'You people cannot walk, you only move in cars'
With the help of three guides, two donkeys and a cart, Jason Florio and his partner took a walk around The Gambia. That's 1,000km – give or take a few hundred metres
Sunday 14 March 2010
A New York dinner party isn't the place to open your mouth and not follow through – no matter how much Brooklyn Lager you've drunk. Yet, after a fellow guest told my partner, Helen, and I how he had walked 500 miles across Europe on the El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, we declared that we'd been contemplating a journey for some time and a long walk sounded like just the thing.
Eight months later, we arrived in The Gambia for a 1,000km (620-mile) trek. Accompanied by three locals – Ablie "The Negotiator" Janneh, Samba "Call me Mr Leigh" Leigh, and Momadou "Arikkk!" Bah – two donkeys (Neil and Paddley, on loan from The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust), and a cart for the gear, we left the sublime comforts of the Mandina River Lodge, on a mangrove-lined tributary of the River Gambia, and headed east.
Helen and I had visited The Gambia a number of times before, but had never ventured far from its Atlantic coast. Now we were bound for Koina at the country's eastern edge – a trip akin to going from John O'Groats to Land's End. The Gambians who heard our tale, with help from our translator "The Negotiator", were aghast. "What, with those two donkeys? Impossible! The donkeys will die in two days. They cannot go that far. Anyway you are Tubaabs [Europeans], you people do not walk, you only move in cars." They would shriek with laughter, shake their heads and smile.
Yet, not only were we walking all the way to Koina, but we would be crossing the River Gambia there and walking all the way back to the country's most westerly point on the Atlantic, thereby making the first recorded circumnavigation of The Gambia by foot.
"Call me Mr Leigh" was our liaison man and up-country guide. Looking like a sub-Saharan Elma Thud, his main role was to make the formal introductions to the village chiefs (Al Kalos), who would be our nightly hosts. The ancient system of chiefs would be vital to the success of our journey, he explained. Each Gambian village has an Al Kalo, who is responsible, among other things, for the welfare of travellers. Before we set out, Mr Leigh took us to a market in Brikama where, for 240 dalasi (about £6), we bought 2kg of fat, bitter seeds called kola-nuts. These would win the hearts of the Al Kalos, he assured us.
The rains had recently subsided and the red dirt road that is the Gambia Highway was flanked by rich green grasses, tall as a man and vibrating with wildlife. We were rarely alone. Red colobus monkeys would appear on the road before us. Squadrons of egrets would jet overhead. Hooded vultures cruised the thermals, and boisterous grass-yellow butterflies made the most of the abundant dung left by cattle driven by Fula tribesmen who played soulful tunes on recorders made from plastic pipes.
Momadou Bah, our donkey handler, randomly came alive to shout "Arrrrrrik!!!" above the donkeys' ever rotating ears to move them from molasses speed to the pace of slightly runny honey. We had, observed a policeman at a checkpoint, Tubaab donkeys. "Look at them, they are so fat and proud, they should have crowns," he chuckled between sips of attayer – a sugary green tea whose preparation takes up much of the free time of the underemployed.
After 464km (288 miles) we reached Koina and crossed the river to the old Kingdom of Wuli, which, since the demise of Gambian kings, has been less romantically called URD – Upper River Division.
We had been invited to visit the village of another Mr Bah on the north bank of Wuli. A Marabout (learned man) of the Fula tribe, he cooed and clucked in joy while he stroked our hands as he shook them. As at each village we visited, we became the evening's entertainment. Children would arrive first to watch us pitch the tents, then women would bring along low wooden stools, positioning themselves for widescreen viewing while continuing to braid hair, shell peanuts and breast-feed. Village girls would bring calabash filled with milk, cous cous from the fields, and attayer tea. Our favourite dish was domoda, an oily peanut paste, cooked with dried fish and hot peppers and served with white rice. Delicious fuel.
At most villages we spent just one night, but Mr Bah had offered to show us the local hyena caves and tree-top hideouts used by shotgun-carrying sentries to protect the villagers' precious cattle from Senegalese raiders. More importantly, he had said he would read our fortunes.
Yet, you don't have to bushwhack to remote villages to revel in this country's mysterious side. Less than a day's drive from the capital, Banjul, stand the stone circles of Wassu, just one of hundreds that dot the region. The Gambia's very own Stonehenge is diminutive, but what the stones lack in size is made up for by tales of strange lights and helicopters, bringing white men who bury strange instruments and whisk away artefacts. Talk to "Stoneman", guardian of the stones and son of a chief – he'll make you a believer.
We pushed on at donkey speed towards the port of Barra on the north-west bank of the River Gambia's mouth, stopping on the way at the old slave station of Juffureh, home to the Kinte family, made famous by Alex Haley's book Roots. Karamo, the Al Kalo's son, took us by motorised pirogue to James Island, an eroding speck of land that supports the crumbling remains of a British fort. It's a serene spot, despite its dark history.
Onwards, we took our place alongside the trucks, cars and batik-adorned ladies on the Barra to Banjul ferry and joined the throng in the capital's streets, passing though a triumphal white stucco arch erected to celebrate the 1994 coup, with a sign reading "22nd July – the birth of the new Gambia".
Not far into the new Gambia, there was a commotion as people rushed to the kerb to clap and cheer. Through the veil of pollution, a careening motorcade of Toyota 4WDs tore past us. At its centre was a black stretch Hummer – with a factory-optional rear gun emplacement. The crowd leapt into the car's wake to gather the spoils tossed from its window by the 1994 coup leader, President Sheikh Professor Dr Alhaji Yahya Abdul Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh.
Then, after 909km, with just 20km to go, the cart sheered a wheel. There was no hope of fixing it, so we called in back-up in the form of the Mandina River Lodge's Land Rover. Babbacar, the driver, said that as it was getting dark we should get a lift with him. But we politely refused the offer, throwing our bags in the vehicle, and with our donkeys by our side, machetes in hand, and a chocolate bar to sustain us, cut into the darkening bush.
Eight hours later, we found we were walking in circles, crashing into trees, lost. Mr Leigh called back the rescue team. With the high-beam of the Land Rover's lights powering through the thick night, we discovered we had, in fact, only been 700 metres away from the lodge's hurricane lamp-lit bar.
How to get there
The Gambia Experience (0845 330 2087; gambia.co.uk) offers seven nights at the Mandina Lodges at Makasutu from £949 per person in April, based on two sharing and including return flights from Gatwick to Banjul, transfers and half-board accommodation in a Floating Lodge
The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations
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