Go with the flow: Charting a course through The Gambia

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The Gambia offers sunshine and sunloungers on its Atlantic coast, but it's easy to get off the beaten track and experience a different side of this West African state.

Children rarely scream at the sight of me. My own offspring, faced with my anger, might quiver a bit. But I'm not often that cross. I therefore didn't understand the terrified wailing when I first saw it in The Gambia. I was in a small village called Tubakulam, just north of the river which gives the country its name. A local mechanic, Ousman Camara, had kindly offered to show me around.

We had a cup of brutally strong green tea with his uncle, Nuha Darbo, while sitting on a wall and watching the sun dip towards the scrubby football pitch. Then we entered his family compound. Gambians mostly live together in communal extended-family groups: "best social security", Ousman explained. I met his sister, mother, aunts and assorted nephews and nieces.

All were astonishingly welcoming. I was invited to pound some rice, forgiven when I tired comically quickly in the heat, and – to change the subject, as much as anything else – shown the luscious cassava planted in the back-garden-field. The older children clustered around me yelling "Toubab!" ("it means white man, or tourist, in a nice way") and tried to hold my hands. I felt special. But the youngest child took one look at me and burst into tears.

I crouched down and smiled. The toddler screamed louder and buried his face in his mother's arms. She thought this very funny and thrust the child at me again. When he refused to calm down I beat a retreat.

But the same thing happened in the next compound we visited. The older children were clamorous and cheerful, the youngest threw a fit. And further on down the red-dirt road I reduced another baby to tears. Ousman "reassured" me: "They've never seen your skin before. It makes them very scared."

How short a distance you have to travel, here, to be off the beaten track. I was staying just a couple of miles away, at Sitanunku Lodge, a new and secluded retreat on the northern bank of the Gambia River. toubabs are frequent visitors here. They come to enjoy the view from the plunge pool out over the river, five miles wide at the mouth; to drink cocktails in the intimate bar; to eat perfectly cooked butterfish with bitter tomatoes and okra; and to relax on loungers in the shade of the elephantine baobab trees.

There's a lot for them to do if they're all relaxed out. Fishing, for example. Atlantic tarpon lurk near Dog Island, a tiny chunk of green offshore, just 50 yards from the bar. I didn't see anything big beneath my kayak as I paddled out to explore the shell-bestrewn, palm-and-baobab overhung island on foot. But I'm told they can weigh up to 330lb and that sport-fishermen from all over the world come to try their luck here.

You don't have to chase giants. There are almost as many smaller fish in the river as there are bird species in the mangroves that line its banks. I know because Essa Ndong told me so, and proved his point with evidence.

We set off in a small boat past auspicious-looking shrimp nets rigged in the current by fishermen, most of whom come from nearby Senegal. Heat haze dissolved the distant far bank; the river's surface was the dull green of sea glass. I had to convince Essa I was man enough to bait my own hook. Possibly he wanted the credit for what happened when I plopped it over the side. Ladyfish, captain fish, catfish and snapper: all these and more were soon flapping in the bucket at our feet.

The following day Essa took me upriver to see Kunta Kinteh Island (formerly James Island) and the village of Juffureh, also on the north shore. This forms part of the "Roots" tour, which explores the dark heart of The Gambia's history and also explains its shape on the modern map: a river-long slit in Senegal's side. The Gambia exists as a result of Britain's fight with France for control of the region. Legend has it the Navy sailed up the river firing cannonballs into the mangroves, declaring the whole area a new country as it went.

As with most legends, the truth is a little more complicated, but the underlying point remains: Britain built forts on the river to exploit the transatlantic slave trade that blighted West Africa for 300 years. And then, once we'd banned the trade ourselves, we built more forts to prevent slave ships from other nations reaching the interior or escaping out to sea.

If the great river was a vein tapped to drain West Africa of its lifeblood, Kunta Kinteh Island was where we plunged the syringe. I'd read about it: a fortress in the river, to which newly captured slaves were transferred and incarcerated before being loaded on to ships. This is a Unesco World Heritage site of massive importance to the slave-trading legacy. It's also tiny: smaller than a football pitch.

Anthony Gomez, born in Banjul – The Gambia's capital – was with me for this part of the trip. We stood among the ruins in the beating tropical heat. "Big story, small place," he muttered. He was right. It's not even a dot on the map. It's a needle-prick.

Opposite the island, on the river's northern bank, the little village of Juffureh has equal importance as a historical slave-trade site. I visited the museum there. It houses a collection of maps, bills-of-trade, paintings and artefacts – including manacles and whips – which resonate with a particular horror in this context. Suffice to say, the whitewashed building was cool and dark, but I came out drenched in sweat.

Later, and entirely by chance, I bumped into the Minister for Tourism and Culture, the Hon Fatou Mas Jobe-Njie. She was visiting the flagship Mandina Lodge in the Makasutu Culture Forest, a cluster of stunning wooden cabins, complete with four-poster beds, floating among the mangroves. I asked her what one thing she would want prospective visitors to know about her country.

"It's peaceful," she said, and gave me a chance to write that down. Then she turned to her entourage and asked their opinion, which came at me in a rush: "The sun!" "Friendly people!" "Hospitality!" "Birdlife!" "The river!" "Fish!" "The empty beaches!" "It's Africa!"

