During the Christmas holidays, we wanted to escape the chilly Belgian weather. Our requirements once more included: sun, not too long a flight, not a lot of time difference and a few interesting sights. And of course, that brought us to Africa, our favourite continent, once again. We went to see the Gambia highlights.

A few years ago, we visited Senegal, and we really enjoyed it. Since that time, a holiday in the Gambia had been on our list.

The Gambia is surrounded by Senegal, and borders the Atlantic Ocean. The country is split in two by the Gambia river. 

History of the Gambia

Evidence has been found that the Gambia was inhabited around the year 700. In that time, the Arabs were on a conquering spree of North Africa. They made the Berbers flee to the south, and they, and the Islam, eventually ended up in the Gambia. 

From the 14th to the 16th century, the Gambia was ruled by the Emperor of Mali, but later the Europeans took the reins. The British had most influence in the Gambia, which means that English is still the official language. They organised large-scale slave transports. The slaves were rounded up and shipped to America, Europe, and the Caribbean. Estimates reveal that in 50 years, over 3 million slaves were transported from this region to America. Because of the poor conditions, 15% of slaves didn’t even survive the journey. The slave trade was abolished by the British in 1807, and in 1856 by the Americans. In the Gambia, slavery was only abolished in 1906. If you are interested in this history, I suggest you read the book “Roots” by Alex Haley, or watch the television series with the same name.

The Gambia became independent in 1965, but remained part of the British Commonwealth. Later it merged with Senegal, but that only lasted a short while. The Gambia became a republic in 1970, and became an Islamic Republic in 2015.  Since 2018 they are again part of the British Commonwealth. The majority of the population is Muslim, but all religions live side-by-side without many problems at the moment.

Climate of the Gambia

The Gambia has a tropical climate, and has a dry season running from mid-October to mid-June. At the end of the dry season, the temperatures can reach 40 degrees. Even in the wet periods, it only rains about 12 days a month on average, mainly during the night or in the morning.

Economy

The economy is one of the weakest in the world. There is a large export of peanuts, but the other crops are nearly exclusively grown for own use. 25% of the revenue comes from the tourist industry. A large percentage of these tourists come from the Netherlands and Belgium. The Gambia has 2 million inhabitants, and is one of the most densely populated countries of Africa.

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Travel to and in the Gambia

From the Netherlands and Belgium it takes 6 hours to fly to Banjul, the capital of the Gambia. If you fly with TuiFly, you will make a stopover on the Cape Verde archipelago on the way back.

Travel within the Gambia is easiest by taxi. They are very cheap, and readily available. The green taxis are official ones, the yellow (with a green stripe) are not official, and about 50% cheaper. However, we did not see many green taxis during our stay, and travelled exclusively with the yellow taxis.

You can even take a taxi for a day trip. Explain what you want to do, and agree on a price beforehand. Count on about 20 euros a day. 

You can rent a car, but I would advise against it. Gambians are good drivers in the African definition of the term, but it is still chaos. And many roads are not paved and so not suitable for a rental car.

Did you know: the Gambia only has one traffic light?

If you want to cross the Gambia River, it is best to do so using the ferry between Banjul and Barre – a real adventure. 

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Hotels in the Gambia

We chose the Coco Ocean Resort & Spa***** for our week in the Gambia. The best hotel in the Gambia, according to our guide. It is a beautiful hotel in Moorish style. Most rooms are situated in the main building, but there are a number of Beachclub houses with an enormous terrace and only a few steps from the beach. If you stay here, you can also use the separate pool at the beach. We booked one of those Beachclub houses.

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The hotel has everything to provide you with a fantastic holiday in the Gambia. Large rooms, even larger terraces, a tropical beach right outside the door,… But the painter and the handyman have their work cut out for them. Dated interiors, flaking paint, sheets and towels are past their peak,… nothing to write home about really.

Coco Ocean Resort

On the other hand, the food is lovely. You eat à la carte in the morning, and omelettes, banana pancakes, Coco Ocean waffles are just a few of the choices available. A prefer a buffet, as I like to try everything, but all dishes were beautifully presented and tasty.

In the afternoon, you can go to the beach restaurant for a pasta, pizza or hamburger,… You have  a wonderful view of the beach and the ocean from the terrace.

In the evening, they serve western food in the main restaurant. However, we prefered the beach restaurant as they serve wonderful Thai dishes there. The spring rolls were made fresh every day, and the other dishes were also superb. The Beef Lok Lak and a wok dish where you can pick your own ingredients come highly recommended.

 

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The hotel lies about half an hour from the airport, and is a twenty-minute walk from the Senegambia Strip (in the seaside town of Kololi).

During our stay we met people staying at  Coral Beach Hotel & Spa *****  and the Kairaba Beach Hotel***** .  They had the same observation as us: the hotel is fine, but the upkeep is lacking.

