Readers' Submissions

Delightful West Africa 12 – My Land Border Crossings between Senegal and Gambia

  • Written by Anonymous
  • February 21st, 2011
  • 16 min read


Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

The Europeans have left a mess on the map. To get from central Senegal to southern Senegal, I have to squeeze through The Gambia. I am not at all interested in Gambia, but it's in the way. In the end I stay four weeks in Gambia and even return there after southern Senegal, that's non-linear me. Here are my land border crossings between Le Sénégal and The Gambia.

— Senegal – Gambia at Karrang —

I enter The Gambia through the land border with Le Sénégal in Karrang, after a 20 kilometer taxi ride from Senegal's Toubacouta (more on Toubacouta in West Africa 9). The Senegalese official writes my name into a big book and starts to joke with me in German. I hate talking German with proudly grinning Africans, but of course I joke back in foreigner-talk German. So I earn my exit stamp.

The whole border area looks like a disorderly tropical market with a few concrete shacks. Money changers, taxi drivers, snack sellers, donkey cart drivers and troublemakers swarm everywhere. It is impossible to see which people or buildings are important and which you can ignore. Fortunately Esang, my guide from Toubacouta, has insisted to see me through the procedure. I didn't even want him to accompany me, but now I realize I need a guide to this land border more than in the African bush.

In the hour I spend in the border area, I see hundreds of Africans and three whites crossing the border. Esang shows me to the Gambian customs building. People sleep crouched over their desk. Other people sleep lying back in their office chairs, mouths wide open. I am not joking. I've had many curious land borders in Southeast-Asia, South America and on the Balkans, but my entry into The Gambia at Karrang is a highlight. And it gets better with each official who is awake.

The first one makes me open the suitcase. Disgustedly he touches a few plastic bags and motions me to get lost.

Esang shows me to the next dirty concrete hut, obviously the immigration proper. I have to walk down dark corridors without any light, suitcase in tow. I don't know if they suffer from a power cut or if they never have light in this official Gambian border building. At the end of the corridor is another room. One man wrapped into a down jacket sleeps stretched out in an office chair.

The other clerk gives me the first impression of forced-jovial Gambian authorities that will be repeated at many police road checks in the next weeks:

"Yeah, bigman, how's da morning?"

More jokes and small-talk about football ensue. There is no request for money (the Gambian entry is officially free). Somewhere along the way I get the entry stamp. My name is written into a big book.

I visit a few more offices with sleeping officials and no electricity. I arrive in a grubby, window-less room without electric light and very dim daylight via the corridor, it looks like a prison cell. It has tiles on the floor and tiles on the wall. Two man in plainclothes with torchlights produce a colorful plastic ticket as legitimation and demand the suitcase to be opened.

"It was already opened in the other building", I say.

"That was customs. We are police."

On the dusty, dirty, broken tile floor in the dark room I open the suitcase. They finger through everything, always with a torchlight, as there is almost no other light. It is very third-world and I am glad that Esang is still there as a witness.

I have to explain all my medicaments to them. "These cure headaches on a herbal basis", I say. One official says jovially, "I think I will keep your nice pills, my wife sometimes gives me headaches."

"Ok", I say, helplessly. The tablets are worth ten Euro and not essential for me. I guess I could have objected, but I want to get out of the claustrophobic situation fast.

***

In hindsight, I should have left the suitcase outside the immigration building, with Esang. Nobody would have noticed and asked for the suitcase. I could have been a day tripper between Senegal and Gambia (all these entries are free and don't require any visa form). Just hiding the suitcase from officials works nicely on my second Gambian entry (see below).

***

Next is a 20-minute taxi ride from the border area to the ferry boat pier in Barra, on Gambia river's northern shore. When we arrive, ten would-be porters and guides circle in on the car. The driver jumps out and blocks the access to the trunk until I am there myself.

One obnoxious guide shows me the way to the ticket booth, even though I tell him to get lost. I wouldn't have found the booth without him.

I have to wait 1,5 hours for the huge steel ferry boat across Gambia river. It carries several dozen cars and several hundred passengers. Many of them, including me, stand outside in the sun, but even at midday it is not excessively hot. The boat trip takes over one hour. I believe that at one point the ferry boat fully turns around itself.

We arrive in Banjul, Gambia's uncapital capital at the mouth of Gambia river. Now I only have to find a taxi to my hotel and this ordeal is over. Or so I think.

Right at the port's exit, where hundreds of people squeeze through a narrow door, I am led into another booth. Two ladies show plastic tickets that legitimate them to search through my luggage, the third time today. The suitcase sits on a high desk in a tiny room crammed with ten people of uncertain function, nobody wears uniform. There is some daylight through the window and the open door. An African man with a big bag is led into a sideroom that seems completely black.

The ladies search my luggage thoroughly, but don't ask any questions. They open knotted plastic bags with their teeth. It takes about half an hour without any talk, just tension. Then I may go. The African man hasn't reappeared from the dark room so far. I haven't heard screams.

Outside the gate, there is a line of shops and many men line up there in almost military order. It is Friday, prayer time.

