Our intrepid traveller sets out to find hippos but uncovers Gambia's biggest mystery instead
Hippos love to tear up rice fields.
Which is why, if you're a rice farmer in The Gambia, you should build a scarecrow.
This was news to me, but explained why there were so many scarecrows – or scarehippos – along the banks of the Gambia River near Janjanbureh. I was out on a morning bird-and-hippo-spotting boat expedition with the Dutch family I'd travelled from Banjul to Bird Safari Camp with, and while we didn't find any hippos (the rice farmers must have scared them all away), we did find lots of birds. And scarecrows.
I wanted to see hippos. I have a thing for hippos, having had a local hippo in the yard in 2005 when I lived at Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda. One had even chased us when we'd gotten too close with our cameras.
But there were no hippos to be found today, six years after I'd left Uganda and ten years after I'd encountered bajillions of hippo pods on a Zambezi canoe safari in Zimbabwe on my first around-the-world trip.
Maybe I should have gone out on the afternoon boat trip instead. The camp manager had told me the best time for hippo-spotting was early evening.
At least being out on the river generated a breeze. The Gambia was scorching. I cowered on the mat under the ramshackle boat's canopy, shifting with the shade as the sun rose high into the sky. And on our return to Bird Safari Camp, I wondered what to do with the rest of my day. The Dutch family was mostly preoccupied with car-fixing, aside from one of their daughters, who was teaching a local teenager how to swim.
I'd read about the Wassu Stone Circles, an ancient archeological site not entirely unlike a mini-Stonehenge, about 20 kilometers northwest of Janjanbureh. I wanted to see it, but the camp was a three kilometer walk from the ferry that would take me to the transport hub across the river. How could I get around on my own?
Somehow all the camp's employees got here every day, I reasoned. I asked around.
"Wassu? You want to go to Wassu?" The bar manager was intrigued. "It is possible. You'll have to get to Kuntaur by taxi, but it will be a long day as you wait for the taxis to fill up."
Ugh. And then what happens when I get to Kuntaur? Can I walk?
A young man who sweeps and does maintenance offered me his bicycle.
"But what will I do with your bicycle when I get to the ferry?"
Hmm. Another problem that just occurred to me. How exactly did I plan on getting out of here tomorrow with my backpack?
Then, as I sat there chafing, wondering if I should perhaps avoid future situations where I was marooned, three of my Dutch friends walked by.
"We're going to town," said Mum. "In the good car."
"Just the three of you?"
"Yes. Want to come?"
"No... Actually, could you drop me off at the ferry in town? I want to go see Wassu."
And we were off, nudging the car over giant potholes and raised tiny bridges along a dirt track. At least today, no one drove in front of us. Yesterday, when we'd been towed in the other car – which was now awaiting a tow to town for repairs – we showed up at the camp covered in thick layers of yellow-red dust.
Janjanbureh isn't a big place, and the ferry is a flat blue steel structure that holds only a few cars and a gaggle of people at a time. We didn't have any trouble finding it. I clambered on-board for the five-minute journey to the north bank.
"Where are you going?" An older man in a skullcap appeared to be the current coordinator of transportation on the other side of the river.
He motioned me at an empty minivan. That's a lot of seats to fill. I'd be here for hours. Yuck.
"I have a taxi. You want to go to Wassu?" A nice-looking guy in his late 20s or early 30s had appeared next to the older man. He wore a rasta-colored knit cap and baggy jeans.
I pretended to do some quick mathematical calculations in my head. I should have been converting his fee to dollars, but in reality, I was thinking something like this:
Why am I so slack? I never bother checking on the rates in advance anymore. Well, let's see... At the border, you get 300 dalasis for 5000 CFA, which is about $10, so he's offering me something in the range of $12-18. Maybe. That's way too much. Whatever. I don't want to sit here all day waiting for this van to fill up. In the sun. I hate sun. But I'm supposed to negotiate. What should I counter with?
"Sure. Okay, let's go." I have no head for negotiating.
We got into Mohammed's green Peugeot station wagon, which actually had handles to wind down the windows. This was a well-maintained Peugeot. I can't remember how many times taxi drivers had offered me the use of the sole handle, shared between four windows and carefully stored in a secure location.
