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Into the forest

Gambia day eight


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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View from our Floating Lodge, Mandina Lodges

After a final morning at Ngala we said our goodbyes to Jenny, the friendly manager, to all the staff and to Rasta, the cute tabby cat, hoping to return one day.

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Chris at breakfast – sad to be leaving Ngala, but happy to be going somewhere new

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Rasta looks sad to see us leave too

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Arriving at Mandina Lodges

We were picked up in a minibus around lunch time. There were also three other guests already on board who had been staying at different coastal hotels and like us were moving on to Mandina Lodges - a young couple who I think were on their honeymoon, and a man of about our age travelling alone. Incidentally, we learned when we arrived at Mandina and got chatting to him that he had been due to come on this holiday with his wife, but at the last minute she got cold feet as she was nervous about the (very low) risk of catching malaria. Having already paid in full he had decided to leave her at home and come alone. I couldn't help thinking that there would be some 'interesting' conversations when he got back!

Our luggage was piled on the roof and we set off, soon leaving the more touristy strip behind and driving through dusty markets and local villages. After about half an hour we turned off this busy road on to the track to Mandina and immediately saw why everyone comments on this road - it is a very bumpy, sandy track that must take its toll on the vehicles as well as the comfort of passengers. The oft-repeated joke is that you are getting a free Gambian massage! But this part of the journey only lasted about 15 minutes and we were soon pulling up in the car parking area of the lodges, to be welcomed by the smiling staff.

Mandina Lodges

Mandina consists of a small group of very individual lodges set among the mangroves in the Makasutu Cultural Forest. Three of the lodges (‘Jungle Lodges’) are tucked among the trees, with a roof terrace that looks out over the forest. Four of them (‘Floating Lodges’) are moored among the mangroves on the edge of the river, which is an off-shoot of the Gambia. The two most luxurious are large two-storey affairs - one on the river (the ‘Stilted Lodge’) and one slightly set back from it (the ‘Mangrove Lodge’).

We had booked a Floating Lodge as I liked the idea of being near the water, and were allocated Floating Lodge 1, a short walk along the boardwalk from the communal area where we had been welcomed. The room was large, with a centrally-placed four poster bed facing out over the water. It all looked lovely, but this is a remote area so there are some compromises within the apparent luxury - no A/C (we had a ceiling fan however), erratic electricity supply and a composting toilet in the open-air bathroom that was inclined to be smelly at times. But while the room got rather hot during the day, by bed-time it was always comfortable and we even found that we needed the cosy bedding provided; while a good door kept the toilet smells at bay!

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Inside our Floating Lodge

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The open-air bathroom

Outside our Floating Lodge was a large private deck with sun loungers and chairs, from where we had wonderful views of the river with lots of passing birds. On several occasions during our stay we saw the local Goliath Heron here in the mornings as he often comes on to the lodge decking to fish. We could watch the local fishermen paddle past, and the women in search of oysters which they gather from the mangroves.

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Decking outside our Floating Lodge

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Our first priority on arriving had been to make plans for our stay. Every lodge is assigned a private guide - ours was Amadou – and almost all activities are included in the price of your stay. One activity is extra however, but as I had read countless very positive reviews about the Sunset Cruise we were keen to pay the additional cost and mentioned it during our welcome chat. We were told there was space available this evening, so we signed up, and then were free for a few hours to settle in and enjoy our new temporary home.

Once we’d unpacked, we made for the large pool which is well provided with seating and loungers and surrounded by the shady gardens. I had a swim (possibly Chris swam too – I don’t recall!) and we made friends with one of the many cats who live at the lodges.

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By the pool

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One of the cats

We also spent some time enjoying the river views from our deck, but as sunset approached it was time to head for the main jetty to join our ‘cruise’

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Jetty with our boat waiting for us and the Floating Lodges beyond
~ ours is the nearest of the four

Sunset cruise

The small motorboat used for this outing takes six people, but we were lucky to have just one other couple with us, leaving room to move around a little – great! Before leaving we were asked about our beverage of choice - red or white wine, beer or soft drinks. We chose white wine as did the other couple, who had helpfully planned ahead and brought a can of mixed nuts from Marks & Spencer with them which they gladly shared and which made a great accompaniment to the drinks. But I am getting ahead of myself!

