For mum and dad’s 50th & 60th birthdays we decided to go on an adventure! We ended up travelling to West Africa for 10 magical nights.
This blog post is the second of 2 posts that talk about where we stayed and what we did. In the first blog post (read here), you can find out more about the Gambia itself and what we did for the first half of the trip – including, visiting Gambia’s largest market and fishing area and going on safari in Senegal.
This blog post will focus on the second half of our trip – the 5 nights we spent in the incredible, Mandina Lodges in the Makasutu Forest.
The Mandina Lodges – Eco Luxury
For the second half of the trip, we went inland and stayed at the Mandina Lodges, situated in the heart of the Makasutu Forest, on the edge of the River Gambia, that splits the country in two.
And yes, we stayed in THAT Stilted Lodge.
The Mandina Lodges were set up by two friends from the UK, James English and Lawrence Williams. They originally purchased just 4 acres of the Makasutu forest with the aim of setting up a backpackers lodge. But when they returned a few months later to find around 200 palm trees had been cut down from the surrounding area they decided they wanted to help protect and restore the forest and so they purchased the larger surrounding areas… Out of that, Mandina, as it is today, was born. Today it is an Eco-Tourism site that aims to restore the forest, help natural wildlife return and support the local communities – and the project is, quite literally, a wild success, with a 200 strong troop of Baboons now calling the forest their home (and occasionally wreaking havoc in the Mandina camp itself!)
The camp accommodation is made up of four of Floating Lodges that bob on the River itself, three Jungle Lodges that are set a bit further back into the forest, the newest addition – the Mangrove Lodge – built in amongst the mangroves and the pièce de résistance, the Stilted Lodge, our home for those 5 nights.
The Mandina Stilted Lodge proudly penetrates the river, looking every bit like it should be in Swiss Family Robinson – from its wooden stilted footbridge, to allow access from dry land to its windowless second story bedroom that gives ‘sleeping under the stars’ an entirely new dimension. Not forgetting, of course, its outdoor bathroom, hot running water nestled in the mangroves & while out of public site, you may be joined by a kingfisher or two in the shower.
Facilities & Staff
Aside from the accommodation, there is the most beautiful pool, widely regarded as one of the best in The Gambia. Like it’s always been a part of the forest, the pool weaves in and around the trees (that are home to any number of wildlife, including, most notably, bats!) – it’s so a part of the forest in fact, that at a certain time of the evening when it’s very quiet and there’s no one around, flocks of birds will take it in turns to dive into the water to clean themselves (me and mum were very lucky to witness this while actually in the pool.
Then there are the communal dining, lounging and entertainment areas, that naturally include a firepit!
The service is second to none, each party is assigned a private guide who will take you on hiking trips through the forest or canoe rides down the river, into local towns and generally help you explore and experience this other side of The Gambia.
Every day during the afternoon the Mandina chef would come and find you to discuss that evening’s menu, make sure you’re happy with what he’s planning and allow you to make any requests. You have a morning, evening and night time waiter assigned to your party too. As there are no fridges and kettles in the lodges (part of their eco cred), the nighttime waiter will come just before dawn and leave you flasks of hot water and milk so you can make a morning cuppa.
The final thing I want to tell you about Mandina itself is that, as well as working to restore the local wildlife, it’s also become a bit of an unofficial sanctuary for unwanted cats and dogs (much to my delight). They’ve adopted many unwanted and injured cats & dogs over the years – of which Napoleon, the black cat, was our favourite. He let us share the Stilted Lodge with him for 5 nights and he was the most gracious host (apart from the first night when he tried to get in the beds with us and scared the living daylight out of dad who woke up thinking a baboon was in bed with him, rather than a cat).
What we did: Exploring the Makasutu Forest
Life in the Makasutu forest takes on a slower pace, time quite literally feels like it stands still, in the best kind of way. There is no mobile reception, no wifi and no surrounding tourist town to explore. Days start early. Adventures should take place before the sun is too high in the sky because being so far away from the coast means that by about 10/11am the heat will probably render you useless.
Our days generally went like this:
- 5am-6am – Wake up
- 6am-9am – Forest hikes, canoe rides & wildlife watching with our guide AJ
- 9am-10am – Breakfast
- 10am – 3pm – Usually found horizontal somewhere, in the pool or eating lunch in the shade
- 3pm – 5pm – Exploring the grounds, watching the baboon troop as they pass through the camp, playing with the cats & dogs
- 5pm – 7pm – Occasional sunset adventure down the river with AJ
- 7pm – 9pm – Dinner & drinks with the other guests around the fire pit
- 9pm – 10pm – Nightcaps back at the lodge, stargazing & bed time (with Napoleon, of course)
Of course, if you’re a bit better with heat than we are there’s plenty of daytime adventures to be had too.
Wide Open Walls Art Project
Living in Bristol and being surrounded by beautiful street art and the inescapable presence that is Banksy, these kinds of art projects have become close to my heart. What street art can do for tourism and in turn, local disadvantaged communities is really quite remarkable.
Wide Open Walls is the brainchild of Mandina co-founder, Lawrence Williams and local artist Njogu Toray. With the blessing of local communities and using their connections in the art world, they invited 8 of the world’s top street artists, Eelus, Logan Hicks, C215, Will Barras, Broken Crow [John Girder & Mike Fitzsimmons], Lucy McLauchlan and Ben Eine to come to The Gambia and over the space of two weeks created artworks using local villages as their canvas.
One morning, AJ took us to one of the local villages visited by the artists. The paintings are beautiful, somehow they manage to blend seamlessly into the background of the villages while enhancing their beauty too. It was really quite remarkable to see the types of street art that have become so synonymous with cultural capitals of the west, nestled in amongst the ramshackle buildings of a small Gambian village.
After 5 magical nights in the Makasutu forest, it was time to leave and return to the UK. As we waited for the minibus to come and pick us, and the few others also leaving from Mandina, we flicked through the 1000s of photos and pieces GoPro footage we’d taken and vowed to return to the Gambia one day to continue the adventure! We laughed at the footage of mum being jumped on (or as she called it, ‘attacked’) by a monkey in the Monkey forest, looked in awe at the photos of our lion encounters in Senegal and decided which pictures we would, naturally, share on social media once we were back in the safe confines of the airport wifi zone.
I can’t say enough how much we enjoyed the trip and how upset we were to be leaving – I could have quite happily stayed at Mandina for the rest of my days.
End of Part 2: More posts to come
I’ve tried to include links throughout this post and Part 1 to all the various places we visited and things we did but if you’re missing anything please let me know. And to make it easier I’ve included a round-up of the links below:
- Blog post Part 1
- The Gambia Experience – Gambia Tour Operator
- Kombo Beach Hotel – Kotu
- Arch Tours
- Fatala Wildlife Reserve
- Mandina Lodges
- Wide Open Walls Art Project
As I’ve been writing these posts they’ve sort of naturally taken shape – I’ve had to chop and change to prevent them from resembling something similar to War & Peace. So, right now I’m planning two more posts, one about schools and kids in the Gamiba – if you visit you’ll undoubtedly visit a school or encounter some local kids – these were some of the most heartwarming and heartbreaking moments of our trip – so I wanted to talk about them and give you some tips for what to take with you. The second will be a tips post – while Gambia is generally a safe country, visited by thousands of tourists every year, the culture difference can feel intimidating at times and we were given some tips by friends of ours before we went that without a doubt, helped us adapt quicker.
Until then, let me know if you’ve been to The Gambia, or if you’d like to go!