Scruffy rusting ferry with trucks and people on board
Gambia,  People,  Sunday Stills

Barely afloat: the Banjul ferry

The river Gambia runs through the heart of the country of the same name, splitting it into two narrow strips, north and south of the river. To the west is the Atlantic Ocean; on all other sides the country is surrounded by Senegal.

River back with small boats and crowds on the beach
Banks of the river Gambia near Banjul

From the Gambia’s capital, Banjul, you can catch a ferry across the river to Barra on its opposite shore; and from there it’s a short drive into the northern half of Senegal. This means that flying into Banjul can be a better option for a trip to that part of Senegal than flying into Dakar. But it means that you have to take that ferry, which can be quite an experience! There have been times in the past when travel companies have strongly advised travellers not to use the ferry, owning to safety concerns; and other times when it has been out of service for the same reason.

But thankfully when we visited Senegal in 2016 it was running and considered acceptably safe, for which we were grateful. Because not only is it a convenient route, it is also a colourful one. And as you will read, we had to take the ferry four times rather than the planned two!

Ferry ride to Barra

Our first crossing was a morning one, departing soon after breakfast. We arrived at the port in good time and had to wait a while before the boat arrived. Of course my camera was already hard at work.

Man in knitted hat by water
Man in knitted hat by water, black and white photo
Waiting for the ferry

When the boat arrived it was packed with people travelling to the capital to start the working day. Some were carrying goods to sell at the markets, some were coming to buy; some were dressed, it appeared, for office work, others looked like labourers probably seeking day work; school children were in uniform and there were more than a few goats and chickens!

After the people, the cars and lorries trundled off, and then it was our turn to board. Thankfully at that time of day the northbound voyages are quieter so there was plenty of room. On our driver’s advice we secured seats up on the top deck while he guarded the luggage down below. It took a while for some lorries to come aboard but once they had we were off.

The crossing took about thirty minutes and we then disembarked, being careful to stay out of the way of the lorries doing the same.

And back again

A few days later we were forced to repeat the trip. I broke a tooth eating lunch on our second day in Senegal; so we had to return to Banjul for a morning’s dental treatment.

Of course a broken tooth wasn’t going to stop me taking photos; and the scene at the port in Barra, where we had to wait quite a while, was as colourful as it had been on our previous trip. Women carrying babies; women carrying chickens; children travelling to school; labourers to work; farmers with goods to sell in Banjul’s markets.

There was also plenty of activity on the river to watch, especially the colourful pirogues ferrying other locals to Banjul. I was amused to see how passengers boarded these vessels, carried on the shoulders of one of the boatmen!

Colourful small boats on a river
Boarding a pirogue

That journey too passed smoothly and as before we enjoyed sitting on the top deck and watching all the activity; although apprehension about visiting an unknown dentist in this very different part of the world prevented me from fully appreciating the scenes around me.

Dental treatment in Banjul

We had been given instructions on how to find the dental clinic in Banjul and had been told that the lodge guide would just see us on to the ferry and then wait for us in Barra. But he helpfully insisted on coming with us to make sure everything went well. With his guidance we easily found the clinic, where the dentist was on the lookout for us. I had been thinking that it was good to be visiting a French-trained Gambian dentist rather than a Senegalese one; we had been told by the hotel manager that the usual practice in that country was to pull out any tooth giving trouble rather than try to save it. But it turned out that although living in the Gambia this dentist was in fact from Senegal!

Thankfully this particular Senegalese dentist, who spoke reasonable English to match my passable French, agreed with me that a temporary filling would be the best solution in the immediate term. He had soon performed the procedure; but not without giving a running commentary on the quality, or rather the lack of quality, of previous work I’d had done on my teeth; even calling on Chris to come and have a look at one point!

But he worked well, and quickly; so much so that we were able to hurry back to the port afterwards and catch the same boat that we had arrived on back to Barra rather than have to wait several hours for the next one. And he had done his work well; the filling lasted for the rest of the trip and until I was able to visit my own dentist back in London. But somewhat ironically given my fears that he might just remove the tooth, my dentist did eventually have to do just that in order to deal with some subsequent problems!

One last ferry ride

Our final trip on the ferry was at the end of our stay in Senegal; however I had forgotten to change my camera battery before leaving and had packed my spare, so I have very few photos of that one. Most of the juice had been drained out of my camera taking photos on the long road journey from the Sine Saloum Delta to the ferry port in Barra; but I did manage to squeeze one more photo on the boat as a reminder of our fourth ride on this idiosyncratic vessel. We got talking to three local guys who had parked next to our vehicle on board; they insisted that I took their photo, so I did!

Three young men by a truck
Fellow passengers

This post was inspired in part by Natalie’s Sunday Stills theme of ‘Afloat’ and in part by memories of my other African holiday mishap, a fall in Marrakesh, which I recently described here.

