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The best place to get COVID stuck

My Magazine 2022/04
9 min
Author: Renske Wolters
It is the 16th of October 2019, I wake up full of excitement and jump out of bed. After years of dreaming and a few months of preparation I am ready to hit the road with Alex, and our dog child Maysie. It is the day we will start our world travel overland in our 4x4 VW truck named Toto.

We have an amazing six months road trip starting from the Netherlands, crossing through Europe, Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal. In March 2020 we arrive at the border crossing from Senegal into The Gambia. Our plan was simple; explore The Gambian north bank, take the ferry across the river and from there explore the South Bank all the way down until the beachside. The Gambia is a small country but we love the vibe and like to take our time. So we make what we then think, the safe assumption that this trip will take us about two weeks. After that our plan was to continue our journey to cross into southern Senegal, following the West Coast down towards Cape Town.

Little did we know what was in store for us, and that on a different level there must have been a different plan for us. The pandemic put a hold on the world and with that on our travel too. Now, more than a year later, we are still “Covid Stuck” in The Gambia. In two short articles I will take you along on our journey. Firstly, about our travel in The Gambia, and in the next issue how we were lucky enough to find three amazing projects to work on here. It was a year of ups and downs, where we experienced impatience, insecurity, heartbreak over animal misfortune, abuse and we had to completely let go of our initial travel plans. Nonetheless, our experiences and moreover the people we met along the way turned this year in one of the best years yet. We gained a deeper level of understanding, stepped out of our comfort zone and experienced a personal growth that without COVID we most certainly wouldn’t have had. So… there we go!

March 2020; at the border crossing we were for the first time confronted with some covid precautions. There was no need for tests yet, however they set up a special tent to measure temperatures and make sure we disinfect our hands. After the usual haggle with the officers, the crossing goes smooth and with a friendly “Welcome to The Gambia” we are stoked to enter the country!

Our first stop in The Gambia is at Mr B’s Hippie Compound close to Berending. It is very basic but that is never an issue for us, especially because we drive in our own house and our home is where we park it. Mr. B gives the most warm welcome, we cook our first Benechin together (fried rice) and he shows me how to get water out of a deep well and wash my clothes like the locals do. Later I find out, what took me two hours, the ladies here can do in five minutes, respect to them though a slight ego dent for me. But all in all, we could not wish for a better introduction to The Gambia.

A few days later, after a beautiful drive, we arrive at the Wassu Stone Circles. We are the only ones here and even Maysie enjoys her off-leash visit to this outdoor cultural site. We are impressed by the grand stones in circular shapes and the stories about the ancient Kings and Chiefs that are believed to be buried here. To us, the most interesting part was the adjacent museum that was opened in 2000. This is where we first learned about the many different tribes in The Gambia, their heritage, and how despite their differences they live together remarkably well, in harmony and with mutual respect.

Later we arrive in Kuntaur where we find Amadou relaxing under a tree, a big smile on his face. He has a nice boat with which he takes tourists on river tours. We make our first trip to the Baboon Islands, a brilliant excursion where we spot chimps and other wildlife. With Amadou’s wealth of knowledge and the most contagious laugh, we instantly become friends. We spent a few days in his village, Toto parked in the town square and are welcomed by his family like we belong.

On that same river trip, we meet Mauro, who is a ranger for the Chimp Rehabilitation Center. He tells us he is from Sambel Kunda. This directly sparks our interest, as we heard that in Sambel is an animal welfare organization, The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust (GHDT). Since I was small, I love horses and this organization was a must visit for us. We agree to meet Mauro in the next days and we will combine it with a visit to the trust.

We dock on Janjanbureh island, the first thing our eye catches is the sign of a local restaurant stating: Ice cold beer. Exactly what we need after this hot day. We have our beers, indeed ice-cold, and a good meal before we find our place for the night. We are parked in the middle of nowhere, close to the river and with the only sound coming from the cowbells and an occasional goat. The next day we explore the town Janjanbureh in the older days known as George Town. What made the most impact on us is The Freedom tree. When the slaves were brought to the island by boat, they got one chance to run to the “Freedom Tree” if you could reach the tree you would be a free man. What they weren’t told is that while trying, they would be chased by dogs and in many cases shot. This former slave island carries much history of The Gambia and is well worth a visit because the stories here are the ones that we are never allowed to forget.

In order to get to Sambel Kunda, we need to cross the river by ferry. This was an experience on its own. We arrive in Lamin Koto, the buzzling ferry town. Fruit and fish are being sold and there are many kids that want to play fetch in the water with Maysie (I keep on telling them to not throw the stick too far – please watch out for crocs!). There is a line – a long line with cars in front of us. After two hours wait and the hope we will still fit on, we drive Toto (our 3500kg car) on the small ferry and park it right between a truck loaded with fruits, a few baskets of chickens and a motorbike with a goat on the back. When we are settled, we are struck by the view of the setting sun, colouring the water of the river in gold, it is beautiful.

The next day we leave for Sambel Kunda. When looking back now I loved that first drive there, we are in awe of the authenticity, how rural it is and how red the sand roads are. It’s intriguing to see the mud block roundhouses with their thatched grass roofs, the compounds, the goats and cows that roam freely and the occasional monkey that is just jumping by. Looking back at that moment it just makes me smile how at that point we had no idea that we would be visiting Sambel Kunda many more times and even live there for a while…

The tour at the GHDT is impressive. One of the staff members, Saloum, has been there from the early beginnings and can share a lot about the organization, the history and their invaluable day to day work, which I will share more about in the next article. He also told us that there is another branch of the organization in Makasutu and we are determined to check that out too.

Between Sambel and Makasutu we make two more stops, the first in Tendaba where we visit the local school and learn how this community is supporting their kids in education. We arrive there on the last day of school, the day after the schools will close due to the covid lockdown. The teacher expresses his sincere worry about what this will mean for “his” kids. Our next stop brings us to Faraba Sutu where friends that we met in Mauritania have an NGO called Aborigen View. The Spanish lady, Fé, who started it, is a passionate optometrist and is helping Gambians that have troubled eyes with right measurements, glasses and other eye care.

It is a beautiful afternoon on the 22nd of March 2020 when, after a bumpy ride, we arrive at The Horse and Donkey Trust in Makasutu. There is a visitor centre, we get introduced to the patients and meet with the manager in charge Emily. We decide to join her and the dog manager Musa for the daily walk with their 30+ dogs. While we wait for them we are enjoying the moment, full anticipation and taking in the beauty, the sounds and the animals. At that time we didn’t have any clue yet that we would spend the night there, let alone the next 300+ nights to come. We had no idea that we arrived in the place that for the next ten months we would call our home.

Photo Credit: Renske's personal archive

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