The river is “The Gambia”. Literally, the country exists as a small strip of land area to either side of the river. People say: “The Gambia River is the Gambia and the Gambia is the River”. It is a major tourist attraction and the dominant feature running through the heart of the country.
This West African waterway is approximately 700 miles (1,130 km) long, rising in the Fouta Djallon plateau in Northern Guinea, flowing generally northwest through SE Senegal then west, dissecting The Gambia, to the Atlantic Ocean at Banjul. The river is navigable in most of its length. Ocean-going vessels can reach Georgetown (Janjangbureh), about 175 miles (280 km) upstream. The river provides access to interior sections of Senegal and Guinea. About 70 per cent of its catchment of 77,000 km² lies less than 100 m above sea level; 30 % below 40 m. The tide (and navigation) intrudes to 460 km upstream of Banjul and thus defines the estuary and the greater part of the boundary between The Gambia an Senegal.
About 42,000 km² of the catchment area is situated above the hydrologic station at Gouloumbo (km 492). Of the 35,000 km² area downstream of this point, 10,500 km are in the Gambian territory.
In 1978, Senegal and The Gambia formed the Gambia River Development Organization (which was joined by Guinea in 1980) for the purpose of developing the river’s natural resources. The objective of the project is to increase agro-forestry and pastoral output, rationalise tapping of the natural resources and improve the infrastructures and social services of the project area.
The river ecology is divided into two different zones, estuarine and freshwater, which in turn largely determine the peripheral vegetation pattern. Salt water sneaks in some 150 km (95 mi) upstream, as far as Kantaur in the dry season (November to June). In the lower estuary, mangroves dominate the riverside, with extensive reed belts in the in-between zone, while where the water is fresh, the banks are lined with gallery forest.
Up river, the water wildlife is more interesting where you can see crocodiles, dolphins and hippos. The main feature along the river is the incredible variety of birds and most of the bird trips are boat trips along the creeks of The Gambia at dawn or dusk.
There are boat trips and fishing voyages, but too little is now made of the river in tourist terms though there are tour companies operating river tours and fishing safaris at the mouth of the river and upstream. There are camps at Tendaba and Georgetown specialising in watching and spotting the amazing variety of species that abound in this tiny country.
If you travel to Banjul, think of taking the ferry to Barra just for the trip and its sights and sounds. Fort Bullen at Barra Point was built by the British 200 years ago to cover the approaches to Banjul and the river, succeeding James Island Fortress (destroyed by the French) as the main point of defence in the colony. It can be reached by direct ferry from the capital. Oyster Creek is the centre of an area of creeks and waterways which can be visited from Banjul. This area is part of the Tanbi Wetlands.
The river is also closely linked with the slave trade, the remains of slave trading posts can be seen along its length and the Roots books brought prominence to Albreda near Juffure Village from where Kunte Kinte was enslaved. Albreda was the main French trading post before they withdrew from The Gambia. Nearby is the village of Juffure, the home of the ancestors of black American writer Alex Haley, author of ‘Roots’. Visitors who want to see more of the countryside may cross by ferry from Banjul to Barra and travel by road to Juffureh and Albreda (the journey lasts about 50 minutes), and then by canoe to James Island in the calm waters of the River Gambia.
The popular tourist destination of Tendaba is 160 km (100 miles) from Banjul by river or road. Further upriver, the fascinating circles of standing stones around Wassau have now been identified as burial grounds more than 1200 years old. Georgetown was the ‘second city’ of colonial days, and is still the administrative and trading centre of the region. Basse Santa Su is the major trading centre for the upper reaches of the Gambia River. Handsome trading houses built at the turn of the century can be seen there. By the riverside at Perai Tenda can be found a multitude of abandoned shops formerly operated by European, Gambian and Lebanese merchants in the days when up-river commerce offered substantial profits for private traders.
View Gambia River in a larger map
Mandina River Lodge is set amongst a tropical garden in a hidden corner of Makasutu Culture Forest. This private lodge, easy to reach from Banjul International airport, is exclusive and accommodates a maximum of 12 guests.
Ngala Lodge – Where the Atlantic meets The Gambia: The suites at Ngala Lodge, originally a colonial Mansion, are each uniquely furnished with a combination of imported and local art. Each suite is completely different, all are very spacious and offer great comfort with a luxurious bathroom, living and bedroom as well as your own balcony or garden.
Ngala Manor comprises 4 large suites over two floors. Each suite has a dramatic view across the exclusive Manor garden, extending over the Atlantic Ocean.
The Atlantic Wing houses 5 very spacious air-conditioned suites, beautiful furnished living room, king size beds, excellent bathroom with dressing area.
Sandele Bay Eco-Retreat is a sumptuous development on a stunning beach in Southern Gambia, built in conjunction with the local community of Kartong, who benefit from the development and running of the resort. The Retreat offers accommodation in 10 luxury lodges, nestled in the bush adjacent to 5 km of white-sanded, palm-fringed beach.