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Tips for Sailing The Gambia River

Current Location: Banjul, Gambia
Current Position: 13 23.67 N 016 37.41 W Click to view map.
Distance sailed since last post: 97 nautical miles. View the map of our voyage track here

Cruising The Gambia presents a few challenges to the sailor that are a bit different from most other destinations. My hope is that these few tips might make it all a bit less daunting. They are presented in no particular order.

Navigation

Download our navigation package and install the GPX routes and Google Earth images (kindly provided by fellow explorers Rick and Joyce on S/V Full Tilt) into OpenCPN.  Most of the time you won’t actually need them, but they are nice to have, especially when the real river does not match the chart.  Also get hold of the “Cruising Guide to West Africa” by Steve Jones, published by the ROYAL CRUISING CLUB PILOTAGE FOUNDATION. It is available as a PDF if you search online. It is now 20 years out of date, but still has useful comments. What is clear is that the commercial usage of the river, already diminishing when Steve was there, has now completely vanished. The only traffic we ever saw was one other yacht and a few fishing canoes.

The Gambia is a HUGE river, and the land is very flat – the highest point in the country is near to Baboon Island and extends maybe 50m up. Yet, despite the flatness, the river is actually very deep – usually at least 6m, often over 10m, and this depth goes right up to the river banks.

There were two areas that were shallow. One is on the approach to Lamin Lodge, just outside of Banjul. The GPX track shows the route for that, or one of the locals will, no doubt, be glad to guide you. The other was on the northern branch of the river as it passes the Deer Islands. Exiting that branch on the way upriver we saw a minimum depth of about 2.5m.

Having said that, remember that this is a river, so the inside bank of the bends can often be shallow, as can the corners of creeks or branches of the river. Stay midstream and you will have no problems. You will usually be able to anchor in about 2-4 m, sometimes deeper. You will almost always be lying to the tidal current unless there is an unusually strong wind, so there is not problem going close to the bank, though the insects may be worse there.

The river turns to fresh water round about Elephant Island. Until then it is all pretty much mangroves and fairly monotonous. Once the water sweetens, the vegetation (and insects) change, and you may start to see some wildlife. Once you have fresh water, fill up some buckets and soak all your salt-encrusted and stiffened lines.

Allow 14 days if you just want to go up to Baboon Island and turn around. More if you want to go farther, or explore the creeks. If you want to visit a village, remember that this will probably mean you miss half of the tide and you won’t be able to depart again until the next day.

Medical

Make sure you have your medical stuff up to date including various immunizations (Yellow Fever – which now lasts a lifetime, not 10 years as before, Hepatitis A & B, Tetanus, and Malaria pills – we used Meflaquine). Take whatever prescription medicines you need, including doctor’s notes if needed for customs. Also this is a good time to review your first aid kit and restock the items that are out of date. You will be in REMOTE Africa, and there won’t be any doctors, nurses or pharmacists anywhere near to where you are.  So whether it is diarrhoea, injuries, pink eye, allergies or whatever, you are on your own. It might be many hours before you can get to a hospital or clinic. You MAY be able to find last minute supplies in Dakar, but don’t count on it.

Checking In

You can check in only during working hours. If you arrive outside of those times anchor off and come ashore in the morning. If it is a weekend go and anchor up at Lamin Lodge, and come back when they are open on Monday.

When you take your dinghy to the pontoon, you will probably be greeted by someone who will want to show you around. You don’t need them. They will expect a gift if you do accept their friendly offer.

Walk along the pontoon to the shore. Then keep walking in the same direction. You will pass through a gate, where they may ask to see your passport and will write down your name. They are friendly. Then keep walking until you come to the main road, where you will turn right. Keep walking until you see a big arch, on the right, saying Port Authority. At the entrance you will see some security. Ask them to show you where the immigration office is.

