It’s 6.30 in the evening, an hour before the sun sets over the Gambian coast – locally described as the smiling coast of Africa – and I’m passing time in a car park. Admittedly the car park of the stylish five-star Coco Ocean Resort – but a car park nonetheless. Even to a bird-watching novice like me, the sheer variety and vibrancy of The Gambia’s birds is enthralling. Having pursued a hornbill from the poolside, my attention is now split between a firefinch in a palm tree and a pygmy kingfisher in a lime tree. Meanwhile a troop of monkeys have taken up residence in a mango tree and are munching their way through a fraction of the available fruits that hang heavy from the trees all over this country.On the ground, tiny birds in a spectrum of colours dart between the roots and fallen fruits.
Despite – or perhaps because of – its established reputation as a winter sun destination, The Gambia feels like a well-kept secret during the summer. The sun is shining, the sea is shimmering … and the gorgeous white sand beaches that stretch along the 80km coastline are sparsely populated. A sleepy tranquility pervades the hotel resorts and nature reserves. Traders at the tourist-aimed craft markets, crammed with wooden animals and printed fabrics, watchfully scan the road for shoppers. The only exception is the local markets, which bustle with life – children playing in the ocean, fishermen hauling in their catch and makeshift stalls lining the beach and roadsides.
On the surface the explanation for this bizarre absence of tourists is rain, but five days into my stay I am yet to experience a drop, so have to rely on descriptions. I learn that the rainy season brings dramatic downpours for a few clockwork-timed hours each day, typically at night or early in the morning, leaving the best part of the day blue-skied and gorgeous.
During an introductory bird-watching tour, as we wander around sun-dappled rice paddies that seem to have a magnetic appeal to the birds, the guide puts forth a theory that it is simply a question of mindset. People think that The Gambia is all about winter sun, so they overlook its potential for summer sun. Of course, if you prefer your infinity pool quiet, your hotel rates low and your sun loungers constantly free, then the lack of initiated summer visitors is no bad thing, but the reasons why it shouldn’t stay that way for long are plentiful.
Firstly, there’s convenience. The Gambia is only six hours from the UK on a direct flight and is even in the same time zone. Compact – it’s the smallest nation on mainland Africa – and fairly straightforward to travel around, The Gambia offers an accessible slice of West African charm.
Thanks to the well-established winter sun market, there is a decent range of hotels, including a few stand-out luxury options. The Coco Ocean Resort is simply lovely. Mixed influences combine to create the impression of an African palace, with an understated black-and-white colour scheme that allows the coconut palms to take pride of place. Tiled tiers of swimming pools lead down to the beach and further relaxation can be found in the spa or bar. Nearby Ngala Lodge offers a different take on tropical indulgence. Each room in this romantic, adults-only boutique hotel is unique and filled with intriguing art and craft collections.
For even more seclusion, Sandele Eco Retreat is unrivalled. The brainchild of a British couple who will ultimately hand it over to the local village, Sandele is a hive of community projects and sustainable, mind-resting tourism (including yoga courses). Being off-grid it’s not quite all mod cons, but the muted lighting adds to the charm. Guests sleep in round lodges built innovatively from earth bricks, with panoramic roof terraces to get closer to a bird’s eye view of the tropical dry forest that has been encouraged to regenerate across the site.
Hotel gardens are a source of pride throughout The Gambia and wandering around them is better than a trip to the Palm House at Kew Gardens. With such rich pickings from the ocean and gardens, the restaurant menus are built around locally sourced ingredients as a matter of course. Fresh, flaky fish and chunky tiger prawns jostle for favouritism with platters of tropical fruits.
Traditional dishes such as benechin – the local version of jollof rice, with its spicy tomato-based sauce – and yassa – a hot sour sauce packed with lemons and onions, served with fish or chicken – could feature more prominently. That being said, the international menus acquit themselves well. The cliff-top restaurant at Ngala Lodge is deservedly popular (reservations recommended), for its winning formula of fine food, soulful live music and a stunning ocean view.
