The Gambia. A small country perched on the coastline of west Africa, surrounded on three sides by the country of Senegal, except for the western border which meets the Atlantic. It’s a country you may never have heard of, let alone know anything about.
If I’m being totally honest with you, I knew nothing about The Gambia before I opened Skyscanner one cold March morning and looked up cheap flights for later in the month, using the website’s nifty map tool to see which destinations had a fantastic deal on. It’s no secret that I’ve had a love affair with Africa ever since I first set food there seven years ago. Therefore, when I saw that green Skyscanner dot sitting on Africa’s west coast, I felt a flutter in my stomach. I couldn’t pass the option of cheap flights to Africa and so I booked them for the following week. I was going to The Gambia.
The Gambia: Overview
The Gambia is a unique country in many ways even in terms of its name. It’s not often that you find a country with ‘The’ at the start. Originally it was called Gambia. However, in 1963 the then-prime minister declared that he wanted to distinguish Gambia from other nations (namely Zambia) and so added ‘The’ to its name.
The Gambia is the smallest country in mainland Africa and is situated on the river Gambia, the river flowing through the country’s centre. The country has a population of 1.8 million, as of a consensus in 2013.
English is widely spoke throughout The Gambia and is known as the country’s official language. There are then several local languages, Mandika being the key one.
Flying to The Gambia
I was surprised to learn that The Gambia is a popular destination for winter sun among Brits. Therefore flights are direct and regular. I booked my flights with Thomas Cook which was a direct flight from Manchester to Banjul International Airport. With a flight-time of 6 hours, the return flight cost £170 per person which I was pleasantly surprised with. I was even more pleased as we were visiting The Gambia at the tail-end of peak season where the weather was still exceptionally hot.
The flight felt pretty lengthy, especially considering the plane didn’t come with any built-in entertainment. I’d foolishly come unprepared and had a rather dull flight. Lewis, on the other hand, was smart and had downloaded audiobooks and podcasts, to keep him entertained for the duration of the flight. Furthermore, being just shy of a long-haul airline, meals were not included and we had to pre-book to get a hot meal. Otherwise, the usual snacks (including my favourite Pringles) were available.
My neighbour on the plane told me an interesting fact about flying to The Gambia. He informed me that planes in and out of The Gambia take-off and land after vulture roosting hours (in the evening) as there was a persistent issue with vultures colliding with jet-engines. Being a resident of The Gambia, he had experienced a delay on the tarmac before as a result of one of these collisions.
First Impressions of The Gambia
It was time for our decent into The Gambia. Outside my plane window, the sun was starting to set. The great ball of fire in the sky cast a bright orange light onto the land below, a land concealed by a thick, grey haze. The combination of the golden glow and the disorientating haze created a haunting yet enticing effect. It felt like we were landing in a strange, magical land. I willed the mist to open up and allow me to take a peak and the enchanting world below. However, it was determined to keep me on my toes, refusing to give anything away until the final moments.
At last, a gap in the clouds and thin stretch of mist allowed me to have my first glimpse of The Gambia. I saw a great river snaking through lush mangrove forests, the clear expanse of water a perfect mirror to the auburn sky. This was the river Gambia.
The more I saw, the more I wanted to see. Down there was an untouched world full of raw and authentic experiences. It was so different to the Africa I had seen already and I was keen to lap up all that it had to offer me.
There was a rumble as the plane’s landing gear withdrew from the undercarriage of the aircraft. Our shadow flew over dry yellow fields and small villages with red sandy roads carving through them, quavering behind the coating of haze that refused to leave us.
We touched down, squealing to a halt on the smooth tarmac beside a great decaying plane coated with layers of yellow sand. On its side I could make out the text ‘Republic of The Gambia’. Otherwise, we were the only aircraft in sight (except one just leaving) beside the white building that was Banjul International Airport. Vultures circled the top of the building.
The abandoned aircraft beside us was in fact a plane that belonged to The Gambia’s former president, Yahya Jammeh who vanished into exile in 2017 after over two decades in power. He was a controversial figure with many allegations against his name.
