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Monday 24 December - Arrival

London to Banjul, via Casablanca.  The Royal Air Maroc flight itself was an African experience. We were delayed leaving Heathrow. The crew didn't care if your seat wasn't upright for landing, or whether you were listening to music. The alternating French, Arabic and English flight information screen showed, in addition to the usual flight stats, the distance to Mecca. Due to the delay, there was very little time for the transfer and, as suspected, the bags from London didn't make it to Banjul. At the baggage arrival hall, at 2am on Christmas morning, tired and irate passengers crowded round a man at a desk as he took details, filling in paper forms. What did your bag look like? What was in it? Where are you staying? It should arrive on tomorrow's flight and I should call the airport then. A burly American man was bellowing at the baggage staff for throwing the cases. A German woman had been back for the second night in a row only to find that her baggage had still not arrived. Welcome to Africa! It was 3am when I left the airport. I was approached by three men wanting to show me to the taxi or carry my bag. I had forgotten this happens when you arrive in places like this. They showed me the board showing the official taxi rates and led me to the taxi, an old green Lada with PVC seats and a cracked windscreen. The three men asked for tips but with no change I could only give them a two Euro coin and try to explain to them that it was for all three of them. I could hear them arguing as we drove off. It's sad to see that people like this rely on small change here and there, and the fact that they were still here at this hour illustrates how desperate they are. The highway was eerily quiet and the wind was cool. Huge billboards advertising airlines, mobile phone networks, or advocating safe sex. Posters with photos of the beaming president from the 2011 election. "We we will not only vote for him, we will die for him", one says. Stray dogs, active in the cool night air, were busily searching for scraps. At the checkpoints the police would mostly wave us on from a distance, unwilling to leave the warmth of their fires on the side of the road. I asked my driver to stop off somewhere where I can buy some toiletries and he drove me through the streets of Serekunda, still busy with young Gambians spilling out the bars and clubs. There was nowhere to park. It was late and I was tired, so I asked him to try somewhere else. I was able to get what I needed at a petrol station near the hotel I was staying. The man at the till asked me about my plans and when I said I was keen to see the chimpanzees he said he knew a man who could arrange it, and he wrote down a number for me. I had booked the Badala Park hotel for just one night, and just as well. The room was dim and unwelcoming. I waited for the porter to bring me towels but he returned after ten minutes empty handed, saying that there was not enough sun today for them to dry. I fell asleep to the sounds of chirping frogs and crickets.

Tuesday 25 December - Bakau

A few hours later my taxi driver from the night before arrived, as arranged, to take me to the Ocean Bay hotel, a short distance away in the coastal region of Bakau. This place was clean, bright and spacious with manicured lawns in the gardens, dotted with palm trees and bisected with paths that led to the rooms in all directions. After a long awaited shower I headed out for a walk. Directly opposite the hotel were the official guides, identifiable by their tie-dye purple and white t-shirts. The green taxis were stationed here too. These were the tourist taxis that were more expensive and often older than the yellow taxis. I didn't understand this, but I was warned against using the yellow taxis on many occasions - apparently you're not insured in the event of an accident. If I wanted to get a yellow taxi, I would have to walk further down, out of sight of the hotels and green taxi drivers. One of the guides approached me, introducing himself as Samba. I told him what I wanted to do and we started walking through the town. First we visited the market so I could buy some clothes. I bought sandals, a shirt and shorts as I only had the clothes I wore on the flight over. The shirt was a bright red Gambia football top with "D. BAH" printed on the back. It was to attract a lot of attention from the locals over the next couple of days and prompt shouts of "Gambia!" and "Bah!". The market was a typical African market, the stalls closely packed together, with everything from meats and vegetables to Chinese electrical goods to clothes. The traders' children watched me curiously as I walked, carefully stooping to avoid hitting my head on the low corrugated roofing. Samba, in his late 20s, told me how he had trained for six months to become a guide, and it struck me just how much people here depend on tourism for income. The hotel and restaurant staff, the taxi drivers, and the craftsmen and women who spend all day weaving, carving and polishing all owe their livelihoods to tourism. Samba took me to a primary school. The classroom was not so much a room, more like a shelter, held up with thin wooden poles and corrugated metal for the walls and roof. The children were between the ages of about five and ten and the blackboard was divided into English and Arabic parts. I felt like an unwelcome guest at first, standing at the back of the room while the teacher tried to settle the children. Suddenly the children began to sing, ‘If You’re Happy And You Know It’. Wow, I thought. They're singing for me? They were really cute, some of them sang enthusiastically while others stared blankly into space. When the song was over the teacher sat me down to talk to me and I realised what it was all about. I was handed a form with details of how to make a donation through an international bank transfer. I understood that the school is in desperate need of financial assistance but it had dampened what had earlier been a wonderful moment. I’m sure though, that they are far more uncomfortable asking for help than I was being asked. I walked past the craft market, a long row of adjoined shops stacked with hundreds of mahogany and ebony carvings. It was heaven for me. Everything from meter high monkeys, to miniature turtles, elongated tribal elders with water jugs balanced on their heads or babies on their backs, as well as batik art, bracelets adorned with sea shells, blankets and scarves and more. Any sign of interest from me would prompt the owners to invite me in, pick up the item I was looking at and trust it in my hands. I’d be reminded that looking is free, and told how beautiful that particular piece is. Some would even beg me for business. After looking in almost every shop I had seen one or two things I liked and I promised I’ll be back tomorrow. I went back to the hotel and sat by the pool. It was busy and noisy. Families sat at the tables, children would wander off to swim or play. Curiously, almost everyone had ordered a spaghetti bolognaise or a burger and chips. That was a shame, because the fish here was fantastic. Rice and fish was to become my lunch and dinner on almost all my days in Gambia. I walked down to the beach and was soon approached by one of the juice sellers, Fax. “Stop by Fax and Dan’s juice bar, for the best juices!” Sure, I told him. Why not. As I photographed the shoreline a man in khakis and a safari hat walked over to me. His name was Fanara, though he went by the name of Jerry. He was a bird guide and asked me if I was interested in going to Abuko Nature Reserve. It was already on my list of things to see, and he convinced me that it was better than Bijilo Forest Park for wildlife, so I agreed on a price and an 8am departure tomorrow morning. After a quick swim I went to the juice bar. As I sat sipping orange and lime juice, surrounded by three dogs sprawled out under the heat of the sun, I chatted with a couple of guys from the nearby juice huts, mainly about Gambian football and the rivalry with neighbouring Senegal. Gambia’s best footballers are all from Bakau, they told me. There was a pond nearby with crocodiles, so I walked over to have a look and met up with Jerry again, who pointed them out to me. I was ready for another wander into town, and it felt good to be alone at last. I always think you have the best experiences in places like this when you’re not with a local, as people are more likely to interact with you. My solitude didn't last long. A thin man in a police uniform with blood shot eyes approached me, enthusiastically. He wore a blue shirt with a navy clip-on tie. His name was Lamin and he told me his sister and her family are nearby and wanted me to meet them. He walked me over and I waited with the woman and her three children while Lamin went back to the station to fetch his beret. He insisted that he accompany me to the crocodile park. We walked through dusty streets, as children shouted out toubab, toubab! The string of questions from the locals was now beginning to sound familiar. What is your name, where are you from, first time in Gambia... On the roadside, under the shade of a tree, a child sat at a table with pyramids of green oranges for sale. We passed numerous sleeping dogs, grazing goats and excited chickens, not to mention dozens of joyful children. At the crocodile park there was a small museum with faded photographs and interesting descriptions of Gambian history and culture. The pool was inhabited by over a hundred crocodiles of varying sizes. A few lay on the bank and they were placid enough to be touched, so I posed for the obligatory photo. On the walk back, we came across some children playing football with a worn out tennis ball. They approached me, some of them asking for a new football, some just wanted to say hello. I walked past open sewers, artists working in their shops, with huge paintings on display outside, teenagers playing drafts. The Imam's evening call for prayer was sounding in the distance. Lamin told me how he had been out of work for two years before deciding to become a policeman. He had to undergo tough physical and written tests and was very proud of his job. He had many fiends and seemed to know everyone we passed. He would keep telling me that he wanted to make sure I’m happy, that I’m a good man and he was keen to show me what a great country Gambia is. "Preservation of life and property", he kept saying. Arriving back, he invited me to the station. He was eager that I should meet his colleagues and see his office. There, my Gambia football shirt had prompted more conversations about football. They were a nice bunch of guys (pitured left with Lamin, in white), but there didn’t seem to be much work going on. In fact I was wondering how Lamin was able to take a couple of hours off work to walk me around town. Furthermore, he had offered to go to the airport with me tomorrow to collect my baggage. Being with a police officer would apparently help me get my bag more quickly. When I arrived back at the hotel I saw Samba outside. It was almost as if he had been waiting for me. He was disappointed to hear I had booked a tour to Abuko with Fanara. The taxi controller, who had overheard the conversation, was more vocal in his displeasure and was incredulous when he heard how little I had been quoted, warning me about hidden costs. This awkward conversation was made more bearable thanks to the friendly cat I was stroking on the hotel wall. Later that evening, I headed out to look for a restaurant. I was looking forward to an authentic African meal but I had been reeled in by a tout from the Taj, the local Indian restaurant. I recalled a conversation from the beach earlier where someone had told about a restaurant he works at called the Rising Sun, and urged me to avoid the Indian restaurant because the owner sends the money back home. I was too tired to look further so I settled for the Taj, and there was an African fish dish on the menu anyway. My waiter was talking to me about his time in England, where he worked at a Tesco in Salisbury. He then spent the next half hour trying to set me up with the bar girl, who was about half my age. It’s difficult trying to explain to some people that not all tourists come to Gambia for that reason. On the way out I managed to get into a heated discussion with the tout. I had said that Gambia would make the perfect destination for sunseekers that normally head to Spanish or Greek resorts, were it not for the risk of malaria. He took offence at this, and insisted that there was no malaria in Gambia, and it was a myth spread by westerners with a grudge against Africans. “The doctors are lying!”, he claimed. Outside my room, a security guard was standing watch. He complained of the cold and of the lack of adequate clothing provided by the hotel. He showed me a nasty injury on his shin he sustained with a cutlass while cutting firewood. Healthcare was too expensive and beyond the reach of most people in Gambia, and the hotel would only provide first aid for the guests. Soon after he tells me of his struggles to support his wife and three children, I open the door to my £50 per night room and can’t help feeling slightly terrible.