The minister's decisive response struck home. (Perhaps that's why she's the minister.) The Gambia is a stable country, friendly, safe. Many people are hard up here: as a toubab you should expect some attention, and not just from children wanting a handout. But the hassle, such as it is, is not intimidating. I got talking to Lawrence Williams, one of the two inspired Englishmen who founded the Makasutu project 19 years ago. He explained that fairly recently the country's main paper reported a theft on the front page. The stolen property? A beach towel.

The Foreign Office is cautious: its latest travel advice warns "attacks on tourists are increasing". But compared with some of the countries down the coast – Liberia, Sierra Leone, for example – The Gambia feels unthreatening. Why? I heard four main theories advanced during my visit.

First, the colonial legacy (though that prompted laughter around the table). Second, the innately peaceful people who live in the region. Third, stable government (some say too stable: the current president, Yahya Jammeh, has been in power since 1994). Fourth, and most convincingly, the absence of a natural resource to fight over. With no diamonds, gold or oil underground, tourism matters to The Gambia, so the theft of a beach towel counts.

The traditional image of Gambian tourism focuses on sun, sand and sea. In the big resorts dotted along the country's 50-mile coastline, that's still the case. The climate (hot-but-not-too-hot sunshine in the dry season, which runs from November to May), the relatively short flight from the UK (six hours), and the fact that there's no time-zone change, all make sense for those looking to lie on a beach in the winter.

And the beaches are lovely, the hotels luxurious. I took what I was informed was the only lift in the country down one floor to drink a beer in the beachside bar at the Sheraton, and watched fellow toubabs flop in and out of the pool. Fat-bladed grass stretched beneath the loungers on either side, and Julbrew, the tasty local beer, was reassuringly expensive.

While many visitors enjoy a fortnight welded to their sun loungers, the rest of the country is full of surprises. For example, I visited the Ballabu Conservation Project – an area the size of the Isle of Sheppey, brimming with bird life, baboons, and... street art. That's right, among the 14 villages spread along Ballabu's red-dirt roads are homes, shops and schools bearing murals painted by some of the world's leading street artists. They were invited as part of Wide Open Walls, a project conceived to bring African-inspired street art into rural Gambia, and the monumental, raw paintings look wonderful in this context.

I also stopped off at Tanje, a coastal village to the south of the capital, Banjul, where a flotilla of fishing boats drop off their catch at the end of each day. I mean "drop off" quite literally. The boats approach the shore, bob in the waves, and wait for porters – mainly women – to collect buckets of fish and carry them back to shore on their heads. The buckets are large, but I saw several women with a baby tied to their back venture out into the surf to collect their load.

Once the catch reaches dry land it is either sold on the sand or smoked in huts at the back of the beach. Seagulls wheel and scream overhead, competing with the market clamour.

Further north along the coast, I had a drink with Peter Vandehallen in Solomon's bar at Family Beach. He explained this is a popular spot for locals at the weekend, full of competing sound systems, dancing and barbecued food. A barefoot boy played football with his shadow in the wave hem: the waitress brushed sand around the floor with a handless twig-brush, unimpressed.

We drove back towards Serekunda, The Gambia's largest city, which sits just south of Banjul. From the guilty comfort of an air-conditioned car I watched a man bicycle across four lanes of traffic with a teetering stack of hubcaps balanced on his head. He was taking them to the huge market that lines these streets, where you really can buy anything under the – hot – sun.

Peter runs the Omakan Hotel in neighbouring Sukuta. It's an urban oasis, and reminded me of the riads in Marrakech; visitors step from the heat and noise into a palm-filled courtyard focused around a sparkling pool.

The hotel has an intimate, relaxed feel to it, but my suite, sparely decorated with beautiful African artefacts, was enormous.

Peter is also keen for visitors to see the real Gambia beyond the hotel's door. I joined Papa Dieng, the hotel carpenter, and Toulie Bah, one of the waitresses, for a stroll around the local area. Given the proximity to the capital, the streets here offered an interesting contrast to rural Gambia.

First we had a look around the sawmill where Papa sources his wood, including the two-ton beam he used to make the hotel bar. Next door, in his metal workshop, Papa's friend Algie Cham was welding in Ray Bans. He was making a sign for Afratel, the telecoms company. I watched him work for a moment, standing next to a goat, which was chewing a melon rind in the sun. And, finally, we ducked into Lamin Cham's family compound, next to the hotel, for a chat about his noni fruit. It cures pretty much everything.

The children here are used to toubabs. Nobody burst into tears at the sight of me. In fact, faced with a nosy man poking about in their garden with a camera, even the youngest responded with what I had come to recognise as a Gambian trademark: a welcoming smile.

Travel essentials: The Gambia

Getting there

* In the absence of scheduled flights from the UK, the only sensible way to reach The Gambia is on one of the charter flights from Manchester and Gatwick on Thomas Cook Airlines (thomascook.com).

* Another option is on the The Gambia Experience year-round charter from Gatwick to Banjul with Monarch Airlines (bookable through the Gambia Experience).

* The writer travelled with The Gambia Experience (0845 330 2087; gambia.co.uk), which offers a twin-centre stay in Sukuta and on the River Gambia from £1,179 per person. This includes four nights' B&B in a pool suite at Omakan Hotel, followed by three nights' half board in a suite at Sitanunku Lodge, plus return flights from Gatwick and transfers. Seven nights' B&B at Omakan Hotel starts at £957 with flights and transfers.

More information

* Gambia Tourism: 00 220 446 2491; visitthegambia.gm

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