To start with we followed the small river downstream from the lodge. On the way we saw the small village and factory where the local women open and clean the oysters they collect from the mangrove roots.

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Mangrove roots

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Local children near Mandina

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White-throated Bee-eater

We also saw lots of birds, and our knowledgeable guide, Amadou, pointed these out. Among many others we saw:
~ Egrets - Great White and Cattle
~ Pied Kingfishers
~ Whimbrels
~ White-throated Bee-eater
~ Sandwich tern
~ Spur-winged Plover
~ Various herons - Grey, Western Reef, and the amazing and very well-named Goliath

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Pied Kingfisher

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Grey Heron

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Great White Egrets

After a while we reached the mouth of this river, where it opens into the wide expanses of the Gambia River, opposite Dog Island. The light was just fading, the sky was a pearly hue, and it was time to open the wine. We drifted for a while, enjoying our drinks, those nuts and the beautiful view, and chatting with our companions. We learned that he was now retired but had been the British Ambassador in several countries, which made for an interesting conversation.

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The Gambia River

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Near the Gambia River

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Banyan tree, late afternoon light

After a while Amadou said that we should start to head back up the river in time to view the sunset and more birds. As the sun dipped lower the sky turned a beautiful shade of orange.

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Mandina Sunset

And when Amadou said more birds, he meant it! First we passed a large group of Black Kites, settling down in some treetops to roost for the night.

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Black Kites at sunset

Then we came to the small islet he termed Bird Island, where some Cattle Egrets were doing the same. As we waited near the opposite bank more and more birds started to arrive - Cattle Egrets, Great White Egrets, various herons, Pelicans, Cormorants and Darters. They came singly and in small groups, from all sides, until the trees were thick with them. Several times we exclaimed that there was no room for more, but still they came.

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Pelicans

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Pelican in a dead tree

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Great White Egret

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Goliath Heron at sunset

My video can give only a small sense of what the experience was like, as I wanted to spend most of the time simply soaking up the atmosphere.

Before leaving this amazing sight, we sailed right round the islet, very close to the overhanging trees and the birds just settling down there for the night, who took no notice of us as we passed.

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Bird Island at sunset

Then it was time to return to the lodge, sipping the last of our wine and reflecting on a wonderful few hours.

Dinner time

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Chris at dinner

Stays at Mandina are on a half-board basis. The dinner menus are somewhat limited, constrained by the remote location and the availability in the local markets, but the food is of a good quality and well-prepared. Choice however is limited – understandably, as they can’t be expected to buy in loads of ingredients that may not be used. The chef makes a point of visiting all the guests each afternoon somewhere around the lodge to explain that evening's options and take their orders, and also confirm what time they want to eat. We found that there was a choice each day of two starters (one always a soup), two main courses and two desserts. The main courses were usually both meat or one meat and one fish, but vegetarians could be catered for if advance notice was given, as could other dietary requirements.

Today he had spoken to us earlier in the afternoon to take our orders, so as soon as we returned from the cruise we popped back to our lodge to freshen up and change, and hurried back to the open sided restaurant next to the pool. We were allocated the same table and waiter for the whole of our stay and it was good to get to know ours (whose name I have sadly forgotten), just as he got to know us and our tastes. Although the day had been hot, once the sun set it was quite cool and breezy so I was glad I’d brought a light jumper to slip over my shoulders.

After dinner we had a night-cap around the fire pit, sharing the day's experiences with the other guests. We found that the drinks list was somewhat limited compared with that at Ngala Lodge, but there were some decent house wines and the local Julbrew beer, so we were happy enough!

We went to bed in our beautiful Floating Lodge looking forward to the adventures to come!

Posted by ToonSarah 07:32 Archived in Gambia Tagged birds boats sunset views hotel river africa cats gambia Comments (13)

In Makasutu - birds and baboons (and the occasional cat!)

Gambia day nine


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Mandina sunrise

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Jenny

Every morning at Mandina tea or coffee is brought to your deck at a pre-agreed time, so we were woken this morning by the pleasant sound of a tray being placed on the table outside and a cheerful ‘Good morning’. As soon as we were dressed we hurried outside to enjoy our coffee and watch the river come to life around us.

