Gambia: The Smiling West African Coast

by Michele Cutler
SY Irony London

Published 14 years ago, updated 1 year ago

While wintering in Turkey a couple told us of their experiences along the West African coast. It sounded enticing and had us plotting a new route for our Atlantic crossing to include Senegal and Gambia before the Cape Verdes.

Two years later, with our departure from the Canaries seriously delayed until after New Year, we considered heading straight to the Cape Verdes, swept along on the tide of yachts heading there or non-stop to the Caribbean. We are delighted we stuck to the plan, ignoring the pressures of time, our own doubts, insurers’ objections and family fears for our safety.

Our 6 ½ day passage from Santa Cruz, Tenerife to Dakar, Senegal took us 850 miles south. Once we had accustomed ourselves to the famous Atlantic roll it was reasonably pleasant but surprisingly cold; even during the day we rarely saw the temperature rise above 18°C.

We arrived off Dakar at night but decided that the approach into the required anchorage at Hann was safe enough to attempt. It went smoothly until we had dropped our sails and saw torches waving in an unlit boat some distance away but heading for us. In our tired state, our first thoughts were of pirates and danger. Thankfully Nic spotted the fishing net in front of our bow and put the engine into neutral just in time as the wooden pirogue, complete with the open burning brazier, came nearer. Crisis averted, we anchored in very shallow water for the night.


A culture shock after the Canaries, the crumbling colonial buildings and ramshackle market stalls of Dakar gave little sense of a capital city. Hot and dusty, there is little sightseeing to do, it is the people who make the place. They are startlingly tall and slim, helpful, friendly and welcoming with a great sense of humor. The women are gorgeous and elegantly swathed in exotic colors. Nic visited a female dentist and desperately wanted a reason to go back!

We have anchored off a long stretch of fine, white sand sadly blighted by raw sewerage running across it into the sea. The Cercle de Voile yacht club is a well-run haven with a bar and restaurant in shady gardens busy with women doing the day’s washing in wooden tubs.

A water taxi, from the anchored boats to a rickety wooden jetty, is hailed by blowing a fog horn and gesticulating wildly. One morning we hopped onboard and became involved in the dramatic rescue of a sailboat which had broken its mooring. The water taxi, a wet experience at the best of times, was made all the more exhilarating by towing the sailboat to a new mooring aided by a rib towing us! Our boat boy eventually had to leap onboard the renegade yacht which left Nic to pilot the water taxi.

We took the ferry to Île de Gorée, famous for being where slaves were held and loaded onto ships bound for the Americas. It’s a tranquil place with a pretty quayside and crumbling 18th century stuccoed buildings festooned with bougainvillaeas. We enjoyed seeing the outdoor displays of many talented local artists as we walked around the island.

Hoping to experience Dakar’s legendary music scene, we visited the premier live music venue, Just 4 U, one evening. We arrived to find the “King of Mbalax”, Youssou N’Dour, setting up for that night. We listened to the rehearsal over a couple of beers but were too early for the show. Not wishing to miss a chance to see the most famous Senegalese musician, we tried again the next night. Dressed-up and arriving at 9 pm we hoped to have dinner and watch the concert only to find the entrance mobbed with people. We were told it was his last night and they had sold out by 8 am that morning! A doorman promised entry if we returned at midnight so we walked around the corner for a delicious Thai meal. On return, it was even busier and our doorman couldn’t help. Nic saved the day by buying tickets off a tout at a good price. It was well worth the effort, the club was packed with glamorous Senegalese and the atmosphere was fantastic. Youssou N’Dour was joined for cameo performances by a variety of singers and musicians, all well-known to the audience. We returned to Irony at 3 am, relieved to find our dinghy still tied to the wooden jetty and the Senegalese still partying somewhere on the beach!


We had a peaceful night passage to Banjul keeping at least 12 miles offshore and rarely registering more than 20 meters depth. We were kept alert on our watches by innumerable unlit fishing boats, many of which were evident from the smell of their dinner cooking on open fires before we actually saw them. That and the multitude of passing lobster pots made us grateful we didn’t have to use the engine.

We anchored at Half Die (so-called because half the population tragically died of cholera in 1869) and, at this well-chosen moment, our windless decided to seize up. After our 55kg anchor tried to drag Nic off the bow we finally anchored, launched the dinghy and made for the nearby wharf. Having tied up, as directed, to a tug we were immediately onset by “helpers”.

