The 52 Places Traveler
The 52 Places Traveler visits the smallest country in mainland Africa, where historical reckoning, crippling heat, infrastructure woes and an island of apes make for a trip to remember.
Photographs and Text by Sebastian Modak
Our columnist, Sebastian Modak, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. His last dispatch was from Senegal where he was attacked by dancing lions.
The sun was beginning to set at the Tanji fishing port, about 20 miles from the Gambian capital of Banjul. Just offshore, dozens of colorfully painted fishing boats were turning to silhouettes, their crews offloading buckets of freshly caught barracuda and grouper. A thick crowd of fishermen, buyers and intermediaries from at least five different West African countries worked within an intricate commercial system that seemed inexplicable to me. Runners clicked out warnings as they torpedoed through the crowds, pushing wheelbarrows full to the brim with still twitching sea-life, and crumpled dalasi bills exchanged hands at a furious pace. Just out of the main scrum, an argument broke out between four women.
“If you keep supporting him, we won’t sell you any fish and we’ll tell everyone to do the same,” one shouted in Mandinka, with two others nodding in agreement, as my guide, Kemo Manjang, whispered a translation.
“I don’t care,” the other responded, her wrinkled face screwing up into a clear expression of rage. “If you don’t leave me alone, I’ll bring him back.”
The “him” she was referring to is Yayeh Jammeh, the former dictator of Gambia who refused to give up the presidency after losing the election and wound up fleeing the country in 2017 as regional forces prepared to move against him. During a 22-year reign of terror, opposition members and journalists disappeared overnight; a paramilitary group called the Junglers was given carte blanche to hunt down and kill suspected coup organizers and spies; and, among a host of other bizarre campaigns, at least 1,000 people were accused of witchcraft and forced to drink poisonous hallucinogenic substances as “cures.” Mr. Jammeh has since found refuge in Equatorial Guinea, a country run by another megalomaniacal tyrant.
It’s this drastic change — “a new era,” as many Gambians I met called it — that put Gambia on the 52 Places to Go list for 2019. For decades, the country’s coastline has been a winter escape for sun-starved northern Europeans and Britons. But the political changes have brought in more investment and opened up parts of the country to travelers seeking more than just beach resorts. When my brother Nimesh and I stepped off the plane and waded into the sopping humidity that hangs over the country in late September, we encountered a country that was speaking about decades of national trauma for the first time.
Around the capital and beyond, people from all walks of life from market sellers to hotel staff to fishermen on break were glued to cellphones, televisions and radios. They were following the hearings of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, a two-year process that began in January and is bringing perpetrators and victims of atrocities before a panel of investigators and lawyers to share their stories for the first time.
The snippets I heard in passing were haunting: a former Jungler finally admitted to shooting two civilians “straight in the stomach,” after first claiming that he had fired a warning shot in the air, which went astray; former police officers recounted the direct orders they received to kidnap and torture suspected opposition activists; the heavy sobs of a mother who is still looking for her son. Roadside billboards promoted the mission of the T.R.R.C., with messages like, “Dear Government: Our families need closure. When will you start searching for us?” It was a sobering backdrop.
While Mr. Jammeh is credited by his supporters for building the infrastructure that does exist, the country is far behind some of its neighbors, including Senegal, which encircles Gambia on three sides, like a Pac-Man of land. This became clear upon leaving Banjul and the tourist zone around the beaches just west of the capital.
After hiring Mr. Manjang, an independent guide and taxi driver, for a two-night excursion to the more remote reaches of the River Gambia, which cuts through the length of the country, we hit our first hurdle before we’d even left the capital. With bridge construction costly, river crossings usually involve ferries — and ferries usually involve waiting. In our case, three hours. Many people — traders, day workers and shoppers — lose entire days to waiting. We meandered around the port, seeking shade wherever we could, settling eventually in the shadow cast by an ancient-looking truck. The minutes passed slowly, the temperature and humidity rose, and then, when the ferry did eventually pull up, idleness turned into intense action. The crowd disembarked: women carried impossibly heavy buckets of mayonnaise and milk on their heads and vendors brought out carts of live chickens, sheep on leashes and suitcases full of clothes and shoes to sell in the capital.
