The tiny country of The Gambia is the smallest in Africa, three sides enclosed by Senegal and its borders defined by the banks of the river that runs through its centre. Its geography is exotic and unique: at its largest, the country is just 30 miles wide and 11 per cent of its surface area is water of the River Gambia.
On the western side, The Gambia has a coastline on the North Atlantic Ocean and the beaches here are a big draw for sun-lovers. White sands, palm trees, blue seas and large amounts of sunshine combine for the classic beach holiday, though some holidaymakers are troubled by the large numbers of “bumsters” (hagglers and hawkers) encountered on the beach.
Banjul, the capital, is on the Southern side of the river mouth. All flights to The Gambia arrive here and many travellers only use it as a gateway to the rest of the country, but the city is worth visiting in its own right. The country’s main port and its fishing hub, Banjul is often described as being “traditionally African”. Visit the harbour to watch the catch being pulled on, or explore its myriad markets for some local handicrafts.
From Banjul, follow the spectacular river inland to see an array of wildlife, as well as forests, mangrove creeks, mud hut villages and marshes.
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Gambia has near-constant sunshine, thanks to its location between the tropic of cancer and the equator. It’s scorching hot in the day, until short, evening rainstorms cool down the air. The coolest temperatures are usually found along the shore, thanks to sea breezes.
When to fly to Gambia
October to April is when there is the least rainfall. Many tour operators only have packages to The Gambia in this time, though it is possible to get flights to the Gambia independently year-round. Prices for accommodation are higher. Temperatures can get very warm inland, but stay cooler along the coast.
June to October is the low season as this is when most rain falls. Some accommodation may be closed in the rainy season.
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Getting around Gambia
Transport is limited in this small country. There are no domestic Gambia flights or trains. For travelling inland, there are only two main roads, one on each bank of the river. Both are in poor condition, though the North bank is slightly preferable. Bush taxis, or tankatankas, are the cheapest and easiest way of getting around. They have yellow number plates and are mainly used by locals. Don’t expect “unnecessary” luxuries such as upholstery or wing mirrors, and be prepared to hold on tight.
Hiring a car is possible, but the state of the roads is so bad that many people would prefer to leave the driving to those accustomed to it. Many tourists who have hired cars report immediate punctures or other breakdowns due to bad maintenance.
Gambia insider information
- The sleepy capital city of Banjul has hardly been altered by tourists and is still a good place to see the “real” West Africa. One of its main draws is the sprawling market, the clientele predominantly locals and not tourists. Vegetables, fruit, meat and fish are all on sale here, along with clothes and household equipment.
- Kololi and Kotu are the two most popular beach resorts. Though the Gambia is not top on a beach-lover’s destination list, the beaches here have everything you could ask for: white sand, hours and hours of sunshine and a cool breeze from the Atlantic. Windsurfing and sailing are both possible.
- The resort of Bakau is on the northern point of the coast. Along with the tourist hotels and beaches, it is still an important fishing town and one of its most interesting spots is the fishing market, where the boats come in to every day.
- It may be pricey, but don’t leave the country without taking a river cruise along the River Gambia. There are a number of operators offering cruises – book before you arrive, or you can find local cruises in Georgetown. You’re guaranteed to see some fascinating wildlife, such as hippos, chimpanzees and birds, as well as the country living along the riverbanks.
- For more wildlife, visit the Abuko Nature Reserve, which is easily reached from the main beach resorts in a day trip. The reserve is home to crocodiles, monkeys and lots of lizards, as well as an animal orphanage with enclosures for hyenas, antelopes and a solitary lion. It’s nothing compared to the nature reserves of East Africa, but a half day guided walk through the forest can be a welcome break from the beaches.
- Three African tribes are predominant in the Gambia: the Wolof, the Mandinka and the Fulua. Because of their prevalence in Banjul (almost 50 per cent of the population), the culture and language of the Wolof is the most widespread.