I woke up at about 1am this morning on my railway station bench. I was freezing cold. The short sleeve shirt and flip flops on my feet left my arms, feet and ankles exposed. The skin was covered in insect bites. This reminded me that I should have taken my anti-malaria tablets. I climbed into my sleeping bag to try to warm up, but I couldn’t get back to sleep. It was still a few hours before my train arrived, so I decided to go for a walk. I left the station and walked towards the town.. There was nothing open but there still seemed to be quite a few people around. And were those open sewers at the side of the street? Open sewers, insect bites, forgotten tablets, that might have future consequences. I went back to the station and eventually the train arrived from the deep darkness. I boarded and managed to get a seat next to the window. The seats were hard, slated wooden benches. In England they would have been third class seats, and they hadn’t been used in my lifetime. I fell back to sleep. When I awoke next the sky was starting to lighten and I looked around the full compartment. As usual I was the only white person there. As the sun started to rise a man spread his prayer mat in the aisle and started his morning prayers. There was no way of knowing if the train was pointing in the right direction, but I am sure there is flexibility allowed in these circumstances. Most people seemed to be sleeping or looking into space. Similar to a commuter train anywhere in the world. There was a pretty young girl sitting opposite me with a large basket of peanuts, one of the main crops around here. I assume she was taking them to sell on the street. When she saw I was awake she gave me a big smile and passed me a large handful of peanuts. I thanked her as best I could, but her lack of English and my lack of French or the local African language meant we couldn’t really converse. As the sun rose higher I could see the African landscape being revealed before me and I spent the rest of the trip looking out of the window. Eventually we arrived at the end of the line. Then a bus and a ferry and I was back in Banjul. Luckily as I left the ferry I saw Andy almost straight away.
Banjul is the capital of The Gambia but it does not even feel like a city. Walking round is easy, many of the streets are unmade and it does not seem very big. The Gambia is an ex-British colony, consequently most people speak English. Curiously, a lot of the local people quote prices in Pounds, Shillings and Pence despite the official currency being the Dalasi. There is very little tourism, though I believe there is resort somewhere upriver, popular with the Swedes. Our hotel is unusual, but very cheap. The rooms are boxes without ceilings built in a row in a large warehouse sized space. You can hear all that goes on around you. The sheets seem to be clean though and there are good mosquito nets. I could have done with those in the railway station. Andy has found a good restaurant with an extensive menu. Rice, or rice with meat, origin unspecified. Also cheap. Actually, very cheap. I am going to stay here and wait for Maya to arrive. Andy is going to head back to Dakar tomorrow.
Though the official language here is English the Gambians all speak one of their own languages too. In Banjul one of the most common is Wolof, though others are more prevalent outside of the city. The one word of Wolof that you pick up very quickly is ‘Toubab’. Whenever you walk outside you are almost immediately surrounded by a group of children calling out ‘Toubab’ and usually holding their hands out for money. There is no feeling of threat and they respond well to smiles and laughter. Someone told me that Toubab literally means ‘white skin’, but I asked at a local museum and they said it was not that clear cut. It is used mostly for Europeans, but can be anyone that looks like they have money. I don’t look like I have money, but never mind. Andy left today and should be back in Dakar by now. It will probably only take a little over a day for Maya to sail here, so she may arrive tomorrow, but more likely the day after. I will lead my small gang to the quay to check each day.
There is quite a large market here, split into two parts. The first and largest part contains stalls selling things for everyday use, and a few stalls selling goods for tourists. In the middle of this market is a second, segregated, market. It is fenced off from the rest of the market, raised slightly above it, and much smaller. There is only one entrance and that is guarded by a gatekeeper ensuring that only the right type of person gets in. That is people who look like they have money, Toubabs. The stalls here are all aimed at the few tourists, and the quality seems to be to be noticeably better. I strolled around the stalls and noticed a batik wall hanging that I thought my parents would like. I looked at the price and thought it was a bit expensive, but this would just be the starting price. I beckoned over one of the stallholders, a very well dressed young woman, and said I was interested and named a price significantly below that listed. She looked at me with some disdain and said “We don’t do that here sir, the price is as shown”. I paid up and left, slightly shamefaced.
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I walked with my followers to the harbour this morning and Maya was there. Quite a relief. Mike’s friend from Vietnam and his children had enjoyed the sail. I understand they all stayed up all night, no watches needed. They have now left, heading back overland to St. Louis. We have talked to the immigration people and they have given us three week visas, most of which we hope to spend up river. We will probably set off in a couple of days. It is still not clear what happens after that, Mike is still thinking about staying in Africa. I have enjoyed my journeys here so much that I really don’t mind anymore. Sad news about Agatha Christie. I have never read one of her books but she is hugely popular.
