April 16 found us docked at Banjul, capital of The Gambia.
But before we get to that we have to tell you about something that happened 3 days earlier when we crossed the Equator for the fourth and last time. During his daily afternoon announcements the day before the Captain told us about a ship that was sailing in the Pacific on the eve of the first New Year of the 20th century. It seems that it was near the international date line at the time, so its captain decided to alter course a little so that midnight would find them straddling the spot where the Equator crosses the date line. At that moment half the ship was in Winter (above the equator) and half in Summer (below the equator). Half the ship was in the last day of December (on one side of the date line) and half the ship was in the first of January. But the really unique thing was that half the ship was in the 19th century and the other half in the 20th century.
Anyway, the Captain mentioned that we would be crossing the Prime Meridian as well as the Equator, but not at quite the same time. So he was later presented with a petition from some passengers requesting that he alter course so we could cross the point where these two lines intersect and he agreed to do so. It would be around 11:00 at night so the cruise director scheduled a “pajama party” in the Crow’s Nest to celebrate. In the end many were disappointed because the ship missed the mark by about 20 feet. But since the Amsterdam is more than 100 feet wide it seemed to us that if its GPS said it was within 20 feet then part of the ship must have passed over the spot. We have no evidence for this, but we prefer to believe that the cabin where we were asleep at the time passed smack over the intersection of the Equator and the Prime Meridian!
Of course, this intersection was nothing like that of the 19th century ship detailed above. Amsterdam was half in Winter and half in Summer, but that is true any time you cross any part of the Equator. The special thing about this particular intersection is that it is the only place on Earth that is zero degrees latitude and zero degrees longitude. So, as the Captain said, navigationally speaking this spot is the center of the world! This is pretty arbitrary, though, since the Prime Meridian is just a line on a map drawn in the late 19th century to pass through the observatory in Greenwich, England. In any event, the only thing to see there (even when it isn’t night out) is water. As you can imagine, then, there are no pictures.
Getting back to The Gambia, it is a tiny country that includes only the land on both sides of the Gambia river. Except for its seacoast Gambia is bordered entirely by Senegal, which surrounds it. Gambia became a British possession under the Versailles Treaty of 1783 and achieved independence in 1965. “The” was added to its name to avoid confusion with the sound-alike country of Zambia. Gambia’s first president held office for almost 30 years, then a military coup installed Yahya Jammeh as president. He held onto office for 22 years and was voted out in a surprise electoral upset in December, 2016 . A few days later he rejected the electoral result and vowed to hold onto power but a military incursion by several African nations finally forced him out in late January, 2017. So when we arrived Gambia was only 15 months into its first democratic government.
Banjul, the capital, is on an island at the mouth of the River Gambia and has a population of only about 35,000. Its name derives from a Mandinka word for bamboo, which grew plentifully here a few hundred years ago. After the British abolished slavery they built a fort on this island in 1816 to stop the deportation of slaves from the area, with mixed success. From where we were docked we had an expansive view of the port.
It took longer than expected to clear the ship for disembarkation so we had some time to watch the ferry traffic in the port. People of a certain age will remember LaVar Burton’s breakthrough role as Kunta Kinte in the 1970’s TV series Roots, based on Alex Haley’s book of the same name recounting the slave history of his family. In the series and in real life Haley’s presumed ancestor Kunta Kinteh was captured and sold into slavery in Gambia. Today there is a nearby island named for him and we saw a ferry named for him as well. A lot of people disembarked from these ferries, probably commuting to work in Banjul. An alternative way to cross the river or travel upriver is by pirogue, long thin boats we saw beyond the ferry dock to our right. At the end of the dock next to the ferry dock was a half sunken ship, which had apparently been there awhile since they had arranged floating lines around it.
