This chimp looks mightily pissed off. I’m sizing up the distance between my tiny boat on the River Gambia and the trees in which the ape – eyes mad as hell and flexing the bodybuilder- esque muscles in his back – is staring hard. Chimpanzees can jump distances of up to five metres, so I’m seriously hoping we’ve got this right. Here, at the misleadingly named Baboon Islands, a poacher once tried to net himself some wildlife. The chimps surrounded and beat the shit out of him. Baboon Islands has no trouble with poachers now.

Like the slight, quiet kid overshadowed by a family of muscular brothers, The Gambia is an underdog in Africa. At just more than 300 miles long and barely 30 miles wide, it is the smallest country on the continent, and is split horizontally in half by its namesake river, which runs the length of the land and then abandons itself to the Atlantic. If that topography wasn’t strange enough, The Gambia is barely left room to breathe by Senegal, a Francophone country that completely envelopes this Anglophone sliver.

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Another reason The Gambia finds itself overshadowed is its absence of The Big Five, or even giraffes and zebras. There are no safari parks taking 4WDs packed with tourists past the likes of lions and leopards – The Gambia simply doesn’t have these animals to show off.

That might be the biggest reason why the tourist trade here tends to lean towards the undesirable: package holidays confined to the beach and long happy hours, or rampant sex tourism – think Thailand, only swap fat, white blokes for middle-aged European women, and lithe Thai girls for athletic, young African men (known as ‘bumsters’).

But in just a handful of days, I discover a very different Gambia – one that shows the possibilities of veering from its limited tourist trail, and into areas of almost untrammelled innocence. I stay in a rural village, struggle to keep a safe distance from aggressive great apes, and am mesmerised by the sinister gaze of bathing hippos (The Gambia’s largest animal, and one responsible for killing more tourists on this continent than any other). In this Gambia, a real African adventure awaits.

But for now, it’s back to the bruiser chimp. “This is Jumbo,” says Matthew Selinske, a former US Peace Corps volunteer and now programme manager at The Gambia’s Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project (CRP), who is almost comically square jawed and shiny of tooth. “He worked in a circus, where he got addicted to alcohol and cigarettes. I really think he hates humans.”

That would explain the stare-down I’m getting from Jumbo, then. Also, male chimpanzees in particular are renowned for their aggression. Perhaps it’s the testosterone that comes with the ownership of unusually large balls: chimp testicles have a combined weight of about 110g, compared to a gorilla’s 28g and a human’s 43g.

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In the River Gambia National Park, which is the official name for the three Baboon Islands on the water’s north bank, many of the apes are in rehab. In 1979, the CRP was founded here to reintroduce chimps that had been mistreated – either in the entertainment or the pet industry – back into the wild. The rescued chimps have gone forth and multiplied, with the fourth generation now swinging through these trees. They’re joined by the animals endemic to these parts – baboons, red colobus monkeys, crocodiles, antelopes, warthogs and hippos, among others.

You can stay overnight at the CRP and take a tour of the islands – a worthy challenger to the thrill of your typical African safari. I’m guided around on a modest motorboat, from which we stare at, and are stared at by, scores of chimps. They swing from branch to branch with their babies, and hang one-handed over the river, using their free hand to scoop the water into their mouths. What strikes me is how unfailingly thoughtful they look. As humans’ closest relatives, the eyes the chimps regard me with are far from blank.

I’m also teased with glimpses of bathing hippos, which poke up above the water to catch their breath. We remain at a good distance, as this too is a famously aggressive species, weighing between two and three tonnes and sporting human-crushing, massive jaws and teeth.

There is only room for eight people at a time to stay at the CRP – guests sleep in safari tents in the mainland forest opposite Island 2 – which adds an air of exclusivity to what is surely The Gambia’s highlight. “A different type of Gambian tourist makes the effort to come up here,” says Selinske, a comment from which you can draw your own conclusions.

That said, Selinske would like to see more visitors at the CRP, as tourism is “a lifeline”. The project receives some government funding and has a sponsorship programme, but money raised from visits like mine is crucial too. After the boat trip, draining a bottle of the local JulBrew – an easy-drinking and sneakily potent lager – while I watch the sun set over the water, I’m happy to be doing my bit.

Retiring to my safari tent after a candlelit dinner of warthog and a couple more JulBrews, I’m bowled over by the view from my bed. The tent is more mosquito netting than canvas, giving the effect of sleeping outside beneath the star-crammed night sky. It also allows me to watch the sunrise from under the covers, a dawn chorus of strange bird calls and whooping monkeys ringing out over the dead-still river and wildly thick tangles of trees.

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I wouldn’t have discovered the CRP were it not for Susan Clifford-Webb, a former farm girl from Shropshire who came to The Gambia in 2001 “seeking sun and sea” and never left. She insisted I make the journey, and I’m glad. Clifford-Webb is also responsible for letting me in on what she calls “the real Gambia”, having built a mini-hotel right in the middle of Brufut, a rural village 25 minutes from the capital, Banjul.

Over an invigorating ginger juice, she tells me: “Here at Hibiscus House, you are in the local community. If next door has an argument, you will hear it. And believe me, they do!”

