Exploring the Gambia’s new Ninki Nanka Trail
The route aims to draw travellers from the Gambia’s golden coast towards its lesser-explored interior. Named for a mythical water-dwelling beast, the trail traces the Gambia River 225 miles upstream from Banjul, an intrepid journey to the nation's heart.
“Abyssinian roller!” cries Francis Mendy, pointing to the blue-breasted bird and, in his excitement, rocking our small fishing boat. A committed birdwatcher, often prone to avian-related outbursts, Francis is my guide on this week-long journey along the River Gambia that takes us east from the capital, Banjul, to the fresh waters of Janjanbureh, then back along the north bank to the river’s salty Atlantic ingress.
For most of its length, the Gambia River’s banks are crowded with mangroves, the air thick and honied. Through that tangle comes a cornucopia of native fowl and fauna. Around our small boat, piscivorous African darters plummet into the water as the air fills with congregations of egrets, batteries of herons and cliques of pied kingfishers. The muddy bank moves in a kaleidoscopic wobble, the result of hundreds of sidestepping fiddler crabs. There are crocodiles too, but we’re looking for signs of a rarer beast — Ninki Nanka, Gambia’s folkloric leviathan, is said to haunt the mangrove forests along this river, too.
Ninki Nanka’s appearance is hard to corroborate, with descriptions varying from tribe to tribe. For some, it combines the head of a crocodile with the body of a donkey; for others, it’s a blend of hippopotamus and giraffe. To others still, it’s simply a large snake. Not that seeing it is desirable — its one consistent trait is its fatal stare. Francis' eyes comb the nearshore. “It’s believed that if you see the Ninki Nanka — purple glossy starling! — you’ll die.” The fishermen helming our boat aren’t worried; they all carry mirrors to deflect the death-inducing gaze of the beast. Like Medusa, the Ninki Nanka’s gaze is said to be fatal unto itself.
The view from the riverbank is probably not dissimilar from what the first Europeans sighted as they travelled upstream, making notes and looking for gold. The wattle and daub huts of riverine villages and the long, slender fishing pirogues knifing through grey-green, silky water are as clear as those described by Englishman Richard Jobson in his 1620 survey of the river. The same can be said of Scottish explorer Mungo Park’s 1795 account, or of scenes set by 20th-century American author Alex Haley, whose book Roots brought the river international renown. But my first impression, like theirs, had yet to uncover the deeper confidences of the country.
Today, the Gambia is a harbour for holidaymakers looking to bronze themselves on sandy beaches and sip cocktails in the Calypso atmosphere along the seashore. This swapping of northern winters for equatorial sunshine is today’s inheritance from the indelible mark left by those early European explorers: the name Gambia is a derivation of the Portuguese word cambio, meaning ‘trade’.
Driven to grab what they could and scoot, those early travellers paused to reap little more than a passing understanding from their harvest. Had they, the river might today be known by its more appropriate local title, Ba, the Mandinka word for ‘mother’ — a fitting name for something that’s been a giver of both life and goods for millennia. As the main arterial bloodline of Western Africa, the Gambia River was once a highway of trade, transport and communication. These days, however, commercial and tourist ventures have drifted away, and the river flows on largely unused, its waters and shorelines the quiet domain of Jola oystercatchers and rice farmers.
Francis, who lectures at the Institute of Travel and Tourism of the Gambia, is optimistic that the river can once again take precedence in Gambian life. Although we’re travelling on land, occasionally hopping onto various small watercraft to cross the river, it’s hoped a new initiative — the Ninki Nanka Trail — will once again ply the river with vessels bearing people and goods travelling from Banjul to Janjanbureh and Basse Santa Su and back again, a return journey of some 550 miles. Steamers and cargo ships once regularly made the journey, transporting tourists alongside traders and groundnut farmers. That era ended with the 1984 capsizing of the steamship Lady Chilel Jawara, whose mast can still be seen poking from the river at Devil Point.
The Ninki Nanka Trail also directs travellers into small riverside villages, where traditional blacksmithing, weaving and salt-panning still take place. It’s hoped such community-based tourism can provide a post-pandemic shot in the arm and create jobs in a countryside whose main industry — agriculture — has slumped after years of erratic weather. Near Kuntaur, rice is produced year-round in low-lying paddies, but this is an anomaly in a country plagued by drought — one without the infrastructure to tap its mighty river-vein. “The Gambia was once a large exporter,” Francis tells me, his eyes continuing to scan for birds. “Now, 80% of the rice consumed in the Gambia is — yellow-crowned gonolek! — imported from southeast Asia. We’ve become a subsistence country.”
