Ah, Gambia! In 2 glorious weeks, we’ll discover some of the secrets of this country spanning 11,300 kilometers, shaped like a serpent evenly split in half by the Gambia river.
1. Sun and baobab juice
On the road trip from the airport, we see baobabs (trees with atrophied branches, a symbol of the continent), stately houses, and stalls of roast with pictures of of a smiling Yahja Jammeh, president since 1994.
We stayed at one of the resorts on the Atlantic coast. A strip of 10 kilometers between the towns of Bakau and Kololi passing through Fajara and Kotu. More than hotels, they look like communities: rooms in single-story houses, gardens with palm trees, Melrose Place swimming pools, Benidorm-style ballrooms and exotic thatched roof restaurants. The good thing about sleeping in this type of accommodation is that we have one foot in the bed and another on the beach.
The first morning is spent lounging in the hammock, drinking baobab juice (65 GMD, $2) and lazing. On the beaches, tourists look like cats in the sun. And the Gambian women, in colorful robes, sell fruit dishes (65 GMD, $2) and offer massages (90 GMD, $3) all day.
2. Bob Marley Rhythms
They call it little Jamaica, and rightly so. Rastas, Jamaican flags, dub rhythms. There are concerts of musicians such as the Frenchman, Rebellion the Recaller, or the male trio group Dancehall Masters. There is also an abundance of fula acrobats, malinké troubadours and djambé musicians on the terraces. You can take a plate of fish and rice (45 GMD, $1.50) and a Julbrew (35 GMD, $1), the Gambian beer, and enjoy the show in Lama Lama or Destiny (in Kololi).
3. Sacred nature
They look like stones along the way, but they are not. In the sacred lake of the crocodiles, at Kachikaly Crocodile Pool in the center of Bakau, the reptiles spend the day sunbathing. Only tourists pay to enter. Locals come to pray, because crocodiles represent the power of fertility.
Gambia has six parks and nature reserves. There, chimpanzees, monkeys, and baboons play tricks on the palm trees. Abuko, located to the west, is the oldest protected area of the country. The best time to observe birds is first thing in the morning, before the midday heat.
4. Shellfish and mangroves
Brikama, Gambia’s third largest town, is famous for its handicraft market. The Woodcarver’s Market, at one end of town and to the right coming from Banjul or Serekunda, is an anthill of stalls. The craftsmen make wooden bowls, sculptures of cats, and jewelry. It’s worth sitting down to chat with the elders of the place, sheltered from the heat by their stone stalls.
Not far, (about ten minutes by conventional taxi), a handmade hut floats on stilts on the Gambia river. Its name, Lamin Lodge. Actually, it’s a restaurant very famous among the tourists where they serve delicious seafood. Before the feast, a one-hour boat ride (700 GMD, about $20) allows you to dream among mangroves.
1. A walk in Banjul
The main city of the country Banjul looks like Gambia’s capital status. Located on the south bank of the mouth of the Gambia River, the city looks like the old colonial towns. Just a few kilometers from Serrekunda, the largest population in the country and center where the main hotels and tourist resorts are located, Banjul is just a little town surrounded by mangroves.
The main cultural attraction of the place is the National Museum (Address: Independence Dr Tel: (+220) 422 62 44; Hours: LJ: 9.00 – 18.00 VS 9.00 – 17.00) which has a good collection of archaeological and ethnographic objects that Serve to represent the culture of the country. It also has a small local art gallery.
Other notable buildings are the King Fahad Mosque (Box Bar Road) and St. Mary’s Cathedral (C West Davidson Carrol). But what really separates Banjul is its environment. The best way to immerse yourself in it is at the Albert Market (Liberation Avenue), a bustling street market right next to the river where you can buy virtually everything. For handicraft lovers there are wood carvings and the spectacular and colorful local fabrics. A few kilometers from the capital (very close to the Airport) is the small town of Sameh which displays a surprising exhibition of urban art by the Belgian street painter Roa, world famous for its spectacular animal graffiti. The walk is worth it because the murals are amazing.
2. The Path Of Slavery.
The Gambia River is the heart of the country and main communication artery of the coast with the interior. The more than 320 kilometers of channel between the mouth of the Atlantic and the western border with Senegal allow navigation, a key question to understand the history of the country since the arrival of the first Europeans in the early fifteenth century.
The strip that is on both sides of the river was once the territory of the Mandinga ethnicity. This town was always characterized by its enormous physical strength, a characteristic that aroused the interest of European slave traffickers. According to estimates, some three million people were captured on these lands and shipped to America as slaves.
Saint James Island (via a ferry access from Banjul) was the place where human traffickers imprisoned and classified slaves before embarking them on American plantations. One can still see the Old Fort, constructed by the English in the XVII century, and the barracks that served as prisons.
