The Banjul/Barra Ferry

I’d been warned about the Banjul/Barra ferry – the ferry across the River Gambia and usual entry point for travellers to Senegal. In fact I’d heard so much about it I was half expecting to walk into something akin to Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. I’d asked people if they’d been on the ferry, and the general response involved a gradual slackening of the jaw and a distant hollow look, before a response along the lines of ‘ah yes, the Barra ferry. Good luck with that.’ I approached with a mixture of tense nervous excitement, and total bloody fear…

Well, I wont say I was disappointed exactly, but the whole thing ran rather smoothly, and I actually found the experience quite calming in its own way. We arrived with the sun around 7.30 – just as a the ferry from Barra came into port. I was with a driver and an older English couple and we’d already found ourselves a huge trolley and loaded our bags onto it, and as we stood in the half-light the gates opened and the ferry’s cargo poured out in front of us. It was a steady stream of abundance – vehicular and human: people carrying wares for market, some with great lurid pillows of material on their heads, others with who-knows-what in rusting wheelbarrows; there were mothers with babies tied to their backs in sarongs, groups of school children in their bright white shirts and head scarves. An open-sided lorry rolled past us with a hammock strung at one end containing a dozing form, an ancient truck, more holes than body, a car with blacked-out windows containing some dignitary or other… As the stream thinned, we started to pick our way onto the ferry, now part of another pulsing ragged company. We climbed up ferric stairs to the upper decks to where narrow seats lined the boat’s alarmingly thing outer walls. Behind us, vehicles had started to board, cramming into the available space and as we swayed on the light swell, it was impossible to tell if the sounds of creaking metal were from the lorries ranged beneath us or the ferry itself. We awaited launch.

From the Banjul/Barra Ferry, sunrise

From the Banjul/Barra Ferry, sunrise

Not more than 5 minutes into the short journey and I look down to see someone in the fairly intimate act of adding what looks like honey to the end of one of my right trainer. I have no idea how he got there, or indeed what on earth he’s up to. I remove my foot exclaiming ‘oi!’ at him and what is now three crouching mates. ‘S’ok, s’ok!’ he says and draws my foot back gingerly. He draws my attention to the (very) mildly flapping front part of trainer and tells me he has ‘the very best glue in the country’ for the job; and because, like so many Gambian scamsters, he’s made the situation seem like a fait accompli, and one my shockingly stiff and inbuilt sense of politeness simply can’t cope with ending, I let him carry on. He takes another globule of honey on a ragged dishcloth and applies it gently to the shoe, then reaches into his bag (it’s barely a bag to be honest – like the truck we’d seen earlier, more hole than substance) for a needle and thread. I’m, by now, wincing with frustration at my inability to extricate myself from this situation, but resigned to the fact that it’ll be over shortly enough. I barely register a whimper when he starts on the other shoe and one of his mates starts washing my now fixed trainer. I pay up, of course, confusedly humiliated (for me, for him, for the whole stupid situation), but safe in the knowledge that with my ultra-fixed trainers, I could probably walk on that water down there if I wanted.

The rest of the crossing passed serenely. I stood near the bridge and let the sun warm me; I spoke briefly with a male nurse who was about to walk three hours upriver to the hospital at Farafenni; I watched a girl emerge from the skylight in a white bus taking photographs of the approaching shore. There is a zone that I only seem to access on ferry journeys, somewhere between reverie and a kind of watchful mental paralysis. It’s a state I wish I could access elsewhere as it has a peculiar magic about it – alive with possibility and poignancy. As we docked at Barra though, the moment was broken by the sudden upsurge in activity and volume. A great tinny roar over the loudspeaker informed us it was time to depart and as I looked down over the narrowing front of the boat I spotted our bags, guarded by our impossibly tall Senegalese driver. He flashed a wide, wide smile and beckoned us down the steps. We joined the throng and walked along the narrow corridor past the battered vehicles waiting to board. The Gambia/Senegal border was next.

The Banjul/Barra Ferry

The Banjul/Barra Ferry – nearing Barra

16 thoughts on “The Banjul/Barra Ferry

  1. Pingback: The Banjul/Barra Ferry | The Gambia Blog | Breakings New

  2. Jane Smith

    I have crossed on this ferry many times now and it always excites me and abhors me. I am usually lucky enough to be travelling with a dignatory with a badge which enables jumping the queue and gaining several hours if travelling by car. I have still been shunted backwads and forwards once passed the first gates though and often waited 2 hours or more to actaully board the ferry but so much better thatn the 8 hours of some waiting in the vehicle queue. no wonder there are such frayed tempers! Once on I always climb up the steps and just watch. They have cut down on peddlars on the ferry now. A couple of years ago I filmed over 15 people selling their wares or services. I too had a brand new pair of flipflop sandals ‘repaired’ for the princely sum of 20 d. They were strongly stitched to the sole and indeed the tops have now worn away but they remain firmly attached to the sole! Always take advantage of their services. They are good and well worth it! I am going to enjoy going through your blogs. I’m sure I will get back to you!