Wednesday 26 December - Bakau

I met Fanara as planned and we jumped in a yellow taxi for the 30 minute drive to Abuko. This is a spectacular place for birds. As we walked through the forest Jerry pointed out a wide variety including waxbills, finches, sunbirds, an Abyssinian roller, kites, a plantain eater, thrushes, bee eaters, a fire finch, falcons, vultures, kingfishers and various doves. Fanara was clearly a knowledgeable guide, having studied for four years and was passionate about his job. One section of the park contained enclosures housing rescued baboons, hyenas , green vervet and red colobus monkeys. Back in Bakau, I met up with Lamin. He hailed a yellow taxi to the airport for us. As we drove, he spoke noisily to the driver and shouted greetings to the policemen at checkpoints through the open windows. When we arrived back in Bakau, some two hours later, I was happy to buy him lunch. We had ladyfish in a groundnut sauce. While sat at the table outside, we met one of Lamin’s ex-classmates. Saikou was a well built guy with short dreadlocks under a ratsa hat and bloodshot eyes. I would later learn that he does indeed smoke the ‘Bob Marleys’. I got chatting to him about my plans and was not that surprised when he told me he knows a driver that can get me to the Baboon Islands at River Gambia National Park in one day. It was somewhere I really wanted to go, having failed to secure accommodation at the islands from the UK. It was one of few places I’d get to see chimpanzees in the wild so I was determined to do whatever it took to get there. We went over the options; crossing the river from Banjul and driving along the north side of the country, or staying on the south and taking the less developed road. I decided on the latter because I had heard the ferry crossing can be stressful, not to mention the safety issues. The problem was it was very expensive to hire a taxi for a 200km journey but he quoted me a cheaper price than others I’d had. I went back to the craft market with Lamin and bought the figure I liked from yesterday. The shop was shared between a man and an elderly lady. Seeing me buy something from the man's side of the shop, the elder proceeded to show me a range of pieces from her half, picking each one up and polishing it to show it in its full glory. I looked hard for something but nothing really stood out. I eventually found a wooden carving of a lion that was nice, though it was mostly a sympathy buy. Lamin was also shopping. He had found a bright yellow African style shirt he liked. He wanted me to buy it for him, so he could wear something nice on our visit to Banjul later. Taken by surprise, and disappointed that he'd asked, I told him I couldn't. He walked me down past the other shops and went into one run by another of his former classmates. I didn't want to go into any more shops because I didn't want to say no anymore. I was quite tempted by a meter long crocodile though, but there was no way I could take it home. He even offered to make me one to order, which I pondered for a while. I finally drew myself away and stopped briefly to watch a man at work at a loom. The last thing on my list was to visit the capital, Banjul. It was half an hour by bus up the coast. I wanted to take a minibus rather than another taxi. Sure, they're uncomfortable, and you have to wait a long time for them to fill up and leave, but it's one of those memorable African experiences. We waited on the corner of the street, opposite the craft market. A middle aged lady was sitting there with her husband and a younger guy. I joked with her about the role of the man in a marriage, and it looks like, in Africa too, the women were no longer content to stay and home and prepare the meals while the men go out and work. The younger guy, sat on a low stool, was busy making a tea in that long winded process. It involved heating the green tea in a pot over charcoal, then skilfully pouring it from a height of more than two feet into a small shot glass, then from cup to cup, repeatedly, perhaps twenty times or more. This was to ensure the sugar was properly mixed. They don't use spoons here. Eventually a minibus arrived that was heading to Banjul, and fortunately it was already almost full. A young boy sat at the open door, shouting our destination as we drove, looking for other passengers bound for the capital. A couple of elaborately dressed women sat in the seat in front of me, and I wondered whether this was normal dress for affluent Gambian women, or were they heading out somewhere special. Banjul is very small for a capital city, and it certainly doesn't have the feel of a capital city. We walked from the bus stop to the market. The wood carvings here were much bigger and more impressive than the ones in Bakau, and I had to feign disinterest. Lamin seemed to know everyone here, and I greeted every one of his friends. I was getting hello and handshake fatigue. We left the market, walked between two buildings and in front of me the landscape opened to reveal the beach. It was an awesome sight. It was a hive of activity, as fishermen unloaded their catches and other goods from their pirogues. Further up the coast I could see large cargo ships. This was a major trading port for goods to and from Europe and other parts of Africa. Dogs were active, awaken from their afternoon siestas, children playing amongst the palm trees and old boats that lined the beach, and women in colourful dresses walked casually along the beach balancing buckets on their heads. The soft light of evening added mood to the scene. Lamin took me to the police station he used to work at, and I met more of his friends. From the fourth floor I caught a lovely view of the setting sun, which made my visit to the station worthwhile. We caught a yellow tax back to Bakau. On the way, Lamin makes a call to his sister and shoves the phone in my hand and I say a quick and uncomfortable hello. Back at the hotel I finally changed into some clean clothes. I met up with Saikou and Lamin in the hotel lobby to discuss the trip up river tomorrow. I had wondered why Lamin was taking such an interest in my trip, and then I realised that he was intending to come with me to the Baboon Islands. This was strange. I politely explained to him that this wasn't necessary but he seemed not to be listening. He then wanted to go to dinner with me, he was after another meal from me. I told him I would be eating at the hotel and we parted, not really sure what his intentions were for tomorrow. I waited a while and headed out to the Rising Sun, a small local run restaurant close by that had been recommended by a few people. Saikou had seen me in there and sat down to talk to me about Lamin. He was annoyed that he had latched onto us and didn't understand his behaviour. I was glad that Saikou shared my discomfort, and I felt like I had an ally in our battle to oust Lamin from the trip! I didn't really know what Saikou did for a living, but he explained that helping tourists arrange tours is his main source of income. He was a nice, humble, honest sounding person. He left and Lamin appeared shortly afterwards. I felt like I was being stalked. He joined me at the table, disappointed at my story about having dinner at the hotel. When he asked me to give him some money to buy some bread told him that he shouldn't be asking me to buy him things and took the opportunity to explain again that I would prefer if we parted ways from here, but again this fell on deaf ears. Outside, I go to the cash machine to withdraw the cash I need for the trip. Cash in Gambia is a problem. The maximum denomination is 100 Dalasi, about £2. And the most you could take out in a single transaction is 3,000D, which meant that I had to make several withdrawals to have enough to see me through the week. And I didn't feel comfortable having such a huge bundle of notes on me. Saikou and Lamin catch up with me again. Lamin's 'sister' had arrived. She's not really his sister, she's someone that Lamin is trying to set me up with. She stands there silently and awkwardly, and Lamin tells me she has come a long way to meet me. My brief conversation with her earlier in the taxi was apparently an agreement between us. I explained that I never asked her to come but Lamin asked me to pay for her taxi fare back. You go out with her, I told him. Have a good time. I say bye to the guys and just as I'm looking forward to getting back to my hotel room a young guy approaches me. "Remember me?", he says. "From the hotel, you probably don't recognise me with my cap". He then proceeds to ask me for money for him to get home. Tired and with my patience wearing thin, I walked on. But he persists. He told me he would pay me back in the morning, and that he was a good Muslim, prays five times a day. I later read about the 'remember me' scam in the Lonely Planet guide.

