“The closest ATM is in Brikama town.” The woman at the Western Union counter explained.
It was the only store that closely resembled a bank in the village of Gunjur.
Gunjur was our nearest village, situated a few kilometres from the ocean and out of view from the main road. A few quaint, colourful shops were perched upon the sandy dirt-road which marked the main village-centre and there was a feeling of peace and tranquillity.
A couple of children watched as we emerged from Western Union. They sat upon a low wall, watching with round, curious eyes as we trudged back to our rental car. I couldn’t help but smile at them, something which they returned with delight.
As our car rental needed paying in cash, I had run out of money. In fact, I didn’t have enough cash to pay for the rental car. Therefore I urgently needed to withdraw some.
We’d decided to visit the local village to search for an ATM but it turns out ATMs are a rarity in The Gambia, only found in large towns and cities.
Brikama was our nearest town. Despite being the closest town to us, getting there would still be 30 minute drive. Therefore I concluded it would be best to pay the town a visit tomorrow, seeing as the day was getting on and all I wanted to do right now was relax.
After spending the morning in the heaving town of Serrekunda, I wanted nothing more than to kick my feet up and enjoy some peace.
After our failed attempt to withdraw cash from Gunjur, we stopped by at our accommodation for some lunch. Stepping into the small eco-complex felt like taking a step into paradise. The trees were alive with birdsong and the humming of insects. Otherwise it was tantalisingly quiet.
Whilst I stuffed my face with delicious, fresh, local food (all salad grown on-site!) there was some commotion as one of the lodge’s staff members started furiously beating a bush with a broom which was only a couple of metres away from us. It looked like she was trying to shoo something away. I wish I’d got a glimpse but I can only assume it was a snake! There are in fact 41 different species of snake in The Gambia. Oh, I wish I’d seen it! I’d love to see a wild snake.
Our eco-lodge claimed to be a mere 10 minute walk from the beach. A trip to the beach sounded like the perfect way to spend the afternoon. Although, being the lazy bunch we are, we decided to take the car to the beach instead of taking the hike. The 45 degree heat was also a deciding factor for us!
Before we vacated the lodge, I made use of the free WiFi and planned out our route to the beach. We were so far from the main road now that Google Maps didn’t even recognise any roads in the area! The roads round here were more like sandy tracks. Therefore I used satellite view to see the well-worn tracks that led to the coastline.
I was pleased to see there was a rather direct route to the beach where the road ended up right on the coast. It was perfect!
Our journey began.
We turned right out of our lodge, as we would normally do in order to reach the main road but instead of taking the left turn at the sandy crossroads, we turned right.
Our 4×4 grumbled with displeasure as its wheels churned up thick sand. It bumped ungracefully over deep clumps and for a moment I thought we would become stuck. At least I knew how to deal with becoming stuck in the sand after finding myself in that very situation in Namibia!
Lewis made sure the car was in 4×4 mode and tried to accelerate with more force. There was some spinning and bumping but finally we were free!
Fortunately, the rest of the journey consisted of shallower sand.
It was as if we were leaving civilisation completely behind us. Palms and shrubs lined both sides of the narrow sandy track, without a settlement in sight.
The road went on and on and on, bending to the right every so often. This is taking a lot longer than I thought it would, I thought to myself.
The natural wilderness gave way to seemingly barren, dry fields which I assume were used for farming. Tall palms and baobabs stood proudly, dotted at infrequent intervals in and around the fields.
A couple of houses began to appear, some with impressive iron gates and soon we were passing busy clusters of modest settlements with excited goats trotting in between.
It wasn’t long before I was faced with a junction and had to decide which way to go. Based on nothing at all but a feeling, I made a decision and we ventured deeper into what appeared to be a village.
Further research shows that this was in fact the village of Sambuya.
I knew the rough direction that the coast was in (I have a weirdly good sense of direction) and so navigated us through the narrow village roads until finally the road widened and fields greeted us once more. In the distance I could see nothing but a brilliant light as the powerful rays of sunlight reflected off the horizon. I had a feeling this was the sea.
I felt hopeful as we navigated around precarious deep scratches in the earth. They almost resembled huge claw-marks or lightning zig-zags. We certainly didn’t want to drive over them as they were so deep that the car would be turned onto its side.
We drove ever-closer to the light and after passing a row of windswept palms, the land suddenly gave way to a vast expanse of golden sand, hugged by the powerful Atlantic ocean. We had made it at last!
As I exited the vehicle I was hit with a scorching blast of air – scorching, relentless air. The combination of strong winds and hot temperatures resembled the effects of being under a giant hairdryer.
I slammed the silver door shut and took a step forward, allowing my leather sandals to sink into the warm embrace of the glistening sand.
Before me was an empty stretch of white sand, void of any obstruction. Large, ruthless waves crashed against the shores, one crest of white froth after another.
The windswept sand formed smooth hills where the beach met solid land.
I had never seen a beach like it before.
It was wild, untouched and seemed to go on forever in both directions – which is almost true. The Gambia’s coastline is relatively straight meaning there are few obstructions for the sand. As a result you could walk for miles along the sandy oceanfront.
Lewis and I ventured down onto the beach. Apart from a group of 3 young girls that I could see out of the corner of my eye, we were the only ones on the seashore.
It was refreshing to see such a pristine area of nature that wasn’t suffering from over-tourism.
Whilst the shores to the south of The Gambia are dotted with a mixture of fishing villages and areas of barren sand, the north is a very different story. The coastline surrounding Serrekunda is fronted with rows of hotels and restaurants and tourists take to the beach in abundance.
