I love Gambia.
It’s the one place outside Nigeria where I truly felt at home, to the point where I actually did check what the price of real estate was like, not like I could afford it, but it at least gives you an idea how much in love I was with the place.
It wasn’t love at first sight though, in fact by the time we touched down at the Banjul International Airport, I was ready to go back home, thanks to the legion of problems I had to scale courtesy of Arik, which unfortunately, is the only way to get there from these parts. This is meant to be a fun account of the trip, so I won’t bore you with details, but if you get lured to attempt the trip, some of the things you may encounter with Arik might include random reschedules—particularly interesting because they aren’t effected on the local legs of your trip (if you have those in your itinerary), getting to the airport and finding that the staff can find your PNR (Passenger Name Record, which basically is your reservation number and itinerary) on their “system”, but can’t find find your boarding pass on the same “system,” delayed flights, and the darn emergency rafts located somewhere on the roof of the plane that rattle all the way.
I should also mention that it’s a “molue” sort of trip…your flight will make stops at Accra and if you are unlucky, somewhere else before getting to Banjul, Gambia. It’s the same on the way back to Nigeria, there are stops at Dakar and Accra.
So you can imagine my state on getting to Gambia when the plane touched down around 2AM, mentally and physically tired, cramped and generally upset. It didn’t help that the security guys after baggage claim thought I looked like I was a tipper, so decided to check my bags (or at least threaten to). It also didn’t help that due to a mix up, thanks to constantly shifting flight dates, my scheduled airport pickup wasn’t there (remember it’s 2AM in a new country), and to make matters worse, my ATM cards were paperweight and at the very least I needed some Baht (Gambian currency) to get a simcard to call my hotel and sort out the pickup.
The first indication that things were not all bad, was when a policeman, probably noticing that I was confused, walked up to me, asked what the problem was and offered me his phone to call the hotel with. And even though I ended up taking a taxi instead, the kind gesture from a random policeman brightened my morning. Just in case you are wondering how I got to the hotel eventually; on the policeman’s advice that the last cabs of the night would soon leave, I found a BDC that was still open at a corner of the airport, changed some dollars, and found a cab willing to take me to Ngala Lodge, where I stayed for the two or so weeks I spent in Gambia. Having acquired some Baht, I decided to buy a SIM card on the spot to avoid any more palava.
To be honest, the trip from the airport to Ngala lodge was uneventful. In fact, except for one checkpoint, there wasn’t much to see. It felt like driving through one of the smaller nameless towns that litter the country side in Nigeria, when on a road trip; the kind that’s just developed enough to have cement buildings and internet cafes, but not much else. At this point, it crossed my mind whether we (I travelled with my wife), had made a mistake in choosing our holiday destination. We took a left turn at some point, into a neighbourhood that looked more urban, which put my heart to rest a bit, and a few minutes later, we were at Ngala Lodge, carrying our luggage through what seemed like a forest with seashells covering the floor to our suite.
We were tired, and passed out in no time.
Sometime after the sun rose, I woke and walked to the terrace, to check if the promised jacuzzi was there and generally take a look at what we had gotten ourselves into…and at that point, I was certain we made the right choice. Directly beneath me sprawled one of the best maintained gardens I had seen and between the palm trees that dotted the garden, I could see the Atlantic Ocean.
Copywriters have this tacky habit of describing every beach-side lodging as “paradise,” but Ngala Lodge is one of the few places I’ve been to that that description actually fits, located on Atlantic Blvd, about 20 minutes away from Senegambia, Serrakunda, which is generally considered as the tourist area, it is a boutique hotel set in a tropical garden which overlooks the ocean. It really is a mythical place, from the restaurant, with a wide view of the ocean that’s manned by world-famous chef, Jonathan Groves, to the bar beneath it with the same view, to the garden library to the infinity pool by the ocean, to their deck by the sea and personal beach, it’s an awesome experience.
