a bus station in Senegal. That meant there would be no car changeover or haggling a new price at the border. Sweet!
At the Gambian immigration post, the officers seemed more interested in chatting with me than checking my passport. They were pretty relaxed. They had already started planning my return trip for me. I got the feeling that very few non-Africans pass through that border. 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 languages
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 not too comfortable.
? 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 sealed and well maintained. Suburban roads tended to be made of dirt and some of them didn’t fare well after rains.
Scenery – ?????
Gambia is much more tropical and green than the countries to its north.
Prices – ?
Gambia is awesome on a budget. Snack size servings of tropical fruits like coconut and mango were readily available from roadside sellers for 5 Dalasi (€0.80). A meal from a restaurant could be found for around 200 (€3.50)
Checkpoints – ?
Aside from a couple of ID checks on the way to Soma, I only encountered one checkpoint, 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. When entering Gambia, a cheeky officer tried to tell me and some Europeans that we needed to pay for an entry stamp to get money out of us. We refused and entered with no problems.
Overall – ???
The adventure continues in Southern Senegal
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