We were scheduled for a bus excursion through the area in the afternoon so we caught the ship’s shuttle to the Albert Market in the center of town. It isn’t too far to walk but we were told that the area in between might not be safe. The Gambians have a reputation (well deserved in our small experience) for friendliness – Gambia is nicknamed the “Smiling Coast” – but we decided to play it safe in this unfamiliar territory and, in fact, some of the streets looked a little uncertain. They dropped us off in an alley at the back entrance to the market.
The craft market had kiosk after kiosk of wood carvings, masks, baskets and other interesting items. Nothing had a price on it; everything was about haggling. Many people enjoy that but we aren’t among them. You couldn’t just ask for a price either. The response was always “How much would you offer?” The vendors were aggressive in asking you to come in and look at their wares but they were always friendly and never curt or demanding. We bought a few things and learned some lessons about shopping in this environment.
After lunch we boarded the bus for our excursion. First stop was the National Museum, a small but interesting facility. No photography was permitted inside, which housed a large collection of vintage photographs and a room full of interesting musical instruments among other things. Outside were a number of bronze sculptures, one of which we understand is a likeness of former president Jammeh holding a baby that once stood at Arch 22, which we would see later.
We drove on to Bakau, crossing what we understand to be the River Gambia. On the way we passed the National Assembly building, a mosque and wetlands with mangroves and many birds.
We passed what we took to be the Bakau Craft Market on the way to the nearby Kachikally Crocodile Pool. This has been a pilgrimage site for several hundred years and women still come here to douse themselves with water from the pool as a fertility aid. You walk through a bit of forest to reach the crocodile pool. The most noteworthy item along this walk is a tall Beobab tree, although we also saw a crocodile that had somehow gotten himself far into a covered water trench. Apparently the crocodiles are permitted to run free as they like & are sometimes found in neighboring yards and on porches.
Kachikally is, obviously, a tourist attraction as well as a sacred site. Many of the crocodiles are said to be quite docile and well used to humans, but we don’t think we would test that. On the other hand, there is (or was) a well known crocodile here named Charlie, 70+ years old and 9 yards (feet?) long, who allows visitors to touch his back without a problem. We have read, though, that a number of different crocodiles play this role and all are referred to as Charlie. Be that as it may, there was a crocodile in a spot near the pool with a line of visitors waiting to pet him on the back. Mary took a pass, but Rick got in line & touched the crocodile. He was so still that we were unsure whether he was alive or dead until Mary saw him blink his eyes. I wouldn’t try this at home (or in Australia)!
Leaving Kachikally, we drove through Bakau’s somewhat desolate back streets to visit a school, which had a small library across the road. We also passed a vendor selling batik pictures, looking quite pretty as they blew in the wind.
We stopped for a local Julbrew beer in the courtyard of a guesthouse called “Smiling Coast.” Musicians were setting up for their show later in the evening. The beer was very good.
We drove to Serekunda, Gambia’s largest city with a population of 350,000, where we visited a batik and tie-dying workshop. Some workers were applying wax to a cloth in preparation for dying a batik picture.
We drove back to Banjul, passing a mosque and driving under Arch 22. The arch commemorates the coup of July 22, 1994, that put former president Jammeh into power for 22 years. Before Jammeh was ousted we couldn’t have driven under this arch because only the president himself was permitted to do that. A monument of an “unknown soldier” (that some think resembles Jammeh) used to sit in a traffic circle in front of the arch, but we think we saw it at the National Museum earlier today (shown above). The arch is more than 100 feet tall, one of the tallest buildings in Banjul, and is remarkably ugly, consisting of a triangular building on top of two groups of pillars. Some folks got out of the bus to photograph it but it was so ugly and was built to celebrate oppression, so we just waited on the bus. We did see it from the ship, however.
Our last stop was the Albert Market. The bus stopped in front of the market while the guide and about half the passengers went inside for a quick walk-through. We had been there this morning, of course, and it had been a long day so we elected to wait on the bus. Many of the Gambian women dress in very bright, colorful clothes. You have seen a few already, but a number walked by the bus in front of the market, some carrying items on their heads.
