By the oral legend, Ninki Nanka is a mythical dragon said to reside in the creeks of the River Gambia. It is said that whoever saw this mythical creature got seriously ill and died after some days. The only thing that can kill it is its own reflection in the mirror, so to protect oneself while exploring deep river creeks of the River Gambia, one should always carry a mirror with. People say Ninki Nanka has the head of the giraffe; others mention crocodile. The body should be one of a dragon, and some say hippo.
The main focus of the Ninki Nanka trail is exploring upper river regions, using The River Gambia as one of the paths for travel. Usually, the provinces are not the first choice when it comes to experiencing The Gambia, which is why Ninki Nanka Trail is so important. It allows a visitor to value the hidden jewels of the remote villages and to get closer to the traditions and heritage of Gambian tribes. It also combines river cruises that enable a visitor to embrace Gambian nature and animal world beauty fully.
Ninki Nanka Trail starts in the coastal area, where most visitors reside at the time of their stay. From there, the trail leads up to Janjanburreh, including both banks of the proud River Gambia, the north and the south. The Ninki Nanka Trail includes some of the well-known Gambian attractions, such as the capital Banjul, Kunta Kinteh Island, Stone Circles in Wassu and Baboon Island. Still, it adds to the whole experience by including small communities such as Ndemban, Tabanani, Jamali, where one will be able to get a feel of the village life and customs of the community.
There are four different itineraries of the Ninki Nanka trail, including various activities and varieties of duration. The Full Trail includes seven days and seven nights and is a complete adventure. To experience at least some of the main attractions of the Trail, you can decide on Ninki Nanka Light and spend one night and two days exploring sites on both river banks. If you prefer to stay only on one side of The Gambia River, you can choose between the South or North Bank Overland Trail, which last for two nights and three days. There is also a possibility to arrange for a tailor-made trip which is what we were part of.
The accommodation provided is very diverse. You can experience a homestay, sleeping on a boat, camping or staying in different eco-lodges, guesthouses and lodges along the river Gambia.
It is all based on responsible tourism, which offers fair dispersal of the economic benefit to all included in the trip yet also expects the visitors to stay unobtrusive and learn about the cultural differences while respecting them.
The guide will share many details about the Gambian way and how to act respectively in certain situations. You will learn what the first thing to do when visiting the village is, how to greet people, what to do with plastic bottles used on a trip, which topics you should avoid when talking with the locals and many more. But foremost, you will be able to spend the whole day or more in the village and be a part of the daily life activities, such as food collection and preparation, the procedure of material dyeing, making a fan out of palm leaves, carving bowls and spoons for eating churray gherte while learning about different traditions of a particular tribe.
The project is funded by The European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa and aims to reduce migration pressures through increased job opportunities and income prospects for women and youth. The Trail is the umbrella of several tourism experiences supported by YEP in partnership with the Institute of Travel and Tourism of The Gambia (ITTOG), The Gambia Tourism Board, The National Centre for Arts and Culture, and The Association for Small Scale Enterprises in Responsible Tourism, including community-based tourism initiative.
The Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), implemented by the International Trade Centre (ITC), a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, follows the ITC strategic direction provided by the Youth and Trade Tourism Roadmap, which focuses on the diversification of products, sustainable tourism and services to create opportunities for youth entrepreneurship and employment across the various segments of the value chain and regions of the country.
A core part of the experience are the community-based tours and homestays created by village communities with the leadership of youth trained on community-based tourism, giving guests the opportunity to contribute directly to community development and youth employment in a sustainable, safe and feel-good way (“Ninki Nanka Trail product manual”).
Our trip lasted for three days and two nights. It was tailor-made, concentrating on community-based tourism. We travelled up to Janjanburreh, combining road and river transport.
The first stop was at Ndemban village, a Jola village on the river’s south bank, not more than 45 minutes drive away from Brikama. As befits, we greeted the alkalo first. Alkalo is the village chief, with the authority of distributing the land and resolving disputes concerning family, land or neighbour matters. The Alkalo welcomed us with a smile on the face and Santaclaus’es cap on the head, expressing his gratitude for the visit and stating we are now part of their community, always welcome to return. The local tour guide, which underwent the training by YEP, was very professionally leading the tour around the village. The first thing to saw was the women’s gardens, where every lady in the village gets her land after marriage. This enables them to provide food for the family and create some additional income by selling vegetables at the nearest cities like Brikama.
