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GAMBIA RIVER CRUISE: Finding My Toma

James Island, Gambia River

WHEN IT CAME TIME to leave Dakar, I found we were, almost literally, hanging by a thread. I had anchored Crazy Horse, my Alberg 35 yawl, on about 100 feet of three-strand nylon rope, plus there was a 30-foot chain leader. On hauling back all the rope, which I had to do by hand, as we had no windlass, I discovered the rode, just a few feet back from the chain, had almost chafed right through. Two strands were severed entirely; the third was cut in half.

On making this discovery I was, of course, both shocked and relieved. Something down there clearly liked to chew on rope, and I reckoned in only a few more hours it would have been done chewing on mine. At best we would have lost the anchor; at worst we might have lost the boat. I also couldn't help laughing: it seemed appropriate that we should escape the city by the skin of our teeth.

 The run down to Banjul, at the mouth of the Gambia River, was just 90 miles. Geographically this was a very short passage, but to me it seemed a quantum leap. In my mind, the distance between Dakar, where I felt incessantly anxious and ignorant, and Banjul, where I hoped I could again at least pretend I knew what I was doing, was very large.

Senegal coast chart

We left late in the afternoon so as to arrive in daylight the next morning. We were sailing just 15 miles offshore, give or take, and through most of the night were surrounded by local fishing pirogues. Most, fortunately, were showing lights of some kind. These bobbed and weaved over the black ocean swells, scribbling short tendrils of yellow and white across the water. None of the pirogues were showing red and green side-lights, so it took some vigilance to avoid them. I was up all night monitoring their movements--which were erratic, to say the least--and by daybreak was fuzzy-headed from lack of sleep.

By 0900 hours we were just 10 miles from Banjul, heading up the fairway into the river through a maze of pirogues and unmarked drift nets. Perversely, I was determined to sail up to town, though both the wind and tide were against us, and it wasn't until mid-afternoon that we were finally in the river mouth proper with Banjul directly abeam of us. It was a drab low-lying town, a thin scrum of nondescript brown and grey buildings punctuated with an occasional minaret. At last I relented, started the engine, stowed the sails, and turned toward the harbor. Soon I noticed a group of men standing on a large wharf, waving and shouting at me to come land the boat there.

Thanks to our experience in Dakar, I was wise to this game. Rule No. 1 when cruising in West Africa: never ever come alongside anywhere. I cheerfully waved back at the men, then trotted up to the bow to get the anchor ready to launch.

Aha! I had forgotten about the anchor rode. I whipped my rigging knife from my pocket and at once started cutting out the damaged section. It was a very sharp knife, with a serrated edge, and in my haste I slashed open my thumb on my right hand. Cursing, I ignored the wound. I finished trimming the rode, then worked feverishly to re-splice the rope around its thimble while simultaneously waving some more at the men on shore. By the time I was done, the foredeck was covered with vivid red parabolas of blood.

Banjul chart

Banjul wreck

Sunken wreck in the harbor at Banjul

We anchored amid a collection of half-submerged wrecks that jutted up out of the oily water at calamitous angles. Though I was by now thoroughly exhausted, I quickly taped up my thumb, inflated the dinghy, hoisted it overboard, mounted my trusty Yamaha outboard on its transom, and then motored to shore to confront the authorities, leaving Carie, my only crew member, to mind the mothership.

The men who had been waving at me now gathered at the small dock where I landed.

"No, thank you," I told them. "I do not need any guides."

"Fine fine," they insisted. "We will help you anyway."

With entourage in tow, I wandered a short distance inland and soon found a guard shack with a guard inside. He immediately phoned the immigration officer, who presently arrived wearing a small cap like a yarmulke and a long white robe.

"I have come from prayers," he announced. "I do not normally work on Fridays."

Of course, I could see where this was going.

The immigration man led me to his office, which was in a small trailer nearby, and handed me forms to fill out. He inspected our visas, stamped our two passports, and then proclaimed: "Come! We must inspect your yacht."