In short, if you take a holiday in the Gambia, do not expect the same luxury you expect in other holiday resorts. It is all done in the African way

 

Restaurants in the Gambia

If you stay near Kololi, you can visit the Senegambia Strip to soak up the atmosphere. It is full of bars and restaurants. One of the better choices in African Queen.

Around the corner from the Senegambia Strips lies Gaya.  This is supposed to be the best (and most expensive) restaurant in the region. We had a meal here with 5 people, including a bottle of wine and some soft drinks for 80 euros. The restaurant is very cosy and the service is fantastic. The nasi goreng and the pasta with seafood are wonderful. 

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Beside the Coco Ocean hotel (to the left looking at the ocean) lies a welcoming terrace where you can have a drink and a tasty African dish. A soft drink is less than a euro, and for under 5 euros you can enjoy a lovely stew with rice. And you can enjoy a bottle of Julbrew with your stew, this is the local beer.

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10 The Gambia Highlights

Kololi

  • Wander along the Senegambia Strip

This beach resort only has one important street: The Senegambia Strip. Tourists and locals alike gather here in the evening for a fun night out. Wander past the many shops and find a spot in one of the cosy bars or restaurants.

  • Visit the Bijilo Forest Park

The whole coast was forested here in the past. A large part of it has made way for hotels. Bijilo Forest Park and Nature Trail (also known as Monkey Park) is a bit of rainforest of over 50 hectare which is home to many birds and monkeys. A 4.5 km stretch of walkway has been constructed for visitors, with benches where you can sit and enjoy the surroundings.

In principle it is not allowed to feed the monkeys. However, there are locals at the entrance trying to sell you nuts. Many tourists are persuaded, which means the monkey get used to humans and get aggressive if they don’t get anything. Especially the monkeys at the end of the trail, as often there are no nuts left for them. There are plenty of fruit trees in the park that provide food for the monkeys. And nuts are not all that good for them either. 

Our hotel was close to the Bijilo Forest and the monkeys woke us up every morning, running over the roof of our room.

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Enjoy a day at the beach

The beaches are beautiful here. Pearly white sand, softly swaying palm trees, and inviting bars are easy to find. Locals walk around the beaches selling fruit, nuts or cool drinks. They love to chat to you (in the hope of a sale, or to offer themselves as a guide), but if you kindly, yet firmly, tell them you have no interest, they will no longer bother you. There is a good reason it is called The Smiling Coast of Africa. 

Other nice beaches: Builo Beach, Paradise Beach in Sayang, and Kotu Beach. 

Please take note of the flags and stay out of the water if the red flags are up. The Atlantic Ocean has a strong undercurrent here, so don’t get caught out.

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Bakau

There are a number of interesting sights in the seaside town of  Bakau.

  • Visit the Kachikally Crocodile Pool and Museum

In a piece of rainforest lies a lake which is home to about 80 nile crocodiles. You can take a short walk through the rain forest. There are a lot of crocodiles gathered at the lake, but you might see one in the rainforest. I suspect they are fed well as they didn’t seem to fancy a bite of tourist.

The pond is one of the three holy places where fertility rituals are performed.

There is also a small African museum in the park.

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  • Discover the public market

You haven’t been to the Gambia until you’ve visited a market. There is a bustling market in the centre of Bakau. Beautifully dressed Gambian women do their shopping here. 

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  • Watch the arrival of the fishing boats

You will also need to visit a fishing harbour at least once when you’re in the Gambia. At the end of the day, the men will arrive back with their catch in beautifully painted boats. The smell of fish meets you from a long way away. Corrugated sheets with drying fish are everywhere, and the women sell the fish their men have just brought in.

In the dark, dilapidated buildings the fish is smoked. In the meantime you hear the seagulls come screeching in across the beach, trying to get their share. You will find a similar scene on the beach of Tanji.

Beware: the Gambia is billed as “The Smiling Coast of Africa”, and they are super friendly in general. However, they don’t like their picture taken. So be discrete, and ask permission. They usually don’t mind after that. 

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Serrekunda

  • Lose yourself in the largest market of The Gambia

Serrekunda is the largest city of the Gambia, and you really get a sense of the hectic life in an African city. The city is mostly famous because of its large market. Wander through the alleys and enjoy all the colours and scents. During the weekend you can also enjoy some Africa wrestling. 

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Kotu

  • Explore the countryside

You enter a whole different world in Kotu. Green rice fields, jungle, palm plantations,... Taste a freshly tapped palm wine. 

Banjul

Only a few streets are paved. Once you leave the main road are the dirt roads. After a visit to the city you are covered in orange dust.

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  • Arch 22

One of the few sights in the Arch 22, a 26-metre high triumph arch in memory of the military coup of 1994.

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  • Albert Market

Get lost in the sights and sounds and scents of this busy market. Vegetables, fruit, fish, meat, and fake designer gear everywhere.


In addition to these the Gambia highlights, there are a few fun day trips you can do to fill your days in the Gambia. More about that in the next blogpost.

 

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A Week In The Gambia

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