Ragged roads

Tuesday, January 14
I’ve been sleeping soundly everywhere on this trip, but Sunday night I barely got 4 hours. During dinner, Heather, the English owner of our lodge, got to talking about the ferry across the Gambia (the only way to cross this huge river that divides the country in two). She recalled how one of the last times she’d taken it, someone had loaded a truckful of cattle on board, and they’d broken loose.  “It’s was awful. They panicked, and they were scratching the sides of all the cars with their horns. And one poor creature fell overboard. Don’t know what happened to it.”

I could only imagine how the passengers, many of whom share the same space with the cars and trucks, had reacted. But worse things have been known to occur, Heather continued, mentioning that at least one ferry had sunk since she moved to the Gambia in 2006. Most of the passengers had died (few Africans know how to swim). “The bodies were never recovered, but the awful thing was that later, hundreds of flip-flops washed up, not far from here.” At first she had found that weird, but then she’d realized they must have come from the drowning victims.

Afternoon crossings on the Gambia river ferry are more crowded and more colorful than early morning trips.

So I tossed and turned, thinking not only of our morning ferry ride but also of what we faced after it. As it turned out, the river crossing was great. Moses delivered us to the dock by 8 a.m., we bought tickets (30 cents apiece) from a delighted-looking man who asked me how we were enjoying our stay in the Gambia, we got a lovely spot at the rail of the upper deck (where the only farm animal I spotted on the main deck below was one woeful rooster), and the ferry turned out to be the fast one, making the passage in just 30 minutes. (The one we’d taken while traveling south was missing an engine and kept turning in circles. That trip took an hour.) Steve even had the fortune to stand next to a self-described Gambian “shoe doctor” who for $6 glued and stitched the soles of Steve’s failing Tevas before we reached the northern shore. (Only liberal applications of duck tape had been holding them together.)

Cobbler on the Gambia river ferry offered a 10-year warranty on repairs.

With little ado, we found a taxi to take us to the border and there got our passports stamped by inspectors from both governments. From the border we found a bush taxi heading for Thies, more than halfway to our ultimate destination (St. Louis). As during our first dewy-eyed ride in a sept-place (almost two weeks ago), we had to cram into the stuffy, filthy, shredded back seat along with a young woman passenger. But this ride took more than four hours (instead of two), and by the time we climbed out, we felt thoroughly sick of sept-place travel.

Still, I didn’t feel frightened during that ride, even though at times the road became so badly potholed, the drivers abandoned it altogether for the dirt shoulders or dirt tracks that paralleled the ruined road. In contrast, we felt like we were facing imminent death on the final segment of our journey (from Thies to St. Louis.)

The fixer who’d helped us buy our seats (all three middle ones, a much more comfortable ride) had assured me that our driver was exceptionally good.  Middle-aged, he wore flowing Senegalese robes and a traditional cap. I noted with approval that he seemed to inspect our vehicle before we took off. 

The road was excellent, if not terribly wide. Maybe that’s why he preferred driving down the center of it. The problem was it was one of the busiest routes we’ve traveled on yet. When we would approach the oncoming traffic, he would edge into our own lane clearing the vehicle ahead of us by a few feet. Time after time, I stifled screams. The most terrifying instant came with a huge bird (probably a vulture) swooped down and hit our windshield (fracturing it even more than it was to begin with). With traffic coming the other way, our driver swerved away from it and somehow retained control of the vehicle. I’ve had other scary rides in my travels (certain taxi drivers in Cairo and Shanghai come to mind). But they were relatively brief. This one lasted more than three hours. 

The broad, tree-lined main Boulevard of Thies as seen from the middle seat of a sept-place.

By the time we pulled into the St. Louis taxi park, more than 12 hours after leaving Heather and Moses’ elegant haven, both Steve and I were rigid with tension. But we reached our hotel just before dark, and our spacious room here opens onto a patio facing a huge, empty, glorious white beach. Last night we slept like the dead, today we’re taking it easy (writing and posting photos!). We’ll leave it till tomorrow to fully explore St. Louis.

One thought on “Ragged roads

  1. Rich and Kathy January 12, 2011 / 11:26 pm

    Thanks for all the wonderful posts, although I was tense too just reading about your adventures. What is most amazing to me is that you and Steve both likely think this has all been a fantastic trip, one you would never regret taking. You will not be surprised to hear that one of Wikipedia’s definitions of “intrepid” is “audacious explorers.”

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