Gambia is Africa’s smallest country on the mainland and is best known as a birdwatcher’s paradise. The landscape is quite scenic and varied for a country that is less than 4,400 square miles; you’ll find lush tropical forests, large marshes and swamps, wodded savannahs, and sandy beaches. One of the great waterways of Africa, the River Gambia, also streams through the greater part of the country.
Geographically, Gambia is sits directly on the bulge of Africa’s west coast. All three sides are completely surrounded by Senegal, with its only other side facing the Atlantic Ocean. The country is tiny both in size and population. Much of the country is low-lying and covered in coarse grass and small trees. The riverbanks are thick with mangrove swamps that contain trees as high as 100 feet.
Gambia’s main attraction is birdwatching. There are over 540 different bird species in the country’s reserves, parks, and upland villages, drawing thousands of annual ecotourists. When they’re not birdwatching, they’re relaxing and having fun at the beach resorts.
The best birdwatching destination is probably the Bao Bolon Wetland Reserve in central Gambia and the mangrove creeks of the Tanbi Wetlands, which can be explored by taking a boat along the River Gambia. Both are world-class birdwatching areas. Another place is the Janjanbureh Island in eastern Gambia. The scenery is unspoiled and rustic with many places to hike and birdwatch. Pelicans can also be spotted all along the River Gambia, which is favored just as much for its riverside foliage and wandering monkeys and hippos.
More wildlife can be viewed at the Abuko Nature Reserve, which is a tropical forest inhabited by monkeys, crocodiles, reptiles, and various bird species. The River Gambia National Park has a habitat of semi-wild chimps at the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust. And woodland fauna, strange medicinal plants, and a beautiful forest park can be viewed via a canoe or boat trip passing through the Makasutu Culture Forest.
Most of the beach resorts are found near Banjul. The area is quite facilitated. You’ll find fine restaurants, bars, and accommodations. Miles of Atlantic sands stretch along the coast south of Banjul. You can swim, sunbathe, surf, and even fish and sea-angle, as there are numerous snappers, marlins, ladyfishes, and barracudas off the beaches.
For colonial architecture, visit Banjul. Upriver from this city, you’ll find two old twin villages, Albreda and Jufureh, where the Exhibition of the Slave Trade museum illustrates and retraces Gambian colonial history. In James Island, there is a ruined fort. Another historic site is in eastern Gambia around Wassu, where there are circles of standing stones that appear to be prehistoric burial grounds. The origin of these stones remain a mystery.
The climate in Gambia is subtropical. Between November and May, the country is generally cool and dry. During these months dusty winds blow in from the Sahara. From June to October, however, rainfall is heavy and the coast averages about 40 inches of rain. The temperatures year-round range from 16° C to 43° C (60° F to 110° F).
The River Gambia region was explored by the Carthaginians around 500 BC. Several African Empires developed in the region over the ensuing centuries. During the European colonial period, various European powers contested ownership of the River Gambia because of its strategic importance to trade in the region. Eventually the British conquered the area and established a base which they used to launch attacks on French trading posts and settlements nearby.
Gambia gained independence from Britain in 1965; it was the last colony Britain held. Today, while Gambia is not the most prosperous in Africa, it is among the more politically stable of the countries on the continent.