Africa > West Africa > Gambia
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The Gambia is a country in West Africa and is the smallest country on the continent of Africa. It has a short North Atlantic Ocean coastline in the west and is surrounded by Senegal so that it is almost an enclave. The country occupies the navigable length of the Gambia River valley and surrounding hills.
The Gambia is a thin country, essentially consisting of the flood plain of the Gambia river flanked by some low hills — the highest point is just 53 m above sea level.
Tropical; hot, rainy season (June to November); cooler, dry season (November to May); Natural hazards : drought (rainfall has dropped by 30% in the last 30 years).
The Gambia gained its independence from the UK on 18 February 1965. A constitution was written on 24 April 1970, before being suspended in July 1994 and subsequently rewritten and approved by national referendum on 8 August 1996. It was re-established in January 1997.
The Gambia formed a short-lived federation of Senegambia with Senegal between 1982 and 1989. In 1991 the two nations signed a friendship and cooperation treaty. A military coup in 1994 overthrew the president and banned political activity, but a new 1996 constitution and presidential elections, followed by parliamentary balloting in 1997, completed a nominal return to civilian rule. The country undertook another round of presidential and legislative elections in late 2001 and early 2002.
The Gambia celebrates its independence day on 18 February. This small country gained its independence in 1965. There is also the Muslim festival of Eid which is celebrated by virtually all Gambians and is a 2 to 3 day event during which up to 250,000 animals are slaughtered to provide food for the feast. It is also a time when Gambians, especially women, dress in their finest regalia and buying new dresses at up to GMD3,000 (3,000 Gambian dalasi).
A variety of ethnic groups live in the Gambia, each preserving its own language and traditions. The Mandinka ethnicity is the largest, followed by the Fula, Wolof, Jola, Serahule, Serers and the Bianunkas. The Krio people, locally known as the Aku, constitute one of the smallest ethnic minorities in the Gambia. They are descendants of the Sierra Leone Creole people and have been traditionally concentrated in the capital.
|Western Gambia |
The Kombos — The Atlantic coast and areas near the mouth of the river.
|Upriver Gambia |
The rest of the country, less populated and visited only by the adventurous.
- Abuko Nature Reserve — tiny reserve near the beaches with shady paths to get close to monkeys, bushbucks, chameleons, & crocodiles.
- Bao Bolon Wetland Reserve — mixed patched of thick forest and swamp most noteworthy for its migratory birds but also home to dugongs, otters, hogs, antelope, & hippos.
- Makasutu Cultural Forest — a large eco-tourism project near the beaches popular as a package day trip with game drive, boat ride, & performances by locals.
Gambia has two sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Gambia is becoming a popular vacation destination for Northern Europeans. Therefore, many charter and holiday operators offer reasonable airfare and accommodation if desired.
US and South African citizens must obtain a Gambian visa before entering the Gambia. Visa can be obtained at the Gambian High Commission in Dakar. Single entry visas cost USD100 , XAF35,000 (about USD69, so a better deal!) or multi-entry for three month period cost XAF30,000. New Zealanders, Australians, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Taiwanese and some Europeans (e.g. British, Dutch, Finns and Germans) do not require visas for stays up to 90 days. Canadians can acquire a 30 day visitor's visa upon arrival. Always check with the High Commission or Embassy before making travel arrangements.
A single entry visa could surely also be obtained at the border for XAF15,000, at least for Europeans and US citizens, even when the embassy in Dakar claims and insists the opposite, as they wish you pay more to them instead!
Vueling a low cost airline operates regular flights to/from Barcelona (Spain) with onward connecting flights to many cities in Europe. Royal Air Maroc from Casablanca. Brussels airlines from Brussels. Arik Air from Accra and Lagos. Senegal airlines from Dakar. During the tourist season (October to April), there are regular scheduled flights direct from cities such as London, Birmingham, Manchester, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Brussels. Current charter operators include Monarch Airlines, First Choice Airways, Thomas Cook Airlines, Transavia, and Arkefly. you can get a one-way ticket from The Gambia to Europe with Vueling Airlines.
Sept-places or bush taxis run from Dakar to Banjul and Banjul to Ziguinchor.
It is possible use your private car to drive from Senegal to The Gambia via the border town of Amdalli (just north of Barra). The border crossing is pretty straightforward. You will need your V5 logbook. The road approaching the border from Senegal is terrible and its easier to drive next to the road as opposed to on it. Check before you travel if it is ok to bring in a right-hand drive vehicle, as there are conflicting reports on the possibility of this (though it has been done).
There are direct GPTC buses running from Barra (a ferry ride away from Banjul) to Dakar , but these are not recommended as they are slower than the bush taxis.
It is possible privately charter small fishing vessels from Dakar and neighbouring areas; though this can be fairly expensive and slow should one not be proficient at bargaining.
A 4WD is recommended if you plan to rent a car, since the roads often are in bad condition and only a minority is paved.
There are two types of cabs: green ones (tourist cabs) and yellow ones (regular cabs). Green cabs are expensive and the price is regardless of the number of passengers. Although there is no MOT system in Gambia, these taxis must have basics such as seat belts and working indicators. Yellow taxis are much cheaper and the price depends on the number of persons in the cab. They are used mainly by locals, and in many tourist areas they are prohibited from picking up tourists. Often it is worth it to walk a little to get a yellow taxi.