We stopped at another trailer to pick up the customs officer, who was wearing a trim blue uniform and looked rather pleased when he learned there was a yacht to inspect. As we clambered down into the dinghy and headed out to Crazy Horse, the two men explained it was customary to present gifts to government officials who worked on Fridays.

As soon as we arrived at the boat Carie offered to make our guests tea, but they declined and at once started roaming the deck. I could tell from their eyes that what they were looking for were things that might make good gifts.

"What has happened here?" asked the immigration officer, eyebrows raised as he pointed at the blood stains on the foredeck.

I held up my bandaged thumb and smiled sheepishly. "I had a little trouble anchoring," I explained.

The customs officer, who seemed to know a bit about boats, looked mildly disturbed. "Please," he said. "Can you give us a tour of the cabin?"

I led the men below and could tell they were immediately disheartened when they saw the boat's shabby interior. They poked into a few lockers and cabinets in a desultory manner, finding mostly rusty tools and unmarked cans of food. They did perk up briefly when they came upon my portable Sony tape player, which was lying in a pile of dirty laundry on the V-berth up forward.

"This is nice," said the immigration officer as he carefully extracted the tape player from a tangle of odiferous underwear. "Can you plug it into a wall?"

"Yes, of course," I answered and cheerfully produced the AC power cord. "It runs on batteries or on 110-volt power."

The officer carefully inspected the cord, saw that the tape player would not plug into his wall, and set it aside with a sigh of disappointment.

"You have passed inspection," announced the customs officer, who now seemed bored. "Can you please take us back now?"

We quickly climbed back into the dinghy and were headed back to shore when the outboard suddenly seized up and stopped running. I put the engine in neutral and at once restarted it, but it stalled again as soon as I popped it back into gear.

"It is the head-rope," said the customs officer, his voice dripping with disdain. "The head-rope is in the propeller."

Sure enough, I saw I had forgotten to pull the dinghy's painter all the way inboard before setting off from the boat. It had streamed aft under the dinghy and was now so firmly caught in the prop I could not raise the engine to free it.

"Not to worry," I announced. "I can row us in." I pulled out the oars, awkwardly rearranged my guests on the dinghy's sponsons, parked myself on the thwart seat, and started pulling hard for the dock. The river current was strong, however, and there wasn't room enough to row properly, so we made very little progress.

"Here, give those to us," said the customs officer. And the men took the oars from me and began paddling toward shore with grim looks on their faces. By now it was clear they were wondering how I ever managed to pilot my grubby little sailboat all the way from America to Africa.

My entourage, which still waited patiently on shore, murmured in wonder when they saw me sitting idle while two government officials labored to paddle my dinghy back to the dock. As soon as we landed, the men quickly clambered up the ladder and ran off for their trailers without saying a word to me. The crowd then watched expectantly as I spent several minutes fishing around the outboard's propeller with my uninjured hand.

Eventually, I managed to free the painter. I then restarted the engine and motored slowly back out to Crazy Horse. The sun by now was hanging low in the sky, and the water had turned the color of bronze. The dark silhouettes of the several wrecks in the harbor seemed much more ominous than before. I was bleary-eyed with fatigue, my thumb throbbed with pain, but still I felt triumphant and proud.

 

BANJUL, WHICH IS THE CAPITAL of Gambia, is not a very salubrious place. Situated on a low island, surrounded by a vast mangrove swamp, it seemed to me little more than an open sewer festooned with corrugated tin, palm fronds, and decayed colonial architecture. Historically, it has suffered unduly from flooding and pestilence. Case in point: the neighborhood off which we anchored on arrival, the most ramshackle part of the whole ramshackle town, was named Half Die, after a cholera epidemic that once wiped out half the city's population.

Banjul skyline

Banjul skyline

No one who visits Gambia by yacht stays here for very long. Instead they wend their way through the serpentine maze of pencil-thin mangrove creeks west of the city and arrive at a much larger creek, where there is a well-protected anchorage just below a low bridge over which runs the only road into town. The cruising sailors who come here call this place Oyster Creek; the locals call it Denton Bridge.