Floating Lodge 1 has been adopted as home by one of the eleven resident cats, Jenny, who joined us here today (and each subsequent morning), as well as regularly visiting us inside (at our invitation). By the way, the fact that she shares her name with the manager of Ngala Lodge is no coincidence – the managers of the two properties are good friends and Jenny the cat was named after Jenny the hotel manager!

The sun was just rising over the trees and the river was coming to life. A Goliath Heron flew down from its roost to land on the deck of the next-door Floating Lodge.

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Goliath Heron at sunrise

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Goliath Heron on the decking of the neighbouring lodge

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Mandina sunrise

Makasutu Cultural Forest

Once we had drunk our morning coffees sitting out on our deck it was time to meet up with Amadou to go for a walk planned with him the previous evening. We were going to explore the immediate surroundings of Mandina, Makasutu Cultural Forest.

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Makasutu, early morning sky

Makasutu means ‘sacred forest’ in Mandinka. This 500 hectare reserve was founded by two British men, James English and Lawrence Williams, who had a passion for The Gambia and wanted to help to preserve its wildlife and natural environment. They gradually bought this area of land and restored it to its natural state. It encompasses five different eco-systems including gallery forest, savannah, mangroves, palm forest and wetland. In addition to the luxury lodges at Mandina itself they built what has become known as Base Camp (because this was where they first settled and camped while developing their project) where day visitors to the forest are welcomed.

Despite all the tourist activity Makasutu is still primarily a wild and natural environment. Or at least, so it appears. In fact, it owes its present-day appearance to the efforts of English and Williams who spent seventeen years restoring it, planting thousands of trees and working with local people to ensure sustainable use of the land. Today those same locals still farm some areas, and the village women harvest oysters from the mangroves, but most of the land is covered with trees and provides a perfect home for birds and other wildlife.

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A variety of trees

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Tree and strangler fig

Makasutu has become something of a prototype for what a sustainable approach to expanding tourism in The Gambia might look like, and has also shown what the passion of a couple of individuals can achieve. According to the Mandina Lodges’ website:

‘Jebril, a Jola tribesman, has been working at Makasutu for the past seventeen years and revealed that long before the Englishmen arrived, he and the others had dreams that two whites would come by river and settle at Makasutu and keep it from harm – a myth that has now turned into reality.’

Sadly James English died three years before our visit, but Lawrence kept Makasutu alive and going from strength to strength. We met him during our stay and his passion for the project, the area and for The Gambia as a whole really shone through.

But I digress, as we learned much of the above only gradually throughout our stay. Back to this morning, when Amadou led us out of the lodge complex and along the main track a short distance, before turning off into the ‘forest’. In truth it is more a wooded scrubland but was very pleasant to walk through at this time of day, with a fresh breeze wafting the scent of mint and other herbs across our path.

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Chris and Amadou

Amadou was very alert to any movement in the trees and we saw lots of birds. I was particularly taken with the pretty red Bearded Barbet and the impressive Crested Eagle. Others we saw included Plantain Eaters, a couple of Red Hornbills, a Pied Crow, a Blue-spotted Wood Dove, a Black Kite and some Long-tailed Glossy Starlings.

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Bearded Barbet

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Blue-spotted Wood Dove

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Pied Crow

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Crested Eagle

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Red Hornbill

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Red Hornbill

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Plantain Eater

We emerged into open space surrounding a dried-up lake where local villagers often grow rice.

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Dried-up lake in Makasutu Cultural Forest

From here the path led past a small cashew grove and back towards the hotel complex. As we approached the gate, we saw that a large troop of baboons had gathered there and we were able to get lots of photos of their antics.

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Approaching baboons!

The dog who had accompanied us on our walk (one of six that live at Mandina) was challenged by the largest of the baboons and retreated sheepishly behind me and Chris as we stood there taking pictures!

A possibly unforeseen result of the reforestation of Makasutu has been the return of the baboons. Or rather, they foresaw their return (one of the aims in reforesting the area was to encourage wildlife) but perhaps not the impact they would have on human activity here. They are something of a mixed blessing, it has to be said. On the one hand, we tourists love to see them and their relative habituation to humans means that we can get quite close to observe and photograph their behaviour. On the other hand, their almost daily incursions into the hotel’s grounds in search of food make work and worry for the staff. We were warned not to leave any toiletries in our open-air bathroom as the baboons would certainly snatch them thinking they might be edible, although of course would discard them as soon as they tasted them!

