Think of The Gambia and sun, sea and sand package holidays might spring to mind, but visitors are starting to explore beyond the beaches. Lynn Houghton tells us eight of the best ways to get off the beaten track.

The tiny West African country of The Gambia is dissected by its namesake, the River Gambia. Much of the landscape is dominated by the river and its tributaries, and beyond the coast you’ll find enormous swathes of lesser-explored mangrove forest, deserted beaches and ‘up country’ adventures. If you’re thinking of eschewing the popular Atlantic Coast beach resorts, here are eight ideas for experiencing a more authentic side of The Gambia, taking in the country’s natural beauty and biodiversity.

Discover the UNESCO-listed Wassu stone circles

About a five-hour drive from Banjul on the north bank of the River Gambia is the pre-historic sacred UNESCO site of the Wassu stone circles. The laterite stones, a rich deep mahogany colour, compare in age with Stonehenge in England, and are thought to have a religious purpose, marking burials here for 1500 years. The museum has some interesting information but folklore is much more exciting: talk to the Stone Man, the site’s erstwhile caretaker. He says you can see lights shining from behind the stones at night – a common occurrence according to the superstitious locals.

See foraging chimps at the Chimp Rehabilitation Centre

Swinging from the treetops and squabbling with the baboons, West African Chimps are relishing their environment at the Chimp Rehabilitation Centre in the River Gambia National Park. They roam free on the Baboon Islands in the middle of the river, while rare red colobus monkeys congregate on the mainland. The centre was started by Leslie Brewer-Marsden in 1979: the first chimps brought here were rescuées and mistreated pets, and there are now 107 completely wild chimpanzees that thrive on these three islands. From Thursday through Sunday, visitors can follow behind a feeding boat to see the chimps in their natural habitat as they come to the riverside to grab a meal.

Chimp on Island, River Gambia National Park, The Gambia, AfricaImage by Lynn Houghton

Explore lush mangroves in the Matasuku Forest

Centuries of legend surround the ancient Matasuku Forest, a nearly pristine area of mangrove covering 17.5 square kilometres along a tributary named Mandinka Bolong. From time immemorial, the forest was a no-go area and thought to be inhabited by demons and dragons. A Mali King, along with his troops, once managed to make the forest his stronghold but he was ousted by a local tribe; according to folklore, the king’s head, throne and crown are buried somewhere on the land. Today, things are more peaceful. The area has been developed into a sustainable tourism project, the Matasuku Cultural Forest, in partnership with the Gambian government and now includes lodges and a base camp with an arts and crafts market run by local Kembujeh villagers.

Spot rare birds at Baobolong Wetland Reserve

As the dawn mist clears and the morning sun starts to rise, there is possibly no better place in West Africa for birdlife than the Baobolong Nature Reserve. Over 500 species of birds are attracted to the River Gambia in all their feathered glory. Take a traditional boat from Tendaba Lodge, a mere seven kilometres away on the south side of the river, to spot rare African Fin Foot or Fish Eagles.

Dawn on Mandina Bolong Creek (Tributary), The Gambia, AfricaImage by Lynn Houghton

Float down the River Gambia

Going canoeing along one of the River Gambia’s creeks in a traditional fishing boat or dugout, called a pirogue, is wonderful way to cool off when temperatures soar. Rentals are available from Lamin Lodge, a wooden structure built on stilts over the water, or you can take a full-day trip in a larger motorised boat to explore Kunta Kinteh Island and enjoy a spot of fishing.

Visit traditional fishing villages

To experience local life on the coast, visit the vibrant, colourful coastal fishing market of Tanji in the Kombo region or travel further south to the more authentic fishing village of Gunjur. The market is at its most frenetic at the crack of dawn, when the traditional fishing boats come to shore with their catch. Though fishermen work at a feverish pace, women are equally busy hauling the fish from the boats into large baskets balanced on their heads. Take a wander along the shore and see other workers taking gutting and scaling the fish ready for sale; anyone can purchase a fresh seafood breakfast for a just few Dalasi.

Fishermen, Gunjur Village, Atlantic Coast, The GambiaImage by Lynn Houghton

Check out the street art scene

Art project Wide Open Walls has brought street artists from all over the world to adorn the walls of Galloya village with sophisticated graffiti art. Some of the work is representational, while some is wholly avant-garde, but all the murals are distinctive. The project is the brainchild of Lawrence Williams, and has even inspired the village children to take up making art. Lawrence and Gambian artist, Njogu, work as a pair and have named themselves the ‘Bush Dwellers’. Many street artists are publicity shy and prefer to be known by a name they choose for themselves that reflects their work; artistic duo Neil and Hadley from the UK are ‘Best Ever’, for example, while Brazilian artist Rimon Guimarães has named himself ‘RIM’.

…finally, for the adventurous

Fancy a quicker way of getting across the River Gambia than the vehicle and pedestrian ferry from Banjul, where a three-hour wait is common? Simply wander over to Terminal Road. Once there, young men carry patrons at full pelt on their shoulders down to the beach and into the water to then toss them into an enormous fishing boat. This crossing takes about half an hour and the process is repeated, in reverse, on the other side. The experience probably isn’t at the top of anyone’s health and safety list, but should be tried at least once.

The Gambia Experience offers a variety of travel options and flights to The Gambia including stays at Mandina River Lodge on a B&B basis. Compare flights, book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

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