West Africa

The Gambia & Senegal

Introduction

This is a very brief introduction to The Gambia, because we are revisiting in Summer 2006, so I'll be able to update this with fresh memories after that time. In the meantime here goes...

We booked our trip with "The Gambia Experience", a tour operator totally dedicated to The Gambia. They a have a permanent residence out there. They help in local charities (this is a third world country, after all). And in my experience of them, I can only heartily recommend them.

We have an avid interest in nature (not sun, sea and sand) so we looked for a hotel that offered more than a swimming pool and a beach. We found our ideal place in Senegambia Hotel, details of which are on The Gambia Experience web site previously mentioned. Senegambia Hotel Gardens - Vulture Feeding TimeIt has marvellous gardens absolutely teeming with birds. Gambia, is after all, a bird watchers paradise. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm no twitcher, or Bill Oddie. I can't name one bird compared to another, but The Gambia, Senegambia Hotel just encourages you to have an interest. When you leave, you too will know a Red Bishop from a Village Weaver, simply because they are so easy to spot. You don't have to crouch in a hide for hours for that elusive sight of the lesser-spotted hunchback spoonbill; they come to you in The Gambia - literally!

We used to order our 4pm afternoon tea in this hotel and then proceed to feed the cake to the birds. They eventually came right up to us and eat out of our hands (Village Weavers, in any case). Others kept their arms length distance but were very visible in all cases.

So this is where it is!I also can only recommend the tours offered. We had some great times visiting far off places in a bus or army truck. I won't spoil it for you too much here except to say The Gambia is a third world country, on a subsistence farmer level, yet has Internet Cafés and supermarkets in the high street, but still has open sewers in that very same street. It was a culture shock for us but all the more impressive because of the differences between it and England.

Items not to miss are: Birds & Breakfast tour: an early (really early) trip to a lake where you first have a boat (canoe) trip out onto the lake to spot rare birds, then have breakfast (with the monkeys if you're lucky). Surreal!

Treasure Island tour: Army truck transport to an "island" where you have lunch. Gives you an insight into how the Gambian people really live (mud huts and all) and a chance for a quick swim.

What you may hate

The "locals" pester the hell out of you, as you walk from, say, your hotel to the local supermarket. They have nothing much of value and see you who has everything, so they figure (not unreasonably) that you might have something that you could give them. Unfortunately, if you gave everyone who asked just 50 pence you would soon have no money left for your holiday, so you must be very firm and decline their requests.

The best way to help Gambians is to help their education programme by donating pens and pads to the local schools. Don't give them directly to the children as this will (I am told) just encourage them to keep begging and not attend the school. Although there have been allegatations that some school headmasters squirrel away such donations to be sold on the black market, it seems highly unlikely to me to be the norm. All the school teachers we met were obviously enthusiastic about their jobs and had only the children's interests at heart. Gambians might be under-developed but they are not stupid and they know that education is their key to making things better.

The hassling by the locals (only around the tourist hotel areas) is very offputting and you will see how they are doing themselves (the tourist industry) untold damage. Tourists, especially British ones, don't like to be hassled the minute they step out of their hotel oasis, and immediately get their defenses set to overload due this onslaught. The Gambian goverment has taken big steps in trying to reduce the activities of these "bumsters" and has licenced some youngsters via the Gambian Tourist Authority to provide their services officially. They are well behaved and know that any complaints against them could result in their licence being revoked. These official guides keep the unoffical ones at bay so progress is being made.

What you will love

Bird life abounds, and just as in most tropical countries, the fauna is extremely colourful. Even their equivalent of sparrows, the Village Weaver is bright yellow with black flashes. Buy the Field Guide to Birds in the Gambia to make it more interesting. The hotels will also have pamphlets where you can "tick off" the birds you have seen so far. Good to keep the kids amused too.

Iguanas are common (well, they were in the Senegambia hotel, where they make a big thing about them and feed them because they know the guests are fascinated by them).

Once you get past the locals hassling you, the people are, on the whole, welcoming and friendly. And, just as you wouldn't like everyone in your own English neighbourhood, you won't like all Gambians you meet, but that's life. Our hotel "chambermaid" I suppose you would call her, was very friendly and helpful when I had an upset tummy one day. She fussed over me lilke a mother and made me feel a lot better.

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