A Day Exploring the Sights of The Gambia

Sights The Gambia

After a long cold British winter, lying on a beach was top priority for my short jaunt to West Africa perhaps with a fleeting trip to see the sights of The Gambia in between. However, somewhere between my first round-the-world trip and my subsequent travels I have lost my patience for sitting still and after a day and a half basking in the sun, glass of wonjo juice in hand, I was itching to explore.

I’ve already written a post about the controversial subject of female sex tourism in The Gambia but fortunately it’s not the only activity on offer. With plans  to visit Senegal and a more detailed journey up river following the footsteps of African American writer Alex Hayley in discovery of his “roots” (spawning a book of the same name), we kept our initial exploration to the western side of The Gambia.

Seasonal Work

Sights of The Gambia

I hadn’t appreciated until I arrived (courtesy of insufficient research) that The Gambia has distinct tourist seasons with March hitting the very tail end of the peak, winter tourism period. As Europe’s holiday makers turn closer to home for summer sun, many of the hotels and restaurants close until the following season.

These alternating six monthly stints of tourism highs and lows present a challenging position for the local people that rely on the tourist trade. The result is directly contradictory periods of extensive hours juggling many jobs during high season followed by an equally fraught low season wondering if the previous six month’s earnings will last.

As one waiter explained, “I start work at 4am setting up the restaurant for breakfast. I work until 3pm here and then I work as a tour guide until night time. I finish whenever the work finishes. On my day off from the restaurant I offer longer, day tours. I do this every day until the season is over.” It’s a lifestyle I feel lucky I don’t have to contemplate and a good reason to take the services of a local guide when you see the sights of The Gambia.

Finding a Guide

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There is no denying that the influx of tourists in The Gambia has increased the relative cost of guide services and it’s not uncommon to see prices that linger close to what you might expect to pay in Europe or the United States. We hired a guide for half a day and at 1500 Dalasi ($50) I would not call his services cheap. However, with thoughts of the impending summer promising low to no income, two kids and a wife to look after, it felt inappropriate to employ my hard bargaining skills.

Bumsters, local guys that hang around on the beaches and outside hotels ready to offer guiding services as a moment’s notice, our waiter, several taxi drivers, the guy behind the hotel reception and countless others were on hand to take us around the local sights…for a fee. For tourists less confident in selecting a guide they trust, the Tourist Board has official guides available for a fixed, higher than average fee.

On the advice of our hotel, we were introduced to a local man, Moses, who took us around.

The Sights of The Gambia

In line with my lack of research, we flicked through several guidebooks, getting more and more confused as descriptions of one local market merged with another and each of the national parks began to sound the same. In the end we told the guide to take us to see the places he would recommend and it worked out perfectly.

Bijilo Forest Reserve

Sights in The Gambia

The Bijilo Forest Reserve was the first stop on our suggested itinerary and I was more than a little nervous as my past two interactions with similar animals had involved me being attacked (the first time a monkey freaked out after it climbed under the hem of my skirt and the second time a monkey lashed out, happening to hit me in my lady parts, as it robbed me of a banana). Fortunately the monkeys living in Africa were much more chilled.

A short trail took us through the park and along a path that was littered with small verve monkeys queuing up for peanuts. Despite the clear sign at the entrance advising against feeding the monkeys (it hinders their instinct to hunt for food) it is common practice encouraged by the guides to feed the small fury animals in exchange for entertainment – one guide had trained the monkeys to jump in reward for food.

Sights The Gambia

It is hard to deny the mooning eyes of the furry animals imploring you to scatter peanuts but after several minutes pointing one monkey to forest fruit he finally got the message – we were mean tourists – and he eventually traipsed over to the fruit in a sulk and reluctantly nibbled on it.

Serekunda Market

Sights The Gambia

Pleased to have escaped the monkey reserve unscathed and with no new traumas to add to my monkey memories, we cut through the traffic to Serekunda market. As the stretch of resorts disappeared into the distance, real Gambian life began.

Although Banjul is the country’s capital, Serekunda is the biggest city and also the main hub for trading. As we stepped out of our guide’s car, he pointed and we followed a man with a goat in a wheelbarrow, legs bound indicative of its short future, into the market.

