Basse Santa Su - A view from our expert author

Basse Santa Su, The Gambia by Marco Muscarà,

A main street in Basse Santa Su © Marco Muscarà,

Basse Santa Su, more normally abbreviated to Basse, is set on the South Bank of the River Gambia about 370km inland of Banjul. The administrative capital of Upper River Division, it is also the largest Gambian town east of Farafenni, having witnessed a huge population surge in recent decades, from around 5,000 inhabitants in 1983 to 20,000 today. Basse once must have been a river port of some significance, at least judging by the decaying Victorian buildings that dot its small timeworn waterfront. And it still serves as a transport depot for the local peanut and cotton trade, but these days it is, above all, a market town – indeed, the sprawl of narrow streets that comprises the town centre comes across as one vast chaotic bazaar, spilling over with shops and stalls laden with all manner of imported goods and local wares.

The country’s most easterly town also boasts a uniquely West African feel, aligning more in character to Senegal or Guinea than the coast.

Basse has a strikingly different character from any other Gambian town, thanks to its isolation from the coast and strong cross-border trade links, not only with Senegal, which encloses it on three sides, but also to a lesser extent with Guinea, Mali and Mauritania. From a visitor’s perspective, it feels far less Westernised than any other comparably sized Gambian town – traditional smocks and straw hats are still very much de rigueur here – yet it also has a rather cosmopolitan atmosphere, albeit one that mainly reflects its diversity of West African influences. True, Basse lacks for overt tourist attractions, but for those whose travels in the region are otherwise confined to coastal Gambia, a visit to this busy, noisy, thriving and emphatically African town will be a genuine eye-opener.

Though Basse is refreshingly free of bumsters and touts, a visit there will push many travellers outside their normal comfort zones. The town’s roads are dusty, potholed and uncomfortably narrow, public services such as electricity and running water are erratic even by upriver standards, and hotels and restaurants are all on the rudimentary side. Sadly, in this last respect, Basse has gone backwards in recent years, thanks to the closure of several relatively alluring tourist amenities established around the turn of the millennium. The main reason for this decline is probably that the gradual deterioration of upcountry roads after the 1990s meant fewer and fewer tourists were prepared to drive all the way to Basse from the coast. If that is the case, it is to be hoped that the recent resurfacing of the South Bank Road from Serekunda will generate renewed interest in visiting the country’s most remote large town.

Basse has a strikingly different character from any other Gambian town, thanks to its isolation from the coast and strong cross-border trade links, and a visit here will push many travellers outside their normal comfort zone.

Away from the urban hustle of Basse, Upper River Division exudes an aura of peace and timeless traditionalism. True, most houses are now roofed with corrugated iron rather than thatch, and misshapen TV aerials protrude skywards in the most remote places. Of course, there are modern amenities such as schools and health clinics. But despite this, many aspects of day-to-day life have changed little in hundreds of years.

Women work out in the fields and cook food over open wood fires. Men still go out to hunt with ancient guns, or sit and chat beneath the bantaba. And because few toubabs set foot in the area, people tend to be extremely welcoming to and curious about visitors, though English as a spoken language is less common than elsewhere.

As is the case with its administrative capital, Upper River Division is short on bespoke tourist attractions, but it can be very rewarding to those who want to experience an Africa that remains largely undistorted by the trapping of the tourist industry.

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