Getting Around in The Gambia
We would be renting a car for the duration of our stay in The Gambia. However, due to our late arrival into the country, we had planned on getting a taxi to our accommodation for the night and then pick up our rental car.
Advice online advised strongly against any driving at night. In fact, it advised strongly against any driving at all. Maybe I was crazy but I was prepared to go against all advice to see for myself what driving in The Gambia was really like. When I informed my neighbour on the plane that we’d be hiring a self-drive vehicle, he laughed. Needless to say, I was feeling a tad nervous. Could it really be as bad as people said it was?
Our accommodation was just under an hour’s drive away from the airport and we had booked our taxi through them to make life simpler for ourselves. The taxi journey cost us £20 which I deemed reasonable. The cheapest way to get around The Gambia is to take a local bush taxi. However, these are not allowed in the airport so you’re only option other than a pre-booked taxi would be a yellow and green taxi, also known as a tourist taxi. Haggling would have been required to get a decent rate which for a 50 minute drive would likely have been £15 (at the best possible rate). Weighing things up, I was more than happy to pay a little bit more to have less stress. The price was agreed beforehand and once we arrived in the arrivals hall, our driver was already there waiting for us, making for a stress-free experience. He was also more than happy to wait for us whilst we exchanged some money for some dalasis before we began our journey.
We boarded the spacious Mitsubishi 4×4 and comfortably settled ourselves down for the ride to our lodge. The sun was long-gone now and the air was thick with darkness, yellow street-lights shining through the stifling night air.
“Look at those!” I pointed excitedly to the line of yellow taxis in front of us. They were vintage Mercedes C and E classes, painted vibrant yellow with thick green stripes round them. I loved how quirky they were. I also felt a tug of sentiment as I grew up with a Mercedes E class that was a similar age to these.
As we hit the road and began driving through Yundum, a large town directly south of the airport, my stomach felt something. I sat gazing out the windows at the quaint houses and shops, many a hive of activity and illuminated with strings of lights. People took to the streets, making their way to the night markets which were alive with a bustle of people selling local produce. Speaker phones sounded as people tried to tempt people to their stalls, their voices distorted as they yelled into the speakers.
There was so much going on. I was almost overwhelmed. It was a feeling I wasn’t used to. Was it excitement? Or nervousness, perhaps? I suddenly felt very small in a country completely alien to my own, the weight of responsibility on my shoulders. I was responsible for this trip. I had to ensure it all ran smoothly. Travel can make you lose your head sometimes.
Fortunately, it lasted only a few moments. As we bounded down the narrow dirt track to our lodge, I felt my strength gradually restore.
Where to Stay in The Gambia
We were staying at an eco-lodge called Footsteps, located just outside the town of Gunjur, along the south coast of The Gambia. We had been lucky to get a room here. Footsteps was completely booked up apart from the 3 nights which we were staying here for where they had one lodge available. It was £60 a night and everything I could have hoped for!
We were many miles away from the main tourist strip in Serrakunda and in contrast were situated on the edge of a protected area of forest, alive with birds, monkeys and even deer.
The eco-lodge appealed to me as a result of its efforts to being as environmentally-friendly as possible. Vast gardens surrounded the lodge which the staff used to grow organic fruit and vegetables. All electricity was supplies by renewable solar-panels and the toilets were compostable.
The icing on the cake was being given our own stainless-steel reusable water bottles which we could use to collect filtered water from reception. This completely removed the need to buy any plastic water bottles!
Upon arrival to the lodge, we were made to feel instantly at home. We were given the opportunity to settle into our little round-house lodge made of clay before we wandered down to the communal area for some late-dinner. Whilst tucking into our freshly caught fish with a welcome drink, we were lucky enough to listen to some live music. Footsteps already felt like our own little paradise, completely cut-off from the outside world. It was easy to unwind and forget about work back home. After a long day of travel, I was keen to get some rest. But I couldn’t wait to see more of the lodge once I was feeling fresh the next day.