Rivers of West Africa with Variety Cruises – Part 2

The Excursions

Travelling by pirogue

Whilst on Variety Cruises seven-night cruise, Rivers of West Africa, we participated in all the daily optional excursions. Many involved boarding a pirogue either to go from our Mega Yacht, the Harmony V, to land, if moored up in the River Gambia, or as part of the excursion. Therefore, a degree of agility to get in and out of small boats was helpful, although there was always a willing hand to help pull or push as required.

Birding

The Gambia is renowned for its huge variety of birds, with nearly 600 species. Some passengers were keen ornithologists, with books and tick lists, but even if you’re not an avid twitcher, it was hard not to be mesmerised by the colours and sheer volume of birds. Our onboard naturalist, Assan, was enthusiastic and this rubbed off on us all, and I quickly learned to identify the more prolific black and white pied kingfisher, colourful Abyssinian roller, egrets, herons and cormorants. 

Lots of birdwatchingA pirogue took us through the Bao Bolong Wetland Reserve, The Gambia’s largest protected area, and allowed us to get close to the birds. Here we saw the African darter with its long spearing beak used to catch the fish which it then literally juggles into position so it can be eaten headfirst. We also caught the last of the white breasted cormorants leaving their breeding ground, and saw the damage done to the mangroves through their guano deposits.

Possibly less successful was the bird watching trip through Kiang West National Park, where the noise from a group of 30+ people frightened away many birds and the animals referred to on the excursion notes. However, it was a pleasant 7km walk through the savannah bush, with a truck meeting those wanting to opt out of the heat at the 5km stage.

Wildlife

Unlike other African countries, The Gambia has no ‘big 5’ animals and although they can be found in Senegal, you need to consider an extension either before or after the cruise to see them. However, we visited Baboon Island to see the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project and spotted the ears of a hippo on the way back to the yacht, but sadly no crocodile.

As we left Banjul and began sailing up the river, dolphins leapt through the water alongside the yacht.  However, as always, they proved difficult to capture by camera and we enjoyed photographing them with our eyes.

The Slave Trade

Many Silver Travellers will remember the 1977 TV series Roots, which told the story of the African slave Kunta Kinte who refused to adopt his slave name, Toby.  We visited James Island, now known as Kunta Kinteh island, which was an important slave trading post in the Gambia and on Senegal’s Gorée Island, we visited the slave house. Kunta Kinteh IslandHere we saw the ‘door of no return’, which the slaves would have passed through to board the ships taking them to their life of slavery.

The town of Janjanbureh, built on an island in the River Gambia, has more tenuous links with the slave trade, with local guides being slightly creative with their stories. For example, what we were told was the Slave Market was constructed in the late 19th century and was only ever used for storage. However, it was an interesting area to walk around and see the local market.

Other cultural visits

We visited Gambia’s Wassu Stone Circles, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, believed to be burial mounds of kings and chiefs dating back to between 750-1000 AD. There’s said to be a curse on anyone who disturbs those laid to rest, perhaps the reason they’re still so intact. We were invited to place a stone on top and make a wish which would come true within 6 months. At the time of writing, a month has elapsed, and I’ve still not won the lottery.

Djiffere fishing villageMy favourite excursion was in Senegal where a pirogue took us from our mid-river mooring to the fishing village of Djiffere on the Siné-Saloum Delta. It’s described in Lonely Planet as ‘a litter strewn calamity and not even the sight of colourful pirogues on the waves, and swaying palm trees distract from the pollution, fish guts and plastic bags at your feet’. Whilst the description was totally accurate, it was interesting to see the huge fishing operation. It was also the starting point of our trip to Joal-Fadiout via impromptu stops for birds and a huge old baobab tree. We were told it was hollow and we could go inside, but I’d not envisaged such a small hole about a metre off the ground. Some passengers attempted to clamber in, which obviously amused the surrounding traders who spent more time videoing tourists on their mobiles, rather than hawking their wares.

Wassu Stone CirclesWe also saw several displays of traditional dancing, both impromptu and pre-arranged. Whilst moored at the village of Kuntaur, we were entertained by the Kankurang, with one masquerade dressed in leaves, bark and ochre coloured tree fibre, whilst another wore bright pink tassles from head to foot. The dance is associated with the rites of passage from childhood into adulthood.

For me, an unexpected highlight was simply billed as ‘local live music’ where the musician played the Kora, which, apart from its 21 strings, was made totally from natural materials. The tunes were so catchy and jolly, it put a smile on all our faces, and even when asked to play a sad tune, it was still mesmerising.

Traditional musicAs well as briefing us on the days excursions, Assan, gave a fascinating talk on Gambian culture covering all the taboo dinner party subjects including religion, politics, ‘jiggy jiggy’ (it is what you think it is), circumcision and Female Genital Mutilation. We learned how Gambian men can have up to four wives who all have their own hut within a compound and on one excursion, we stopped at a typical compound to see the small mud and thatched huts.

Visits to Dakar, and a rather hot, self-guided tour of Banjul, allowed us to see the capitals of both countries.

We also experienced two projects supported by Variety Cares™ the charitable foundation of Variety Cruises: the Lamin Koto School and Kuntaur Film Festival.

The cruise was a full-on week with some early morning starts, so we followed our trip with a week of relaxation on Gambia’s Kotu beach at the Kombo Beach Hotel.  

Helen booked her cruise through Seafarer Cruising and Sailing Holidays who also arranged a week at the Kombo Beach Hotel with Silver Travel Advisor Partner – Serenity Holidays – The Gambia Experience.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Variety Cruises and Seafarer Cruising & Sailing Holidays.

See also

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Helen Jackson

Traveller & writer

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