You can rent a bike from pretty much anyone that owns one at a negotiated rate. Cycling on major roads can be risky, as motorist safety is unreliable, some roads are not well-maintained, sand and steep shoulders cause road hazards, and pedestrians may walk or veer onto the open road without warning. In high traffic areas, taxis and vans often cut off cyclists to pick up travellers and the car horn may be used excessively to warn of impending passage.
No, don't use your thumb. It is an obscene gesture in Gambia, instead wave if you want a car to stop. As anywhere, hitching is quite risky business, so be careful with what cars you enter and never hitch at night. Also, Gambian motorists will expect you to pay for the ride, so have some cash ready.
The Gambia River is navigable the entire length of the country.
There are many companies that offer guided tours in Gambia.
There are also official tourist guides that will arrange transportation and guide you. They offer a good service and you will get to travel in a small group (usually 1 to 6 persons). Beware that there are false official guides, so always meet them at their offices, around tourist resorts.
Languages spoken in Gambia are English (the official language), Mandinka, Wolof, Fula, sarrancule and other indigenous languages.
- 1 Abuko Nature Reserve. open daily 08:00-18.30. Nature park situated outside the village of Lamin in the Kombo North District, 25 km from Banjul. At 105 hectares it is one of the smallest (if not the smallest) protected areas in Africa, but it still offers a good introduction to the Gambian wildlife. For instance there's monkeys, crocodiles and some 300 species of birds GMD35.
- 2 Kunta Kinteh Island (Saint James Island). An excursion inspired by Alex Haley's bestseller and movie Roots. You can go there on cruise up the centre of the wide Gambia river, towards the former French trading post of Albreda and the village of Juffureh. Views of the river bank are distant. Visit the setting of Roots, an old slave trade station. Tourists are overwhelmed by locals who appear only when the boat arrives, and disappear when the boat leaves. Locals are persistent in begging for money and thrusting craft items under tourists noses. Locals insist on being paid to appear in photos. Or you go by car, e.g. with th official tourist guides on the small roads on the North Bank and sail in a pirogue from Juffareh.
- 3 Gambia River National Park. Beautiful national park below Janjanbureh. The camp is pricey, but worth the money. They will organize boat tours to see chimpanzees, baboons, monkeys, crocodiles, etc.
- 4 Sanyang Beach. One of the most beautiful beaches in Gambia. Public transport leaves from Serekunda and Brikama regularly, and private taxis can also be hired for day trips.
- Kachikally Crocodile Pool. Opportunity to touch/pat West African Nile Crocodiles. GMD50.
- Four Wheel Drive Adventure. Very popular tours visiting schools, country homes, and distilleries.
Since 1971, the Gambia has used the dalasi as its currency (GMD). The dalasi is divided into 100 bututs. Banknotes come in GMD5, 10, 25, 50, and 100 denominations and you may find GMD0.25, GMD0.50 and GMD1 coins in circulation.
Approximate exchange rates in September 2013 were:
- USD1 = GMD32.0
- €1 = GMD42.2
- GBP1 = GMD50.1
- CHF1 =GMD34.1
- CAD1 = GMD30.8
- JPY100 = GMD32.1
- CNY1 = GMD5.2
- ZAR1 = GMD3.2
- XAF1 = GMD1.1
It is better you take CFA francs, euro or dollars with you. If you have a Visa credit card and don't use a PIN or you forgot it, then the only Bank that can help you out is (the bigger) GT Bank in Banjul, which only requires your card, your passport, and your signature.
Master card can now be use at any GT Bank 17 ATMs.
- Kora is the main music instrument of the Mandinka tribe, and could be considered the national instrument of Gambia. It is 21-stringed and built from a large calabash cut in half and covered with cow skin to make a resonator. It sounds like a mixture of harp and flamenco guitar. Real koras can be very expensive but small souvenir versions are also available.
- Tailor made clothes can be bought at cheap prices.
- wood carvings
- wooden masks
- African drums
- hand-woven table runners and place mats.
- Batik and tie-dye fabric.
- Benachin or Jollof rice — a traditional West African rice dish with onions, spices, tomatoes or tomato paste mixed with meat, fish or vegetables.
- Chicken Yassa — chicken boiled with onion, black pepper and lime or lemon.
- Domoda — meat stew with rice and peanut butter sauce.
- Lots and lots of peanuts, the main crop of The Gambia.
- International food. Please don't be put off by what you may hear about Gambian cuisine, everything may come with rice but don't forget rice is a staple in most of the world. But if you're after something your stomach is used to, then there is a plethora of international restaurants to choose from where you can have a Chinese or Indian curry, good old fish & chips or Japanese noodles, and there's also Thai, Lebanese, German, Dutch and Mexican even food places run by the British where you can get a full English breakfast. In fact food in Gambia is truly international and the fish is to die for.
- Gambia's own beer, Julbrew is worth a try. It's made by Banjul Breweries, who also make soft drinks.