We decided to pre-empt the bribe question by immediately giving the officials in each office some chocolate as a gift. For immigration we then presented our passports and boat papers. They did NOT ask to see the checkout from our previous port which, in fact, we did not have as we had given what we had to Senegal. We were using our Canadian passports, as that was where we had our Gambia visas. For Senegal we had used our European passports. We had checked in at Dakar, but had not checked out of Senegal anywhere. No worries at all.  The process was friendly and quick. No fees. They will photocopy your passports. Ask them to make you an additional copies, plus your boat papers, for immigration.

After immigration you go to Customs. This takes longer. You will have to fill in a form, and they will want photocopies of your passports and boat papers. If you don’t have any, they will send someone to make some, for which they will want some money. They will accept Senegal CFA for this purpose.

After some time waiting around for all that paperwork, the Customs official will announce that he needs to come aboard the boat to inspect. Once he walks around the corner with you he will suggest to you that it is a lot of hassle to go onboard. This is your cue that he would like a gift and that, having received the gift, he will get your papers stamped with no more ado. We were with another boat’s crew, so decided to give him 2,000 CFA (about 4 euros) each. I know, don’t say anything.

The next stop is the bank to get some Gambian money. It is a bit of a walk across the whole town – just keep on walking along the sea front – until you find about four banks, all of which have ATM’s and will also change Senegalese CFA. Alternatively many street vendors will change CFA for you at a less favourable rate (eg 350 Dalassi = 5,000 CFA compared with 372 Dalassi in the bank). The cash withdrawal limits at the ATM’s seem to be 3,000 GMD at all the banks. Some ATM’s charge for the service, some don’t.

The final stop is the Port Authority for the cruising permit. We had to wait an hour for him to come back from taking depth soundings in the harbour. Once he returned, the process was pretty quick. The fee was 22 euro, but has to be paid in Gambian Dalassi. He will write out a cruising permit, and will give you the rules for visiting the Baboon Islands national park. Once you have this, you are done. The whole process takes some time. If you run out of time, and the next office closes, just come back when it next opens.

Internet

Like most of Africa, 3G internet is actually quite good and cheap. We used Africell. In Banjul, and also at the airport, there is an Africell store. Go there to get the SIM as you will need your passport to register it. Get them to make sure it is all working on your phone. To get data you need to first buy credit, and then dial 120 to convert that credit into Giga Bytes. When we were here, it was only 275 Delassi (about 5-6 Euros) for 1Gb. You can NOT buy credit using your credit card over the phone. To buy more credit go to a local store (available in most villages but not all) and buy additional Delassi-worth of credit using cash.  Get them to apply the voucher to your phone number. You should receive a text confirming that. Then dial 120 again and convert that credit into Gb.  Once we had it all working on our phone, we then took the SIM card out, and put it into our unlocked Orange Airbox wifi router. It worked well. However, Skype, WhatsApp and Viber are blocked here. If you can get a VPN to work, then you can get around that, but we were unable to get a VPN to connect. Hopefully with the new President this situation will improve.

Most villages along the river have a signal, but often your internet connection will only be Edge, and thus slow.

Make sure you turn off the updates on your computer, or set your connection as a ‘metered connection’ otherwise you will blow all your Gb on updates instead of emails.

Food

Everyone has to eat, so you would think that food would be readily available everywhere. Not so. Like going on a long passage, stock up well before you arrive in Gambia. In Senegal there are some big French supermarkets such as Carrefour and Auchan (Atac), but that means going in to town and they are expensive. Once in Gambia you will only be able to buy imported foods – eg cans, condiments, packages – in the Banjul area, and they are expensive. Even garlic is imported and expensive. In Banjul and surrounds (eg Westfield and SeneGambia) there are several supermarkets that do stock imported foods, and in which you can buy pretty much everything you want, but you are still better off provisioning before you leave the Canaries.

Once in the villages do not expect to be able to buy ANYTHING. In most villages we could not buy eggs. In none could we buy milk, though we did find some expensive small cans of evaporated milk in one village. In the dry season, (November to March) ALL food is severely limited. You might be able to buy some onions, potatoes (Irish or sweet), and maybe a few tiny eggplants (aubergines). Apart from watermelons in Kantaur, we did not find any fruit of any kind for sale. No tomatoes. We had hoped to buy some bread in one village, but the baker had decided to take the day off, so no bread was available. We did buy 2kg of flour instead – for 6 euros.

