Most visitors to The Gambia will stay in the area full of busy resorts known as the Northern Kombos. The resorts here couldn't exactly be described as manic, but visitors often get the feeling that there is more space and tranquillity out there somewhere. The hotel suntraps spill out onto the beach somewhat, and it can be hard to find peace and quiet away from the bumsters1. Adventurous travellers will want to spread their wings a little and try to find a real beach.
Fortunately, in The Gambia, you can arrive on a package tour but stay away from your hotel for a night or two without breaking the bank. Beyond the southernmost resort of Kololi only miles and miles of sand lie between you and Senegal. For a romantic getaway, or just for a change of scenery, you could do much worse than head a few miles south.
Teach A Man To Fish...
The further south you go, the less economic importance tourism has. Fishing is the most important industry, both in terms of diet and trade, and the fishing beaches are covered in brightly-coloured pirogues2 awaiting the next tide. Whenever a boat comes in, dozens of seabirds take to the air, chasing down the boat and looking for scraps. The fishermen leap from the boat, push it ashore and, under siege from gulls and terns, grab their share of the catch. They sell the rest to local traders and leave the nets to dry in the sun. Behind the line of boats, fishmongers sell the catch from shacks, stalls or just huge blocks of ice, and salesmen strap baskets of fish to the handlebars of their bicycles to sell in other villages and hamlets. It's an incredible scene.
A common catch is the hand-sized bonga fish. It can be sold fresh, but is more often preserved in smokehouses. After a few days of curing over smouldering wood, the bonga are packed into crates and shipped around the country. Interesting to see and very pungent to smell, the smoking of the bonga has caused rampant deforestation in the Kombos; the treatment is slowly being replaced as ice plants are built.
The Southern Kombos Villages
In the 30 or so miles of baking sand between the northern Kombos and Senegal, Tanji is the only significant seaside habitation. Apart from Tanji, all the villages lay a few kilometres inland, as even the fishermen here aren't fond of living near the sea. Two other villages have fishing centres on the nearest beaches, which carry their name. In between these three you'll find little but scorching sand.
Tanji itself lies right on the coast, and is the one you'll visit if you go on a tour to the 'main fishing village'. After a day trip to Tanji you'll probably see little reason to stay over. The beachfront stinks of rotting fish, there's nowhere obvious to sunbathe and it's clearly a place to work rather than play. It's an interesting location, though, and if you can handle undue attention it's fairly relaxing, too. The village is notorious for its bumsters and children, who can make a visit very trying, especially on weekends. Whatever you do, don't encourage their behaviour by giving them as much as a 'sweetie' to share between them. There are, fortunately, more appealing villages to visit.
Ten miles further south is Sanyang village. The actual village lies a few miles inland, but it has a fishing beach that is full of activity by day and deserted at night. It is probably the pick of the three fishing centres, with a few decent lodges and restaurants, a lovely setting and an unfeasibly long beach. There are good bars at either end that are fine for a drink and a sunny spot away from the bustle. To get here, get on a guided trip to 'Paradise Beach', an admittedly attractive bit of sand where you can either take it easy or wander over to watch the boats come in a few hundred yards away.
Another ten miles down the coast is Gunjur. Here too the village itself is a little distance inland from the fishing centre and beaches. Tourism is of little concern this far south, so it is far more peaceful, though the fishing activity is just as intense. This is the biggest fishing centre on the coast, despite what the hotel reps and people in Tanji will tell you. The village doesn't even register on the tourist trail so you'll be pretty much left alone, but you'll have to get there under your own steam.
All three villages have main fishing beaches that are essentially working beaches, so it can be difficult to find a good sunbathing spot, and swimming off the fishing beaches is both unpleasant and undesirable. You'd be better off simply walking around the headlands at either end of the fishing centre, where the water is clean and the sand is soft. You'll probably be completely undisturbed, as the bumsters never get this far, and the only people you're likely to see are Gambians walking from one fishing centre to the next. Be prepared to carry your lunch and drinks around with you, though! Probably the best beach on the coast forms part of Karinti Bird Reserve, just north of Tanji - pay the pound or so admission, take a short stroll through the woods and you'll have a perfect, pristine beach at your disposal for the whole day. It goes without saying that if you picnic there you must take every scrap of litter home with you.
The great appeal of the south is having the place to yourself after the other tourists have gone home. Day-trippers spend huge amounts of money to 'find' Paradise Beach to get away from other tourists and then invariably end up sharing the beach with them. They go to Tanji to see traditional life, then get mobbed by the locals as soon as they get off the bus. If you're seeking the same solitude and observation, this can be frustrating.
The day-trippers don't turn up until about 11am and leave by about 4pm. With them go the bumsters. So why not get the most out of it and stay overnight? Want to lie on the beach looking for shooting stars? Check. Wake up at dawn to birdsong? Check. Have a couple of miles of beach pretty much to yourself for a few hours? Oh yes.
A reasonably comfortable room in one of the rough-and-ready lodges on one of the Southern Kombos beaches costs just a few pounds; an expense that is easily made up for by the cheaper food. Plus, you're also being a responsible tourist by making sure it's not just the big, European-owned hotels that get your money. So you can feel really good about yourself as you soak up the last rays of a hot afternoon, then watch the sunset undisturbed over a freshly caught and grilled barracuda steak. Priceless.
How To Do It
If you're looking to stay over, you'll find the largest concentration of bars, restaurants and lodgings around Tanji, dwindling to hardly anything at and beyond Gunjur. A green 'tourist taxi' from the resorts will cost about 600 dalasis3 to Tanji, 800 to Sanyang and 1200 to Gunjur - a yellow 'town taxi' will cost roughly half this if you're a good haggler.
Lodges do open and closedown fairly frequently on this part of the coast, but the well-established Kobakoto Tourist Camp, just north of Paradise Beach in Sanyang, is in an excellent spot with miles of clean beach to the north and a couple of bars and restaurants just to the south. Ospreys Bar beside the fishing beach at Sanyang also has a good reputation and a menu full of fresh seafood, and is far enough away from the activity to relax, yet close enough to get a good view of the boats coming in. For really up-to-date information on places to stay and eat, the best bet is to start a new topic at Lonely Planet's excellent Thorn Tree forum.