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The Gambia – Toubab MC

Ever since I went home earlier two years ago, and never made it beyond Dakhla in the old firetruck, I’ve wanted to go back and at least experience The Gambia for a bit. This year I finally made it happen and booked a ticket for about two weeks to meet Lukas and friends in The Gambia. I had no idea what we were going to do there, just “a motorcycle trip”.

Lukas and three of his German friends hung out with two Gambians, Bakarey and Cindy. I can’t remember the whole story how they met, but Bakz runs a cellphone repair shop and is a great guy to have around, very helpful and cheerful. He’s also a very good photographer who took some of the pictures in the blog (mainly while riding and if they include me).

Cindy’s father is some kind of very important man in Gambia, to the point where she almost only has to snap her fingers and the police let us pass through the many roadblocks around the capital Banjul. She was not exactly used to come along on these kinds of adventures, but she was eager to join.

We spent some time around the capital, Banjul. I got pretty sick on the second day. I didn’t get it from the food on the pictures, but from one of the nicest restaurants in town. One that we even got to eat for free thanks to Lukas’ connections.

The others already had bikes. Lukas drove his 80ies-bright Yamaha to Gambia last year. These “big” bikes are barely seen anywhere in Gambia so that makes it one of the coolest bikes in the country. The others rode something with a local flair: small, cheap Chinese made “Super Bundas Nr. 1” motorcycles they bought brand new for 500 euros in Gambia. You even get a helmet with a Super Bundas, but it offers about as much protection as a salad bowl.

We spent a few days “preparing” for the trip. Lukas said something during those days: “It’s always like this in Gambia. There’s a lot of waiting, nothing happens. And then all of a sudden everything happens”. I didn’t mind, I felt sick for 3 days. Lying on the beach for hours, or going along to some vague local to talk about potential business was all fine with me.

Eventually we arranged a rental Chinese scooter for me while the others bought some milk crates and rubber strips to tie their luggage to the bikes. They also managed to trade the terrible Super Bundas helmets in for a better one (safety first).

Gambia’s a small, long country with only two main roads along the river, so most of the riding is not that exciting. That is until we got to the unpaved section, to Bakz’ hometown Kemoto. I don’t have many photo’s of the actual rough parts as things got pretty crazy. Bakz and Paul ended up in the bushes once, and I was glad to be on this ridculously light scooter, anything bigger would have been a lot more challenging for me.

Kemoto lies far from the main roads, but right on the river Gambia shores. It’s been on the decline as fishing isn’t great anymore these days.

Lots of kids would follow us around the town. You don’t see so many adults. I guess at a certain age a lot of them, like Bakz, leave for the city.

Kemoto used to have a fancy resort, with a pool and a nice restaurant. A lot of people in the town worked there, it brought a lot of prosperity.  Eventually the hotel ended up in the wrong hands. The owners were caught using it as a staging area for drug transports, their property was taken away and it is now slowly falling apart.

His uncle maintains what is left of the hotel, as sometimes it is used for hunting safari groups. There’s no running water anymore, but a few rooms are useable, so this is where we stayed for two nights.

Bakz told us stories how he would climb into a tree as a kid and spy on the “Toubabs”, the whites, in the fancy hotel. One day, he told us, all the kids were allowed to swim in the pool. “I thought it was amazing” he said, “I’m swimming with the Toubabs!”.

We went fishing with the guys. They didn’t catch anything in two hours.

It was nice to be in the water, even though this was Gambian “winter”.

Bakz and his little sister took us for a walk to the “women’s garden”, through strange dry landscapes like I’d never seen before.

The women’s garden was an amazing sight to see. A very nicely maintained vegetable garden, with ruins of an automatic watering system throughout it. Dozens and dozens of women and young children were tending to the garden manually. We helped them hoist water up for a while. Some women found it hilarious, some seemed to be annoyed at these Toubabs that were terrible at it, compared to them.

I asked Bakz why the machinery was all rusted and in pieces. He claimed it’s because people from his village would trick foreign aid workers into giving them money, and then use it for something completely different once they would leave. After thinking about it, I think it’s probably more complicated than that. Truth is though, none of the men from the village were to be seen anywhere, including the strong guys from this morning’s fishing.

The days we were there, Bakz family always prepared food for us; huge dishes of rice and freshly caught fish from the river. 

One interesting thing I noticed, is that the paper they used to wrap food, was old newspaper from Europe. I saw a Swedish newspaper from a few months before. So much for recycling, we just send it over to Africa to end up as trash over there?

Despite the confronting contrast between life back home and what I’d see in Kemoto, it was actually my favorite experience of the trip. Things are simpler there, and most people seemed happy. We made sure we didn’t just consume there either, as we all chipped in to pay for a couple nights of generator fuel for the village.

While waiting to go across the river, a big groundnut barge came past Kemoto

Yesterday’s fishing boat was now the ferry. Getting 5 motorcycle in there was a bit of a challenge, even more so was getting them out onto a jetty 1 metre higher!

Traffic on Gambian roads is pretty interesting. Almost without exception, they are vehicles we in Europe have “used up” that are then used until they fall apart, and even then a bit more.

The Gambian “countryside” was also very special to see for me. Endless dry plains with Baobab trees everywhere. Lukas has been here many times, so he explained to me how the building styles differ a lot between tribes, or ethnic groups inside Gambia. The Christian “Manchego” groups for example don’t build huts with straw roofs like this, but used brick and sheeting.

Once in Georgetown, or Janjanburreh in the local language, I started feeling a bit sick again. Travel in Gambia is a whole lot rougher than what I’m used to. Because there would be a festival there the next day, all rooms in the simple hotel we stayed would be booked the next night. The others didn’t seem concerned, they’d find a spot on the floor, but I was a bit concerned about no matress, no mosquito protection, etc.

Sometimes I may seem like a “bushman”, preferring to sleep out in the forest with my van instead of on a camping, but truth is that again, I felt like I was pushing my limits (and that’s not a bad thing, it’s just not easy), out there on a crappy, rattly Chinese scooter, without much comfort at all, with just a thin sleeping bag and an empty mosquito repellant bottle.

The others went to a concert attached to the Kankurang Festival, I stayed in. Lukas told me afterwards about the concert, a famous artist called Jaliba played. Apparently people can donate to get a sort of shoutout or blessing from Jaliba, where he sings praise to anything they want. Despite Lukas claiming he could do an equal job as Jaliba, Jaliba still made buckets full of money that evening. Interesting concept.

As I only had 10 days in Gambia, I headed back on my 8th day, as the distance back to capital was a lot for a scooter that only does 70 or so at most.

It was definitely adventurous, as I had a very small fuel tank and had to manage spare fuel in a plastic container strapped to the scooter, I wasn’t wearing as much protection as I usually do, and the driving test Gambian drivers take is not very strict, leading to some crazy antics here and there.

But I made it back to the capital alright. Just 100 metres before I returned the scooter I slipped on an oil slick on the road. I was fine, only the scooter had some bent parts.

I took a last night in a fancy hotel, as I felt like I needed and deserved that after the grotty hotel the night before in Soma. Gambia’s not all huts and dusty roads, there’s actually a lot of tourism with nice hotels on the coast.

Looking back at the pictures of my trip now, I’m glad I did it and already miss the adventure. A lot of my discomfort came from having an upset stomach. Lukas told me it takes up to a month to “adjust” and get past these issues, that 10 days is not enough to get the full experience. They went on to Guinea-Bissau with their bikes as I went back to European winter.

Here’s the route I took:

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