So what do they eat? Mostly it seems they eat rice and ground peanuts. Together this makes a nice porridge. I don’t know what else they eat, apart from fish. We did see a number of goats around, and also chickens yet, as I said, we could rarely buy any eggs – and when we did, they were far from fresh. To test the eggs, float them in water. If they sink, they are good. If they float, they are not fresh – but may not yet be rotten. Be aware that in Banjul the eggs may have been stored with the smoked fish, and may therefore acquire a fishy smell. The ones from the supermarkets are fine and fresh.

One food that you CAN buy, pretty much anywhere, is fish. In fact, when you see a fisherman in his canoe, go over and offer him a bottle of cold drinking water. He will be very grateful and you will have made a friend. Most likely he will also give you free fish, or invite you to join him for lunch.

If you ask the locals if there ‘is a market’ in the village, they will no doubt say yes, and will take you to a hut in which the women is selling some stuff, or else they will take you to another woman who has three aubergines, some pumpkin and one onion for sale.

Gifts

The villages you will be visiting are VERY poor. They really do have NOTHING. You will be shocked, and will feel sorry for them. Don’t. The vast majority are happy and content with their lives as they are. The politics and ethics of aid for developing nations is complex, so here is my brief take on it:

When you visit the villages you will be mobbed by children. In some villages they will even swim out to your boat. For this reason I suggest that you anchor a few hundred meters away so you can have some privacy. Once you go ashore, you will be mobbed. They will repeatedly ask you your name. They will all want to hold your hand. You are the most exciting thing that has happened in the village since the last boat passed by, maybe several days or a week ago. So far, so good.

In the villages that get more tourists, whether by land or by boat, the children have been trained (by previous tourists) to expect gifts. They will ask for handouts, either money or gifts. If you give it to them, you encourage that behaviour and, before long, it will be like Dakar where you can barely walk three steps before being accosted by someone who is very ‘friendly’ but actually just wants a handout. Yet they are very poor, and you feel sorry for them, so what should you do? If you feel that you want to give something, go and visit the school. Speak with the teachers or principal, and see what they need. In many villages only half of the children attend school. A big challenge, therefore, is to motivate them to attend. For that reason, we decided to give gifts only to the school. We gave some school supplies (pencils, rulers, sharpeners etc), and we gave some skipping ropes (spare lines that we no longer needed on the boat), and a couple of footballs. We also gave some un-needed clothing and shoes, and entrusted all of these with the teachers to use them wisely.

Footballs are a much requested item by the boys. By giving them to the school, along with skipping ropes for the girls, we are empowering the teachers to make school more fun and thus more attractive to the children. Come to school and you can play football.

If you give the football to the boys in the village, though they will enjoy that a lot, it erodes the possibility for encouraging them to attend school.

As for sweets and candies? Sure, they will enjoy the gift, though they won’t actually appreciate it all that much, and you will simply reinforce the expectation that tourists bring gifts.

Buying Things

Whether you are buying goods or services (eg. taxi rides, or work on your boat), ALWAYS negotiate the price first. The more experience they have of tourists, the more the price will be inflated for ‘your’ benefit. You may think the price quoted is cheap in euros or dollars but, most likely, even after negotiating you will end up overpaying.

But if it is ‘cheap’ why does that matter?

Most people live on maybe a dollar a day. Those that have actual jobs may get paid a handful of dollars a day. So now you come along and you overpay him a couple of dollars for some small item or short taxi ride. In his eyes  that would be the same as you being overpaid by $50 or $100 back home. So if you can earn that much just by hassling a tourist, why would you want to work hard somewhere else?