Thursday 27 December - River Gambia National Park

I have breakfast outside, under the dim light of dawn. Two healthy looking cats loiter by my table while I eat, waiting for handouts. Packed and ready to go I get to reception to find Lamin waiting for me. My annoyance must have been obvious though it didn't look like he read it. I met Saikou outside and we walked around the corner to where the driver was waiting in his yellow Mercedes taxi. Was Lamin going to get in with us, I still didn't know. I told him one last time that we should say goodbye, but he got in the car with us and we were away. From the start, Lamin and Saikou were arguing, presumably about money. It looked like Lamin was coming with us but after 45 minutes the car comes to a stop. He says goodbye, shakes my hand and gets out. I later learnt that Saikou had paid him some of the money he was demanding, some 900D. Finally I could relax and look forward to the journey. We were heading east and as we left the populated areas, the shops and early morning activity gave way to houses which became more and more sparse. Most were made of mud or cement and had corrugated metal roofs. These roofs would overhang, propped up with tree branches, which were also used for fencing. In between the houses were orange and mango plantations, interspersed with solitary baobab trees, for me a symbol of west Africa. It was a very green landscape, with thick concentrations of thick woodland that separated the small villages. Saikou was telling me things about the places we passed through. He wasn't a natural guide but he was making an effort and wanted to please me. He told me about the many languages of Gambia, that Mandinka is his mother tongue and is the most commonly spoken. It was a shame I didn't understand him as he spoke to the driver. It would have been interesting to know what sort of things they chat about. After a couple of hours we passed a town called Kelagi and after that the road turned to dust. It was then that I started to think I was crazy for doing this trip in a single day, but it sounded a lot more feasible when I learnt that a ferry crossing from Banjul was avoidable. Plus being dropped off at my next destination on the way back would save me the expensive taxi fare from Bakau. Our first rest stop was Soma, a busy market town. The market was on the highway and, in the late morning heat, we pulled up amongst a bustle of people, trucks and bikes. This is Saikou's home town and he wanted to introduce me to his father. While we waited for him to arrive we walked through the crowded market. It was much like any other African market, the only noticeable difference being the locally grown foods. Groundnuts are grown widely in Gambia so there were plenty of these as well as a paste and soup made from them. I saw bamboo paste, used for pain relief, and also yams, derivatives of the baobab fruit and bark from the baobab tree, which is used to treat fevers as well as having other health benefits. I met Saikou's father briefly (he didn't speak English) and his cousins before continuing the journey. We passed the village of Kudang and then followed a narrow dirt road, past straw-roofed circular huts. We saw children busy working on the plantations. They start working at the age of seven here. Six hours after leaving Bakau, we finally reached the River Gambia. The pirogue driver was 17 and had been working on the river since he was 11. He now has three boats that ferry people from village to village. The river was wide and silty, with dense palms on either bank. We passed herons fishing on the shore, and lone fishermen checking their nets. Me with Saikou on the Gambia River The Bamboo Islands consist of six islands which are part of the River Gambia National Park. Three of the islands are inhabited with chimpanzees, which were introduced to the islands in the 1970s. After 45 minutes or so we stopped at a camp just by the water to pick up the ranger, before continuing towards one of the feeding stations. We had hoped the chimps would respond to the sound of the boat engine but it wasn't quite feeding time yet so the chimps didn't appear. We did see a lone chimp casually feeding on one of the trees on the island opposite. We debated waiting an hour and a half till feeding time but we had a long drive back and the driver was reluctant, asking for money for the extra fuel. So we headed back to the rangers' camp in the forest. Two other rangers were there making tea and eating groundnuts (it's what most Gambians are likely to be doing at any one time) and we sat and joined them for a while. They offered us their rice and chicken, and Saikou lit up one of his 'Bob Marleys' which he passed around. It was a beautiful setting, and it was nice to be off the noisy boat for a while. On the way back we stopped at the village of Kuntaur briefly to change boats. A patas monkey tethered to a tree was attracting the attention of some tourists, including myself. Before long we were in the yellow taxi again, heading back. Many people at remote places like this would raise their arm in anticipation when they saw a taxi. Even buses are out the reach of a lot of the locals, let alone paying for a taxi. A lone woman carrying a bulky load looked at us in hope as we passed. I told Saikou I didn't mind us giving her a lift and she was pleasantly surprised when we stopped for her. I expected her to ask to be dropped off a few minutes later, but several miles had passed before we reached her destination, and I realised what huge distances people have to walk, and what a great luxury transport is for them. We drove on, and a large baobab tree caught my attention. I asked the driver to stop so I can photograph it in the soft evening light. I loved these incredible trees, they're so majestic and unique. We stopped at Soma again, where we stocked up on fruit and snacks. Saikou pointed out a Senegalese coffee vendor and suggested I try some. 'Café touba' has black pepper mixed in with it and is served without milk but with plenty of sugar. It was a strange taste, bitter and spicy, unlike anything else I've had before. We continued west as the light began to fade and turned to night. It was other-wordly. There weren't many signs of life as most of the homes were without electricity, but every now and then the light of a fire would pierce the darkness. We passed several checkpoints, one of which the driver failed to stop at, for whatever reason. They had notified the next check point and when we reached it the officer called the driver over. I waited outside the car for ten minutes or so and when they came back they told me they had to pay off the officer so they can get going again. A bolong is a tributary and Bintang Bolong is one such bolong that feeds the Gambia River. We finally reached the lodge at 9:30. Even in darkness, the boys were impressed at the location, and so was I. We walked over to the decking which sat above the water, watching and listening. The sound of the birds and crickets was like an orchestra. I was finally in the African bush, surrounded by nature. After a late dinner, I said my goodbyes to Saikou and the driver. I arranged for him to take me to Bijilo Forest park in three days' time. They had been good to me and I was happy to give them more business. It had been a long day. My ears were ringing and my head was still shaking but it had been a good journey. The river was nice and I'd seen a large stretch of rural Gambia on the way. I walked along the boardwalk that cut through the mangroves to my hut. It was a basic timber construction, with a bamboo framed bed and matching table and chairs. A door led out to the back and there was a square wire mesh window on two sides. The floor wasn't quite level and the mattress was awful, but I was on stilts above the river, with the most amazing sounds all around me.

