The river is "The Gambia", quite literally, the country exists as a
small strip of land area to either side of the river (see
map). It is often said that "The
Gambia River is the Gambia and the Gambia is the river Gambia". 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 km˛
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
About 42,000 km˛ 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
In 1978, Senegal and The Gambia formed the Gambia River Basin 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 150km (95mi) upstream, as far as
Kuntaur 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
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
Barra just for the trip and its sights and sounds.
Fort Bullen at
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
Island in the calm waters of the River Gambia.
tourist destination of Tendaba is 160km (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.
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.