Gambia to Senegal – Unofficial Border Crossing

During my first week in Gambia, I’d heard rumours that it was possible to cross a river in a place called Kartong and end up in Senegal without using an official border crossing, so I asked around for more information and did the crossing myself when I was staying at Boboi Beach Lodge in Kartong. It was a really exciting adventure, and these are the details you might need if you want to do it yourself.

Like I said, I was staying at Boboi Beach Lodge which is already in Kartong, but you could also do this from any of the villages near Kartong on the highway e.g. Sanyang, Gunjur etc. Wherever you are, you need to actually get all the way through Kartong itself and keep going until you get to the riverside (basically the end of the highway, at the bottom, if you’re looking at a map). I paid a taxi driver to take me from outside Boboi to the riverside for 50 dalasi (£0.80), but you could walk if you really wanted to… it would just take a long time.

Once you arrive at the riverside, you’ll see lots of boats, a few small restaurants and hopefully this sign to the immigration office, as you do need to get a stamp on the Gambia side, just not on the Senegal side.

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You should see a small building to the left of the sign, and you just go in there, join the queue and the officer should ask how long you plan to stay in Senegal. I told them I’d be coming back the same day, but they still gave me a stamp for a few weeks. Basically you just need a stamp there for when you come back into Gambia. You shouldn’t have to pay anything for it. This is the office from the inside:

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After getting your stamp, you just keep walking towards the water, and you’ll probably see some people waiting with bags and suitcases etc. It’s actually really peaceful, and it’s interesting to see all the random half-finished boats lying around.

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Once a canoe appears (like the one pictured below), and the driver has finished scooping out the excess water from inside it, you have to get in it. This basically means you either need to wade through the water or charm someone into carrying you on their shoulders. I have no issue with wading through water, but I was wearing skinny jeans and trainers, and I couldn’t roll up my jeans, so I took the second option.

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Once people are on, the driver gives life jackets to everyone, which no one actually does up or anything – it’s obviously just a requirement that people follow. I was the only “toubab” (foreign person) on the canoe, as the route is mostly taken by Gambian and Senegalese people who cross over for business or to see family etc.

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The inside of the canoe is pictured below, and it definitely wobbled quite a lot during the short crossing (less than 10 minutes), but it was fine.

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Once you reach Cassamance (the name of the region you arrive at on the Senegal side), it’s the same situation with wading through the water, and you pay the boat man 5 dalasi per person (£0.08).

On the shores at Cassamance, there are a few stands selling food, a couple of jeeps, some motorbikes and some people sitting on benches. The first thing you need to do is establish which of the people sitting on benches are the ones exchanging money (assuming you haven’t already got any Senegalese currency).

I decided to exchange 600 dalasi (almost £10) for the day, just to be safe. This got me about 7000 CFA (pronounced say-fah), so it’s quite confusing, but the men have calculators and they do the calculation before exchanging the money, so just check the number on their calculator to make sure you’re happy with it first. Obviously you can Google the exchange rate before you leave Gambia so you’ll have an idea of what to expect.

Once you’ve got some CFAs, you’ll want to get transport to an actual town/village so you can explore Senegal. The most obvious option, from the information I’d managed to gather before going there, is to go to Abene (pronounced something like Ab-enn-ay) if you’re just going for a day, so this is what I did.

All the jeeps parked at the riverside will probably be heading in that direction, as it’s one of the first places you reach heading away from the river. Get in the jeep that has the most people, as it’ll leave the soonest, and tell the driver you’re going to Abene. I sat in the boot of the jeep in a little seat that had been added by the driver, so it definitely wasn’t the most comfortable, but it’s all part of the adventure.

The first part of the journey towards Abene is on a dirt track, and our jeep broke down after about 10 minutes. Everyone had to get out and I managed to find some shade under a tree while some of the passengers tried to help the driver figure out what was wrong.

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A few motorbike taxis went past, but one also broke down near us, and one of the passengers told me that the vehicles break down on this route all the time. Eventually another jeep passed and it had enough space for some of us to fit in, so we squeezed in and carried on along the road.