Friday 28 December - Bintang Bolong

I woke during the night to the sound of what I thought was a hippo in the distance, and something rustling on the roof. Out of curiosity I went out to take a look but saw nothing. I later realised it was most likely birds nesting under the thatching. After that I slept well and woke to a gorgeous sunrise out my window. The back door led to a veranda that faces east and I was lucky to have such easy access to a view of the sunrise. It was a stunning view across the river, much more peaceful in the morning, with just the sound of a few birds and the water lapping against the shore and the wooden stilts beneath. It was low tide and the alien-like mangrove roots were exposed. Crabs were busy making the most of their window of opportunity as a white heron trod gingerly in the shallow water looking for a meal. After a cold shower I wandered over to the restaurant and had breakfast at the deck. It was here I first heard a bird song I would hear a lot of over the next few days. It was a high pitched, gurgling 'aoughh' sound, and I've yet to identify the bird. One of the boys who works here, Ibu, came over to chat, and he taught me a few Mandinka words. Abaraka (thank you) was a word I would use a lot over the next few days. As I read my guide book I was thinking that it would be very easy doing nothing here, something I had been looking for since I arrived. I was given a dog-eared laminated sheet with a list of activities that included drumming lessons, boat rides, trips with fishermen on their nightly outings, but I felt no self imposed pressure or desire to do anything in particular. I had a good feeling about this place, the only sour note was that the sewage from the huts flows directly into the river. When I peered over my veranda and saw my poo floating in the river I felt awful. I wouldn't be using that toilet for that purpose any more. I mentioned it to the staff later and they seemed to think that the sewage was collected in a bucket. I went out for a walk, and in the lodge grounds I noticed Ibu sitting up in a platform half way up a tree. It was a communal area for the staff. He invited me up and I joined him for a while before venturing into the village. Some children were playing in the shade of a huge baobab tree by the river. One pushed a car tyre that was almost as big as he was. I sat down watching them and a teenage boy came over and sat next to me. Alpha was a quiet, wistful boy. A keen football fan and player, he told me about the match they play every evening and invited me to go and watch him play later. We talked about football while some children gathered round. One was drumming on a metal pan, another was demonstrating his dancing skills. Alpha and the children accompanied me on a walk through the village. They wanted to show me the crocodile pool, though it was dry this time of year. Seeing me notice a fallen baobab fruit, they hastily broke it open and shared it with me. Also known as monkey bread, it consists of a hard, sherbet-like substance with a sweet and sour taste. High up in a baobab tree several vultures were perched, waiting for us to pass as they eyed the carcass of a goat beneath them. On the walk up through the village that afternoon I met Samba, who was also 18 and passionate about football. He invited me into his home where he was watching Ronaldinho's Greatest Moments. He spoke of the difficulties he faces. He has no phone to communicate with his father, and travels long distances to get to school every day. His goal was to become a teacher. Outside I was mobbed by a crowd of young children. Fancying their chances they asked me to buy them a ball. They weren't very hopeful because their reaction when I agreed was priceless. Nearby was a small general shop which had one plastic ball left. More children had gathered, buzzing with excitement, while one of the older boys went off to find a pump. A girl of about six filled a watering can at the communal tap and carried it away on her head, watching me with expressionless curiosity. Chickens, goats, cats and dogs made up the numbers here. It was an evocative scene. A bicycle pump had arrived but it was broken, yet someone managed to use the valve to inflate the ball with their mouth, and the children ran off excitedly with their new possession. As I walked with Samba up to the field, we passed a large crowd that had gathered outside the mosque. A woman had died of malaria last night. A sobering reminder that all is not well behind the smiles. At the field, teams had formed according to age. The field was not grass, or even mud but sand. Despite this the children wore studded football boots and a small number sported the remnants of a donated team kit. I met with a bunch of rowdy teenagers. We sat at the edge of the large field while we talked about life and work in Gambia and in England. There were three brothers and as we got up to leave they invited me over to their compound for tea (mixed with coffee this time). They were a nice bunch and it was fun chatting with them. Lamin, a tall, animated and vocal boy with a stutter said he could arrange a boat trip for me tomorrow morning, and I agreed. During dinner I met with the manager of the lodge. He is originally from Senegal and has been in Gambia for 17 years. The owner is a German who runs it from abroad. When I told the staff about my arrangement tomorrow morning they were adamant that I shouldn't let Lamin take me and use a professional boatman instead. I had been a bit hasty in agreeing it, and for all knew he'd never driven a boat in his life. So I sent him a text message with the news. It was a lovely moonlit night, and Google Skymap told me that the bright star overhead was actually Jupiter. I sat on the veranda enjoying the calmness of the night. It was worryingly easy doing nothing.

