This is an odd entry in my world borders series. It sounds really easy and it should be, but it turned into a topsy turvy adventure and I really didn’t know what was ahead, looking back it appears to have run smoothly, though on the day it wasn’t quite like that! The Gambia is completely surrounded by Senegal and is widely regarded as the smallest country in Africa. The only way to overland into The Gambia is therefore through Senegal. I was out in Senegal and the Gambia on the #MSMLostLuggage challenge with Money Supermarket. It was time to cross another border. I wanted to get from N’Gor beach in Dakar all the way to Serrekunda in The Gambia.
While based at the cosy Maison Abaka by N’Gor beach in Dakar, Senegal, I made the choice to head south to the town of Karang which is on the Senegal to Gambia border. With no laptop, a quick internet check and a gaze at a handy Lonely Planet in the guesthouse, it looked like an 8 -10 hour trip. It also looked fairly straight forward, for a long term overland backpacker like myself I assumed this would be an easy one.
I mentioned it to the staff at Maison Abaka over breakfast and the looks I got were one of surprise. I got these reactions:
– it will take you a minimum of two days
– Islamic extremists now control the entire border
– that trip is not safe
– take a flight instead
Eh??? Ouch??? What??? There is no way I am flying into the Gambia. I had lined up an excellent 5 star resort for the next two nights at Coco Ocean Spa Resort. I’m backpacking this overland, and now I learn the border is CLOSED!
I was so shocked. Everybody I spoke to said I was mad to attempt the border crossing on my own. I couldn’t believe it but yet I didn’t trust even the hardest Senegalese that I met. Time was ticking. I was aware in my mind that the border closed at 7pm. At least the border I planned to cross. I was also aware that the last Barra to Banjul ferry would be around 8pm.
Pretty crazy that these doubts that people had, now scared me and even worse, had lost me time. It was now 12 noon. I should have started my journey at 8 am. It was time to act quickly and I decided to cancel my trip to Gambia that day on the spur of the moment even though I was 100% that people were lying and were wrong – the border MUST be open and it must be safe. But everyone had scared me, rightly or wrongly, I didn’t want the risks anymore. So I got away from N’Gor beach, I moved hotels to another place in downtown Dakar. I hopped in a taxi to the Hotel Faidherbe, as I was aware of it and it was close to the last hotel I’d be staying in on this trip, the Hotel Baraka (which was full that night). I got inside the hotel and the place looked cool. I loved the location downtown and the staff were nice.
I decided to stay for the night and make my decision on the Gambia trip probably for tomorrow morning, it was now 1 pm. “Bed for a night please” says the travelling Northern Irishman. “Sorry Sir, full tonight.” came the reply. Yes they were serious.
In that case I asked “do you reckon the Senegal to Gambia border is safe today?” I think the lady on reception knew I was a long term traveller. “I think you can handle it” she said. My mind was made up again. I stepped outside and grabbed the first yellow taxi I could find. I was going today, I was going to do this border and forget what people had told me! Time was ticking…
Here’s a complete overview of how I did it.
12 noon – Maison Abaka N’Gor Beach – I left and walked onto the street and got a yellow and black taxi to the downtown area for 2,000 West African Francs. My driver took me to Hotel Faidherbe.
12.30 pm – I realised Hotel Faidherbe had no space so the best option was to walk onto the street and get a taxi to the shared sept-place and bus depot, known as Gare Routiere Pikine Baux Maricheres. Basically it’s a bus and taxi station for anyone leaving Dakar for long distance journeys. I got a taxi for 2,000 West African Francs. Locals pay a lot less and you also do when you taxi share, but I was in a rush for time now.
12.53 pm – I arrive at Gare Routiere Pikine Baux Maricheres and locate the seven seater car that is heading to Karang by the Gambia border. This is a large car known as a “Sept Place” (7 seats).
Basically once the seven seats are filled, then off we go. I check the price with the other passengers and it is 6,000 West African Francs all the way to Karang, to the border. It seems OK to me. What is weird is the signs above say “Banjul” (which is the capital of Gambia) but I know there cannot be a car that goes all the way to Banjul, as when I researched it, there are two rivers on route. The reason it says Banjul is just to make people clear that it is heading for the Gambia border.
At this point, I am so so sure that the people trying to put me off were wrong. I am inside a taxi share to the border, my fellow passengers are also going to the border. So the border, must be open and not dangerous. Knew it. I just knew it! But we have to wait until the car fills up of course, and then we have a hell of a journey south coming up!
13.59 pm – Finally by around 2 pm, the car is full and off we go. We have left Dakar behind and drive south to a town called M’bour.
14.40 pm – A brief stop at M’Bour where the driver fills the car up with fuel. It’s pretty tight in the back but I have no luggage with me as I’m on the Lost Luggage challenge but I did bring my iPod and I have a small notebook to jot things down on.
17.00 pm – By 5 pm exactly we arrive by a river. I had hoped that this was somewhere near the border to the Gambia, but alas, after three hours we have only just arrived at Foundiougne. This is a small port in Senegal that must be crossed by ferry.
There is a charge of 100 West African Francs for the ferry, and we wait around 54 minutes here. I bought a pineapple juice and that was it.
