'You people cannot walk, you only move in cars'

With the help of three guides, two donkeys and a cart, Jason Florio and his partner took a walk around The Gambia. That's 1,000km – give or take a few hundred metres

A New York dinner party isn't the place to open your mouth and not follow through – no matter how much Brooklyn Lager you've drunk. Yet, after a fellow guest told my partner, Helen, and I how he had walked 500 miles across Europe on the El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, we declared that we'd been contemplating a journey for some time and a long walk sounded like just the thing.

Eight months later, we arrived in The Gambia for a 1,000km (620-mile) trek. Accompanied by three locals – Ablie "The Negotiator" Janneh, Samba "Call me Mr Leigh" Leigh, and Momadou "Arikkk!" Bah – two donkeys (Neil and Paddley, on loan from The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust), and a cart for the gear, we left the sublime comforts of the Mandina River Lodge, on a mangrove-lined tributary of the River Gambia, and headed east.

Helen and I had visited The Gambia a number of times before, but had never ventured far from its Atlantic coast. Now we were bound for Koina at the country's eastern edge – a trip akin to going from John O'Groats to Land's End. The Gambians who heard our tale, with help from our translator "The Negotiator", were aghast. "What, with those two donkeys? Impossible! The donkeys will die in two days. They cannot go that far. Anyway you are Tubaabs [Europeans], you people do not walk, you only move in cars." They would shriek with laughter, shake their heads and smile.

Yet, not only were we walking all the way to Koina, but we would be crossing the River Gambia there and walking all the way back to the country's most westerly point on the Atlantic, thereby making the first recorded circumnavigation of The Gambia by foot.

"Call me Mr Leigh" was our liaison man and up-country guide. Looking like a sub-Saharan Elma Thud, his main role was to make the formal introductions to the village chiefs (Al Kalos), who would be our nightly hosts. The ancient system of chiefs would be vital to the success of our journey, he explained. Each Gambian village has an Al Kalo, who is responsible, among other things, for the welfare of travellers. Before we set out, Mr Leigh took us to a market in Brikama where, for 240 dalasi (about £6), we bought 2kg of fat, bitter seeds called kola-nuts. These would win the hearts of the Al Kalos, he assured us.

The rains had recently subsided and the red dirt road that is the Gambia Highway was flanked by rich green grasses, tall as a man and vibrating with wildlife. We were rarely alone. Red colobus monkeys would appear on the road before us. Squadrons of egrets would jet overhead. Hooded vultures cruised the thermals, and boisterous grass-yellow butterflies made the most of the abundant dung left by cattle driven by Fula tribesmen who played soulful tunes on recorders made from plastic pipes.

Momadou Bah, our donkey handler, randomly came alive to shout "Arrrrrrik!!!" above the donkeys' ever rotating ears to move them from molasses speed to the pace of slightly runny honey. We had, observed a policeman at a checkpoint, Tubaab donkeys. "Look at them, they are so fat and proud, they should have crowns," he chuckled between sips of attayer – a sugary green tea whose preparation takes up much of the free time of the underemployed.

After 464km (288 miles) we reached Koina and crossed the river to the old Kingdom of Wuli, which, since the demise of Gambian kings, has been less romantically called URD – Upper River Division.

We had been invited to visit the village of another Mr Bah on the north bank of Wuli. A Marabout (learned man) of the Fula tribe, he cooed and clucked in joy while he stroked our hands as he shook them. As at each village we visited, we became the evening's entertainment. Children would arrive first to watch us pitch the tents, then women would bring along low wooden stools, positioning themselves for widescreen viewing while continuing to braid hair, shell peanuts and breast-feed. Village girls would bring calabash filled with milk, cous cous from the fields, and attayer tea. Our favourite dish was domoda, an oily peanut paste, cooked with dried fish and hot peppers and served with white rice. Delicious fuel.

At most villages we spent just one night, but Mr Bah had offered to show us the local hyena caves and tree-top hideouts used by shotgun-carrying sentries to protect the villagers' precious cattle from Senegalese raiders. More importantly, he had said he would read our fortunes.

Yet, you don't have to bushwhack to remote villages to revel in this country's mysterious side. Less than a day's drive from the capital, Banjul, stand the stone circles of Wassu, just one of hundreds that dot the region. The Gambia's very own Stonehenge is diminutive, but what the stones lack in size is made up for by tales of strange lights and helicopters, bringing white men who bury strange instruments and whisk away artefacts. Talk to "Stoneman", guardian of the stones and son of a chief – he'll make you a believer.

We pushed on at donkey speed towards the port of Barra on the north-west bank of the River Gambia's mouth, stopping on the way at the old slave station of Juffureh, home to the Kinte family, made famous by Alex Haley's book Roots. Karamo, the Al Kalo's son, took us by motorised pirogue to James Island, an eroding speck of land that supports the crumbling remains of a British fort. It's a serene spot, despite its dark history.

Onwards, we took our place alongside the trucks, cars and batik-adorned ladies on the Barra to Banjul ferry and joined the throng in the capital's streets, passing though a triumphal white stucco arch erected to celebrate the 1994 coup, with a sign reading "22nd July – the birth of the new Gambia".

Not far into the new Gambia, there was a commotion as people rushed to the kerb to clap and cheer. Through the veil of pollution, a careening motorcade of Toyota 4WDs tore past us. At its centre was a black stretch Hummer – with a factory-optional rear gun emplacement. The crowd leapt into the car's wake to gather the spoils tossed from its window by the 1994 coup leader, President Sheikh Professor Dr Alhaji Yahya Abdul Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh.

Then, after 909km, with just 20km to go, the cart sheered a wheel. There was no hope of fixing it, so we called in back-up in the form of the Mandina River Lodge's Land Rover. Babbacar, the driver, said that as it was getting dark we should get a lift with him. But we politely refused the offer, throwing our bags in the vehicle, and with our donkeys by our side, machetes in hand, and a chocolate bar to sustain us, cut into the darkening bush.

Eight hours later, we found we were walking in circles, crashing into trees, lost. Mr Leigh called back the rescue team. With the high-beam of the Land Rover's lights powering through the thick night, we discovered we had, in fact, only been 700 metres away from the lodge's hurricane lamp-lit bar.

Compact Facts

How to get there

The Gambia Experience (0845 330 2087; gambia.co.uk) offers seven nights at the Mandina Lodges at Makasutu from £949 per person in April, based on two sharing and including return flights from Gatwick to Banjul, transfers and half-board accommodation in a Floating Lodge

Suggested Topics
News
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Life and Style
tech
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
News
i100
Life and Style
life
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits