Reportedly sporting the body of a crocodile, the head of a three-horned horse and the neck of a giraffe, coming face-to-face with the Ninki-Nanka may not be at the top of everyone's list of Africa sightseeing essentials.
But for those who love the local folklore and the amazing natural world which both lines and lives in the Gambia River, trailing this mythical creature is a wonderful way to begin exploring this fascinating corner of West Africa. Experiencing the astonishing flora, fauna and scenery of the wet, swampy and forested land that the Ninki-Nanka reputedly calls home will introduce visitors to some of the very best of Gambia.
Just like the bogeyman, the Ninki-Nanka is thought to have begun life as a story to scare wayward children into better behaviour. If a youngster is naughty in West Africa, they could be threatened with being eaten by the Ninki-Nanka, whose name literally translates as “dragon-devil”, if they don’t change their ways.
Yet, as with all folk stories, especially those passed down through oral traditions, the Ninki-Nanka has evolved and altered, with all sorts of tales and descriptions now associated with the mythical creature. What most tales agree on, however, is that this is a very big and fearsome animal inhabiting the swamps of the Gambia.
Descriptions of the Ninki-Nanka also vary widely. While many claim it has a giraffe neck, horse head and crocodile body, other stories claim that it’s closer in appearance to a huge komodo – or even Chinese – dragon. Mirror-like scales have been described on the crest of the Ninki-Nanka's head, while others claim it is a fire-spitting snake.
Whichever account you believe, there's no disputing that a search for the real Ninki-Nanka behind the folklore will introduce visitors to some truly incredible, real-life animals, along the way.
In 2006, the Centre for Fortean Zoology sent a team of six explorers to attempt to uncover fresh evidence of this African dragon creature. The expedition did not spot the Ninki-Nanka itself, but their troupe was presented with matter purported to be Ninka-Nanka scales. This was later revealed to be rotted celluloid film.
The witnesses they interviewed in the course of their research, however, had far more elaborate stories of sightings. Unfortunately, these stories were rarely first-hand accounts – in fact, many people believe that those who see the Ninki-Nanka are fated to die within four years of the sighting.
If you're willing to risk it all by seeking out the Ninki-Nanka, a base in Banjul, Gambia's capital city on the mouth of the Gambia River, is the best place to start your quest.
Hotels in Banjul for all budgets are available across the city, which is relatively untrodden by tourists thanks to the proximity of more popular beach resorts along the Atlantic coastline. For a more “all inclusive” experience, make a bee-line for these tourist spots but, for an authentically Gambian experience, Banjul is a great place to stay.
Opt for a luxury hotel, a budget hostel or a local boutique spot to enjoy the hustle, bustle and exciting ethnic mix of cultures which make this safe and welcoming city such a vibrant destination. Accommodation in Banjul will give you the opportunity to explore some great sites in the city including the Gambia National Museum, the huge, symbolic Arch 22 and the thriving Albert Market before heading onwards to discover the river, swamp, rainforest, creatures – and perhaps even the Ninki-Nanka - of this corner of Africa.
Reaching the land of the Ninki-Nanka by air is simple, with many direct cheap flights to Banjul from all over the world landing at Yundum International (also known as Banjul International Airport), a 40-minute drive from the heart of the city. Taxis are readily available at the airport, as is car hire in Banjul, both at the airport and in the city itself.
Many tours and treks into the incredible natural world which lies beyond Banjul are available, and driving yourself to astonishingly beautiful locations such as River Gambia National Park and Bijilo Forest Park is also very doable if you want to explore the area without a group.
Local guides, however, will help you to find the most breathtaking scenery and ensure you have some truly magical animal encounters. They may not be able to uncover the Ninki-Nanka as you hike, float or drive through some of West Africa's most incredible scenery and most diverse environments, but after all of your adventures, you're probably not going to be feeling too disappointed.