(JollofNews)- This is not the kind of information that I ever expected to be able to impart from first-hand experience. But then again I’ve never seen crocodiles as docile (I hesitate to use the word) as these dozen or so Nile specimens.
They are yawning, stretching but mostly sleeping on the banks of the Kachikally Crocodile Pool, on the Atlantic coast in The Gambia. The pool’s location is rather incongruous, sitting behind a maze of dusty streets near the centre of the small town of Kachikally itself.
Staring with expressions that seem to range from sinister intent to contempt, these crocodiles are believed to have spiritual powers.
Women who struggle to conceive come here from all over this tiny nation (the smallest in mainland Africa and barely half the size of Wales) in order to ask for help from these Jurassic-looking creatures. It would appear that some aren’t the slightest bit interested in assisting, though.
According to my guide, one or two of them have been known to take a stroll into town and sleep underneath people’s beds for the night. With the reassurance of the pool rangers I bend down to touch one, Charlie.
Attuned to humans paying them a visit Charlie doesn’t move a muscle, to my visible relief. They just don’t consider us to be food at all, my guide insists, a remark I still fear may one day come back to haunt him.
The croc pool, covered with water cabbage and lichen, may have infamous inhabitants but is hardly the most spectacular of The Gambia’s charms although it is a thrilling introduction to this bijou land. With a reputation (dating back to the first Western tourists who came on package holidays here from Scandinavia in the Sixties) for being a slightly tacky fly-and-flop destination, The Gambia has substantially raised its game, particularly in accommodation.
Ngala Lodge, with its infinity pool and colossal new suites, elegantly decorated with local art works and Chesterfield sofas, delights. Its rather eccentric garden is dotted with fibreglass purple sheep and penguins reminding me of an ironic contemporary art project or the collection of a slightly dotty pensioner in Frinton.
From Ngala it’s barely a half-hour ride out from the sprawling adjoining coastal towns of Banjul and Serekunda into the Gambian bush where the soil is ochre red. Here the mangrove swamps fidget with storks and sunbirds and donkey carts plod past markets where women in flowing techni-colour robes sell peanuts, bright red palm oil and silver mullet under the searing sun. Even out here changes are afoot.
The village of Galoya is home to an innovative project called Wide Open Walls where street artists from The Gambia and Europe have turned the walls of shops and homes into striking murals. Guided by the villagers themselves I stroll in the late morning sun around the humble village where the paintings vary from a Cubist-style take on two wrestlers (the national sport of The Gambia) to abstract collages of smiling moons, footballs and flowers.
On the bumpy ride back to the coast later that day, my appetite surges with the aroma of smoked fish and the grilled okra and aubergines that wafts out of the ramshackle but colourful roadside stands. It makes the invitation from Ida Cham Njai’s Yabouy Cooking School in Serekunda to help create a traditional Gambian meal even more tempting.
Based in the shaded back yard of her home where she also hosts overnight home-stays, Ida shows me how to prepare a gargantuan pot of “benachin”, a stew containing John Dory fish, chillies, tomato, rice, parsley and lemon juice.
Baked for hours in a charcoal oven the result is a quite fantastic and tender concoction which, eaten with my fingers, is washed down with an ice-cold bottle of the local beer, Julbrew.
Ida waxes lyrical about the wildlife and the scenery as we relax after dinner in her comfy, sofa-laden and thankfully air-conditioned front parlour.
“But to really understand The Gambia, you have to taste what we eat here – it’s really the essence of our culture.”
I arrived here fearing that I might make for a spot of lunch myself for one of the crocodiles. I left having sampled some incredible dishes.
What is certain is that while The Gambia might be tiny amid the grand panorama of Africa, it is big on pleasures and attractions.
The Gambia Experience (01489 866939/gambia.co.uk) offers seven nights at Ngala Lodge from £799pp (two sharing), B&B.
Price includes return flights from Gatwick to Banjul and transfers.
By Rob Crossan, Sunday Express