‘Girl things’ (jewellery, shoes and dresses) and ’tourist things’ (the ubiquitous wooden giraffe handicrafts) were indicated by our guide in case we were in the market for souvenirs but with limited to non-existent bag space we shook our heads and were instead ushered to the more interesting parts of the market – where the local people shop for food.

I’ve been to many markets on my travels and something rings true of all of them – the greater the poverty, the more prevalent the flies. On paper Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel serves the same meat, fish and vegetables as the Serekunda market but in reality the two trading posts couldn’t be more different.

Kidney, liver, heart, trotters and lungs were on offer in addition to sides of cow. I’ve eaten almost all of these items (yet to sample lung) and seeing them flopped haphazardly on an over-worn chopping board scarred with dried blood does little to turn my stomach. It was the swathe of flies buzzing, landing, feasting and regurgitating, and putting the local food stuff one bite away from Banjul belly that makes me wince every time. They are conditions we’re fortunate enough not to have to tolerate, and conditions I wish were not the reality for the people in The Gambia, regardless of any learned resistance.

The market’s vegetables were washable and therefore less concerning. Vivid but samey we walked past mounds of okra, chilies, peppers, onions and garlic. Fruit was absent from the market because it is sold roadside elsewhere but controversial palm was present in its many forms – raw palm, pastes and finally the oil itself: artery clogging, rainforest clearing and yet appealing attractive in its crimson oiliness.

Sights The Gambia

We didn’t buy, our westernised stomachs unlikely to prove any match for the bacteria resistance developed by the locals, but we left with one vital observation: the market is the domain of the woman. Sellers and buyers alike, the market comprised at least 80% women, babies hanging off their backs fronts and hips, the women multi taking in a way that many think only females can (for the record, I’m personally devoid of the skill to multi-task).

“The woman are very productive in The Gambia,” was the view of our guide and watching the women sell, buy and rear their young all in the same breath, I couldn’t have agreed more.

Kachikally Crocodile Pool

Back to nature, we left the fume clogged artery of Serekunda and made our way to the Kachikally Crocodile Pool. Revered locally as a place of significant good fortune for business men and a pool with the power to grant fertility for women, we were careful to keep away from errant water splashes…not least because the innocent looking pond was alive with crocodiles.

I’m not sure which mental short circuit once occurred that implores me to swim with and touch animals that have the strength to devour me with one bite, but my visit to the crocodile pool was no different. After stifling a girly scream when a leaf floated down from a tree and hit my foot making me wonder if one of the crocks was about to bite, it took a few extra minutes to work up the nerve to approach the human sized crocodile that was languishing on the banks.

Sights The Gambia

When I finally did stroke him, his skin was rough and felt odd to the touch. Obligatory photo taken, I backed away as he yawned into a display of teeth that made me move quickly out of his line of sight.

Bakau

The route to and from the crocodile pool took us through a local community. Makeshift shacks of rusting corrugated iron provided domiciles while tubes jutted out from the walls spewed raw sewage into a gully that ran the length of the street’s premises and necessitated shallow breaths through the mouth.

A lone tap offered a communal water source as young boys and girls ferried buckets from tap to home weaving around the community goats that trotted their own path through the dusty streets – until it was their turn to provide a meal of protein.

Sights The Gambia

Leaving our knackered car, local boys opened my door like true gents and for a split second the cautious traveller in me clutched my camera through fear of theft, but I wasn’t in London and the boys didn’t know the concept of dishonesty. They wanted nothing more than to shake hands with the curious looking stranger and clambered over each other to get into the frame as I took a photo, smiles as big as any I’ve ever seen.

Leaving the area, the car jigged its way over the potholed road until we reached the hustle that comes with the community’s return from Mosque after the mid-day prayer. “Everyone is within walking distance of a mosque,” our guide told us as he pointed out the distinctive minarets. It’s a good thing, as over 90% of the country is Muslim. Happily, that doesn’t cause a problem for those practising other faiths our guide told us, “everyone tolerates everyone else’s religion here.” Reassuring words I wish could be said in more parts of the world.