Saturday 29 December - Bintang Bolong

I woke to the sight of a fiery pink sky and leapt out bed to reach for my camera and tripod. Frantically setting up on the veranda I took a series of shots as the sky turned from pink to orange. It was one of the best sunrises I've seen, made even more special because of the setting. I felt like I had it to myself, from my own private viewing area. After breakfast I boarded the pirogue for my boat tour. Omar the boatman was not the easiest to understand but he was enthusiastic, chatty, and very proud of his knowledge of birds. He kept saying, "here is the real foundation", and "African experience". I think I got what he was saying. I saw plenty of birds from the pirogue. Mainly black kites, grey and white herons, but also ospreys and kingfishers. Mangroves lined the entire stretch of the river banks, and oysters clung to every inch of the roots. It was nice to enjoy the river in the tranquillity of morning, and without the noise of an engine. After an hour or so we reached an island and disembarked using a crudely put together ladder used by fishermen. We went on a short walk along the edge of the forest, in the midst of which I noticed a number of wooden benches arranged in a circle. This was a meeting area for fishermen who sometimes stay on the island. Omar found me a large baobab fruit on which I snacked on the way back. The tide had now receded, exposing the oysters on the mangroves and women were out in their pirogues harvesting them. Back at the lodge, Ibu told me a brief history of the place, how it was built using only local materials, employing local people and the owner's not for profit involvement. After lunch I lay some cushions on the veranda and read and dozed alternately. I lunched at the lodge restaurant and played a card game with Ibu. We went up to the tree house where the rest of the staff were sat. One had the responsibility of making the tea while the others munched on roasted or raw ground nuts. Gambians were often partial to one or the other. An intense conversation was taking place and I was curious what it was about, so I asked. Ibu had plans to start a ground nut farm and he was taunting one of the other guys for not having the courage to join him. I had prepared myself for the village, in particular the wrath of Lamin, who I let down this morning. He was not at all pleased. He said he had prepared the boat and had been waiting for me. I shouldn't have agreed, and there was little I could say, although he did get my message. I walked away, with Lamin still remonstrating after me. Down by the big baobab tree a group of children were playing, the girls playing rounders and the boys just hanging around. Seeing me point my camera towards the tree and the river they walked in front of my lens, indicating they were happy to be photographed, and willingly posed for group shots. I felt bad for singling out the cuter children for individual portraits. The boys must have heard of me buying a ball yesterday and they were complaining that the boys with the ball were not sharing it with the others. They pointed to some children playing in the yard of a house up the road to substantiate their complaint (and to justify their demand for a ball for themselves). Now the girls also wanted a new tennis ball. I conceded, naively perhaps, that the boys could get a ball on the condition that they share it. As I walked to the shop I was surrounded by small children, and the girls were scrambling to grab one of my fingers each. Samba appeared and authoritatively scolded them, and they quickly dispersed like startled pigeons. The shop didn't have any balls left so the girls began to ask for sweets instead. I said I would leave the money for the ball with the lodge. Samba invited me over to his house. His room was sparsely furnished, but he had a small hi fi and he put on some music. Samba is a quiet boy, thoughtful and bright. Eager to talk to me about his country, he would also ask many questions about England. He accompanied me on my walk through the village. The temperature had dropped and the light had softened. I liked to use this time of day to wander through the village, taking photos of the people and their surroundings. As he walked with me he talked about the village, the schools, the fruits and crops that are grown, and the huge windmill that powers the pump that supplies water to the lodge and some of the homes. We visited the school and the adjacent plantation. A child was up a palm tree, anxiously reaching for a papaya under the guidance of his parents. It costs 100D (about £2) a month for parents to send their children to secondary school yet many can't afford it. It struck me that although Gambians are generally self-sufficient and relatively comfortable when it comes to food (the government provides each household with two bags of rice a month) they struggle to pay for schools and healthcare. We walked over to a plantation (they call them gardens here) where several women were working the field, drawing water from the well, sowing seeds and harvesting crops. We stood at the wall and watched them for half an hour as we talked. It was a captivating scene. One of the women came over to us and, with the help of Samba, I had a conversation in Mandinka, with Samba telling me what to say. It was a comical exchange. Samba told me that the wall at which we stood was funded by Sebastian, the German owner of Bintang Bilong lodge. It was good to see how much direct foreign support there is in Gambia. We walked to the groundnut processing station by the side of the main road, where trucks would arrive several times a day. I was shown a rusty but functioning rotating drum that was used to separate off the bad nuts. These nuts are so valuable that thefts are common, so a watchman guards the station once works stops in the evening. It had been an interesting tour and it was good of Samba to show me around. We walked down towards the lodge as the light began to fade. I caught up with Alpha briefly, still high from the match he’d just finished playing. I said my goodbyes to the two boys before heading back to my house on the river for the last time.