In the village of Jamali Ganyado, farmer and village elder Salifu Njie, who guesses himself to be over 80 years old, recalls his grandmother taking baskets of groundnuts to the riverside to barter with European and African traders. “In those days, the economy was a barter system,” he says. “We would exchange our nuts for baskets of salt and fish.” With those farming jobs drying up, youth now travel to Banjul to seek out work. I ask if such a drain makes it difficult to keep traditions alive. “Now the young people go to the city,” Njie says, pointing to a young man’s jeans and trainers, then his own traditional kaftan, and laughing. The 1970s and 1980s were the peak years of the river, he says. “The river was important then, but now we have to take our crops to Senegal.”
Later that day, after leaving the village, we’re motoring in a small boat off Kuntaur, and Francis has me focusing on a palm-nut vulture — his favourite bird, he explains, for their shared fondness for palm wine. Suddenly, two large boulders along the riverside shudder to life. “King of the river!” shouts today’s boatman, Jalamang Danso, as he hauls off on the engine throttle. The hippos slip into the water and disappear, only to emerge ahead of our boat, their heads wide, thick and shining like the front end of a Buick. They snort and gape, then disappear below the surface with a burble. They’re no Ninki Nanka, but then, that deadly cryptid is hardly the worst thing around, given the very real water cobra, black mamba and puff adder can all be found in the jungled banks.
We’re more interested in the chimpanzees, anyway. Since 1979, they've populated several islands in the River Gambia National Park, as part of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project. The islands remain off-limits to visitors, but we tootle around their edges, watching as the black-haired figures palm their way from branch to branch. Cradled in a creche of vines, a baby scoops its hand into the water and drinks. Amid the surrounding arid landscape, the chimps inhabit a lush Eden, untouched and unbothered by visitors.
After three days of birds and boats, we reach the mouth of the river. The water here carries a different tone, its course made rough by an oceanic push, its aura heavy with the presence of slaving posts and their painful memories. In the wide, lower reaches of the river, we thump through heavy chop on another rickety pirogue to the UNESCO-protected Kunta Kinteh Island (named for the protagonist of Alex Haley’s Roots), a mid-river nub of pain and suffering that was once a British slave-trade outpost. Prior to the 1807 outlawing of the British slave trade, this was the local base for the Royal African Company and its profiteering in peoples stolen from the hinterland.
First mate Seedou Sey settles down beside me, points to his ears and shakes his head to indicate his deafness. He scrawls his name into my notebook, then begins to mime activities as we pass various sights along the river — the hauling of a fishnet, the peeling of a shrimp, the throat-bobbing swallow of a pink-backed pelican. Then, pointing to the island, he simulates his hands bound with chains. His handsome, dimpled face sags.
The edifice on Kunta Kinteh Island is now a crumbling ruin, but it was once grand enough to host the Royal African Company officials and their staff of 33 soldiers, 8 merchants, 13 writers, 20 artisans and 32 slaves. It’s a brutal, realistic denouement to my mythological pursuit down the river. Only in the confluence of legend and hard-edged history does the Gambia River reveal its true essence. The Gambia is the river; the river is the Gambia. The country’s border fits the river like a sheath, conforming to its twists and turns. The river is the country’s veinous core, pumping lifeblood deep into the country.
And Ninki Nanka? Seedou smiles and covers his eyes in mock death, before slapping me on the back and extending his hand for me to reboard his vessel.
TUI Airlines offers direct flights between Gatwick and Banjul International Airport. Various carriers offer one-stop options from the UK, including Brussels Airlines, Vueling and TAP.
Average flight time: 6h20m.
When to go
The Ninki Nanka Trail is designed to promote travel during the shoulder season, between May and October, when seasonal rains green the landscape and agricultural and cultural celebrations peak. Temperatures are steady throughout the year, with days in the high 20Cs and evenings slipping down into the high teens.
How to do it
Ninki Nanka Encounters offers information on planning, booking and its Community-Based Tourism initiative. Both short day trips and longer, multi-day excursions into the Gambian hinterland are available for £100-£400 per person, including all sites, activities, accommodation, ferries and food.
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