October 8, 2004
When we saw our mode of river transport, we sucked in deeply and checked for life jackets. It was a basic vessel, but, then again, all the ones we saw around us were a wee bit primitive. Sufficient life belts were put on board, and we set off. We had a brief visit to the water’s edge at Barra and a distant glimpse of Fort Bullen (built in 1826 to support Banjul in the bid to prevent other nations using The Gambia River for slave trading). From here we head to Fort James, where Gambians were held pending their shipment to their life in slavery.
The two-hour water trip (we could have gone by land, but apparently this is mainly on dirt tracks and is a "bone-shaking experience") was very relaxing and, once we got over the fear of sinking, entertaining. The water way is littered with dead or dying boats, ships that have been de-commissioned by other countries but been offered a second life in The Gambia, and a variety of bird life. We were in good company, but if you choose to go with people you have not met, it could be a long journey.
Anyway, back to the plot. King James Island loomed small in front of us; it’s been massively eroded over the years and has recently been taken over as a national heritage site. It was a chilling site silhouetted by the bright Gambian sun, and it strongly impacted us all as we considered the tales told to us by our guide. As we disembarked, the first thing to note was that the majority of the tree had white barks – this gave a real spooky feel to the place as we examined the derelict building on site. We were shown one of the small prison cells (a dark and dismal affair), but then Lamin, with a great smile, confided that it was actually the original prison kitchen.
From here we make a short river crossing to the villages of Albreda and Juffureh (made famous by Alex Haley). The place was inactive when we arrived, but by the time we enjoyed a much welcomed meal at the local snack bar, the small village centre was a rush of activity. The locals were putting on a show of village life for the tourists, and were just happy to relieve us of any spare dalasis. There’s a small museum that’s a must to visit. But mostly, just enjoy the people, the atmosphere, and imagine…
From journal Gambia - an experience!