Big Reg parked happily outside the Coco Ocean for a couple of nights, but behind the huge windbreak of the hotel, the mossies were tucking into us so determinedly we had to put nets up inside. With hotels on board and waste oil collection underway, we set out south to find an empty beach. Once again, we picked a random turn off and lucked into a perfect spot: it was opposite the village of Brufut, but we christened it Baobab Beach.
You can’t argue with the Gambian climate. The balmy temperatures, golden mornings and blue skies were a breath of fresh air for us. The pouting mouth of the Gambia sticks out into the Atlantic and the stiff wind along the coast seemed to banish the harmattan as well as the mossies. It was a shocker for us more used to the heat and humidity of Liberia. I had to dig out my Cape Town winter clothes. British walkers sweating in T-shirts were somewhat surprised to see me in socks and a hoody, shivering in sub-25˚ temperatures!
The wind was so cold, we started shutting the door and sleeping in ‘jamas in sleeping bags. It was a bit dark behind Reg’s tinted windows when closed. We all took hot showers for first time since Angola. Washing was taking forever to dry i.e. all day, instead of 10 minutes.
On our morning walk I was testing Zola on irregular French verbs because he knows his times tables better than me now. How times have changed since we first left!
It might be known as the Smiling Coast, but to me the Gambia will be remembered as the Chatty Coast. How these people love to talk! That might sound ironic coming from Sampson and me – you know we can both talk the hind leg off a donkey – but we met our match in Gambia. Everyone wants to gab. In the tourist areas, hearty greetings tended to be a prelude to hustlers trying to persuade you to visit their bar or shop, but even on practically deserted Baobab Beach, you had to keep your head down and march on determinedly or else the morning walk could take the whole day. The three people you bumped into could chat for an hour each!
I made an exception for our lovely neighbours.
Ebrima Sanneh is a special human being. When, during our second conversation, I said “I love your necklace” he immediately took it off and offered it to me. “No!” I said, horrified he’d taken it as a hint, “It suits you much better, and I hardly ever wear jewelry” but that was Ebrima. He was completely genuine and spontaneous. If he knew a way to make you happy, he would.
Ebrima lives on the beach when it’s warm and squats in a half built house at the top of the slope when the wind is too cold. I saw his pallet tucked between the palms, next to his charcoal burner for green tea and a couple of rickety chairs. He seems to get by providing certain herbs to the community, but his dream is to build a restaurant in the perfect spot he inhabits between the baobabs.
During the few weeks we stayed there, he and a handful of friends dug the foundations and made bricks ready to build. His place is going to be called Tiana’s, after his British sponsor. Much love to you Ebrima, and thanks for your hospitality. We wish you all the luck in the world and hope to come back and have sundowners at your place one day.
The second Ebrima used to come past on his bike between his two jobs. I found his accent fascinating. Unlike Liberian, Ghanaian or Nigerian English, the Gambia has a Jamaican lilt that sometimes verges on Welsh. One Sunday he hung out with me while I did the handwashing, discussing the state of the world while listening to the BBC World Service on his radio. He was a softly spoken apologist for colonialism and apartheid, though that was probably less what he believed as what he thought I’d want to hear. He was equally cautious when I asked his opinion of the current Gambian government. While he didn’t look over his shoulder, his slight hesitance, and cautious comment “They’re doing their best” suggested, if not fear, certainly unease.
Big Reg was driving down the highway one day when a man leaned out of passing car, hollered something and saluted us emphatically. I didn’t catch exactly what he said (it was “BOKKE!” apparently), just turned to Sampson and commented “Well, he was pleased to see us”. A few days later, the same guy turned up outside the truck and invited us down Baobab Beach for a drink. His name’s Ryan Visser and he’s from Durban. He told us he lived round the corner behind the Madiba Mall.
Ryan is the President’s pilot. His colleague Sammy, the Kiwi with the tattoos, is the co-pilot. I wish I could show you the pics they showed me of the interior of the presidential plane; plush is too inadequate an adjective.
Ryan seems to know everyone, and everyone in Banjul knows Ryan. (Even the SA Ambassador in Dakar knows Ryan.) He was on his phone immediately, pulling in oil for favours, while his Irish wife Mary told me of their whirlwind romance, recent wedding and her imminent departure back to a top job in hospital management in UK. They are a high-octane couple with a high fun quotient and, truly, it was a tonic just to hang out with them. The biltong was a bonus.
Despite her sore back, Mary generously did a big wash for us, blitzing filthy towels and sheets in her machine. This was a candidate for my best birthday present. She even gave us some of their bed linen, bless her.
On my birthday itself, my husband gifted me with his presence on our early morning walk, a very rare occurrence. Sampson took a brilliant self-timer pic by balancing Tim’s camera on a boat – which is why the horizon’s a bit wonky.
He decided that standing in a line looks rubbish so told us to run towards the camera to give the picture some movement. We’re laughing because this is his third attempt to get back to the line and look spontaneously in tune with our movement before the shutter goes off!