When we eventually were loaded onto the ferry, the cars and people were packed so tightly that it was impossible to even open the car door. I tried not to think about the incident, 17 years ago, when a Senegalese ferry capsized and sunk off the coast of Gambia, killing almost 2,000 people. Eventually, I dozed off in the unrelenting heat — like most of the cars I encountered in the country, this one’s air conditioning had fizzled out years ago — and woke up as we approached the other side of the river. Five hours of travel; 10 miles traversed. This would be a long trip.
And it was, but it was also stunningly beautiful. A country of just 2 million people, Gambia is sparsely populated, and the daytime din of Banjul and its immediate surrounds quickly gave way to wide tracts of empty, bright green land. Baobabs dotted the horizon with gnarled branches that make the trees look like they’re in perpetual pain. Colorful birds flew across the road at regular intervals. Family compounds of thatch-roof houses sat just off the main road, smoke billowing out of open-air kitchens.
Almost every village we passed carried the visible stamp of the foreign aid industry. Hanging over the clay and corrugated iron houses, billboards advertised the development projects of various nations and nongovernment organizations. The paragraph-long names of the projects sounded like Ph.D. dissertations and the rusty signs and obsolete references — like to the United Nations’s Millennium Development Goals, which were replaced by a new framework in 2016 — showed their one-off nature. By the tenth sign in as many miles, I had the eerie feeling that I was in a postcolonial-development testing ground.
We reached our destination, a guesthouse in Janjanbureh — or Georgetown, its colonial name that’s still in use — just as dusk set in. As in Senegal the week before, it was the “wrong time” to be in Gambia, especially upriver, as the area around the River Gambia National Park is known. The rainy season was in its final weeks, and though there was only one passing shower, the humidity made being outside for extended periods of time difficult. The mosquitoes were even more dangerous than usual. (“Everyone I know who has gotten malaria, has got it in September,” Mr. Manjang told us.) In fact, most accommodations were closed for the season. The five-star overwater cottages of Mandina Lodge in the Makasutu Cultural Forest near Banjul were shuttered until the end of October, and the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project, a conservation initiative deep in the national park, wasn’t taking guests as it does for most of the year.
So, we had no option but a ramshackle hotel in Georgetown. A collection of hilariously decorated rooms (ours, inexplicably, had a blown up photo of a pair of loafers as the only wall art), Baobolong Camp sits on the shore of the River Gambia, but faces away from it. There was no air conditioning, just a ceiling fan the size of a dinner plate that did nothing but move around faint wisps of hot air. Our bathroom door hung off a single hinge, necessitating a careful game of lift-and-shove every time we wanted to go in and out. There were two bare mattresses covered by mosquito nets.
Somehow, despite frequent power outages and everything else being extremely hot, the beer was ice-cold. Nimesh and I ordered as many rounds as we thought would help us sleep in the suffocating heat — and then ordered one more. I slept in fits and starts, nodding off in between fantasies of sleeping in whatever fridge those beers came out of.
The next day revealed what this unheralded corner of West Africa has to offer — and made the long journey, and longer night, feel worth it. After stopping at the Wassu Stone Circles, a site of monoliths of uncertain origin that mark the burial sites of royalty past, Mr. Manjang took us to the edge of the River Gambia National Park. Crouching under a makeshift shelter, we dug into plates of freshly caught fish, while an old man reclined on a bench nearby listening to the proceedings of the truth and reconciliation commission. Then, with someone who only identified himself as “Mr. Hippo” at the helm of the outboard motor of a small long boat, we went out on the river.
The river was too high for us to see hippos or crocodiles. But tiny village weaver birds with jet black heads and luminescent yellow bodies darted along the shoreline, with blades of grass in their beaks, the raw materials for their hanging, basket-like nests. Bright red firefinches fluttered by so fast I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me and fleets of hooded vultures circled high above something dead, miles away. And then we hit the main event: The chimpanzee colony on Baboon Island (there are some baboons there as well).
