I never expected the ‘up country’ or ‘up river’ part of The Gambia to be so completely different from the coast. Roughing it does not begin to describe how differently people live in rural Gambia.
I could title this particular blog ‘putting your money where your mouth is’. I was the one who wanted to go ‘off piste’ in Africa. No one twisted my arm to do it. What took place was a bit disconcerting.
It started with the ferry ride from Banjul to Barra. Normally that would not be an issue but, as one of the ferries wasn’t working, it was a 2 ½ hour wait to board. Another ½ hour later after crossing the river, our schedule for that day was thrown into disarray. But, hey, this is Africa and sometimes infrastructure is not quite up to standards Brits are used to. Get over it! (I said to myself).
Rather than motoring over to Georgetown after our tour of Niumi National Park and Jinack Island, we ended up staying in the area. Unfortunately it was in a (not yet completed) lodge in Mayamba village near the ferry terminal. It looked good from the outside but had no amenities. Though my room was clean, it had a useless mattress and cushions for pillows and a window that wouldn’t close. There was a family with domestic animals living in the back garden of the premises. It didn’t particularly bother me but it meant that there were noisy goats eating grass outside my room at 4am (at least, I think it was goats!)
It was a day later at Tendaba Lodge that everything unravelled.
Apparently, I was supposed to have a room with A/C. When I was told that this message did not get through, I was philosophical and not too worried. But I did make a fuss about having a proper mattress which, thankfully, was organised.
I was so pleased to have got a decent night’s sleep and was getting ready for breakfast when there was a knock on the door. It was Ebrima, my personal tour guide. “Modou, the driver, is sick. He has been vomiting since 4:00 this morning. We must do the birding tour very quickly and then get him to the hospital.” I was very concerned because Modou seemed like the sort that was indestructible. But then I saw him lurching around and vomiting, I realised he was in a bad way. It was either horrific food poisoning or something worse.
What Ebrima had failed to tell me was that he didn’t have a driving license. I was going to be the designated ambulance driver. By now I was imagining that Modou had malaria or something equally horrendous so I took the keys and off we went. And it would be 180kms to the hospital. This was not a joy ride.
Within a few minutes of leaving the compound, we had to pull over to let our sick friend ‘use the toilet’. Of course, there really weren’t any toilets in these rural villages (nor running water or electricity).
I somehow managed to navigate at top speed down the two lane highway avoiding: cows, goats, people, bikes…and dealing with police, immigration and military road blocks along the way. At one military check point, the soldier became furious with me because I mis-understood his hand signal; I had moved forward when he wanted me to stop. So, he then decided to search my luggage even though he could see there was a sick person with us. Very, very frustrating.
But with steadfast determination – energised by the fear that someone could die on my watch – we managed to get Modou to the hospital before his symptoms became any worse.
What an experience for my first ever trip to The Gambia! Next time, I might stay at the beach resorts.
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All images The Roaming Scribe, Lynn Houghton