Mohammed explained to me that the taxi didn't belong to him. He rented it by the day from a man who had a small business in Farafenni, which is halfway between Janjanbureh and Banjul on the coast. The man had worked hard to buy a few older Peugeots, fixed and maintained them, then rented them to a few drivers he knew.
"I am from a small family, but my father died. Now I live with just my mother in Farafenni. Right now, I brought some tourists from Banjul, so now I am waiting for a fare to return to Farafenni or Banjul."
"How long will you wait?"
"Maybe a day. Maybe I will sleep here. Maybe tomorrow." He shrugged. Could be a long wait.
We passed a police checkpoint and a military checkpoint en route to Kuntaur. The policeman waved us by but the military guy flagged us down.
"What did he want?" I asked as we pulled away.
"The same as they all want. But this one is crazy. I told him I'd give him something on the way back."
I was a little shocked. The Dutch family and I had been able to pass by all the police and military checkpoints the previous day with only giving out bits of licorice. But as tourists, we are exempt from the hassle the locals get.
"Mohammed, do all police ask for money?"
"Not all. Some. Always from the taxi drivers. They must be rich."
Locals, it seems, don't have the same protection as tourists. We can pretend we don't understand or flat out refuse. What are they going to do, risk a showdown with the US embassy for locking me up for not paying a bribe? Meanwhile, the citizens of Gambia had only the protection of an offered cigarette and a few dalasis.
"Having a taxi is expensive," explained Mohammed. He motioned at all the stickers on the window. "See all of these? They all cost money. The owner of the taxi has to pay a lot to own this, and of course he also has to maintain it. Then I have to pay him a lot to rent it, and then I have other costs like the petrol and the police. But still, it is a good way to make money. When my father was still alive, I was trying to decide how to make money for myself and my mother. I went to him, I said, what if I drop out of school and go to learn to be a driver? Then I can always have an income. My father understood and approved."
"Is there a driving school?"
"Yes, and I went there for a short time. Maybe a month. Mostly I learned from the garages, from hanging around."
"Like an apprenticeship."
So you could intern in taxi-driving in The Gambia. I was learning a lot today. I no longer cared that I was probably overpaying for the trip.
Our drive to Kuntaur took only 20 minutes or so. Mohammed pointed at the shared taxi stand.
"You would have come in there. See, then you only have to walk down here to Wassu."
It wasn't a long walk, but I wouldn't have wanted to do it in the sun. Anyway, I'd still be sitting at the north bank if I hadn't chartered a taxi.
I paid my admission of 50 dalasis to a guard in a hut. A musician under a tree spotted me, then started tapping out a song on his xylophone-looking thing. No one else was in sight. Mohammed accompanied me into Wassu, explaining what things were as we went.
"No one knows why these are here. Some people have studied, but not many. Maybe they are burial sites."
That's right. That's what my guidebook said, and also what the meager exhibits at the tiny museum at the gatehouse said.
"And it's on the money."
Mohammed pulled a 50 dalasi note out of his pocket and showed me a picture of the circle just ahead.
Why was Wassu on the money? I hadn't even noticed.
I tipped the musician (after Mohammed nudged me to), thanked the guard, and off we went, to give a little something to the military guy, and drop me at the ferry.
Back in Janjanbureh, I had a new problem. How would I get to camp? Walk?
"Hey, remember me?"
I turned around to laugh at the speaker. This is a classic scam, the "Remember me" one. Usually, the speaker claims to know you from a hotel, then asks for a small loan. But it wasn’t a bumster – this was the guy that the Dutch daughter had been teaching to swim.
"Oh. I do remember you. How are you?"
"I am fine. Can I help you?"
"Do you know how I get back to Bird Safari Camp?"
"You can come to the mechanic's shop. When he is finished fixing the radiator on the Dutch car, you can ride back with us."
"Or you can take a taxi."
"How much do you think that would be?"
"Very expensive. But you can take a moto-taxi."
And that is how I ended up clinging to the back of a motorbike for the three kilometers back to Bird Safari Camp.
I spent the afternoon sleeping on the dock, where the breeze was strongest. And when the afternoon boat safari came in, I hurried to ask what they'd seen.
The afternoon boat cruisers didn't see any hippos either.
Marie Javins writes books, teaches aspiring comic book colorists in New York, edits Kuwaiti comic books and travels the world by public bus. You can read more about her current expedition – a second round-the-world journey – at MariesWorldTour.com.
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