Gambia is essentially one giant wildlife park. The country is primarily made up of the Gambia river, with the country extending 300 kms from the atlantic coast inland, and with a few kms of land on either shore of the river. This means that the country is overflowing with an array of tropical animals. A couple types of primates, crocodiles, hippos, plenty of reptiles and an almost endless amount of birds inhabits this land amongst others.
There’s plenty of places to go in the deep parts of the country, to witness this wildlife, but even if you find yourself stuck in the more urbanized areas near the atlantic coast, more specificially the two main cities of Banjul (the small capital) and Serrekunda (the largest city in the country), there’s still plenty of possibilities of experiencing the wild life easily and cheaply, and all of these following places can be easily visited in half a day or less. With a little bit of planning you could probably do all of them in a single day even.
Bijilo Monkey Reserve
The first, and in my opinion best place to go, is the Bijilo Monkey Reserve / Monkey Park. This place is located in Bijilo, right next to the tourist/resort part of town called Senegambia. This means that you’re very likely to be accomodated very close to this place, so it is easy to reach.
The reserve is a decently sized chunk of protected nature, that still sports a jungle like flora. There’s lots of palm trees and lush vegetation here, despite being surrounded on 3 sides by the busy city. On the fourth side is the beach and atlantic ocean.
In this reserve there’s free roaming monkeys. There’s two kinds of monkeys here, the Green Vervet monkeys and the Western Red Colobus monkeys. The Green Vervet monkeys are extremely curious, and not very afraid of humans, and you’re guaranteed to have some fun and very close interactions with these friendly monkeys. I even managed to make one sit on my shoulder!
The entrance fee was 120 Dalasi, which is just about 2 euros. Then you can buy bags of peanuts to feed the monkeys for an additional 50 dalasi per bag. Get at least one bag if you want a real close experience with the monkeys – they’ll come running to you and take peanuts right out of your hand. But be careful to not have too many peanuts in your hand at once, they can get rather aggressive about grabbing everything from your hand!
The nature park has easy to follow paths, on 4 different color-coded sections. Each section has 2 paths, one out and one back, so you can choose to do as much as you want. Walking the full path out and back is about 6-7 km, so there’s enough nature here to keep you entertained for a while. Since the trails are marked, it is by no means necessary to get a guide – I preferred to explore on my own, and enjoyed it a lot, even if I didn’t get the full story about all the trees and animals, but oh well.
The park opens at 8am, and I really recommend coming at this time. When I went there at 8:30am I was the only visitor, and I didn’t see any other people until I was heading out of the park again some 3 hours later. It is easy to get all the monkeys for yourself!
The people at the ticket office, and the online guide, says that the Western Red Colobus are more shy, and maybe they are, but I was lucky enough to find a huge group just hanging out with some of the Green Vervet monkeys, and they were equally curious and also took peanuts right from my hand.
Observing groups of monkeys can easily take up a lot of your time, as they’re very fascinating animals. I can not recommend this park enough.
Abuko Nature Reserve
On the other end of Serrekunda from Bijilo, down in the Abuko part of town, is another nature reserve. This one is bigger than Abuko, but equally also has a marked trail. Here you can again meet the free roaming Green Vervet monkeys and Western Red Colobu monkeys. Additionally this reserve also has baboons, crocodiles, hyenas and vultures and a cascade of other birds.
Abuko will most definitely require you to get a taxi to reach, as it is a little out of the way, especially from Senegambia. It should be no more than 300-400 dalasi one way.
The entrance fee here is 150 dalasi, just below 3 euros. But unlike Bijilo, there’s a lot more people at the entrance here trying to sell you extra stuff. There’s the obligatory bags of peanuts for the monkeys, but also people trying to rent you binoculars claiming that it is definitely worth it and will pay off. Unless you’re a ornithologist or somebody who cares a lot about birds, don’t pay for this. It is a waste of money. I didn’t use my binoculars at all, and it was more of a hassle to carry them around. In the first little part of the trail is also several people offering to guide for you. Once again I kindly turned them all down, wanting to just explore on my own. Trust me, no matter how much they claim they can show you hidden secrets, there’s only 1 single path you can follow, there’s nothing the guides could show you additionally.
Near the entrance is a big pond that allegedly has crocodiles in it. There’s a lodge with a viewing platform (and surprise, surprise, a souvenir shop) right next to the lake, and the people at the lodge will aggresively try to make you not just walk past the lodge. I do recommend going up to the viewing platform, it could be that you’re actually lucky enough to see some crocodiles – although if your main objective is to see crocodiles, then don’t go to Abuko, but rather the Kachikally Crocodile Pool described below.
I didn’t see any crocodiles, and after lots of pleasantries also managed to get on my way again without buying anything from these very insisting people.
After passing the crocodile pool, the amount of people trying to sell you their services also pretty much ends, which is welcome at this point. The trail then takes your through thick forests, where you can see a lot of birds flying overhead, including vultures. I didn’t see much in terms of fauna however, some insects and reptiles at best.