Back at the port a large impromptu market was set up along the dock in front of the ship. A group of women there were performing some lively song and dance.
We sailed away from Banjul as the sun was setting, with some boats still out in the water, and headed north for the short trip to neighboring Senegal.
On April 10 we were in Luanda, a port that is rarely visited by cruise ships (we could only find one other cruise ship scheduled to stop here this year). Angola has a long history and it isn’t pretty. It was a Portuguese colony for some 400 years (with a 7 year hiatus of Dutch rule) and for 250 years they used Luanda as a hub for the slave trade, especially to Brazil. It obtained independence in 1975 and immediately fell into a civil war that lasted until 2002. They are still recovering from that civil war. Today Luanda is one of the most expensive cities in the world and its plentiful oil reserves have created a class of very wealthy folks, both Angolan and foreign, who can afford to live here. But most of its 6 million residents are quite poor and have trouble making ends meet in this expensive economy.
When reading up about Luanda before the trip the main theme of advice was that this was a dangerous place to visit. Avoid walking the streets by yourself, and taking pictures of most places is forbidden with possible confiscation of your camera. This was reinforced by Barbara, the port guide, who presented a long list of safety admonitions, including not only avoiding drinking the local water but avoiding even touching it. After this we received a letter from the Captain repeating many of these same admonitions, along with an additional warning to be skeptical of anyone who speaks good English!
As you can imagine, the question everyone was asking after all this was: why are we even stopping here?
As it turned out this port was interesting and not unpleasant at all (at least for most folks). It seems that the Angolans would like to have more cruise business so they were very welcoming. We heard of no one who had a problem with the police & several police were on the dock when we left enthusiastically waving goodbye. No one tried to interfere with taking pictures; in fact we heard that on one of the tour busses the guide was taking pictures as much as the passengers. So maybe things are slowly improving here for visitors.
With this port’s reputation for being dangerous, it seemed before we arrived that the only safe options were to take a HAL tour (expensive & short) or stay on the ship. We travel to see new parts of the world and sure didn’t want to just stay on the ship all day. So we signed up for a HAL bus tour. As it happened, we saw a number of passengers who went out on their own and walked all the way to the fort (between one and two miles) without problem. Several small buses made up our excursion & we travelled together in a caravan with a police & ambulance(!) escort.
Our first stop was about a third of the way along the Marginal. This is the long expanse of waterfront between the port and the Fortaleza, a large fort on a hill across the bay. The Angolans are in the middle of a 15 year project to upgrade this area. The first part, completed in 2012, is a concrete path along the waterfront with its edge descending into the water, a number of small foot bridges and very colorful gardens along the way. There was a noticeable police presence (just for cruise ship day? we don’t know) and it felt very safe. The slanted concrete leading to the water was not safe; we heard that two people fell in (despite Barbara’s warning not to touch the water) and one had to be rescued by police.
Tracking the Marginal across from the water is one of the city’s main streets. On the other side of it were some pretty drab looking buildings. Maybe the redevelopment plan will get to them later. We suspect that while the Marginal park appears to be safe for visitors, walking a few blocks into the area across the street might be asking for trouble. We heard later that one passenger was accosted in that area and was rescued by local folks. Of course, he was carrying a lot of expensive looking camera equipment, despite the captain’s warning, so his running into trouble shouldn’t really be surprising.
A block or so from the Marginal, just past the blue building below, is a small 17th century Portuguese church that is often featured as one of the sights in this city. But we didn’t see it. Luanda lacks a professional tourist infrastructure so our tour was kind of ad hoc. The guides were recruited from other day jobs, mostly because they could speak English. Our guide normally worked as a translator, not a tour guide. So they are amateurs. She walked with a few of the passengers in our bus to see this church but because she never said a word about it to the rest of us we didn’t know it was there until we saw them crossing the street on their return. Very frustrating, but that is pretty representative of the current state of Luanda’s facilities for travelers.