In Dakar this has reached epic proportions. Here is a very typical example: We are crossing a busy road. In the central divide there are some wooden boats that are being built. Immediately he sees us, a man approaches us, very friendly, and tells us how he is building these boats and aren’t they lovely? We are cool but polite. We tell him we are crossing the road to get a taxi. So we cross the road. He crosses with us. We then hail down a taxi. He pushes in front of us and starts to negotiate with the taxi driver on ‘our behalf’. He tells us the taxi fare will be 3,000 CFA (Senagalese Francs). We know the correct fare is 2,000 CFA. Eventually I manage to push the guy aside and tell the driver that I will give him 2,000 CFA, take it or leave it. When I get in, I tell him, in French, to not give the other guy anything. As he drives off, he tells us that the guy claimed to be our friend, and wanted the driver to give him the extra 1,000 CFA as his commission for negotiating on our behalf. Had we not know the correct fare, had we not known some French, we could easily have assumed the guy was being helpful and friendly, and we would have overpaid by 50%. AND, no doubt, the guy would have asked for a handout before leaving us.

In Banjul we had exactly the same experience with someone who ‘negotiated’ for us the price of some vegetables in a market. An argument even erupted, in their native tongue, between two such negotiators who were competing to act, uninvited, on our behalf.

The other common tactic is to become your uninvited tour guide, to show you around, and then to ask for money at the end. Having got wise to this, and having thought it through, we now refuse to give anything at all, unless it is negotiated in advance. At times you have to actually get quite rude to them to get them to leave you alone.

All of these problems are the result, not of their poverty, but of previous tourists paying too much and giving away free money and gifts. Don’t do it.

As I said, in the small villages that are rarely visited these problems are much less, and people are genuinely friendly. The kids there really do just want to hold your hand.

Tides

You will be travelling up river with the flood tide and down river with the ebb. Forget about trying to correlate this with tide tables from anywhere.  Look out your window. If the tide is flowing in the right direction, use it. When it stops and turns, anchor. In about 6 or 18 hours you will be able to get going again. Usually you will get about 1 knot of current, at times it will be as much as 3 kts. In general, the tide turns later up river than it does at the river mouth. If you are going upstream, add 1.5 to 2 hours to today’s times. On the way down add maybe nothing.  On some days you may get the end of the tide in the morning and then the beginning of the tide in the late afternoon. The tide runs faster in ebb than in flood, as it is augmented by the river’s natural flow.

At Lamin Lodge there is a sandbank that sailors often use for beaching their boat to do bottom scraping. Local labour can be hired cheaply for this.

Weather

November and December are dry season. At this time every day is hot and sunny, though some days may have some cloud cover. The stars at night are bright and beautiful. There is no wind. Do not expect to actually sail up or down the river; you will be motoring the entire way. Likewise there is not much breeze for dispelling insects.

In Lamin Lodge we had heavy dew each morning, but never had it again on the entire river cruise.

Earlier in the year I guess the weather is different, and both rain and winds are much more common.

Bugs and Insects

You will be astounded by how many different types of insect want to eat you. Yes there are mosquitoes (though actually not that many in the dry season). There are also tiny ‘no-see-ums’, tsetse flies (which carry disease), and a whole host of other biting insects of various shapes and sizes. Plus there are moths, earwigs galore, praying mantis, and who-knows what else. Every day the boat is covered with the bodies of multitudes of insects. I don’t know why so many die – maybe it is just the natural turnover of their brief lives. As you work your way up the river you will discover ever different species of insects to torment you.

Insects are attracted to lights at night. You will see a cloud around your anchor light, plus a bunch of bats feeding off them (Go, Bats, Go!). If you turn on lights in your cockpit or salon, the insects will come. But it gets dark at 19:30 hr, so what do you do? Here are the tactics we used, in combination – and we still got bitten in abundance:

1) A mosquito net. We bought one in Banjul market for 375 delassi (7 euro). Get one with the four corners for tying on a four-poster bed. It makes it easier to set up a ‘tent’ for yourself in your cockpit or on the foredeck. Get this set up before sunset, as that is the worst time of day. Unfortunately there are plenty of tiny insects who fly right through the netting. Still, you may be able to enjoy your sundowner, and perhaps supper, inside your tent. If you can bring one of those actual camping net tents that might be even better. Ideally soak your netting in DEET insect repellant in advance.

