Red, yellow, blue, orange – whenever you are around people you feel encircled by colour and a feeling of upbeat energy. A constant backdrop to this is the ochre red soil, rich in iron and tinted by rust.
It is a multi-cultural society and seven different ethnic tribes live side by side, each observing their unique traditions and speaking their own language. The majority are Muslim with 8% Christian and 2% indigenous beliefs. That the country has been largely peaceful for an extended period of time is a sign of hope on a continent where communities have so often been ripped apart by conflict.
With few valuable natural resources and limited space for large-scale agriculture, tourism has become a major source of income. Recognising this, the government has put in place a progressive responsible tourism policy, making it an excellent destination for ethical travellers.
As a visitor you will not be short of attention and although this can be overwhelming at times with excited children hanging on to every single finger of your hands and lots of questions being asked, the welcome is usually warm and friendly.
We stayed at two very different resorts that have the interests of the environment and local communities at the very heart of their values: Mandina Lodges and Sandele Eco-Retreat. These are away from the main tourist areas and offer the best way to explore the real Gambia.
Award winning Mandina Lodges mingle with the mangroves in the Makasutu Reserve about 40 minutes inland from Banjul International Airport. Makasutu means ‘sacred forest’ and the conservation area was created by James English & Lawrence Williams in 1992 to protect the habitat from deforestation and to build a place offering visitors an insight into the culture and lives of local people.
The commitment and pioneering spirit of the pair is evident by the seven years they spent living on the land in tents with no electricity or running water. During this time they became intimately aware of the local ecology and circle of life. Over time, fifteen thousand trees were planted and 70 wells dug to help with irrigation. Careful consultation with locals guaranteed that the project always proceeded in harmony with their wishes.
Originally meant to be a small backpackers lodge, the project slowly evolved to become a collection of luxury eco-lodges allowing visitors to experience this exceptional place in style and comfort.
Makasutu has an ongoing partnership with the Eden Project in Cornwall and plants from the reserve are represented in the rainforest biome. They are also part of the Gardens for Life charity working with students in schools across the world to start gardens, grow food and share their experiences with each other.
You can choose to stay either in a jungle lodge or on the river in a stilted or floating lodge. All are done up to a high standard with furniture mostly made onsite. We stayed in a floating lodge, the gentle undulation of the tide lulling us to sleep every night. The al fresco bathrooms feel exotic and close to nature with an innovative sanitation system ensuring responsible waste management with no unpleasantness at all.
On arrival you’re introduced to your personal guide who will design a tailored plan for your stay. This is part of the personalised package and river excursions, forest walks and visits to villages and schools are just some of the possible activities. You’re not bound to any schedule and the structure of your days is completely up to you.
Makasutu and The Gambia in general is true bliss for bird watchers and wildlife is abundant. Birdsong is constant, the flapping of wings signaling the lift of a bird nearby, sometimes followed by a swift fleck of brilliant turquoise or bright red as it flies by. Learning to identify these quickly becomes addictive, even if you’re not a committed twitcher. It is also not unusual to see a monitor lizard slink away into the water after lounging on the deck of a floating lodge.
Traipsing around the site is a troop of baboons, closely followed by man whose job it is to keep them off important installations such as the solar panels. Quite the kleptomaniacs, they’re partial to take off with whatever you might have left out on your terrace - a lesson you quickly learn! Vervet and Red Colobus monkeys also live in the forest, although they are more elusive.
Local women glide past on the river in canoes at low tide, harvesting mud oysters clinging on to the mangroves in thick clusters. The gentle sound of their paddling, followed by the hacking of machetes somehow merges softly into the soundscape. Oysters are one of the main sources of livelihoods in the area and nothing is wasted. The larger oysters are sold, the smaller ones feed the women’s families and the shells are eventually crushed up and used in paint.
Here, luxury and conservation compliment rather than exclude each other, a growing trend in tourism. The food is locally sourced and excellently prepared by the chef who will find you each afternoon to discuss your evening meal. A bespoke and authentic experience is most definitely what Mandina Lodges are about.
Unfortunately James passed away before his time in 2011 and for a while the future of the project hung in the balance. Thankfully the spirit of Makasutu prevailed and Mandina Lodges are still going strong.
Our minds already bursting with memories, we moved from the mangroves to the beach and Sandele Eco-Retreat. This was conceived ‘like a genie out of a bottle’ at a time when Geri and Maurice, the forward thinking English couple behind the resort were considering the direction of their lives.
They knew they wanted to create a place where people could learn and enjoy at the same time and 16 years later they are very much assimilated into local culture, having done wonders for the local area. Not only is it an eco-retreat, it is also a conference center where large groups can learn together in sustainable surroundings. All of this was recognized when they won the Guardian/Observer Award for Ethical Tourism in 2009 and the same year renowned people power group Avaaz.org chose Sandele for a global meeting.
Located in the south of The Gambia Sandele nestles in 53 acres of lush green bush in the dunes of an unspoilt stretch of coastline near the village of Kartong. As it was meant to be, it merges with its surroundings both aesthetically and conceptually. A truly responsible tourism operation, the land is leased from the local community on a 25-year contract and every guest contributes to the development of the local village via a donation made per bed night by Geri and Maurice. The plan is for ownership of the resort to be signed over to the village council at the end of the lease, at which time Geri and Maurice will retire somewhere on the land.
The beach is deserted most of the time, bar the occasional cow, so this really is a place to get away from it all. It also attracts people with a mutual interest in sustainability and social awareness and sharing of ideas and engaging with people from a variety of backgrounds is as much a part of a stay at Sandele as relaxing is. With two outdoor shalas there is plenty of opportunity to practice yoga and a trip to Tanji Beach fish market, a bustling and vibrant place, should not be missed.
The staff are mostly local, either from the local village or a little further afield and the importance of training them up to manage the business is central to the purpose of Sandele. Members of staff are going off places like Germany for development and right now two are in India doing yoga teacher-training. Along with this commitment to excellence comes the act of preserving and sharing Gambian culture with visitors and building a flourishing business for future generations. These core values shine through in everything that happens at the resort.
The renewable energy and water conservation systems are at the forefront of what an eco-retreat should be. Nothing is wasted and every resource is precious. The guest lodges are built with bricks made onsite entirely from local materials and the circular, domed designs create a spacious and unusual feel within. The sound of the waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashing on to and caressing the beach is ever present and the roof terraces are a great place to soak up the sunset. Curiously the atmosphere feels both calm and intriguingly wild.
We saw very few beach hawkers (or bumsters as they’re called locally). Not only is bothering tourists illegal by law, there are initiatives like the Guaranteed Gambian project (an initiative originated at Sandele) and now supported by The Travel Foundation where craft makers are supported and their products sold by approved retailers who take no commission. This helps neutralise the negative cycle of continuously copying each other and compromising quality. In this way new designs and innovation is encouraged and prolific craft makers can now make a decent living from their work, which was not the case before.
As if touched by a curious African alchemy The Gambia captures the imagination and hearts of many who visit and countless return time after time to bathe in the colours, sunshine and smiles of this petite paradise.
The best time to visit The Gambia is in the dry season from October to April.
Mandina Lodges and Sandele Eco-Retreat are both part of The Gambia Experience’s Unique Collection.