After a delicious breakfast of juicy Gambian grapefruit, we drove back to the Coco Ocean to find Osman, Natalie and Terry waiting for us at the gate. Osman had offered Sampson a couple of nights free in the hotel and he’d asked to delay it for my birthday – what a present! I was mainly looking forward to taking a luxuriously long shower, but I got rather more than I bargained for…
They escorted us through to the VIP section and led us down the steps to Royal Suite 54. It was HUGE.
It not only had two bathrooms, a kitchen, lounge and patio, but also – its own private pool.
I have to admit, I was sobbing just a little bit at this point. Their generosity was quite overwhelming.
There was more: breakfast was included! WOW. You can go all day on a Coco Ocean breakfast. Especially if, like Sampson, you have your Norwegian smoked salmon and poached egg with a side order of bacon. AND a waffle with fruit and cream. We were the only table not to leave a morsel of food on any of our plates.
We went to thank Chef Guido for the waste vegetable oil and found out he had Italian parents but was brought up in Leamington Spa and was a Coventry City fan! When I reminisced about Cov winning the FA Cup in 1987, he told me he flew back from sous-chefing in Dubai every weekend for that glorious season!
To top it all, I was given a voucher by Layla Idrissi, Terry’s wife and Coco Ocean Spa manager, for free spa treatments.
Oh my word, I have never felt so spoiled. Not only was I gifted a massage from the talented Touria, I was also given an hour long Hamam treatment, a specialty of Layla’s native Morocco.
Therapist Sarah led me into the Turkish bath area and sluiced me down with bucketfuls of hot-springs-warm water, before slathering me from head to toe with ‘Savon Beldi’: black soap made from virgin olive oil and essential oils of eucalyptus, cedar, cinnamon and extracts of algae. She then left me lying on a heated marble slab to soak up the scented steam for 15 minutes.
Despite being naked except for a paper G-string, I felt surprisingly relaxed and comfy on the warm marble plinth watching the humid haze condense into droplets on the dark tiles. But just before I dozed off, Sarah appeared with a ‘kessa’ exfoliating glove and went to work on my body, sloughing off several layers of dead skin I didn’t know I had on me. Blurgh! She splashed me again with bowlfuls of bath-hot water then daubed me with detoxifying Rhassoul Clay, which removes impurities and replaces them with nourishing trace minerals. Another 15 minutes at 43˚C and I began to feel like I was back in Liberia – my lungs love it. My skin was lapping the treatment up as well, and felt baby-soft and baby-new when I slipped into a cool shower afterwards.
The ten minutes of perfect peace sitting wrapped in a warm robe sipping iced water after I floated out of the treatment room was the most blissful I’ve felt in years. I’d never had a spa treatment of any kind, but I absolutely loved the Hamam and will be saving up to do it again – hopefully in Morocco itself!
Immediately after that moment of perfect peace, I realised I missed my Mom terribly. With a pang, I remembered an abandoned attempt we once made to go to a spa together and thought “She should be here with me, experiencing it in style.” Luckily, my daughter turned up for verbena tea, and we went for a lovely wander together through the grounds, gathering hibiscus blossoms and counting our blessings to be sharing such a day as this.
Layla also treated Ruby to a facial, which has inspired her to concoct several of her own since from egg whites or cinnamon and Gambian honey! Thank you Layla and Terry for all your kindness and may blessings rain down upon you both.
On our second evening we went out to dine at the Kasumai Restaurant next door.
I had fresh fish domoda – a Gambian dish with groundnut sauce, which was scrumptious – and a naughty-but-nice baobab juice shaken with water and condensed milk for a delicious dessert!
A straggly band of musos gathered themselves together very slowly and looked like they were about to play reggae but surprised us with a Dire Straits medley. They kicked off with Romeo and Juliet, which was amazing as the kids and I had just read the balcony scene. As the gravelly-voiced lead guitarist growled out a bizarre pidgin version of the lyrics, I was remembering how my Dad used to sing along to this album while driving me to school and how much I loathed Dire Straits in 1984. Meanwhile Sampson was recalling hanging out smoking bongs in the back of his van with his mates at 17. We found ourselves gripping hands across the table and gulping back nostalgic tears. It was hardly the romantic nuance Shakespeare or even Mark Knopfler had envisaged evoking, but it was ‘a moment’.
The Gambian music they played was even better and we embarrassed the kids by dancing shamelessly round the tables.
Back in the truck, unpacking, I was surprised to have a ‘relieved to be home from the holidays’ feeling. Staying at the magnificent Coco Ocean was such a treat, I felt like a queen swanning around the VIP areas for a couple of days. But for those of us not effortlessly elegant like Natalie, it was exhausting to be surrounded by mirrors. I realised I was worn out with having to monitor my appearance and keep my hair looking vaguely respectable. It was great to be back with an excuse for looking like a gypsy!
Big Reg headed north for the swell. Sampson had found a promising spot next to the military base of the Gambian Armed Forces in Bakau. Ever more like his Dad, Zola was much happier after a surf. A long paddle out to sea revealed a left hand reef break that they suspected had never been surfed before; they christened it ‘Bubbles’.