Unlike the anchorage off CVD, the yacht club in Dakar, where we had been warned never to leave anything on deck lest it be stolen, Oyster Creek was very secure. Whoever controlled Denton Bridge controlled the fate of the nation's capital, and it was therefore heavily guarded. Just a short distance from the anchorage on the far side of the road leading up to the bridge there was a large police station. On the road itself overlooking the anchorage was a military checkpoint, which was manned 24/7.

Just below the checkpoint, off the west end of the bridge, was a small beach covered with makeshift huts dressed with hand-lettered signs: Art Center, Warrior Sportfishing, Pleasure Boats For Hire. The huts were mostly empty and idle, but there was one very active business here, Baba's Harbour Cafe, which was deployed around a more substantial steel shipping container.

Oyster Creek beach

The beach at Oyster Creek

Local yacht in Gambia

Local yacht moored at Oyster Creek. Owned by a British ex-pat, it was made over from an old fishing pirogue

Baba was a serious young man, a devout Muslim who nonetheless was happy to serve food and large quantities of beer to the visiting sailors, European ex-pats, and less devout locals who gathered here. He worked hard and kept his business neat and tidy. Out front there was a small verandah, diplomatically decorated with a large official portrait of Gambia's new president. Behind the container, which housed the cafe's crude kitchen, was a larger area with several more tables and chairs. Sprouting from the top was a wind generator, the cafe's sole course of electrical power, which Baba had salvaged from an abandoned sailboat.

Baba's Harbour Cafe

Baba outside his place of business

Baba's kitchen

Baba (in foreground, to the left) in his kitchen, hanging with the Denton Bridge crew

CVD might be the logistical focal point of West African cruising--the best place to haul out, order in parts, and get work done on your boat--but Oyster Creek was by far the best place to just plain hang out. Indeed, it was so comfortable, we soon learned that some of our fellow cruisers had been here for years. The reigning king and queen, Kase and Anika, a middle-aged Dutch couple living aboard a well-maintained steel boat, were now into their third winter. They occasionally wandered upriver, or down to the nearby Sine-Saloun in southern Senegal, and sometimes left the boat to fly back to Europe, but they considered the creek home and were not shy about singing its praises.

Most of the others were more transient. There was a French family, all of whom had malaria, who had roamed both the Gambia and the Sine-Saloun ever since the previous winter and planned soon to leave for Brazil. There was a dour German singlehander who stopped in briefly most years on his way to the Grenadines. There was an Englishman, a retired electrician with two young Swedes as crew, sailing an amazing miniature wooden barkentine, all finished bright, who had no idea what he was doing next.

There was also another younger couple--Marco, from Spain, and Nadine, from France--who lived on two separate boats and were entering their second winter on the creek. Carie and I had them for dinner one evening aboard Crazy Horse, and I was amazed to learn that Nadine, in spite of having been in Gambia for over 15 months, had never even left the anchorage to cruise upriver.

"I do not like to sail in places where the water is not clear," she explained.

"Why then did you ever come to West Africa?" I asked.

"This creek, just here," she said. "I had heard about it." She sipped at her wine and took a long, languid pull on a cigarette. She pointed toward a gorgeous purple heron that was creeping along the creek bank with its neck arched, hunting for fish. "It is convenient, but also very magical, don't you think?"

I did think so, but I was also determined to go upriver. Carie and I spent a week decompressing, recovering from the intensity of Dakar, drinking beer and chatting with our new friends at Baba's, and then we prepared to move on.

In terms of provisioning, Oyster Creek was reasonably well situated. On the east side of the anchorage, outside a mysterious facility called the Lyefish Factory, there was an open standpipe with a tap from which flowed clean fresh water. Nearby there was a gas station fronting the road just off the bridge, where it was easy to land a dinghy and load jerry jugs of fuel. Just down the road west of the bridge, in the sprawling suburbs of Bakau and Serekunda, there were surprisingly modern supermarkets. We took two separate trips by bush taxi, carrying maximum baggage each time, and managed to bring back enough food and drink to last six weeks or more.