It’s almost nice when the tourists congregate in one place as it means you can easily escape the crowds and find scenes of paradise in other areas.
As we took photographs of the unspoiled landscape, I noticed the trio of young girls coming ever closer. At first I just thought they have having a walk in our direction but when they stopped just metres away, I realised they had deliberately journeyed to see us.
I smiled at them, intrigued by their curiosity.
They didn’t try to speak – they merely watched as I clicked the trigger on my camera, the expressions on their beautiful faces unreadable.
“Hello,” I greeted them warmly.
They waved back, looking a little shy.
We were in a very rural part of The Gambia, far away from any resorts or tourist trails. It’s highly likely that white people were rare to see, especially ones with interesting items like cameras. We were different and they were fascinated by our strange ways.
I noticed they kept looking at our camera, their eyes bright with interest. I asked them if they would like a photograph which they were very happy about. They grouped together and stared into the lens before Lewis encouraged me to get into a shot as well.
I love how in the photo one of the girls is leaning towards me, smiling.
I asked if they’d like to have a go with the camera and passed it to one of them. She held it and examined it carefully as I explained how to click the trigger.
She took a photo of my feet. Not bad for a first try!
It had been nice to interact – albeit briefly – with residents from the local rural village. I was warmed by their interest and their friendly demeanour.
We waved goodbye and continued our beach journey, turning away from the sea and heading south down the endless stretch of sand.
As we trudged through the thick sand, I felt my energy levels waning. It’s certainly hard to keep going with the 45 degree rays of sun and nowhere to seek shade.
Although we were on the same beach we had been attempting to get to, we had taken an unexpected detour on our drive and ended up at a spot several kilometres north of where we were meant to be.
The stretch of beach which we had found ourselves on was the beach right outside the village of Sambuya and so was popular with village residents.
We passed a resident having a leisurely stroll. He waved at us as he passed.
The people of The Gambia had been nothing but welcoming. I never expected to feel as safe as I currently did and felt a twinge of guilt when I remembered that I had come into the country tense and untrusting.
We came across a small wooden boat sitting in the sand. It was covered with beautiful painting in various colours.
It felt like we had been walking for a long time but the reality was that we only trekked a short distance up the beach. The heat was getting the better of us and so we decided to head back to the car and call it a day. I didn’t fancy getting heatstroke!
Feeling light-headed and dehydrated, I let out a sigh of relief when we reached our rental car. Hello air-conditioning and water!
It was time to journey back to our accommodation. Fortunately I had a good sense of direction and memory of where we had been so I felt confident I would have us back at our lodge in no time.
I sat behind the wheel of the car, preparing to drive in The Gambia for the first time. Up until now Lewis had done all of the driving and I was excited to hit the road. Fortunately, I would only be travelling on quiet side-roads, not like Lewis who had to navigate through challenging conditions in The Gambia’s largest town that morning.
I turned the key in the ignition and listened as the engine roared to life. I gripped the hot steering wheel, recoiling slightly at its temperature. I took off the hand-break and applied pressure on the foot pedal. We were off.
The initial stage of the journey consisted of a wide scarred road flanked by fields and windswept palms. I remembered this well enough.
I took it slow as I dodged a large tree growing out of the side of the road and then carefully navigated our vehicle around the edges of the crevices in the road.
There seemed to be a lot more people out now. There were women walking with children, boys on bicycles and men working in the fields.
We passed a young boy standing at the side of the road holding a long stick which was almost as tall as himself. He watched keenly as we passed before taking flight and yelling. He started racing behind our car, trying his best to keep up as he swung his stick in the air.
How strange, I thought. I suppose he was just having some fun, chasing our car. Even so, I picked-up some speed so he couldn’t catch us up.
We entered the thick of the village where a tangle of junctions greeted us and we were forced to make decisions based purely off our memory as Google Maps could not work out a route home for us as it thought there were no roads here.
“I remember this.” I remarked. “I think we go right.”
“Yeah, I think so too.” Lewis responded. Two small goats crossed our path, one chasing the other. By the side of the road was a group of people who waved at us as we passed.
“I think I remember this.” I was losing confidence.
All the roads looked the same. How was I supposed to tell one from the other?
Eventually we reached a field which I was convinced I recognised. Except, I couldn’t remember whether to turn left or right at it.
A group of children stood with their bikes at the fork where the road split, green fields behind them. They waved enthusiastically and above the hum of the air-con I heard the beautiful sound of laughter.
I chose the left route. As we turned the children began to run behind our car, much like the young boy who we passed before.
As we continued down the bumpy dirt track, I started to feel confused. I didn’t remember any of this.
We made another turn and still nothing was jogging my memory.
I pulled over and decided to switch seats with Lewis. I was the better navigator of the two of us so we stood a better chance of getting home if I started looking at the navigation.
After a brief moment of despair, I had a light-bulb moment and started to use the satellite view on Google Maps. By using this view I was able to see all the tracks and would hopefully find a route out of the maze.
We were very lost.
I’m not sure how we managed it but we had found ourselves deep into the village and it took many twists and turns and a good fifteen minutes of driving until we were back on track.
Eventually we turned onto a sandy road lined with palms. We were out of the village! And I remembered this road.
Thank goodness for satellite maps! We were able to drive back to our lodge where we could unwind for the afternoon and enjoy some delicious freshly-caught fish for dinner.