Also, the baboons are starting to steal crops planted by the local people who have traditionally cleared the forest to grow rice and other cereals. They have been able to retain their patches of ground which have been kept clear of trees in the general replanting, but they are unable to stop the baboons.

One partial solution adopted by the Mandina management was to feed the baboons at a specific spot near Base Camp, to encourage them to go there for their food and also give the day trippers some certainty of seeing them. While this was obviously achieving the second aim, I wasn’t sure about the first, and I wondered if they might have to make some difficult decisions about the future of these engaging creatures at some point.

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Baboons near Mandina Lodges

The baboons found in The Gambia are the species known as Guinea Baboons, the smallest of the five species. They seemed cuter to us than others we have seen elsewhere, perhaps because of this smaller size and also the attractive colouring – reddish brown on their backs, a more olive mane around the face, and that black hairless face with brown eyes peering at us quite intelligently and inquisitively. They sleep in trees, so their numbers are regulated by the availability and spread of these – hardly surprising then that with the reforestation of Makasutu the baboons have returned. They live in large groups or troops of up to about 200, with the most common troop size being about 30–40 individuals. The Makasutu baboons were at the time of our visit a single troop but their numbers were growing so fast that Amadou predicted that soon they may split into two, which could make for some interesting arguments! Within the troop the baboons live in ‘harems’, with one dominant male and one subordinate male plus several females and juveniles.

After spending some time with the baboons, we were ready for breakfast so headed back into the lodges complex and the restaurant area, very satisfied with our morning outing.

A day at Mandina

Breakfast consisted of a choice of juices (the baobab was my favourite), a plate of fresh fruit, good crusty bread with jams and honey and a cooked breakfast with eggs done to your taste – the scrambled eggs were excellent! The table was beautifully set with fresh flowers (hibiscus) as decoration.

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Breakfast at Mandina Lodges

We spent the rest of the day relaxing and enjoying all that Mandina had to offer. We swam in the pool and met another of the resident cats who liked to hang around there and make friends with the guests.

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Chris with one of the cats, by the pool

I took photos of the various birds, many of whom were attracted by the large expanse of water in the pool, including Bee Eaters diving down to grab a drink on the wing (far too fast for me to capture on camera) and several others enjoying the fresh water available from a bird bath on a small island in the middle of the pool – a Speckled Pigeon and Firefinch among them.

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Firefinch

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Speckled Pigeon

Later we hung out on our decking watching life on the river, with the local fishermen paddling past, and the women in search of oysters which they gather from the mangroves. The latter is one of the mainstays of the local economy in this region. Collecting them is a tough job, and one traditionally done by the women from their dug-out canoes or pirogues.

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Local woman collecting oysters

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Fisherman

Jenny came to visit us there again, and I spotted some more Bee Eaters (White-throated, I believe) although didn’t get great photos on this occasion.

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Jenny on our deck

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White-throated (?) Bee-eater

In the evening we enjoyed another dinner and a night-cap by the firepit before strolling back along the board walks to our cosy Floating Lodge.

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Bat in the rafters of the restaurant

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Mandina Lodges at night

Posted by ToonSarah 04:52 Archived in Gambia Tagged people trees animals birds fishing wildlife hotel africa apes gambia Comments (13)

Seeing more of Makasutu

Gambia day ten


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Makasutu Forest near Base Camp

Baobab Cultural Centre

After our early morning coffee on the deck we headed out on another walk with Amadou. We were heading to the area of the forest known as Base Camp, but on the way we stopped off a small craft market aimed mainly at the day trippers who come here from the coast. Of course, they are also not averse to welcoming visitors from Mandina whom I imagine the guides are encouraged to bring.

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At the Baobab Cultural Centre

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Our purchase

We felt sort-of obliged to look around and consider a purchase, especially as it was so quiet this early in the morning. There were bead bracelets and necklaces, traditional instruments, sand paintings and a few really large (and mostly very good) carvings made from tree roots, as well as many smaller carvings.

We settled on a woodcarving of a woman carrying a bundle on her head and a baby on her back, much as we had seen women do at Serrekunda Market. Although not especially finely carved, it seemed an appropriate reminder of our visit to The Gambia and we were able to get it for a reasonable 300D (about £4.60 or $7.70), reduced by the seller, after some bargaining, from his original 450D. A smaller one offered at 200D (reduced from 350D) we rejected for its poor workmanship.

