The crocodile opened one eye lazily and flashed rows of gleaming white teeth as it basked in the sun. They do call The Gambia the smiling coast of Africa, but this wasn’t quite what I’d expected when jetting to West Africa for some winter sun with a difference.
But that was only the start of the surprises in store for me as I explored the smallest country in mainland Africa.
A six hour flight away, currently on the same time zone as the UK, temperatures hover around 30C in January and February. Tempting though it is to fly and flop — especially in the more luxurious hotels such as Ngala Lodge, my adults-only boutique base with its infinity pool and wonderful restaurant — there’s more to The Gambia than beaches.
Home to nearly 600 species of birds, the wildlife also includes hippos and chimpanzees (plus those toothy crocodiles) and sprawling mangrove forests along the River Gambia which runs through the heart of the country.
Nine tribes make up the population, all with their own long traditions woven into Gambian culture. While the vast majority are Muslim, this is no hardline state; I spotted more women in traditional brightly patterned African dress and with uncovered heads than veiled, Christmas decorations were on display and one handmade sign topped with a star of David pointed down a dusty track to a synagogue.
It’s not just the reptiles who’ll greet you with a grin either. I quickly lost track of the number of times people struck up conversation with me every day, or of the welcoming smiles on the faces of kids who raced along the roadside waving as we passed.
Meanwhile, I was enjoying my “free massage” — as my driver described the constant jolts from the rutted roads, once you left the tarmac highways to explore. Starting with a trip to the Kachikally crocodile pool in Bakau.
Considered a sacred place, whose waters have healing powers, it’s also home to around 100 of the reptiles — fed only on fish to ensure they don’t decide to start snacking on tourists. Stretched out indolently and enjoying the warmth, they certainly didn’t seem inclined to make the effort; all the same, I was happy to heed our guide’s warning not to stroke their heads.
Less unnerving, but equally fascinating, was the small museum tracing The Gambia’s history and heritage from tribal origins to its days as a British colony and then independence. The talking drums which once sent messages between villages are still used to provide the beat for ceremonies that have endured down the centuries.
And while the roads are dotted with adverts for new technology and mobile phone networks, crafts and wooden carvings line the stalls at Brikama, and kitchens are still as likely to contain traditional pots which cool water as a fridge. The water, according to my guide, tastes better that way.
There’s certainly room for old and new I found, as I settled down for some weekend wrestling, the most popular national sport until football took over.
Wrestlers, strutting and posing before the bout, wore traditional shorts and splashed water around to perform their own personal rituals as drums pounded from the sidelines. But along with the improbably named Baby and Rainbow, several were named after phone networks, including the showman with the most swagger, alias Crazy Africell. Somehow Crazy Vodafone doesn’t have the same ring.
As eye-catching and crowdedly raucous, the markets are another taste of daily life; wheelbarrows transporting the catch of fresh fish straight from the boats up the beach at Tanji, and the vibrantly colourful market of Serekunda. The biggest town in The Gambia, rather than capital Banjul, its population is similar to Barnet’s — the whole country is only half the size of Wales.
Away from the buzz of the towns and the coast, where most tourists stay during their visit, the country’s other inhabitants enjoy a more peaceful existence in protected reserves such as the Makasutu Forest.
Dawn and dusk hold the best sightings of the birdlife living among the mangroves, but even as a novice naturalist, there was plenty to discover later in the day.
At Mandina Lodges, its nine lodges set alongside and floating on the river, a personal guide paddles you out onto the water to observe from a canoe before a walk through the forest.
Gliding along, the mangroves reflected in the still surface, only birdcalls broke the silence; the rat tat tat of a woodpecker somewhere in the trees, a flash of copper and blue as a giant kingfisher flew past while hooded vultures circled overhead, their attention caught by something beyond our gaze.
Stepping along the shadowy forest paths, a showy red firefinch paused on a branch, as I heard tales of the medicinal qualities of the trees and the complex hierarchy of termites.
From high up a viewing platform, the river curves off into the thick blanket of forest, looking untouched by the world. In fact, its restoration is thanks to a pair of English men whose original plan for a backpacker lodge saw them preserving a 1,000-acre stretch of forest, planting 15,000 trees and later opening this five-star eco-luxury spot
The river is not just at the heart of the country, but at the heart of its history — including one of humanity’s darkest chapters with the transatlantic slave trade. As many as three million people were taken from this part of Africa over three centuries, transported along the river to staging points such as Fort James, on what’s now called Kunte Kinteh island near Juffure.
This village, which features in Alex Haley’s novel Roots, tracing his ancestors back to The Gambia, is home to a museum and information centre as well as the chance to cross the river to the ruins of the old fort, past an imposing statue holding its broken chains. Crammed into tiny stone rooms, deliberately weakened before being imprisoned on ships for the crossing to the Americas, the site and the museum exhibits are a reminder of how this horrific trade has shaped the country.
But if this struck a sombre note on the smiling coast, the future looks brighter after last year’s democratic elections installed a new government, with plans for more top-end accommodation and tourist infrastructure.
Back on the coast, as I watched the sun set over Cape Point from Calypso Beach Bar restaurant, another crocodile stretched out by the nearby pool to soak up the last of the day’s heat.
Its expression was lost in the gathering dust — but my own smile was firmly in place.