Tourism industry in The Gambia gutted by global recession

We all know the global recession has hit the tourism industry pretty hard, but smaller countries off the beaten path are feeling it worse, and are less able to bounce back.

The Gambia is the smallest nation on the African mainland and has a modest tourism industry based around its beautiful beaches, serene river, and two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the mysterious stone circles pictured here. Unfortunately, Mr. Alieu Secka, president of the nation’s Hoteliers Association, says there’s been a 50% drop in arrivals for the 2009/2010 season. A quick check of several leading hotels revealed the figure to be more or less accurate.


The Gambia is not a rich nation, and such a plunge in the industry will threaten jobs and businesses, creating a knock-on effect as families have to support the newly jobless.

Is The Gambia the proverbial canary in the coalmine? Will other small nations get hit this hard?

Hopefully I’ll be going to The Gambia in 2010. My wife, who is very supportive of her wandering husband, gave me a flight there as a Christmas present, so assuming I don’t trade it in for a flight somewhere else to visit my friend as he motorcycles across Africa, I’ll be able to give a firsthand report. Perhaps I’ll bring along some extra money to spend. The Gambians deserve it.

In case you’re wondering, I got her an espresso machine. She didn’t want to go to The Gambia with me so I guess she’ll just sip espresso at home and read my blog posts.

Avebury–more awesome than Stonehenge

Everyone’s heard of Stonehenge, the enigmatic stone circle on Salisbury Plain, but just seventeen miles to the north stands an even more imposing monument–Avebury.

Actually it’s a whole landscape of monuments. For miles around the rolling fields are dotted with the burial mounds of forgotten chieftains, and many hilltops are protected by ancient ramparts. Avebury itself is a massive stone circle with two avenues running across the fields to a pair of smaller stone circles. The entire area has been designated a World Heritage Site.

Stonehenge is more self contained, a pretty picture and fascinating to stare at, but it suffers from familiarity, so much so that the Times Online listed it as one of the world’s five most overrated tourist attractions. Avebury is far more vast, and instead of walking along a cordoned path with hundreds of other visitors, you can wander through a prehistoric landscape away from the crowd.

Getting off the bus at the village of Avebury, you don’t have far to go to see the main monument, in fact you’re right in the middle of it. An impressive circle of stones (called a henge in scientific parlance) more than a thousand feet in diameter is surrounded by a deep ditch and earthen rampart. Two smaller henges stand inside the large one. An avenue flanked by smaller stones heads south, and there used to be another one headed west, although that’s all but disappeared thanks to the march of time. This main monument was started around 3000 BC, or five thousand years ago.

Considering the region’s history, it’s amazing any of the smaller stones survive at all. During the Middle Ages the local farmers got religion in a big way and decided to destroy this reminder of their pagan past. Easier said than done. Whole villages turned out to make huge bonfires to crack the stones, and then they hauled the pieces away and used them for local buildings, a common practice throughout England and seen especially along the route of Hadrian’s Wall, where the Romans were kind enough to make properly shaped stones instead of massive monoliths.

Destruction was as dangerous as it was difficult. Local legend says that one day a group of men were working to topple a large stone and it fell over, crushing one of the workers. In 1938 archaeologists dug up a fallen stone and found the skeleton of a man underneath. He carried some 14th century coins and the tools of a barber-surgeon (the jobs were the same back then). These folks, who cut hair, lanced boils, and utterly failed to find a cure for the plague, were considered to be quasi-magical, their strange arts necessary but somewhat suspect. It’s interesting that a magical person was brought along to destroy a magical place, and it’s no wonder his death became enshrined in local memory.

Fortunately much has been preserved or restored. A walk down the avenue of stones headed south from Avebury brings you to two more famous monuments.

