The Gambia is a small country in West Africa whose borders follow the Gambia River and carve out a slice of neighboring Senegal. This odd shape is a result of European colonization in the region, as neighboring Senegal was a French colony, and the Gambia a British one. Britain and France fought several skirmishes over the territory, with control of the river being seen as vital to the lucrative West African slave trade of the times.
In recent years however, nature reserves, bird watching, and the rise of ecotourism has made the Gambia an increasingly well-known travel and holiday destination. And for good reason. The country is home to vibrant ecosystems, varied landscapes and many different animal species. From savannahs to mangroves, beaches to cities, the Gambia is a microcosm of West Africa. As its infrastructure continues to grow, the country is now being recognized by both adventure travellers and beach lovers alike.
The Gambia’s small, western region boasts the country’s small coastline and the beaches are warm and quiet, with only a few areas having been discovered by tourists. Much of Gambia’s forests can be found by this western edge, where vines and plant life sprawl across the sand and to the sea. Due to the rich wildlife of this area, and a sea teaming with fish, the coast is home to many Gambian villages.
[Also see our travel article “The World’s Best Places to See Wildlife“]
Kartong is one of these villages in western Gambia and it is becoming increasingly developed in regards to ethical and sustainable tourism. Thousands of families and adventure seekers visit the Gambia each year making an impact on the local and national economy. As a way of ensuring long-term social and economic return from tourism, ecotourism projects have been set up and approved by the government. Promoting a more dignified relationship between locals and tourists, projects have been established that put locals in positions of guides and tourist officers rather than purely servers. The local guides’ cultural knowledge and seemingly instinctual understanding of the surrounding nature add a distinctive element to tourism in Kartong.
Not far from Kartong, the mouth of the Gambian River meets the Atlantic Ocean. Cutting through the center of the country from west to east, the Gambian River is home to a plethora of different bird species. Traveling by boat on the river is one of the best ways to observe Gambia’s many wildlife regions. Heaving with life, the water from the river feeds the impressive greenery that lines its banks. A cacophony of monkey calls and bird songs emanate from the forest, which conceals a world of its own beneath its dense outer foliage. It might take a particularly patient traveler, but spending a day on the river with eyes turned to the forest will allow glimpses of wildlife usually found only in exotic wildlife books. Colobus monkey tails and colourful toucan beaks flash in and out of focus along the tops of the trees, while wading birds grace the riverbanks hunting for food.
Bird watching enthusiasts flock to the region for its incredible variety of bird species. Apart from spotting birds by river, rare birds can also be viewed from land. In the Brufut woods on the Gambia’s western coastline, there are an abundance of opportunities to spot unusual West African species of birds. Guided by bird experts from the local community, organized treks can last from one day to a week. Ardent bird-watchers can sometimes find themselves trekking through swampy forests and flowing streams in the pursuit of finding rare species.
Chimpanzees are also residents of the Gambia, though only in the protected chimpanzee rehabilitation camp known as Badi Mayo. Confined on an island across the river from the boat dock, these chimpanzees live life physically separated from humans. While still dependent on humans circling the island by boat and throwing food to them, the chimpanzees are able to retain many of their behavioral instincts. People are not permitted onto the island, but by sitting in the feeding boat it’s possible to catch glimpses of furry arms and legs punching through the leaves to grasp flying bananas.
A number of tour operators offer boat trips along the Gambia River. It’s possible to join a multi-day cruise or hire a boat for a private exploration. Bookings can be made in advance via tour operators or upon arrival in the country.
The capital of the Gambia is Banjul, which is a small city of only 30,000 residents located on the mouth of the Gambia River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. There are a number of flights to Banjul from various destinations in Europe during the tourist season – October to April. Otherwise the easiest way to reach Banjul is via plane from either Nigeria or Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Getting around once in the country is a matter of boats, four wheel drive vehicles and taxis.
The Gambia is alive with humming ecosystems and a diverse geography, most of which has remained wild and prosperous despite the country’s growing tourism industry. The rise of ethical tourism adds to the appeal, as travelers are able to enjoy the country’s beauty and contribute beneficially to its economy and society. A narrow strip of green, tucked away in West Africa, the Gambia is a treasure trove of natural goodies awaiting a keen explorer.