My short trip to Gambia gave me a taste of what West Africa has to offer — but it definitely left me with the urge and curiosity to explore more of the region.
From the inland forests of Makasutu to the fishing village of Tanji and local markets of Brufut, we explored the western part of Gambia in search of local and unique experiences. What surprised me most about Gambia was just how laidback it is. Upon arrival at Banjul, the country’s capital, there was none of the chaos you’d usually find in African capitals like Nairobi or Dar Es Salaam.
Instead, the whole country seemed to be engulfed in a relaxing atmosphere — perhaps it’s because it’s a perched on the coast or maybe it’s because of its small size and population (it’s the smallest African nation), but somehow it’s so easy to ease into life in Gambia.
Table of Contents
Best Things to Do in Gambia
Exploring the Makasutu Forest
One of the best things to do in Gambia is to visit Makasutu (meaning ‘sacred forest’ in Mandinka) — both an ecology project and a place for people to learn about the local culture and people. It is a tropical 1000-acre reserve encompassing five different eco-systems, including gallery forest, savannah, mangroves, palm forest and wetland.
There’s quite an inspirational story behind the forest: When the founders of Makasutu first bought the land here, they set about reviving the decimated forest. Fifteen thousand trees were planted over the next few years, as well as 70 wells to help water the new trees. The local people that were living here before were left as they were on the land and incorporated into the tourism project. Now it’s one of the most visited spots in Gambia.
From our base at the Mandina River and Jungle Lodges, a luxury eco-lodge tucked within the 1,000-acre forest, we spent our time exploring the various eco-systems, wildlife and human inhabitants of Makasutu. We watched the sun rise from the river banks and headed out for hikes in the jungle, learning about the bird life and meeting resident baboons. In the evening, we set off on a dugout canoe to explore the water world surrounding Makasutu Forest.
Experience Village Life in Kubuneh
During one of our river excursions in Makasutu, we paddled through mangroves past little thatched huts to arrive at Kubuneh, a village just a few miles away from Mandina Lodges. On the surface, Kubuneh looked just like any other village in the area, but on closer inspection, we found beautiful, striking street art painted all over the houses and buildings of the village.
The paintings are part of the Wide Open Walls conservation project, founded by Lawrence Williams, one of the owners of Makasutu. Lawrence, a keen artist, has been working with local artists for a number of years and wanted to do a project that both function as a valid art installation in itself and at the same time promote Gambia as a tourist destination. Eight street artists from around the world came to Gambia and over the course of two weeks, turned the village of Kubuneh into a living art project.
Learning About West Africa Drumming
Our host, Kathryn Burrington from The Gambia Experience, had kindly arranged a special performance by the talented Tamala Africa Cultural Troupe, in a family compound in Brufut. Unlike the usual entertainment programs you find in hotels in Gambia, this percussion performance was spectacular and clearly authentic. The group of 18 performers – all from Guinea – were pumped up with a lot of energy and fueled by a sheer passion for music.
Kathryn being an avid drummer herself told us that this was the best percussion band she knows. After the performance, all of us were hooked to drumming and decide to take up a djembe drumming lesson at Kombo Beach Hotel to learn some basic rhythm and beats. I’ve never been musically inclined, but I was surprisingly good at it!
Visiting a School in Brufut
While in the village of Brufut, we had the opportunity to visit the Brufut Lower Basic School where around 2,000 children aged seven to 13 studied. With the school’s headmaster in the lead, we took a look around the spacious compound and met several staff as well as children. As compared to the school I used to teach in Tanzania, this school was equipped with better facilities and infrastructure. The children had basic materials provided by the school and they were dressed in proper school uniforms. The school even had solar panels that were donated by charities (many schools in Gambia don’t have electricity). The children were extremely welcoming and greeted us with their beautiful singing and plenty of smiles.
That said, the school has such good facilities partly thanks to The Gambia Experience. The tour operator helps fund these schools through its School Development Fund. Since its launch in 1989, the company has helped fund over 100 school projects across the country. By visiting Gambia, we are indirectly contributing to funding these schools and improving the children’s learning environment.
Meeting Locals in Markets
The Gambians are very friendly and outgoing people who always greeted us with wide smiles and welcoming greetings wherever we went. This was especially so in local markets, where women called out to us to find out if we were enjoying our stay in Gambia and men always asked for our names and where we were from. At a small market in Brufut, we stopped to chat with the vendors and scour through the stalls selling bright red chili, piles of carrots and sacks of peanuts.
In the fishing village of Tanji, we also saw men selling buckets of bongo fish, mackerel and herring all freshly caught from the sea. Women dressed in brightly colored traditional grandmuba bargained and hawked their ware while seagulls squawked overhead. The mélange of colors and the flow of energy made visiting these markets such an excellent cultural experience.
Birding in Bijilo Forest
From the touristic town of Kololi, we strolled over to the nearby Bijilo Forest Park for a birding excursion. Since our bird-watching trip to Honduras, I’ve acquired quite a keen interest in these feathered creatures. The Bijilo Forest is a small rainforest nature reserve covering an area of 126 acres and plays host to over 133 species of birds such as the Red-necked Falcon, Grey Hornbill, and Prinia.
Led by the very experienced Malick Suso (lauded as the best bird-watching guide in Gambia), we meandered along a foot path that snakes its way through the woodland forest and spotted several green vervet monkeys and almost 20 different species of birds, including the Red-Necked Hornbill that came just inches away from us.
The Many Beautiful Sunsets
Every evening the skies put on a spectacular show for us — whether on the beach, in the jungle or by the river. On our first evening at Mandina Lodges, I watched the sun sink into the mangrove-covered horizon, turning the sky into a shade of purple with wispy clouds interspersed between the pink streaks of rays. On another occasion, we were sitting on the wet sands of Kololi Beach when the enormous fireball slowly descended beyond the horizon while horses galloped across us on the beach and tourists strolled past hand in hand.
On the last day of my Gambia trip, I made sure to catch sunset one last time on Kokoli Beach, the most popular beach in Gambia — it was the perfect end to an amazing trip.