Eventually, you’ll reach the far end of the park where a animal sanctuary is located. Right before the sanctuary however is a big tree that is full of vultures. Take a stop here to take in the majestic sight. Be careful of droppings however!
The sanctuary houses a big baboon cage, with (at time of my visit) 4 baboons in it. One baby, 2 children and one adult. Baboons are both more threatened, and also more dangerous than the smaller Green Vervet monkeys, so you wont be able to have an equally close experience with the baboons, although they can still stick their arms through the sides of the cage, and will also grab peanuts from your hand.
Beyond the baboons, the sanctuary also houses several pens with hyenas in them. They’re pretty miserable pens, and I’m not sure that the hyenas have a decent life there. Around the hyenas, the vultures will also congregate in huge numbers, and this is a place where you’ll be able to get very close to them.
I was even offered to go inside the hyenas pens to pet a hyena, with the reassurance that they don’t attack people. But seeing the size of those beasts, I wasn’t about to make such a bet.
The sanctuary also crawls with Green Vervet monkeys, that interacts with the baboons through their fencing. This is by far the best place in Abuko for animal interaction.
At the sanctuary is also a small kiosk selling food and cold drinks, which are welcome at this point of the visit.
After you finish off at the sanctuary you can walk along the trails to the exit, or trace back to the entrance – yes the exit and entrance aren’t at the same place. It is a 500 meter walk between the two, in case you have a driver waiting for you back at the entrance. The exit also leads right out to a bunch of souvenir shops. You have been warned.
All in all, Abuko was fairly interesting, but there’s also a lot of annoying elements, and beyond the area around the animal sanctuary, doesn’t offer a lot of interesting experiences.
Kachikally Crocodile Pool
If you want to not just see, but also get real close with, and even touch crocodiles, then the Kachikally Crocodile Pool is just the right place for you. If that sounds terrifying, it is still worth at least a visit.
The Crocodile pool is one of the most famous sites in the whole country, and it probably a place that all tourists to the Gambia will visit. It isn’t hard to see why, as it offers quite a unique opportunity. Actually touching and petting big crocodiles, mostly without any real danger (or so they keep claiming at least).
The pool, and all the crocodiles there, is a holy place. This originates from local folklore, that retold very briefly says that a over 500 years ago, there was a well in the place. The son of one of the sisters of the local rulers fell into the well. The woman pleaded for help to rescue her son. A man climbed down the well and found the boy unscathed, sitting on a rock next to a holy spring. To thank the forest spirit for this miracle, they promised to sacrifice the next thing that was caught in their fishing nets – which happened to be two crocodiles, that was then dropped into the well as a sacrifice. The crocodiles procreated and the rest is history.
Now the waters of the place is seen as having healing powers, and people still come here to pray for blessings, treating ailments, and even infertile women bathing in the lake water to conceive a child. Equally the crocodiles here are seen as holy animals and are thus not harmed, but allowed to roam freely. With tourists able to just walk around the crocodiles without any barriers. You must rely on the custodians actually feeding crocodiles plenty, and also the fact that crocodiles are extremely blind, and generally don’t attack unless provoked.
Some of these crocodiles are over 3 meters long, and are some mighty and extremely terrifying beasts. Luckily the “petting zoo” area houses some smaller, yet still plenty big crocodiles that you are then directed to go pat on the back/tail. I must say it felt extremely terrifying doing that. But nothing happened, and now I have a pretty memorable picture to show for it.
Beyond just the 100s of crocodiles of the place, there’s a small museum showcasing Gambian history, folklore, dresses etc. The museum is included in the entrance price for the pool, and it is definitely worth to check out, as it does have some interesting exhibitions. It is also rather small, so is quickly visited.
Kartong Reptile Farm
Finally, outside Serrekunda, all the way south of Gambia, near the border with Senegal, is the village of Kartong. Here you’ll find the Kartong Reptile Farm, which is exactly that it sounds like. A zoo, only with reptiles.
It hosts a great variety of snakes, both harmless and very dangerous, tortoises, crabs, baby crocodiles, lizards and more. It’s primary function is as a research and educational center. This is because there’s a lot of superstition about snakes in gambian society. People believe that all snakes are super deadly, and should be feared. The reptile farm tries to educate the locale people about how to recognize dangerous snakes from harmless snakes, and to cure some of the fear that people have. They also work on learning more about snakes, and developing anti-venoms.
As a means to get extra funding, people can visit and get a guided tour around the site, which is actually not all that huge, but it’s still worth the trip there. During the trip, your guide will tell about each reptile, and wheter they’re dangerous or not. You’ll be able to hold and touch the animals that are harmless, and that aren’t threatened. This includes a couple of snakes, baby crocs, tortoises and such.
I came without having a phobia of snakes or lizards, so for me this was just great fun and very educational, and it was also the first time I ever got to hold a snakes, which was a fun experience, even if it was only a very small snake.
My tour-guide (not the reptile farm guide) however had a huge phobia of snakes, and he screamed and jumped around a lot, to the amusement of both me and the farm guide.