Tuesday 11 June 2013

Viven : How we crossed in and out of the Gambia from Senegal

Dear Viven

Getting in and out of the Gambia from Senegal was a piece of cake.  Getting across the Gambia was another story.

The information in this letter is accurate at the time we entered the Gambia on 8 June 2013, and left two days later.  We are one British and one Canadian, driving a 1996 right-hand drive Toyota Hilux Surf from Paris to Tanzania.

Our previous crossing was from Mauritania to Senegal, and our next crossing will be from Senegal to Guinea-Bissau.

Visas were not required in advance.

Insurance and Carnet
Our Brown Card insurance, purchased upon entry into Senegal, covered us for the Gambia.  We used one page of our carnet de passages to enter the Gambia with the truck, and the officials at the border needed to see the page the Senegalese had signed and stamped.

The Gambia's official language is English, and most people speak it to varying degrees, while all authorities and officials speak it well.  Mandinka is the nation's common tongue, while Wolof is widely understood.  Some Arabic can be heard as well.

The Gambia has its own currency, the dalasi (GMD).  The current rates are €1 = GMD 48.5, and GMD 1 = CFA 13.6.  We were unable to find dalasis in advance (one currency exchange clerk in Dakar gave me a look of shock when I asked, and said I should ask for dalasis at the Gambian embassy), and had to make an exchange at the border at Karang/Amdallai, or in Barra.  We chose the latter, and found a currency exchanger with a decent rate: GMD 375 = CFA 5,000.  The exchanger, though, turned out to be a crook, and gave me a huge pile of 50s and 100s, hoping I wouldn't count.  I counted, and found it was GMD 1,000 (about €20) short.  He already had the missing cash ready, and reluctantly handed it over.

When we crossed back into Senegal at Seleti, we found a man exchanging money (dalasis for francs) on the Gambian side who offered the same rate we converted at Barra.  We converted the remainder of our Gambian dalasis and thus lost no money on the overall exchange.

The Route
After visiting western Senegal via Saint-Louis, Dakar, Lac Rose, M'bour and Kaolack, we crossed into the Gambia at Karang (Senegal) / Amdallai (the Gambia) on the N5.  We took the ferry from Barra to Banjul, and then returned to Senegal at Seleti.

The Border from Senegal to the Gambia
This was relatively quick and painless.  At Karang on the Senegalese side is a police office and Douane office on opposite sides of the road.  It doesn't seem to matter which one you visit first.  The Douane officer was busy watching an important football game and barely had time to look at our carnet de passages, which he stamped and signed without a word.  The police, meanwhile, requested CFA 5,000 before exit-stamping our passports.  No longer nervous or surprised about these attempts to gouge us, we asked for a receipt.  He said no, and then we insisted.  He called in his boss, and his boss waved us on without paying.

The Gambian offices at the border are directly adjacent to the Senegalese.  Both customs and police are contained in one building.  We walked to one room, answered questions and had our details entered, and then to another, where our details were entered again, and our passports were stamped.  Next to us, a Senegalese man was being interrogated harshly: "Why are you going?  Who is your friend?  What does he do?"  The questions directed to us were more to have a chat.  At the front desk, our carnet de passage was signed and stamped, and we were sent outside for an inspection of the truck.

Two officers led the inspection, and it was more thorough than usual: they were mostly after drugs and banned medication.  One asked to see our medication, which is all in one waterproof bag, and she went through about half of it, reading labels, examining packages, and asking what was what.  We were asked to say what was in this or that compartment, and they were satisfied with our answers.

The whole process, from arrival to departure, took about 45 minutes.

Crossing the Gambia River
The Gambia's territory straddles the Gambia River, which flows east to west, and at no point across the entire country is there a bridge across the river, even when it narrows to only 200m at Fatoto, far to the east.  This means that, unless we went all the way around the Gambia through Senegal where there is a bridge only 20km from Fatoto, we had to go by ferry.  We choose to embark at Barra for the most direct route to Banjul, the capital.

We arrived at Barra at around 5pm on the day we entered the Gambia and waded into the expected hustle.  There was a delay to the service, in part because one of the two boats was broken down, and in other part because the AIDS-curing, devil-repelling president (ie, dictator) was passing through on Monday, which was causing a major increase in traffic.  Dozens of men offered to get us onto the next ferry for a fee, which would inevitably include an extra bribe for the ferry officers, maybe also for the police next door.  One man, who called himself Bob the Builder, feigned offense at the bribery and corruption going on, and because we were "good people" who didn't want to take part in that, he said he had an uncle who could get us in on the next ferry.  The Gambian hustlers' most common tactic is to get on your side, denounce the corrupt Senegalese, and say they're not after money.  Of course, they are, they just call the bribes "gifts", and the corruption "the African way".  Bob the Builder turned out to be another hustler.

