Day 1: The way to the stone circles and animals in the wild
Our journey to the heart of the country begins early in the morning. A comfortable drive on the highway gives us a lot of opportunities for creating memorable images of the countryside. Local villages, roofs from grass, wooden fences, small mosques and sometimes schools and genuine sub-Savannah vegetation paint a picture of pristine Africa. Our first stop is in the Tendaba camp, on the riverbank of Gambia river, where you have a chance to drink coffee or a soft drink and eat your breakfast.
We continue our way by crossing the new Senegambia bridge, which takes us to the north bank of the Gambia River. We will stop in the village Wassu, where we will be able to get to know Gambian Stonehenge, megalithic stone circles. In 1995, the village became a national monument, in 2006 stone circles were listed in UNESCO’s world heritage list thanks to the former keeper of this tourist attraction who put in a lot of effort to place this amazing historical place on the map of Gambian best known and conserved monuments. 11 stone circles in the area are part of a geographical grouping of over 1,000 monuments in a wide strip along 350 km of the river Gambia shore.
Stone circles are believed to be burial mounds of Kings and chiefs in ancient times over 1,200 years old although it was discovered that the stones themselves are younger than the graves. With the last excavations iron weapons, arrow and spearheads, knives, pottery vessels and bronze ornaments were found, some of which you can see in the museum next to the stone circle site.
Our next stop is in the village Kuntaur in the Kairo Garden Lodge. This is where we board a boat and ride to Baboon island. On a half-an-hour cruise, you will be trying to spot hippos in the river. The most dangerous African animals are easy to spot close to the riverbank especially in the middle of the day. They live in the natural environment so keep in mind there is no guarantee to spot them, but usually, every visitor is lucky enough to spot at least the ears protruding from the water.
Baboon island is home to some more than 100 refugee chimpanzees who were brought to live in an open-air sanctuary after experiencing one of many forms of human exploitation. Today no human foot is allowed to step on the island since Janis Carter, heartful primatologist and pioneer of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project learned how human contact can be harmful to these beautiful creatures. You can learn more about the story of the first chimpanzee on the island, Lucy, by clicking HERE. With a little bit of luck, you will be able to spot chimpanzees on the river shore coming to eat their lunch brought by the forest rangers.
After lunch at the Kairo Garden Lodge, a genuine village experience is waiting for us. We will stop in a small village on our way to the last stop of the day. You will be able to meet the family who live in a traditional Gambian village which consists of few mud houses, covered with a roof of grass, which can even allow you to see the sky in the dry season. Fence, made out of wooden stakes or savannah grass guards the compound against animal visitors in the wild. Disconnected from the modern world, the family doesn’t speak English, they live a modest life, without knowing much about education, money, comfort and consumerism.
The last part of the way will allow many rice-field sceneries until we reach the riverbank of Lamin Koto, from where we cross the river and reach MacCarthy Island. Soon after we settle down and refresh in the lodge, where we will stay for 2 nights, dinner will be waiting for us. In the evening you are free to hang out in the local bar, brew and taste attaya or take a short stroll on the streets of Janjanbureh.
Day 2: History and culture of Janjanbureh
After breakfast at the lodge, we start our day of exploring the town/village of Janjanbureh. This historical settlement boasts a strong tradition of preserving culture. We set off on a historical trail with a local guide.
We start the tour at the Methodist church early in the morning. The Methodist Church was founded in 1823 and is known as one of the oldest Churches in West Africa.
From there we move to the freedom or liberation tree, which is a strong symbol in the history of slavery. Captured slaves used to be placed in the line and instructed to run to the tree as fast as possible. The fastest person would be liberated and will be able to work with the master on the ship taking slaves to the western world.
The next stop is the governors’ house which is now renovated due to the long tradition of governors occupying the house before they moved to another location. This house was home to the first governor of Janjanbureh, George MacCarthy and later on to many Gambian governors as well. All the names of governors who lived there are written on the wall. Nowadays the place is hosting the president whenever he travels to the centre of the country.
We continue our stroll to the slave house. The place was an underground slave prison, where the slaves were held like sardines before being taken to the open sea. James island, Barra, Dog island were the last points from where slaves were sent to America or Europe. In the slave house, there is a big hole under the floor. With the high tide, water would fill the hole and the slaves would be able to drink. The water could even come to their knees and they would have to drink from the same water they urinated in. They would handcuff their legs, hands and necks and treat them like animals. When they collected enough slaves from the inland, they would board them on a boat and bring them to the sea.
We stop at the colonial cemetery where all the governors who died at the MacCarthy island were buried along with their family members and people working with them. Although a lot of gravestones are demolished, you can still see some that are preserved today.
We also get a chance to see the only boarding school in The Gambia, Amitage High School. To this day, this has been one of the most important schools in The Gambia. In the past times, this was the biggest school in The Gambia, with most students. It was built in colonial times for the children of the masters but later on, the school became open for everyone. It is also known as solder school since you were not allowed to leave it except for the holidays.
The first stop for the cultural part of the trail around Janjanbureh is the Kankurang museum where the most common masquerades of the tribes of the Gambia are portrayed. The guide will explain all the details about the Kumpo mask, which belongs to the Jola tribe, Zimba, which is from the Wollof tribe, Hunting, which represents Aku tribe and of course Kankurang, the famous mask of Janjanbureh, which belongs to the Mandinkas. You will also hear about some masks that used to be known in the Gambia but are now gone, and the scary mask Fambonde which is still believed to exist as a spirit in the forests and can be called to come and protect children before the circumcision.
We stop at the sacred baobab which has a hole in the middle where women are not allowed to enter. It is the place where perform the circumcision ritual. People believe it is a spiritual place, and even today people are still going there to pray by bringing cola nut to place it inside the opening.
Just 50 meters away, there is another sacred baobab, where the boys would come each day after circumcision and walk around the tree seven times before they sit down. It should help the healing process and they would repeat it until there is no more pain and they recover completely.
From there we return to the lodge where we will have lunch and time to rest.
In the afternoon we will pay a visit to the famous historian Taka Titi which would tell us about the history of this place by drumming on the calabash and singing along.
Another visit will be at the silversmith’s workshop, where you will be able to witness how to make jewellery from silver, which is very popular in The Gambia.
The rest of the day you can spend by the river bank and relax in the bar.
After dinner at the lodge, you will be taken to the magical world of the masks and of course be invited to join in the celebration of tradition.
Day 3: Coming home
Since a trip can be a bit exhausting, on the last day you will have a chance to sleep in. After late breakfast, we will head back to the starting point. The road will take us to the south riverbank. We will stop for the lunch at magnificent AbCa’s Creek Lodge and take some time to relax.
AbCa’s Creek Lodge is located in a beautiful area inland of the Gambia. You can explore the surroundings by yourself or just relax and enjoy the lovely food and drinks. The terrain of the lodge has a size of two football fields. There are all kinds of trees and shrubs, including many palm trees. This is the natural habitat for colourful birds. Also, monkeys are regular visitors because of the attractive nature.
We return in the late afternoon.