The Gambia revisited

2013-07-04 09:38

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Perched on the west coast of Africa and practically surrounded by Senegal, The Gambia offers more than sun, sand and swimming.

There are more than 6 000km between South Africa and the tiny sliver of West Africa known as The Gambia.

Squeezed into that vast distance are tens of nation states, hundreds of tribes, millions of people, several deserts, a few tropical rainforests, the equator and a large chunk of Atlantic coastline.

So why is it that when I walk off the plane at Banjul International, everything feels so familiar?

A uniqueness of this diverse continent is that, despite great distances travelled, you can still feel at home.

It has been over a decade since I last drove the roads between the airport and The Gambia’s coastal resorts, yet I’m already accustomed to the blooming bougainvillea, deep red earth and suicidal taxi drivers.

Elaborate shop signs advertise their wares in a similar cacophony of imaginative slogans and hand-painted pictures, and, being the official language, English is different in accent only. I could almost be driving through a small town in the Transkei.

The intrepid traveller could be forgiven for deciding to give this part of the continent a miss.

If it feels and looks like Mthatha, and is a stone’s throw from unstable Mali and intimidating Nigeria, why not pocket some rands and holiday locally? But if that traveller really was intrepid, they would know that despite initial appearances, little more than a scratch of the surface tends to reveal the colourful differences.

Painful past

The Gambia’s borders pay testament to its own painful history, and one that is well worth exploring. Surrounded on three sides by Senegal, The Gambia hugs the banks of its eponymous river, never straying more than 50km north or south, and 300km east. During the colonial carve up, the British wanted control of a waterway to whisk raw material from Africa’s interior. Sadly, the bulk of these ‘goods’ were slaves.

James Island (renamed Kunta Kinteh Island in 2011), a staging post so isolated in the River Gambia’s vastness that you have to squint to see the banks, was where up to three million men, women and children were ‘stored’ before being stowed into ships’ cargo holds for the six-week journey to the West Indies.

Despite being declared a Unesco World Heritage site, a lack of funding is affecting this historically important island. Austere prison walls are crumbling and the island’s beaches are slowly eroding. Perhaps it is fitting, given its disturbing history, that it slowly sinks into an ignominious hole.

Cocktails and crocodiles

Unsurprisingly, the majority of tourists are more interested in The Gambia’s coastline than its uncomfortable past. The most popular beaches stretch south from the river mouth to the border with Senegal.

Hotels of all descriptions cater for holidaymakers of all persuasions. What the hotels all have in common, however, is the sand, sea, palm trees and eager traders hoping to sell a trinket or a fruit salad.

The small town of Bakau sprawls behind the northernmost reaches of these beaches. In many similar African towns, tourists are happy to indulge in sun, sea and badly made cocktails that shield them from the real lives of those who serve their pina coladas.

Here, however, tourists regularly traipse through the dusty side streets, skip over trenches of raw sewage and pass packs of hooded vultures sifting through public garbage dumps.

Their destination is Kachikally Crocodile Pool, a relic of the region’s animist belief system, where more than 100 crocodiles live in a stagnant pond. It is here that local people come to draw water to bathe in, hoping the lucky liquid will result in a much-wanted pregnancy or a business break.

Tourists plod through a basic museum before hitting their crocodile Mecca. Due to being well fed on fish each morning, these cold-blooded beasts are so lethargic and tame that posing for an up-close-and-personal photograph holds hardly any risk.

Birds and binoculars

Being on the migratory route of sun-seeking birds, The Gambia is an ornithologist’s dream. Waking up before sunrise and heading into the mangrove forests and creeks of the river’s tributaries for the dawn chorus provide thrills for even the most night-owlish twitcher.

The protected Makasutu Cultural Forest provides the setting for a play of ethereal quality. Just after sunrise, guides shepherd tourists into mahogany dugout canoes for a punt through the mangroves.

Not a human sound. Only the rhythmic swish of the oarman’s paddle, occasionally interrupted by the guide’s call of ‘giant kingfisher’, ‘great heron’, ‘golden oriole’.

We unsteadily disembark at a creek-side village and walk. Local kids tend the family plot, checking on the progress of their sprawling groundnuts before heading to school, while ageing men climb palm trees to tap the sap that will ferment into palm wine.

Our keen-eyed expert calls ‘African green pigeon’ or ‘splendid sunbird’, making us simultaneously pull our binoculars in

the same direction, like a 1940s chorus line. The villagers continue cultivating, not bothering to glance at the odd troupe of creatures that invades their morning rites every couple of days.

Five-star luxury

The mangroves are a strange place, and there is no better place to enjoy them than Mandina Lodge. This eco-lodge is in complete harmony with its surroundings, with four rooms built onto tethered pontoons, connected to the mainland by a hinged walkway. They rise and fall with the tidal flow.

In constant transition, never completely wet or dry, weird and wonderful creatures live on the fringes of the tide.

Mudskippers (bottom half fish and top half toad) flirt in this flux, following the water’s line to keep moist but not fully immersing themselves or exposing themselves to the sun. Oysters cling onto nearby mangrove branches, clicking loudly to create a mangrove symphony.

The familiarity of a country so far away brings the comfort of a ‘home from home’ holiday. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find a world of difference to investigate.

A remarkable country populated by a diverse people, with a unique history, blessed by a distinct natural habitat, will yield plenty of opportunity to experience something new.

Travel details

• Banjul, the capital, is on the south bank of the Gambia River mouth. A ferry service crosses to the north side, to Barra Point. James/Kunta Kinteh Island is 30km upriver near Juffureh, on the north bank of the Gambia River.

• The busier beach resort areas to the south include Cape Point (where the village of Bakau is, 16km from Banjul), Kololi, Kotu and Sanyang.

• Makasutu Cultural Forest is 5km northeast of Brikama, which is 22km south of Banjul. This is also where Mandina Lodge is located.

• For more information on The Gambia, see

Book your trip

• The Gambia isn’t (yet) a popular destination from South Africa, so there are only a few SA tour operators that organise trips. One is Travel Troll.

• British company The Gambia Experience is a specialist, and the sole booking agent for Mandina Lodge.

• SAA flies to The Gambia via Dakar, Senegal.

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