Africa, Wanderlust

23 things you didn’t know about The Gambia

There’s a good reason my travel wishlist never gets any smaller – even when I finally visit a country, I normally want to go back to see the things I missed the first time. And every now and then, I discover a country which hadn’t even been on the list.

Locals walk along the beach at Tanji for the fish market with the fishing boats on the sea in the background - nine reasons to visit The Gambia, in photos

After three days in The Gambia, it’s fair to say I only started to scratch the surface of what there is to discover in this friendly part of West Africa – but as you can see from my nine reasons to visit The Gambia, there’s more than enough to tempt.

It’s also fair to say that the country isn’t particularly well-known yet, unless it’s for its winter sun and beaches – and as snow started to blanket the UK, I was very happy to have had a much-needed fix of warmth. So if you’re planning to visit (and you should!), here are my 23 things to know about The Gambia.

1. It’s the smallest country in mainland Africa, entirely surrounded by Senegal except for its Atlantic coast – and only around half the size of Wales. The entire population is 1.9 million, with under 400,000 in the largest town… which is Serekunda rather than the capital Banjul.

2. If you’re visiting from the UK and staying for less than a month, you don’t need a visa.

3. But you do need malaria tablets, and are advised to have the Yellow Fever vaccination (along with Hepatits A, tetanus and typhoid, which seem pretty standard for anywhere off the beaten track). If you’re flying directly from the UK, you won’t need to show a certificate, but it might be requested if you’re popping across the border to Senegal.

As an incidental bonus, I discovered the vaccination is for life rather than the previous advice of 10-year boosters – so the jab I had in 2003 is still fine.

4. The country is home to nine different tribes – the largest is the Mandinka, along with the Fula and Wolof, all of whom live amicably together. This does make learning any of the local language a bit trickier as there are several possibilities, although as a former British colony, English is widely spoken.

Being able to say thank you always goes down well, so I managed at least to pick up the Mandinka for it – ‘abaraka’.

Women in brightly coloured outfits at Serekunda market, some with head covered, others without - my top 21 things to know about The Gambia

5. Around 90% of the population is Muslim, while 10% are Christian. Christmas trees and wreaths were happily in evidence in December, and I saw as many women with uncovered heads as headwraps and headscarves; as a tourist, I was relatively covered up but still comfortable wearing a vest top.

6. The women’s clothes are fabulous – the most amazing bright colours and fabulous patterns, long close cut skirts and matching tops, strolling elegantly along (often with impressive quantities balanced nonchalantly on their heads). The men seemed more likely to be wearing jeans and a T-shirt or football tops though!

7. Families are big… men are entitled to have four wives (if all are treated the same) and having two is apparently pretty standard. Extended families also live together, while 10 children isn’t unusual, so the numbers add up pretty quickly once you add in a few siblings with their wives and children, and older relatives.

8. Age-old traditions continue elsewhere – circumcision ceremonies for pre-teen boys (FGM is illegal as of 2016), Gambian wrestling is second only to football in popularity, drums form the backdrop to both.

9. Agriculture is still the biggest contributor to the economy, with groundnuts, watermelons and rice among the country’s main crops. But tourism is growing, generating 20% of revenue (officially, although true numbers are probably even higher).

10. Politics is still the big topic of conversation – in early December, there were celebrations to mark a year since the elections which overturned 22 years of rule by Yahya Jammeh. The former president eventually left the country, under the threat of military intervention from neighbouring countries, so the current government has been in power for slightly under a year. For a lot of Gambians, change can’t come fast enough.

A painted map of part of The Gambia and the River Gambia on a metal wall - my top 21 things to know about The Gambia

11. A car journey comes with a ‘free massage’. Tarmac highways link the largest towns and around the tourist centres, with the first set of traffic lights installed 10 years ago, but once you leave these behind, you definitely want a car with decent suspension – even then the bumping and jolts of unpaved roads are inevitable. On the bright side, as three separate drivers told me, you get a free massage.