I find a taxi. "And you don't pray", I ask?

"I'm working now", he grins.

The taxi charges 13,5 Euro to my hotel. Only later I find out that it should be maximally 5,5 Euro. By phone I had asked the hotel for a reasonable taxi rate, but like anywhere in Senegambia, the receptionist didn't want to give me a price idea. The Bijilo Beach Hotel has the pre-booked room for me – not a sure thing in Gambia – and as requested I even get a quiet room with good view.

This was a 60-kilometer trip with three taxis, one boat, one border and three searches of my big suitcase. A kilo of heroin was in my tiny hand bag that nobody ever checked.


— Gambia – Senegal at Seleti —

I went through Gambia to reach the Casamance, Senegal's southernmost province. With Aliou, my trusted Gambian taxi driver, I now cross the Gambian-Senegalese southern border at Seleti. I get my passport stamps in dilapidated immigration huts, but this time everything runs smoothly. Official buildings and market buildings stand around in a mix and it requires some work to find out where to show a passport and where to get a haircut. We have another 90 kilometers to Ziguinchor, the capital of the Casamance.

First Check-post:

In the eyes of a military check-post, Aliou makes a slight mistake: he uses a turn-off lane that is meant for oncoming traffic (there are no other cars in eyesight). A soldier stops us, checks all of Aliou's Gambian papers including the international ECOWAS insurance, then leads him to an interrogation area that's shielded by straw mats.

After severe barking, the soldier commands Aliou to drive back and use the turn-off in the correct way. Aliou says he has already understand his mistake, but the soldier barks: "You go back and repeat the turn-off correctly, or else."

We go back and repeat the turn-off correctly.

Time wasted: 20 minutes. Money wasted: 0 Euro

Second Check-post:

"Stop, stop, stop", I shout at Aliou. Next to the reasonably paved road I have seen a small Douane sign (border). We are well into Senegal now, but it might be another check-post. I don't want the slightest trouble with Senegalese authorities. "That was no check-post", opines Aliou. But a policeman materializes on the road behind us and signals us to come back.

A white tourist 4WD with Gambian number plate passes through and doesn't stop at all. The policeman blows a whistle, but the tourist car continues. "They will stop him at the next check-post", I am sure.

I have to open my suitcase. "Why do you have so many different plastic bags", asks the policeman.

"It's easier to find things if you separate them in different bags", I explain obediently.

"Oh, do you number your plastic bags", he asks? He takes a bored look into the shirts bags and makes the typical, bored hand move gesturing us to get lost quickly.

Time wasted: 15 minutes. Money wasted: 0 Euro

Third Check-post:

The main road passes a village and we are stopped by a soldier with a machine gun. We haven't even noticed a check-post. The white tourist 4WD with Gambian number plate has been stopped too. Our soldier talks rapidly, angrily in French only and points to the left side of the car. When I step out to inspect the left side he shouts angrily that I have to get back into the car. He talks much more to Aliou in French; Aliou doesn't understand a word, nor do I (they could easily communicate in Wolof). The soldier might even be more nervous than us, maybe it's his first setup, but finally he demands three Euros for driving too fast. This will be without receipt, he says, otherwise the fine would be much higher.

Time wasted: 20 minutes. Money wasted: Three Euro

Fourth Check-post:

I don't even remember our sin at this check-post, I only remember the cost and that it would be much more if done the legal way. Aliou pays this money from his pocket. I will give it back to him, but haven't told him my intention so far. He looks desperate.

Time wasted: 15 minutes. Money wasted: Six Euro

Fifth Check-post:

The Casamance has a few independence rebels (some say ordinary bandits) in the forests, there's heavy army everywhere. A soldier with a machine gun stops us and wants to see all papers, fortunately doesn't care for the luggage. He looks suspiciously around the car, as if to find a punishable scratch. He notes me and asks my country. Upon hearing "Germany" he starts talking German to me, he learnt it in school.

His German is bad and I hate talking German to proudly grinning Africans. But I praise his excellent German and obediently ask all his and his family's whereabouts. This earns us our free-of-charge onward journey.

Time wasted: 15 minutes. Money wasted: 0 Euro

Sixth Check-post:

We cross the large bridge over Casamance river and arrive in Ziguinchor town, my destination. Welcome to the Gendarmerie check-post where Aliou has to enter another shielded interrogation booth and after a long while comes out no Dalasi, CFA or Euro poorer than before.

Time wasted: 30 minutes. Money wasted: 0 Euro.

Seventh Check-post:

That was the Gendarmerie. 20 meters on it's La Police. The white tourist 4WD with Gambian number plate pauses here too. La Police detect that our left rear tire loses air (how could this happen so suddenly); this offence will cost nine Euro straight to the policeman's pocket. He drives away with Aliou's papers, we have to reappear with a fixed tire.

We roll to a workshop, mounting the spare tire costs 1,5 Euro. After that Aliou has to find back to the police station, pay up and recollect his papers. I can't accompany him any more. I give him his fare, plus all police and repair money, plus a small tip (but without any anticipated fines in the course of his return journey) and change to a local taxi to finally, finally reach the shelter of my hotel.