Sunday 30 December - Bijilo Forest Park / Kartong

Framed by the window in my room, and against the yellow glow of dawn, a fisherman in silhouette was casting his net from his boat. It was a perfect postcard scene. Saikou had arrived early with his driver friend. He loved the place, more so in the light of day. They asked me to take photos of them as they stood on the deck, posing with big grins. I said my goodbyes to the staff and we set off for Bijilo Forest Park. Saikou wanted to stop off at a market to buy some nuts for the monkeys. Despite nuts being common here, it took him a long time to find them in the maze of the market. Most people go to Bijilo to see the monkeys. As a fan of monkeys, there were too many even for me. You're not supposed to feed them (there was a warning about rabid monkeys and a Finnish woman who was attacked by one recently) but there are people selling nuts to the tourists at the gates. Groups of 50 or more green vervet monkeys would swarm around tourists, waiting for nuts, and shoving as many into in their cheeks as they could. Some would climb onto people's heads. Monkeys aside, Bijilo is a really nice forest, consisting mainly of palms of various kinds. As we walked further, leaving the tourists and monkeys behind, it became quieter, apart from one individual who continued to follow us. Saikou was reluctant to walk too far, feebly trying to warn me about snakes and getting lost, but I insisted we go as far as the second of the three loops. We were lucky to see the shyer and rarer red colobus monkey. A mother was up a tree with her baby clinging to her. Whether she was uneasy because of us or the raucous vervet monkeys I couldn't tell, but it was much more rewarding to watch and photograph these monkeys. After the forest we went for lunch at a restaurant on the beach, then to a shack for some freshly squeezed orange juice (it's orange season). The resort of Kololi is crowded with hotels and tourists. I hadn't realised how far down the coast the tourist resorts stretch. The juice seller asked me for a foreign coin and I gave him a Euro, which he and his partner argued over as I walked away. My last destination in Gambia was Kartong. I was to meet Bouba, the owner of the Halahin Lodge, who had kindly agreed to pick me up from here in his Toyota Carina. I said my last goodbye to Saikou, then we drove south towards the Senegal border. Bouba was an intelligent and industrious businessman who spoke good English. It was a welcome change to be able to converse with someone more deeply about life in Gambia. He talked about how eco-tourism is the only real way to help the country and its people by developing agricultural processes, how NGOs could be put to better use to help the local people directly. He expressed his concern that hospitals lack the most basic medicines, and that the poor can't afford schools and healthcare. Foreign owners are common but little of the money they make stays in Gambia. He told me of his experiences in England where he worked as a security guard for three years. He had initially intended to study but in that time he struggled to make enough money to even pay the rent. There are five or six lodges along the main coastal road, a short distance before Kartong village. Halahin Lodge was the fourth one along. The lodge was set in pleasant surroundings, some 100 metres from the beach, with circular huts that were basic but comfortable. I was the only guest, though this didn't seem to concern Bouba who said that things tend to pick up in January and February. I walked down to the beach with Moussa, a tall softly spoken boy. The Atlantic waves pounded the shoreline, which stretched for miles unbroken in both directions. There was little sign of human activity apart from a rustic shelter here and there. As we sat under one of these a boy walked over. His name was Lamin (yes, another one). He wore a rasta hat and spoke lazily with a Caribbean accent. He runs a juice bar a few metres down the beach and he'd brought over a plate of chopped papaya. We got talking about Gambians and tourism. I mentioned that I noticed a lot of middle aged European women hooking up with young Gambian men. "We're all just the same", Lamin said as he chewed on his papaya chunk. Sundays is reggae night at a lodge further up the beach, and Lamin asked me to come along tonight. We walked over to his juice bar, a rudimentary shelter of timber and straw. Outside a wooden sign on a leaning post driven into the sand bore the words "Lamin's Juice Bar". It consisted of benches on two sides and at the front on a table were some oranges and a water bottle half full with bright red hibiscus juice. As he prepared a juice for me, I wondered how we could make any money from a place like this with no tourists around. I asked him what else he does and he told me he does some labouring in the wet season. Later that afternoon I walked with Moussa towards the village. The locals like to accompany tourists here, they seem to think it's safer that way. In fact, Gambia seemed like one of the safest countries I've been to, certainly the safest in Africa. We passed a house with balloons tied to the front gate. "There's a monkey here that plays with a dog", Moussa informed me. We walked in and a man sitting under a tree greeted me before going to fetch his pet monkey. He didn't ride on the dog's back as the owner had hoped, but he entertained us nonetheless. I remembered I still had some nuts in my pockets from Bijilo and fed him the rest. One of the rooms in the house was a music room, with a range of balafons (a type of xylophone common in West Africa) that was used by local children. Unfinished drawing lay incongruously on some desks. Kartong village was not the sleepy beach village I had imagined. For some reason I still have preconceptions of African villages as tiny unpaved sandpits. This one was still relatively undeveloped though. There was one internet cafe. On the front were hand-written signs advertising the printing and 'larminating' services, and an illustration of a man with unproportionately long arms at his computer. We walked mainly along the main road and, being with Moussa, I didn't have the freedom to turn into side roads that looked interesting and we rarely stopped walking. This is a place where everyone in the village has met everyone else at some stage, and Moussa seemed to know most people, frequently stopping to greet them or chat. Eventually we turned down a dusty side street, with compounds on one side and a plantation beyond a brick wall on the other. Here in the backstreets the chickens and their chicks found safety, along with the usual goats and dogs, amongst what seemed to be the village's rubbish dump. I asked about the rubbish collection and Moussa told me it happens once a month. On the walk back Moussa pointed out a tall palm tree on the roadside, isolated and imposing. It's a very old tree that the locals had come to respect and felt the need to protect. A donkey slowly trotted past, pulling a two-wheeled cart loaded with firewood. Two children stood on the front, their eyes fixed me as we passed, as an older boy guided from behind. There wasn't much competition for road space here, cars were rare and easily outnumbered by bikes and people. After dinner that evening I met up with Lamin and another of the boys from the lodge, a cheerful and gangly guy called Ousman. It was a nice 40 minute walk along the beach, and in the dim light of the low moon we could barely make out the advancing waves which we would dodge at the last moment. We could see a feint light in the distance and hear the booming sound of reggae music well before we reached the beachside bar. It was a small round bar, open at the sides, lit by two energy saving bulbs painted green. Two large speakers were planted in the sand outside and a DJ, wearing a backpack with his hood up, selected reggae and R&B tracks from a laptop. A small number of people sat in moulded plastic chairs around the edge of the bar, nodding their heads, and a dog wandered in and out, oblivious to the loud music. Being predominantly Muslim, most people don't drink in Gambia, and people here were slowly sipping on their Fantas and Sprites. The DJ came over and sat next to me. He introduced himself as Abdul and told me he DJs several times a week at local bars. Tomorrow night he would be at the village hall in Kartong and suggested I go along. We talked about the usual things, and then he told me he could set me up with one of the girls on the table nearby. His conversation was draining and the smell of the weed he was smoking was making me nauseous. We left at 10:30. Back at the lodge I joined the rest of the staff for a while as they sat around a small fire, upon which sat a pot of tea.