Soldier ants!

Before arriving at Mandina we had expected that the insect that we should be most concerned about would be the mosquito. But when we arrived Linda, the manager here, told us that there would be very few mozzies at that time of year (February), although of course we should take precautions. The insect she said we should be most alert to, however, was the soldier ant. So when we saw these ones on our walk to Base Camp we were careful to heed Amadou’s warning to step over them very carefully – although I did stop to take a few photos and shoot a little video of them on the march.

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Soldier ants
~ although not great photos, you can clearly see their pincers!

There are numerous species of these ants in various parts of the world (we saw some years ago in the Amazon) but they all share this habit of moving en masse and in a very purposeful line. They are very aggressive and hunt prey such as larvae, worms, small insects and their eggs. According to Wikipedia, a colony of army ants can consume up to 500,000 prey animals each day! They attack as a group and have been known to overwhelm large animals. It’s more likely though that they will just give you some nasty and painful nips from their amazingly powerful jaws. So we were wise to stay well clear!

Base Camp

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At Base Camp

This is the location where the founders of Makasutu (and later Mandina), Lawrence and James, lived when they first came to this region. They spent the first seven years living in tents on the land, with no running water or electricity, really getting to understand the environment and planning how they would develop it without spoiling it. This led to them first developing the area around their base, thus the name of Base Camp, and later Mandina Lodges.

The Mandina website explains how this part of the forest was developed:
‘Fifteen thousand trees were planted over the next few years, as well as 70 wells to help water the new trees. The local people that were living and using Makasutu before James and Lawrence arrived, were left as they were on the land, and discussions were held with them, and it was decided it was possible to incorporate them into the tourism project that was planned.

The area was developed in a sensitive way, making sure that no trees were cut down in the development, and actually designing the buildings to fit into the spaces that the trees dictated. The site took seven years to develop, and finally the day park was officially opened on the 20th July 1999 by the then Minister of Lands and Local Government, Mr Bajo, on behalf of his Excellency President Jammeh.’

Today Base Camp functions as a base for day trips to Makasutu, with a pool where visitors can cool off, a restaurant which serves traditional food for the visitors’ lunches, and a stage for cultural performances. A brand new four storey tower sits at the edge of the creek, from the top of which you can get sweeping views of the mangroves and forested areas.

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Views from the tower

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Roof tops of Mandina from the tower

I loved the views from this but felt the structure looked very out of place. Its gleaming whiteness can be seen from some distance – my photo below was taken the following day and shows the view of it from the jetty at Kubuneh, about 1.5 kilometres away. Something more traditional-looking might have blended in better with the landscape.

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Base Camp from Kubuneh

There are some colourful murals and various sculptures dotted around, reflecting Lawrence’s interest in art.

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Art works at Base Camp

We saw a number of birds here, and Amadou showed us where a Barn Owl roosts inside the roof of the bar/restaurant.

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Red-billed Hornbill

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Long-tailed Glossy Starling, and Barn Owl

On the way back to the lodges we stopped off to photograph a particularly large termite mound, and got back in time for a late breakfast, as we had done yesterday.

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Termite mound, with Chris showing the scale

Bird-spotting and swimming

We then spent a relaxing day enjoying the pool and surrounding gardens and taking photos of some of the birds, including the Village Weavers enjoying the bird bath on the little island in the centre of the pool and a Plantain Eater in the nearby palm trees.

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Village Weaver

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Plantain Eater

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Later while we were enjoying the river views from our decking a Pied Kingfisher came and posed beautifully.

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Pied Kingfisher

And Jenny the cat joined us again for part of the afternoon – we were fast becoming great friends!

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Jenny

Evening paddle among the mangroves

Towards the end of the afternoon we met up again with Amadou for a boat ride, paddling along the mangrove-edged waters in search of bird life and just generally relaxing in the cooling air.

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Evening paddle

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Chris and Amadou

As we left the lodges a Goliath Heron caught our eye, perched among the mangroves. These amazing birds stand 120–152 cm (47–60 inches) tall!

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Goliath Heron

We passed some fishermen near a village, casting their nets in the traditional way, and some women returning from a day spent collecting oysters from the mangrove roots.