%Gallery-72633%The field slopes down toward the south, and as you pass around the brow of a ridge a giant conical hill appears. This is Silbury Hill, a 130 ft. chalk mound erected around 2500 BC. Nobody is sure what it was for, but some researchers noticed it’s in a large circular valley that works as a natural amphitheater. I spoke to one of the site’s volunteers who participated in an experiment a couple of years ago. A group of musicians using reconstructed prehistoric instruments played them atop the hill while people stood at various locations around it. This woman stood a mile away and could hear all the instruments clearly, except the drums which were muffled due to the rain. She could even hear a song one of the musicians sang, picking out most of the words even though artillery practice was going on at the nearby military base!

On a ridge beyond Silbury Hill is West Kennet Long Barrow, a gallery of stones forming a long hall and four side chambers, with a larger chamber at the end. All of it is covered with earth to make a long artificial ridge atop the natural one. It was started around 3600 BC and remarkably some of the burials survived to the modern era. The first two rooms flanking the gallery held the remains of women, children, and the elderly. The next two contained adults, and the big room at the end had bones only of adult males. Were these warriors? Nobody knows, but it’s fun to speculate.

All in all, Avebury makes for a fun day of wandering. I suggest starting early and taking a good pair of walking shoes and an Ordinance Survey map. There are many smaller archaeological sites in the area worth visiting that only take a mile or so of walking to get to. The visitor center in town sells detailed maps.

A legendary stone circle in England

Everyone knows about Stonehenge, England’s most famous ancient monument, but did you know that there are nearly a thousand similar stone circles in the United Kingdom? Some are almost as big as Stonehenge, and all are steeped in folklore and legend.

A favorite of mine are the Rollright Stones, which you can get to as an easy day trip from Oxford or London. They’re near Chipping Norton, a fifty-minute bus ride from Oxford. This is a chance to get out of town and experience some of England’s peaceful countryside as well as a bit of prehistoric mystery.

The Rollright Stones is actually a general name for three ancient monuments within sight of each other. There’s a circle of low stones called the King’s Men, and nearby is a tall, strangely shaped stone called the King Stone (pictured here). A little further away is a cluster of five tall stones called the Whispering Knights. The names come from an old legend.

A long time ago, the legend says, a king and his army were passing through the countryside when five of his knights drew apart and conspired against him. As this was happening, a witch appeared and told him that if he could see the village of Long Compton a mile to the north by taking seven steps, he would become king of England. The king headed off, stretching out his legs as long as he could to get as far as possible, but on his seventh step a ridge rose up ahead of him. This ridge is still there and is called the Arch-Druid’s Barrow. The witch cackled and told him that he would never be king of England. Then the king, his knights, and the conspirators all turned to stone.

(I’m only repeating a legend, folks, so please don’t start a religious flame war like the last time I mentioned witches)

Stone circles are also associated with fertility, and old reports tell of young men and women meeting at the stones to eat, drink and, ahem, “be merry.” Ladies, if you want to find out the name of your future husband, press your ear against one of the Whispering Knights and he’ll whisper it to you. If you’re trying to get pregnant, press your breasts against the King Stone and you soon will be. “Making merry” with someone would probably help too.

So much for legend, what’s the real story of the Rollright Stones?


The Whispering Knights used to have a roof, making a little building called a dolmen. Dolmens were used as tombs for important people and were generally covered with earth to make an artificial hill. It dates to about 4000-3500 BC. This was during the Neolithic, what archaeologists call the last phase of the Stone Age.

The King’s Men was built in the late Neolithic around 2500-2000 BC and is one of many stone circles set up at that time. Many of these circles have astronomical alignments, and the King’s Men is no exception. Two stones line up to mark the spot on the horizon where the moon rises on midsummer’s night. What does this mean? Nobody knows, since they hadn’t invented writing yet.

The King Stone is a bit more recent, probably erected around 1800-1500 BC in the Bronze Age. It’s a single standing stone and marked the spot for a cemetery. It’s interesting that people chose to bury their dead here at this site, already ancient in their day. Some researchers have tried to find astronomical alignments with the King’s Men, but there’s no solid theory yet.

There’s an easy, eight-mile circular hike to get to the Rollright Stones from Chipping Norton, the nearest town of any size. Details of the hike can be found in most hiking guides covering Oxfordshire. I used 50 Walks in Oxfordshire (AA Publishing, 2003).