If Kunta Kinte could see the Gambia River, he wouldn't believe it.
Picture a white yacht flying a blue Greek flag. Sitting on the deck are 25 people having lunch, a little white wine, a little pasta. The yacht, Pegasus, is the only vessel on the shimmering, warm river. It glides past the shore, headed back from nearly a week cruising far up-country, to places where the temperature hits 105 degrees, where those aboard have seen birds and crocodiles, chimps and monkeys, been escorted by a Gambian member of Parliament on a village tour and been carried on a horse cart over a flooded road.
The incongruous sight is due to a one-of-a-kind cruise, Rivers of West Africa. It began Dec. 31 through a Greek small-ship line, Variety. The cruise originates in Dakar, Senegal, and sails to southern Senegal, then 120 miles up the Gambia River in the Gambia.
While most Americans have at least heard of Senegal, the Gambia is barely on their radar, except for one thing -- it is the legendary home of Kunta Kinte of Alex Haley's 1974 novel, "Roots."
This cruise has air-conditioned cabins, excellent food, semi-regular cell phone service and a professional crew. On the other hand, the itinerary is not for sissies. You have to take malaria medicine. There is dust and heat ashore. Buses have only African air-conditioning -- open windows.
And monkeys might steal your lunch.
One morning while anchored midriver in the village of Tendaba, the plan is to board a local canoe, called a pirogue (pea-ROGUE), and visit the Kissi Bolong national wetland reserve. But as the pirogue heads up the river, the motor dies, gasps and dies.
"Please check the engine," says trip director Christian Ceplak, with remarkable calm.
Finally the boat operator does. He swings around and drifts toward a collision with the Pegasus, tossing a deckhand the line just before we are swept downriver on the swift current. A sad-looking replacement pirogue is sent from shore; their engine is swapped for ours, and four tourist camp passengers in that pirogue have to jump from their boat to ours, midriver. After that, fish begin jumping out of the water, and a mullet lands right in the lap of Ann Bleckman of Port Washington, N.Y. It all proves worth it as we pass into huge mangrove swamps. The Gambia no longer has lions or elephants, which vanished in the early 1900s after too much hunting. But it never lost its birds, its millions and millions of birds.
The great white pelican has a wingspan of up to 8 feet, and two of them keep company with the pirogue, flapping their way downriver like ancient, flying dinosaurs. The kingfishers are the color of a black-and-white cartoon. From the bank, a giant river otter slides in the mud and peers suspiciously, then slides away. Two green vervet monkeys watch from a tree.
Another day, and the yacht docks at Kaur, a village far, far off the tourist track, about 100 miles up the Gambia River. Early in the morning, a group of tourists walks the red dirt road toward the village. The light is gold, and the air is still. The road passes rice fields on either side, and all of a sudden, the road is flooded out, with no way across. Some boys chip in to help, placing chunks of red mud as stepping stones so everyone can hop across. But there is a second, deeper, flooded part ahead. What to do? Then a man with a wooden cart pulled by a tired white horse passes by.
"Can you give us a ride?" someone asks. He swings around, and tourists pile onto the cart and he ferries them back and forth across the flooded part. Both villagers and tourists laugh at the spectacle.
It turns out that Kaur is a lucky village because it has electricity and a cell phone tower atop a small hill. But that is where modernization stops. Families live in compounds on land that has been in their families for hundreds of years, passed down from generation to generation. In a village without a bank, cattle is wealth here, so farmers buy cattle with their peanut or rice proceeds.
It's not a tourist town, and the morning market goes on as usual with its tomatoes and peppers. The life expectancy in the Gambia is 54 years. Most women have five children. The literacy rate is 40 percent.
Our mega-yacht, Pegasus, which once was owned by a millionaire, is comfortable and luxurious.
Another day, and after a four-hour ride on the cool river from Kuntaur, we reach the village of Janjangbureh.
The tour guide is someone important, Mr. Foday Mansa, a member of the Gambian Parliament. He announces that the governor of this region wishes to meet the group and walks everyone down the sweltering streets to the governor's house.
The temperature is at least 102 degrees, so everyone is sticking to the shade and sitting where possible. After a long wait, Mansa announces the governor is not feeling well, so we will not meet him after all. Mansa walks the group instead through the town to the Freedom Tree. That was a place where any Gambian slave who reached the tree could embrace it and be free.
After the sweltering tour, tourists have an alfresco West African lunch with shrimp and potatoes, pumpkin salad and ice-cold Coke. Green vervet monkeys try to steal the food, so eat fast.
After a few days, several people are a little bit sick, only they are having such a good time they try to hide it. Most issues have come from eating the food ashore. Imodium, Pepto-Bismol and antibiotics are taken behind the scenes.
My only real sickness comes from a day in which I get way too hot on a shore excursion. After one shivery and headachy night, I'm OK again.
Today, the tour buses drive through the dust and heat to the school near Janjangbureh. By now it is more than 100 degrees, but children are just returning from lunch across hard-packed dusty paths back to class. The girls wear bright green dresses someone must have sent from England. They see the tourists and keep saying, "What is your name?" and "Do you have water bottle?" The children are delighted, but not as much as the tourists, who feel like at last they are doing something positive in trade for their visit here. Many of them shake hands or hug the children and smile a lot.
This close to the equator, the sunsets are sudden. The sun is round, big, orange, then it's gone and it's dark.
One morning, it is chilly enough to need a sweater, and the river shimmers with mist. After 20 minutes, a pirogue full of tourists arrives at the Baboon Islands in the middle of River Gambia National Park.
In 1979, with the Gambia's chimpanzee population extinct from hunters and poachers, the Gambia designated three islands in the Gambia River to be chimp refuges, where confiscated animals and former lab animals can live. Today, the largest island is home to 83 chimps, most of them born here in the wild, re-establishing the population.
If you go:
*The boat: Pegasus, a 148-foot mega-yacht built in 1990, holds 42 passengers and a 16-member crew.
*The cruise: The West Africa cruise will resume Dec. 23 and continue through March 9. Book directly through Variety Cruises (www.varietycruises.com, 800-319-7776). Or book through Boston-based Odysseys Unlimited, whose package includes airfare, precruise hotels, tours, cruise, a tour rep and more (www.odysseys-unlimited.com, 888-370-6765). The cruise itself costs about $2,300, but adding shore excursions, airfare, tours and extras, total trip cost is about $4,000-$5,000 per person. Book at least a "B" class cabin.
*The itinerary: Not for novices. Boat spends the first and last nights on the Atlantic Ocean, which can be rocky, then five nights on the smooth Gambia River. Shore excursions are nature-focused -- to national parks, a chimp reserve, the excellent Kissi Bolong bird refuge, the Saloum River Delta. Except for Dakar, towns and villages are hot, dusty and extremely limited in amenities.
*The shopping: Good in Dakar; limited elsewhere. Look for necklaces, carvings, batik items (be careful, some are Chinese-made), baskets.
*Other details: Almost no ATMs, so bring cash to exchange. Senegal uses CFA francs and the Gambia uses the dalasi. Malaria pills are needed, although I saw only one mosquito. Bring bug spray, anti-diarrheal meds, antibiotics and medication for seasickness. Yellow fever immunization urged.