West Africa river cruises

A West Africa river cruise takes you along the Gambia River and into the Saloum Delta of Senegal, through prestigious national parks and charming French colonial towns, all the while presenting a stunning variety of wildlife. For bird watchers this is a particular treat, as you visit the Bao Bolong Wetland Reserve, Langue de Barbarie National Park and Djoudj National Park, all of them renowned for their myriad species of birds.

To call it a cruise is perhaps something of a misnomer. You’ll be traveling by an exciting mix of transport: an overnight stay aboard a motor cruiser on the Gambia River, traditional pirogues through the Saloum Delta and wetlands, jeeps for game drives in Kiang West National Park, and hardy overland vehicles between destinations, as well as for the border crossings.

What will I see?

Lac Rose

Just northeast of Dakar, capital of Sengal, this astonishingly picturesque lake is tinted pink by algae. Its otherworldly appearance is heightened by the magenta-coloured samphire bushes and terracotta dunes that line the lake, while the waters themselves are thick with salt that local fishermen harvest to preserve their catch.

Djoudj National Park

Located in the Senegal Delta, this vast wetland ecosystem, fragile but essential, hosts over 1.5 million migratory waterbirds including white pelicans, pink flamingos, Egyptian geese, fish eagles and cormorants, pausing for a breather after flying across the Sahara. Crocodiles and water pythons patrol the channels between lakes, which are too narrow for large vessels, and must be negotiated by motorised canoes known as pirogues.

Langue de Barbarie National Park

This narrow peninsula between the Senegal River and the Atlantic, lined with sand dunes and mangroves, is home to three species of turtle including the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle, as well as many species of birdlife. Migratory species arrive between November and April, with February an excellent time to witness mating, nesting and feeding the young.

Bao Bolong Wetland Reserve

Small pirogues carry you through the mangrove of Bao Bolong, where over 500 species of birds can be found: kites, eagles, buzzards and West African starlings sail above, while colourful kingfishers keep a watchful eye. Slow moving manatees are prey to the ever present crocodiles, while it’s not unknown to spot otters, antelopes and even leopards here.

Saloum Delta

As the Saloum River reaches the Atlantic it unfolds into a languid maze of wide channels dotted with islands, many of them threatened by rising sea levels and loss of the natural mangrove barrier. Pirogues weave their way past fishing communities where heaps of oyster shells stand, while pelicans and flamingos fly overhead.

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From £3099 to £3299 14 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2023: 19 Oct, 16 Nov, 26 Dec
2024: 8 Feb, 21 Mar, 2 May, 25 Jul, 11 Aug, 5 Sep, 19 Oct, 28 Nov, 26 Dec
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Life aboard ship

Between Georgetown and Tendaba, via the ancient Wassu Stone Circles, you’ll cruise down the Gambia River aboard a motor cruiser, a converted groundnut boat. Expect simple yet comfortable facilities aboard, with a WC, kitchen and bar, and a shaded deck area where you’ll sleep at night on mattresses.

A Gambian crew will serve up delicious homecooked food while you pass ‘can’t take your eyes off it’ scenery including tropical forest where monkeys call, plus rice paddies, bamboo groves and mangrove swamps. In the river itself you may see bathing hippos and watchful crocodiles. What we’re saying is – keep your camera handy at all times, but you can probably skip your bathing suit.

Best time to take a
West Africa river cruise

Small group trips, taking a fairly circuitous route from Dakar, depart from October to May. This is the dry season when the weather is cooler, there are fewer mosquitoes around, and with less mud and landslides to worry about, overland travel is considerably easier.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: nikolasc62] [Intro: Dan Roizer] [Lac Rose: Jeff Attaway] [Bao Bolong Wetland Reserve: gisela gerson lohman-braun] [Best time to take a West Africa river cruise: IsaacTuray]