Fiona MacCarthy

 

Gambia: January 2016

 

My decision to visit Gambia was the outcome of a series of choices driven by impulse, passion and a dash of logic. Oh and I wanted somewhere warm without paying a packet. Makes sense or curious? Please read on.

 

Dawn at the agency said she would have suggested Egypt (me having been to Turkey, Morocco and Tunisia in more recent years reflecting my non European interest) but due to security was offering Canaries or Gambia. Then a colleague of hers from the back of the office said she had been there and it was “great”. Considering I knew not this person in the slightest, this was the precise moment that logic flew out and my passion for the ways of Africa over 18 years of my life up to 2002 took over. Dawn also took over in her way and came up with a price competitive proposal.

 

The outcome in summary was a great 2 week holiday in the KOTU BEACH AREA with various day trips marred only by some nuisances that were compounded by travelling as a single female and which abated in the latter part of the first week. I provide details at the end as to how best to deal with these as in my opinion they alone should not prevent people going.

Organised to the following headings:

 

1.Hotel

2.Food

3.Beverages

4.Restaurants

5.Tours

6.Logistics

7.Medical

8.Annoyances and Nuisances

9.A non binary perspective

 

The currency is the Gambian Dalasi at approx. 58 per £ and rates varied between 58 and 60 (between Jan 2nd 2016 and 16th when I was there). Many money changers at Kotu beach open 7 days per week late to 9/10pm and hotel rate approx. 1Dalasi per £ less favourable than these. Currency not available outside country and hotel should be able to get you started on converting if required..

 

Very glad I went although unlikely to return unless a trip to the interior of the country as not a sunbed woman, where various nature reserves which I might combine with a Senegal trip or similar.

Pictures below- click to access and click again to enlarge to full screeen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Hotel

The Bed and breakfast package was recommended to me as there is plenty of food venues in the area (see Restaurants). Trip advisor showed that there was a range of opinions from very happy to unhappy with the Palm Beach hotel. These seemed to be driven by the quality of the rooms. Fellow residents talk was that the hotel management company had deferred maintenance as their multi year lease was coming to an end, but as the lease had just been renewed for 10 years and hence improvements were now happening. Suspect that all why it was such a keen price in January.

 

Most of the rooms are organised into 3 rows of 8 bedroomed blocks. My room in Row C was on 1st floor facing away from rest of hotel, furthest from poolside and overlooking the adjoining mangroves. See Photos.

 

Most happy with room, cleaning, towels, hot water and view. Bathroom functional and very clean. In comparison with UK star rating I’d say 2star based on my room. Lower standard room would pull that down for the hotel. Yes the TV was crooked on the wall, water flow in sink not powerful but these were minor quirks.

 

Reception staff pleasant when required for check-in where very organised as nearly midnight, got to room to drop bag and also changed money too (slightly less than local dealer rate) and able to have a drink at the bar- most pleasant after a long day and took maybe 20-25 mins for all of that checking in to get to bar stuff. Safe facilities next to Reception at 200 Dlasei per day or approx. £3 per 24hrs

Beach bar service good with food coming from hotel under shrinkwrap: a nice touch of improvisation to keep warm. They (kitchen staff) spiced up dishes as required as otherwise bland to my taste. Sunbeds available.

Poolside bar only used for part of a few evening entertainment events (busy programme available with events nearly every night), but quicker to get drinks at bar rather than table service.

 

Piano Bar as it is indeed called that had a snooker table, pool table, telly for uk footie and seating and quite pleasant but very warm for a late evening drink (opened till very late). No piano sighted or heard

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Breakfast from 7am to 10am and gets busy after about 8 has a fair selection of pancakes, eggs to order, two fruit offerings, bread & cheese, and a small hot selection. Limited cereal and a single juice will upset people used to a larger spread. I was happy with available choice and enjoyed on adjoining terrace as day broke and temperatures rose from low 20’s.

 

Grounds: Well maintained and lovely sights and sounds of birdlife from the mangroves.

 

Massage: Excellent back massage with great hands enjoyed from on site service at good rates.