Serekunda marketplace

Marketplace in Serekunda

On the third trip we played tourist and spent a morning on the beach at Fajara. As beaches go, it was quite fabulous, a broad strand studded with majestic palm trees and fancy hotels. For most tubabs who visited Gambia ("tubab" is what they called white people here) this was the only part of the country they ever saw. It was particularly popular with sun-worshipping Germans, Swedes, and the British, of course, all of whom came in droves each winter to lie on the flawless white sand wearing as little clothing as possible.

Such a large concentration of tubabs was, of course, highly attractive to touts, and this was the only place in Gambia we visited where their hard sell was nearly as ferocious as it had been in Dakar. They roamed the beach like locusts, pitching cold drinks, food, marijuana, souvenirs, package tours, and hard-luck stories to any and all persons with pale complexions. The most exalted members of this tribe were the ambitious Don Juans, known as bumpsters, who relentlessly romanced single females in hopes of forging a relationship that might somehow take them to Europe.

Beach in Gambia

On the beaches west of Banjul, a prime destination for European sun-worshippers

Bumpster in Gambia

A bumpster at work

We had heard about bumpsters at Baba's, from a young expatriate Dutchman, a friend of Kase and Anika's, who had recently lost his German girlfriend to one. He of course despised them, but the local Gambians who also hung out at Denton Bridge obviously admired them. Later, after we traveled inland, we learned how the lure of bumpsterism had ruined many rural families. Parents, we were told, would often sell their cattle to raise money to send a favored son to the beaches outside Banjul. Usually they returned empty-handed, with a larger wardrobe and perhaps a watch, but with no hope of otherwise improving their circumstances.

We had lunch on the beach, fending off touts all the while, and then went to Serekunda to see the Sacred Crocodile Pool. Baba and several of his friends had insisted we should go there. "You must see," they urged me. "There you will find your toma." I asked for, but did not receive, an intelligible explanation of what this meant. I gathered it was a Mandinka word and translated to something like "soulmate."

The pool itself certainly did not look sacred. "Murky pond" would be a more apt description. Next to it was a cinderblock hut, painted pale green, with a big sign and a man inside wearing sunglasses and a bright red Chicago Bulls t-shirt. Inside the pool was a group of about a dozen Nile crocodiles, a species indigenous to Gambia, that were so lethargic and inactive I thought at first they might be fiberglass statues.

Nile crocodile

A sacred crocodile catching some rays

"I have come to meet my toma," I announced after we paid the entrance fee.

The thin man took off his sunglasses and studied me carefully. "What is your name?" he asked. I told him, and he nodded gravely: "Yes, your toma is here."

He led us down to the far side of the pool, where he crouched next to a very large croc that lay motionless in the dried-out mud. "This is the oldest, biggest crocodile," he said. "He is very tame. You can pat his head, give him a big slap on the back, even shake his hand. He will not mind."

I did these things, and the crocodile did not flinch or in any way acknowledge my existence.

The thin man, now squinting in the sunlight, slipped his sunglasses on again and gave me a broad smile. "His name is Charlie," he told me. "Just like you."

 

AT THE U.S. EMBASSY in Dakar, where I had renewed my passport, they had urged me to check in at the embassy in Gambia before sailing up the river. I duly presented myself and was ushered into a small office inhabited by a bald man with a rather elegantly trimmed mustache who told me that, due to the current political situation, American citizens were being asked not to travel inland.

I was somewhat familiar with the political situation. I knew that Gambia, the smallest country in Africa, normally had a stable government, but that just two years earlier President Dawda Jawara, who had ruled for three decades, had been overthrown in a military coup led by Yahya Jammeh, commander of the presidential bodyguard. Jammeh, so I'd heard at Baba's, had launched his coup shortly after receiving special military training in the United States. He had also been confirmed as president in an election held a few months before our arrival; another parliamentary election was due to be held soon. What I didn't know was that very recently there had been another coup attempt upriver at a town called Farafenni. Evidently, eight rebels with pistols had stormed the police barracks there; five had been killed, and three others had escaped.