17.54 pm – The ferry crossing is calm and peaceful and I meet Fatima from my sept-place and she recommends I don a life jacket so I do. She is so shocked I am travelling alone and not backpacking (i.e. no backpack), all I have is a small bag to put my coat and toiletries in (a bag I picked up in Dakar). I am the only white person in sight, of course.
18.14 pm – We arrived on the other side at Foundiougne. The ferry only takes 20 minutes and we motor on south, heading for Karang which is the border exit point for Senegal. Darkness falls as we crawl slowly to the border.
19.01 pm – A passport checkpoint just as it has turned dark. It’s a rocky road and desert terrain and we pass some scattered villages.
Leaving Senegal at Karang
20.09 pm – We arrive in Karang and everyone exits the sept-place. It’s dark. Fatima and I are both heading to Serrekunda in the Gambia and she is interested in my travel story, and speaks perfect English and French so we exit Senegal together. We walk in the darkness to a booth on the right hand side. The staff in here are getting ready to close for the night. It was too dark to take photos, but on my way back across the same border 4 days later, I took these photos at the same border, in daylight, the next few photos show the border by day.
Weirdly though, everything runs really smoothly. I have no backpack, just this small bag with my coat and toiletries in it (which I accumulated in Dakar), so there is no bag check, they just look at my passport and stamp me out. The border exit from Senegal side was easy. There is no protest, no block, no delay. It’s everything a tourist dreams of on these crossings. It was easy. I am stamped out of Senegal at Secteur Frontaller de Karang:
And this is what the area at the border looks like during the day.
On the night, I made a quick video just before getting stamped into Gambia – police saw me and told me to turn the video off but here it is quickly:
Arrival in Gambia at Karang (to Fass)
20.20 pm – After getting my exit stamp for Senegal, in the darkness we arrive on the Gambia side of the border, it’s a short walk to the immigration office on the right hand side to get our entry stamps. This is just south of Karang (Senegal) and the nearest Gambian village seems to be Fass (a bit further south). The guy looks at my British passport, I tell him I’m here for a month as a tourist and he stamps me in, no issues. However, I did mention that I was warned about this border and here is why – there are frequent protests, strikes and closures:
So I was very lucky to have crossed on a day (night) where the border was open. This is a photo by day of the Gambia side of the border:
My entry stamp for the Gambia at Karang looked like this:
A guy that works here is called Suliman and I chat to him once I have arrived in the Gambia. We get a photo together in the passport check room.
He tells us that there is a chance we can make the last ferry (supposed to be at 7pm). I’m still with Fatima at this point and we are ushered into a car share from this Gambian entry point.
You can also change your money here, from USD, Euros and Central African Francs into the Gambian Dalasi.
20.35 pm – Karang to Barra – So Fatima and I are now in a shared car and it leaves the border at 8.35 pm. Fatima tells me there is one final boat tonight from Barra to Banjul and that we should make it. If we miss that, we are screwed. We cannot cross the river and will need to spend the night in Barra. The shared taxi is 50 Dalasi each, which seems reasonable enough to me, it moves away pretty fast and zooms us down to the port town of Barra in 25 minutes or so.
21.09 pm – Arrival in Barra – we get to the ferry port at Barra and run for our lives. The last ferry has closed its gates and is boarding but we need to buy a ticket. I run to the counter and get two tickets for Fatima and I and we dash onto the ferry. It waits for us and we made it!! The ferry costs 25 Dalasi each and is a short 25 minute ride in the darkness across the river. I find the adrenalin rush incredible. I’m happy again and we cruise across the river with a glorious sky above.
21.42 pm – We arrive by ferry into Banjul, capital city of the Gambia. With a bit of hindsight and needing some decent luxury by the Atlantic Ocean, I had decided not to stay in the capital. Instead I decided to tour the sights of Banjul on a day trip, but base myself by tha Atlantic in Serrekunda at the Coco Ocean Resort and Spa. Serrekunda is in Senegambia Strip so I get a taxi share (with Fatima still with me) to a junction near here. At 50 Dalasi, this is the dearest taxi share of the night.
22.13 pm – We get another taxi from this junction to Serrekunda, where we pop into Sally’s Bar (a 24 hour bar). I grab a can of Coke (of all things) and Fatima buys some food and we wait on the final taxi share of the evening that will drop me off at the Coco Ocean Resort at Kololi, Serrekunda and continue on for Fatima and the other passengers.
The final two taxis cost just 28 Dalasi and I was dropped off just before 11 pm at my resort. Phew!
23.00 pm – I check in to the absolutely stunning Coco Ocean Resort and Spa and when I see my Royal Suite here, I know it has been worth it! I check into my amazing room, get some fresh fruit biscuit and tea and then I head to the bar for my first Gambian beer and some bar snacks! Check out my article on my stay at Coco Ocean!
I was pretty happy yo try my first Gambian beer, JulBrew that night!
What a day and yes it was worth it, but please please be aware that this border really does close and that the journey is not easy if you are new to travel, it will take a lot of patience and waiting around and don’t talk to any scammers at the border points. There are also some corrupt officials at the border crossings. I’ve grown to selectively ignore them – they beehived for me when they saw that I was white and they left when they saw that I wasn’t giving them any time. Safe travels!
Here are my videos from this crazy day of border crossing from Senegal to the Gambia: