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The Gambia - Travel and visas
A valid passport is required, and the expiry date should fall after your scheduled date of arrival in your home country. No visa is required by holders of passports from the UK, or from most member states of the EU, ECOWAS or Commonwealth countries. Other nationalities need a visa, which typically costs around £30 and requires up to five working days to process at any Gambian embassy or consulate, though it may take longer by courier or post. If you are travelling from a country that does not have a Gambian embassy or consulate then you should be able to obtain a visa directly upon landing at Banjul International Airport or at major immigration posts along the border. However, this is not always guaranteed, so safer not to rely on it.
(Photo: A local bus is a good option if you’re on a budget © Marco Muscarà, www.marcomuscara.com)
Immigration control at Banjul International Airport will usually stamp your visa or visitors pass for 15 or 21 days, but will grant up to 28 days if you ask. If you want to stay in the country longer, the pass can be extended on a monthly basis for up to three months at the Immigration Department office in central Banjul (tel:4228717; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.gid.gov.gm/).
If you are travelling from a country that has yellow fever (most other African countries including Senegal), you may be asked to show a valid yellow fever vaccination certificate, and might theoretically be refused entry if you can’t.
A driving licence from any country, so long as one of the languages used is English, is valid for up to three months. For longer stays, an international driver’s licence is required.
For security reasons, it’s advisable to write up all your important information in a document and email copies to yourself and a few trusted friends or relatives, together with a scan of your passport (which will facilitate getting a quick replacement if it is lost or stolen). Other information you might want to include in this document are your flight details, travel insurance policy details and 24-hour emergency contact number, passport number, details of relatives or friends to be contacted in an emergency, bank and credit card details, camera and lens serial numbers, etc.
Note that if you intend to cross into Senegal, a biometric visa has been required by passport holders of all nationalities since July 2013. This is a complex process, and the best course of action will depend on your passport nationality, country of residence, and whether you intend to cross overland or by air. Full details and links are posted at www.senegalembassy.co.uk/visa-applications.
The Gambia maintains an embassy, high commission or consulate in several countries. These include the UK (www.gambiaembassy.org.uk), the US (www.gambiaembassy.us), Senegal (11 Rue De Thiong, Dakar; tel:+221 821 7230), Belgium/EU (www.gambiaembassy.be), as well as Austria, Canada, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Japan, Nigeria, Portugal, Sierra Leone, Sweden and Switzerland.
Most UK-based tourists visit The Gambia on a package, including flights and accommodation, with The Gambia Experience (www.gambia.co.uk) or Thomas Cook (www.flythomascook.com), and these companies, which run their own scheduled flights from the UK several times weekly, are also the best source of cheap air tickets from the UK. Coming from the UK or elsewhere in Europe, other charter companies worth checking out in season (October–April) are Condor (www.condor.com), Corendon Dutch Airlines (www.corendonairlines.nl), Monarch Airlines (www.monarch.co.uk), Thomas Cook Scandinavia (www.thomascookairlines.se), and Transavia (www.transavia.com).
Options are more limited between May and September, but include Brussels Airlines (www.brusselsairlines.com) and Gambia Bird (www.gambiabird.com; direct connections to London Gatwick, Barcelona, Accra and Dakar). Coming from the USA, your options amount to routing through Europe, or catching the Delta flight from New York to Dakar (Senegal), then picking up a regional flight to Banjul with Gambia Bird (www.gambiabird.com) or Senegal Airlines (www.senegalairlines.aero).
Overland from Europe
To travel overland from Europe, via Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal, is fairly straightforward, provided you have plenty of time and a reliable 4x4 suited to crossing the Sahara. Anybody planning an expedition of this sort is pointed to Sian Pritchard-Jones and Bob Gibbons’s dedicated guidebook Africa Overland: the Bradt Travel Guide, which is now in its sixth edition.
The most reliable country map is the 1:400,000 MacMillan Gambia Traveller’s Map, which also includes good detail maps of the Atlantic coast and Banjul. It seemed to be out of print at the time of writing (and very expensive through online booksellers), but is still stocked cheaply at Timbooktoo Bookshop in Fajara, as well as at a few craft shops around the Senegambia Strip. If you can’t locate it, the ITMB and Reise Know-How maps to Senegal & Gambia are adequate but inevitably dominated by the larger country. Even the best maps can be quite confusing when it comes to place names, on account of the phonetic spelling in different languages.
Around Greater Banjul
Getting around the Greater Banjul area, and the rest of the southern coastal belt, is very straightforward. Indeed, if you are staying at one of the resort hotels in Bakau, Kotu or Kololi, almost everything you’re likely to need on a day-to-day basis –beach, restaurants, supermarkets, bars, and banks –will be within easy walking distance of your hotel. And for day excursions further afield, you have the choice of hiring a taxi, renting a bike, using public transport, or joining an organised excursion set up by a local tour operator or registered guide.
Two main types of charter taxi operate in Greater Banjul, both on a similar basis to taxi cabs in many western cities, except that they are unmetered so it is conventional to agree the fare before the journey starts. The more expensive are the specially licensed tourist taxis (usually green with a white diamond on the side) that can be find outside any of the tourist hotels. These are regulated by the Gambia Tourist Authority and should be fully insured. They will run you to any destination, and usually ask a fixed price for a return trip, inclusive of a period of waiting, so may be negotiable for one-way trips or where no waiting is required. The current list of fixed fares is detailed on boards outside most hotels, as well as in the main taxi ranks in the tourist zones.
The preferred option of budget-conscious travellers is shared taxis, which are usually painted bright yellow with green stripes, and tend to be far cheaper than tourist taxis. These unregulated and often uninsured taxis normally ply a set route and pick up passengers along the way for a set fare of a few dalasi. But they are also quite willing – indeed, usually very eager – to be chartered on a ‘town trip’, which is where one person hires the whole taxi to wherever they want to go for a negotiable price –typically around £2 per 5km, less than half of what a tourist taxi would ask. These taxis move freely all around Greater Banjul but are not allowed into the Senegambia Strip or Kotu without special permission, so if you are staying in these areas it is best to walk to the junction with Bertil Harding Highway and pick one up there.
A rented bicycle is a good way of getting around the hinterland immediately outside Banjul and the resorts, with the great advantage of letting you see the towns and countryside at your own pace. Do be careful when out riding though, as Gambian drivers often pass dangerously close to bicycles or cut them off. Furthermore, many roads are full of pot-holes or have their edges worn unevenly which can force cyclists into the flow of traffic. There are bicycle-hire outlets outside the African Village Hotel and Cape Point Hotel in Bakau, the Badala Park Hotel and Kondo Beach Hotel in Kotu, and the Kairaba Hotel in Kololi. Rates are typically up to £1 per hour for short usage or around £5–6 per day for longer periods.
Organised day excursions
If you’re booked into a package hotel for the duration of your stay, an organised day excursion is the easiest way to see something more of the Gambian countryside, especially if time is tighter than money, or independent African travel isn’t your thing. A very popular day trip is the full-day Roots Excursion, which runs by boat to the North Bank villages of Albreda and Juffureh, as well as Kunta Kinteh Island, UNESCO World Heritage Sites. For birders and wildlife enthusiasts, other worthwhile goals for day excursions include Abuko Nature Reserve and Makasutu Cultural Forest, while beach lovers seeking to fulfil a Robinson Crusoe fantasy are pointed to Jinack Island –often marketed as Treasure or Coconut Island. Urban adventurers will enjoy a day tour of Banjul city centre and Albert Market, while those seeking something a little more active could join a south coast excursion embracing a camel safari at Tanji fishing beach and a visit to Tanje Village Museum.
A performer at the famous Roots Festival in Banjul © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, www.africaimagelibrary.com
Although most visitors to The Gambia never stray far outside the Greater Banjul area, there is a whole country out there to be explored, whether on public transport or on a self-drive basis. Note that there is no rail system in The Gambia, nor any domestic flight network, nor any river transportation (not unless you count the handful of dilapidated ferry services that connect the South and North banks), which means that public transport is all but restricted to the roads.
Road transport is very cheap (a fiver gets you from one side of the country to the other), but most vehicles are quite rundown, slow, sweaty, crowded and poorly driven. The best option, at least for the time being, is the recently revived and privatised Gambia Transport Service Company (GTSC). Based in Kanifeng (Serekunda), the GTSC operates several scheduled departures daily along the South Bank Road to Soma, Janjanbureh and Basse as well as the North Bank Road between Barra and Lamin Kora, all in spanking new (as of July 2013) Ashok-Leyland buses with individual seat fans and in some cases air conditioning.
