After ten days and over 800 miles of unrelenting cycling since Bamako, pushing it day by day to meet various deadlines—to reach a town with a hotel before dark or a border before closing time or wifi on Valentine's Day—I was ready not only for a rest, but also recovery time, when I came to the Atlantic resorts of The Gambia. I didn't stay at a resort, but rather the lone campground among them. It was easily the most fascinating place around, packed with veteran travelers of African who could hold forth for hours on their years of adventures all over the continent.
It had ten slots for campers and twice that many lodge-style rooms for rent in its walled in compound down a sandy dirt road a mile from the ocean. It was filled, but the German owner found space for me in the lone slot without a car, just a couple of tents of Germans who had driven down and sold their car. They were leaving the next day and shared a bounty of food they had driven down with and hadn't finished off--pâté, pumpernickel bread, crackers, jam, soup, pineapple juice, a can of peaches and more. I dove right in, as I had a lot of eating to catch up on.
All the campers had heavy-duty vehicles with a pair of spare tires and plenty of accessories, including shovels and ladders, anticipating as many eventualities as they could. They had all crossed the Sahara to get this far. They were a hardy and enthusiastic lot. A Spanish guy had ridden his motorcycle around the circumference of the continent a year ago--an epic nine-month journey. His wife joined him in Cape Town for a couple months, but was happy they were driving this year. The three Germans, who had each driven a car and sold it, had been running such an operation for over twenty years--a car a year to subsidize a couple months getaway to Africa. They used to be able to drive the Sahara through Algeria and on to Timbucktu, but that is an era of the past. They had all great advice and contacts on the road ahead to look up. There was literally no shutting them up once they got going. I didn't mind in the least, except when I needed to get some food in me or get off my feet if they ambushed me when I was on foot.
My first afternoon I took a nap and might have slept straight through the night if I hadn't been jolted awake after a couple of hours by a barking fit of a dog outside our compound. None of this crowd were beach people, nor I, but I still felt obligated to give it a look. It went on for miles and miles uninterrupted by any privatizations. None of the long string of hotels were overly deluxe nor had encroached upon the beach with seating or bungalows. My glimpses just revealed a handful of people walking the beach, not laying upon it.
The campground with its plethora of trees providing shade and capturing the cool breeze off the ocean keeping the temperature in the 80s was oasis enough. I still spent most of my three days there exploring the coastline. I went as far north as I could, fifteen miles to the capital of Benjul on the wide Gambia River where one had to take a ferry to continue further. And I also went a dozen miles south down the coast to an Arts Village.
I was delighted to find a woman at the turn in from the paved road to the campground with a large pot of spaghetti that the locals ate in a baguette. I could stop and fill my Tupperware bowl whenever necessary. Almost as good, though no bargain, was a bakery a mile away catering to the tourists that sold hearty meat and cheese and vegetable pies and also waffles along with a wide assortment of cupcakes and breads. The greatest discovery though was a grocery store that sold Gambian peanut butter fortified with baobab fruit powder. I was familiar with the taste of baobab as I finally made my introduction to baobab juice--a smooth, creamy white drink laced with sugar. It was a nectar of the gods.
Among my projects, along with swapping my front and rear tires, was to get a haircut to make it easier for the heat to release from my head. The white-haired owner of the campground had a nice shaggy haircut as I prefer but he said couldn't share his barber, as it was his wife. In my meanderings I saw a few hair salons trying to look high-end. My preference was unprentious. I knew I had it when a came upon the “Look Good Barbing Salon.”
The barber was finishing up a very talkative guy who had worked for Sky in London and MacDonald's in Sweden, but was now back in his home country working for a hotel. He helped explain to the barber, who only spoke a little English, that I only wanted a trim. He was accustomed to leaving just a stubble. He only had an electric trimmer, so had to go in search of scissors. What he came back with were so dull they could barely cut my super-thin hair, so he used my plenty sharp tiny scissors I use on my facial hair. He was ultra concerned about taking off too much, as his previous fluent client had told him to only take off "the tips." But he eventually grew braver and went beyond the tips and gave me a nice tidy trim unlike any of the many samples of haircuts hanging on his wall. He asked permission to use his clippers on my neck and then used it to even off the rest of the cut. He was as fastidious as any barber who has put scissors to my mane.
It had been eight months since Janina had lopped off my hair in France. When I sped off on my bike it was refreshing to feel the cooling rush of air on the back of my neck for the first time in a while. On the way back from the barber I paused to take a stroll through Monkey Park, a mile-and-a-half stretch of thick forest along the coast in the middle of the cluster of hotels. It is home to two breeds of several hundred monkeys who are tame enough to take peanuts from the hands of children.
They saunter along and lay about on the same trails that visitors follow, paying their human intruders much less attention than the children who come running at me in villages hoping for a handout.
They were remarkably blasé and photogenic, much like the snow monkeys of Japan.
At last I'd had an animal experience other than goats and donkeys in Africa. The continent may be synonymous with wild game, but humans have encroached on so much of their habitat, it is only found in isolated pockets.
On either side of the park for miles was unbridled development and a cesspool of billboards advertising all manner of things for sale and accommodations for rent. On some stretches there was a mini-billboard on every lamppost.
The traffic was equally noxious, dominated by a steady stream of pesky yellow taxis. Three miles down the coast from the campgrounds the congestion thinned out and The Gambia returned to being The Gambia. A pair of baobabs with bird nests came at a point of non-development.
A little further the fishing village of Tanji were an even more distinct departure from the westernization of The Gambia. This was as far from the tourists as the moon.
Boats were unloaded of their hauls without docking.
Contents were hauled in buckets and wheelbarrows and put on tables or in piles.
A few miles further down the coast, an artist had created a small domain of his work that he called the Tunbung Art Village. It was several huts with murals on the outside and paintings on the inside under a canopy of trees with all sorts of dangling objects--car doors and bottles and records and staple guns and bicycle wheels and more.
It was in relative isolation down a sandy dirt road that was even less bikeable than the road to the campground..
There was nothing baobab related, as there had been at the truly remarkable collection of art on Gorée Island off of Dakar, but it still provided a welcome respite from the hubbub of the tourist mania further north. There was some development down this way, people offering places to stay, that would appeal to those looking for a Gambia experience and not just an escape from winter. I was taking a liking to the campground culture and the various escapes I found from the resort development, but the road beckoned, so it is now back to Senegal and on to Guinea-Bissau.