 

Location is good and central to the busiest stretch of a very long beach but connected to local strip 10/12 mins walk away by badly lit road- bring torch or rely on night vision. I felt safe and more so once I got used to the chatter of the human nuisances. Eg “Hello Boss Lady”. “Need taxi?”

 

 

 

2 Food.

One of my main reasons for travelling outside Europe is to experience the variety of foods, their way of cooking and the spices used. Coastal countries such as Gambia have the additional advantage of access to fresh fish.

 

Three styles of cooking were very much enjoyed

 

  • Yassa is a West African style used with fish or chicken and involve a spicy marinade with onions which may be toned down for sensitive tourist but can be asked for when ordering to ensure the flavour not ruined for the sake of pandering to foreign taste.
  • Peanuts are the biggest export and Domoda style involves a peanut based stew served with Gambian rice which is delicious.
  • Benachin or Jollof rice is a one pot dish using the red coloured shorter grain rice with fish or chicken mainly.

 

Not tasted before were 2 types of white fleshed fish, both delicious although my preference was for the latter

  • Ladyfish
  • Butterfish

 

3 Beverages.

Beer: Julbrew is a quality lager in 330ml bottles widely available chilled at approx £1 each. Happy hours and less touristy places lower that price. Price of beer at airport on departure was 75 Dalasi

 

Softs. Vimto is a raspberry blueberry mix made under UK license and refreshing- looks like what we have in the UK. Malta is a sweetened non alcoholic guiness style right through to its blackness with white froth and might become a nice drink to 1 in a million type people. Also available were a fruit cocktail, a grapefruit (with a bit of tang) and a pineapple drink. Coke products are available including fanta sprite but did not see any diet versions. This country likes its sugar and not surprising it has a big diabetic problem.

 

Foreign Spirits: Main brands at approx. 75p per tot.

 

Imported wine: Red/white wide ranges of prices and country of supply and quality not checked.

 

Water where hotel kiosk pricier at 250Dalasi for 6 bottles of 1.5L than local supermarkets at 150 Dalasi but water is so heavy to try save on that.

 

4 Restaurants

Most favoured and used most often

 

  • Ningki Nanka- 10 mins by beach / 15 mins by road on foot with excellent fish, classy open air bar next to beach, excellent service. Love the fish here. My favourite.
  • Raymonds- 5 mins from Palm Beach, beachside with great Gambia food.
  • Solomons – about 15 mins by beach, with great views and lovely covered decking area. The “good morning panini” a delight of taste.
  • Oscars – On the way to Solomons from Palm Beach and another gem for food and service.
  • Boss Lady- on the road behind the beach and genuinely great Gambian food although prone not to have 1st choice.

 

Close to my top tier.

  • Palm Beach – Beachside at the hotel with great friendly service and spiced up food to normal Gambian level upon request.
  • Kunta Kinte – next door to Palm Beach with traditional music some evenings.
  • Baracuda. Opposite where the Boss Lady and under new management when I was there with alcohol license pending.

 

Fair quality places

  • Badala Chinese: Too bland by far to my taste buds and too much msg or similar used.
  • Patta Patta – On street behind Solomons and did manage to provide my 3rd choice from menu. Too many insects that attacked my bum when seating ouch.
  • Ali Baba (next to arches) Average food quality and prices although menu the biggest seen.

 

Awful food

  • Kotu Point; between Raymonds and Oscars and in a delightful position where no food the 1st day at 11.30am as they “like to keep it fresh” and next day served me a time expired fish that was real yuch. Not paid for. Went back to Raymonds then to order the same dish which was yummy.

 

5 Tours

 

There are 3 categories of provider.

 

  • Gambia Tours who provide airport drop off / collection for Thomas Cook but also are promoted by local Thomas Cook rep.
  • Smaller providers with their own vehicles who can provide customised tours flexible to your needs from a menu of options like the tours I went on
  • Every Lahmin, Omar and others who will make suggestions to you. Choose with care

 

As a single female traveller who found most Gambian men deaf to “no thankyou” and as I could not bring my Taser I decided to go with the safest option; Gambia Tours were great for me, the guides informed, the drivers safe and the tours ran to time; a rarity in Gambia.