The distinctly inferior alternative to the GTSC buses is the private passenger vehicles known as gelly-gellys (minivan size or larger) or shared/bush taxis (saloon cars or station wagons) that cover pretty much every conceivable route in the country, offering variable degrees of unreliability and discomfort. The focal point of the passenger vehicle network in the far west is Serekunda, where the two main stations are Westfield Junction (for elsewhere in Greater Banjul and Brikama) and Dippa Kunda (for the south coast). For passenger vehicles from the coast to most places further upriver, the main South Bank terminus is Brikama while the sole terminus on the North Bank is Barra.
Perhaps the most satisfying way to explore The Gambia, though far more costly than using public transport, is in a rented 4x4. Brits should be aware, however, that although it is a former British colony, The Gambia follows the European and American model and drives on the right-hand side of the road. And while the new North Bank and South Bank roads are great, with smooth surfaces that tend to encourage a relatively orderly approach to road usage, all aspirant drivers should be prepared for a somewhat more anarchic environment than the one they are used to.
Driving in The Gambia presents a number of unfamiliar hazards. On older potholed roads and dirt roads, vehicles swerve unpredictably to avoid obstacles, and use whichever side of the road they fancy. Especially in the rural areas, dogs and livestock frequently wander into the road, as do children, and even adults, often without looking to see what’s coming their way. Then there are the slow-moving donkey-, horse- and bullock-drawn carts, and the bush taxis that swerve madly to avoid colliding with them. Fortunately, outside of Greater Banjul, traffic volumes are low, so driving is not too stressful, especially if you take it slow and easy, and give yourself those vital extra milliseconds to react to the unexpected. Driving at night is best avoided (there are no street lights and many vehicles lack headlights), as is driving in heavy rain.
Driving in The Gambia can be a nerve-wracking experience, but fortunately, outside of Greater Banjul, traffic volumes are low, so driving is not too stressful, especially if you take it slow and easy.
Another repeat nuisance is the ubiquitous police, immigration, customs and military roadblocks that force drivers to slow down every few kilometres. Usually, you’ll be waved on, no problem, but sometimes you’ll be stopped and asked to produce your driver’s licence and vehicle insurance, and more occasionally your reflector triangle and fire extinguisher. More often than not, this sort of interrogation is quite good natured, and feels more like a pretext for a chat than anything else, but if your papers are not in order, you could be in for a rough ride.
Two reputable car-rental companies are the budget-oriented AB Rent a Car (Palm Rima Junction, Kotu; tel:4460926; mobile: 7649743/9320776; email: email@example.com; www.gambia-car-rental.com), and the newer and more upmarket Afriq Cars (The Village, Kololi; tel:4460086; mobile: 7700900; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.afriqcars.com/). Prices at the former start at around £25 per day for a lighter vehicle suited to surfaced roads only and £40 for a sturdier 4x4.
An alternative to conventional car rental is to strike up a deal for transportation with a taxi driver, ideally one you have used for a few local rides, and with whom you feel comfortable. This will generally work out more cheaply than renting a car, and it shifts the responsibility for driving or dealing with any breakdown or other hassles to somebody experienced in local conditions. A major disadvantage of going this route is that costs (and tensions) can quickly mount if the exact terms are not agreed upfront – for instance, whether the rate includes or excludes the driver’s accommodation, food, and other expenses, as well as fuel and any fines imposed at roadblocks.
There are only five places countrywide where motor vehicles can cross between the South and North banks: these are the large but slow ferries connecting Banjul to Barra at the river mouth and Farafenni to Soma on the Trans-Gambia Highway, and the smaller and quicker ferries further east at Janjanbureh, Basse Santa Su and Fatoto.
Organised upriver excursions
As is the case with local day trips, most tourists who venture upriver do so as part of an organised overnight excursion, which can be booked through upmarket hotels or hrough an operators. The most popular excursions are one-night trips to Tendaba Camp or Bintang Bolon, which usually incorporate at least one boat trip into the mangroves and creeks that line the main river, or further upriver to Janjanbureh, ideally for at least two nights.
For wildlife enthusiasts, arguably the most rewarding trip out of Greater Banjul, doable as a one-night excursion though two nights is better, is to the wonderful camp run by the Chimp Rehabilitation Projects in the River Gambia National Park. Few scheduled trips head further upriver than Janjanbureh unless they are continuing into eastern Senegal.