Time wasted: 30 minutes. Money wasted: Nine Euro

***

Later Aliou tells me that he returns to Gambia through Senegal without any further hassle from police or army. Senegalese people opine that foreign cars are a favorite target for un(der)paid Senegalese authorities.

— Senegal – Gambia at Seleti —

From Senegal's remote island Île de Carabane (see previous submission), I return straight to coastal Gambia in one day. With several phone calls in French and English from Île de Carabane I line up:

  1. the boat from Île de Carabane to Elinkine on the Senegalese mainland
  2. the Senegalese taxi ride from Elinkine to Seleti on the Senegalese-Gambian border with a Senegalese car
  3. the Gambian taxi ride from the border at Seleti to the Gambian coast with a Gambian car
  4. the room at Garden Hill Hotel on the Gambian coast

It's not even far – maybe 210 kilometers on land and 30 minutes by boat – but you have to arrange all your transport and there is the uncertainty of long delays at police check-posts in Senegal. Both taxi drivers wanted to take me all the way through both countries, but after hair-raising experiences with a Gambian car in Senegal (see above) I don't want to be in any African country with a foreign car.

The boatman waits for me in time. And see – he has three other local people who want to join me. Can I say no? I don't know how. I've even expected additional passengers. Whenever you have an individual trip from a remote place back to the center, guides, hotel staff and assorted friends will join you for a free ride to town. They never think of sharing costs, because you have already agreed to pay the full price for your taxi, rental car or boat. They can not at all imagine that you prefer to be the only passenger; at least, they cannot respect it.

So the boat man asks if we could bring three other people to the mainland. Over at the mainland, we don't stop at the regular port first (where my taxi is already waiting). We go 200 meters further to a military pier where a soldier leaves us. Only then we return to the main port. I don't know why we can't stop at the main port first and I don't know why the soldier can't walk from there.

***

The taxi picks me up at Elinkine port and before long, we have to stop at a military checkpost. A soldier needs a ride to the next town. "Not much traffic today", explains the soldier.

The driver asks me if I agree to take the soldier. He insists that I decide. Can I say no? I don't know how. The taxi driver has to remind the soldier to use the safety belt.

Driver and soldier get into a happy talk. They both light up a cigarette; the front windows are open, as usual. Immediately I get a headache; but my headache tablets have been seized on the Gambian border (see above).

We pass Ziguinchor and have to stop at the ill-fated seventh check-post (see above). My Senegalese driver with his Senegalese car is treated just as arrogantly as my Gambian driver with his Gambian car before. We stop for ten minutes; driver and policeman walk away, the driver returns with a frustrated face. I don't even ask him if he had to pay a fine.

We pass the other fateful check-posts, but there are no more events. At the Senegalese border market, my driver fails to stop for the immigration booth because it is so hidden between trees and other huts. Fortunately I have been there before and can direct him back.

Then we reach the Gambian border market and my organisation works magic here. I ask my Senegalese driver to stop near Gambian immigration. I call my Gambian driver – good old Aliou, see above – who should be waiting. When I call him, I see him stepping onto the straight, empty road 500 meters away. I motion him to come near. My Senegalese and my Gambian car park back to back. Quickly my big suitcase travels from the Senegalese car to the Gambian car. The Senegalese driver believes I have something to hide, but doesn't ask. (Both drivers are grim looking rastamen, and both are reliable, if expensive business partners.)

The Senegalese driver disappears and Gambian Aliou waits with my luggage, while I walk into the Gambian immigration booth without any bag. An official in dirty sweatsuit talks to me about German football in broken German; he also has a friend in Krefeld, Germany. I hate talking German to proudly grinning Africans, but of course I talk back obediently in slow foreigner-talk German. This earns me the Gambian entry stamp from a lady in uniform.

"That's all", I ask her?

"No."

"So?"

She points to her mouth. Tea money.

I leave the office immediately without eye contact and without paying. The car leaves the immigration parking without further intervention. Nobody wanted to search my luggage.

I am glad to see Aliou again and I am glad that this was my last African land border before flying out of Africa. Survived. No more humiliations and confiscations. Just straight to the nice Garden Hill Hotel now.

But we have to stop at a Gambian police post ten kilometers from the border. Usually this means 30 seconds of small talk, but this time Aliou has to show all papers and even demonstrate the functioning of his lights. The policeman walks away with Aliou's documents – always a bad sign. Aliou follows into a hidden area.

While Aliou is grilled and probably fleeced in an invisible location, I change from Senegalese to Gambian SIM card, call a Gambian friend and count my remaining Senegalese CFA currency to change it into Gambian dalasi later. I also have time to calculate the additional amount of Euro I should change into Gambian dalasi later today.

When Aliou finally returns, he explains: "There was a relative of mine at the police station who needed support from me, but I didn't know him. So I had to call a customs officer from nearby, who is also a relative of mine – and I actually know him – to support me against the unknown relative asking for support. All this took a bit of time, sorry for the delay."

Welcome to The Gambia.


Stickman's thoughts:

I guess one has to factor in a good amount of tea money if country hopping in Africa.