The trip of a lifetime
For my parents 50th and 60th birthdays we decided to mark the milestones by going on an adventure! Dad had always wanted to go on Safari and while, at the time, travel to Kenya was restricted because of political unrest, mum found us the most incredible looking trip to West Africa instead.
We booked our 10-night-trip-of-a-lifetime through The Gambia Experience, the countries main tour operator. The first half of the trip was spent in the popular tourist town of Kololi, staying at the Kombo Beach Hotel. The second half we spent staying in the incredible Mandina Lodges, nestled in the heart of the Makasutu Forest (yes, in THAT stilted lodge ^).
We did and saw so much during the time we were there that it would be impossible to share everything in one blog post. So this post is going to focus on the Gambia as a country and the first half of our holiday staying in Kotu and Kololi, and the trips we took with Arch Tours. Upcoming blog posts will focus on the second half of the trip, our time in the Makasutu Forest and my tips for visiting yourself.
Finally, before I get started (she says noticing the 500 words already written), I just want to say how incredible this part of the world is, it was a complete culture shock and an experience I will never forget. I like to think that it made me a better person, witnessing the poverty and non-western way of life was a truly eye-opening and humbling experience. I’d recommend it, in a heartbeat, to each and every single one of you.
About The Gambia
The Gambia is a country in West Africa that is entirely surrounded by Senegal, except for its coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s the smallest country in mainland Africa and was once part of the British Empire until it gained its independence in 1965. Like so many West African nations, Gambia’s past is blighted by stories of colonisation and slavery and today around a third of it’s population live below the international poverty line. It’s economy relies heavily on tourism, as well as farming and fishing and after seeing tourist numbers fall by about 80% because of fears about Ebola (despite never having a single case of the virus during the 2014-2016 outbreak) and recent political unrest, when we visited, it was clear to see that this vibrant and beautiful country was suffering.
Gambians are such lovely, vibrant people and it would be a shame if levels of poverty continued to rise.
Where we stayed: Kotu & Kololi
As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, we split our time between the more popular with tourist areas of Gambia and those more off the beaten track.
While we actually stayed in the relatively small town of Kotu for the first half of the trip, Kololi is by far the most established tourist town in The Gambia and walking distance away from Kotu. ‘The strip’ as it is known locally, consists of a number of bars and a couple of nightclubs, a large number of places to eat serving a variety of cuisine styles, as well as banks & exchange bureaus, internet cafés and shops – with a selection of hotels and even a craft market, Kololi could probably be called the heart of the tourist industry in The Gambia.
We actually only visited Kololi a handful of times in our trip – mostly to eat at Scala, widely accepted as the best restaurant in town – because we weren’t there for the usual tourist beach holiday – but everything you could hope for, and more, is there if that’s what you want.
During this time we stayed at the Kombo Beach Hotel, situated right on the beach the location is idyllic and the service is second to none – it’s one of those places that if you ask for Coconut water, will send someone up a tree to cut one down for you.
The hotel itself was lovely. The rooms are nice and beautifully decorated – if a little basic, but they certainly hold up to the hotels 3-star rating. They were cleaned daily (beds adorned with flower petal and towel displays, much to my delight) and the staff were truly welcoming.
Our only small complaint was the evening food – we were there on a half board basis and while I couldn’t fault the breakfast at all, the evening meals were a little less to our taste, they were mostly traditional local dishes that I couldn’t eat (because of my 100s of allergies and pescetarianism), so we ended up eating out – which was fine because local restaurants are incredibly affordable, with 3 courses and drinks coming to about £10/head.
What we did: Arch Tours
While staying in Kotu we used this time to book onto some tours with a local tour agency, Arch Tours. If you’re travelling with The Gambia Experience you’ll be encouraged to go on their official trips but we’d heard great things about the independent and locally run Arch Tours so decided to book our trips through them. And we weren’t disappointed.
We went on two trips with Arch Tours and both were once-in-a-lifetime, incredible experiences that I couldn’t recommend enough. The first was the always popular (for good reason) 4 tours in 1-day, trip that lets you experience the heart and culture of The Gambia away from traditional tourist routes.
I’m not sure why it’s called 4 tours because feels like so much more! On this trip you visit;
- Serekunda Market – Gambia’s largest market where locals buy everything from food and cooking equipment to clothing and household items. It’s flipping huge and like nothing I’d ever experienced.
- Kachikally Crocodile Pool – A traditional shrine in Gambia, where you meet real-life crocodiles.
- Abuko cattle and livestock market – to learn about how meat is bought and sold.
- Lamin Lodge – to learn about the oyster trade in Gambia (and eat the most incredible Gambian doughnuts).
- Paradise Beach – For a traditional Gambian lunch (which FYI they were more than happy to flex for my dietary needs) and a few hours on the biggest beach I’ve ever seen.
- Gambia’s largest fish market – And I can’t even explain how big it is, there are rows and rows and rows and rows of boats, old freezers, smoking sheds and market stalls – every time I walk past a fish mongers I’m sent straight back there.
And then while travelling to and from each destination you drive through countless villages and we stopped at a few along the way, allowing us to visit a real countryside Gambian home and a local school.
The day was incredible and aside from experiencing a different culture, the success of the trip was down largely to the fantastic tour guides. Their commitment to ensuring the trip went to plan, that everyone was looked after and having a good time was incredible.
Everything was thought of, every detailed planned. Each Jeep had a coolbox containing all of your drinks for the day, including Julbrew, the locally brewed beer, much to Dads delight. Even the small but often overlooked details, like making sure to let people know about toilets when we were passing them, were taken care of. And above all, they were just genuinely lovely people who were willing to join in on the conversation and banter and have a laugh with everyone.
What we did: Senegal Safari
Our second trip with Arch Tours, on the day of Dad’s 60th Birthday (look at the joy in his face I managed to capture as we entered the park, in the picture below), was to the Fatala Wildlife Reserve, just over the border into Senegal. The wildlife reserve covers about 2000 hectares of Protected Natural Forest and is home to Zebras, Giraffes, Rhino, Buffalo, Warthog, Antelope, Lions and countless other species of native African animals.
Once at the reserve you board the Jeeps and set off! Like a Big 5 Safari in Kenya, it’s pretty much luck of the draw in terms what you see, the animals aren’t tagged so it’s down to the rangers who patrol the park to help the safari guides find the animals. We were incredibly lucky and saw everything we wanted to. Including a rather miffed male Giraffe who actually found us with the intention of chasing us off, away from his herd and new-born baby giraffes!
The Lions are kept separately and have been hand-reared by the same keepers since they were rescued as cubs, so are probably about as tame as Lions can be. Because of this, you can get really, really close to them, this was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever experienced. We were on foot and the male lion headbutted through the group of us like a domestic house cat would (only obviously with 1000x more power and a gazillion x more terrifying).
The end of part 1
So with that, we’ve come to the end of part one of my write-up of our trip to the Gambia and Senegal. I hope you’ve been able to get a sense of just how amazing this place really is!
In part 2, I’ll focus on the second half of the trip, staying at the Mandina Lodges in the Makasutu Forest. Then I’m thinking of writing another couple of posts – one with tips and things you should be aware of for anyone travelling to The Gambia and possibly another about the culture shock experience – I haven’t even touched on here how many children we had the pleasure of meeting and how, if given the choice between a pencil for school and sweets, they’d choose the pencil every single time.
Let me know if you’d find those posts interesting or if you have any questions about The Gambia, I’d be happy to try and answer! And do let me know if you’ve been yourself and if you have any recommendations!