Now I'm no longer freelance, I've had to become more creative in order to complete my ambition to visit every country in the world. My quota of annual leave doesn't leave much room for spontaneity, but when an Edinburgh-based friend – similarly constrained by his employment – spotted cheap return flights to the Gambia, we separately secured a few days' leave and booked our tickets.
As I've recounted in a previous travelogue, West Africa remains relatively untouched by my wanderlust. The Gambia, a small sliver of a country surrounded to the north and south by the former French territory of Senegal, simply wasn't on my radar, and I was more than a little surprised to discover that Thomas Cook shuttles tens of thousands of British tourists there every year.
The flight out was a trial. Not only did it depart two hours late due to surplus luggage, but a fuel shortage at our destination necessitated an unscheduled stop at the Canary Islands. I passed the time by chatting to a Scottish doctor who had volunteered two months of her time to work in tropical medicine, and a Gambian-born lady who was returning home to visit her family. The latter dealt with the longer-than-anticipated flight by surreptitiously drinking a bottle of duty-free gin.
We arrived late at the sprawling Senegambian Beach Hotel, which was full of British (and other European) tourists. This was comfortable enough, but very much a package-holiday set-up, something I usually avoid as zealously as checked baggage. I don't relax readily, either at home or abroad, but I do enjoy reading and swimming, and indulged in both to the point of near-relaxation.
I made a point of finding out why the country is known as 'the Gambia,' rather than simply 'Gambia'. There are two reasons: first, it's named after 'the' River Gambia, while pre-independence, Gambia formally requested a definite article (one of only two countries in the world to use it) from the UK-based 'Permanent Committee on Geographical Names,' so as not to be confused with Zambia.
Most of our fellow guests seemed unwilling to leave the comfort of the resort or, at a push, the brightly-lit but rather seedy Senegambia 'Strip', a few streets stuffed full of money changers, taxi drivers, restaurants and bars. But, eager to break the pleasant monotony of sunbathing and swimming, my companion and I arranged a beat-up cab to take us into the capital of Banjul.
Our first stop was the curious 'Arch 22,' which straddles Independence Avenue as you approach the city from the west. Rather than commemorating independence or a great battle, this was erected following a 1994 military coup, although the basic museum on its top floor covered the pre- and post-colonial history of the Gambia. Independence came in 1965, although the Queen remained head of state until 1970, a sort of transitional period on the journey to full sovereignty.
The modernist Banjul International Airport building to the south of the capital spoke to the heady optimism of those years, although a prominently-displayed quote from the first president of the Gambia (who had opened the airport) also suggested quixotic expectations. 'Independence is not a magic formula,' he had said on the new nation's first anniversary, 'which will transform our groundnuts into diamonds.'
There were more traces of empire at the modest but engrossing Gambian National Museum. Upstairs was a standard-issue portrait of Queen Elizabeth from early in her reign, while lining the walls were photographic portraits of former governors – many of them Scots – in varying states of disrepair. The building had once been the British or 'Bathurst' Club (Bathurst having been the colonial name for what is today Banjul). Faded maps showed the crown colony's borders following the course of the Gambian River, a profitable trading route in the late 19th century.
At the Gambian-Senegalese border the next day, a narcotics officer told us about the short-lived Senegambian confederation of the 1980s, a constitutional experiment that had passed me by. Prompted by concerns over security, the two countries agreed to gradual unification but, fearing a loss of identity from the larger Senegal, the Gambia withdrew in 1989. Perhaps with this in mind, the clearly well-informed officer questioned us closely about Brexit – and even Scottish independence.
The border itself was peaceful and relatively unbureaucratic, but early last year it was full of thousands of Gambians escaping what a display at Arch 22 called a state of emergency declared by the 'deposed (but refusing-to-leave) dictator,' a reference to former president, Yahya Jammeh, who ignored defeat in a 2016 election. The crisis took the Gambia to the brink of civil war, and thousands of British tourists had to be flown swiftly home.
My travelling companion and I were just in south Senegal for a day, a quick and relatively cheap way of ticking another country off our global bucket lists. That morning I had read the New York Times' obituary of former president, George H W Bush, which included an account of the first Gulf War. Fittingly, we rattled around in a Land Rover which hailed from that conflict. Abdul, our guide, said it was one of three purchased by a Gambian tour company more than 25 years ago.
It was pretty beat-up, but did the job. We stopped by a packed but friendly market full of tuna fish which, as we saw further along the coast, dominated the local economy (as it does in northern Senegal). Nothing was wasted, even the scales being dried and used as fertiliser. On Boune island, we met members of a self-sufficient community comprising 50 or so people who had sought refuge from earlier conflicts in Senegal. Today they gather oysters and grow cannabis in neat rectangles, the product of which probably ends up all over the world.
At Banjul International Airport the following day, I eavesdropped as British holidaymakers enthused about their visit to the Gambia. 'It's much better than Spain,' remarked one to a fellow passenger. 'Spain is now more English than England.' I resisted the temptation to tell him that within hours of my arrival I'd been offered a copy of the Sun on the beach at Kololi.
Photo at top: Banjul