As I lazily paddle up the River Gambia the impossible tangle of mangrove roots sequestered the explosion of greenery gift welcome from the strengthening late morning sun.
And not just for me it transpires, my keen-eyed guide pointing out some of the more permanent local, my favourites being the lounging Monitor lizards, their bellies flopped on the shadier branches, legs dangling limply to the sides as stately, statuesque herons scan the banks and everything from osprey and hornbill to kites lark overhead. “There are no crocs though,” the operator Mark Goddard is quick to point out. Always good to know.
Kayaking up the River Gambia
My kayaking excursion from Fishing Village delivers a gentle introduction to the River Gambia, which lends its name to the compact West African country that extends briefly beyond its banks as it snakes inland towards Senegal, the Francophone country that surrounds it on all sides bar the ocean.
Here, The Gambia’s flurry of long, sandy beaches and mid-market, backed by cheap charter flights and typical temperatures in the 29-34 degrees C range, have anchored its reputation for affordable winter sun tourism.
Dutifully, upon landing in Banjul in late, I stay south of the river and make a beeline for a beachfront bolthole. Mine lies in the tourist enclave of Kotu, just beyond Fajara Golf Course, which segues into Kololi, home to stalwart such as Senegambia Beach and Kairaba, the nightspot Poco Loco — not to forget the bawdy bedlam of that make up the Senegambia Strip.
Further down the coast past Bijilo yields quieter, less hectic spots such as Sanyang and Gunjur.
Given The Gambia’s long dependence on beach-based package holidays it is unsurprisingly, unabashedly ‘touristy’, the most unseemly result being the overt prostitution and persistent pestering of visitors by young local guys, or ‘bumsters’. Even in tourism centres though it’s not hard to get a taste of local flavour, hewn from the country’s long, rich culture and its rich mix of tribal cultures, from Mandinka to Jola and Fula.
This fusion fields a tasty cuisine, centred on a ubiquitous trio of stew-like dishes — yassas, benachin and the peanut-based domoda — backed by seafood staples such as ladyfish and butterfish.
My best meal comes courtesy of the local, Kadiekadie, a dish of rice and plassas, a cassava leaves stew, coupled with a grilled snapper and delicious organic ginger. All for 110 Dalasi (just under two pounds). This as talented local musicians pump put everything from contemporary tunes and nightspots such as Kololi’s Poco Loco to more traditional staples based on instruments such as sabar drums and the stringed kora.
Another popular Gambian pastime worthy of exploration is wrestling, my first, touristy, taste coming courtesy of one of the bouts put on by Rainbow Beach Resort in Sanyang. Summoned from my beachfront seafood lunch by the beckoning drumming I stumble upon a wrestler crawling on his knees into the ‘arena’, curing the start of an elaborate array of pre-bout rituals, bullish parading around the ring and outlandish dances.
It’s all good fun the wisecracking master of ceremonies Jawla adding light relief between bouts as the hypnotic drumming builds and falls between anticipation and celebration.
My appetite whet for a taste of the country I happily vacate my sunbed and venture upriver, the country’s compactness placing a wide variety of experiences within a few hours’ drive along the north or south bank.
Senegambia bridge offers a handy upriver alternative to crossing the River Gambia via the Banjul to Barra ferry. (That said, I do have a soft spot for the ferry).
I’m soon marvelling at the Megalithic Wassu stone circles and exploring some of the islands in its stream. Reaching MacCarthy Island via the short car ferry Georgetown delivers poignant reminders of the role in the slave trade, a story well told by the author Alex Haley in his famous novel Roots.