A guide to The Gambia

By | Category: Travel destinations

Thousands of Brits flock to The Gambia each year in search of winter sun, attracted by the carousel of charter flights between the UK and Banjul. Many never make it beyond the big beach resorts of the Atlantic Coast but those that do soon discover how this tiny country, known as the ‘smiling coast of Africa’, earned its title. Your definitive guide to the ‘real’ Gambia starts here

A is for the Atlantic Coast
The Atlantic Coast is the heart of Gambia’s tourist industry and a great place to fly and flop: this 10km stretch of coastline boasts some of the best beaches in all of Africa. The four resorts of Bakau, Fajara, Kotu and Kololi deliver everything on the holiday checklist: chalk white beaches, a sea that is paint box turquoise, water sports, restaurants, bars, an array of activities for the whole family – the lot. One caveat: beware of the beach ‘bumsters’ (hustlers) who patrol the sand trying to make money any and every way.

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B is for Banjul
The capital city of The Gambia and the entry point to this tiny West African nation. The main administrative centre for the country, Banjul is a strange mixture of colonial buildings, shanty buildings and modern offices. Attractions abound and include the Gambian National Museum, the African Heritage Museum, two cathedrals, several major mosques and Albert Market – which is alive with vibrant roadside stalls selling everything from art and jewellery to batteries, bananas, spices and other seasonings. All are sold out of large open sacks, making for sensory overload.

C is for the Crocodile Pool
One of The Gambia’s most popular tourist attractions. For locals, the Kachikally Crocodile Pool is a sacred site: crocodiles represent the power of fertility in Gambia and consequently women who experience difficulties in conceiving come here to pray. Any child called ‘Kachikally’ is symbolic of a successful prayer at the pool! To find out more about the crocodile pool, visit www.kachikally.com

D is for the Dalasi
The Gambia’s unit of currency. Often abbreviated to D or d, the dalasi is divided into 100 butut and there are coins for five 10, 25 and 50 butut. The dalasi isn’t fixed and can fluctuate enormously.

E is for Eco Lodge

Of which The Gambia has some excellent examples: take a bow Balaba Nature Camp, Bintang Bolong Lodge, Footsteps Eco Lodge and Sandele Eco-Retreat to name but a few. CD-Traveller highly recommends staying at such a place which not only trains and employs staff from the local community but respects and remains integrated with local customs.

F is for Football
Like most of Africa, The Gambia is football crazy, football mad. The Gambia’s main stadium is the Independence Stadium in Bakau but all the larger towns have an official football stadium where, when a big game is on, the atmosphere is electric: Gambians come clad in their team’s colours or carrying flags and ask any young boy what he wants to be when he grow ups and chances are he’ll answer “a professional footballer.”

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G is for Gelli-Gellis
Gelli-gellis are The Gambia’s equivalent of minibuses and used by budget conscious tourists to travel to all the major towns. Gellli-gellis tend to be cheaper than the ‘sept place’ (seven seater Peugeots) that also link all the major areas of interest, but for good reason: they’re usually rusty metal hulks but it makes for a memorable ride! Prices for gelli-gellis are fixed.

H is for Hippopotamuses
Have a hankering to see some giant hippopotamuses? Be sure to explore eastern Gambia. The River Gambia National Park in particular is a good place for reliable hippo spotting and local guides usually know where these giants like to hang out. However if you do happen to see a hippo or two, admire from afar: despite being vegetarian, hippos are responsible for more deaths in Africa than any other animal.

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I is for Islam
Muslims make up 90 percent of The Gambia and as such Islam is the largest faith. Followers of Islam live their whole lives in a way that is pleasing to Allah. To convert to Islam, it is necessary merely to recite three times with conviction: “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Prophet”.

J is for James Island
James Island is one The Gambia’s most significant historical sites. 30km from the river mouth, the island houses the remains of Fort James – an important British colonial trading post since 1661 and now a UNESCO World Heritage Listed Site. Kunta Kinte, author Alex Haley’s ancestor, described in the book and TV series Roots was probably shipped through James Island.