2) A mosquito coil. You can buy these in any village. They are a black or green flat coil, about 6 inches diameter, that gets put on a little stand. You then light one end of it, and it burns slowly like a cigarette, producing a smoke that is supposed to repel and kill insects. It does work for mosquitos, but not wonderfully for other bugs. Put this under the table when you eat, to protect your legs. Perhaps put it in your cabin before you  go to bed, but it does smell.

3) Insect repellent. Get a good supply of it. The key ingredient is DEET. We actually found one that came as a rosemary scented lotion and was actually quite pleasant to use. It did work somewhat.

4) Clothes. It is hot, so wearing more clothes is not an ideal solution. But at times it is the only one that works. Long sleeve, long leggings, and socks and shoes. Better still, have two layers, eg a T-shirt underneath, as the insects will be happy to bite through your clothing wherever it is in contact with your skin. A hat helps too.

5) Keep your cabin door and windows shut. Do everything you can to prevent insects from arriving in your cabin. If you seal it off completely, it will work, but it will be too hot to use. If you have screens over your windows and hatches, that helps, but the little ones still get through. Once you turn on a light, they will come. If you want to read in bed, turn on a bright light in the bathroom so as to preferentially attract them over there. Maybe put a coil in there too. Try to avoid putting lights on. Use a fan. Cover yourself in bed with at least two layers of sheets.

6) Lights. Don’t use them, as they attract the insects. Of course that is impossible, so if you must have a light on, perhaps have a brighter light nearby so as to preferentially attract them over there. Blue and white attract more than yellow and red. Try using just your red headlamp. Insects will cover your laptop screen; try putting that outside the mosquito net.

7) Anti-histamine cream – in England, sold as Anthisan – works well to reduce the itchiness of recent bites. Put the cream on instead of scratching them, as scratching will just make them worse. If you do that, you may then end up with infected bites, which are not uncommon in the tropics. An alternative is hydrocortisone cream, but that should be used sparingly. If it gets really bad, then an oral antihistamine might help too.

Water and Fuel

One thing that has changed in the past 30 years is that the villages now have clean piped water to village standpipes, which the women collect daily in plastic jerry cans. It may be a bit of a trek back to your boat, but if needed you will be able to get fresh water in most villages. If you are nervous, you can always boil it before you drink it.

Fuel is available in Banjul. At the same dock where you come ashore to check in, there is a diesel fuel pump. You will need to have someone from ashore make the arrangement with the Port Authority to allow you to tie up to the dock. Then you will need to speak with the fuel station farther up the road, on the left, just before you come to the main road.

Then bring your boat to tie up to the dock. Make sure you inspect it first from land, so you know what kind of fender arrangement you want to use. We used a fender board. Keep in mind the tidal stream that flows past the dock.

Once you are tied up, the guy from the fuel station will come and fill you up. This is a commercial pump – ie very fast – so be careful that you don’t overfill. We used a funnel and had him pump very slowly. The diesel seems to be good quality. They will also fill up your outboard’s fuel tank if you carry it up to their station.

And the good news is that this fuel station is WAY cheaper than the ordinary fuel stations on the roads.

Your other option is at Lamin Lodge where the boat boys will organise jerry cans and get fuel for you from the fuel station in Lamin. This will cost a taxi ride, and the fuel is more expensive than in Banjul at the dock.

Swimming

On the coast north of Banul are a number of tourist hotels and some nice beaches. It is worth a taxi ride to go for a day on the beach and enjoy some surf. Ask for Sene-Gambia, and walk through the fancy hotel to the beach. If the northerly swell is not too big there is some fun to be had body-surfing in the waves. The beach is long. Closer to Banjul is the Palmerina beach, and nearby to that is the Maroun supermarket, so you can combine a beach trip with a super market run.

Once you go up the river you won’t be swimming at all. The water is brown with mud the entire time and, no doubt, like most African rivers probably harbours various nasty parasites that you can do without collecting.

