A December 2003 trip
to Banjul by MichaelJM
Quote: The Gambia had never been considered by me, but friends had suggested we should try it. We decided to give it a whirl and were greeted by extremely friendly locals. You do, however, have to be prepared for in-your-face poverty if you travel to this country. It is an experience!
A close encounter with a crocodile is also pretty high on our memories of Gambia.
Finally, and not least, we'll remember the abject poverty, the broad smiling faces, and, unfortunately, the high level of incessant begging and conning that persists in the country.
Buses! Yes they exist - we saw them, but never really got the hang of how you got on them. There were no bus stops (that we saw) and the best indication is a group of people standing on the roadside looking towards the incoming traffic. But be cautioned, they could just be chilling.
Taxis (I use the term advisedly) are widely available, but they are both official and unofficial. There is a difference (the official ones have dark green paint somewhere on the body of the car and supposedly carry insurance), but the conditions of the cars leave much to be desired.
We saw no evidence of a car rental, and I’m not sure I would recommend it to you even if it were possible.
We did see a lot of motorbikes and the potential to hire these. Give it a whirl if you don’t value life or limb!
Cycle hire was an option, but I reckon would be hard work in this country, as the heat and the dusty road conditions would not make it a pleasurable experience.
Our bedroom was well positioned-I had a great view from our balcony of the beach and sea (more of that in a moment), and the trees were populated with a variety of local birds. The bed was large and offered the protection of a mosquito net. Learn from us and ask that your room be "de-bugged" on day one, and then ensure that you always use mosquito burners. We didn’t and I reckon there were more mosquitoes trapped in the net with us, than were outside. What a picture we looked the next day! The second thing to learn is that tourists are low down on the chain when it comes to providing water for them, and often showering was impossible after about 7pm. Apparently, priority was given to Banjul, as our supply was regularly turned off to satisfy the demand. After the initial inconvenience, we could kind of understand the logic and made sure to beat the deadline.
For the first time in our holidaying career, we were booked on a half-board basis, and we were unsure what we would be facing. We faced a choice–and a large choice of food. But first let me talk about breakfast–there was a vast choice of food, including cheeses, meats, fresh fruit, breads, pastries, cereals, jams, and honey. Additionally, a cook was on hand to freshly cook your eggs to order. Some days various omelettes were available with your choice of filling (mushrooms, cheese, tomatoes, or all three if you felt up to it). Drinks were in copious supply with fruit juices, teas, and coffee-all ensured you were well set up for the day. You can be assured that I made several trips up to the buffet to re-fill my plates. The staff was very attentive, ensuring that dirty crockery was rapidly moved from your table (never let a dirty plate get in the way of a man and his food!) and that the buffet was well stocked.
The evening meal also offered a large and varied choice. The quantity was staggering, even if the quality was variable. You will never starve at the Palm Grove Hotel, but your taste buds will not always be gratified.
I wouldn’t rave about this hotel, but it was a good value for the money. The staff was extremely attentive and everything was clean and in the right place. Overall, we couldn’t grumble about our stay.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on October 8, 2004
The Palm Court Hotel
Some of the performances were devastatingly bad, but we enjoyed most of the local performances – in moderation. We saw jazz bands, dance and disco bands, ethnic dances, percussiono drums, and a whole troupe exploring the possibility of the bed of nails and fire-eating. If the performances weren't always up to the mark, they made up with absolute enthusiasm, broad Gambian smiles, and some very interesting traditional dress.
Like many cultural performances, they were amateurish and perhaps the players extended their welcome beyond reasonable limits. But I must not be too harsh, as many of our fellow guests seemed to relish every second of the performances.
If you stay at Palm Grove, I’d say have a look at the acts, but don’t go with too high expectations and form your own view. After all, entertainment is very much a personal thing.
One day a week, the hotel put on entertainment around the pool. That is not as bad as it sounds – it was a local five piece group who performed a range of music, including reggae and traditional western folk music, in an effortless way. I would listen to them again and again. I was most impressed and thought it was a civilised way to spend an afternoon relaxing in the outdoors under the blue skies of Gambia.
The Palm Grove Hotel
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…
The Roots Route
Albreda and Fort James
In fairness, those who had things to sell seemed eternally grateful if you bought from them. We had fresh fruit a couple of times and fruit lady referred to us as her special customers. We had a superb spread of various fruits for lunch – it had cost around fifty pence (English money), and there had been more than enough for both of us.