 

I went on 4 one day tours.

 

Lahmin Lodge / Azubuko Nature reserve

  • A pre dawn trip to Lahmin lodge for tea / coffee and getting into 4/6 man pirogues pre sunrise so we can appreciate bird life with commentary by experts as we are paddled through the watery creeks surrounded by mangroves – see Photos
  • Good breakfast and bring small Dalasi bills as a lot of people expect tipping by this stage or tip big bills or not at all, but no change service available
  • Asubuko Nature Reserve is very pretty and wild and yet surprisingly close to town. Hyenas, monkeys, vultures and many birds in the trees. A head of a croc too was seen. Awful loos.

South Gambia day Tour

  • Great comfy day in swiss army truck padded frames, comfy seats and covered in roof. We had 6 stops.
  • Market: dirty, with many sellers of small quantities. Interesting and sad to see. Would hate to shop there.
  • School. Enterprising headmaster and opportunity to donate – see photos.
  • Palm wine stop and craft shop: Coconut flavoured creamy coloured at 0.5% alcohol when it comes from the tree taken up a clear grappa tasting 40% when “improved”. Opportunity to taste freely but this was pre midday and never had grappa that late before midday!!!. Would have preferred a compromise of eg 5% alcohol.
  • Lunch with dance show: Good food, great show at paradise beach where cows meandered peacefully enjoying pre dinner views.
  • Natural history museum: a great resource covering nature, music crafts etc
  • Fishing village: what chaos and potential for things to go wrong with the fish abounded. Smoking fish interesting to see – See photos.

 

James Island slave history trip

  • Long river journey of 2 and a half hours but it would have been tougher for the slaves.
  • Walking visit to 3 villages meeting the female Chief of one (rare for females), a descendent of Kunta Kinteh (Refer Alex Haley novel) and to be greeted by singing children asking donations. A museum showed many items but way of delivery of information now rather dated in comparison with other international museums. Rather challenging to consider whether any improvement expected as a result.
  • Out by our boat to James island enjoying a good lunch before going ashore in 25 person boats to see where slaves were collected before despatch to the Americas
  • Return trip with dolphins coming up to chat.
  • Long hot day in the sun. They did put up a tarpaulin cover on top deck for return journey.

 

Fathala Lodge / Senegal

  • Banjul to Barra ferry taking about 30 mins with variable frequency from the 2 ferries, short bus trip to border where you should on no account takes photos of border guards who got upset with one of my fellow passengers who had decided to ignore advice of Guide. Quick border crossing and a short drive to lodge. All transport other than ferry by Gambia Tours
  • Very organised place at Fathala and we saw the only rhino (the male had killed the female and now lives alone doomed to extinction until some female rhino says yes but maybe he is gay.), zebra, warthogs, Roan antelopes, a crocodile’s head in the water and plenty of birds. A stick insect landed on one of my fellow passenger (passing bush) and walked across to me where he/she posed and I left it back on a bush only to see it perfectly camouflaged. Nature small and close up is just so fascinating.
  • Return journey same but ferry delays.
  • It is a requirement that tourists coming to Gambia from yellow fever area such as Senegal although one realises this a bit of a joke when you look at the map pf Gambia vis a vis Senegal, have a Yellow Fever Certificate. I had not planned this trip and “bought” a certificate (300 Dalasi) in Gambia. I was not asked for it at the border upon return and nor was I bitten by a mosquito during my 4 hrs in Senegal. A matter for personal choice. Might rethink if I was staying overnight in Senegal and read a bit further. Yellow Fever may happen and will clear up for most but return for some and may indeed kill. A lot of uncertainty but in my mind if Gambia not Yellow Fever place then how could the adjoining stretch of Senegal.

 

Trip booked but cancelled due to lack of numbers was a half day Banjul, Batik factory, and craft market.

 

Other tours available

Overnight stay at Fathala lodge.

