…PEOPLE GREETED ME WITH A SMILING FACE. THIS WAS SO INFECTIOUS THAT BY THE END OF EACH DAY, MY CHEEKS ACHED FROM SMILING BACK
By Didi Danso
At only 30 miles wide Gambia may be one of the world’s smaller nations. But it’s big on stunning beaches, vibrant culture and happy people.
It’s just a six-hour flight from the UK and because there’s no time difference, there’s no jet lag. Hooray!
Stepping off the plane, warm air blasted me in the face. Temperatures are usually around 30C – one of the main reasons for its popularity with winter and spring sun-seekers.
In the airport and beyond, people greeted me with a smiling face. This was so infectious that by the end of each day, my cheeks ached from smiling back.
My first stop was the beautiful Kombo Beach Hotel in Kotu resort, where a light and airy room with a private balcony offered views of the ocean and beaches.
Waking up to the sound of the sea was a delightful way to start the day. It convinced me to take a walk on the beautiful Bakau Beach – something I’d recommend to all.
After a delicious breakfast of tropical fruit, I went on an excursion to Makasutu Forest, a 1,000-acre conservation area that’s home to a unique eco resort.
The drive there took me through busy markets, including Brikama. They were full of women with baskets on their heads and children shouting as the car drove past. My guide Muki had taught me the traditional local greeting (pronounced Al-saam-a-day), which I shouted back.
Arriving at Makasutu, I was told it had five different eco systems – green forest, savannah, mangrove, palm forest and wetlands.
No sooner had we arrived than a group of baboons ran out of the bush to greet us. Muki warned me not to make any sudden movements, but they didn’t seem to mind the flashes of our cameras.
Makasutu was founded and designed by Brit Lawrence Williams, who was also responsible for several cultural projects including the “The Wide Open Walls” street art display where international artists work with locals to transform their villages into open air galleries.
He took me to the village of Kubuneh, inside Makasutu, to look at the amazing art painted on the walls of the villagers’ houses. The locals proudly pointed out the works while children gathered round and squealed with delight when I showed them their pictures on my camera.
The women of the village broke into an impromptu sing-song and pulled me into a circle to dance while a boy beat out rhythms on a drum.
After lunch we took a river trip in a dug-out canoe. I enjoyed the slow ride past the mangroves, listening to the birdsong, watching women collecting oysters and spotting a group of monkeys taking a stroll along the banks.
The next morning I was back on the water for a cruise down the River Gambia on board a traditional boat. Laying on brightly coloured mats while the vessel meandered along the river was a fantastically lazy way to spend the day.
For those who want a bit more adventure, you can always break out the binoculars for a spot of bird-watching.
Back on the road the following day, I headed off the beaten track to visit a small village and get a glimpse of local life in the school. The trip took me through the busy capital Banjul, with its colonial architecture and traditional markets selling fabrics and exotic spices.
As we travelled deeper into the bush, the ride got bumpy and I had to dodge hanging branches.
Mansa-Colley Primary school was humbling as it was lacking in books and stationery and had only the most basic sanitation. Gifts of pencils, pens and books are always gratefully received, so don’t forget to pack some if you decide to visit.
Gambia boasts a glorious coastline and after the visit to the school we stopped for lunch at a beautiful stretch of beach in the south of the country, away from the main tourist areas.
Soaking up the sun on the golden sands was bliss, but it was the warm turquoise waters that I loved most. I could have spent the whole afternoon splashing around, but there was still more to see and do before my flight home.
A trip to Tanji fishing village should be considered a must. The best time to visit is around 1pm, when you can watch the fishing boats coming in. At this time, the beach is a hive of activity, with men rushing back and forth from boats carrying large buckets of fish to the shore, where women wait to clean them. Thrown into the mix were flocks of birds swooping down to get the scraps and children helping fishermen pull their nets in for cash.
I hadn’t expected a buzzing nightlife, so my final evening in Kololi resort was a pleasant surprise with its bars, clubs and wide range of restaurants with good Gambian cuisine.
I went to the Aquarius Club, popular with both Gambians and tourists, and had a great night out. Just remember, take the green taxis home when the evening ends. The others are for the locals and won’t leave until they are full.
On the way back to the airport, I found myself thinking about Gambia and smiling. In fact, I still am.
courtesy of www.mirror.co.uk