In January 2007 we traveled to The Gambia on a 9-day package tour that included flight, transfers and accomodation. We hired a guide to take us on a 5-day upriver birdwatching trip along with three hard-core Finnish birders. We did not travel independently outside of the resort area, and many of these tips are meant for those who will visit The Gambia in a similar fashion.
1. Get advice from your local travel doctor on what measures to take against malaria. We took Malarone without any major side-effects and used DEET in the mornings and evenings. The Gambia has mosquitoes and they are malarial. We were surprised by how many of our fellow travel companions were unaware of this. Beware that 40% DEET is corrosive to Swatch bands and rubber binocular coating.
2. Check if you need a visa, especially if you are not a citizen of your country of departure. Most European nationals don’t need a visa but Americans do. My visa was not checked on departure from Amsterdam, which I found surprising. (I also have my doubts it was checked on arrival in The Gambia but I wouldn’t take a chance on this).
3. Check with your bank or exchange bureau if you can get Gambian Dalasi before leaving your home country. We did not do this but some of our traveling companions had a large stash of various denominations while we struggled to get change. We took Euro cash only and had two Visa credit cards as a backup. It was no problem in The Gambia to change Euros to Dalasi at hotel receptions, banks or exchange bureaux. Upriver hotels and tour guides may also accept Euros as payment. There is one ATM in the tourist area that will give cash advance on your Visa, but this may be costly.
4. If you take an upriver trip, and you are as unfortunate as us to get transport without air-conditioning, take precautions against the extreme dust.
5. It’s dusty, so bring your favorite wet-wipes and/or disinfectant hand cream. Outside of the resorts, toilet paper – especially in public restrooms – may not be available, so bring some along in case you need it.
6. Tourist (green) taxi rates are comparable to European fares – or even higher. Rates can be found on boards in most of the resort areas and are always for a return trip. Usually some waiting time (2 hours for a nature reserve, for example) is included in the price. For trips around the resorts and further afield, negotiate a one-way fare with a bush (yellow and green) taxi. This is called a ‘city trip’ and you will see locals doing the same. We used this method going to Tanji Bird Reserve and Abuko Nature Reserve. We had to be patient when looking for a bush taxi to bring us back to the resort area, but it was not a problem.
7. Bijilo Forest Park is within walking distance of the Senegambia area. The small park is along the beach and the path is clearly marked, with several possible shortcuts when you get tired. Enjoy a stroll here and spot monkeys, squirrels and a sampling of the birds that make The Gambia famous.
8. Your tour operator may offer excursions like a trip to Abuko Nature Reserve, or Banjul by night. Save money by hiring a local taxi and visit these places on your own. If you hire your driver for the day he might well end up being your guide too.
9. Enjoy the local flavors. Gambian food is delicious and during our trip we had no troubles avoiding meat (although we had a lot of fish and eggs). Although we read that tap water was safe to drink, we did use bottled water for brushing our teeth and drinking as much as possible. However, we enjoyed (washed) salads and beverages made from tap water and did not suffer from major Banjul Belly. Be sure to have some Julbrew, beer from The Gambia’s Very Own Brewery.
10. Look at the birds. Even if you’re not normally interested in birds, The Gambia is a top destination for serious birders for good reason. Just within the resort area you will see sunbirds, raptors and shorebirds you wouldn’t normally see in Europe or the United States. Even the doves and starlings are different.