Up the river in West Africa

04/12/2014 12:00 AM

09/17/2014 3:56 PM

The radiant sun was starting its late-afternoon descent, and I was gliding on glassy water through a Gambian archipelago of tropical rain-forest islands in a brightly painted boat, a converted ferry with an upper deck and even a soft-drink bar. Propped against pillows with my feet up, I was as comfortable as Cleopatra on her royal barge.

Suddenly, Assan, our guide, spotted our goal: a big, black chimpanzee sitting on the shoreline, eating fruit. And then there was another one, with a baby chimp swinging from its belly, high in the trees.

A day earlier in this tiny West African country, our targets were of a smaller, feathered nature: brilliantly azure Abyssinian rollers, bright yellow-crowned gonoleks and dozens of other species. They were clearly visible from a walk through Gambia’s Kiang West National Park.

And the day before that, I found myself petting a crocodile basking in the sun at the Abuko Nature Reserve.

These were scenes from the Rivers of West Africa cruise that I took in February. More accurately, the trip may be described as a leisurely weeklong excursion that departs from Dakar, Senegal; sails south along its Atlantic coast; east into Gambia, an English-speaking sliver of land in the middle of Francophone West Africa; and up the Gambia River.

The Harmony V, a 25-cabin motor yacht operated by the Greek company Variety Cruises, stops at historic and cultural places along the river. The wildlife is a key attraction of the cruise — especially the birds; Gambia is home to more than 500 species.

Lacking most big animals — lions, elephants, rhinoceroses, giraffes and zebras died out here centuries ago — Gambia is unlikely to be the first stop in Africa for U.S. tourists. But Gambia offers a feast of hippos, monkeys, baboons, dolphins, manatees, lizards and snakes (we saw none of those, thank goodness). And with such a light tourism infrastructure upriver, visitors can get close to the Gambian people and their way of life.

My seven-night cruise, which ranges from about $1,800 to $3,200 per person, plus about $350 for shore excursions, began tumultuously. Snowstorms in the United States had scrambled thousands of flights, and I landed at the Dakar airport some four hours after scheduled embarkation. After navigating a confusing visa regime, I was whisked to the port, where, thanks to a call the day before from New York, Variety had agreed to hold the ship for me. The welcome dinner had long since ended, but crew members handed me a “welcome” fruit drink and served my meal. Soon, we set sail.

By 8:30 the next morning, my cruise-mates and I were off the boat, in a van and on our way across salt flats to a fishing village in the Siné-Saloum Delta in Senegal. The delta, a UNESCO biosphere reserve, is home to the bluest blue herons that I have ever seen. There must have been 30 or more in a flock, standing elegantly near the road.

The final destination on that morning was Fadiouth, an island full of horse and donkey carts and merchants hawking multicolored fabrics, used clothing and housewares.

Returning to the Harmony after a lunch of grilled snapper at a local restaurant, we set sail again and began our routine. Once or twice a day, we debarked for excursions. Aside from the natural wonders, they included a tour of Gambia’s capital, Banjul, a bustling mix of street markets and government edifices, as well as historic sites.

Gambia was carved out as a country for its trade route to the continent’s interior, including the slave trade. So we stopped at Kunta Kinteh Island, made famous by Alex Haley, the author of Roots. There, we walked into the remains of cramped, windowless quarters where dozens of men and women at a time were held captive before their shipment to bondage in the United States.

Likewise, in Janjanbureh, an island upriver, we visited the abandoned, derelict slave house, a local market where people mainly trade off the produce of their subsistence farms, and then the Freedom Tree. Lore has it that if captives survived a run from the slave house to the tree, facing bullets from their captors, they would be free. No one made it.

My fondest memory came at a nursery and primary school in Lamin Koto, which we stopped to visit because Variety and its passengers, through donations, are helping to pay for it. In a classroom, dozens of children enthusiastically reached out to take my right hand.

After each excursion, we were met by Harmony crewmen offering cold towels and glasses of iced tea. Then the boat would begin chugging or meandering along the waterway and, from perches on the sun deck, we could read, nap, or sit in the sun or the shade and watch the scenery roll by. And each night, we enjoyed the creature comforts of the West, including five-course dinners. The sunsets were pretty dazzling, too.

•  Information: www.varietycruises.com

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