Unable to shake off one of them, he accompanied us through the next 4 torturous hours of check-in. The only positive aspect of all the offices that need to be visited is that everyone speaks English and is very welcoming and friendly but enormous patience is required. We were subjected to a scam where our “guide” and a uniformed official tried to get us to pay for a customs inspection of our boat. We only escaped this by returning to the customs office and getting the man in charge, whom we had met earlier, to confirm that no inspection was necessary.

It was with enormous relief that we motored 5 miles around to Lamin Creek. This was our first taste of the river – still water fringed with mangroves for as far as one could see. Hot, dusty Banjul seemed a million miles away as we anchored with some other yachts in front of the picturesque Lamin Lodge. Run by an ex-yachtsman, it serves good food (by candlelight as they have no electricity) and is a secure place to leave the boat. Two local youths, Llanda and Lennox, have a 4×4 and can help with fuel, water, and provisioning trips.

While there, the vice-president visited the village and we joined hundreds of locals in a vibrant, noisy scene of brightly-colored costumes, music, and dancing. We were followed around by gaggles of excited children fascinated by our cameras.


The Gambia is Africa’s smallest country, only half the size of Wales, extending along the banks of the river and entirely surrounded by Senegal with the exception of its Atlantic coast. Although the population is under 2 million, most of which are now concentrated in the coastal tourist resorts, we were surprised to see so few signs of life as we started upriver. Our only company was dolphins who joined us for much of the first two days.

We passed James Island with a ruined fort dating back to the 1650 and fought over by the British, Dutch, French and even privateers until it was abandoned in 1829 after slavery was abolished. This first stretch of river is very wide and the prevailing northeast winds make it difficult to anchor in the mainstream. Our first stop was Bintang Bolong, a large meandering tributary providing a beautiful anchorage with only the sound of birds and water lapping against the mangrove roots encased in mud oysters.

It took some time to overcome our initial trepidation about being somewhere so remote and accustom ourselves to the all-enveloping quiet. The hushed atmosphere is almost like being in a sacred place where one speaks in whispered tones but the peace and tranquillity soon become addictive.

Mandori Creek borders the internationally renowned Baobolong Wetland Reserve and was our first uncharted exploration and the best place we found for spotting crocodiles. In the excitement of our efforts to get as close as possible to one basking in the sun on a mud bank, we managed to entangle Irony’s rigging in a mangrove tree, lost a vital part of our BBQ overboard and spent a couple of hours divesting ourselves of leaves, twigs, and insects.

We soon began to regret the lack of a book to identify the numerous birds; everything from tiny, iridescent kingfishers to enormous pterodactyl-looking herons. The Gambia is famous for a huge variety of colorful birds; over 560 species have been recorded and is a popular place for bird-watching. A good pair of binoculars is essential to observe eagles and vultures perched in baobab trees, pelicans and long-legged waders on the mudflats, parrots, swallows, and swifts flitting along the banks.

A further fifty miles upriver the scenery changes as the water turn from salt to fresh. The mangroves give way to rice fields and the river narrows. It is broken up by a series of large islands, the muddy shallows of which provide a favored habitat for hippos. Our nights, and often days, were punctuated by the loud snorting sounds they make but they are frustratingly shy, generally showing little more than their heads. Renowned for being violently territorial, it is advisable to keep one’s distance from these huge creatures. We were exploring with our dinghy and spotted some about 35 meters away. Becoming concerned when they submerged, we had some heart-stopping moments wondering where they would reappear.

Baboon Island in the River Gambia National Park is a refuge for chimpanzees. As we made our way past the rangers came alongside to take a small fee but were a worthwhile guide to seeing the chimps who are attracted to their boat, knowing they will be fed every Sunday afternoon, as a means of keeping track of them.

Along with this stretch of the river, dense trees engulfed in thick vines are home to monkeys and baboons. Drifting along the banks we would first be alerted to their presence by loud crashing in the branches. They are extremely entertaining, shaking branches at us, performing spectacular leaps, grooming each other and watching us watch them. Their screeches and squabbles were part the cacophonies of sounds which rose up at dawn and again at sunset.

We felt rather sorry for the occasional tourists we passed here, embarked on an adventure in rough wooden or beaten metal boats through the wilds of the river creeks, only to see a white yacht sailing along flying a British ensign! And we weren’t the only cruisers on the river; we linked up a couple of times along the way with S/Y Duende, a Dutch ketch lovingly restored by its young owners over the last 6 years.