Having once lived in a bad neighborhood in Brooklyn, this didn't sound too serious to me. I asked the man with the mustache if I was in fact prohibited from sailing upriver, and he said no, he was just warning me not to go. I told him I thought I'd go anyway.

We left on a Saturday. After carefully picking our way through the narrow creeks southwest of the city, we emerged in the river proper and started beating our way west into a stiff 20-knot breeze. We had the tide behind us, and the thick brown water had been kicked up into a short, steep chop. The river here seemed almost as wide as the sky overhead, with only a hint of a thin grey shoreline in the distance. The sky itself was overcast, and there were no other vessels in sight.

By late afternoon the sun was out, the wind had died, and we had reached James Island, a lonely low-lying lump covered with ruined fortifications and baobab trees. For centuries, before Banjul (originally called Bathurst) was established in 1816, this had been a key focal point in the endless European conflicts that punctuated the West African slave trade. Since first being discovered by the Portuguese, this tiny islet had belonged variously to Polish Lithuanians, the Dutch, and primarily the French and British, who quarreled persistently over control of trade on the river. Though the island was quite indefensible, as it has no freshwater supply, it was the British who ultimately prevailed and eventually established the Gambia as a distinct political entity, a narrow sliver of English sovereignty jammed up the bunghole of French West Africa.

We anchored Crazy Horse off the island's west end (see photo up top) and went ashore shortly before sunset. It was the first time since we'd arrived in West Africa nearly a month earlier that we had been anchored out anywhere all on our own, and the feeling of serenity, of at last being self-contained again, was sublime. We silently wandered the empty islet for a while, then adjourned to the boat, where I sat alone in the cockpit for some time, feeling palpably relieved as I watched the derelict silhouette of this Gibraltar of the Gambia fade into the plush-pile night sky as the first stars pricked their way into existence.

James Island map

18th century chart of James Island

View from James Island

Contemporary view from James Island

Moving east from James Island in the days that followed, we found sailing the river to be frustrating. Each morning we waited patiently for the incoming tide, then hoisted sail and tried hard to make progress inland. The wind, however, was maddeningly fickle, and usually by lunch we had given up and had switched the engine on. Here on the Gambia's lower reaches, the scenery was also fairly monotonous. The river was still quite wide, and all along its banks there was nothing but low-lying thickets of mangrove.

Motoring on the Gambia River

Day after day we ended up having to motor up the lower part of the river

Gambia River chart

Antique chart of the Gambia

At the end of the day, or as soon as the tide turned, we anchored off one of the villages on shore, or in one of the capillary creeks, called bolons, that sprouted off the main artery of the river. Visiting the villages was fascinating, but exhausting. As soon as we landed in the dinghy a cry of "Tubab! Tubab!" would split the air, and in an instant we were lost in a horde of children, all of them clinging to us like we were life-sized Sesame Street characters. Soon we were joined by adults, who were also egregiously hospitable. We'd be given a grand tour of the village, our crowd of hosts growing ever larger as the tour progressed, and were introduced to the village elders and other important persons, and invariably were asked if we'd like to drink china green tea.

Children in Gambia

Here I am trying to organize a group of children on shore

Boys in pirogues, Gambia River

More children, come out to visit us in a pair of pirogues

Mother with child, Gambia

Mother with child. Occasionally they'd ask if we would like to take one home with us

Pier at Tendaba

Carie negotiates a spindly village pier

This always proved to be rather time-consuming. First a child was sent to buy some tea (often we were asked to provide the money for this) and meanwhile a fire was built. The fuel was always raw charcoal, which, we had learned, was the main power source throughout rural West Africa. Once the fire was hot enough, a small tin kettle of water was boiled, the tea was steeped in it for many minutes, then was strained out, a great deal of sugar was added, and the resulting beverage was poured back and forth, back and forth, between kettle and cup, from a great height, for an amazingly long period of time. This, we were told, was the most important part of the process, as it brought out the full flavor of the tea.