I asked a few people where I could get my missing filling replaced and was pointed to the hospital, so this morning that is where I headed. On arrival I was directed to the dentist’s waiting area, lines of straight back chairs almost all occupied. I sat in one of the few empty chairs and prepared for a long wait. After a few minutes the door opened and a patient walked out. The door opened again and a nurse looked out ready to call the next patient in. She spotted the one white face waiting and retreated into the treatment room. Seconds later she came out again, walked over to me and asked me to come in. Surprised, I said that all these other people were here first, but she insisted I came with her. We entered the treatment room and I was greeted by the English dentist. Again, I said there were lots of people there before me and that I didn’t expect preferential treatment. He explained the reason I was called first was because I was not Gambian, which meant I would have to pay for treatment. The treatment of the other people waiting would be covered by a charity, which I was about to contribute to. I need the filling replaced but I was now seriously worried about how much it would cost. With so many people waiting he said he only had time to put in a temporary filling which he thought would last a few months, by which time I would probably be back in England. The filling was done in no time and I left still feeling guilty about jumping the queue. The cost? Five Dalasis, about £1.25. I’m not sure how many people that will treat.
I have done some research and it seems this was a boat called 'Cheeta 2'. She was used by many different radio stations throughout her life and ended up as a radio station in Banjul before being turned into a restaurant and then left to rot. She was briefly used by Radio Caroline when their normal boat ran aground. Radio Caroline was a pirate radio station broadcasting to England in the days before commercial radio was allowed.
It is getting to be that the hardest part of writing a letter is putting down the date. That generally requires a mass discussion and even then it is mostly only guess work. Today we sailed from Banjul to a place called Albreda, about twenty miles up river. I have put a sketch map on the maps page to show the route. It has really begun to feel like Africa now. A small village, mostly mud huts, jungle noises made by monkeys and exotic birds, really hot and no other tourists. It is lovely and warm so I think I will sleep out in the nettings tonight.
It took a long time to get to sleep last night because of all the interesting noises, but then I slept soundly in the warm African night. Unfortunately, this morning a noisy boat load of day trip tourists arrived which rather spoilt the moment. We decided to move till they left so we sailed a couple of miles up river to James Island. The island is completely uninhabited with the ruins of a fort on it. This afternoon we sailed back to Albreda where we ran Maya aground to clean the hulls. There followed a messy few hours cleaning the bottom, which involved wading ankle deep in thick gooey mud. While we were waiting for the tide to come in and refloat us we noticed smoke in the distance. A little later monkeys, cattle and birds came down to the rivers edge to escape the bush fire. We have seen more wildlife this afternoon than on the rest of the trip so far. The smoke died down and the animals and birds returned to their forest home.
James Island was used for gold, ivory and the slave trade. Later it was used as a base against slavery. The site has now been restored and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The island has been renamed Kunta Kinte Island after the character in Alex Haley's book Roots. Haley believed that Kunta Kinte was his ancestor, that he came from The Gambia, and that he was taken to the USA as a slave.
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We set off early today. The river is wide so we are still able to sail easily. It takes more focus than sailing at sea. At sea there is nothing to bump into. On the river there is always other traffic, and it quiet often changes course to have a closer look at us. The river banks are mostly real jungle, looking deep and impenetrable but broken every now and then by a clearing with a small village. I say we can still sail, but we are missing one thing today. The wind. We sailed for about ten hours and only managed twenty miles. So we are anchoring here at Muta Point for the night. There is a small village nearby and a couple of tributaries join the river here.
This morning we decided to explore Suara Creek, one of the tributaries that join the river at this point. It is not big enough to take Maya, so we took the inflatable. For an hour we carried on till we reached the small village of Kerewan where we stopped for a wander. The people seemed surprised to see us, not many tourists turned up here. We bought some cokes at a small shop and sat for a while. Then we headed back towards Maya. It feels really different travelling this way. You are physically closer to the water and in the creek you are closer to the river banks as well. The jungle sounds could be heard over the noise of engine. You are at the same height as the other river users and the smiles, waves and greetings seemed to be more personal. When we were back on board Maya we took a short sail to Tankular where we will spend the night. Tankular claims to be the oldest town in The Gambia. It is quite a small town with not much to see.
After an early start and a slow sail we made it to Tendeba, the location of the Swedish tourist camp that we had heard about. It had a bar with expensive beer, but there was not much else to do or see. We moved on to Krule point where we have found a quiet anchorage for the night.
I have not been back to The Gambia, but I know some people who have. This sort of resort is now common. People come to a resort and are positively discouraged from going out, so they spend two weeks in the resort then fly home. They might go on an excursion and that is all they see of this beautiful river country.
A quiet day today, we sailed as far as Elephant Island where we have anchored for the night. There is a small village nearby called Bombali. We will probably have a quick look before we set off in the morning. The weather has been doing strange things, raining in the dry season mostly.
