Planes, Boats and Automobiles

Senegal Border Crossing

The Gambia | Senegal | Guinea-Bissau |

Just before Christmas, my friend Amee flew in to meet me and we enjoyed two last days at the wonderful Sandele Eco-Retreat in The Gambia before heading to Guinea-Bissau for Christmas. Little did we know our well-orchestrated plans were about to unravel.

Problem Number 1: An hour before leaving for the airport to catch our plane to Guinea-Bissau, we are advised it is cancelled. Royal Air Maroc kindly offer us an alternative flight in three days time with a 24 hour connection in Casablanca (the complete opposite direction we want to go). We politely decline.

Solution Number 1: Let’s go overland to Guinea-Bissau through Senegal. Much telephoning to our local contacts occurs in order to arrange early morning transportation so we can meet our next plane in Guinea-Bissau that will take us to our Xmas destination.

Problem Number 2: We will cross into Senegal via canoe across the river frontier but no immigration exists on the Senegalese side. Translation: we won’t have an entry stamp into Senegal when we go to leave the country.

Solution Number 2: After much discussion we decide to risk it, play dumb and smile sweetly at any questioning immigration officials. Satisfied we will be able to manage our way through this, we relax into enjoying our unexpected extra night at Sandele.

Problem Number 3: I suddenly realize that my visa for Senegal is not valid until three days time. So not only will I have no entry stamp, I will literally have been in the country illegally. This is a tad more serious and we consult with our local friends who strongly advise against taking this risk. Immigration officials in West Africa are not known for their relaxed nature about details like valid visas. We explore the potential consequences between jail, deportation for life and an exorbitant bribe and conclude the most likely outcome is that we can manage the situation with money.

Solution Number 3: Risk it, play dumb and, if necessary, cry and pay money.

Dawn arrives and, hoping to minimize my exposure on the size of the bribe I will need to pay, I hide most of my money about my body. In anticipation of being without ATM access for the next six weeks (and West Africa is not cheap), I have about $1500 in cash on me. Ladies, in case you ever need to know, it is possible to hide an extraordinary amount of money in a well-constructed bra! We don’t have any issues with Gambian immigration – picking your immigration official up from his home and taking him to work is always a good strategy for immigration relations!

After a beautiful early morning boat ride, we land on the deserted riverside in Senegal and set off down a dirt track for the next village. 15 minutes in, the radiator is smoking and liquid is dripping ominously from the car. Stopping to try and make repairs, we are unable to start again and Amee and I are soon breaking a sweat pushing the car. Luckily, we are successful and we limp into the village where arrangements are made for a new car.

At the next stop, we arrange our transport out of Senegal and into Guinea-Bissau. At first, this appears easy. Sept-places (seven seater shared taxis) go regularly and prices are fixed. Prices for us that is; prices for our luggage are negotiatable. For various reasons, very little of that stash of money I have is in local currency and, by the time we have to pay for luggage, we are literally down to our last local dollar. Our previous driver comes to our aid and enters into a rapidly escalating negotiation regarding the luggage price…just when it appears the next step is a fistfight, the situation is resolved. But you know you are in a bad way when your Senegalese taxi driver offers to give you money!

We set off for Guinea-Bissau and, rather anticlimactically, experience no issues leaving Senegal. Nobody notices that we do not have an entry stamp and, while my illegal visa is questioned, Amee’s quick reply (in perfect French) “she asked for today for her visa – we don’t know why they wrote something different” results in a shrug of the shoulders and a wave to proceed. Hours later (and four or five military police checks later – “yes you do need to get out of the car and show your passport again”) we are dropped at the Bissau International Airport. It is completely and absolutely deserted – the only soul and plane are our pilot and our private plane….waiting patiently to whisk us away to our island paradise for Christmas. One more boat ride, this time in a rather more salubrious speedboat, and we are soon drinking caiparinhas at the beach bar of the Ponta Anchaca resort in the remote Bijagos Archipelago.

11 hours, five car rides, 2 boat rides and 1 private plane. We think we deserved the drink!


– Nikki

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