The first actual leg of our West African rail fantasy will take us from French-speaking Senegal into English-speaking Gambia, Africa’s smallest country — and living proof that size isn’t everything. The end of this leg will put us in Guinea.
Second of three parts.
The last hues of sunset are burning brightly behind the Atlantic Ocean as our train pulls into Banjul, capital of The Gambia. Now, it feels as if our West African journey truly has begun.
This is but the first of the national borders we’ll be crossing on this trip, and in the relatively short time we have to make the journey — two weeks for 11 countries — it wouldn’t be practical, or even possible, without this high-speed train. We’d be forced instead to choose a single West African country to visit, and hope we could return someday to see another.
A FLEXIBLE JOURNEY
Now, we don’t have to make that choice. The train gives us great flexibility. We can make day trips at some destinations and overnight or even multiple-night stops in others. And the ease of changing reservations makes adjusting our plans “on the fly” no problem at all.
This evening, we arrive aboard a Velaro high-speed train, designed in Germany by Siemens. Some in our group have ridden Velaros before, in Germany or in Spain. It looks like the streak that a bullet makes as it travel through water.
For now, the streak has stopped in Banjul.
The Gambia is the smallest nation on the Mother Continent, with an area of barely 4,000 square miles and a population of about 1.7 million people. That makes it roughly the same size in both categories as the city of San Diego. The country takes its name from the river that defines it, and its territory is basically two narrow strips along its banks.
Theoretically, we could cover this country from end to end in a day, but we won’t test that theory on this trip.
Our hotel in Banjul is so close to the station that we decide to walk — some of us rolling our bags along, others of us slinging our cases on our backs with backpack straps, the better to keep our hands free for our digital and video cameras to capture that glorious sunset.
But we can’t spend too much time shooting. We’ve been told that Banjul shuts off its street lights after 8 p.m.
The next morning, we’re up with the sun and hit the streets. First stop, the Albert Market. Your prototypical ramshackle collection of vendors’ stalls found across most of the world. From fruit to fish to fabrics, if they don’t have it, you may want it.
GETTING IN RHYTHM
We have this thing about markets. We like to hit them early, when you’re likely to be their first customers of the day, or late, when they’re trying to make their last sales before going home. We learned that in Thailand.
We make a brief photo and video stop at the ferry terminal, then it’s off to the National Museum to learn a bit about The Gambia and its history. Later, we check out the Tanbi Wetland Preserve.
In between, we check out shops, sample local street food and drinks, chat with locals we meet along the way. We stop to admire the poetic performances of griots and the music of the kora.
It may not seem like it, but we’re taking our time today. We want to get into the rhythm of life here. When you fight the pace of a place, you feel as if you’re constantly swimming upstream. We will not be salmon on this trip.
As if to remind us of our resolve, periodic bursts of heavy tropical rain force us to take shelter in the nearest cafe, shop or covered stall, waiting out downpours with cold drinks and conversation.
The next day, we rent a couple of SUVs and take the ferry across the river to Barra on the north side, but we’re not staying here. We want to pay homage to Alex Haley’s groundbreaking book “Roots.” The village to which he traced his ancestry is Jufureh, about 20 miles away. This, along with the nearby village of Albreda, were a part of the West African slave trade.
Our stay here is brief, but long enough to make me wonder if my own ancestral home, wherever it is in Africa, looks anything like this.
It’s been a full, busy and utterly enjoyable two days. We sit down to a leisurely dinner to review the words we’ve learned in Wolof and plot travel strategy. If I have any energy left, I may spend a little time in a club, listening to some mbalax music — and possibly make a total fool of myself trying to dance to it.
On second thought, I’ll just listen!
The sun has barely risen when we check out of our hotel and head for the train station, with a quick side strip to the Albert Market to buy some food and bottled water for the day’s travel. Our first destination today is Bissau, the capital of Guinea-Bissau.
Even more quickly than the train entered Gambian territory two days earlier, it heads back into Senegal, making a very quick stop in Ziguinchor in the region known as the Casamance.
We leave the train at Bissau. This is basically a day trip for us. We will explore a bit, check out the ruins of the Guinea-Bissau presidential palace and find some lunch.
After that, it’s back to the train to continue on to Conakry, capital of Guinea. It should take us about 2.5 hours, passing through Boke along the way.
We cross many bridges along the way, over the streams, rivers and inlets that flow east to west to the Atlantic. Others are single-track, barely wide enough to hold the rails we’re riding on. At times, when you look down, the train seems to be gliding on air, or water.
One last bridge and we are in Conakry. Three cities and three countries in three days.
And we’re just getting warmed up.
NEXT: Conakry to Monrovia
Powered by Facebook Comments