After the excitement of Christmas was over, I waved goodbye to the fairy lights and mince pies and started my next adventure to West Africa. Thanks to the genorousity of Phil’s parents, we were all off for a family holiday for some sun, sand and exploring.
The Gambia is the smallest country in mainland Africa and sits housed within Senegal. It is an extremely flat country but actually surprisingly green with lots of fruit trees, palms, and cultivated plots of land.The Gambian people are quite possibly the smiliest people you will meet and despite the odd few bumsters and beggers, most generally just want to have a chat and get to know you.
Tip: To prevent people trying to take advantage of you, it is best to say that you have been to Gambia many times before when asked, as otherwise you will be inundated with people offering their services as tour guides!
We were picked up from the airport in 4x4s to be taken to our first stop – Nygala Lodge. As with everywhere in the world, premiership football is huge, so Phil bonded with our driver over a mutual passion. Meanwhile, I watched the world go by and marvelled at the women’s colourful dress, their ability to carry huge pyramids of pots on their heads and the hustle and bustle of daily life.
Nagala lodge was a beautiful small hotel overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, with lovely green gardens and a wooden platform jutting out over the sea. It was here that we were spent New Years, seeing in 2016 with a ten course meal, live music and fizz.
On News Year day we left Nygala lodge and with the help of our transfer driver, we crossed the Gambia river by ferry and then continued into Senegal. The ferry journey was quite an experience, with people offering shoe shining, ladies carried huge tubs of oranges and men selling anything from toothbrushes to cleaning products! Getting onto the ferry is a huge free for all – Just when you think the ferry is full, another 200 people and their goats somehow seem to squeeze on! Once in North Gambia, we were picked up in an open safari vehicle to cross the border and onto our destination – Fathala Game reserve. Phil’s brother Gareth handled the border crossing for us and was inevitably asked for a bribe, (which he politely refused to give). Meanwhile, the rest of us were left in the vehicle like an exhibit in a museum. Sat in the middle of a bustling town with many persistent women insisting we buy bananas for extortionate prices. I think we can all say we were relieved once we had had our passports stamped and sorted.
Fathala Game reserve sits about 5km north of the Senegalese- Gambia border and is a very new reserve. The “tent” accommodation which is situated in the reserve itself is absolutely phenomenal- glamping taken to a new extreme! Huge canvas tents with solid wooden floors, a four poster bed, his and hers sinks, a free standing bath and toilet, outside private his and hers showers and outside seating to watch the animals at the watering hole and the monkeys playing! We had a fantastic stay, walking with young lions, (no they weren’t sedated and although a slightly bizarre set up, seemed to be in good condition and treated well). We also went on Safari where we saw zebra, lots of different types of antelope, warthog, many different birds and a loan rhino! Being so up close to these magnificent creatures really was something special! West Africa doesn’t have the traditional safari animals like East Africa and a lot had been imported from South Africa to build the reserve, but the reserve is slowly increasing numbers of animals and the diversity of species. We also took a trip to a mangrove for bird watching – a lovely relaxing afternoon on the water and making use of our borrowed binoculars!
After three days in Senegal we returned back to Gambia to a large hotel complex called Coco beach. We relaxed for a couple of days, enjoying the sun and beach, our complimentary massage and monkey watching! We spent one afternoon at the Calypso cafe which overlooks a pool full of crocodiles, enjoying cocktails and tapas whilst the sun set.
Tip: CARE if you want to swim in the sea. The Atlantic Sea has a very strong current here and we even witnessed the near drowning of a man – it is probably safer to stick to paddling and use a swimming pool if you want an actual swim.
Myself and Phil then went solo on the final part of the trip and our first stop was to the Baboon islands! Getting there involved a five hour car journey with about 20 police and military stops. Most towns seemed to have these checks, some Gambians telling us they were to check for tinted windows (?), driving licences (although no papers were ever shown), Senegalese rebels and smugglers. What they were really for is a little bit of an unknown, but a few of these check points did feel quite threatening; large groups of village men sat with the police officers staring a little too intently, there were multiple military outposts with sniper huts and men with huge machine guns. However, the journey was uneventful and we arrived safely at the Chimpanzee reserve. This was the start of an amazing three days.
Our accommodation consisted of a wooden hut jutting out of a hillside. There was no electricity, but the huts had a sink, an outside cold shower and a three minute walk away there was a shared compost toilet. Only a few guests can stay at a time and each evening, we would all use our solar powered lights to clamber down the hillside to a lodge on the waterfront. Here, local boys cooked us beautiful traditional three course meals and we ate by candlelight.
Each morning we were woken up by tea and coffee to our hut, beautiful peaceful sunrises and the sound of baboons and rousing birds. We took part in a variety of activities each day – guided walks and mini hikes in the mornings, followed by breakfast and then relaxing on our hut terrace in the boiling hot heat of the day. We then had a large lunch, followed by a daily boat tour of the river to watch Chimpanzees on three islands, hippopotamus and bird life .
Chimpanzees were last seen in Gambia in the early 1900s, but in 1979, a charity was set up taking Chimps from London zoo and other places to introduce them onto three islands, locally nicknamed ” the Baboon Islands”. As the islands are home to Vervet monkeys and Baboons too, the Chimpanzees have to be supplemented with food once a day, partly so as not to exhaust the fruit trees on the islands for the other species, but also to allow contraceptives to be administered to the females. Watching Chimpanzees in their natural environment was extremely special and one of those moments in life that will stay with me forever.
Our final stop in Gambia was Mandina Lodge – a very small hotel set within mangroves. The mangroves are home to large numbers of oysters, so each day, women can be seen harvesting the oysters to sell at market and the by product shells are used to make paint and for various other things within the building industry. At Mandina, we stayed on floating lodges which rose with the tide, quite incredible, but also lots of creaking at night! Each evening the chef would come to our lodge to discuss the evening menu and note down our choices- a luxury I could get used to! We went on daily excursions (mostly involving boat rides and bird watching), and witnessed some of the most beautiful sunsets. A lovely relaxing way to end a fabulous trip to Gambia.