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Unexpected adventures in the wilds of West Africa

In our technological world, there are still some places unencumbered by modern civilization. Swedish Cruise carries passengers to such pristine niches, from the coast of West Africa to the shores of India. The Lindblad Polaris, a ship with a cozy capacity of 70 people, has a draft so shallow it can penetrate regions some other cruise ships cannot. The Polaris even hauls rafts for venturing up narrow creeks and in between small islands.

I joined up with the company's ``West African Seafari,'' an 18-day voyage that started in Senegal, wove through the Bijag'os Archipelago of Guinea-Bissau, then moved deep into the Gambia River.

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Although life aboard Polaris is organized and very comfortable, what happens beyond the gangplank can be unpredictable and physically wearing. The naturalness and serendipity of these journeys make for an appealing alternative to the well-rehearsed tours and international shopping sprees offered on many cruise lines. By avoiding the beaten track, this company tends to turn its passengers into pioneers. If you shrink in the face of trailblazing or if you are uncomfortable with a cruise itinerary likely to change in the face of unforeseen dilemmas or opportunities, you should look for another travel outfit. But if you like adventure (and a smorgasbord in the wilderness), step right up.

We are halfway up the Gambia River, well beyond the mangrove swamps and Alex Haley's ancestral village of Juffure. Bruce, our venturesome tour director, is briefing us on our coming excursion to Simenti, a little-known wildlife lodge in Senegal's Niokola-Koba National Park.

``Just to set the scene,'' he begins, loosening the purple bandanna tied around his tanned neck, ``we're going to take a route not taken by other tourist groups. In fact, we've never tried it ourselves. Actually, we don't know what we'll find. . . .''

Nine days into our Seafari, we take such qualifiers in stride. After all, we have been conditioned to expect the unexpected. Some of us spent an adventurous, if unscheduled, night stranded under an awesome sea of stars on the balmy shores of an isolated isle known as Bubaque. On the gorgeous white beach of another remote island, an untimely tide swept into our succulent barbecue and blazing bonfire. In Gambia's nature reserve, a chimpanzee leaped into my arms and kissed me smack on the lips. And only a few days ago, a dozen of us had the accidental pleasure of happening into the daily life of a primitive Balante village, simply because we missed the Rio Mansoa ferry, which was to have taken us somewhere else.

So when Bruce announces, ``We're heading to the most remote part of Senegal,'' and when the ship's cultural historian inserts, ``Even most Senegalese haven't been there,'' we passengers smile confidently, as if affirming, ``We're up to that.'' Bruce tells us we will leave before dawn, make our way upriver in rafts to the backwater village of Wallikunda, then travel four to five hours overland to Niokola-Koba.

At 6:15 a.m., sky and river are both a muted indigo. As we travel in the rafts, the stars and moon, mirrored in the river, create a circle of halos around us. Turtledoves coo overhead, winging through a breeze that smells like gardenias. Greatly contented, we drag our hands in the cool water -- until we remember the hippos and crocodiles underneath.

When we reach Wallikunda at 8:30, the sun is up and beaming down on the vehicles that await us: a white minibus, a blue van, and an old Swiss Army truck with a tattered, bamboo roof. The truck is pine green with a cow skull, horns, and gourds dangling like charms from its grill. Fourteen of us climb eagerly into its open-air rear. The rest of our group steps into the van or bus.

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At 9 a.m. the truck leads our small caravan out of Wallikunda -- past barefoot women who walk like queens with calabashes of water on their heads, past children romping under a silk cotton tree that spills angel-hair seeds around its enormous trunk.

We are on Gambia's southern road, which stretches from the capital city, Banjul, in the west, to Senegal's border in the east. The hues of the flat landscape on both sides of the narrow tarmac are muted by the haze of Sahara sand that blows south this time of year. A gritty breeze fingers our hair and irritates our eyes, but we are too happy with anticipation to notice. Eddie Brewer, Gambia's director of wildlife and conservation, deftly names all the birds, flora, and fauna within view.