A further and final tip is… don’t buy your bottled water from the hotel. Outside our hotel, if you ran the gauntlet of the local taxi rank, the money-changers, and the cigarette men, we found a small cabin selling water at a quarter of the price of the same item sold in the hotel. The owners gave us the attention you would normally expect if you were spending a small fortune of a piece of jewellery.
Other than lazing at the poolside, we did make the journey to Banjul a couple of times. The first time we walked along the beach, enjoying the gentle breeze and the water at our feet. We were a bit thrown by two experiences on this walk. First, nature had been harshly at work. High tide had eroded into one of the local cemeteries, exposing the bones of someone’s dearly departed relative. No effort had been made to prevent this or indeed to put right the damage. Instead, the bones the lay exposed randomly and carelessly tossed to the side. A little further down the beach is where we saw life. A local was down at the water’s edge, attending to his ablutions. His attitude suggested that we were intruding in his bathroom, but he cared little - his soap and towel resting on a well used plastic bag. Life and death is really not as we know it.
Onto Banjul. The main streets can be easily accessed off the beach, and we headed for Arch 22. This was built to commemorate peaceful coup of 1994 and is one of the largest and most impressive buildings in Banjul, probably in the whole of The Gambia. Welcoming us to Banjul is the golden statue of a liberating soldier, and, on the other side of the arch, is Independence Drive, the main road into Banjul. The walkway is lined with small golden statues representing the different tribes that make up the Gambian Nation. It’s a large structure that is well worth a visit. You can walk up to the top, or, if you prefer, use the lift, and there you’ll find a small, but fascinating, museum looking at the history up to the coup while examining the tribal heritage of the country. The other opportunity is to take in the view - virtually a 360° view of Banjul and its surroundings. Here you can truly appreciate that Banjul is an island.
Walk right to the bottom of Independence Drive, and you will eventually arrive at Albert Market. On the day we came to Banjul, we needed to find a cash dispenser (be warned there are not many and they do seem to be hidden away), and I was a bit pre-occupied. As we sauntered down, a friendly Gambian appeared from nowhere. "Hi", he says, "How are you doing? I’m the pool boy at your hotel and you should have told me you were coming into Banjul." I’m convinced I’ve seen him before but my wife, clearly more cautious than me, whispers that we don’t know him. "Which hotel?" I ask. "The Atlantic" says he. "We’re not from there," I say. "Well," he says, "I also work just out of Banjul". "Palm Hotel?" I ask. "Yes," he answers. Suckered is me. Chuffed is he! As it happens, he was good company, but I reckon we were lucky. Next time out I’m ready – I know no one. If you take my advice you’ll be the same. Being too friendly in The Gambia generally means that they’re after your money.
Well, we do make it to Albert Market. It’s crammed with stalls for both the locals and the tourists, and you need to be fairly robust. Don’t be afraid to jostle your way through the crowds, and, whatever you do, be prepared to haggle - and haggle strongly. They seem to enjoy it, and you’ll end up thinking that you’ve got a good bargain. People always advise to halve the price and not to pay more than two thirds of the asking price. I’m meaner than that. I start at 25%, and I have never paid more than 50% - often less. If they don’t like your offer, they’ll tell you. Walk away – it’s amazing how often they’ll call you back and do the business. If you don’t want to trade, just enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds of the authentic marketplace.
The King Fahad Mosque is a good walk away (we enjoy just strolling), but it’s worth the effort to gaze on the tall minarets and the splendour of its arches. Take in the bright fresh colours but remember, if you enter, remove your shoes, cover your legs and, if you are female, cover your head and shoulders. It’s important you respect the building and their religion.
Walking in Banjul is interesting, there’s a steady flow of non-tourist activity. Most will smile broadly at you while others will try and engage you in conversation. Learn from my experience – smile back but "walk on by" (as Dionne Warwick once sang). It’s also extremely important to carry water, or pop into one the many shops to get a fresh bottle. It is cheap and exploring the local shops can also be fun.
After a good look round Banjul, we walked the main road back to our hotel. It was a mass of activity: school children heading home, chatting on the side of the road; buses and cars belting down the road as fast as their engines would allow; and motor cycles trying to avoid the potholes. The dust storm created by all this activity was evident, and the resulting haze was a wonder to behold. I just wish I was carrying a mask!
But this is The Gambia and later we’ll all just smile and chill, enjoying the local food while recalling our day in and around Banjul.