- Palm Wine is juice from palmtrees that is collected and fermented. It is used as a kind of wine by the locals, and you may get a chance to try it if you go on a tour to rural Gambia.
- Baobab juice
- Spirits. You can most of the well known spirits and liqueurs in the tourist areas along the coastal strip
- Spitits, Beers & Cigarettes. Julbrew is a lager based beer, it is mainly sold in bottles but you can get in a draught form which is a lot less gassey than the bottled. You can get most of the spirits you would expect to find at home and they are still a lot cheaper than the Costas, Greece or Turkey. Whisky, Rum, Gin, Vodka, Brandy are freely available as well as Curacao and Tia Maria. Cigarettes can be bought very cheaply at around GBP2.50, €2.80 per 200 pack from all the main supermarkets or in the tourist areas.
There are many luxury 4 and 5 star resorts along the Atlantic coastline. Further in land there are eco camps and lodges which offer basic accommodation usually in natural surroundings.
Many of Gambia's unemployed young men have discovered that engaging (and sometimes hassling) tourists can be as rewarding as a real job. It's not a coincidence that there's a name for such persons: Bumster. Be prepared for personal questions, sob stories, not-asked-for "favours" and self-proclaimed friendship, all with the purpose of winning your favour or opening your wallet. Those not desiring such attention must use a combination of polite declination, wit, and when necessary firm refusal, if they want to be left alone.
There are a number of very commonly used scams in the Gambia. If someone stops you on the street, they may tell you that they remember you from the hotel you're staying at and that they work there. They may invite you to another hotel, but this could be a scam to attempt to rob you. Also, because people are constantly looking for ways to support themselves, if they offer you assistance or directions, it may be understood that they expect some monetary compensation.
Sadly, many Gambian military have an unfavourable view of Brits (sometimes caucasians in general) and can be extremely racist - despite the British taking the territory from the French and abolishing slavery. Expect it especially at border crossings as you will almost always be asked to pay to have your passport stamped and receive more than a few insults aimed at not only your country but also yourself when you refuse to pay. As always, do NOT pay any bribes as you're only making the problem worse, not just for tourists but the locals that are already struggling to fight the rampant corruption. Absolutely do not mention calling an embassy as this will only enrage them and start another string of abuse, as your embassy has no control over them and they hate the thought of it. If you've made friends with a Gambian they might possibly be able to help but as The Gambia is seen as one of the most repressive countries in Africa, they may be putting themselves at risk of punishment - so don't get annoyed if you're not assisted.
Scams also exist in which marijuana is offered to tourists or they are invited to come smoke in a home, only to find police waiting for a hefty bribe. A simple "Sorry, I am in a hurry" could suffice to dismiss them. But don't tell them why you are in a hurry and don't say anything else after that as this may lead to a conversation — and this could lead to unwanted attention and possibly a scam. Also remember that some Bumsters are not unemployed or young and never fall for hardship stories. One last word of warning: should you feel you want to give a person some money out of sympathy or just to get rid of them it will certainly lead them to ask you for more money at a later date should you meet again. Some recommend a stern and harsh response to such requests, but this should be informed by your values and the relationship formed with the individual in question. Keep in mind, however, that you may see this person again, and they could truly be helpful if you're in a jam or need information. Many people in tourist areas are merely 'friendly facilitators' who may hope for an exchange of favours, but are genuinely harmless. Being overly guarded could deny you an offer to join a local family for a traditional meal, or to personally meet one of the craftspeople who make the local goods for sale.
The Gambia is a great holiday destination but just keep your guard up at all times.
When swimming, be aware that the currents in the Atlantic waters can be strong. Always look out for flags on the tourist beaches indicating the level of danger on a red — yellow — green scale.
Be careful about your political opinions, as such critical opinions against the government are considered a crime.
Active homosexuals should note that they could be in extreme danger in Gambia - subject to possible arrest or even killing.
Yellow fever vaccination is strongly recommended. Meningitis vaccination is recommended. Anti-malaria pills are also necessary. Most cases of malaria in the Gambia are contracted between June and December. Mefloquine, Doxycycline or Malarone are the medicines of choice for the Gambia, and for most of sub-Saharan Africa, because of the increasing chloroquine resistance.
It is a good idea to bring insect repellent, sunscreen and other health items from your home country since these may be hard to find in some areas.
Ramadan is the 9th and holiest month in the Islamic calendar and lasts 29–30 days. Muslims fast every day for its duration and most restaurants will be closed until the fast breaks at dusk. Nothing (including water and cigarettes) is supposed to pass through the lips from dawn to sunset. Non-Muslims are exempt from this, but should still refrain from eating or drinking in public as this is considered very impolite. Working hours are decreased as well in the corporate world. Exact dates of Ramadan depend on local astronomical observations and may vary somewhat from country to country. Ramadan concludes with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which may last several days, usually three in most countries.
If you're planning to travel to Gambia during Ramadan, consider reading Travelling during Ramadan.
Always ask before you take a photo of anyone. Some Gambians have certain beliefs about having their picture taken, in particular by a stranger.
- Senegal is both north and south of Gambia. There are excursions to Fathala Reserve just north of the border.