K is for Kartong
Arguably The Gambia’s best kept secret, Kartong is an unspoilt coastal village set close to the Senegalese border. It’s known for its sand mine, fishing centre and famous festival: the Kartong Festival (www.kartongfestival.org) is an annual dance and music event held in March.

L is for Lamin
Regardless of whether you’re in The Gambia for a few days or a fortnight, we’re willing to bet you’ll meet a ‘Lamin’ or two! Lamin is the name given to most Muslim first born sons. It is the responsibility of all Lamins to look after their, grandparents and parents as well as their younger siblings.

M is for Markets
The Gambia’s many markets are worth a visit (even if retail therapy holds little appeal) as they offer a fascinating glimpse into the country’s traditional way of life. Local craftsmen sell everything from carved masks and statutes to batiks, clothes and cheaply imported electrical goods while fruit and vegetables are sold out of large open sacks. Be prepared to haggle hard for your goods – bargaining accompanies almost every purchase.

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N is for Ngala Lodge
A refurbished colonial mansion set on a cliff top overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on the edge of bustling Bakau.  Accommodation consists of 18 individual suites, some with private Jacuzzis, and all decorated with superb local paintings and sculptures. The restaurant is renowned both for its fantastic ocean views and its first class cuisine. The property is ideally placed to experience a genuine working African town: head to the local market and explore the fishing port.

O is for Oyster Creek
The main waterway separating Banjul Island from the mainland, Oyster Creek. Brilliant for bird watching, Oyster Creek (sometimes referred to as “Check Point Charlie” because of the number of police and military people positioned there) is also a great place to paddle along in a wooden pirogue.

P is for Palm Wine
A popular drink in the villages of The Gambia (as you travel around the country, chances are you’ll see men perched precariously on palm trees, collecting the palm’s precious sap). It’s tasty and cheap too – a bottle won’t set you back more than a few dalasi.

R is for Roots |
Written by Alex Haley in 1976, Roots (a mix of fiction and historical fact) is a hugely influential book that describes the African-American author’s search for his African origins. Roots was eventually published in 37 languages with Haley winning a Special Award for his work in 1977 from the Pulitzer Board. Roots was also adapted into a popular television miniseries later that year.

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S is for Scams
Sadly many of The Gambia’s unemployed young men have discovered that engaging (and sometimes hassling) tourists can be as rewarding as a real job. Be prepared for personal questions, sob stories, favours and offers of friendship all with the aim of getting you to drop some dalasi in their direction. Brush off ‘bumsters’ by ignoring them or else issuing a firm ‘No’.

T is
for Twitchers
The Gambia has rightly earnt a reputation as one of West Africa’s best bird watching destinations – more than 560 species have been recorded. Expect to see the pied, African pygmy, giant, malachite, shining blue and woodland kingfishers among others.

V is for Vaccinations
Jabs against hepatitis A and B, typhoid and tetanus are recommended and it’s essential to have a vaccination certificate (particularly at the borders) to show you’ve been for jabbed for yellow fever. It’s also important to take malaria tablets: nowhere in The Gambia is completely free of malaria – a potentially fatal disease.

W is for Workers Day
Which falls on May 1 and is a public holiday: governmental departments shut as do many businesses and shops as the country prepares to party. Between the Christian, Muslim and national holidays there’s barely a month that goes by in The Gambia without a public celebration!

X is for Xylophones
This African percussion instrument exists in many different forms. In The Gambia, it’s the wooden balafon that is the traditional xylophone. The balafon, which has been played in the region since the 1300s, has between 16-21 keys. Sound is produced by striking the tuned keys (usually made of bene wood) with two padded sticks.

Y is for Yahya Jammeh
President of The Gambia. Since his coup d’état in 1994, Yahya Jammeh has ruled the nation like a one man show, clamping down on criticism boosting the secret service and trying to impress the national with his big gowns, kingly cane, ebony prayer beads and claims of magic powers.

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