Not to be too harsh, but I can describe The Gambia in one sentence: it’s a charmless, rusty, dusty, crumbling trash heap that would be absolutely pointless to visit were it not for the birds. Lots of Europeans, particularly Brits — since this used to be a British colony — come here for beach holidays or fishing trips but I fail to see the appeal. There MUST be closer and much nicer places that are equally cheap vacation destinations. I only came here because a British couple I had met a year earlier in South Africa raved about The Gambia as a hotspot for birds. Their recommendation is one I should have passed on.
Bring Your Sense of Humor
African-Americans also travel here on “Roots” trips as The Gambia was a big hub in the slave trade and Kunta Kinte made famous by Alex Haley came from this country. Be warned, though: Anyone interested in a vacation here needs a great sense of humor and patience, very low standards, or both. Unlike Uganda, the country of friendly children, The Gambia is the country of nasty children. If you stop your car, they run up, thrust their hands through the window and say, “Give me money!” They’ll also request a pen, minties, empty water bottles or simply point to your stuff and say, “Give me that.” And they don’t take no for an answer. As for tipping, it’s not just expected; they will come right out and ask for a tip. And no one gives change if you don’t have small bills — you will be issued an IOU that you have no way of redeeming later.
Okay, enough of generalities and now to our adventures. Our time in The Gambia began with arrival in the capital, Banjul. At the airport it was absolute mayhem — people lined up at the bag carousel three deep and no one could get any luggage for half an hour. People did not seem to have a sense of how to queue up for anything, which should have been our clue to how things work (or really do NOT work) in this country. Nothing seemed to function properly. The driver who was supposed to pick us up from the airport was 40 minutes late, giving us the chance to experience Gambia’s famous “bumsters,” tourist hasslers who chat you up to get money from you. They were relentless in their attempts to get us to take their friends’ taxis instead of our pre-arranged transport to our hotel, pestering us like flies on a rib roast.
Maybe I Just Need a Cold Shower
Upon finally reaching the Safari Garden Hotel, which was billed as “a lovely coastal resort” — hah! — check-in was equally disorganized. The place turned out to be a dirty dump with a cold dribble of water from the shower (more shades of things to come), a toilet that wouldn’t flush, dinner service that took upwards of an hour just to get the salad, and bugs that crawled on our faces in bed at night.
We awoke well before dawn from the neighborhood muezzin’s droning call to prayer and crowing roosters. We had a free day before our scheduled five-day trip upriver and decided to take a taxi to a nearby nature reserve for some birding. Our taxi driver, Bakary, took us through the suburban nightmare that is Serrekunda, a place that makes Sanford & Son look like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. My mother would be horror-stricken to see the place! Huge piles of trash everywhere, the air was filthy from black car exhaust, every building was falling down and the only saving grace was the visual interest of seeing men in billowing kaftans and women in colorful dresses with matching headdresses walking on the street.
Hit the Gas, Bakary!
Few motorists knew how to drive properly, let alone Bakary, who proceeded for quite a stretch on the wrong side of a divided road, weaving in and out between heavy traffic of oncoming trucks until a policeman on foot stopped us and began gesticulating wildly and shouting at us. A woman came up to the cop to ask a question and I told Bakary, “Hit the gas — he’s distracted so let’s get out of here!” and off we zoomed. Chickens, dogs, goats and small children on bicycles in the road scarcely escaped with their lives in Bakary’s path, but he did get us to the Lamin Lodge in one piece. The Lamin Lodge was not really a lodge but a decrepit wooden building housing a restaurant and a jetty on one of the many bolons, or mangrove channels, that feed into the Gambia River.
From the jetty we chartered a small canoe with a guy named Captain Yaya, who rowed us out into the mangrove to check out the avian specialties. At one dead-end channel we got out of the boat to walk through a cultivated area. It turned out to be a fantastic birding spot filled with yellow-crowned gonoleks, bearded barbets, Senegal parrots, violet turacos and two dozen more new species for us. We went back to the lodge for lunch, which we had to guard from the large troop of thieving callithrix monkeys that called the place home. Signs instructed us not to feed the monkeys.
On our way back towards Banjul we stopped at the Abuko Nature Reserve. This turned out to be another great spot for stunning new birds like the green turaco and white-crested helmet-shrike as well as bushbucks (attractive antelopes with spots and stripes), western red colobus monkeys and crocodiles. We should have spent much more time here but the daylight got away from us and we had to return to our “lovely coastal resort” that was nowhere near the ocean, by the way.