Bakau Fishing Docks

Sights The Gambia

The last stop of the day was a trip to the Bakau fishing docks. Sadly our visit wasn’t timed too well as the days catch had already been hauled, gutted and traded, and the fishermen sprawled on the docks in rest, but the dug-out boats presented a colourful image and we watched as one woman filleted the remains of the catch.

Sights The Gambia

Fish is one of the most abundant and therefore cheapest foods in The Gambia and the variety is impressive from barracuda to butterfish, lady fish and plaice. Many other names escape me but the industry continues to thrive and offers a reliable source of income for many of the local people.

Seeing the sights of The Gambia, or at least those to the west of the country provided a refreshing change to the horizontal nothingness of sunbathing (though I am tapping this out semi-horizontal on a sun lounger with views of the thrashing Atlantic). More refreshing was the opportunity to witness something more than the exploitation that plagues the country’s more sinister form of tourism.

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Article written by

Jo Fitzsimons is a freelance travel writer who has visited over 60 countries. www.indianajo.com is the place where she shares destination details, travel itineraries, planning and booking tips and trip tales. Her aim: to help you plan your travel adventure on your terms and to your budget.

12 Responses

  1. Saidou Jallow
    Saidou Jallow at | | Reply

    Thanks Indiana Jo for the wonderful reviews and facts about Gambia 🇬🇲
    I have operated as a free lance tourist guide in Gambia for 18 yeast before finally setting up Simon Tours -Gambia in 2016
    However i cannot agree with you more on the points raised ranging from sex tourism to the school children being line up on the Roots Tour begging . Please note with the help of the CPA (child protection alliance) we have brought these to the notice of the Tourism Board.We hope these changes sooner rather than later
    Thank you
    Am also a follower on FB

  2. Shelly Scott
    Shelly Scott at | | Reply

    I was a “tubob” teaching with the Peace Corps in The Gambia in 1976-1977, Roots was shown (open air) in Banjul, strange site to see. I have been contemplating a trip back, reading through your blogs, I’d rather remember the country before the roots sojourn. I remember so clearly a conversation of a local Bakau man and a tourist, “do you own a car?” to which the tourist said “two”, “indeed you are rich and can give me one as I am your brother” . . . . . Thank you for your wonderful writings and pictures, I’ll add these to my cherished memories.

  3. Hitch-Hikers Handbook
    Hitch-Hikers Handbook at | | Reply

    It looks like a great country! One of my bosses was from the Gambia and I’ve always wanted to go there 🙂 I really like your pictures as well. If you like photography, we’d like to invite you to participate in the next edition of our popular Travel Photography Competition. Here are the details:
    http://hitchhikershandbook.com/your-contributions/travel-photography/
    Happy travels!

  4. Kathryn Burrington
    Kathryn Burrington at | | Reply

    Great post Indiana and thank you for mentioning us.

    You asked on Twitter if I had any other tips to offer and I’d just like to add that, as I understand it, the reason why you should not feed the monkeys at Bijilo is that the green vervet monkey population is increasing rapidly at the expense of the rare, and much shyer, red colobus monkey. Here’s a link to my post about wildlife in The Gambia. http://www.thegambiablog.co.uk/2012/09/getting-to-know-the-wildlife-of-the-gambia/
    If anyone wants any advice feel free to contact me on Twitter @GambiaXperience or through our blog.
    Thanks again Indiana and I hope you’ll be back in The Gambia one day soon!

    1. IndianaJo
      IndianaJo at | | Reply

      Hi Kathryn, thanks for the tip and the extra info. I didn’t manage to catch site of the red colobus, which made sense with the over-excited green vervets hopping around for free food from the tourists. Good to know! I’m sure I’ll be back in the Gambia some time soon so I’ll be in contact for more exert advice when I do!

  5. Bryony Fletcher
    Bryony Fletcher at | | Reply

    Hi,
    I too am looking into a trip to The Gambia in 2014. I am going with my husband and we dont really want to just lay round a pool every day either. Your blog was really useful! Thank you!

    Id be interested to know how much standard things tend to cost out there? For example how much a meal costs roughly? and bottles of water? just those little questions that you can never really find in a guide book that accurately!
    Also, how easy is it to get around the country? Ive heard that local guides, like what you did, is the best way? But obviously that could soon add up to do that regularly throughout the stay. Are there any other ways you would recommend?

