9 reasons to visit The Gambia: in photos
The smallest country on the African mainland, home to almost 600 species of birds and nine tribes with their own culture and traditions, The Gambia is somewhere that’s still best known in the UK as a winter sun destination.
In fact, it might be better to say that the country isn’t well known at all: I only discovered the three facts above while I was preparing for my trip at the beginning of December – and was most excited to be visiting a part of the world that’s almost entirely new to me.
While I’ve explored parts of northern and South Africa (plus Madagascar), the closest I’ve come to west Africa was our trip to Cape Verde earlier this year. And what I found was that for a country around half the size of Wales (or a little smaller than Connecticut), there’s plenty to discover beyond the beaches – these are my nine reasons to visit The Gambia, in photos.
1. The welcome
The Gambia calls itself the ‘smiling coast’ of Africa and it’s a statement that’s hard to argue with – from grinning kids waving from the roadside to easy conversations with people I met along the way. And while tourism is important for the country’s economy, there’s more to it than friendliness forced by economic practicality.
Home to around 10% Christians in a Muslim country, and nine separate tribes, this is somewhere where different faiths and traditions live (and love) happily side by side.
Venture away from the coast, where most of the hotels are to be found, and you’re in the heart of Gambian life too: the biggest city, Serekunda, still smaller than London’s biggest borough, the craft centre of Brikama, the small capital Banjul and the quiet villages among the fields.
If you need to cross the river from the capital Banjul to Barra on the other side of the River Gambia, the owners of the pirogues moored just offshore even hoist travellers onto their shoulders and wade out through the water to reach their boat.
2. The nature
The country is heaven for birdwatchers – head out at dawn or dusk, and you’ll quickly be surrounded by some of the hundreds of species living in The Gambia. Even if you find yourself out on the water in the heat of the day, as I did, the mangroves are still teeming with life; a giant kingfisher called from the trees, a woodpecker knocking nearby while vultures circled overhead.
In the shade of the Makasutu forest, I spied a gaudy red firefinch and more camouflaged thrush, while my guide from Mandina Lodges described the medicinal qualities of a string of different trees and fruit, while revealing how baboons ensure the forest snakes don’t emerge by daylight, the complex hierarchy of a termite mound and the red ants crawling over the white bark of a eucalyptus.
Crocodiles bask by the water at Cape Point, cranes and storks flying gracefully past, as well as thronged on the banks of the Kachikally Crocodile pool. Upriver, you can spy hippos and discover the islands of the chimpanzee rehabilitation centre, home to around 100 chimps. And wherever there are trees, you could find monkeys: especially when there’s fruit or the country’s groundnuts and cashews being harvested.
3. The colours
Under the heat of the African sun, no cloud in the blue sky, the colours of The Gambia seem even more vibrant. After the rains of June to October, the plants and trees remain a lush green for weeks against the baked red of the earth.
Women strut elegantly in traditional African dress, vibrant patterns matched by head wraps – often balancing possessions or a tray casually on top. The occasional black abaya was notable by its rarity: even those wearing long niqabs and headscarves layer them over eye-catchingly bright shades.
And everything that can be decorated, is. Boats in glorious turquoise and yellow, others in the colours of the Gambian flag – even a baobab tree had had a coat of paint, its bark covered by a patchwork of brightly coloured adverts.
4. The culture
Traditional ceremonies are still an important part of life today, and if the talking drums are now used for celebrations rather than passing messages between villages, much endures.
Special pots used to cool water before refrigeration are still found in homes – the water tastes better, according to my guide. Music is a constant accompaniment, not least to set the mood before wrestling matches – another tradition that was once more popular as football.
Strutting, posing and posturing before they entered the ring, the wrestlers we watched were adorned with amulets and dressed in closefitting shorts or ‘dala’ before performing their own personal ritual with special water believed to give them strength and motivation. So intricate are these that the bouts themselves were usually shorter… How much is staged for tourists is hard to say, but more than a few locals sat alongside cheering them on.
And at Kachikally, there’s a small museum with exhibits from the different tribes, including masks, musical instruments and history.
5. The everyday life
It would be easy to spend your days chilling out by the beaches of the coast, but it’s worth stepping out of the tourist bubble; you needn’t voyage far to get a glimpse of everyday life in The Gambia.
In the market at Serekunda, fish and vegetable stalls are steps away from the tourist souvenirs, while another had prayer beads lined up in the shadow of the the mosque’s white minaret. At Banjul, the flood of foot passengers heading to the opposite bank at Barra settled next to the tour groups, a cross-section of society from families to fruit sellers to the flamboyantly fashionable, all for around 35p.
Or on the beach at Tanji, crowds await the returning fishing boats, transporting the catch in wheelbarrows to the buckets on shore to be sold or smoked.
6. The place in history
Turn the clock back a few centuries and The Gambia was at the heart of one of humanity’s darkest chapters – the slave trade to the Americas. Today, it’s commemorated in several stops along the river near Juffure – the village which features in the start of Alex Haley’s novel Roots, where his own ancestor was captured and transported to the USA.
A small museum gives an overview of slavery here, until abolition, while you can also take a boat over to Kunte Kinteh island – otherwise known as Fort James – a staging post where many were held until they were shipped across the ocean.
Moving and heart-rending, a statue commemorates the end of this human trafficking, with a reminder that slavery continues elsewhere in the world today. And by the mouth of the River Gambia, looking across the Banjul, sits Fort Bullen, built in 1826 to blockade the water and prevent ships continuing the now illegal trade.
7. The food
If you love fish, you’ll be in heaven here – barracuda, kingfish, butterfish, captainfish, ladyfish as well as seafood appears on menus galore, especially along the river and coast. And with most of its economy depending on agriculture, you’ll find groundnuts appearing in plenty too including chicken yassa.
Or there’s benachin, a one-pot dish, and other local treats including honey – with small puffed doughnuts to dip in.
8. The hotels
Travelling on a rare solo trip, I got to discover some of the luxury places to stay in the country – Ngala Lodge at Fajara on the coast has one of the country’s best restaurants and a wonderful infinity pool by the sea, plus its own small cove at the bottom of the cliffs.
My day tour to Makasutu gave me a glimpse of the peaceful Mandina Lodges as well, with four floating lodges on the water, as well as villas on land. If you are travelling with kids, Coco Ocean mixes luxury with family-friendly too.
9. The beaches
And while The Gambia isn’t only about the beaches, there’s no denying they’re a very tempting attraction – especially with temperatures around 30C in early December while the UK shivers with frost and snow.
While the coast around Kololi, one of the most popular areas, has become very eroded, you can still find long golden beach at Kotu as well as Cape Point and at Sanyang, our afternoon retreat during our day tour.
Deliciously warm waters, shady loungers by the small bar, you couldn’t fail to relax – to my amusement, even the cows had settled down to chill out by the waves!
PIN FOR LATER: REASONS TO VISIT THE GAMBIA
Disclosure: My trip and tours were courtesy of The Gambia Experience, along with a tour from the Gambia Tourist Board. All opinions, including those about cows on beaches, remain my own.LIKED THIS? FOLLOW ME ON INSTAGRAM