Tendaba Camp, for all its pleasantries, refused to let me leave gracefully. Chris decided to head west back to Banjul and I opted to head east, so after nearly two weeks in the company of others I was going to be on my own again. The thought filled me with dread, because the next leg of my journey sounded terrible. Tendaba might be a conference centre but it's still out in the middle of bloody nowhere.
The first hurdle was to get back to the main road. We asked about transport back to Kwinella and the woman behind the bar said that it was certainly possible... but in Africa everything is deemed 'possible'. It's turning the 'possible' into the 'definite' that's the real challenge, it seems.
So we got up at 6.30am, grabbed breakfast and asked the staff to arrange a lift to the road, if they would be so kind, and they wobbled their heads, grinned that special grin that's reserved for idiots like me who think things might actually go according to some kind of schedule, and said we should wait for the driver. So we waited.
And we waited, and waited, and waited, wondering if Tendaba was the African equivalent of Hotel California and whether we'd ever get started on the trek out of conference centre hell. The staff just kept asking us to wait a little longer, and every now and then our hopes would rise a little when we'd see someone who looked like a driver, but who would turn out to be nothing of the sort. One by one the minutes slowly ticked by, and I idled time away by counting the extra hours I could have spent in bed. Eventually at 9am, as I was nodding off on the table, our lift turned up. So much for the ultra-early start we'd hoped for.
We'd heaved ourselves out of bed at the crack of dawn because Tendaba has no bus station; Kwinella, the village back on the main road, is nothing more than a spot on the main highway through the Gambia, and whereas in the West there would be a bus stop with a timetable, in Kwinella there's precious little more than a shelter made from branches and woven sticks. If the Gambia had tumbleweed, it would blow through Kwinella like an old friend, but even the breeze sits like a dejected hitcher on the side of the road, too hot to do anything but wait.
The idea is that you stand on the side of the road and wave at every bus that goes past until one stops. There are quite a few problems with this, though; as I may have mentioned, buses only leave Gambian bus stations when they are packed to the gills, so for a bus to pick you up in a place like Kwinella, someone needs to have got off the bus before they get to you, and that space still needs to be vacant by the time the bus reaches your neck of the woods. The roads of Africa are smothered in people waving down buses – or, more accurately, people waving at full buses as they rattle past, showering them in dust – and as the first, second, third, fourth and fifth buses rolled past, indicating with a hand signal that they were already full, my heart began to sink.
Add to this the fact that I wasn't the only person trying to get a seat on an eastbound bus – there were about four locals heading the same way – and it doesn't take a statistician to work out that I was in for a long wait. And this was only for the first leg, to the junction town of Soma, from where I'd have to catch another bus to Jangjang Bureh, my destination. I didn't even want to think about how long I'd have to wait in Soma for the second bus to fill up, so to pass some time I thought I'd ask one of the locals how long we'd have to wait.
'It is very tough,' he said, shrugging his shoulders in a manner that I'm starting to recognise as the African Way. 'Not enough buses, too many people, it is very tough.'
Just then a bus bumped into view on the horizon, heading west, and Chris jumped up, waving at the bus for all he was worth. It slowed to a halt, and with a yelp he grabbed his bag and ran to the back of the bus. There was one space left, but even quicker than Chris a local teacher had nipped in the back door, and leaving a gaggle of dejected hopefuls standing in the middle of the road, the bus pulled out, heading for Banjul. Chris slumped back to the side of the road; this interesting queuing technique added a further dimension to the task at hand.
'It is tough,' repeated my friend at the bus stop. 'Very tough.'
'You're not wrong there,' I sighed, and settled in for the wait.
An hour later things were no better. The sun was getting seriously hot, baking the road and making the air shimmer in the distance. After two hours and another rattling collection of full buses, I couldn't help wondering whether we were going to end up slinking back to Tendaba with our tails between our legs, ready to try it all over again tomorrow.
Then a bus appeared on the horizon and I leapt up, grinning in what I hoped was a reassuringly friendly manner. It slowed down, I yelled 'Soma! Soma!' at the top of my voice, and the driver indicated there was one space. I grabbed my bags and leapt for the back of the bus faster than a bumster at the rustle of dollar bills.
'One for Soma?' I asked, trying to look like the sort of person you'd really want to have on your bus. The crowd behind me tried the same trick but Allah was smiling on me, and the ticket man pointed at the spare seat and pointed at me, and I jumped on and sat down before you could say, 'You've saved my life!'
Shouting goodbye to Chris, I squashed into my row, handing over D10 and thanking my lucky stars that I'd managed to escape from Tendaba. I still had some way to go to Jangjang Bureh, but the first hurdle was behind me.
Shooting Through Soma
Half an hour later the bus arrived in Soma and I hopped off, shouting 'Jangjang Bureh' in the hope that I'd be steered towards the next bus heading that way. A couple of likely lads tried to persuade me to hop into their totally empty minibus, but I laughed and said, 'There are no people in this bus – I want one with people!'
'OK, over here,' they said. 'One place free.'
I couldn't believe it. There was the bus for Jangjang Bureh, and it had just one seat free, a seat with my name on it. I bought my ticket from the ticket man, squashed into the front row, and two minutes after I'd arrived in Soma I was heading east again. This was too good to be true – in the space of 50 minutes I'd gone from standing dejected on the side of the road to sitting on a bus that was going right where I wanted to go.
A couple of hours later the bus arrived at the ferry crossing from the south bank of the River Gambia to MacCarthy Island, home to the town of Jangjang Bureh. At precisely the same time a bus full of tourists pulled up at the ferry, and as they piled off their air-conditioned bus onto the tiny two-car ferry, I hauled my pack on my back and wandered among them, a smelly traveller among pressed and clean toubabs. They completely blanked me but their tour guide, a happy-looking Gambian, struck up a conversation, and we whiled away the two-minute crossing with friendly small talk. On the other side I started looking for something to take me the final 2.5km to Jangjang Bureh, but I couldn't see anything anywhere, and I wondered what on earth I was supposed to do now that I was so close to the end.
Seeing no option, I sidled up to the tour guide and asked him if he knew of any buses to the town. 'I tell you what,' he said, 'I'll give you a lift.' And with that he hauled my pack into the bus and I plonked myself down among the sullen-looking collection of scrubbed tourists, wondering whether I really smelled as bad as I thought I did. Pulling into Jangjang Bureh the guide pointed me to various accommodation options, and beaming my best smile at him and his grumpy cohorts, I stepped off the bus and kissed the ground.