Monday 31 December - Kartong

I woke up during the night to turn off the music on my phone which had been playing for the last four hours. I woke again at 7am to a cacophony of rustling palms which I was sure was rain. At breakfast Bouba told me of his plans to extend the lodge. It costs £3,000 to build each hut but he was confident that, with demand expected to increase, the cost would be justified. He remarked at how expensive labour had become, with labourers demanding 100D per day and builders several hundred. It was windy and overcast this morning and I wandered over to the beach to find a cow sitting on the sand. It was a surreal sight and I regretted not having a camera with me. Feeling my presence it got up awkwardly and disappeared into the dunes. I had arranged to meet Lamin at his juice bar. He wanted to make me a lemon tea. "For your cough, it's good", he said. I mentioned that I wanted to do a boat ride on the Allahein River and to Pelican island, and he said he could arrange a driver and boat for me (of course he could!). I agreed. Feeling lethargic, I went back to my room. The circular huts are divided down the middle with thin cotton sheets serving as the door to the bathroom and as window curtains. The floor comprised of garish orange and brown tiles, and the landing outside was made up of neatly arranged fragments of broken tiles. A battered cane chair with faded, worn out cushions was positioned against the wall and I sat down to read. Black kites soared overhead, and swallows danced excitedly. There were no aeroplanes in the skies in this part of the world. One of the girls from the lodge, Fateh, walked over to say hello. It was quite uncommon for women to approach tourists and it dawned on me that she was the first. She told me of her plans to study computing to learn Word and Excel. In particular, she wanted to learn how to create calendars using Powerpoint. She wanted to create a Facebook profile and when I suggested she should have a picture taken for her profile she posed solemnly for a photo, looking somewhat uneasy. During lunch, Ousman asked me about my plans for tomorrow. When I told him about the arrangement I made with Lamin he was disappointed that I hadn't arranged it with the lodge. I wasn't going to cancel this time, I was happy to go with Lamin. I went back to my hut and read outside for a while, and before long a powerful wave of sleepiness overcame me. I threw down some cushions from the chair and dozed. Late afternoon. I felt like I need to do something physical and I went down to the beach for a swim, which I followed with a short run along the shore. I felt a lot better afterwards. Lamin wasn't at his juice bar and I began to walk back when he appears seemingly from nowhere, another plate of papaya in his hand. We sat in his bar for a while and then I wandered down the main road into the village, finally alone. At the entrance to the village, just off the road was a huge strangler fig which had encased a palm tree. Under its shade some children were hanging around, up to not very much. I walked over and, seeing the camera around my neck, they asked me to take some pictures of them. A couple of discarded wooden mortar and pestles lay on the ground. A hen and her chicks were foraging. Beyond was an uncultivated field, with palm trees in the distance. It was a classically African rural scene. I walked into the village along a dirt track. As I passed a compound, children playing in the yard called me over and invited me into their home. Their mother was sat on a chair, feeding her baby. Next door loud reggae music was blaring and when I asked about it the children led me in. I was surprised to see it was a tall white guy in dreadlocks playing the music from his computer. He was an Italian expat and was preparing a playlist for a new year party this evening. Down another dirt road a young woman carrying some grapefruits caught up with me. She offered me one and walked with me for a while before directing me to another compound to meet someone. Robert was an English retiree from Bristol who had built a house here where he lives for two months of the year. I could see the appeal of spending the winter months in a place like this. The house was modern and well furnished, and he shares it with a local family when he was there. He also had plans to buy a boat. I had an interesting chat with him but he had to rush off to attend to an incident with a dead goat. There were suspicions that it had been killed. I continued my walk and peering over a wall I could see a large family in the yard of the compound. A woman was pounding something in a wooden mortar. I greeted them and they invited me in. I was surprised at how much fascination the locals hold for foreigners, as there must be many tourists who pass through here. Perhaps it's because I'm alone, or maybe not many people venture off the main road. But Gambia is particularly friendly, even by African standards. I suspect it's a combination of a genuine fascination with people from a vastly different background, their genuine friendliness and also due to the fact that they have so much time on their hands. And more so in Gambia; it's a small country, there are less people, the pace seems slower and they're more laid back. The mother here had ten children, and her husband lived in the house opposite with his second wife and her four children. The mother and her children were chatty, and they had a great sense of humour. The oldest of the children was 27 and the youngest was a baby. We talked about marriage and family, and the mother joked about me marrying one of her eligible daughters. Although it may not have been a joke. The girl stood quietly, smiling bashfully in the background. I looked over at one of the daughters who was tirelessly pounding something in the mortar and asked what she was doing. They walked me over and explained the process of extracting the rice from the husk using this method (which explains why the rice is always broken here). The rice is then separated from the husk by one of two methods, either by sieving or by shaking the rice from a height into a container below, letting the wind blow away the lighter husks, which the chickens would then feed on. It was a fascinating process, and I noted that at any one time there would be many people working on either preparing food or cooking it. It's a heavily self sufficient and labour intensive society, and much better system than buying all your food from a store. One of the younger children had the most captivating smile, her face constantly lit up with joy. She was glued to me now as she was when I visited the day before. I tried to humour her by chasing her around the yard but this had the unintended effect of causing her to burst into tears. The family saw the funny side. I asked to try pounding and I was surprised at how heavy the pestle was. It was hard work just doing it for a few seconds. They told me about a porridge they make, a mixture of rice and crushed groundnuts. I told them it was a shame that they don't serve authentic African food for breakfast in the lodges (it's the worst thing about the food here - invariably scrambled egg and white baguettes) and they kindly invited me over tomorrow morning to try the porridge. After an encounter with another family I headed back and met the grapefruit lady again. She invited me back to her home and gave me a whole bag of them. It was really generous of her but I was never going to eat them all, so I decided I would give them to Lamin for his juice bar. I sat at the veranda while she peeled one of them for me. A toddler stood next to me, watching me curiously as he stroked the hairs on my leg with great fascination. After dinner I walked with Ousman along the beach to Boiboi lodge, where drummers were going to perform for the new year celebrations. This lodge was far busier than Halahin, and I was glad I decided against staying at Boiboi. We sat by the fire as several people drummed intensively. The Gambians would dance, frantically stamping their feet in time with the beat. Shortly before midnight I met up with Lamin and we walked over to Sendele, a luxury eco lodge that is one of Gambia tourism's greatest success stories. A group of well known Senegalese drummers and dancers were performing on the sand, as men in suits and women in party dresses stood watching in a circle, sipping from their wine glasses. The performers were very impressive and it was a shame we'd only caught the end. A few feeble fireworks marked the arrival of new year, one of which we almost had to duck to avoid.