While the boys were in the water, I gave Ruby’s hair a trim. Two young boys passing picked up strands of her golden clippings like they were precious. Maybe I should start selling them!
There was a call centre on the corner and the young staff used to come down to the sea for a breath of fresh air during their breaks. Mohamed was playing a Martin Luther King speech on his phone when he sat down to watch me do T’ai Chi and we got talking. We had a very interesting conversation about life and what it was all about. He would like to be a journalist and is frustrated that he was born in Spain (his Mom works there) but is struggling to obtain a Schengen passport. I suggested he could go train in Ghana or Nigeria instead. At the end of our chat, he told me that, even if I professed atheism, in his eyes, my positive outlook revealed me as a Believer.
I regret not travelling beyond the tourist belt of gritted teeth to the genuine smile behind them. I’m quite sure the rural villages of the Gambian interior are far more charming than the urban sprawl of Serecunda and the Atlantic Coast, which reminded me rather of Midrand or a very sunny day in the Midlands.
But the benefits of the city cannot be denied. Thanks to Dentist Desmond Pyper for giving us all a check up and only charging Sampson to fix his broken filling. Dr Des is from Jersey and works as a volunteer at the Swedent Clinic for several months each year.
We are super grateful to the Gambia Coral Beach hotel for not only donating waste oil but also letting us access their wifi: I was able to have management meetings on Skype and Sampson caught up with his brother, while Ruby was researching school projects and Zola was finding out what poetry was.
In the carpark, we were intrigued to see this Land Cruiser:
A couple of days later we met adventurous Polish family, Jacek, Kasia and Konrad Piwowarski, who had driven down to Cape Town in 2012 and were now on their way back to Krakow!
They didn’t speak much English, and of course my Polish is pathetic, but when I took this photo, an amazing dialogue took place.
Jacek: “Your first camera was stolen, yes?”
Me: “How did you know?”
Jacek: “I read your blog”
I couldn’t believe it! No one had ever said that to me before! Thanks Jacek and hamba kahle.
Our last day there, dear Terry arranged for Coco Ocean’s driver Mohamed Cham to chauffeur Sampson around to collect waste veg oil from all the other donating hotels: Ocean Bay, Senegambia, Kairaba, Coral Beach, Kombo Beach, Sunset Beach and Lemon Creek. Sampson had offered to do a comedy show at Coco Ocean to thank all contributors and we’d arranged an interview at West Coast Radio to promote it.
For an hour charming On The Spot anchor Jimmy Nzally entertained us with his constant refrain of “POWERFUL” in response to anything vaguely meaningful Sampson said. Sadly Coco Ocean was forced to cancel the show amidst security fears for Brussels Airlines staff who regularly stay there after the bomb attack in the Belgian capital.
Ryan and Mary popped in for a goodbye drink with Osman and Natalie at the same time as I was posting a blog in the Coco Ocean reception lounge. It did my heart good to see what genuinely good friends these young South Africans are. They were discussing their next holiday together, to sights in and around Dakar. Natalie’s quick wit made me laugh as she took the mickey out of the men. Mary had brought creme eggs for the kids as an Easter treat, and left Dáire flirting with Ruby in the truck. How lucky we were to fall in with such a caring and fun bunch.
On 25th March we finally set off north. Just before we left, I gave Ebrima my Zulu necklace as it seemed to suit him far better than me.
We drove through the weirdly empty centre of Banjul central, past Arch 22, built to commemorate the military coup of 22 July 1994 when ‘His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh’ came to power.
As we drove around the roundabout I noticed the Arch seemed to be all front with nothing much behind it, which rather sums up my impression of the President himself. He seems to have a rather inflated sense of his own significance in the history of the Gambia. With a sense of satisfaction, I read that the Arch has been closed to traffic because “the stability of the structure is in doubt“. Now there’s poetic justice.
Big Reg headed out to catch the boat to Barra and arrived at the terminal just before lunch. Five sweaty hours, two James Bond movies and three ferries later, we managed to get on. You can’t complain at only R160. Later I was told that this is public transport and thus free to tax-payers – what a marvellous model, wish we could emulate that in SA.
I was soothed by the sight of the passing crowds, and wished I could have done a photo study of the waiting women. Their clothes were so beautifully colourful, their style suddenly more Arabic, the scarves more sparkly and diaphanous. It was Friday and proud Muslim men were spruce in full length robes and caps.
Finally Big Reg was crammed on with another 17 vehicles and around 500 people. I felt quite euphoric up on the roof in the blessed cool at last.
We landed and drove out of Barra to a quiet spot in the bush. In the middle of the night the nearly full moon woke me blasting through the open hatch like a spotlight. After an hour, I gave in, got up and started editing. I was consoled by the smell of crushed wild basil under the truck tyres.
After driving for an hour in the morning, Big Reg was overtaken by a kombi with a big guy in the front seat waving madly at us. When we pulled over five minutes later to have breakfast before we hit the border, he jumped out of the taxi and came back to greet us – it was Mohamed the driver from Coco Ocean, and we’d stopped right outside his house!