Monday, April 2

The Gambia

Brett: We left at 7:30am because we had been warned that the ferry to Banjul could take “a few hours”. We reached the Karang/Amdallai Border. The immigration and customs on the Senegal side was quick – they guy asked for $13, but we refused and he gave up. The Gambia side was immediately calmer only a few meters away. The old guy at customs was very nice and charming, but he wouldn’t accept the Carnet (we found out later that they do sometimes), so we paid $10 for a 10 day Passevant for the car. At immigration, there were 3 guys and a girl behind the counter (and a kid in a holding cell) where we had to register our passports and vehicle. They blatantly said that they wouldn’t do anything without us paying them $13 – they did it in the end for $4. We then had to get our passports stamped by immigration, and we could tell that they wanted to ask for money there too, but we charmed them with small talk and they didn’t bring it up. As we were leaving, one other guy and girl turned up and showed us their drug control badges – we immediately knew there would be some kind of scam. We had to drive our vehicle into the police station courtyard to be searched for drugs (I think we should have argued more to do it in the street in front of the police station). We made it clear that we were in no hurry and they started going through things for about an hour and a half, constantly hinting that there were other ways to reduce the amount of work they have to do. They were clearly getting annoyed that we weren’t taking up the hint, but wouldn’t give up. Finally they reached our first aid kit and started going through every individual item, stating that we needed a permit to bring in some of the items. We eventually decided to give them $10 rather than risk them confiscating our medicines. We handed over the money and they made a long speech how it was not a bribe, but for the greater good because we were good people blah blah blah…

The total cost of crossing the Gambian border was lower than many other borders, but it bothered us more than it probably should have that we have given some corrupt official money and perpetuated the scam – it does help knowing that these guys have had decades of practice and that we paid less than most people we met. It’s incredible how many more bribe requests we have had on the West coast and how much more aggressively they are made.

Mary: There were 2 road blocks before reaching the weigh station (about 15km away) where we bought our tickets ($11 for the car and one passenger) for the Barra/Banjul Ferry. We drove into Barra and had about 6 people telling us where to queue – we eventually found the right place, avoiding blocking off any roads or entrances (because the police will fine you). The queue attendants suggested that we could negotiate our place in the queue, but we had enough of bribes for one day, so we just relaxed in the car in the 35 degree heat, reading our books and waiting… and waiting. We eventually reached the front of the queue where we could see a separate truck queue and the fast-track queue. While we were sitting in the queue, we got to see life go buy and many people came up to sell us stuff or chat – most of them being very friendly without being pushy, but it takes a lot of effort to distinguish the nice people from the scammers. One guy wandered up to tell us that he was a policeman (although he wasn’t in uniform) and would need to search the car for drugs… we pretty much just told him to get lost. We finally made it to the front of the queue and into the holding area. The port lady came to inspect the car, saw our luggage inside and said we would need to pay an extra 5000 CFA ($10) for a ticket for the luggage. When we said no she started screaming at us, so Brett went to the window and managed to negotiate the additional fee down to about $1 – we even got a receipt, which said “cargo items - discretionary”. Then while we were waiting in the holding area, after a full 7h30 in the queue, some guy came to ask for payment because he had “sped up” our boarding – needless to say he didn’t get any money off us. Finally we were next to get on the ferry, but it looked full. There are actually 3 ferries, but 2 were damaged from hitting the sand banks at low tide, so the one that was running would do the return trip in about 2 hours. Just before the ferry pulled off they managed to squish the other cars forward and make space for one more car, so we piled on. We had a 10cm gap in front, left and right of the car, with the same gap between the back and the end of the ferry, but finally at just after 6pm we were on. The ferry took an hour to reach Banjul and crashed its way into position on the docks. We were the last to drive off through the hundreds of boarding pedestrians. We don’t know how much the “fast-track” fees are, but reckon we would still have waited several hours, and we’ve heard from other travellers that there are then lots of other unexpected fees at each stage, including a “fee” to the ferry captain before disembarking.

Brett: It was dark by the time we arrived and the Banjul port had a decidedly seedy feel, so we drew some cash and headed past the mangroves and to the resort area of Sukuta. We reached Sukuta Lodge ($7pppn) fairly late, so we made pasta and had a drink and a chat before realising it was 1:30am and definitely time for bed. Dehydration had taken its toll, and within a few minutes of being horizontal Mary was running up the path to the bathrooms, throwing up. Sukuta Lodge is run by a German couple, Joe & Claudia, and the place feels like a little bit of German paradise after the ferry – there are plenty of rules written up on boards but everything runs very smoothly, and we really loved it. There are many signs for Sukuta Campsite, starting way back in Morocco. It was great to be back in an English speaking country and many of the shops even stock all the stuff we recognised from UK – we could even get Maltesers at the brilliant Maroun Supermarket (N13 27.060 W16 42.917). We spent a few days relaxing, eating at good restaurants, and looking around the area. On the sides of the roads were loads of different signs congratulating the president, Mr Jammeh on his re-election. “Thank you Mr President for another term of stability and growth”, “A vote for President Jammeh is the sacred duty of all Gambians”, and our personal favourite, “All women love President Jammeh and will back and support him forever!”.