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Fisherman

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Passing one of the local villages

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Evening on the river

Among the other birds seen on this trip, which lasted a bit over two hours, were:
~ Senegal Thick-knee
~ White-faced Whistling Duck
~ Swallowtailed Bee-eater
~ Redshank
~ Greenshank
~ Pied Kingfisher
~ Grey Heron
~ Whimbrel

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Senegal Thick-knees

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White-faced Whistling Duck

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Swallowtailed Bee-eaters, and Pied Kingfisher

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Heron among the mangroves

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Mangrove reflections

As we returned to the lodge we saw some baboons settling down in the trees for the night, although they were too hidden in the trees to get any photos. The sun was setting, and we did get some good photos of the lodges in this beautiful light as we returned to our own - just in time to freshen up for pre-dinner drinks in the bar.

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Mandina Lodges at sunset

After dinner we enjoyed a night-cap by the firepit, chatting with a few of the other guests.

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Firepit, evening at Mandina Lodges

Posted by ToonSarah 08:10 Archived in Gambia Tagged landscapes people trees birds boats fishing sunset tower views river africa cats insects crafts gambia herons Comments (14)

Surprising art works … and then home

Gambia days eleven and twelve


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Mandina Lodges sunrise

We had a later start for today’s final outing with Amadou, so there was time for some photos from the decking before breakfast, as we enjoyed our customary coffee. It was still not quite light – Venus was visible above the mangroves, a heron was silhouetted against the sunrise, and a Goliath Heron kept watch from the trees – probably the same one we had seen on other mornings.

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Heron at sunrise

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Jenny

And of course Jenny was there to keep us company!

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Dawn over Mandina Lodges

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Goliath Heron at sunrise

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Local woman by the river near Kubuneh

Kubuneh

I had read before leaving home about the Wide Open Walls art project and was keen to visit, so we asked Amadou if it would be possible to see some of the art and he proposed a visit to one of the villages involved, Kubuneh, about a half hour boat ride from Mandina Lodges.

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By the river in Kubuneh

We landed on a small beach where local women boil the oysters they have prised off the mangroves. Collecting these is a tough job, and one traditionally done by the women whom we saw frequently passing Mandina in their dug-out canoes or pirogues.

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Oyster shells on the small beach

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Local woman carrying oysters

The oysters have to be boiled for an hour to make them edible (you can’t eat these raw as you do the coastal ones, we were told). Some are eaten by the locals but most sold to restaurants. The discarded shells are picked clean by Hooded Vultures and Piapiacs (an African crow) before being smoked, ground to a powder and mixed with water to make a wash for the walls of buildings.

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Hooded vulture

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Hooded vultures

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Piapiac

The Wide Open Walls project

Some years ago, one of the owners of Makasutu and Mandina, Lawrence, who is a keen artist, decided to use art as a way of bringing some income to the local villages. He invited internationally known artists to stay at Mandina after the end of the tourist season, and to create street art in the most unlikely of settings, the small rural Gambian villages dotted around the area. The idea was that the works would function as a valid art installation in their own right and at the same time promote The Gambia as a tourist destination and thus benefit local communities. Progress has been slow, mainly because of the recession, but gradually the project, known as Wide Open Walls, has begun to create more and more interest. You can read more about it on the Mandina Lodges website: https://www.mandinalodges.com/makasutu-forest/wide-open-walls.

It was fascinating to see the works as they seemed at the same time both incongruous and totally in their right place. They are on public buildings, private houses, walls and even on the trees! And because quite a number of artists have been involved since the project began, there is a good chance everyone will find some that appeal.

As you can imagine, I took lots of photos. Here's a selection for you to enjoy - or scroll past, depending on your levels of enthusiasm for street art!

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Wide Open Walls

As I said, even some of the trees have been used by the artists as 'canvasses'.

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Faces on the trees, Kubuneh

Life in Kubuneh

Visiting Kubuneh didn’t just give us the opportunity to see the Wide Open Walls street art but also to see a rural Gambian village.
The village seemed still largely untouched by the extra attention it is starting to receive but there were some early seeds of the development of a tourist infrastructure – a part-built restaurant, a small craft stall under a baobab tree, signs promoting bird-watching trips. I hoped that this would benefit the local people but not spoil the special atmosphere here – from what I learned about Lawrence I thought it fair to say that was unlikely.