Eventually, two small demitasses of tea were served. We were always served first, as we were the guests, and then the process was repeated, with much pouring back and forth, until everyone in attendance had been served, or until the tea leaves had entirely lost their potency. In most cases, we learned it was impossible to visit a village without spending at least two or three hours socializing and drinking tea on shore.

Anchoring in the bolons, on the other hand, was an exercise in intense isolation. The entrances were normally narrow, with a shoal at the creek mouth so that we had to fret about running aground. Once over the bar, however, it seemed we had entered an alternate reality. The soundings would suddenly increase again, so much so we sometimes had to hunt for spots shallow enough to anchor, and the absence of humans, the complete lack of any evidence of their existence, became a nearly tangible phantasm, a non-presence that haunted the dense walls of mangrove lining the creek bank.

Blue-breasted kingfisher

Blue-breasted kingfisher. Gambia is a Mecca for serious bird-watchers. One of my biggest mistakes was not bringing a proper guide book

Goliath heron

A goliath heron shows off its finery

Senegal parrots

Senegal green parrots

Flight of egrets

A flight of egrets

What there were, instead of people, were birds. So many, and of such variety and color, that it seemed we were watching tropical fish upside down in the air.

Picture this: the most intense dinghy ride of my life. We had anchored in a place called Mandori Creek, some distance west of a village called Tendaba. The sun was just beginning to set, the colors around us growing richer with each passing moment, and from the impenetrable growth on shore a finely blended medley of hoots, squawks, and trills rose up around us. As soon as the hook was set, I jumped in the dink, yanked on the outboard's starting cord, and was away up the creek in a mad rush of internal combustion. The engine carved a long, clean scar on the creek's shiny copper surface, its roar flushing great flights of birds as I passed. A fleet of white egrets, an exaltation of brilliant blue kingfishers, frenzied masses of emerald green parrots, screeching like a nation of cranky old ladies as they swirled in clouds around my head.

On and on for a mile or more, until I reached a spot where suddenly the tall mangrove forest was broken by an open glade of bright green turf. Startled by this unexpected variation in landscape, I at once throttled down and stopped the boat, my cloud of parrots skittering away across the creek like brilliant marbles dumped loose on a plate of glass. The glade was studded with naked dead trees and in their midst stood one burning dead tree with fingers of red flame flickering along its trunk and lower branches. I sat for several minutes, studying this apocalyptic scene, then turned back down the creek and puttered slowly back to Crazy Horse through the gathering darkness.

What, I wondered, had started this fire? Was it spontaneous combustion? A lightning strike? Some mysterious form of Eco-Voodooism?

At anchor on the Gambia River

Crazy Horse at anchor in a creek

That night, as on any night when we anchored in a creek, insects descended en masse and we had to shroud every aperture with netting to keep them out. After dinner, as we lay in our berths, we could hear bats banging off the standing rigging as they wheeled about trying to eat them.

Hours later Carie shook me awake from a deep sleep. "There is a light," she said. "Someone is coming." This simple statement, affirming that we were now suddenly not alone in what seemed the loneliest of places, in the middle of the night no less, instantly set my spine a-tingling.

I quickly pulled on a pair of shorts and pushed my way through the companionway netting into the cockpit. Downstream in the inky darkness I could see a thick yellow beam of light poking at the mangroves on either side of the creek. I jumped below, turned on the masthead light and all the cabin lights, then came back out into the cockpit with a flashlight, which I waved back and forth through the black void surrounding the boat. Whoever was down there, I wanted them to know that I knew they were there.

The light downstream suddenly went out, then after many minutes suddenly came on again. A man in a small pirogue with a lantern strapped to his head calmly paddled past Crazy Horse without a word, resolutely ignoring our presence. I stood watching for a while until the light disappeared around the next turn in the creek. Then I went below, shut off everything but the masthead light, and lay in my berth unable to sleep.

Who was this guy? What was he doing here in the middle of the nowhere in the middle of the night? Was he a threat?

Then finally it dawned on me: he was going to the burning tree, to collect charcoal. He was the one who set the fire.

 

NOTE: This is part 2 of a series. Be sure to check out part 1: South To Senegal.

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