We beat against the wind for four hours before dropping anchor at Kudang. This is perhaps the most traditional village we have come across, all mud huts with thatched roofs. Very few people speak English here which is a pity, but we have managed to purchase a few supplies.
This morning we took the dinghy over to Deer Island, just the other side of the river, and went for a nice long walk.The island, like most of the islands along the river, is completely uninhabited and covered in thick vegetation. We saw a few monkeys and many and varied birds. We also saw tracks, which, according to Andy our resident Africa expert, were deer and hippopotamus. The trees really do have creepers on them, so of course I had to have a swing on one. Not really sure it would work as a way to move around the jungle, but fun. This afternoon we set sail for Kuntaur, a journey of about 16 miles. Unusually the wind was favourable and we still had some light left when we got there, so we carried on and anchored off Baboon Island. Maybe we will stop at Kuntaur on the way back.
Today we had agreed to help the volunteers, We went ashore to wait for them. After a few minutes a tractor approached towing a trailer. This was to be our transport for the day. More gravel was needed for the building but none was available on McCarthy Island, so we would have to cross the river. The tractor driver drove on to the ferry. A large floating platform which it turned out was propelled by passenger power. A chain led from a fixed point on the bank through pulleys at either end of the ferry and then disappeared into the river in the direction of the dock on the opposite river bank. Once we had cast off the passengers took hold of the chain and started walking the length of the ferry. As each passenger reached the end of the platform they let go of the chain, walked back to the other end of the platform, grasped the chain, and walked the length of the ferry again. The wet chain emerged from the river in front of the boat and sank into the river behind the boat. A few minutes of this fun activity and we had docked and were on our way. It was quite a long drive to the gravel pit, but we eventually got there, filled the trailer with gravel, and returned via the chain ferry to the island and the site of the stadium. We unloaded and helped out with general labouring duties for the day. There was not much to see so far, but hopefully our small contribution would result in a completed stadium. Our day was recorded by a cameraman making a film for Oxfam to show at youth clubs and to help with fund raising. It might even be shown on a children’s television programme called ‘John Craven’s Newsround’.
This morning I was woken by the sound of Mike screaming at somebody. I looked out of the window by my bunk to see a local canoe shooting past. They had obviously decided it would be fun to go between the hulls and under the netting. Luckily they didn’t hit our thin fibreglass boat with their heavy wooden canoe. We didn’t do much today, but in the evening we went to the pictures. The cinema was open air with a large white brick wall for a screen. It only had one projector so there was a break at the end of each reel. The sound was atrocious and very soft, the picture nearly always out of focus. The film was a Chinese Kung-fu movie called ‘Thou shalt not kill, but once’, which was as bad as the title would suggest, It was great fun. As we walked back to the dinghy we met a dishevelled looking man in a police uniform. He called out a greeting to us and invited us to join him for a drink. We were next to a bar, but it was quite late and the bar was already shut. Undeterred he started banging on the door saying “I’m the Chief of Police, if I want them to open they’ll open”. Sure enough after a few minutes an unhappy looking man opened the door, saw who it was, and let us in. He switched the lights on and a cockroach the size of a mouse froze briefly on the wall before scuttling off into a dark corner. After getting a round of drinks the Chief of Police asked what we were doing in Georgetown. As soon as we told him we were from the boat anchored in the river he wanted to know all about our voyage. More drinks and he told us about his day. Apparently there is a prison nearby and one of the prisoners had escaped earlier in the day. He and his fellow officers had spent the day trying to track him through the jungle. So far they had not succeeded, which made him realise he ought to head off to bed so they could carry on looking as soon as it got light. We left the relieved barman to switch off the lights and lock up again, giving the cockroaches the run of the bar. As we walked back to the quay we stuck very closely together and kept away from dark spaces. We didn’t want to find the prisoner before the Chief of Police did.
We stopped at Kantaur to do some shopping, and then set sail again. Once more the wind was from the wrong direction, but we are getting used to that now. We are anchoring off Pappa Island, owing to running out of wind and then out of petrol.
This morning we got as far as Kau-ur to buy some petrol. We got the petrol, but it is a two stroke engine and we could not get the oil. Everything has to be sailing from now on. It is getting so hot that you really cannot stand still on deck. It burns the bottoms of your feet. Every half hour or so someone empties a bucket of river water over their head to cool down. We sailed on, but the wind dropped and we ended up becalmed off Sea Horse Island, so that is where we have anchored for the night.
There was some wind when we got up this morning, so we made an early start. We sailed happily for a while but the wind has gone again now. We are just coming up to Devil’s Point. If there is no change we may well anchor here for the night.
