Scenically, eastern Gambia conforms to a stereotypical European view of Africa – a thin scattering of picturesque villages with grass-thatched huts, fenced woven millet stalks or pickets of twisted branches, isolated in open countryside where sheep and cattle roam in search of pasture. Outside the villages, women bend over vegetable plots, pound grain under shade trees, or collect immense loads of firewood to carry home on their heads; under the bantabas, men discuss village politics or just lounge about. The massive, statuesque baobabs that dominate the landscape wherever there’s settlement – or wherever one used to be – bear witness to the ancient roots of these communities.
Up-country villagers eke out an existence with minimal resources, particularly on the north bank of the river, where paved highways are a novelty and few households have electricity. The living environment, and the climate, can be harsh: while the land adjacent to the River Gambia is thickly wooded and green all the year round, just a short walk away from the river the ground is blackened by bush fires or desiccated by the heat by the middle of the dry season, and only the hardiest trees and shrubs survive.
Culturally, there is much to discover about rural Gambia in this region, particularly if you know at least a few basic phrases in Mandinka, or have a good guide to translate – preferably both. Tribal traditions are in many ways more intact here than anywhere else in the country, and villagers are generally proud to share and explain elements of their culture, such as music and dance, with interested visitors.
One of the region’s main attractions is the River Gambia itself, which at most times of the year is still fresh water as far west as the rice-growing town of Kau-ur and some way beyond. As it flows though eastern Gambia, the river is not yet fringed by the mangrove forests that characterize its lower reaches; instead, the banks are wooded with palms and tropical evergreen trees, sometimes overshadowed by dramatic laterite escarpments.
On the north bank, close to the north bank town of Kuntaur, are the Wassu stone circles, an atmospheric remnant of Senegambian prehistory whose original purpose continues to puzzle archaeologists. Mid-river, east of Kuntaur, lies a series of islands, each covered with tropical forest, the closest The Gambia gets to jungle. One group of these, Baboon Islands, comprises the River Gambia National Park, part of which is home to chimpanzee rehabilitation project. The project offers highly attractive accommodation for small groups of visitors who can enjoy the pristine river environment and observe the chimps at close range: it’s not possible to set foot on the islands where the chimps live, but guests can get very good views from the warden’s boat. Others passing though the park on river trips may catch distant glimpses of primates – not only chimps but also monkeys and baboons – as they cruise alongside the islands. This is also the most likely stretch of river for spotting hippos.
The usual starting point for boat trips in the region, and for short excursions to the stone circles, is Janjanbureh island (also called MacCarthy Island). The island is becoming one of The Gambia’s foremost ecotourism destinations, with the best choice of accommodation up-river.
Source: The Rough Guide to The Gambia