George the bird man is based at the Bakotu Hotel, Gambia. He will walk you from the hotel, over the bridge and along the creek through fields of rice and bright yellow loofah flowers, past men shimmying up palms to tap for palm oil, to a seating area with cold drinks, and a bird hide. Under the shade of casuarina and carob trees, George sets up his telescope and with a laconic “In the scope,” steps aside to show you bee-eaters, sunbirds and pink backed pelican. Farther afield, our twitching count went stratospheric when he led us expertly around the Abuko nature reserve where monkeys crashed overhead as we thrilled at purple heron and red-bellied paradise flycatchers.
We definitely experienced the real Gambia in our tremendous three week stay in February-March 2009. We were based in Brikama, a medium-sized town about 20 kms inland from the Atlantic and an hour south of the capital Banjul. It’s a fascinating town with a vibrant feel but none of the tourist-area trappings and hassles.
People are very hospitable and very warm to strangers – especially those who are respectful and show a genuine interest in life there.
Our host, Abdoulie Sarr, was a young entrepreneur whose aims are to create a range of locally-based enterprises to enable visitors to genuinely engage in the life of an area: get to know local people in depth; learn something of a local language; be part of local events; explore the beautiful country areas, learn about a different culture and exchange experiences; and to spend their money in ways that benefit local people rather than international tour operators.
He provided excellent quality accommodation and three substantial meals a day while we were in Brikama. Breakfast consisted of a choice of very tasty rice porridge or omelette delivered to our accommodation every morning and we had the option of having the other meals brought to us or of eating with his family. My travelling companion is vegetarian and we thought this could be a bit of a problem; nothing could be further from the truth. He was served excellent food with his ‘not even fish’ requirements fully respected and catered for.
Eating with the family was much more fun and gave us the opportunity of spending time talking with people and playing with the children. In fact, we spent a lot of time just talking and debating a wide range of subjects and laughing a lot– a real exchange!
Brikama is a fascinating town to explore and Abdoulie’s relaxed but efficient style meant we could go it alone or have him take us to specific locations of interest.
We wanted to see the country and Abdoulie organised a three-day trip into the interior travelling by local transport and combining road and river journeys. We enjoyed travelling in the normal vehicles that Gambians used and not in luxury coaches or 4X4s – much more real.
Our trip took in the Wassu Stone Circles (evidence of ancient civilisation here); the wonderful Janjanbureh Camp with its perfect location on the River Gambia and good quality accommodation and food; the historic towns of Janjanbureh and Kuntaur, the bustling ‘crossroad’ town of Farafenni, the riverside Tendaba camp and the rural villages along the country’s South road.
Abdoulie was an excellent guide with a wealth of local knowledge and contacts which made the trip run smoothly and tailored to what we wanted to see we never felt we were being herded along on a package tour.
Back in Brikama we became familiar with the local music scene seeing a number of bands and talking with the musicians. Brikama is major centre for music using the Kora.
The trip was a mind-altering experience into the way of life of a country with wonderful people and beautiful scenery in which the hospitality was outstanding and where we felt welcome and safe at all times.
At the end we felt we had had a real experience and had got to know a place and some of its people in depth – a place that is now very special.
Abdoulie Sarr provides a range of tailor-made options for accommodation, travel and local experiences across The Gambia and we highly recommend his professional yet personal approach.
Contact: Abdoulie Sarr Tel 00220-7722099/6720999;
Boboi Beach are absolutely the best huts on Kartong beach, on the south coast of Gambia. The breakfast (including fresh papaya and natural peanut butter) is served on a long table overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, just from the right angle and in a small elevation. The sound of the waves crashing next to your hut at night is just magic...
The place is rustic and basic, far from the ugly resorts on the north and close to the interesting Kartong village. To complete an amazing stay, it also has tree-huts, where you can jump in for a siesta, and a TV room where no one of the locals and visitors alike miss the premiership.
The best time to visit is between November and March as the temperature will be between 27* - 35* and sunny so it’s the perfect winter sun destination. What also makes it so worthwhile is that it’s incredibly cheap; you can go there for as little as £250 and the most you’re going to pay is £350/400.
You can either stay in the tourist resorts along the coast or the capital, Banjul, but either way, as the country is so small, to get to either place shouldn’t take any more than 20 minutes to get to by taxi. They have specific tourist taxis, which the tour operators recommend, however I caught numerous ‘normal’ taxis and these are completely fine (and cheaper).
The tour operators also recommend that you do all of their activities through them, and while I would certainly recommend some of these, especially the roots tour, which travels up the Gambia river by boat and goes to where the slaves were captured and held before being shipped of to the Americas - I would befriend the locals and get them to take you out; this is what my friends and I did, as there are licensed juice sellers on the beach by the hotel.
After buying juice from them we decided the best way to get to know the Gambia is by letting people that live there show us so we arranged for two locals to take four of us out to dinner in a place they recommended. We also wanted to go on a safari so we got them to organise a Jeep trip to a safari park. We obviously paid for transportation and food and anything else but this would still be cheaper than doing it through the tour operator and it is helping out the local economy.
People in the Gambia are some of the friendliest you would ever meet, in fact an expression I often heard was ‘it’s nice to be nice’, and at no point did I ever feel remotely threatened, even at police stops everyone was extremely courteous.
As an example of how safe it is my friends and I decided to go to a bar about three miles away from our hotel so we decided to go there by foot alone along the beach, by the time we got there it was pitch black so walking along the beach was quite an adventure and when we got to the bar the owner gave us a free lift home.
When you go to the markets you would obviously have to haggle with the price but this is to be expected and is part of the experience but the market sellers are never overly forceful or aggressive.
I had the lucky experience of being on the beach on my last night when the president threw a party to celebrate him being re-elected, so there were local tribes dancing and playing music with lasers and fireworks, it was such a great parting experience. To sum up my experience and the Gambia itself, in order to go into the cordoned-off arena where the President and performers were, I merely asked a soldier if I could go into the area and the solider allowed me to, that is how nice and friendly the people of the Gambia are.
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