We were sailing along this morning when in the distance we saw another yacht coming towards us, the first we had seen on The Gambia. As it got closer we realised it was ‘Xleddi’, one of the boats we had met in La Palma. We anchored and they joined us on Maya where we told them about the river ahead and they told us about the boats we had met in Palma. While we were sheltering in Gomera, Palma was hit by a very big storm. Five boats lost their anchors, but all were recovered later. One boat overturned at its moorings, and all the boats suffered some degree of damage. We also heard about Keith. The full details are not clear, but something happened between him and Giulian during the storm. Giulian believed that something Keith did or didn’t do endangered the boat, and so he asked him to leave, They think he flew straight back to England, so we shall not see him again. It is also unlikely that Giulian will make the voyage down here so it is unlikely we shall see him either. It sounds like we were lucky to leave when we did. After a couple of hours chatting we both hoisted anchor and sailed off in opposite directions. We sailed for a few more hours and are now anchored for the night by Selekini Creek.
Surprise surprise we made it to Banjul today. We weren’t really expecting to arrive here until tomorrow. This is now my third arrival in Banjul. There are three other yachts here now, though we don’t know them. It is getting quite crowded. We have tied up alongside so going ashore will be much easier. Now we just need to figure out what happens next.
Picked up lots of letters from home and discovered a coincidence. My parents had been talking to one of the neighbours about my travels and mentioned we were currently in The Gambia. Most people haven’t heard of it, but they said ‘We know someone who lives in Banjul’. I’m not sure what the relationship is, but a relation of some sort. We will be here for a week or so, so I have written to them suggesting we meet up. Will wait and see what happens.
Bad news. Andy is ill. He has a temperature and has been sick. The rest of us are fine, so we will just have to hope the rest of us stay fine and he recovers. At least I know where the hospital is if required.
I’ve heard from the Greenslades, the family of the neighbour, and I am going to go and see them tomorrow. The only problem is they live on the outskirts of Banjul, a bit of a journey from our mooring. Since we set sail from England we have had a bicycle, carefully wrapped in polythene, tied to the netting. Mike was happy for me to borrow it, so we unwrapped it. It seems it wasn’t as carefully wrapped as we thought. We managed to put the wheels on and attach the chain then smother everything in oil. It worked after a fashion. It will get me to the Greenslades and back, but it may well not make it to the Caribbean with us.
After lunch I climbed aboard the rusty bike and followed the directions I had been given. I had to stop and ask a couple of times but I eventually found the Greenslades’ house. It seems that Mary Greenslades is Mr Whittons sister, though I certainly would never have guessed, she being slim and soft spoken. Her husband is a civil servant who has been working out of England on contracts for quite a few years. They have worked all over Africa. They gave me drinks when I arrived and later we sat down for a meal. We had a very pleasant few hours talking about almost every subject under the sun. They were fascinated by our voyage so far, especially sailing up The Gambia. When I told them we would be leaving in a few days to cross the Atlantic they made me promise to write to them when we landed. The bike held together long enough to get me back to Maya.
Stocking up for our transatlantic voyage involves a lot of calculations. The distance to Trinidad is about two thousand five hundred miles. We are a sailing boat, so how long it takes to travel that distance depends on the wind and sea conditions. It could be as little as two and a half weeks, but three of four weeks is quite likely, so we need to plan for four weeks, plus a few extra days for safety. Say thirty days. There are four of us, so that is 120 breakfasts, 120 lunches, and 120 evening meals, plus snacks if needed. No fridge, so all food is canned or dehydrated. The rule of thumb for water is half a gallon per person per day. So that is two gallons per day, sixty gallons in total. To carry that amount we will need to fill the main tanks, plus all the jerry cans. All dish or personal washing, and all toilet flushing uses sea water. Buying and stowing all that is occupying us full time at the moment. If we do make the journey quickly, then we will have plenty left over. Good news. Andy has recovered.
As well as sustenance for the body I need to make sure I have sustenance for the mind. I have read the Gormenghast Trilogy, but there are some books on the boat I haven’t read yet. Anyway I took a trip to a local bookshop today to get a couple more. I went for ‘More Goon Show Scripts’ and ‘We never make mistakes’ by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Total cost, just under one pound.
Tessa - You crossed the Atlantic with no way of calling for help if needed! I know it was a while ago but I’m fairly sure radios were invented by then!! Reckless Dad, reckless!! And here I am (and probably mum is) worrying about whether hostels in South America will have free wifi - how times have changed! Anne - I concur - completely foolhardy in my opinion. Poor Grandma must have been worried sick. Tessa - don’t go getting ideas - wifi, mobiles, iPads are travelling necessities these days if only to save my sanity! Me - You are right - radios were invented. They were unwieldy, expensive, power hungry and with a limited range. You also needed to pass an examination to use them. I don’t know about now, but then virtually no sailing boats had them. These days you would have satellite links powered by solar panels and have contact whenever you wanted it.