We were impressed about the water system, which works with a similar system as cash power for electricity. You can purchase a chip which then gives you access to water. Simply by putting the chip near to the sensor, the water starts pouring.
Ndemban offers a homestay option for smaller groups travelling the Ninki Nanka trail. The accommodation provides a bed, mosquito net, private bathroom and most importantly, staying with the family, which means one of the best insights into the local lifestyle.
Our next stop was under a very low bantaba, where we could instantly sense the scent of smoke. In the shade provided by a cabana made out of wooden stakes covered with fan palm leaves, we found two blacksmiths working on an axe, one of the most popular products in the village before the rainy season starts. Both can make about six per day, selling it from D150 to D300, depending on the size. Mr Jarju explained that his profession is a tradition in the family, which he learned at a very young age. We discovered that blacksmiths are well respected not only because of their work but also because of the healing water they produce when cooling down the iron. The water has the power to chase evil away. If one is bewitched, taking a shower with the water from the blacksmith’s workshop would cure him.
Before lunch, we took a walk to the river, where we could see the process of cleaning and preparing oysters for selling at the market. Oyster meat is usually cooked before sold, which is typical for The Gambia and not so much for other parts of the world. When preparing a meal, cooked oysters are usually undergoing another heat treatment such as frying. Shells of oysters are used as a road-building material or as an ingredient for wall painting colours.
We were also able to witness the process of salt production by a quite simple method of straining the creek water and later boiling it, once the water has evaporated, it leaves salt to use.
Before leaving the village, we paid a visit to the school, providing education for 445 children. We had a brief conversation with the headmaster and were able to admire a magnificent baobab tree growing in the middle of the schoolyard.
We continued our way inland, passing the Soma city, a central transit point of the region until we reached the Mandinka village, called Tabanani. The greeting was spectacular. Before even getting off the bus, a group of traditional singers started to play on their small accompanying instruments, singing and giving us big smiles. Accompanying us with the beautiful music, we took a walk to the alkalo’s compound to give our regards.
In the following compound, to where a local guide from Janjanburreh led us, we were able to test our skills of pleating fans out of the fan palm leaf. The process is not as simple as it seems, so we were very grateful to have the assistance of the young apprentices who help the skilled elderly masters of fan making. The fans we managed to put together were now ours to keep as a souvenir. It turned out this is a very helpful gear when travelling up the country since temperatures here are far higher than the coastal areas.
A local group of excellent cooks explained how they cook one of the most popular dishes, vegetable domoda, using fresh ingredients such as eggplant, bitter tomato, carrot and hot pepper from the nearby garden. We must admit, we did enjoy the meal very much.
Our visit was coming to an end, and before we left, a group of ladies, called Kanyaleng, portrayed the part of the ceremony used in their spiritual or ritual activities for barren women. With the help of the guide, the group leader explained the details of the whole ritual, which helped many village ladies have children today.
Our last stop for the day was Janjanburreh, where we were served with a late dinner and keys to the room where we would get some well-needed rest.
After breakfast, a group of Janjanburreh Guides took us on a brief stroll around the town, visiting the Tourist Information Centre and famous Kankurang museum, which is the best place in the country to learn about the strong culture of masking tradition of Mandinka and other tribes living in The Gambia.
Janjanburreh is an important historical town, offering many important sites that are part of the cultural and historical heritage of the place. With multiple activities, such as biking, kayaking, or hiking, one should plan to stay here for at least a day or two to feel the town pulse properly.
The reception was again beautiful. Fulani Ritti women group and many children greeted us with music and singing at the village entrance. We had to join in for some dance steps, which made our hosts feel very happy. Here we were served with “brunch” in a hand-made wooden cup with a spoon made of calabash. Not to forget how delicious this rice and groundnut porridge with sour milk and sugar was. Churray Gherte is one of the most famous porridges in the Gambia. It is really easy to make it, which is what the village ladies proved to us by showing us the main part of the process: grinding rice and peanuts in the big wooden mortar.
After a successful boat trip, we headed to Morgan Kunda Lodge, where we had our dinner and spent our night.
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