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Mishaps on the Gambian River

As a local warned me before I took off, “the River doesn’t like foreigners.” That turned out to be very, very true.

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The Gambian River

The Gambian River

Ever since I began contemplating travelling in Africa, I’ve been dreaming of taking on the continent’s major rivers. Drifting downriver, passing crocodiles and hippos, like a late nineteenth-century explorer. The ultimate price would be the Congo River, but being far from the Congo and having just arrived in The Gambia, the Gambian River would certainly do.

Finding myself in the eastern-most part of The Gambia, what in my mind seemed an easy, leisurely five-day float between the towns of Basse Santa Su and Janjanbureh quickly turned out to cause me plenty of troubles.

River crossing

River crossing

I knew there weren’t any public transportation on the river itself. Except a handful of ferry crossings, which really isn’t much of river exploration. Instead, I hoped that there would be some commercial movements on the river. There were, but the only ships trawling the waters from Basse were the ships transporting groundnuts (peanuts) to the coast. Symptomatically for my luck on the Gambia the ships had just departed. The day before I arrived in town.

The boats I wanted

The boats I wanted

So I began looking for alternatives. The bulky metal cans that were ferrying people across the river alongside the ferries would not do. They were too heavy. There were, however, a few smaller wooden boats tied down alongside the riverbank. So, as the hopeless optimist, I am, I started to inquire the boatmen on the riverside about those. Between the few friendly guys on the shore, one quickly mentioned that his “fat uncle had a canoe that he is too fat to sail.” That sounded promising, simply because the uncle apparently was so big that he wouldn’t be using the boat anytime soon. Before he had lost a couple of kilos, that is. I just had to come back the next day.

Glass-bottled Guinness

Glass-bottled Guinness

While I waited for the day to pass, I spend the day constructively drinking Guinness at a riverside bar. Glass-bottled Guinness, in what is the coolest colonial left-over ever. Here, the locals were very interested in my plan, though not very optimistic on my behalf. They warned me that there would be both hippos and crocodiles in the river. One old guy even told me – in a drunken whisper as legendary as the words themselves – “the River doesn’t like foreigners.” Not as a treat, through his rusty voice made it sound like that, but as a concerned warning. I was, however, much determined to take on the river, while the promise of both hippos and crocs did give me butterflies.

When I returned to the riverside the following morning, I didn’t find exactly what I’d expected. Instead of one of the small boats, the boatman had gotten me a narrow, tradition canoe. I quickly found out just how difficult these things are to balance. The very first thing I did, getting into the canoe, was to capsize it, soaking myself from the waist down. These things sit just five centimetres above the water’s edge, and I barely had to shift my body weight at all to make it wobbles dangerously.

My canoe on the river

My canoe on the river

I should probably have given up there and then. Instead, I stubbornly decided to spend an hour paddling around in circles on the river to get familiar with the canoe. To great amusement to the local spectators. Managing this without getting myself wet again, I could happily proceed back into town to buy food for the five days. Water, bread, cheese, canned tuna and sardines, crackers, bananas and mango juice. Not very exciting, but it would get me through.

With the canoe loaded with the provision and my baggage, I happily sat out, down the Gambian River.

I managed about four hours on that first half day. The river was calm and conditions were more or less perfect. My shoulders were sore from the paddling and my bump numb from sitting on the hard would. But that wasn’t too bad. However, the amount of energy I had to use to keep the canoe steady in the water was incredible. My entire body, and especially my legs ached from tightening throughout the journey. There would simply be no way I could complete this trip in five days. I’ve just been going half a day, and I was completely used out because of this balancing issue. So I decided to paddle back to Basse the next morning.

Croc in the river

Croc in the river

It wasn’t without a certain notion of failure that I put up my tent. But bedding down on the shore of the Gambian river, with monkey hauls, lizards’ sprinting through the grass and a hundred birds being the only noises around me made it hard to stay blue. Everything was less bliss the following morning. The weather had decided to take a turn for the worse. Rain clouds threatened above and winds created waves on the river.

These waves gave me more troubles that anything else. Keeping my balance in the canoe was just impossible. I managed less than 50 metres back up the river before I had to give up and come ashore again. I was simply not going to loose all my belongs to the river due to another capsizing. To make matters worse a quick shower, lasting just ten minutes, soaked me to the bone. I tied up the canoe, got my backpack and prepared myself for spending the rest of the morning walking back to Basse. Adding insult to injury, my camera slipped out of my pocket as I tied the canoe down. Disappearing into the muddy water, I simply had to abandon it.

Beyond saving

Beyond saving

A good four hours later, back in Basse, I found the boatman and set out to retrieve the lost canoe in hit boat. It still took three hours to reach the canoe (and three hours to get it back to Basse). The only positive thing was that the low tide had arrived and relieved the location of my camera. I spend most of the next day trying to fix it. In vain. I’ll just have to get a new one once I reach the capital of Banjul...

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Posted by askgudmundsen 16:25 Archived in Gambia Tagged traditional travel river sailing africa travelling crocodiles canoe west_africa hippos gambia gambia_river

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