Around 10:30 the blacktop road has turned to dirt, and the wind blowing through the open sides of our truck is a relentless 110 degrees F. We haven't sighted the van or bus in half an hour. Bruce signals the driver to park in the sporadic shade of a baobob tree and wait for the others to catch up.

An hour later we are still waiting, and our driver comments, ``They must not have taken the shortcut that we took.'' ``What short cut?'' asks Bruce, pulling out his map. The driver assures us he knows where we are, even if we don't seem to be on the map. We climb back in the truck, and some positive-minded passenger comments, ``We're gonna end up somewhere, that's for sure!''

At the hour we were to have reached Simenti, we come instead to a tiny village with streets so narrow we nearly knock down the grass fences as we round the corners. Scrawny goats hug the fences for an inch or two of high-noon shade. Children applaud and shout as we trundle by. Older people rise from their siesta mats to call, ``How are you?'' to which Bruce responds, ``Where are we]''

By 2 p.m., we've passed two other wee villages and are still confounded as to our whereabouts. With sun hats and dust-coated faces, we look like an overworked crew of migrant workers. Suddenly in the middle of nowhere, we come upon our cohorts, who are parked by the roadside and groaning that we've no idea how long they've been waiting. We outgroan them as they hand us our share of the cheese sandwich emergency rations. They surprise us with news that we've already crossed into Senegal. Finally we all take off for the last leg of our journey -- our truck in the rear this time.

When we enter Niokola-Koba at 5 p.m., we are a truckload of worn and weary grumblers. But when we reach Simenti half an hour later, forgiveness is in the making. This rustic lodge, blessed with a cool, blue swimming pool, sits miragelike in between a green flood plain, replete with wildlife and a sandy bend of the Gambia River where hippos bathe. By nightfall, contentment sets in. After a night of sparse but sufficient accommodations, we rise early for our first game run. Despite the presence of large game, it is a curious, bald bird that captures everyone's attention. Ornithologist Peter Alden, who often sails with the Polaris, spotted the bald ibis standing among the crocodiles and waterfowl in the flood plain. Wearing a black Victorian ruff around its bare pink head, it's an extremely rare bird apparently more off course than we were yesterday. It had never been reported in Senegal before.

The ibis is but one of many firsts on this trip. One night in the fishing and rice-cultivating village of Bombali, we danced in the dust with villagers under a 10-story-tall kapok tree. In the River Gambia National Park, usually off limits to the public, Eddie Brewer introduced us to chimps in the world's only Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project -- a kind of ``Outward Bound'' school for chimps that have lived in captivity and lost their wilderness skills. After gaining sufficient survival savvy, they are set free.

We ventured to the island of Bubaque, where money doesn't exist and matriarchy is the rule. Celebrating the post harvest season, Bubaquian men donned elaborate costumes made of seeds, grass, bark, wood, and bone and danced for villagers from afternoon until deep into the night.

Before visiting such places, passengers are sent books and videos on native culture, and they're given lectures on this subject and some lessons in travel etiquette. For example, former Peace Corps volunteer Paul Greenspan, who was on board, offered hints on how to dress appropriately in Muslim countries. He chided us about cultural insensitivity by asking, ``How would you feel if 50 Africans came into your home and took pictures of your grandmother in bed?''

To avoid the social upheavals that can be caused by even well-meaning tourists, every Polaris passenger is asked to give friendship rather than money or things to the people they meet. And in each village visited, a ship representative presents an appropriate gift through traditional channels for the villagers to share.

If you believe that a close look at other ways of life enriches one's own existence, or if you simply like adventure, you will enjoy journeying on the Lindblad Polaris. These cruises, however, are not cheap -- the West African Seafari was about $5,000 per person, excluding air fare. Practical information

Transportation to Dakar, Senegal, where the cruise begins and ends, is available through Air Afrique, offering round-trip flights from New York twice a week. Stewardesses in traditional African dresses provide excellent service, and African music flows out of the earphones. For more information, write to Lindblad Travel, 8 Wright Street, PO Box 912, Westport, Conn., 06881, USA.

Bunny McBride's trip was partially sponsored by Swedish Cruise, with air transporation provided by Air Afrique.

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