"Hello my friends and welcome to The Gambia. What are your names? Can I walk with you?" We are strolling on an unpatrolled section of a wide sandy beach as the light fades into the sea, the grey-green Atlantic Ocean rolling in with a slow surge and then gently ebbing away.
I look at yet another new "friend". His name is Osman, the second most common name in the country after Lamin. His friends call him Donny (as in Osmond), and he wants to show us the crocodile pool and the national park, "where there are real lions, my friends", and the local school. Maybe even a trip to his compound in nearby Bakau. We have heard it all before.
Anyone thinking of going to The Gambia for a real African experience - not a mindless basting on the beach, although this of course is possible too - should be aware that there are many, many friends waiting to make your acquaintance from the moment your feet touch the soil. On the first night of our week-long stay we chose one "guide" (there are about 10-20 unofficially attached to each hotel) and paid him 25 dalassis (about pounds 1.60) to show us around the local area.
We were staying at Cape Point in the Mariatou Beach Hotel, which was undergoing "renovation"; it was a building-site. Sweetie took us away from this nightmare, showed us the best local bars and restaurants, and introduced us to his friends on the market (who marked our cards for later). He also took us to his compound in Bakau. This, I am afraid to say, made me feel as though I were in a film, mainly due to the contradictions of daily life. Higgledy-piggledy shacks and no electricity don't quite marry with the sound of Coolio's "Gangsters Paradise" blaring out of a transistor, and kids wearing Pepsi T-shirts dodging goats to play with a deflated football.
After our visit to Sweetie's modest shack he was our special friend, and we were his - for 50 dalassis a day, of course. We had a similar set- up with our cab driver, Seiko, who would wait for hours outside a club or restaurant while we enjoyed ourselves. In all, our "wages" bill for the week came in at a reasonable pounds 40 and our liberal European consciences were assuaged by providing some small-scale employment.
The Gambia has 25 miles of sandy shoreline south of its capital, Banjul, and is only 300 miles deep. On the map it looks like a crooked finger poked into the side of West Africa, with Senegal surrounding it on three sides. It is named after its river, and was colonised by the British in 1783, who used the waterways primarily to transport slaves. For such a turbulent part of the world, it has an unremarkable recent history, notable only for the coup, and then counter-coup (both bloodless), in 1994, which left a 28-year-old man in charge of the country. Whitehall reacted by issuing travel advice warning against visiting The Gambia, the big tour operators evacuated clients, and the tourist industry declined sharply.
Today the country is still in recovery and as a result is presented to potential holiday-makers as a cheap package destination, with the emphasis on "cheap" rather than "affordable". Yet there are no lager louts, no discos pumping out the Spice Girls, and not a high-rise hotel in sight. Beach hawkers sell freshly picked bananas and coconuts - not ice-creams or tourist trophies. The bevy of bottle blondes who applied lipstick on the beach, however, seemed lost without those familiar sights and would have been better off in Lanzarote. Therein lies the country's main problem: the need to attract the "right" kind of tourist.
The climate is perfect for a winter getaway: it is dry and hot from December to March. Indeed, the sensation of arriving to a blast of 36-degree heat only six hours, and no time difference, away from Britain is second to none for decadence value, and the weather doesn't falter. The only drawback is the Saharan wind which blows sand into the atmosphere, creating a haze that can sometimes last all day. But it does take the temperature down a notch or two.
Enjoying The Gambia is easy once you get the hang of it. Gambian time is not like English time. Ask for a drink - the local beer, Joyful Julbrew - and it will arrive when the barman is ready. Head to Banjul, where for a few pence the local ferry dawdles across the mouth of the river Gambia to the town of Barra, loaded with cows, chickens and brightly dressed traders, and you find there is no timetable. "When will the ferry arrive?" we asked an official after a 90-minute wait. "Oh, any time, any time," came the reply.
While in The Gambia, there is only so much to do, see and discover. Every visitor goes to the local school, the nature reserve, and the crocodile pool to see "Charlie", one-time star of `Wish You Were Here'. There are only a few good restaurants and a handful of jolly local bars fringing the main tourist strip. You do not have to venture far inland to find landscape typical of the whole country: languid lowlands, laced with labyrinthine sandy paths and speckled with friendly, scruffy settlements.
Our happiest moment was the discovery of a day out to Paradise Island, or Jinack, which is half in Senegal, half in The Gambia. It began as a day-trip and turned into an overnight stay at Madyama Lodge, a compound of 10 luxury mud-huts, with a central area for eating and drinking. Though the term "luxury mud-hut" may sound like an oxymoron, it wasn't.
The beach was completely deserted but for a few early-morning fishermen and the odd cow, and there was affordable food and drink and personal hospitality from our hosts. This experience, more than any other, may lure me back to The Gambia.
Getting there: Melanie Rickey paid pounds 469 for an eight-day holiday from Airtours (01706 232323), including flights from Gatwick and B&B hotel accommodation. Other operators include First Choice (0161-745 7000) and The Gambia Experience (01703 730888).
Further information: The Gambia Tourist Office, 57 Kensington Court, London W8 5DG (0171-376 0093).