    Reply
    • Matt Smith Post author

      Hi Jane – thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. It sounds like you’re a true veteran of the ferry! The person next to me had their flip-flops washed, though to be honest it was more foot than flip-flop. You’re project sounds very interesting and we wish you good luck with it all.

      Reply
  3. Brimstone

    Great to see the Barra/Banjul Ferry again. I have crossed with it several times and each time I loved every minute of it.
    Last friday my trip by plane to The Gambia was cancelled, next friday we try again (fingers crossed).

    Reply
  4. Matt Smith Post author

    Hey Brimstone – thanks for the comment! I sincerely hope you didn’t have any trouble with your flight to The Gambia. Fingers crossed you made it out safely.

    Reply
  5. Salimata

    Hello,

    Thank you for posting some information on the ferry. I have a question totally unrelated. Is there a ferry available from St. Louis, Senegal to Banjul or anything from Banjul to Ziguinchor or the Casamance? Thank you very much.

    Reply
  6. Pingback: Chris Packham Diary – Day 1 | The Gambia Blog

  7. Loda

    hi

    i have just come back from gambia and was on the ferry at the weekend en route to senegal. your post really brings back memories (though i’d have to be senile to forget!). all of life was certainly there and was one of the experiences of my trip. we had about an hour and half wait for the ferry coming back which frayed the nerves of some of the rest of the group which i wished they’d stop whinging – frankly it was better than i’ve experience on southeastern trains during the recent snow. I now realise how lucky i was to have such a short wait! No scams tried though did get a “preacher” who was clearly thrilled to have a captive audience – he did not shut up for an hour straight. If you use the ferry i would suggest you prepare yourself that what will be will be.

    Reply
  8. Matt Smith Post author

    Hi Loda,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. It is an amazing experience isn’t it? One of my favourite in the whole of The Gambia, I think. And I totally agree – I found the service to be excellent, and certainly better than many train services in the UK. Just slightly more chickens.

    Matt

    Reply
  9. zeya

    thanks for the post. I’m flying to Gambia this friday from Gatwick and doing online research. Sorry to ask one unrelated question here , can we cross the Senegal border but i only have Gambia visa and is there any day trip visa available?

    Reply
    • Kathryn Burrington

      Hello,
      British passport holders can cross the border without a visa. The passports will be stamped in and out across the border crossing.

      If you hold a non EU passport then you would need a visa depending on what nationality you are and the passport you hold and you may
      even need a yellow fever vaccination. I suggest you check with your Senegalese embassy for clarification.

      Please note that we do not recommend any travel into South Senegal / Cassamance area.

      I hope this is of some help, Kathryn

      Reply
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  11. Pingback: The Fathala reserve in Senegal | The Gambia Blog

  12. Matthew

    I know this comment is a long time after the original article but having just experienced the Banjul-Barra ferry I think an update is in order. The ferry is definitely an accident waiting to happen. It is also an experience to behold! Our crossing coming back from Fathala wildlife park in Senegal was held up for several hours since the ferry could not quite get close enough until the tide helped. The vehicles could not disembark for over 4 hours (some passengers got off ok so I guess a plank was put between boat and ramp). Eventually when it made it (which involved ramming the boat onto the sandbank in front of the jetty which didn’t work several times, but resulted in impact damage with the ferry/jetty that caused the ground to shake) the alignment was ok to put the ramp down. After emptying there was a frenzied loading rush but with so many people waiting for hours there was no stopping the crowd. End result: Ferry designed for I guess 200 people max with 500+ people ready to go. No one was going to get off since that would be another possible 8hr wait to do the 7 mile crossing.
    Once we were underway the boat took on a rather top heavy sway and waves started coming over the bow of the car deck (Thownsend Thorensen here we go again). Poor sods at the front just had to put up with the unexpected wash. At this point, being an engineer, I thought it was time to check the floatation facilities provided. These are large doughnut type devices filled with polystyrene beads. I don’t know there proper name but they stated a max of 8 people to hang on to, but some appeared defective (split or cracked so all the beads would come out). Added to which I don’t think these devices would float free if the boat turned over. The ferry is flat bottomed with a high cog so I expect it would turn-turtle if it capsized, and the flotation devices will be pinned in place.
    As the ferry rolled the people between the lorries were in danger of being crushed, and the waves coming over the bow were causing the ferry to pitch. Most vehicles did not have hand brakes on/in gear and lorries were not chocked let alone chained.
    I suppose as a once off experience this is no more risky than taking a bike ride with no crash helmet on, but travelling on a daily basis it’s like playing Russian roulette! If you travel on the ferry I hope it is calm and the tide is high. Enjoy the spectacle of all manner of life being transported across the mighty Gambia river, and get ready to release those floatation devices !!!!

    Reply
    • Matt Smith Post author

      Thanks very much for your comment, Matthew, and thanks for the very colourful account of what sounds like quite an experience. The ferry situation has long been a problem between Banjul and Barra, and like you say, it can be quite a hair-raising experience – though we’ve not heard of many situations quite as bad as you have described here. Thankfully, there are new ferries on the way, though when these will finally appear is at the moment unclear. Thanks again for your comment.

      Reply

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