12. The majority of tourists barely venture beyond the coast, although day tours make it easy to explore further. Those roads mean that you’re unlikely to reach much further east than Brikama, or Juffureh on the northern shore of the river. The long thin country extends for around another 250 miles inland along the River Gambia…

13. The river was once used for a much darker purpose, transporting slaves to the forts by the coast and onwards across the Atlantic. Over two million people, possibly as many as three million, may have been taken from this part of Africa over the three centuries of the slave trade; the villages of Albreda and Juffureh are home to a museum and information centre, as well as an old fort where captives were held.

14. Watch out for crocodiles in the river too, as well as hippos once you venture further inland. The country is also heaven for birdwatchers, with almost 600 species of bird life to be found in the forests and by its banks.

15. If you head into the Makasutu forest, you won’t spot a single snake… not because there aren’t any, but because they don’t come out in daylight thanks to the baboons which also live there. If the baboons catch them, they bury them in a hole for three days before coming back to eat not the snake but the worms found on it.

View down onto the river and the trees of Makasutu forest reserve - nine reasons to visit The Gambia, in photos

16. Monkeys by the beaches have their own particular ways of getting lunch too: to stop sand crabs darting back into their boltholes, they block the entrance with their tails. In retaliation, the crabs snap the tails  with their pincers… and when the monkey has a tail full of crabs, he bounds off to eat them at his leisure.

17. You’re more likely to find fish on the menu than crabs… make sure you’re carrying cash if you’re planning to eat out. Few places accept credit cards (and expect a surcharge from those which do), while prepaid cards are all but unheard of. ATMs are becoming more common but are still relatively few and far between.

Don’t bother trying to get currency in advance either. The best option is to take sterling which you can change easily into dalasi, the local currency, and which is sometimes accepted as well. At the moment, there are around 60 dalasi to the pound.

18. Pack your adaptors too… though you may not need them. 3-pin British plugs are common, although you may run across European two-pin ones as well.

19. You won’t need to re-set the clocks if you’re visiting in the British winter, as The Gambia is also on GMT.

20. You may not be using your devices much though… Some of the hotels have free WiFi, and a few bars and restaurants were advertising it near the hotels by the coast but otherwise you’ll may be lucky to have any data even if your roaming is switched on.

21. And best not to wander round with your phone on display in any case: The Gambia is generally a very safe country, as long as you use some common sense – don’t carry more cash than you need, do lock your passport away, watch out for pickpockets in busy markets.

And when there may not be any lighting or pavement, it’s no surprise that it’s not recommended to wander alone after dark…

A cow lounges on the sand at Paradise Beach, Sanyang - nine reasons to visit The Gambia, in photos

22. The biggest issue is bumsters, who’ll strike up conversation offering cheap tours or designed to leave tourists in a situation where money’s expected. On the flipside, you’ll also find plenty of people who are simply being friendly and want to start chatting.

As a woman travelling solo, I was wary of giving a wrong impression by being too friendly – especially as you’ll mostly meet men rather than women – but never felt harassed or unsafe. Common sense, as ever, rules.

23. I would travel there with kids… but not yet. Having visited The Gambia solo on this trip, I was constantly wondering whether it’s somewhere I’d return to with my daughter – and I genuinely think it is, when she’s older. For a winter sun destination, I’d rather avoid the battle to get her to take malaria tablets or additional vaccinations for now.

As with our time in Cambodia, the horrors of history are also something I would leave until she’s better able to understand the times and attitudes which led to the slave trade. And while there’s far more than beaches, sitting quietly in a boat watching for birds and putting up with bumpy roads aren’t my five-year-old’s forte.

But if, like me, The Gambia hadn’t previously topped your wishlist, a few wonderful days exploring was enough to show me just why it should be.

PIN FOR LATER: 23 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT THE GAMBIA

My top 21 things to know about The Gambia before you visit - from practical tips on visas and changing money, to life in The Gambia, top things to see and advice on visiting with kids #thegambia #gambiawithkids #gambiatips #mummytravels

Disclosure: My trip was courtesy of The Gambia Experience. All opinions, and unwillingness to wrestle malaria tablets into my daughter if I can avoid it, remain my own.

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