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Sign on a tree

Certainly overall the village was then (2014) still largely untouched by the presence of visitors, and although some small children called out a hello, in the vain hope of being given sweets (giving which is strongly discouraged by the authorities and tour companies), there was no sense of the commercialisation that we had experienced earlier in this trip, to some extent at least, at the former slave trade villages on the River Gambia.

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Children in Kubuneh

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Local people

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The village church

On our walk through the village we stopped to chat to a local woman whom Amadou knew. She was happy for us to take photos of her and her children (twin boys and a baby) and we gave the boys some postcards from home in return which they seemed to like (and much better for them than sweets!) This is one of the houses that has been painted through the Wide Open Walls project and the woman told me how much they like it.

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Mother and two of her children

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The twins with their postcards

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Amadou also took us to visit the local community-run school, which takes children from the ages of three to nine as these are considered too young to walk to the nearest government school 1.5 kilometres away. Unfortunately for us (but not presumably for the children!) the pupils had been given a day off in recognition of having won a sports competition the previous Friday, so we weren’t able to see and interact with any of them.

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The (almost deserted) village school

But we were able to meet the headmaster, Malik, who showed us the classrooms and told us a bit about the school. They are currently setting up a programme to give all the children a breakfast each morning, as many arrive without having eaten anything (or generally eat poorly at home), so we gave Malik a donation towards that as well as some pencils and crayons we had brought with us from home. He has a donations book which we were asked to complete and it was interesting to see how many others, from a variety of countries, had been here and done the same.

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Classrooms

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School motto

The writing on one of the blackboards tells a surprising story for a school whose pupils are relatively young, of a man accusing his son of being a bandit and asking the police to 'take him away'. His only crime seems to have been playing his music too loud and not reading his books!

There is also mention of the man beating one of his two wives before throwing her out, accusing her of stealing a chain in order to buy cannabis.

Last day at Mandina

The rest of the day passed in the by-now usual mix of swimming, relaxing and photographing the birds. Among the latter were a pretty Firefinch and some White-throated Bee-eaters who enjoyed darting down to the pool water in search of any insects floating there.

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View from my lounger!

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White-throated Bee-eater

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Firefinch

Another highlight was a Malachite Kingfisher on one of the posts of our decking. He didn’t hang around long enough for me to get a great photo but at least I got something!

A Giant Kingfisher paid us an even more fleeting visit but again I managed to get some sort of photo although his head was in shadow.

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Malachite Kingfisher

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Giant Kingfisher

Later we watched the local women on their way home after collecting oysters – some presumably heading to Kubuneh and the beach where we had photographed the discarded shells this morning.

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Local women collecting oysters

That night at dinner some excitement was caused by a Goliath Heron in the shallows right next to the restaurant – very difficult to photograph in the dark but of course I had to try!

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Goliath Heron at night

Time to go home

On our last morning there was time for a few more photos from the decking of our Floating Lodge.

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Last morning coffee

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Sunrise panorama

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View of the other Floating Lodges from our deck

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Jenny was there again, naturally!

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Lizard on a tree

Jenny tried to make it difficult for us to pack and leave but sadly we couldn’t linger as we had a plane to catch.

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Please don't go home!

Our transfer back to the airport near Banjul went smoothly, and we found the airport surprisingly well-organised, with only a short queue to check in and a reasonable one for customs and security. It helped that we had already filled in our departure card, but these are available at the airport if needed. Security was cursory by modern standards, with no request to screen electronic devices separately or to remove liquids for inspection.

The departure lounge had three duty free shops all selling much the same goods (mainly cigarettes and alcohol) plus one souvenir shop and a couple of bars. One of these, the Sky Bar, had very pro-active waiters who handed us a menu as soon as we entered the lounge and helped us find a space among the crowded seats. They sold snacks, cold and hot drinks, Julbrew and ice creams, all at reasonable prices, so we enjoyed a cold drink while waiting to board. The other bar was outside on a terrace with good views of the planes but very exposed to the hot African sun, so we gave that a miss.