Bad news in UK

Brett: My Dad was admitted to hospital and we needed to head back to the UK. It took a few days to organise everything, but Joe from Sukuta Lodge was extremely helpful, giving us advice on how to extend our car customs papers for a month at the Banjul port (it took 5 minutes and was free, although we have heard of them sometimes asking for a fee). Our passports were still at the Nigerian embassy, but we called them and the visas were ready anyway so we went straight to pick the passports up. We managed to book last minute flights back to the UK after a morning of trawling round the travel agents – flights are often fully booked by package tourists and don’t go that often.

We made it back to the UK and the family was with Dad when he passed away in hospital. It was a tough time for everyone. We had the funeral and had a lots of people round to the house afterwards - a send-off that Dad would have been proud of. We had a couple of weeks spending time with the family before heading back.

Back to the Gambia

Mary: While we were in the UK, there was a coup in Mali, so we spent some time sorting out visas for Ivory Coast & Burkina Faso while we were there (see Notes for Overlanders below).

We flew back to the Gambia and collected the Beast from Sukuta Campsite - it was exactly as we had left it, but clean! The temperature before we left for UK was around 40 degrees every day, but had fortunately cooled down to about 35 degrees when we got back. We met up with Mike and Emma (www.mikerutter.co.uk/africa) at the campsite and decided to tackle the next bit in convoy. By this point, ECOWAS had announced sanctions and forced border closures against Mali, so we decided to head through Guinea and then, depending on the situation, head either through the most southern bit of Mali (south of Bamako), or through the northern part of Ivory Coast, into Burkina Faso.

We organised our Guinea visas, stocked up with food at the excellent Marouns Supermarket and then headed inland. The road south of the river has recently been re-tarred and was in good condition, except for 2 short patches of road works. There were 38 checkpoints along the 350km between Banjul and Basse – most of them stopped us for a quick chat and to ask if we were enjoying in The Gambia although some did want to see our paperwork – and we had only one gift request, but they are really tiring and pointless – in one section, there were 4 checkpoints in 2km. We stayed at Traditions Campsite (N13 18.566 W14 13.002) in Basse ($8 per tent), which has moved from the colonial warehouse on the waterfront to a small house in town because the old building was literally falling down. The camping is in the courtyard of a the manager Mr Suleyman’s family home and is quite small (anything bigger than a landrover would struggle to get in through the gate) but relaxed & friendly, with good food.

The roads to the easy and very quiet Sabi/Badiana Border into Senegal are untarred. We picking up another Passevant for $10 and chatted to the friendly border guys on both sides. A lot of details were written out and duplicated on the Senegal side, so it took about 1h20 but we had no hassle at all. We followed the most direct route on T4A towards the Guinea border, which gradually turned from road to car tracks, to motorbike tracks across a field – it was really fun and scenic. The locals were very friendly and seemed totally surprised to see us there. It was starting to feel like more of and adventure with less hassle.

The road leading to the Senegal exit (Medina Gonasse) is new, perfect tar with maybe one vehicle an hour passing. The Senegal exit took a long time but was easy – there is then 30km passing through the Niokolo Koba National Park ($10) before reaching the Guinea entry. There were no people around for the first time in ages and the temperature was about 43C, so we decided to take a rest and camped in the bush in No-Mans Land (N12 49.607 W13 33.290). There were hundreds of tiny flies landing on us, causing us to do an odd swatting dance constantly while still trying to hold a conversation, and a massive swarm of bees surrounded Mike and Emmas Landy after they spilled some water. The flies and bees disappeared at sunset, leaving us with a perfect free camp in the bush, a full moon and the sounds of nature. We left the campsite in the morning, just as it started getting hot and the flies returned. We paid our fee for the park and continued to the Guinea border

Notes for Overlanders:

Banjul/Barra Ferry: the toilets are behind the canteen – it is important to know because you will be there a long time. Next time we would probably take the Farafenni border and ferry – a 140km detour, but probably quicker!