Wildlife

This is the reason you go. The Gambia is a paradise for bird watchers. We don’t fall into that camp, but saw many eagles, herons, egrets, pelicans, kingfishers, vultures and so on. We also saw hippos, several different types of monkeys, including baboons, red colobus and, of course, we saw the chimpanzees.

You will start to see the monkeys from about the Deer Islands. They are not plentiful, but they are there. Look in the branches of the trees, especially the palm trees that have a fruit that looks a bit like coconuts, but is clearly not a coconut tree. We saw a number on the north shore of the northern branch of the Deer Islands. There are several different species.

Hippos are hard  to spot. Unlike in Uganda, where there are dozens lounging around in the water and on the river bank, in full view of the tourists, here they seem to hide. From the Deer Islands upwards keep your eyes open.  A friend saw some in the cross-over creek between the two Deer Islands. We saw some a bit further upstream, actually swimming across the river. We also saw another one that quickly walked into the river and submerged. They hide well, and stay under water a long time. When they come up, they take a big noisy breath, and then submerge again. If you see them, you will probably see only their ears, eyes and nostrils above the water. However, at night, especially by Baboon Island, you will hear them all around you in the dark. Do not approach them, they are dangerous.

Chimpanzees live on the Baboon islands. They can’t swim, so actually they are trapped on the island which is therefore really a huge zoo. Even so, they live there in the wild, supplemented by the rangers – and here is the secret – that come and throw fruit to them around about 16:00 to 16:30 each day. At that time the chimps, and the baboons, will come down to the water’s edge to collect the gifts, and will then climb the nearest branch to sit and eat it. After a while they will retreat to the inner parts of the island and will then be hard to spot again. Try to time your trip through the baboon islands to coincide with this feeding schedule. But keep quiet and stay mid-stream, or the rangers will come and talk to you.

We also saw one head, which we believe to be a turtle, that was intermittently popping up to see where it was going as it swam across the river.

There are no warthogs, water buffaloes, impala or other deer. The last elephant was seen in the 1960’s. There are wild pigs which, for a fee, will be captured for you for supper. The Gambia is a Muslim country, so most locals do not eat pork. However there are enough Christians around that occasionally a pig will be caught for them. If you are lucky enough to hear about this you may be able to buy a chunk of the meat for your fridge. Be warned that the meat almost certainly carries parasites – make sure the meat is well cooked before you eat it.

Lamin Lodge

About 4 miles up a creek from Banjul is a popular and peaceful well-sheltered anchorage. There is a rickety lodge ashore that does some nice lunches. There are also a host of ‘Boat boys’ who will offer to do jobs for you – everything from providing you with a taxi, to cleaning the bottom of your boat, or getting 300 litres of water for you by donkey. These men are friendly and can be very helpful. Just make sure that you negotiate, and are clear on, the payment terms before you start anything. Suleyman and Baks seemed to be our favorites. If you want to leave the boat while you travel somewhere else, this would be a secure place to leave it, especially if you negotiate with someone to keep an eye on it while you are gon.

From the Lodge it is about 3 km walk along a sand road to the main Banjul highway at Lamin Village, on the way there you will pass through the village. At the highway you can flag down a minibus ‘car’. You will pile into this with a bunch of locals, and will pay just 8 Dalassi to go to Traffic Light. From there you can get another such ride to SeneGambia where you can visit the beaches. Compare that with 500 Dalassi (or more) to get a private taxi. On the other hand, you can get a taxi right there from Lamin Lodge. Just agree the price first. If you want, you can basically hire them for the day to drive you around on various errands.

There are two types of taxi – the standard, yellow and green ones, and the tourist taxis, which are plain green. The latter are more expensive but tell you that if you leave something behind in the taxi, you will get it back. Hmm. The ones in Lamin Lodge are the green ones – or else just one of the men’s private cars. Taking taxis everywhere gets pretty expensive, so I recommend braving the bus system – it is fine once you have done it once.

 

 

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