I visited Senegal via this ferry in 2016


  • rkrontheroad

    Love the colorful dress and long boats where people had to be carried on someone’s shoulder to board. Glad you were able to find dental care, however temporary. It could have been worse!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Ruth – I did smile to see that way of boarding the pirogues 😆 And yes, the dental incident could have been far worse, and at least I wasn’t in any pain!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I know what you mean but luckily for us we were there not long after they had smartened up their act a bit and it felt a bit safer than descriptions of it in previous years that I had read!

  • Marie Nicholson

    It was many years ago when we visited Gambia and my photos are all on a shelf too high for easy access to see the date (if I even dated them in those days). I think it would have been late seventies or early eighties, but of course, we didn’t know how dangerous it was when we embarked on the trip, we just assumed the world would welcome us with open arms. The poverty there was terrible, some of the worst we’d seen, and our mugging was somewhat understandable. As one beach boy explained to me, the price of the beer I had just bought from him was what his father earned for two day’s work. Ouch!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Ouch indeed. A crime is still a crime but it’s not difficult to understand why some locals go down that road. They must assume that we have money to spare, the way we spend so freely.

  • Anonymous

    I enjoyed the pictures, especially the brilliant yellow one, and the story about the dentist and the tooth. Too often we are afraid of treatment in foreign places, I share this fear myself, but it’s worth remembering that most of them have been trained in European medical schools. I have a problem with the Gambia though. We had a very nasty experience there with a bad mugging which has scarred me somewhat, left me full of fears and anxieties. It happened about 30 years ago and I still have nightmares. We were told afterwards that The Gambia is/was regarded as one of the most dangerous places for tourists. In fact, the week we were there, there were 3 murders of tourists, 11 stabbings/muggings and lots of other bad things. One of the murdered men was a Scandinavian airline pilot who was knifed and thrown into the canal – just for his watch!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you, I’m fond of that bright yellow myself 😀 When were you in the Gambia? I didn’t feel particularly unsafe although we had lots of hassle from bumsters.

  • wetanddustyroads

    What a great story Sarah! Oh dear, I’m very scared of a dentist … and in a foreign country … not sure about that 👀. But still, you’ve managed to take lovely pictures! Enjoyed your post!

  • Marie

    Love all the colour…. looks like a great place to visit. We’ve had many’s the medical problem when away but never dental (touch wood!!)

  • Alison

    Amazing adventures Sarah, the places you have been. Enjoyed reading your descriptions and dental story! What colourful people with their beautiful clothing, fantastic photos

  • margaret21

    Fabulous photos as usual. Do you think we’ll ever get used to busyness like this again though? And hooray for adequate dental treatment. You just can’t forget a tooth problem, can you?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Margaret 🙂 I wouldn’t be surprised if this ferry is just as busy now as it was then, but whether we’ll start to feel comfortable again in such places some time in the future is a good question! I think it could be a while …

      And I certainly won’t forget this particular tooth problem. It ended up costing me a lot of money as I eventually needed root canal treatment and a crown 😡

  • Natalie

    Sarah, I enjoyed reading your travel stories. Fantastic photos of people and places on your ferry rides. I find that in warmer climates, more vibrant colours appear. I’m glad to hear your dental visit was painless and worked well as a temporary fix. Now I’m off to read about your fall in Marrakesh. Thank you for your contributions to Sunday Stills.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks for following up on my second contribution Natalie, and I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂 You’re right, these vibrant colours seem to prevail in hotter climates. I do love African prints in particular and also the rich colours of saris in India 🙂

  • CliffClaven

    A tooth started to ache in the Amazon jungle in Peru and steadily got worse as I travelled through Ecuador and Colombia. When I got to Panama, the hotel suggested the dental department of a big hospital. But my rental car was stopped at the hospital gate by heavily armed soldiers who ordered me out of the car, patted me down and searched the car. The recently deposed Shah of Iran was a patient at the hospital. I didn’t see him but I did see an American-trained dentist who quickly and efficiently relieved the pain of my tooth. And I still haven’t been on the Banjul ferry…..

    • Sarah Wilkie

      That sounds like quite an adventure! To be honest my tooth had been hurting a bit before we went away but I ignored it. Then while eating lunch on our second day in Senegal a huge piece broke off it. It didn’t hurt but I had a sharp edge that was painful if it caught my tongue or cheek, plus a hole that I thought could become a problem if not filled. As we were going further into the country a few days later it seemed best to get it looked at while still in easy reach of a big city. The hotel were great, putting a guide at our disposal for the morning and making the appointment for me. All we paid for was our ferry tickets 🙂

Do share your thoughts, I'd love to hear from you!