But what’s even better than all of that is the service you get, it’s top notch, from the tiniest of details to the big stuff and I can give examples, they noticed we hadn’t had any alcohol in two days, and sent up a bottle of sparkling non-alcoholic wine to our room, instead of the usual champagne, or never having to call a waiter for a coffee refill, even though they were never hovering around, or the fact that you were issued a mobile phone you could use to order “room service” from anywhere within the premises at no extra cost, to farewell messages on the restaurant menu on the day we left, to even tossing in a free day to accommodate Arik’s random reschedule. At no point did I have a single complaint.
Ngala was so convenient and engaging, that we actually flirted with the idea of not going out of the premises at any point till we were ready to go back, but it’s a good thing we did. How else would I have discovered Benachin—Gambia’s take on Jollof rice? More on that in a bit.
Gambia’s a small country, with a generous portion of coastline. One of the first things that struck me about the country was how accessible beaches were. Coming from Nigeria where, you had to either own a bank or oil company to have a slice of the beach in your backyard, or deal with area boys and pay a fee to get on public ones, it was a bit weird to see the coast just there in the open for everyone.
The next noticeable thing is how nice and chill the people are. At every point, the people were eager to help and cheerful not once did I hear a car honk its horn outside Banjul the capital. At one point, I had innocently strayed in the path of an incoming car, and the driver actually slowed down, and kept driving at walking pace, till I noticed I was in his path! Even on open roads, drivers were generally unhurried and cruising slowly as though the world was waiting for them. I’ll be shocked if the accident rates aren’t really low.
Having travelled to Gambia around the Jollof wars, naturally, I had to see what Gambia had to offer in that regard. My first attempt was at the Ngala restaurant’s “Africa (or is it Gambia?) night on Sundays. It was okay there but nothing special, not much different from jollof I could crank out myself, so I raised the issue with Habeeb our unofficial guide, who promised to fix that by taking us to try the “best benachin in Gambia.” Which turned out to be at Rainbow beach bar at Sanyang beach (one of the nicest beaches in Gambia I hear), and boy was it nice! I temporarily decamped to Gambian jollof, and went to that beach twice, just for benachin, but I’m back and loyal to Nigerian jollof. That said, if you do visit, you should try it, along with some fresh prawns on Sanyang beach. I also tried Yassa which is a sauce predominantly from onions and lemon. It’s delightful. There’s also “Damoda” a groundnut based stew which I also fell in love with, that is had with rice. Along with this, being that it’s by the sea, there’s a abundance of fish and sea food as well.
Seeing as Gambia is very tourist friendly, you’ll also find a wide range of cuisine. The one thing that is worth noting is that at most restaurants and hotels, the food is spiced primarily with their customers in mind, which are mostly European. So you may need to ask them to make it extra spicy if that’s your thing. I found that most places were more than happy to do that. For drinks, the most fascinating local ones for me were boabab juice, a drink made from soaking baobab seeds in water, similar to what’s available in some nothern parts of Nigeria such as Sokoto and Wonjo juice, which is basically a slightly thicker “Zobo.”
As earlier mentioned, the restaurant at Ngala was top notch, so I won’t say much, but here are a few photos to prove my point.
Things to do, places to see Around Gambia
You should definitely stay at Ngala if you can, most of the Gambians I met, both in and outside Gambia say its one of the best places, it’s a small hotel though, with only twenty or so rooms, so you’ll have to make arrangements early and not do Naira conversions while at it.
Down the road from it, you’ll find Kachikally Crocodile Pool, one of three sacred crocodile pools in the Gambia, There you can get up close and personal with crocodiles and get regaled with tales of the fertility sacrifices that happen there. Apparently, people who bath with the water from the pool find good fortune and are very likely to take in if they are trying for babies!
Further down the road at Cape Point, there’s the Calypso beach bar, which also coincidentally overlooks a crocodile pool and the sea. The crocodiles here are a lot smaller and usually just basking in the sun. If you are into bird spotting, Calypso is definitely your scene. I saw a variety of interesting birds every time I was there. Spotted a few bird watchers too. The bar itself offers great meals off its menu and specials board, watch out for the monkeys that roam the bantabas (gazebos) where you’ll be served. The Yassa, Palm Oil Stew and Banachin here were decent as was the Wonjo, Lemonade and Boabab juice and the beach itself has a lot of activity, from people fishing with poles, to fishing boats coming in, to beach soccer and volley ball, to people trying to sell you stuff.