The second jeep was different and it was more like a pick-up truck with two benches opposite each other in the back, which is where all the passengers sat, so it was quite open and everyone got covered in dust from the road, and you had to either wear sunglasses or cover your eyes.

Once we reached Abene, the passengers signalled for me to get out, as I’d told them I was going there (make sure you tell someone, otherwise you won’t know where to get out), and the jeep stopped by the mosque at the junction. This journey is 100 CFA (£0.13) per person.

Abene is a cute town/village (not sure what it technically is) and you can’t really get lost because there’s basically just one main road. It has some tourism but it isn’t super touristy. If you walk down the main road towards the beach (just ask anyone to point you towards the beach), you’ll pass lots of little restaurants etc. and it’s a nice chilled walk.

After about half an hour, you’ll arrive at the beach, which, when I went there, only had fishermen on it. There are hundreds of bright, hand-painted fishing boats, and lots of activity as the men are fixing their nets etc. I just wandered along the beach enjoying the breeze, chatted to a few people, saw some cows, and ended up asking a man if I could take a picture on his boat…

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I also asked him some questions about his job and his life, and we were able to communicate because I can speak French which is the official language of Senegal. He was telling me loads of interesting things, including the fact that they go out into the sea in the night and sleep in the boat before going fishing in the early mornings. His name was Issa and he told me to go back and find him if I’m ever in Senegal again so I can go out on his boat with him and his friends.

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After buying a baguette in a little shop for 100 CFA (£0.13) because I couldn’t be bothered to sit and spend ages in a restaurant, I walked back to the mosque/junction area. A friend I’d made in Kartong a few days earlier had written the name of his brother on a piece of paper for me, as he lives in Abene. The friend in Kartong told me to look for his brother when I was there so he could introduce me to the rest of his family.

When I was wandering around near the junction, the brother, Yusuf, actually approached me and asked if I’m the person who’s looking for him, as the guy in Kartong must have sent him a message to let him know I was coming. He took me to his house and I met his mum, sisters, wife, nephews and cousins. After drinking some attaya (Gambian/Senegalese tea made on a charcoal stove) at their house and chatting to the family for a while, Yusuf asked if I’d like to go to the famous “big tree”, and off we went in his taxi (he works as a taxi driver).

The big tree is apparently one of Abene’s biggest attractions, and it used to be 5 trees but they merged into one. I wasn’t expecting it to be particularly exciting, but it was seriously amazing. I just had no idea that a tree could be so big. It had lots of parts you could climb up, and it was genuinely just so impressive.

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As if I hadn’t experienced enough kindness from strangers in one day, a guy I met on the beach later took me to his back yard to climb a coconut tree so I could drink from it…

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To get back to Kartong, I somehow managed to fit in Yusuf’s taxi with at least 6 other people, and it’s safe to say I had no circulation left in half my body when we arrived at the river (but you know – all part of the experience). As you can see below, people were there waiting to get on the canoe with their various belongings.

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I thought the canoe from Gambia to Senegal was a bit full, but this one from Senegal back to Gambia even carried a MOTORBIKE along with all the people and their suitcases. Anyway, we made it back without flooding the boat and I paid 5 dalasi again and made sure I got my passport checked in the office on the Gambia side to make sure there wouldn’t be a problem when I eventually flew out of Gambia at the end of the trip.

If you want, you could also change your CFAs back into dalasi on the river before getting the canoe back, but I decided to just keep mine to add to my ridiculous foreign currency collection.

If you enjoy random adventures, I would DEFINITELY recommend this trip. The only time you might have a problem is if the police randomly stop you in Senegal and ask for your documents, in which case they’d see that you don’t have a stamp/visa for entry to Senegal and they could fine you or make you go to the nearest official crossing which would take a long time. I didn’t see any police all day so I didn’t have this problem. It’s also worth noting that if you have an Africell sim card from Gambia, it’ll work on the canoe and at the riverside in Senegal, but it’ll stop working once you’re actually in Abene.

To see more pictures and videos from my time in Gambia, check my Instagram – @zoe_93

 

 

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