Crossing the River The Gambia

The northern part and the southern part of the small country Gambia in West Africa are separated by the river The Gambia. Anyone who wants to travel from the north to the south or vice versa will have to cross the river. The easiest way to do this is to use the ferry that sails from the port of the capital Banjul in the southern part to the port of Barra in the northern part.

Times

The ferry does not operate with fixed times. The boat starts sailing at seven in the morning and the last crossing is made at nine in the evening. The crossing itself takes about thirty-five minutes, but most of the time is lost loading and unloading the boat. As a result, it can sometimes take 45 minutes to an hour before the ferry arrives at the port on the other side.
There are a total of three ferries that can make the trip, but in principle there are two sailings per day. One boat starts in the port of Barra, the other boat starts in the port of Banjul. As soon as the boat is loaded, the crossing begins. Because one boat sometimes spends longer loading and unloading than the other, the boats will not cross each other exactly halfway through the crossing.

In the harbour

Anyone who wants to board the ferry will first have to buy a ticket at the beginning of the harbor. There are different prices for passengers on foot and for passengers in a car or truck. There is no separate price for animals that can also be taken on board.

VIP and foot passengers

Both Banjul Port and Barra Port consist of two waiting areas: the VIP area and the foot passenger area. The VIP section is intended for passengers who board the ferry with a car, truck or cargo and for tourists who make the crossing through a travel organization. These passengers are the first to board as soon as the boat is (almost) empty.
In the VIP section of Banjul there are also some vendors walking around, trying to sell bananas, bags of nuts or souvenirs to tourists. They can be very pushy: they don’t easily accept no.
The foot passenger section is intended for locals and tourists who have booked the crossing through a local guide. They have to wait in a small room until everyone from the VIP section is on board. Only then will the gate of their section open and they are allowed to board.

On-board

The ferries consist of three decks: a lower deck, an intermediate deck and an upper deck. The lower deck is reserved for cars, trucks and loose cargo. Foot passengers can also stand here or sit on the ground. Benches have been placed on the tween deck and the upper deck for foot passengers to sit on.
There are many local vendors on board the ferries, mainly women and children. They often try to sell bananas or bags of nuts to tourists. Most salespeople are not pushy: if someone doesn’t want to buy, they just move on.

Important information

Anyone who is going to cross The Gambia River by ferry must be aware of a number of things in advance:

  • The waiting time for the ferry can sometimes be quite long, because loading and unloading takes a very long time. If it is a warm and sunny day, make sure you have enough water.
  • Everything goes on board the ferry: cars, people, bags of coffee, but also goats, sheep and chickens. The hygiene on the boat is therefore not what we are used to in Western Europe. Also keep in mind that if you travel with a car, your car can be damaged: every millimeter is used on the ferry, so the cars have to park very close together.
  • There are toilet facilities, but these are very limited (one men’s toilet and one women’s toilet) and according to Gambian standards: a minimum of hygiene and in the port of Barra no more than a hole in the ground.
  • If you book the crossing through a local guide, you will be forced to wait in the foot passenger area until everyone is on board. Once you are finally allowed on board, you have to rush to find a seat. If you book the crossing through a travel organization, you don’t have this: you can wait in the VIP section, where it is quieter, and you can be the first to find a spot on the upper deck.

 

Experience

Whether you choose a crossing through a local guide or through a tour company, crossing The Gambia River will be quite an experience. The crossing is in no way comparable to a crossing in our Western culture, except perhaps that the boat sails over water. Try not to think too much about safety along the way, because of course the ferry does not meet the safety requirements that we impose on ferries in Europe.

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