Speaking of beaches, asides Sanyang, where we found the “best benachin in Gambia” (as well as really good Damoda and Yassa if we are being honest) which I mentioned earlier, you should definitely also check out Kololi beach, it’s a nice beach and one of the few ones besides Sanyang where I saw a lot of people taking dips. At this point, you should note that most Gambian beaches have strong under currents, so always look out for the flag, which is hoisted that tells you when it’s safe to take a dip of not.
Another interesting place to visit is Lamin Lodge, built totally of wood, overlooking the mangrove river. You can take boat rides and at low tide, there’s some interesting wildlife to spot. The freshly made donoughts which we tried were nice as well. There are also monkeys that hover around uninvited here, so you will want to keep an eye out for them. Oh, don’t forget to take a picture with the “internet tree” a tree with ads painted on it that basically served as “google” before the internet got to Gambia.
You’ll want to see the Tanji fishing village, best to arrive there around 4pm when the boats are just coming in and get engulfed in the hassle and bustle of a fishing village. Fishermen selling their day’s catch by the basket straight from the boat, to the women preserving fish in ice, smoking and the wide variety of aquatic life on display, it’s sure to be a lot different from anything you have experienced yet. There’s also a private museum there which I heard nice things about, but didn’t get to check out.
If you are into wild life…or not, there’s a monkey park in Serracunda and a Snake/Reptile farm in Kartong that you should check out. The monkey farm brings you really close to monkeys in their natural habitat, while the Snake farm, which was apparently setup by a private individual to educate Gambians about Gambia’s snakes and reptiles, will bring you right next to some of the animals you’ve only seen on National Geographic. The guides are well educated, and will tell you about snake bite first aid and best practice, their preservation efforts and also bust some myths about some of these animals.
You should also check out The Butcher’s Shop in Fajara, their menu is impressive, the food and service both times we visited was great, but even better is their signature mixture of Wonjo and Boabab juice (personal favourite). which overlooks the main street in Fajara and ambience was nice.
If massages are your thing, you should go to the Sheraton (it’s no longer a Sheraton, but everyone still calls it that) for a massage, ask for one outdoors overlooking the sea, it’s the same price as doing one inside, but the experience is definitely better outside.
At this point, it just occurred to me that we didn’t explore Senegambia, the base of tourist activity, a lot, except to change money (you typically get the best deals in the tourist areas) and buy a sweater on a chilly day (you’ll probably also get the best regular, non-tourist stuff). There are a number of malls, hotels and restaurants here and a lot of times, the sheer number of white people around, made me feel like I was smack in the middle of Europe.
Of all the places I visited, Banjul, an island, which doubles as the capital of Gambia was the most boring of the lot. There’s a museum to check out, that has a few tidbits, especially with regards to insight into Gambian history and culture, and there’s a huge tourist market, right beside the presidential palace, where you’ll find pretty much everything from garri to fish to hand carved wooden souvenirs. The most interesting thing I learned there, funny enough was at the back of the market, by the water, you can find traders from different places, including Senegal bringing their wares for sale by sea. The second most interesting thing, which you should definitely take note of, is that you can get into trouble for taking pictures of the presidential palace.
If you can, skip it. You wouldn’t miss much.
While it might seem like I did a lot (and I’ve actually skipped a few things), I get the feeling that I just scratched the surface of Gambia, I’ll definitely be back. Especially for Ngala. We met an elderly American couple at Ngala, who told us they had travelled around the world to dodge the winter every year, and had never been to the same place twice…except for the Gambia where they have been to an astonishing 11 times, 10 of the last ten of those at Ngala.
Whatever magic keeps drawing them back, has definitely also got me hooked.
I’ll be back.