In this excerpt from his new book, The Sea Is Not Full, SAIL’s cruising editor describes his first foray into the heart of West Africa aboard the Alberg 35, Crazy Horse
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 us 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 my crew, Carie, and I anchored on our arrival on a bright December afternoon, the most ramshackle part of the whole ramshackle town, was called Half Die, after a cholera epidemic that once wiped out half the city’s population.
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 the CVD yacht club in Dakar, where we’d been warned never to leave anything on deck lest it be stolen, Oyster Creek was very secure. Whoever controlled Denton Bridge controlled 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 around the clock.
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 Café, which was deployed around a more substantial steel shipping container.
Baba was a serious young man, a devout Muslim who nonetheless was happy to serve large quantities of alcohol and food to the visiting sailors, European expats and less devout locals who gathered here. He worked hard and kept his café neat and tidy. Out front, there was a small veranda, diplomatically decorated with an official portrait of Gambia’s new president. Behind the container, which housed the café’s crude kitchen, was a larger area with several more tables and chairs. Sprouting from the top was a wind generator, the café’s sole course of electrical power, which Baba had salvaged from an abandoned sailboat.
CVD might have been 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 hang out. Indeed, it was so comfortable we soon learned that some of our fellow cruisers had been hanging out there 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 to the nearby Siné-Saloum just north of the river in 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, however, were more transient. There was a French family, all of whom had malaria, who had roamed both the Gambia and the Casamance River in southern Senegal 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, then took a languid pull on her 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.
On the third trip, we played tourist and spent a morning on the beach at Fajara. As beaches go, it was quite nice, a broad strand studded with majestic palm trees and fancy hotels. For most tubabs visiting Gambia (“tubab” being the local term for white people) this was the only part of the country they ever saw. It was particularly popular with sun-worshipping Germans, Swedes and British, 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 tourist touts, and this was the only place in Gambia we visited where they were nearly as prevalent as 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.
We’d 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 cinder-block 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.
“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 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 with 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 nicely 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 east into a firm 20-knot breeze. We had the flood 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 gray 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 lump of a place covered with ruined fortifications and baobab trees. For centuries, before Banjul (originally Bathurst) was established in 1816, this had been a key focal point in the European conflicts that punctuated the slave trade. First discovered by the Portuguese, this islet had belonged variously to Polish Lithuanians, the Dutch, and primarily the French and British, who quarreled persistently over control of the river. Though the island was ultimately indefensible, as it has no freshwater, the British in the end prevailed and established the Gambia as a distinct political entity, a narrow sliver of English sovereignty jammed up the bunghole of French West Africa.
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’d given up and started motoring. Here on the Gambia’s lower reaches, the scenery was also monotonous. The river was still quite wide, and all along its banks, there was nothing but low-lying thickets of mangrove.
Much later in the day, after 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 extremely hospitable. We’d be given a grand tour of the village, our crowd of hosts growing ever larger as the tour progressed, were introduced to village elders and other important persons, and invariably were asked if we’d like to drink China green tea.
This was always 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’d 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 found, 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 nearly tangible, a non-presence that haunted the dense walls of mangrove lining the creek bank.
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 tender, 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 eco-voodoo phenomenon?
That night, as on any night when we anchored in a creek, insects descended en masse and we had to shroud every aperture in the boat 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 put me on alert.
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 just as 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.
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