Esther Oxford had doubts about a cheap holiday in the Gambia but was converted the moment she stepped off the plane
On my last morning in the Gambia I got up early and sat on the beach. The glittering, soft sand went on as far as I could see. Bit by bit the kookaburras began their rude caw-caws. Then from nowhere a boy on horseback appeared, crashing through the waves, arms thrown back in glee. I didn't want to leave.

The Gambia had been sold as a "beachy" holiday. A package. The brochure showed browning, leathery bodies splayed on plastic chaise-longues, white concrete hotels, fluorescent blue swimming-pools, and beaches with grass- effect umbrellas. The only piece of "exotica" to be found on this package would be the peculiar fruits in the "typical buffet" pictured in the brochure.

I didn't know if a holiday at a "first-world" hotel in a third-world country was really what I wanted. A package didn't really appeal, either. But money and time restrictions were such that there weren't many options if I wanted somewhere hot. At £489 for a flight and two weeks' accommodation and breakfast, I thought - well, I can't be fussy. After several days of himming and hamming I signed up.

But from the moment the aeroplane door slid open at Banjul airport, my feelings changed. A hot wind stirred my hair and brushed my cheek. The tarmac held a peculiar sight: a brass band was stationed in the middle of it - there to welcome the Gambia's only incoming plane for the day. A company of 20-odd beat drums and performed tribal dances. High above us, a witchy looking man loomed on stilts.

The trip from the airport nurtured my newfound passion for the Gambia. The road was home to flocks of obstreperous sheep, goats and waving children, and was lined with open-plan "compounds" where extended families sat on imaginatively constructed balconies, braiding each other's hair and talking quietly. Miles and miles of red dust, ant hills and scrub extended along the rest of the road. Palm trees with plastic bottles attached to the top-most branches (for collecting palm wine) dotted the landscape.

The hotel was a delight, too: non-obtrusive buildings snuggled within 12 acres of landscaped gardens. Colourful birds and bright purple flowers strewn across paths which led to tennis courts, volleyball sandpits, shady hide-aways, bars, barbecues and restaurants. For the first 24 hours the Gambia proved to be a heady paradise. It was only when I ventured out of the hotel grounds, that the sadder side showed itself.

Outside, was the Senegambia craft market - a small area of perhaps 100 stalls selling wood carvings, batik cloth, leather and shells. To my surprise, my travelling companion and I were the only tourists there.

Five months ago the Gambia's tourist industry was booming: 2,500 tourists streamed in each week, hotels were full, restaurants bustling. A carver could sell 25 wooden sculptures a month. Then there was the coup. Sir Dawda Jammeh, president for 30 years, was ousted and a new military leader instated. The coup lasted a matter of hours and was confined to the barracks. Nevertheless, the Foreign Office decided that the area was too dangerous and advised tour operators to withdraw from the Gambia. All complied - except Gambia Experience, a small company which continued to fill planes.

Now the Gambia is lucky to see 500 visitors a week; craftsmen have seen their sales drop from 25 a month to six or seven. The first question (after "What is your name?/Welcome to the Gambia/How long are you here for") was always: "How many people were on your plane?" The Government's recent revision of the policy will help. But not before the start of the winter season.

To supplement meagre incomes, there has been a boom in the number of local men offering their services, not as toy-boys (although there were a few) but as tour-guides. The hotel advises against using them, but I found our guide's local knowledge invaluable.

Abu was the name of our paid companion. He spoke English fluently. During the first week, the month-long fasting for Ramadan came to an end and a three-day feast was prepared. Abu took us back to his family's compound for the day - a cool, corrugated-iron roofed shack which had been meticulously decorated and cleaned. His relatives welcomed us, fed us, brewed strong Chinese tea, then escorted their visitors, suitably attired, to the mosque.

On other days our guide taught us how to catch bush taxis, escorted us round rabbit-warren marketplaces, arranged for a tailor to make a suit for my partner (£40) and a dress for me (£15) and walked eight miles with us along a deserted beach to the nearest fishing village for lunch. He also knew the best fish "restaurants", and would escort us down unlit streets to these strange, candlelit, reggae-playing food-houses where only Gambians went and where the fish was freshly caught and barbecued with tomatoes, garlic, potatoes, onion and peanut oil. I paid him £3 a day.

For hotel guests reluctant to take the risk with the local lads, day- trips are laid on by the hotel. Tourists can go on "Birds and Breakfast" trips (get up a 5am, spend a few hours on a ship watching the birds, then back to a thatched restaurant on stilts for a pancake and fruit breakfast); or for a "Roots" tour (a boat trip along the river Gambia to historic slave trading posts at Fort James Island and Georgetown). Then there are three-day safaris to see village life, animals, birds and countryside, and trips to visit local schools. Prices hover at £25 for a day-trip or £70 for a three-day trip. To do the same "safari" locally, would cost maybe £4.

We went to the Gambia in the dry season, so it was hot in the day and cool in the evenings. Occasionally the dust, heat and hustling could be tiring. But the beach was always close by - long, clean and deserted. For hours I would find myself sitting there - sipping freshly squeezed orange juice, watching the light change, feeling the breeze and thinking about the next swim. Then at the end of the day there would be that warm tingling feeling from the sun, and a fresh lobster and a cold beer by candlelight.

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