While holiday package tours were commonplace by 1979 next year it will be 35 years since Thompsons (UK) offered the first holiday package tour to The Gambia in West Africa. A destination described in 1943 as a ‘hell hole’ by US President Roosevelt when he stopped off in, the capital, Banjul before going on to meet Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Casablanca.
I was privileged to be one of the early Thompson ‘guinea pigs’, able to experience a totally uncommercialised capital Banjul and the seemingly endless flight on a Boeing 737 charter plane. A journey that should take no more than seven or so hours took eleven and ended in the middle of the night with what seemed like a crash landing which suggested that the pilot had dozed off somewhere near Agadir in Morocco. At that time Banjul airport was little more than a clearing in the jungle where the contractors had forgotten to extract the tree stumps from the runway prior to tarmacking. The only commercial enterprise was this gift shop on the tarmac with the owner working his socks off to sell his wares as you can see.
It’s clear from this photo it is a rather different airport today.
We were wonderfully entertained during the flight by a holidaying Charlie Williams, until he finally succumbed to the boredom of a long flight or maybe too much booze and fell asleep. Charlie was a well-known English stand-up comedian in the 1970’s, who died in 2006.
Coming out of the depths of an English winter in February, it was quite a shock to be dumped on the tarmac, in the pitch dark, at 2am with the temperature around 30c and a million cicadas making more noise than the 737 did on landing. Fortunately processing through immigration didn’t take too long as the customs officers were either asleep or had gone home already.
A First World War air-conditioned bus took us swiftly to our hotel on the beach. I say air-conditioned, by which I mean that all the windows were open.
My first African sunrise
As you can imagine I slept like a baby and was determined to rise before daybreak to witness my first African sunrise. I was the only one who made it! As I sat on a driftwood log alone on the beach I witnessed something quite spectacular which I shall never forget .
Those were the days long before the advent of digital cameras but I did take photos which I found in ‘granny’s attic’, scanned and restored them to bring the story of that time back to life. Every picture has a story but first let me explain a little about the history of West Africa and The Gambia in particular.
Where is The Gambia?
The Gambia is a finger of land, bordering the river Gambia, and runs horizontally from the West coast through the middle of Senegal. Its official language is English and It shares historical roots with many other West African nations in the slave trade, which was the key factor in the placing and keeping of a colony on the Gambia River, first by the Portuguese and later by the British.
About 75% of the population depend on crops and livestock for their livelihood. Small-scale manufacturing activity features the processing of peanuts, fish, and hides. (Source: Wikipedia) We found the locals were skilled in making beautiful Batik garments and of course clay or earthenware pots.
The start of West African tourism
So what prompted Thompsons to pioneer tours to the Country, described as a ‘Hell hole’, where everyday it is hotter than hell and if you forget your Yellow Fever, Malaria and other jabs you may well come home in a box? Well, In 1976 Alex Haley published a novel called ‘Roots’ which was made into a television mini-series the following year and received many awards. It is the story of Kunta Kinteh, a slave taken to America from Jufureh in The Gambia, and many subsequent generations of his family. It was this mini-series that created interest and put The Gambia on the tourist map. The site of his birthplace is now a common tourist attraction in The Gambia.
‘Dr. Livingstone I presume’
Our room boy, Landing Bojam got us a hire car and we set off early one morning for his home village near Tendaba town about 80kms from Banjul. The main road then was not tarmac so it was a fairly rough ride all the way once we got out of Banjul. It seemed as though the people from every village we passed through knew Landing, like he was a celebrity. Hot is not descriptive enough as we poured ourselves out of the non-airconned car on arrival.
Like film stars on location the whole village turned out to greet us. Dozens of children seemed fascinated by our appearance; touching our skin and hair in rapturous laughter. It soon became clear why when Landing told us that we were the first white people they had ever seen except for the Chief who had been to Banjul once. I felt like a modern-day Dr. Livingstone!
It would have been impolite to refuse any hospitality but when I was offered a bowl of palm wine in which several dozen dead flies were floating I had some difficulty in accepting. Then Landing demonstrated that all you have to do is blow the flies to one side and then you can drink. It was just as easy as he said and very soon I was nearly as pissed as the flies. Boy that stuff was strong!!
Another day we took a river trip to a village near Banjul in the mangrove swamps. When we moored up and traversed a rickety board walk we were once again greeted by dozens of excited children. They all tried to grab us and the lucky chosen ones got to take us to their homes to meet their parents. Then the villagers cooked lunch which consisted of goat curry and rice. Despite my reticence I ate and was quite surprised at how good it was.
I have so many memories of my first visit to Africa although at times it was unbearably hot. Not so good for sensitive tummies some days we spent a fair amount of time running back and forth to the loo. But looking back 35 years later it was one of the most rewarding travel experiences; not least because we were some of the first tourists and the people were so pleased to see us.
I found this letter, amongst the photos, which a Gambian school-girl I met wrote to me after I returned to England. Reading it again after so many years was very moving and I wonder if she is still waiting for me. I’m not sure how I would feel now if I returned. Seeing modern photographs of a developed tourist destination with all ‘mod cons’ I suspect it may not be good for my soul. Anyway it’s unlikely to happen but I still have these old pictures to remind me of of a unique experience and Amal’s lovely letter .