The Gambia Experience

It was with interest that we went out onto our balcony this morning to take in our surroundings, as it’s our first visit to West Africa (other than Morocco). The weather was warm and the sun, when it came out from behind the clouds, was very hot. Trevor made sure to pack our insect repellent in his rucksack before we left the Braemar to board the bus for our excursion, which was the Banjul City Tour.

Banjul was founded in 1816 and the town’s name was originally Bathurst after Henry Bathurst, the secretary of the British Colonial Office. When The Gambia achieved its independence in 1965, the town achieved city status and became the national capital. It was renamed Banjul in 1973.

Our first stop was to Arch 22, so called after 22nd July (independence day). It is a large, pillored archway and houses the National Museum. It was a long climb to the top, round and round the spiral staircase of 170 steps. The views over the city, however, are worth the climb.

Our guide, Dewar, told us all about the different tribes of the Gambia. There are Mandinka, Wolof, Jola, Foulah and Serere to name but a few. We also learnt a little about the appalling slave trade. We spent some time looking at the artefacts and going outside to look at the view and take photographs. Then it was back down the spiral stairs and out again for the short walk to the waiting bus. We had to fight our way through throngs of raggedly dressed children who were standing with their hands outstretched, hoping for sweets, pencils and money from the cruise passengers.

The roads are not very good in the Gambia so the bus rattled and bumped and lurched along the route. Our next destination was to a fabric market where the material was hand-dyed either using tie-dying or the traditional batik method, whereby the design is painted onto the fabric, then areas are coated with wax so that the die won’t penetrate that area. We watched some of the artisans creating their designs, and all around us the lengths of finished fabric were hung up to dry out.

The fabric is then made into garments and household items such as tablecloths and napkins, duvet covers and pillowcases, curtains and wall-hangings. The colourful designs were stunning and the prices were not too bad, particularly if you bartered.

After fighting our way through the kids, stray dogs and cats and hawkers selling jewellery and wooden carvings, we got back on the bus and continued on our way.

Our next stop was to a crocodile pool. The bus parked up and we had a walk of about three quarters of a mile before getting to the pool. We followed Dewar, our guide, through the small local villages to get there. It was hard going because the roads were not finished off and you were either walking in sand or on rough, potholed ground. Alongside the road were ditches dug which were acting as open sewers. The stench and the swarms of flies were disgusting. We were followed along the way by the ubiquitous kids and you hand to keep your hands in your pockets for two reasons; to stop your pockets being picked and to stop the kids grabbing your hands, which they would do given half a chance. Stray dogs and chickens wandered around to add to the general air of dilapidation.

We eventually arrived in a wooded area which we needed to go through to get to the crocodile pool. Dewar was explaining to us about the different trees, including kapok and baobab, but our attention was diverted by the antics of some cats in the branches of one of the larger trees. There was a ginger cat quite high up the tree, another ginger lower down and a tabby at the bottom. The lower ginger appeared very interested in the ginger who was higher up, and he made several attempts to climb up there. Meanwhile the higher ginger was trying to come down. At the bottom the tabby was watching all this with interest. Trevor and I and a few others in our group were also watching the cats stealthily making their way around the tree branches instead of listening to our guide!

Eventually all became clear when the higher ginger met the lower ginger on a stout branch and he attempted to mount her. We then realised it was a female in heat; hence the interest of both the ginger and the tabby. She did not appreciate the advances of her suitor however and, dropping lightly onto the ground, she shot off with the ginger tom and the tabby in hot pursuit. 😉

When we arrived at the crocodile pool, one of them was out of the water and was basking in the sun. The guide told us it was a male of about 35 years called Tony. We were invited up, one at a time to ‘stroke’ Tony if we were brave enough. The guy said that the croc had had a good breakfast earlier on, so as long as we didn’t approach him from the front or startle him, he shouldn’t snap at us. When it was my turn I felt his back and leg and belly; the skin on the belly was a lot softer than the back, which was quite scaly and knobbly.

As one woman was petting Tony, he decided to slither along for a couple of paces. We then walked on to the pool itself, part of which was covered in a bright green algae. Some of the crocs were out of the pool basking, but one or two went in for a slow swim.

At the other side of the pool we saw one of the disgusting open sewers again, and one of the crocodiles was in there, along with a couple of babies about 15” long. We didn’t want to get two close as I value both my arms! 🙂

After the crocodile place we had the walk back through the village and onto our bus once again. Before going back to the Braemar our last visit was to Albert Market, which sold meat, fish, fruit and vegetables as well as clothing and souvenirs.

Well, I can’t imagine why the tour company ever thought that we’d want to go to this place. It was absolutely horrendous. You’ve heard of a “flea market” – this was a fly market. The fish and meat products were covered in swarms of flies, and some of the fruit and vegetables were rotten and were festering quietly in the sun. Numerous stray cats and chickens roamed around and the whole effect was decidedly insalubrious.

The Brits all congregated together near a small bar selling soft drinks (no beer in this predominantly Muslim area) and stood together as one. The guide said “You have 20 minutes before you have to be back on the bus… or we could give you an hour.” After a resounding “NO” from our tour party we basically just sat it out until it was time to go. Trevor and I bought a couple of postcards and used the time to sit and write them out; we’d post them later on the ship.

Back on the Braemar we dumped our stuff in our cabin and got washed, then went down to the Palms Café for some lunch and just generally pottered about for the rest of the afternoon.

Tonight was Burns Night, in which Scottish (and other) people remember and celebrate the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns. So when we went along to the Thistle restaurant for our dinner, we were not surprised to see a Scottish-themed menu, including the inevitable haggis with “tatties and neeps”.

Once we’d selected our meal choices, the Scottish comedian Ron Dale came in playing his bagpipes to pipe in the haggis. He then proclaimed the “Ode to the Haggis” by Rabbie Burns, before cutting into the haggis, which was then served as a first course, along with a “wee dram” of Scotch whisky.

After our meal we went along to get a good seat in the Neptune Lounge (never an easy task!) and, later on, Ron Dale was performing again. Once again we enjoyed his show very much.

Then it was along to the Coral Club for the quiz which was also Scottish themed. We scored 13/15 but lost out to a Scottish team, who scored full points.

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