Dazzling white smiles, exotic bird sightings at dawn and languid days on quiet beaches are among the attractions of The Gambia.
Beguilingly beautiful, the backdrop for the iconic book and TV series ‘Roots’ is just a six hour flight from the UK.
A country of just 2.3 million people, this strip of land on the banks of the Gambia river, which stretches 500 miles, has a colourful history. Those laying down roots include Portuguese navigators who landed on James Island and dominated trade across the 15th and 16th centuries.
Baltic Germans and the British also played a role with a major part of the slave trade emanating from James Island on the River Gambia from where around 600 slaves were transported to the Americas every year.
Becoming self governing in 1963, a decade in which the country embraced tourism, over 100,000 now people flock here every year.
Bedlam: Boat to Senegal
Those with a sense of adventure and a broad mind will relish the experience of embarking on the 40-minute ferry crossing from Banjul, The Gambia’s capital, to Barra. Teaming with vehicles and locals with their worldly goods and myriad of animals including goats, chickens and some things unrecognisable, it’s every man, woman and child for themselves.
If you’re travelling allowance has dissipated, you can trade shoes, clothes, suitcases for fruit and food and other provisions on the boat - but watch out for pickpockets. Deafened by the cacophony on board, we disembarked with much relief and were taken by our guide to the Fathala Wildlife Reserve in Senegal.
Out of Africa
Our foray into the wild didn’t disappoint. Featuring around 6,000 hectares of original and protected forest, sights span diverse birdlife - the country’s 576 species includes gannets, vultures and Pink-backed pelicans which can be found along the coast.
You can enjoy giraffes, rhino, buffalo, warthog along with red colobus, green vervet and red patas monkeys and exquisitely coloured bird species amongst the enormous mahogany trees.
Proud of its herds of the rare West African giant derby eland, the world’s biggest antelope which can run at up to 70 km per hour. Fellow antelope species include roan, waterbuck and bushbuck.
Visitors can also savour a magical experience of walking with lions who allow them to stroke and touch them. We unfortunately missed out as our independent guide did not make us aware of the option which we learnt about later. Those unable to face the prospect of doing a day’s round trip can stay over at the reserve which offers special packages.
A must for tourists and travellers is a trip down the Gambia River to James Island - a UNESCO World Heritage site - where slaves were taken and kept in confined spaces before being shunted to the Americas.
It is also the setting for the TV series Roots based on Alex Haley’s 1976 Pulitzer novel depicting the story of Kunta Kinte who was captured as a young boy, sold into slavery in Africa and taken to North America.
The Roots tours enable visitors to visit local villages and buy vibrant local crafts which include brilliantly coloured batiks and beautiful wood carvings. Rmember to brush up on your bargaining skills beforehand!
Basking in 30 degrees of sunshine from November to June, the luxuriously lazy pace of The Gambia is among the appealing factors. There’s also no time difference for UK visitors and English is the official language.
A poor country which is heavily dependent on tourism, you can visit local schools who are appreciate of any pencils, notebooks etc you can fit in your suitcase.
Its nickname ‘The Smiling Coast' - derived from the warmth of its hospitality - is richly deserved. The derivation also hails from how it cuts through the middle of Senegal on Africa’s map - appearing like a smile.
We also took sweets for the children - and were humbled by how this simple gesture produced smiles that would melt the hardest of hearts.
The Gambia Experience - check for latest information on Covid-19
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends the following vaccinations for Gambia: hepatitis A, hepatitis B, typhoid, yellow fever, rabies, meningitis, polio, measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis), chickenpox, shingles, pneumonia and influenza.
The State of Emergency in The Gambia was extended by 21 days on 19 May. The Gambia’s airspace has been closed since 23 March, with the exception of medical cargo flights. Anyone entering The Gambia is subject to a 14 day quarantine requirement in a designated Government facility.