Tuesday 1 January - Kartong

Lamin's friend turned up in an old Mitsubishi 4x4 with 'Antwerp to Banjul' stickers on the doors. We drove south along the main road where it finally ended as it met the Allahein River. The boat was driven by a boy in his late teens. From the outset he imparted continuous stream of information, about the local birdlife, the river and the people who depend on it. The birds we saw comprised of gulls, cormorants, sandpipers, ospreys, eagles, herons and pelicans, after which the island that we were heading to was named. The boy told me how the mangroves were vital in protecting the river banks from erosion, and that the leaves are used to produce dye. We disembarked onto Pelican Island, the huge flock of gulls parting before us as we walked. Through them, we could make out two pelicans. Back on the mainland the boy kindly offered to give me a mini tour of the area. He showed me the large piles of empty oyster shells, ready for being incinerated and crushed to produce lime for use in cement. Women sat scooping out the fish from cockle shells, and these would be used as aggregate in concrete. Little is wasted here. We walked over to a large brick building that processes smoked fish. The fish is smoked four times and is then good for a year. Hefty mahogany planks, useless for boat construction because of excess knots, were waiting to be used to build a new jetty. On the way back I asked the driver to drop me off in the village. Lamin came along with me to visit the family that had invited me round for porridge. Lamin knew the family, as I guessed he would. He had gone to school with one of the girls. We sat on sofas in the dimly lit but spacious lounge, with shiny ceramic tiles and old wooden cabinets along two walls. One of the teenage children sat near us holding her baby sister as we waited for the porridge to arrive. It was tasty, the combination of the nuts and the rice worked really well, with the oil from the nuts providing a sweetness and a thicker texture. When I told them I liked it they said I should pass by later so they can give me some to take home. Walking back with Lamin, we stopped off at his compound. Opposite his current house, he showed me the new one he was in the process of building with his brother, bit by bit, as and when funds allow. Further up the main road, he showed me a campsite he was developing with a friend. A couple of labourers were lazily working on the bar, as yet roofless. He talked about his plans and I was impressed by his ambition. Later that afternoon I went back to the beach to give Lamin the bag of grapefruits, before going for a run and a swim. The winds were strong today and I loved splashing around in the huge waves. I liked the crashing sound of them, and watching from below the top of the waves as they curled over and broke. I walked along the shore, looking for any interesting shells that might have been revealed by the receding tide. That evening, I decided to walk to the village along the beach for a change. It was a nice walk, although it seemed to take twice as long. I looked for the circular hut that I was told to look out for but before I saw any signs of human activity, I noticed an elegantly dressed young woman, with a headscarf draped down one side. She had been sitting alone where the beach met the dunes, and from her reaction when she saw me, it looked like she had been waiting for me. I asked Mbassey the way into the village and she showed me a path through the vegetation. We passed a field that lay fallow and made our way into the village, and to the family to collect my porridge mixture. They gave me a generous two kilo bag of it. I had brought the Gambia football shirt with me as I wanted to give it to the girl who prepared it for me. It was nice to see how grateful she was for something that to me was a small gift, and how much joy it gave her. It's easy to underestimate how grateful people here are for the things that we take for granted. I said goodbye to the family for the third and final time, and walked with Mbassey to her compound. I had recognised the place from one that I visited yesterday. There were more happy and smiling children here, including a very cute girl who had appeared giggling, naked, having just had a wash. Mbassey's sister was there and she was holding a baby which Mbassey told me was hers. She was only 18, and she later told me that the baby's father, her boyfriend, had recently died of an illness. There was a sadness behind her eyes and, despite her limited English, her desperation was palpable. She spoke of her desire to leave Gambia and she was plainly looking for a westerner to provide her with a way out. I had intended to walk back along the main road but Mbassey led me down to the beach. I was glad we went that way back because through the haze, over the Atlantic, the setting sun had lit up the sky with a brilliant orange-yellow glow. As I turned to take a photo, Mbassey stepped into the frame, thinking I had wanted to photograph her. We walked towards the lodge and bumped into Lamin over by his juice bar. He told me of the new lodge which had just opened further up along the beach and he suggested we all go over to the opening party tonight. That night, we watched as DJs played reggae music under a palm-leaved shelter. There wasn't a big turnout. A few of us sat further down the beach where it was quieter, and some locals were dancing by the bar. We didn't stay long. I had to leave for the airport at 11pm. I went back to my room and dozed. It was not yet a quarter to 11 when there was a knock on the door. The taxi driver was getting restless. It was late and he was in a hurry to get back home and sleep. I came out to find the lodge staff waiting to see me off, along with Lamin and Mbassey. I thanked everyone and said my last goodbyes, and we drove off into the quiet, dark African night. I loved Kartong. It was a place I could definitely come back to. It was a good place to relax in, with a chilled out atmosphere and a slower pace of life, as well as offering true African village experiences just ten minutes walk away. And you practically have a beach to yourself. I had a long wait at the airport, my flight wasn't until 2:30am. As I drank a tea, I wrote the last entry into my journal, contemplating my eight days in Gambia. It had been exactly what I expected but so much more. I don't remember an African country with friendlier people, I've never been invited into so many homes, and never exchanged so many e-mail addresses with the locals. It's also safer and more chilled out than other places I've been to, certainly the safest in Africa, and it's relatively close to Europe. And unless you head upriver, distances are relatively short and it's easy to get around. With so many new places to see I try to avoid go back to the same country more than once, but Gambia is a country I could easily see myself coming back to.

Highlights: Kartong, the sights and sounds from my hut in Bintang Bolong, Bijilo forest, Banjul beach

Memorable people: Samba in Bintang Bolong, Saikou in Bakau, Lamin and the family in Kartong

Missed: boiled vegetables, brown bread, coffee, out of season and non local fruit, decent mattresses

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