Nigerian Visa (Banjul): This is one of the most difficult ones to get on our West Coast leg and in the last 2 years, it has become even more difficult. Some overlanders have been turned away at embassies en-route which now seem to not give them out to non-residents. Others have been “charged” $230pp and then made to wait 3 weeks for the visa to be processed. A lot of overland tour companies have stopped going through Nigeria due to the visa bureaucracy. We applied at the embassy in Banjul (N13 28.347 W16 40.888), which is open Tuesdays and Thursdays mornings. It was a surprisingly smooth process - no scamming at all. We paid the fee of $65pp directly into the Nigerian Embassy bank account, and gave them the deposit slips in as proof of payment (for which we got a proper receipt and everything). They needed copies of vaccination certificates, car insurance, bank statements, passport copies, 2 photos and a cover letter explaining our trip and reason for travel. They initially did ask for a letter of invitation and asked how long we had lived in The Gambia, but were fine without them when we explained how long our trip was and that we were doing it all overland. It took about 3 hours to apply, because we needed to run around and make photocopies, draw cash and do bank deposits. Mary charmed the sweet receptionist (Anna) to try to push it through faster, but it ended up taking a week anyway, which is the stated processing time. If you have the time though, it’s a great place to apply, absolutely no hassle at all.

Guinea Visa (Serekunda): We took a taxi to the Guinea Embassy (N13 26.092 W16 40.733, 2nd floor office) with Mike and Emma to organise visas. The embassy was a little tricky to find, with our taxi driver getting completely lost, but the process once we were there was very easy. The visas cost $120pp for 3 month multiple entry and were all done in an hour, visas in hand.

Ivory Coast Visas (London): With the Mali borders were closed, we decided to organise our Ivory Coast visas - we didn’t really want to go to Ivory Coast as we weren’t sure it was safe, but we decided to apply for the visa in London to give us an alternative to Mali (Mali & Ivory Coast are the only 2 options besides shipping the car). You have to get the visa in your country of residence and postal applications are not possible as they need to take a photo and fingerprints – the curse of the biometric visa. The visa requires online payment (€110pp) and then an appointment to be booked through www.snedai.com. The website was a bit confusing and the online application form had more complicated questions than the one you print out & fill in, so we just went with the easy one. We got our appointment for the next day and waited about 2 hours. The guy behind the counter was unfriendly to Brett, but I managed to charm him a bit and he said he would get it done for us in 2 days (it normally takes 3 days but we didn’t have time with our return flights). They asked for a letter of invitation (even though the list of required documents states this is not necessary for a tourist visa if you have a hotel booking). We had booked a hotel online for one night, and just paid a 10% deposit, to be cancelled later (Ben Residence Apartments, Abidjan, the only hotel we found that you can book online and pay just the deposit – NB at least 3 days notice required for cancellation – total cost about €10).

Burkina Faso Visa (Surrey): We also managed to get the Burkina Faso visa, which we had originally planned to get in Bamako (Mali) – we figured that even if the borders opened we might want to avoid the capital city. The Honorary Consul for Burkina Faso (www.burkinafasovisa.co.uk), kindly gave us our visa on the same day (£65pp but the price is coming down in April) – although they prefer postal applications, which they manage to turn around pretty much same day (plus a day or so in the post each side).

Angola Visa Preparation: This is the most difficult visa on the west coast - we had originally planned to send our SA passports to Angolan Touring Services in Cape Town who would apply on our behalf – they have a good track record of getting the 28 day visa. Unfortunately they contacted us to let us know they now require fingerprints and so the application has to be made in person, in your home embassy. The Embassy in London have not yet started needing fingerprints and postal applications are still possible (as of end of March 2012) but the visa is only valid for 60 days from issue date, so it was too early for us to be able to apply while we were in UK. We went to the Angolan Embassy in London anyway to make contact and chatted to someone, who said they could provide a letter of introduction to the embassy in Nigeria, where we will be applying, to try help us get the visa despite not being residents. Hopefully this will help, but the visa can take up to 3 weeks to process, during which time you are left without your passport, so this still sounds like it could turn into a mission later. If that doesn’t work we will try DHLing the UK passports back to London and doing a postal application (assuming they still don’t require fingerprints at that time).


  1. Your pictures are getting better & better! Must be the new camera Claire :)

  2. No wonder the route Europe/South Africa (west coast) is called "THE ROUTE OF THE VISAS". What a mess!!!
    Good luck on the embassies.
    Pepe Yanes

  3. hey - great blog...shame you didn't see the Casamance (best part of Senegal) where I'm living...maybe next time! Feel your pain on the road blocks - drives me crazy.