“Order from disorder.”…Jimmy Buffett
At odd intervals with nothing resembling a schedule each day, a dilapidated ferry leaves the harbor in downtown Banjul, the capital of The Gambia, and slowly makes its way across the 17 mile route over the mouth of the River Gambia to the hamlet of Barra on the river’s north bank. Tour guides will tell you that there are two ferries; one operating in each direction from 7:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. but there are not. Others will tell you that the ferry ride takes 40 minutes to complete but after being onboard for 2 hours and still not being at the Barra ferry terminal, you quickly realize that time is a relative thing on the Banjul-Barra ferry.
There are other points of conjecture about the ferry and its status – things like how old the ferry is (a plaque on the upper deck says it was built in Kiev Ukraine (which has no ocean access!) in 2004 but a look at the state of the boat suggests that 1904 was a more likely construction date), and stories about how safe it is (or not), and stories about how relatively clean the supposed rest room is (simply put, you want to plan on holding it until you get to shore). Another story is that despite the plaque saying the boat was constructed in landlocked Kiev, Ukraine, it was actually made in the Netherlands and it took nearly a year to drive the boat to the Gambia. However the one thing about the Banjul-Barra ferry that is not conjecture is that it is one of the most memorable experiences of chaos you will find on a continent rife with chaos!
There really are two ferries that operate on the crossing but the second one is in dry dock. Its engines blew out and Taiwan donated three new ones to the Gambian government for their placement on the boat. The only glitch in this otherwise potentially exciting news is that nobody knew with a scintilla of certainty when or if the other boat would ever be fixed.
Pulling out of Banjul harbor on the supposed 7:00 a.m. ferry to Barra.
My experience with the ferry happened on Friday, November 1, 2013, when I traveled with a Dutch couple across the river and onward to southern Senegal for a day trip. The trip was arranged by a local travel tycoon because the tour company that my Gambian tour operator uses in The Gambia flatly refuses to take people on the ferry. “We have had just too many complaints about the ferry not working” I was told by my tour operator representative in Banjul. Instead we jumped in a beaten up Land Rover at 6:20 a.m. and raced (as much as anything races) to downtown Banjul and its ferry terminal for the supposed 7:00 a.m. departure. Cars and trucks, some of them having been in line for days (not hours – days), waited for their chance to board the ferry. As foot passengers we simply walked on and found a seat and waited for the eventual (and almost on-time) departure of the ferry for Barra.
The government of The Gambia has this fanciful information posted on a website regarding the Banjul-Barra ferry:
The Banjul to Barra Ferry Service is one of the Gambia capital's vital economic lifelines and an essential river crossing to Dakar (Senegal) the north bank wharf town of Barra Point in the Niumi District. The journey time from the terminal and across the mouth of the Gambia River estuary is about 35 minutes and services start from Banjul at 7am and operate until 9 in the evening.
Everyone can dream I guess. The British High Commission strongly advises the Brits not to take the ferry and the US Embassy – Banjul likewise is extremely cautious in what it says about hopping on the boat. Its the job of US Embassy's to be cautious and to inform travelers about potential dangers and annoyances. Usually I scoff at their advice and liken it to an overly protective mother worrying about their child on the first day of school. In the case of the Banjul-Barra ferry the US Embassy is right on. Still by defying US diplomatic advice you are able to experience a part of The Gambia that would otherwise be out of reach.
As we crossed the river mouth we were regularly passed by small boats that were packed to the gills with people. These small boats operate in vast numbers in response to the unreliability of the ferry. Recently, on October 11, 2013, one of the small boats sank in mid-crossing resulting in at least 7 deaths. The alternative is the ferry. I guess it’s all a crap shoot.
Small boats called "pirogues" regularly pass by in each direction across the mouth of the River Gambia. Each is packed to the gills with humans and each human is hoping that the boat doesn't sink with them on it!
Once onboard and underway I looked around the ferry at all of its occupants. Down below there were 8 trucks, 4 vans and 12 cars. All around us were thousands of people of every size, shape and religious orientation known to science. Probably 2,000 humans rode on the ferry with a scattering of dogs, a few goats and crate after crate of chickens. If you have ever taken the tourist bus to the Monteverde Cloud Forest preserve in Costa Rica you have a sense of the pandemonium. The only thing is the bus to Monteverde is a luxury liner in comparison.
People sold water to passengers and one guy had a collection of “authentic” Rolex watches that he was selling for the equivalent of about $6.00 US. One woman sold peanuts by the handful. She carried them on a tray that was heaped full of peanuts and the tray was mounted on her head. She made regular forays up and down the ferry steps and never once did I see a single peanut roll off the tray.
All manner of excuse ran throughout the ferry to explain how our 45 minute trip was now longer than 2 hours but nobody had a factual explanation and on the Banjul-Barra ferry it doesn’t really matter.
After an excruciatingly long trip across the river we literally slammed into the dock on the Barra side of the river where a large sign proudly welcomes you to Barra. As we approached the dock a mass of humanity swarmed down the steps and onto the deck of the ferry waiting for the gate to open so everyone could depart. And, as if on cue, once the gate opened there was complete bedlam as all those thousands of people on the ferry tried desperately to get off the ferry. Even the peanut seller wanted off the ferry and she still didn’t spill one goober.
The chaotic departure of masses of people from the Banjul-Barra ferry
Eight hours later after a brief journey to southern Senegal we again boarded the Banjul-Barra ferry. By now it was 5:00 p.m. and even more people wanted to be on the ferry getting out of Barra than had arrived earlier in the day. I’m sure because we were tourists we didn’t have to wait in the waiting area (which is overrun with pick pockets) but instead were allowed to walk down to the ferry early. Once the gates opened we boarded and took a seat with a great view on the upper deck. From there we watched cars, buses, trucks, oxen, goats and a truck full of pigs cram onto the ferry. With the vehicles secured officials let the human passengers on board and when they did a literal sea of humans gushed down the gangplank to the ferry. I wish I had taken a picture of it because wall-to-wall human bodies oozed out of the starting gate and rushed to the boat. It was a scene I will not forget.
Once under way the uneventful return trip took 40 minutes to complete. Don’t ask why. Nobody knows. The following day, for whatever reason, the ferry never left the dock in Banjul. We were the last people on it for 2 days. I wonder if it’s operating now? My guess is that its not.