Fishing

Crocodile farm

Monkeys

Cooking Gambian style

Makasutu nature

 

 

6 Logistics

  • Travelled from home to Newcastle rail station and 3 hrs by train to Manchester airport changing at York. I allowed extra time for possible delays due to flooding (not required). Flight delayed by nearly 2 hours due to delay on incoming flight. Thomas Cook flight duration a bit over 6 hours and cleared ebola checking!! (temperature of forehead scanned just in case we had it and no –one did) immigration, baggage and customs all in about 45 mins. before being transported to hotel. From Newcastle station to hotel reception took me about 17 hours.

 

  • The way home was of similar duration and although no flight related delays our departure from Banjul was approx. 10pm arriving Manchester at 4 am Sunday, first trains at 6.30am with arrival in Newcastle at 11.15 due to rail works (but sure it’s a Sunday).

 

7 Medical

  • My GP could not give me an appointment being so close to Christmas when I decided to go and I not giving them much notice so I talked with Travel clinic Northumberland street

 

They recommended

  • Hepatitis A and Typhoid (combined). Understand the logic of these
  • Diphteria / Tetanus and Polio combined. I think these booster shots might be available from GP. Do definitely recommend Tetanus booster as walking on beach sharp broken shells, horse dog cat poo a plenty.
  • Malaria; Doxycycline as alternative to Malarone selected on cost/ comparative benfit. From my viewpoint taking something important as although out of Malaria season it’s a shame to take the risk. Consider it like insurance cover. And I did have malaria previously when working Kinshasa and its not pretty.
  • Yellow Fever is not on recommended list for Gambia (I did not get) except if coming from a Yellow fever country which Senegal is. I cannot see how all of Senegal is impacted but Gambia is not. See personal note under Tours – Fathala in Senegal for my solution.
  • Banjul belly is a risk but no problems experienced.
  • Insects that bite through clothese was a novelty for me (did survive 6 years in Congo Nigeria Zambia) and would bring a spray on everything next time rather than just covering the exposed parts of flesh.

 

8 Annoyances and Nuisances

  • This is a 3rd world, very heterosexual country, with many males thinking they God’s gift to single women such as I. I corrected a few of them but suspect I am ignored.
  • Unless you stay in your hotel you will experience a lot in varying forms
  • Poverty worse than UK, including from those with physical deformities. Iv seen a table of Europeans moved to great generosity or foolishness depending on perspective by one beggar.
  • Hawkers on the beach that will sell you anything at twice the price as sunshine makes tourists stop thinking on the beach: it must: as they pay. Eg all the fruit grows on trees less a mile away. But its nice to have service at the sunbed. Beware of all product quality eg suncreams
  • Males on the beach with nothing to sell but their bodies and minds. The latter severely damages the value of the former, but it sure is different to Brighton. Peacocks preening pretty bodies aplenty. What a show!. But tiring on eardrums until they realised I was not interested or mad. Stick to your story and be resolute. VERY resolute.
  • Children on tours I was on are tending to beg for bracelets etc over and above the normal sweets (suggest give sweets to parent instead and let them dispense). Turning children in poor countries into beggars does freak me out.
  • Every 2nd individual will try to take you on some sort of a tour to see the “real” Gambia. Choose your amateur guide well and you will have a great real time as confirmed by fellow tourists. Recommendations of other tourists critically important as I would not trust some with breaking bread.
  • This is one country where arriving with a sun tan (fake tan) may help you blend in as a long stay tourist rather than a newby whose white (if that’s your colour) is a signal to be preyed upon. Woud use if I was returning.

 

 

9 Non Binary perspective

As a T-woman I had no direct or indirect hassles other than those for all single women and pairs of women. My own personal rules stopped me from organising trip with male taxi drivers / guides as I feared being the only tourist.

 

I also declined opportunities to go out to listen to local, jazz and rock music in places in Banjul which I was assured does take place as I feared something going wrong away from auspices of Thomas Cook, Hotel, big tour company. As a country the Gambians as a majority and the laws are very unkind to their own LGBTI community and it only takes a bight spark gender-bigot in some Banjul night time venue to challenge my gender and my world could turn unpleasant rapidly. This reduced the potential happiness from the holiday