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Into Africa: Exploring the Gambia River

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10 April 2014 by Pete Mathers

Wexas Travel's Pete Mathers explores the diverse landscapes, wildlife and culture of the Gambia River with Variety Cruises.

The Gambia is a very small country in a very large continent. Once dismissed by the British Colonial Office as 'little more than two river banks', its borders - so local legend tells it - were established by a British gunship sailing up the Gambia River and firing cannonballs as far as possible onto each bank. The points where the balls fell were then joined to form the border.

While this isn't strictly true, The Gambia was under British possession from 1783 until it gained independence in 1965. For hundreds of years British gunships had indeed plied the waters of the Gambia River, protecting cargo loads of peanuts bound for foreign markets, as well as district commissioners stationed between the present-day capital Banjul at the mouth of the river, and Georgetown, an administrative centre 186 miles upstream.

Now, just a few months after The Gambia announced its withdrawal from the Commonwealth, I set out to explore the same stretch of river. But rather than an officer on a British gunship, I was to be a guest aboard the luxury motor-yacht Harmony V, operated by family-owned cruise line Variety Cruises.

Harmony V, Variety Cruises, The Gambia

"We are a niche product within a niche market," explained Filippos Venetopoulos, the US Sales Director, as we sat talking on the sundeck in the port of Banjul on the evening I arrived. "While a few other cruise lines visit West Africa, stopping off briefly at Dakar and Banjul, we're the only company to offer a high-end service hundreds of miles into the African interior."

The 56m Harmony V was certainly high-end, with 25 spacious cabins, a large dining room, lounge and bar on the main deck, an endlessly helpful crew, plus a 200-square-metre sundeck complete with shaded dining area, bar and sun loungers. But as with all trips with Variety Cruises, the focus of the voyage was less on the cruise ship and more on the destination.

"We've long believed that flashy casinos and Broadway shows are best experienced in Vegas or New York," continued Filippos, whose grandfather started Variety Cruises back in 1968. "We strive to show our guests each destination in its purest form, without distractions, to help them connect with the people, culture and traditions of each place. Nowhere is this truer than in The Gambia."

We pulled out of Banjul the following morning, leaving warehouses, dust and rusting cargo ships behind us, and I surrendered myself to the art of slow travel. South of the city, just inside the river mouth, the Gambia River was at its widest, four miles across and still and restful after its 700-mile journey from the Guinean highlands.

Our first port of call was tiny James Island. After tying our pirogue to the island's small jetty, our cruise director, Assan, began shedding some light on the island's dark history. Standing in the shade of a baobab tree, with its cocoon-like fruit suspended from bare branches, Assan explained how at the height of the slave trade up to 150 slaves were captured each month in The Gambia, destined for the plantations of America and the West Indies. Many were held here before being packed into slave ships.

None are better known than Kunta Kinte, the Gambian slave made famous in Alex Haley's bestselling novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Haley claimed to be a seventh-generation descendant of Kinte, and the book begins with the young man's capture from his village Jufureh, just across the water from the ruins on James Island.

There's been much dispute about the historical accuracy of Haley's research, but both the island and the village have become something of a pilgrimage site for those in search of distant roots, and a stark reminder of the horrors of the salve trade. In 2011 the island was officially renamed Kunta Kinteh Island; it has also been awarded World Heritage status.

After listening to Assan I broke off from the group. In a meditative mood I picked my way along the edge of the shoreline, beneath the crumbling walls of dungeons and storerooms, and some long-defunct canons still pointing at the sky. It was then that I spotted our pirogue driver, Abdullah, fastidiously combing the shoreline.

"The greatest threat to the island is erosion," he said. "The river eats away at it day after day. What you see now is about a sixth of what it was when the British abandoned it. But the river also gives back, unearthing remnants from the island's past."

Abdullah was right. After only a few minutes I had tangible fragments of history in my hand: beads from a necklace, chipped pieces of a white clay pipe, bits of bone and metal shot, and a shard of Delft pottery, most likely brought here by Dutch traders in the 17th or 18th centuries, and still a vibrant blue after all these years.

James Island, The Gambia

The following day we set out to visit our first Gambian village. Smoke mingled with dust as we bounced along a dirt track in an open-topped truck. When we first turned in to Kiang West National Park we'd passed mango and cashew trees and creeping bougainvillea, but the surrounding bush had soon turned tinder dry and it wasn't long before we were locked in a race against a growing bush fire.

"Natural fires occur regularly at this time of year," Assan told us as flames licked the sides of the truck's huge tyres. "They can go on for weeks, killing hundreds of birds and reptiles. Villagers seldom do anything to stop them unless they threaten their village directly, when they'll band together to dig a fire break."

Butterflies and grasshoppers rose in clouds from the grasses around us as our truck surged on, carrying us out of danger. When we arrived at the village of Batelling, the crackle of flames could be heard well into the distance and plumes of black smoke soared hundreds of feet into the air.

Women and children rushed out to meet us and I was soon befriended by two young boys, Omar Jammeh (15) and Omar Jarju (14). They were friends and both in a 'club', bonded so they told me by their love of red T-shirts. They showed me their school, whose mission statement, written in black paint on the side of the building, included 'providing the pupils and staff the opportunity to develop themselves intellectually, morally, physically and mentally'. They were particularly proud of the Batelling gardens, where they pointed out freshly planted banana trees as well as neat rows of carrots, cassava, onions and tomato plants.