On the north bank of the river (about 30 kilometers from the mouth) is the port of Albreda, which has the remains of an old Portuguese hermitage of the fifteenth century, and, inland, the village of Jufureh. This small population of just a couple of houses became famous in the 70s for being the stage of the beginning of the novel Roots, by Alex Haley. Jufureh presumes to be the cradle of the celebrated Kunta Kinte, historical person and ascendant of the own writer who was kidnapped and sold in the middle of century XVIII. In the city there is a small and modest museum devoted to slavery that is well worth a visit.
3. Exploring the north coast.
The noisy city of Barra occupies the north shore of the mouth of the Gambia River. The only way to get there is by boat from neighboring Banjul. From the ferry terminal of the capital, there are numerous frequencies. The cruise lasts only an hour, although you have to be patient with the schedules and the comfort of the ferry. Under no circumstances is it advisable to board unauthorized boats.
Although the distance between the two cities hardly exceeds 10 kilometers, the crossing usually crosses zones of considerable swell and the accidents of the small cayucos that cross from one side to another of the river are frequent. In addition, a crossing in the Ferry of Barra is an experience. Always cross the river in authorized boats.
Barra does not, in itself, have much to see, but it’s the gateway to Niumi National Park. Spanning a little more than 49 square kilometers, the park occupies practically all of the north coast of the country from the mouth of the river to the border with Senegal. The most attractive feature of this unique natural space are its spectacular mangrove swamps (the best preserved of Africa north of the Ecuadorian line) and the best beaches in the country. Here, the African Caribbean image is fully justified.
The coast offers miles of white sands adorned with coconut trees and turquoise waters. Beyond the dune fields is a dense forest of mangroves where you can see crocodiles, leopards, turtles or manatees among many other species. There are some possibilities of accommodation in the national park. A good choice is the Kayrabeach Resort. Another possibility is the Jinack Lodge a development project operated by local communities.
4. National parks and beaches on the south coast.
The Coastal Road runs along the stretch of coast between Serrekunda and the South Senegalese border. A little more than 45 kilometers from the country’s most populated city (actually a small residential neighborhood of Banjul) and the Kartong border crossing. In between, spectacular beaches, fishing villages and more national parks. A good way to start this excursion is to visit Kachikally Crocodile Lagoon (Access via Old Cape Road; Tel: (+220) 778 24 79);
What was once a sacred space linked with fertility rites today is a tourist attraction where you can see a hundred crocodiles from the Nile. The lagoon is very close to the lively Bakau Market and a stone’s throw from Cape hotels Point, Bakau and Atlantic Boulevard. Shortly before leaving Serrekunda we come across the Bijilo National Park, famous for its population of monkeys that approach the visitor without any kind of complex. A few kilometers away is the Tanji Nature Reserve, a huge wetland that is a paradise for the bird lover where more than 260 species reside permanently.
One of the most interesting attractions in the country is Tanji Village and its spectacular fish market. Hundreds of gaudy painted boats (traditional fishing boats) crowd around each other in the sand, and fishermen mingle with fish vendors and customers, while curious seagulls aggressively scavenge. The best time to enjoy this show is at sunset, when the day’s catch is landed.
There are other small fishing centers on the south coast, but none with Tanji’s vitality and hubbub. The strip of land between How ba and the Senegalese border alternates beaches and small towns in which large hotel complexes have not yet occupied the best location on the beaches.
The Gambia River is the main communication route of the country and the best way to enter the interior of the small African republic is through its waters. Along the banks there are several national parks, small colonial cities, historical towns linked to the tribes that inhabited the country and even megalithic monuments. Upstream, the Gambia of big coastal hotels gives way to a landscape in which the huge forest reserves and rural landscapes alternate.
The first stop of this walk into the heart of the country is the small village of Tendaba, gateway to Kiang West National Park, the largest in the country. This natural space alternates habitats marked by the river and wide areas of savanna in the interior.
The town of Kuntaur, in the middle of the river, is also a good base of operations to explore the country’s interior and the nearby Gambia River National Park is where you can see, among other animals, a lot of hippos and crocodiles. In this park, which sits on five river islands, an interesting project is currently being developed to recover the habitat of the chimpanzee.
Very close to this small town are the Stone Circles of Wassu, one of the most important megalithic sites in North Africa, which are also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This stone structure is part of a set of 93 archaeological sites that share the Gambia and Senegal and were built between the third and sixteenth centuries BC and our era. The small town of Janjangbureh, one of the oldest in the country and a magnificent example of mestizaje between Europeans and local ethnic groups, is located upstream on one of the numerous islands in the Gambian Channel.
A wonderful journey indeed. A relatively inexpensive trip that will provide a lifetime full of memories.