Sharing a pool with swallows is a new experience for me. The first inbound bird swerved at the last minute, forcing me to duck as it whistled past my ear and took a drink mid-flight. The second and third I watched in wonder as they skilfully refreshed themselves on the wing. By breakfast the next day I realised this is something that happens all the time here at the freshwater pool at the Footsteps Eco Lodge. But it’s not just swallows – paradise flycatchers visit for an early morning beverage while you have the same, as do the incredibly colourful sunbirds. It seems that numerous examples of Gambia’s famed birdlife, can be seen simply while sitting down to some freshly made pancakes.
The lodge is located close to the village of Gunjur, a few miles further south than the larger resorts and five-star hotels which in previous years have been visited by thousands of tourists seeking some winter sun, 60 per cent of which are usually British. This year, the crowds have been considerably smaller, with the United Nations saying numbers had dropped as much as 60 per cent. This has had a devastating effect on many lives in a country where a third of people live on less than $1.25 a day.
The outbreak of Ebola in other West African countries such as Sierra Leone and Guinea is the reason for the downturn. But a quick check of the Foreign Office website reveals there still hasn’t been a single case of the disease in The Gambia and the country has gone to considerable lengths to make sure it stays that way. It seems that The Gambia is suffering because the whole of West Africa is being treated as a no-go zone. It is like writing off the all of Western Europe if Ebola struck in Belgium.
It is easy to see why, prior to the Ebola crisis, people flocked to one of the smallest countries on the African mainland. It’s only six and a half hours from Manchester, there are regular cheap flights and the hot, dry climate and long golden beaches are the perfect antidote to the cold and ice of a British winter.
For us, the sun and waves certainly appealed but so did the opportunity to explore the culture and wildlife away from the main tourist resorts.
Footsteps Eco-Lodge provided us with the perfect base. Run by Englishman David White, the simple but comfortable round lodges sit amongst fruit trees and flowers to create an enjoyable and relaxing retreat.
All the power comes from solar panels and the toilets are the compost variety, which, amazingly, are not bad on the nose. The food wasn’t cheap but was tasty, with locally caught fish and authentic Gambian cuisine served alongside Western dishes. Yorkshire Puddings were even on the menu one evening, we like to think in our honour.
The beach is a 20-minute walk away, which may not sound ideal, but the route offers a fascinating insight into rural Gambian life. The wetlands, as they’re known, are made up of small farm plots growing tomatoes, onions and other vegetables tended by women in brightly coloured dresses. Serani, the excellent in-house guide, came with us on our first trip, but after we made our own way to the golden sands, often only sharing them with the odd local fisherman reeling in his catch.
On another occasion we walked to the village with Serani, meeting his family and sampling freshly smoked fish from the bustling smoke-houses on the beach.
It seemed like something from another age, until you see names such as Steve Gerrard and Wayne Rooney daubed on the breeze block walls. Football is big in The Gambia and it is easy to strike up a conversation if you know a little bit about any of the big European clubs and the African stars which play for them.
One evening we joined Abu, another regular at the lodge, to watch two Premiership matches at once, shown on two TVs at the far end of a large shed, with a captivated crowd of around 300 locals all perched on wooden benches.
For two nights we ventured away from the coast and headed inland, following the River Gambia 180 miles east. Life here is hard and hot and tourist facilities are scarce. But for those looking for a little adventure The Gambia’s interior is rewarding and thought provoking.
Our main reason was to visit the River Gambia National Park, which is home to chimpanzees, reintroduced to three islands. A boat trip gives you the incredible chance to observe these fascinating primates, as well as hippos, baboons, fish eagles and the odd crocodile. The tented accommodation is perched on top of a cliff, offering fantastic views across the river.
Our second night is a somewhat more basic affair, at the run-down Tendaba Camp opposite the Baobolong wetlands. But the lack of comfort was made up for by a serene trip into the mangrove swamps to see osprey, kingfishers, West African darters and the Goliath heron, the largest in the world.
For those not wanting to travel too far inland away from the resorts, the Abuko Nature reserve is one of the country’s best. Ignore the poor “animal rescue” section and head into the forest for the chance to see different species of monkey, crocodiles, many species of birds and even the infamous army ants which are known to strip cornered animals to the bone. Watch your step...
Back at the lodge, it was sad to leave the guides and staff whose company we had enjoyed during our stay. It was humbling to hear them speak honestly and openly about how important tourists are to their lives and their worries that next tourist season will not improve.
It was moving to hear them gracefully ask us to tell people back home to come and visit their fascinating country.
• The best time to visit The Gambia is between November and April.
Lee Clark stayed at Footsteps Eco-Lodge, Gambia (www.footstepsinthegambia.com)
The river trip was made through Bushwackers Tours (www.bushwhackertours.com)