    We are intending on booking with a travel company but usually prefer to do our ‘own thing’ to avoid just being bundled up with the masses as it were!
    Thank you for posting your trip! Any further advice would be very welcomed
    🙂

    1. IndianaJo
      IndianaJo at | | Reply

      Hi Bryony, happy to help 🙂

      Yes, the local guides are one of the best ways to get around, especially if there are two of you to split the cost. There is a fair bit of scope for negotiation with the local guys in terms of price for touring. If you get someone for a few days and use them for taxis at night (the local company that runs the taxis outside the hotel is extortionate for the area – think UK prices), it can bring the overall cost down if you do a deal – just make sure you pay daily rather than up front just in case. You’ll no doubt end up with several business cards in the bottom of your bag! Some of the guides go for the hard sell with photos, written reviews etc and, from my experience, they tended to be much more expensive. One couple paid over £75 ($100) for a half day trip to the local area while I paid £30 for the same thing. We were told by the more expensive guy that all sorts of bad things could happen if we went elsewhere, playing on fears, which I guess might bring in some business. We took a recommendation from the receptionist in our hotel and were happy.

      I’d highly recommend a jaunt out to Senegal. I’m a bit more dubious about recommending the Roots tour because of the way tourism has significantly altered the community with kids out of school, begging and hassling. But, many people go – I did. Just do some research before you visit.

      In terms of prices generally, the problem is that with so many holiday makers in the Gambia, the prices in the tourist area are way above what you’d expect for Africa. That said, prices are still affordable. Dinner cost between £5 and £8 outside the hotels and around the same as UK pub prices within the hotels. These prices lower (£3 – £6) if you eat the local food, which is delicious (and I’m not so easily pleased!). Beer prices were also pretty varied – we would pay around £2 in the hotel but find happy hour (they are pretty prevalent) in the Senegambia strip and we were paying 25p per bottle when we bought 4. In short, there are deals to be had, you just need to sniff them out, which was half the fun for me!

      Bottled water is affordable. There is no alternative (you can’t drink the tap water – and don’t brush your teeth with it either) so it is priced accordingly. About half the cost of the UK from memory and cheaper the larger you buy. Stick to the local brands for lower prices. The same applies to mixers (tonic, juices etc) if you intend to make some of your own drinks. Some people worry if they don’t know the brands – I tried them and I’m still alive, stomach intact 🙂

      If you want more info on prices, this site is pretty good – for all places though keep in mind tourist areas do push prices up: http://www.numbeo.com/cost-of-living/country_result.jsp?country=Gambia

      In terms of package versus doing it separate, I looked at a DIY trip, which is how I usually travel but it was actually cheaper to book a package. Many of the hotels are subsidised/have tie-ins with the companies that buy up the charter flights. I travelled close to Easter and was looking at £500 for flights while I could get a package hotel deal for less! I booked with the Gambia Experience and would recommend them (I’m not in any way affiliated with them!). In fact, they owned the hotel I stayed in. Gambia Experience is probably a bit more expensive than Thomas Cook and the like but they seem to be less group focused (minivan versus coach at the airport) and I did a few day trips with them which, again, were smaller and seemed to have better guides and felt more exclusive. They also felt better integrated into the culture with a cool book on the people, the sights, foods and how to get the most of your trip. I’m not a fan of the companies that exploit countries for their sun with little thought to the local people they are impacting. Here’s a link to the company page on the local food – there is more info on there if you are interested in checking prices: http://www.gambia.co.uk/Docs/Travel-Info/Know-Before-You-Go/Local-Delicacies.aspx

      I hope this info helps. If you want any more tips, get in touch. Otherwise, I hope you have an amazing trip 🙂

  6. Stan Owen
    Stan Owen at | | Reply

    I am researching a trip The Gambia for 2014 and found your blog very informative and fun to read.

    1. IndianaJo
      IndianaJo at | | Reply

      Thanks, Stan. Glad you’ve found my blog useful (and fun!). Message me if you want any tips on The Gambia or help planning you’re trip – it’s always easier when you’ve been 🙂

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