Our final stop was Georgetown, now renamed Jangjang-bureh, set on McCarthy’s island it has drastically declined since it acted as an important colonial administrative center. The old Victorian warehouse buildings are ruins but a few enterprising locals have created a new history for them as slave houses although they were built long after this period. We had hoped to get on the internet but discovered that the electricity is turned off in town from 12 noon to 6 pm and we were too late.

The women in the market we visited had only small piles of tomatoes, tiny peppers, green oranges or bananas for sale along with little plastic bags filled with salt, peanut butter or grubs. We did buy a papaya plucked fresh from a tree for us. There are a few places to provision along the river and it is wise to be completely self-sufficient. Fresh fruit and vegetables are little in evidence and bread is even difficult to find; we baked our own. Fish can be bought from the fishermen and we were amazed by the size of one fish we saw which must have been near to 30kg!

We would have gone further upriver but were prevented by a low-strung electrical cable. We spent a night anchored across from Bird Safari Lodge and joined the resident twitchers there for a delicious dinner. A local group of musicians and dancers set up in a clearing under the stars and entertained us by a campfire with some exuberant drumming and even more energetic dancing which we were encouraged to join in until we were completely exhausted.


On our way back down the river, we stopped overnight at Bombale village, home to about 2000 people living in compounds of thatched mud huts ringed with palm fencing. They, in common with most of the villages upriver, have no electricity and scrape a living from their rice fields, a communal garden, a small herd of cattle and fishing. Water is from a well or a standpipe (locked in some villages) and all washing is done in the river.

We visited the school and donated all the pens, pencils and paper we could muster from the boat. We only wish we had known in advance how desperate they are for the most basic of materials. The children get 4 or 5 years of schooling if their parents can afford it, but even the teachers have a limited education, unable to pay for further training. They can expect to earn a maximum of £30-40/month. We were taken on a tour by Kabiro, who introduced us to the old chief and many of the villagers, all the time accompanied by an entourage of young children. Now we know how royalty must feel on a walkabout! Among our abiding memories of the Gambia will be the warmth of the people and the sweet disposition of the kids.

Another enduring impression is the sense of being so far removed from our normal sphere of existence. There are few places in the world where there is no television, no imported goods, virtually no development and certainly no light pollution. Plastic debris, the modern eyesore which blots many of the third world countries we have visited, is not in evidence along the banks, up the creeks or floating in the river. A generator is a luxury item which we only saw in tourist lodges; an outboard is rarely heard, the fishermen row in dugout canoes. We truly felt we had “got away from it all”.


There are, of course, some negative aspects to exploring the river. The first are the insects; we had a range of mosquitoes, hornets, tsetse flies, no-see-ums, spiders and dragonflies visiting the boat. We were very glad of the mosquito nets I had made for the cockpit and the hatches. Having taken advantage of the freshwater upriver to wash some clothes, I diligently ironed all our underwear, as instructed by the pilot guide, to kill any possible tumbo-fly eggs laid in it while it was drying. Apparently, they hatch and eat their way into your flesh requiring removal with tweezers!

There is no room to be too precious about your boat or yourself. We were variously covered in red dust carried in the wind, soot from the slash-burn agriculture and mud from the anchor chain. The weather varied from a very cold 14°C to a hot 35°C often with less than 15% humidity. The dryness felt like it was desiccating our skin and all the ropes were dry and stiff.

Fortunately, the muddy-looking water was good to wash the boat off with, although while doing just that I slipped overboard. Nic laughed at how quickly I managed to get out again. The river is no place for a refreshing dip with hippos and crocs lurking in the shallows. From the dinghy, we also watched a snake slithering up to investigate some overhanging branches before swimming to the bank, easily exposing a foot or more of body and never realized how agile and fast they could be.

Navigation was less of a problem than we expected despite the increasing GPS offset as we made our way upriver. Our computer track looks like we were on an overland safari. The depths are not too alarming if one keeps an eye on the tides with the invaluable help of the tide table we bought in the Banjul port office but we were happy to have our lifting keel when we saw 1.2m on the depth gauge! The worst hazard is the long strings of fishing nets stretched across the river, impossible to spot until practically on top of them.

Anchored one night, we heard calls of “the net are coming, the net is coming” and went out on deck to find one draped across our anchor chain. We have dragged quite a distance before the fishermen managed to draw it in.

We were warmed by our memories of this trip as we headed back out into the Atlantic and across to the Caribbean. Our initial trepidation about visiting West Africa was quickly dispelled by the welcome we received; it truly lives up to its reputation as the smiling coast.

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