The return flight was in a smaller and more cramped plane (it seemed that Monarch used smaller planes for their Tuesday flights than their Friday ones) but was similar in terms of service quality. We landed at Gatwick on a chilly February evening. The warmth of The Gambia already seemed a long way away …

Posted by ToonSarah 02:10 Archived in Gambia Tagged art people children birds lizards wildlife views hotel flight airport village river school africa cats street_art customs gambia Comments (32)

A return to Gambia

Senegal day one


View Senegal 2016 on ToonSarah's travel map.

In 2014 we had visited Gambia for some winter sun so in search of similar two years later we decided to check out Senegal. But initially that meant a return visit to Gambia!

There are two options for flying to Senegal from the UK, either to Dakar (via Brussels) or via Banjul in neighbouring Gambia. While the former may seem to make more sense, and is convenient for the hotels on the more developed coastal strip a few hours south of the capital, flying to Banjul is the preferred option if staying in the handful of hotels just across the border in the Sine Saloum Delta region – and that is where we were headed.

The Gambia Experience and sister company Senegal Experience have pretty much of a monopoly on travel and hotel bookings to the region from the UK (many of the hotels can only be booked through them) and charter flights come as part of the package. On our previous visit to The Gambia with them two years before our flights had been with Monarch; this time they were with Titan.

Because the flight left Gatwick very early, we opted to stay the previous night in the South Terminal’s Hilton Hotel. The cost of this was balanced by not having to leave our car at the airport, and it also meant we avoided the anxiety of getting to the airport on time, especially in unpredictable winter weather. So we were in the airport the next morning in good time and stress-free.

While nothing special, there was also little to complain about in the flight. The plane, an Airbus, was new and the leg-room generous. Service was friendly, and passenger announcements clear and comprehensive. While the flight was late in leaving this was through no fault of the airline – a checked-in passenger failed to present himself at the gate so his luggage had to be unloaded. Don’t you just love people like that?!

The flight lasted a little over six hours. Unusually, in-flight entertainment was provided via an app which we had to download in advance to our tablets. Presumably if you have no such device you have to do without, but that isn't a great hardship as the selection of films on our flight at least was quite limited and uninspiring. Meals were included, as were tea, coffee and fruit juice, though other drinks had to be paid for. The food was unexciting but quite tasty for an airline meal - pasta salad, chicken fricassé, chocolate cake.

Our route took us over Spain, Portugal, Morocco and down across the Sahara to West Africa. From my window seat I had good views and the pilot pointed out landmarks such as Lisbon and the Moroccan coast line.

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Over Spain?

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Off the coast of Portugal

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Coming into land in Banjul

We landed about 30 minutes late at Banjul (thanks to that non-appearing passenger) and cleared immigration after not too long in the queue. After collecting our luggage, we were met by a Gambia Experience rep who directed us to the bus that would take us to our overnight accommodations in the Gambia. Stage one of our journey was completed.

Overnight at the Kombo Beach Hotel

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Kombo Beach Hotel

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Our room

Our choice of hotel for this evening was pragmatic. Our brief stay didn’t justify a splurge on the lovely Ngala Lodge where we had stayed on our previous visit, so we just went with the travel company’s suggestion of Kombo Beach as being close to the airport and mid-priced. This is a rather large hotel which, while it wouldn't be our choice for a holiday base (too large and ‘packaged’ for our taste) was adequate for our one-night stays either side of our time in Senegal.

Rooms are in four big three-storey blocks – ours on the first night was in the fourth, furthest from reception, bar and pool. This was a bonus as it was quieter and also had a good view across a tennis court to some palm trees and the beach beyond.

Our room was very simply furnished but provided with a safe, small fridge to chill drinks, and air conditioning. It had a balcony with a couple of plastic seats, a good-sized and comfortable bed, and an over-bath shower in the en suite. While the shower was good, the curtain was of the horrible flimsy sort that seems to attack anyone showering within a foot or more of it!

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View from our room


We watched the sun set over the beach from our balcony, then spent the evening in the bar, where drinks are reasonably priced and snack meals (burgers, panini etc) are available. We could also have eaten in the adjacent open air buffet restaurant, but I'm not a fan of buffets in hot climates, and in the dark we failed to spot the smarter table service restaurant on the far side of the pool. So we had a pleasant enough evening and retired to our room for a prompt night as it had been an early start that morning.

Posted by ToonSarah 11:21 Archived in Gambia Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises hotel flight africa gambia senegal Comments (11)

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