You could choose to find the experience of staying at Hibiscus House too jarring: a little paradise of verdant shrubbery and sunloungers, it’s very different to next door, where chickens scratch about in a yard fenced off by ugly sheets of corrugated iron, and food is cooked over a candle.

While Clifford-Webb is keen to emphasise that Hibiscus House is not a community project – “it’s a business” – she says it has benefited the Brufut community. The hotel was built using local materials and labour, the latter providing villagers with lucrative skills. It benefits tourists, too: staff members live no more than a few doors away, and are friendly folk only too happy to show guests a world outside the hotel’s walls. “Musa, the chef, once had a naming ceremony and invited the whole hotel!” laughs Clifford-Webb. It’s typical of a country in which every person you see wants to say “hey” and asks your name.

The first time I venture out into the village, watching children roll rubber tyres down red dirt tracks and scrawny goats skipping past shacks, I’m in pursuit of a gelli-gelli. These battered mini-buses are The Gambia’s public transport, ferrying around as many people as can be squashed in. Nearby Brufut beach is an almost-deserted stretch of sand, punctuated sparingly by simple frond-thatched beach bars, with a well-hidden Sheraton at the end. But I’m looking for something even further off the seldom-trodden road, and take a 25p gelli-gelli ride a few villages beyond to Batakunku.

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The drive takes me past scenes straight from TV: women swathed in bright colours carrying loads on their heads, be those loads trays of fruit, barrels or bundles of sticks. The Gambia is 90 per cent Islamic, but it’s interesting to note how customs vary from the black-abaya-swaddled Gulf; those bright dresses are modest, but not all-covering, and when a woman begins breast-feeding her baby next to me on the gelli-gelli, there’s not a flinch.

Getting off at the green-and-white mosque and mounting a sweaty stroll along a back road of ubiquitous red dust, my sojourn secedes to a genuine paradise. Batakunku beach gives the impression of an undiscovered, desert island, though the brilliant Fanso’s Beach Bar hidden in the trees means I’m never far from a tangy fish curry. Reclining under a palm frond canopy, I watch a fellow tourist run down to the surf and help fishermen haul in their catch. After much tugging and “heave-ho”ing, a pile of giant, odd-looking fish is slapped onto the sand, their bulging eyes almost cartoon-like.

Clifford-Webb says of her decision to settle in The Gambia: “A little bit of that red dust gets into you.” And I see why. Never before have I had so much opportunity to interact with a country. I have lived among villagers; been invited into their homes and held their babies; shaken every hand as I walk their unpaved roads. There are no barriers between even you and the wildlife – as encounters with crocodiles and cobras (see ‘Best of the Rest’ below) attest.

It might be a little country, but The Gambia boasts some big experiences.

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Gambia: Best of the rest

KACHIKALLY CROCODILE POOL
Crocodiles represent fertility in The Gambia, which is why local women who are having problems conceiving flock to this crocodile pool in the village of Bakau to bathe in the water. It is also the country’s number-one tourist attraction thanks to the apparent “safety” of petting the hordes of crocs that hang out here. Visiting the pool is an unnerving experience – there really is nothing between you and the wild animals, which are fed piles of fish to ensure they don’t get hungry while you’re around. When I ask the guide whether anyone has ever been bitten, he pauses for a long time before deciding: “Not yet.”

SEREKUNDA MARKET
Serekunda is The Gambia’s largest city, and it has a massive market to match. Get carried away by the crowds past a labyrinth of stalls selling everything from TVs to piles of reeking dried fish. As The Gambia’s population doesn’t quite reach two million, you often find yourself gazing at deserted dirt roads wondering where everyone is. The answer: they’re all here at Serekunda market.

ABUKO NATURE RESERVE
Just south of Serekunda, following the trail through this forest gets you close to monkeys and a formidable array of snakes – one tourist tells me that upon disturbing a spitting cobra, her guide shouted the reassuring instruction: “Run!”

BRUFUT SCHOOL
When staying in Brufut, a visit to the local school is a must. Teaching more than 1800 students aged between six and 16, it’s an impressive project, but one that relies entirely on donations to keep running. Take along some exercise books and pens bought from the local shop – every little helps.

Essential information

WHEN TO GO: Avoid June to late September: the wet season renders many roads impassable. The weather starts to get unbearably hot around May. Tourist season is November to February, when the sun is strong but not stifling.
CURRENCY: £1 = GMD44 (Gambian Dalasi).
ACCOMMODATION: There are plenty of beach resorts, but for a more authentic and adventurous stay, it’s got to be Hibiscus House, set in the heart of an African village. You can stay as part of a package with The Gambia Experience (gambia.co.uk/hibiscus).
GETTING THERE: Budget carriers fly direct from London Gatwick to Banjul. Flights are included in package deals with The Gambia Experience. (gambia.co.uk)

Laura travelled with The Gambia Experience, which offers seven nights at Hibiscus House from a discounted price of £638pp, including breakfast, return flights, taxes and transfers (based on two sharing) for March 6,13, and 20 2012 departures. TNT readers can take advantage of a 20 per cent discount from brochure price on Hibiscus House holiday packages for travel during January, March and April 2012, excluding Easter departures. Please call The Gambia Experience for more information and quote TNT.  0845 330 2087   gambia.co.uk/hibiscus