Coco Ocean has two high-class restaurants, including an authentic Thai right on the beach, where you can enjoy fragrant curries while observing the peculiar Gambian phenomenon of young men jogging backwards along the beach, nonchalantly stopping to chat to tourists. Happily, hotels have been prevented from building too close to the seafront or colonising the beaches, so everyone can walk for miles along the shore. We hear stories of tourists feeling bothered by opportunistic fortune-seekers, which explains an innocuous tourist police presence in popular spots. However, despite obvious motives – such as countless offers of guide services – everyone who approaches us is genuinely friendly.
One of The Gambia’s many lures is the relaxed pace of life. There is a party to be had, if you venture down to the tourist-centric Senegambia Strip, but the sultry evenings can be more relaxingly spent at a hotel restaurant or beach bar. The Senegambia Beach Hotel is an oasis at the end of the main drag, with an exotic garden setting and live music. Calypso Bar-Restaurant has the added bonus of being a prime venue for bird-watching in style, getting frequent feathered visitors to their beachfront garden. Watch out too for the crocodile who has taken up residence – probably a stray from nearby Katchikally pool, a tourist attraction and sacred site, which is home to over 100 crocodiles.
A modest amount of money goes a long way in The Gambia, which highlights the scale of poverty outside the resorts and naturally evokes a wish to help. Parting with some of your cash at the craft markets, after a token effort at haggling, is one way to contribute to the local economy; donating to education and development projects is another.
The Gambia Experience, one of the main tour operators, organises donations to local schools. For a moving insight into the country’s history, join the Roots Tour (named after the 1970s book by Alex Haley, the American writer who traced his family tree back to a former slave who was born there) to the ancient riverside villages of Albreda-Juffureh, now home to a sombre slavery museum. In contrast to the once sinister purpose of river transport to and from the area, the villages are now reached on a peaceful cruise from Banjul with dolphin-spotting opportunities.
As The Gambia was carved out around the river of the same name – never has the phrase “a river runs through it” been more apt – there are scenic routes both on and alongside the water. The beaches may be the pretty face, but the river forms the heart of the country. What it lacks in big land mammals, The Gambia makes up in birds, monkeys and river wildlife – all highly visible at nature reserves. Makasutu Cultural Forest offers guided canoe trips through oyster-encrusted mangrove swamps, as well as forest walks for botanical education and likely encounters with some decidedly non-fazed baboons. Located near the coastal resorts, Makasutu is very day-trip friendly.
If you have time to venture east on a long drive through orange-hued savannah, the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project in the River Gambia National Park also merits a visit. Here, on four river islands, local baboons share their home with 107 rehabilitated chimpanzees. No humans have set foot on the islands since the 1990s, so they provide a glimpse of the lush vegetation that would once have carpeted the land. In addition to the stars of the show, on a boat trip around the island you may see hippos lurking in the shallows – the dolphin-friendly saltwater near the river mouth having morphed into hippo-friendly freshwater by this point – and will certainly see more birds!
Summer in The Gambia is still sun, sea and sand – with occasional storms. After introducing himself as Happy Abdul, a man we meet on the beach volunteers his own weather forecast, telling us “as long as you’re smiling the sun is shining”. Setting aside cynicism, I’m almost inclined to believe him – especially when storm clouds, charcoal-dark and laced with lightning, finally roll in and the rain makes its grand entrance on the evening we reluctantly leave for the airport.
by Thea Macaulay
Photographs by Danny Levy Sheehan unless otherwise stated
The Gambia Experience offers seven nights at the Coco Ocean Resort & Spa from £729pp, including flights, transfers and breakfast. The Gambia Tourism Board ( HYPERLINK “http://www.visitthegambia.gm” www.visitthegambia.gm) is a useful source of general information. Knowledgeable guides affiliated to the Bird-Watching Association of The Gambia are available around the country and can be booked through hotels or tour operators.