Britons looking for a winter sun holiday destination would do well to consider The Gambia in West Africa, for their next winter sun jaunt. This strangely-shaped slither of land protrudes into Senegal and is just a six-hour flight from the UK, shares the same time zone, locals are welcoming and friendly and to top it all is great value for your holiday money.
As a former British colony (independence in 1965), English remains the national language though you won’t hear it much as locals prefer to chat among themselves in one of their seven tribal languages including Mandinka and Wolof.
The landscape straddles the River Gambia and the country is surrounded by Senegal save for a narrow coast with the Atlantic Ocean. It’s this part of Gambia, its western end, where the glorious beaches and the vibrant markets of Serekunda and Royal Albert are and where Banjul, its capital is located on its own island at the mouth of the ocean.
And this is where I spent my week-long stay in on the cliff-top Ngala Lodge Hotel.
What’s it like in The Gambia?
There’s no denying that The Gambia assaults the western visitor with a dizzying whack of culture shock. Gambia is a (slowly) developing country where outside of the capital Banjul, which has tarmac roads, pavements and some elegant buildings, it’s all wheat-hued dirt roads where goats and cattle saunter nonchalantly amid local street traders; women donned in vivid clothes colour the streets bright as they shimmy by, carrying their wares on their heads while others transport their goods in wheelbarrows or in carts pulled by a donkey or two.
Yet there is plenty of traffic, vans, cars and bush taxis (often battered people carriers) stuffed with people paying a small fee to be transported somewhere. Anyone can wave one of these down and find they are sharing space with chickens and with a goat or two on the roof.
There are the more expensive bright yellow taxis (only used by locals as there are green ones for tourists) that stand out like mobile lemons in the traffic mayhem. The noise can be incredible.
It’s all pretty low rise and most live in modest homes and some without electricity. The highest structure in the country is the neoclassical triumphal Arch 22 at 35 metres (112ft) in Banjul. It towers over Independence Drive where the National Museum is located.
It’s as delightful as it is disquieting.
Discover the Markets –
Albert Street, Serrekunda, Tanji Fishing village
Many people don’t have electricity which means no fridge, so buying fresh food daily is a normal part of life and so for a whopping dollop of bare-all daily life, the markets are an absolute must-visit.
Twisting paths are tightly packed with the intensity of life. And the aromas are heavy (Serekunda has to be the stinkiest) with notes of fruit and veg, butcher’s sections, herbs, live chickens, fish and food being cooked by charcoal in wood shacks. The experience is both heady and overwhelming.
Just as I was acclimatising I found myself being seduced by smooth-talking traders. I really didn’t need that carving, or the homemade shea butter or even another dress. I tried to resist, and as I couldn’t, at least I bartered – that’s the way they roll.
It’s where locals go to buy clothes, pots and pans and indeed anything they need for home and family. Most impressive is the sheer range of cottage industry from homemade cooking sauces such as Benachin and even peanut peelers selling peanuts to be used for making dishes such as Gambian peanut rice pudding.
Hidden in pockets of the market are workshops where workmen recycle old fridges into trunks and where fizzy drink cans are collected melted down and recycled into pots and pans. The results are amazing.
Fish is a staple of Gambia and in the Kombo South District is Tanji, a coastal village dedicated to fishing, selling, smoking, salting and drying huge piles of fish. They do so to keep them fresh for longer.
Every day the fishing boats arrive to the sounds of seagulls and the sea lapping onto the shore. They sell their catch directly to traders who sell them on. And this is where I went shopping when I had a cooking lesson with Ida.
Cooking with Ida
Ida is a bit of a legend in Gambia offering an extraordinary cooking experience. First, she dressed me in African attire to get into the zone. Together we decided to cook a fish Benachin dish – which simply means one pot cooking.
We set off to Tanji market to buy fresh barracuda fish as well as tomatoes, carrots, spring onions, sweet potatoes, onions, aubergine, cassava, bitter tomatoes and butternut squash which we carried home in baskets.
Back in the open air-kitchen we prepared the vegetables and sorrel leaves, pounded the bitter tomatoes, peppercorn, garlic and onions and fried the together to create mush with added tomato paste and water.
From there we added the vegetables and removed them when they were ready and cooked that fish in that stew too. Finally the rice. All the ingredients were placed onto a large plate from which we ate together. Ida used her fingers but offered me a spoon.
A fabulous day out.
Must visit Kachikally/Kachikali Crocodile sanctuary
The Kachikally crocodile sanctuary in Bakau has around 100 crocodiles that are cared for by the chiefly Bojang clan. Moses a twentieth-generation Bojang descendant and his team of croc-carers feed them 250 kilos of fish a day and that keeps them sleepy all day. That means visitors can get close and even stroke them as long as they avoid touching their heads.
Legend has it that around 500 years ago, the Bojang clan were visited by the fertility spirit Kachikally in the form of an elderly woman claiming her daughter was drowning in the pool. The family helped out and was rewarded with the gift of the pool. They released a pair of crocodiles and the rest is history.
Incidentally at the entrance to the crocodile sanctuary is a small museum telling the history of Gambia and worth a few minutes of your time to see mystical costumes and for a snapshot of Gambia’s sometimes unsettling colonial history.
Lazy River Cruise
This river cruise on a 60ft traditional pirogue starts at Denton Bridge and passes slowly along the shimmering green salt waters of River Gambia and its tributaries and could not be any more relaxing.
After a few sips of the welcome drink of sparkling wine or coffee with whisky combined and the glorious vista of mangroves on both sides of the creeks, even the engine’s clamour disappeared. I nestle dinto my sunbathing spot on the top deck.
Along the way, we spotted spoonbills, a couple of purple herons and several Great White herons, just three species of the 500 that call this home.
The boat stopped twice, once before lunch to go swimming and again after lunch for fishing – they supply the fishing rods. It was glorious. My catch was two young angel fish which I threw back into the water.
Tours & ExcursionsWith exotic wildlife, fabulous beaches, and many cultural adventures, there’s plenty to enjoy, and The Gambia Experience offers a wide choice of excursions and tours, from a lazy day cruising down the River Gambia, to cultural days out exploring villages and towns to cooking experiences Gambian style, 4 wheel drive adventures, wildlife and bird safaris, and more.
Tours are booked locally through a Gambia Experience rep – more info here https://www.gambia.co.uk/holiday-ideas/excursions-and-experiences