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.
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 Senegal.
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 territory.
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
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
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
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 160km (100 miles) from Banjul by river or road. Further
upriver, the fascinating circles of standing stones
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
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.