Boarding the buses we drove along the Marginal, past the Fortaleza and out onto the Ilha do Cabo. We passed the pink National Bank of Angola (a local landmark), the monument to the unknown soldier, and the Largo de Baleizao, a plaza laid out in 1765 that served as a slave market.
No longer an island since it was connected to the mainland by a bridge, the Ilha is a 5 mile long sandy outcropping, no more than 550 yards wide at its widest point, that separates the bay from the ocean and makes it one of the largest ports in Africa. It is a popular beach spot and houses many bars and restaurants popular with Angolans. No one was swimming today, but we saw many people along the road. At the end of the Ilha was a candy colored lighthouse.
We drove back to the first stop across the bridge to the mainland, the Fortaleza de Sao Miguel (St Michael Fort). First erected in 1576 it was improved over the centuries through 1916. It has served as a slave depot, a prison and a museum. During the Angolan war for independence between 1961 and 1975 the Portuguese used it as their central military command post.
We spent most of our visit on the ramparts looking at the panoramic views of the city and the bay. We were told later that there are a couple of rooms with old Portuguese tile walls worth seeing but, true to form, our amateur guide didn’t tell us about them.
On the ocean side of the fort was a neighborhood with a lake or inlet where fishermen were plying their trade. Some of the houses don’t look too shabby, but we were told this is a poor neighborhood.
In the central courtyard on the first floor of the fort was a row of large statues. From left to right the first three are Diogo Cao (the first Portuguese to step on Angolan soil), Paulo Dias de Novais (founder of Luanda), and Salvador Correia de Sa (governor of Angola). Outside the walls was a giant statue of a 17th century African queen named Njinga, widely celebrated here and in Brazil for standing up to the Portuguese (although she also sold some 200,000 people to their slave traders). Inside the fort is a bust of Jose Mendes de Carvalho, a celebrated fighter in the war for independence who was killed in 1968. The front gate includes pictures of fighters from the civil war or the war of independence on the left and resisters to Portuguese slavers on the right.
We had one more stop after leaving the Fortaleza, the Mausoleum of Dr Antonio Agostinho Neto, Angola’s first president. He died in Moscow in 1979 after a cancer operation and the Russians made a start on building this monument in 1981. They soon abandoned it and it finally opened only in 2012, completed by Brazilian and then South Korean companies. Inside is supposed to be his sarcophagus, but we were only allowed to view the outside from the gates. This is a soaring, if somewhat ugly, metal monument shaped like a rocket, visible all over Luanda. There was a bust of Dr Neto in the Fortaleza. Behind the mausoleum one could see the shiny pink dome of the new National Assembly building opened at the end of 2015, looking a little like the Capitol building in Washington.
After our excursion bus returned to the ship we walked out to a market that had been set up in a square outside the port gates. Locals were selling mostly clothing and paintings. We bought a little something (remember, this is one of the world’s most expensive cities!) then walked back to the ship for the sail away.
As we sailed out of the harbor the hillside on the starboard (right) side of the ship was covered with hovels, slums that are called musseques in Angola. Luanda was a town of about 60,000 in 1940 and grew to about 475,000 by 1970. But during the 40 years of the war for independence and the civil war tremendous numbers of refugees fled from the strife in the countryside to the relative safety of Luanda. Today the city has some 6 million inhabitants and a very large percentage of them, mostly former refugees and their descendants, live in these musseques that surround the city. For a country so rich in oil revenue it is quite a sight. Maybe after they finish building the high rise office buildings in the city center for the oil companies they will do something to improve the lot of these people. On top of the hill were many nice looking houses and modern buildings, while along the water line in front of the musseques stood long lines of huge oil tanks.
As we pulled out past a long cliff extending to the sea looking very red in the late afternoon light, we saw a rainbow. Bidding Angola farewell, we headed out for five restful sea days on our way north.