We refused to bribe anyone, or utilise Bob the Builder's uncle, and waited with everyone else.  Some bribed to get ahead, and we watched them go in their Hummers or white government trucks.  There seemed to be unlimited space for foot passengers and their belongings, who were dangerously crammed onto each boat load.

There were a few scam attempts while we waited, but these slowed after we'd been waiting for a while - we had become stale targets.  One scam/hustle was by a man who called himself a "Drug Enforcement Officer", who demanded to look inside our truck.  He was plain-clothed, carried a stupid-looking identity card, and came to us on the second day of waiting, out of the blue.  We didn't believe him, asked him a lot of questions just to mess him up, and then took him to the police station.  The officer there was his friend, and said yes, he was an officer, with a bit of a grin.  We agreed to the inspection, with the officer present, and only one door at a time.  The "Drug Enforcement Officer" was quick and mindless as he looked, knowing that it was now fruitless with so many pairs of eyes on his thrifty hands, and me right beside him.

A carry-over from the scam attempt was another hustler, also in plain-clothes and with no identity card or badge, who called himself a "Criminal Justice Officer".  This hustler was so lame and clumsy that he barely deserved the label, and we let him stand beside the truck for the joke of it all.  He had seen us asking questions and being difficult with his "colleague", and so took it upon himself to give us a lecture on Gambian police etiquette.  He said he was guarding our truck (which he hoped would later make him money, of course) and looking out for thieves, which he knew so well, being a Criminal Justice Officer.  Having nothing better to do, he stood by our truck for probably an hour, and then left - making sure, of course, that we saw him enter the police station, where he works so hard.

About an hour later, he returned, now on a rusty bicycle.  He chatted to us about Gambian efficiency and how he'll never ask for money (only wait for a "gift"), said he saw thieves around our truck earlier, and had scared them off with his eyes.  He stood guard for another 20 minutes, and then said to me, "Okay, now I will go on my bicycle patrol," and he peddled off.  He was definitely worth the laugh.

In the end, we waited over 24 hours.  We caught the ferry the following day at 7pm (both boats now in service, to not disappoint the visiting Great Man), and arrived in Banjul just after dark at 8:30.  Fortunately, we offered a ride to one of the foot passengers with his bicycle, a firefighter named Fatou, who knew his way around the other side and got us to Serrakunda, where we spent the night.  Without him, we would have been lost in the dark circuits of Banjul for a good while.

The Border from the Gambia back to Senegal
We returned to Senegal at Seleti.  Here, the Gambian and Senegalese crossing points are about 2km apart, but there is no No Man's Land - the road goes 1km past each post, and then there is a sign marking the boundary.

The Gambian police and customs were straightforward and friendly, and wanted to talk about where we were going, and why we couldn't spend more time in their country.  We got stamps in our passports and the carnet de passages, and went on.

The Senegalese side is just as simple, though the police and Douane checkpoints are about 100m apart. No questions, no forms, and no inspection of the vehicle.

The whole process, from arrival to departure, took about 20 minutes.

What We Needed

Entering the Gambia
  • Money: 0 (CFA 5,000, or about €8, requested)
  • Passports
  • Vehicle registration document
  • Brown Card insurance document
  • The half-filled Senegal entry page, and a new Gambian page, of our carnet de passages
  • About 45 minutes

For the Barra-Banjul Ferry
  • Money: CFA 6,500 (about €10; foreign currency only for foreign plates) for the truck and one passenger, plus GMD 75 (about €1.50) for the additional baggage above, paid upon finally boarding the ferry.
  • 26 hours of patience, diligence and discipline in the face of hustlers and bribe-seekers

Exiting the Gambia
  • Money: 0
  • Passports
  • Vehicle registration document
  • Brown Card insurance document
  • The half-filled Gambian page, plus a new Senegal page, of our carnet de passages
  • About 20 minutes

It should be noted that not a single Gambian police officer or customs official requested money or a gift, except for one who couldn't help but ask if we wanted his help to get on the Barra-Banjul ferry faster - though even he did not actually mention payment.

The Gambia was a fascinating, proud and very friendly country, where we felt genuinely bad for only spending two days.

Good luck and have fun,


President Yahya Jammeh has been in power since a 1994 coup.
He bars his opponents from running, and cures AIDS on television.
This sign explains a lot.

Fun with the camera while waiting for the ferry.

She'd get my vote for the cutest kid in the Gambia.
Boarding the ferry.
On the ferry, with a view of the other one, now working.
The Senegal police checkpoint, returning from the Gambia.