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 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.
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 to explore. In this post I’ll share the best things to do in The Gambia.
1. Hire a local tour guide
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.
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.
2. Bijilo Forest Reserve
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.
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.
3. Serekunda Market
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.
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.
4. 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.
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.
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.
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.
6. Bakau Fishing Docks
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.
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, 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.
7. Day trip to Senegal
What I saw in the Gambia had me excited to explore more. So, the same week I made plans to visit neighbouring Senegal which involved a ferry. My main aim was to go on a local safari, which I did. You can read about it here: The Sights of Senegal: Fathala Wildlife Reserve
8. Take a tour to Juffureh
One of the most interesting tours I did while I was in the Gambia was to Juffureh Village, the location to where Alex Haley traced his family’s Roots. He went on to write a wildly popular book about his experience. And, as a result, the village had exploded as a tourist destination. It was one of those times where I realised I was contributing poorly to the local tourism industry. Whether you decide to go, you might want to read this first: The Gambia’s “Roots”: When Good Intentions Lead to Bad Tourism.
9. Enjoy the beach
With all that exploring under my belt, I was just about fit and ready to do what the rest of the world does when it heads to west Africa and the Gambia – lie down, read a book and take a nap on the pristine swathes of beaches that line the coast. Go on, you deserve it.
10. Dine locally on The Strip
Like most holiday destinations, The Gambia has a local strip filled with cafes, bars and restaurants and getting out of your hotel or resort to dine on the strip is a great way to experience Gambian life. And, not least, put some tourist money in the local pockets. While my hotel food was excellent, it wasn’t a patch on the local restaurants. So, dine out at least once.