Experience ‘Up Country’ Adventures in the Gambia

By | Category: Travel destinations
as dawn breaks over the Mandina Bolong Creek, my adventure begins

as dawn breaks over the Mandina Bolong Creek, my adventure begins

As lovely as some of the Atlantic Coast resorts of the Gambia are, up river there are engaging sights and activities that are well worth the effort to visit and can be included in a package holiday.

The Gambia’s tourism numbers this year are low due to the unfortunate outbreak of disease in other countries of West Africa.  There have been scattered reports of violence in Banjul and of UK tourists having problems with theft so be sure to travel with a guide or a group if you leave the resort areas.  But the Gambia is incredible value for money as a holiday destination and always an excellent choice for winter sun with the majority of locals being very friendly.

River Gambia National Park and Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Centre

You may remember a very special chimp named Lucy.  She was brought up by primatologist Janice Carter in Oklahoma in the 1980s and was taught sign language from an early age.  Ever wonder where she ended up?

a chimp in the River Gambia National Park

a chimp in the River Gambia National Park

Lucy ended up at the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project in the River Gambia National Park.  Upriver from the beach resorts is beautiful, undeveloped Gambia which looks as it might have in the past before modern civilisation arrived.  The islands of the River Gambia National Park have enormous palm trees, mango trees and mangrove forest right up to the waters’ edge.  Located in the river are five islands known, collectively, as the Baboon Islands.  Three of these islands is where the Chimp Rehabilitation Project is located.

The project was set up by Leslie Brewer-Marsden in 1979 and abandoned or mistreated chimps were reintroduced into the wild here.  This has allowed the animals to be studied with a view to learning more about primate behaviour and senior members of staff have been here for over thirty five years.  These islands are now home to over 100 chimpanzees that have grown up in the wild.  Base camp for the project, and where tourists can come and stay, is on the south side of the river and comprises tented accommodation and a river-side lodge.  Once a day Thursday to Sunday, visitors can follow the feeding boat at 4pm and see chimps come to the riverside to feed.  There are also an enormous amount of birds, a few hippos and other primates such as baboons in the park and the shy Red Colobus monkey makes its home on the mainland near the base camp.  Guests can stay in high quality tented accommodation also from Thursday to Sunday.

Matasuku Forest

many of the local fishing boats are colourfully decorated

many of the local fishing boats are colourfully decorated

Only about one hour’s drive from Banjul is the Matasuku Forest also known as the Holy Forest.  Centuries of legend surround this ancient wilderness, a nearly pristine area covering 1,750 hectares and located on a tributary of the River Gambia named Mandinka Bolong.  From time immemorial, the forest was a no-go area and thought to be inhabited by demons and dragons.  A Mali King, along with his troops, once made Matasuku his stronghold but he was ousted by a nearby local tribe.  According to folklore, the King’s head, his throne and crown are buried somewhere on the land.  A small plot of land was ultimately purchased by duo Lawrence Williams and James English with the plan being to build backpacker’s hostel.  But, ultimately, the pair bought the entire forest and developed it, in partnership with the Gambia government, into a sustainable tourism project.  The Matasuku Cultural Forest now comprises the Mandina River Lodges, which are an eco-project in and of themselves, and base camp which operates a day programme for visitor’s encompassing: guided walks, canoe rides, lunch, entertainment and an arts and crafts market run by the local Kembujeh villagers.

Wide Open Walls

the Golloya village artist, Remy Rough, a contributor to the Wide Open Walls project

the Golloya village artist, Remy Rough, a contributor to the Wide Open Walls project

Lawrence Williams started a unique art project in 2009 – Wide Open Walls – which brought street artists from all over the world to adorn the walls of Galloya village and Mandina Lodge complex with sophisticated graffiti art.  Some of the work is representational, while some is wholly avante-garde, other murals are brightly coloured while some are black and white but all are distinctive.  Wide Open Walls not only has created spectacular art work but the project has even inspired the local village children to take up art.  Lawrence along with Gambian artist, Njogu, work as a pair and are the self-styled ‘Bush Dwellers’.  Artistic duo Neil and Hadley from the UK are ‘Best Ever’; they also work with artist ‘Remi-Rough’ while Brazilian artist Rimon Guimarães is ‘RIM’.  If you are staying at the Mandina River Lodge, staff will organise a river, combined with taxi, transfer for those who want to see the art for themselves.

Jinack Island and Niumi National Park

On the north side of the River Gambia is the nearly un-discovered Niumi National Park. I asked volunteer ALH Munifrou Nyan about why tourists might want to come here.  He replied, “Visitors will appreciate the unique, natural environment of the park but also the friendly people.  There are three historic villages inside the park boundaries so you will most likely encounter the locals.”  Volunteers patrol the park day and night and also have started a nursery at the Park’s centre and maintain bee hives to collect honey.

a white heron in the Baobong nature Reserve

a white heron in the Baobong nature Reserve

If you traverse through the park, look out for birdlife, Duiker antelopes and, in the river, West African Manatees.  Eventually you will arrive at the Atlantic Coast and Jinack Island.  If you have them, leave vehicles behind and take a fishing boat across the water (only about ½ km) to tiny village Jinack Nigi.  Grab a cool beverage at Kamara Samo’s bar (which seems to be named Jembey Fever) before the half hour trek to the other side of the island.  Here you will find an astonishingly unpopulated and gorgeous stretch of golden sand beach.  There is clean, basic accommodation at Jinack Lodge as well as Kamara Samo.  If you go out for a swim, you may encounter bottle nose dolphins frolicking near the shore.

Bird Watching at Baobolong Wetland Reserve 

As the dawn mist clears and the morning sun starts to rise, there is possibly no better place on the planet for birdlife then the Baobolong Nature Reserve. Over 500 species of birds are attracted to the River Gambia in all their feathered glory.  Take a traditional boat from Tendaba Safari Lodge, a mere 7 kms away on the south side of the river, to this unique mangrove forest reserve. We spotted, with the help of Captain Wandee Touray, a rare African Fin Foot along with at least 35 other varieties of birds including: White Throated Bee Eater, Snake Bird, Great White Heron, Blue Egrets, Black Crowned Night Heron, Pied Kingfisher and Blue Breasted Kingfisher.

a Wassu circle

a Wassu circle

Wassu Stone Circles

About a 5 hour drive from Banjul on the North Bank of the River Gambia is the pre-historic and sacred site of the Wassu Stone Circles.  The stones compare in age and purpose with Stonehenge and it is thought that burials took place here for about 1500 years.  An enormous mass burial site was found here and carbon dating has put a starting date of about 100 A.D. for the site.  The stones are a rich deep mahogany colour which corresponds with the laterite found in nearby local quarries.  The museum has some interesting information but the folklore is much more exciting.  Talk to the Stone Man, Mr. Pasangyang, the site’s erstwhile caretaker. He says at night that people see lights shining from behind the stones; a common occurrence according to the superstitious locals.

sunset over Mandina Lodge in the Matasuku Forest

sunset over Mandina Lodge in the Matasuku Forest

 

There was so much to see during daylight and so much to do. But when the day ended and sunset came that left an entirely satisfied end to this one day. But I have more days, more sunrises and more beautiful sunsets before I leave a Gambia that I appreciate a lot more now that I have been here.

For more about Gambia, click here.

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