A door made of corrugated iron led us into Omar Jammeh's house. There was no electric light and as the door swung closed on the windowless room it was hard to see in the gloom. Still the boys insisted on having their photo taken on the bed in the corner, which sat low against the bare plaster walls. It was the only piece of furniture.

Omar Jammeh and Omar Jarju

As we prepared to leave the whole village had gathered to see us off. In the shade of a tree a woman beat a fast and pounding rhythm on an empty, yellow water drum with two rough sticks. Clapping provided the supporting percussion. A circle soon formed and in ones and twos girls and women took centre stage, throwing every part of their dipping and rising bodies into foot-stamping, arm-flailing dances.

We left on foot, a line of children following behind us until we reached the village boundary. From a forest path we emerged onto dried-out rice fields where the earth was caked in a layer of white salt, the Atlantic still holding its saline grip on the Gambia River, a full 102 miles upstream from Banjul.

The move into fresh water occurred a few miles further east, where the river narrowed. Slowly but surely the thick mangroves of the west gave way to tropical forests and fields of green grasses. Village life on the banks was all but invisible, hidden by an unbroken corridor of raffia palms and tall elephant grasses. And with the change in vegetation came a change in the wildlife.

Our peanut boat lurched wildly to the right as we all rushed at once to the side rail. There, among the thick green palms and baobab trees, was what we'd all hoped to see in River Gambia National Park - chimpanzees.

"These five are from a group that numbers 34 in total," said Alieu, our ranger from the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust (CRT). "They are Wurry, Wassau, Willow, Peter and his daughter, Poohlilly."

The rangers know all the chimps by name, testament to the dedicated efforts of the CRT. The trust was established by the late Stella Marsden OBE to return confiscated and pet chimpanzees from across the world back into the wild. Stella rescued her first chimp in 1968 and soon found herself with a small community of maltreated chimps to care for. After an attempt to introduce them to a park in Senegal failed, she moved the group to the recently established River Gambia National Park, close to which our ship was now anchored.

Situated on one of the most magnificent stretches of the river, the park comprises five islands and the water that surrounds them. Cruising past the islands in our two-tiered pirogue - formerly used to transport peanuts along the river - it hadn't taken long for the wildlife to appear. Red colobus monkeys chased each other along the branches of trees. Pelicans perched in the tallest boughs. A palm-nut vulture stretched its enormous wings and glided effortlessly from one bank to the other. In the river itself, hippo heads surfaced one at a time like a natural world version of the Whac-A-Mole fairground game.

But it was the chimps themselves that caused the most excitement. The five we'd spotted were right at the water's edge, occasionally swinging from branch to branch or sitting in clearings, staring back at us with thoughtful gazes. One slouched on a branch like a sullen teenager biting its nails. Another drank from the river, scooping the water into his mouth with the palm of his hand.

Eighteen chimps were introduced to the park in the late 1970s. Today there are more than 60, some of them third generation, making the CRA not just the longest-running project of its kind in Africa, but also one of the largest and most successful.

Chimps, Gambia River, Gambia

The park's perimeter was the furthest east that the Harmony V could go. From Kuntaur village we boarded a bus to Georgetown, now Janjangbureh, to visit the Lamin Koto School, built and funded by Variety Cruises over the last two years.

"For a long time we'd been looking to work with the local community in The Gambia," explained Filippos as we handed out Variety Cruises T-shirts, pens and exercise books to a sea of smiling faces and outstretched hands.

"We began in Lamin Koto in 2012, building enough classrooms for 50 students. Now we've 150 aged three and up, and fantastic local teachers who volunteer their services. Each one of our guests contributes to the project through the price of their ticket, whether they're cruising in Africa or the Aegean. We hope to build more classrooms, improve the water supply and, given time, offer free education to all the children in the area."

The project meant a lot to Filippos. His father Lakis, President of Variety Cruises, had taken him and his six siblings to The Gambia when the company began operating there.

"It had a profound effect on all of us. I remember giving an apple to a kid, then feeling humbled as he took one bite before handing it round to all the other kids with him. Any time spent here really brings home the importance of family and community. And that's what Variety Cruises is all about. We're a family company with family values, and we like our guests to feel part of the family too."

Village life on the Gambia River

At no time was this better illustrated than on our last night in Kuntaur. As the moon levered itself over the horizon, Filippos took a group of eager guests back to the village for a secret screening of Mary Poppins. In a roofless building with blackened walls and crumbling plaster, plastic chairs had been laid out in rows before an old projector. I took a seat in the front with Paul on my knee, a 12-year-old boy who'd shown me around the village earlier in the day. Hundreds more kids packed the hall and sat transfixed as Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews danced and sang beneath a dazzling canopy of twinkling stars.

When the film was over the music started and we were dragged to the front to dance with our new friends. The evening assumed a dreamlike quality, embraced as we were by the local community and overwhelmed by the warmth and affection of the kids of Kuntaur.

When I awoke the next morning we were on our way back to Banjul. A north-east wind called the Harmattan had filled the sky with dust from the Sahara, obscuring temporarily our view of the riverbank. It seemed an ideal time to catch up on my notes. But as I sat down to write I noticed a splash out of the corner of my eye. I walked to the rail to find bottlenose dolphins leaping from the water and playing in our wake. Even as our journey was reaching its conclusion, the Gambia River was still putting on a show.   

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