If you go
The beaches of Gambia are popular for good reason: they are huge and the water is delightfully swimmable. But be wary of star ratings when booking hotels. We found “five-star” options like the government-owned Ocean Bay Beach Hotel & Resort disappointing (at one point, we were told they had “run out” of soap for the rooms.) The “four-star” African Princess Beach Hotel, on the other hand, was delightful, with “swim-up” ground-floor rooms, and an infinity pool directly in front of a happening stretch of beach.
Taxis can be confusing. Yellow taxis work basically like buses, driving along routes — if you hail one, you’ll pay next to nothing but have to make sure your destination is along whatever path the driver is taking. Green taxis are “tourist taxis,” which you can hire for one-off drives, round-trips or day excursions. They’re supposed to follow rates set by the tourism ministry but often don’t, so be prepared to bargain.
In general, Gambians really don’t like having their picture taken. In the labyrinth of Serekunda Market, just outside of Banjul, even the appearance of a camera can elicit loud protests from shopkeepers and shoppers alike. I found that asking permission and promising to send the photos to the photographed (and following through with it) helped. Be prepared to rely on mental photography.
Once hunted to extinction, chimpanzees were reintroduced to Gambia in 1979 by the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project. Since then, the population of chimpanzees, three generations of them now numbering 127, has thrived. They’re fed every day by workers who throw fruit and bread onto shore from the water, but they’re still wild. Direct interaction is strictly forbidden for fear of spreading human diseases and the heavily wooded island is off-limits to foot traffic. That unique situation — wild animals who are accustomed to humans — makes for good viewing. Families of chimpanzees, babies hanging tight off the torsos of their mothers, watched expectantly from the shoreline. Others swung impatiently from tree branches. One particularly precocious juvenile stretched out his palm, making a “give it here,” gesture. The occasional fishing boat floated by, but there wasn’t a single other tourist in sight.
After our journey “upriver,” we made our way back toward Banjul, stopping along the way to meet various members of Mr. Manjang’s family. During the long drive, he told us stories of Mr. Jammeh’s unfathomable excesses — empty mansions built in the middle of the jungle and huge parties thrown for his most loyal voters. We stopped more than once to buy rounds of roasted corn, grilled to death over open flames on the side of the road.
We reached the beaches. Restaurants and bars line the Senegambia Strip, where sweet-talking hustlers, known locally as “bumsters,” offer to show visitors around and then surprise them with a hefty fee for a “tour.” The resorts, by and large, are shabby and run-down after years of neglect, but the mind-bogglingly wide beaches that, come sunset, turn into open-air gyms, continue to draw tourists from cold, foggy cities in the far north.
Thomas Cook, the recently defunct airline and tour operator that operated direct flights and package deals from Britain, was by far the largest funnel of tourists to Gambia, accounting for 40 percent of the country’s annual visitors, according to Reuters. Many restaurant owners, hoteliers and tour guides are worried about what the travel company’s collapse means for the country. Even Mr. Manjang, who avoids working with the big package-deal companies, was concerned about a number of winter bookings he had from Thomas Cook clients.
Sitting on the beach, and thinking back to our three-day adventure, the recent developments also felt like an opportunity. Traveling in Gambia at the hottest, wettest time of year tested my physical stamina, my relationship with my older brother (still intact) and my ability to sleep in puddles of my own sweat. We came face to face with animals that I’d only ever seen on television, shared fresh fish with several friendly Gambians and listened to them talk about a bright future for a country scarred by trauma.
We experienced delayed ferries and never-ending police checkpoints — and laughed along with the locals for whom these are everyday struggles. Maybe, I thought, a part of the country’s “new era” could involve more tourists experiencing what we had and spending their money in Gambia’s interior, instead of at the carbon copy beach resorts that make you forget where you are.
Sebastian Modak is the 2019 52 Places Traveler. Before being selected to report on the annual New York Times list, he worked at Condé Nast Traveler as an editor and staff writer. @sebmodak
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