Favorite thing: 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. There is a luxury eco-lodge, Mandina, where we spent four nights, but you can also come on a day trip to the part they call Base Camp (because this was where Lawrence and James first settled and camped while developing their project).
Day visitors get the opportunity to go out on a boat on the river, which is a tributary of the main Gambia River; to see a culture show and eat traditional food; to climb to the top of the new four storey tower with wonderful views over the surrounding landscape; to spot a myriad of birds and (of course) shop in the small craft market where you can also see the craftsmen at work. Those who come to stay at Mandina get a full programme of included guided walks and boat trips with their personal local guide.
Despite all this 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 a growing troop of baboons. The latter are a mixed blessing – they help to attract tourists and are a visible sign of how this environment has recovered, but they cause havoc around the hotel and damage rice and other crops planted by locals.
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 ago, but Lawrence has kept Makasutu alive and going from strength to strength. We met him while staying at Mandina Lodges and his passion for the project, the area and for The Gambia as a whole really shone through.
The only way to get here is by a pre-arranged transfer from the airport or a coastal resort or on a tour. But for those who are curious, here is the location on Google Maps
Next tip: Our journey to Makasutu
- Jungle and Rain Forest
Favorite thing: The Mandina area is justifiably promoted as a great place for birds and many keen birdwatcher's visit, either on a day trip from the coast or to stay a few days. Although we don't fall into that camp, I was keen to see and learn the names of as many as possible, and to take photos whenever I could. Among those we saw on our walks with Amadou, from boats on the creeks and around the hotel, were:
~ Bearded Barbet
~ Black Kite
~ Blue-spotted Wood Dove
~ Barn Owl
~ Cattle Egret
~ Giant Kingfisher
~ Goliath Heron
~ Great White Egret
~ Grey Heron
~ Hooded Vulture
~ Long-crested Eagle
~ Long-tailed Glossy Starling
~ Malachite Kingfisher
~ Pied Crow
~ Pied Kingfisher
~ Plantain Eater
~ Purple Heron
~ Purple Starling
~ Red-billed Firefinch
~ Red-billed Hornbill
~ Sandwich Tern
~ Senegal Thick-knee
~ Speckled Pigeon
~ Spur-winged Plover
~ Swallowtailed Bee-eater
~ Variable Sunbird
~ Village Weaver
~ Violet Turaco
~ Western Reef Heron
~ White-throated Bee-eater
~ White-faced Whistling Duck
Fondest memory: It is impossible to pick out favourites but I as I said on my main Gambia page, I was especially fascinated by the majestic Goliath Heron, which stands 120–152 cm (47–60 inches) tall and yet moves so slowly and carefully along the bank looking for fish, or flies so apparently effortlessly despite its size. I managed to capture a brief moment of that flight on video, as well as some footage of one that stalked the decking of the neighbouring lodge early one morning.
Another favourite was the Bearded Barbet, seen on an early morning walk, and I also enjoyed watching the many different birds around the swimming pool. Several of my photos were taken there (the Firefinch and the Plantain Eater in my travelogue), as was another short video.
As on my main Gambia page I have put some additional bird photos into a travelogue as I had far too many for this tip!
Or got to my next tip: a wonderful sunset cruise!
- Jungle and Rain Forest
Favorite thing: Everyone says that when you come to Mandina you must do the sunset cruise, and so we did. And they were right! This is the one trip that isn't included in the price of your stay, so you have to pay extra, but it is worth it. We did the trip on our first evening here, and it was so good I would have done it again, except that numbers are so limited it would have been mean to have deprived other guests of the experience even if we could have booked for a second time.
You leave the lodge in the late afternoon in a small motorboat that takes a maximum of six guests at a time (we were just four, which was a good number). Before leaving you'll be asked about your beverage of choice - red or white wine, beer or soft drinks. We chose white wine as did the other couple on our trip.
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. 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
~ White-throated Bee-eater
~ Sandwich Tern
~ Spur-winged Plover
~ Black Kites (which aren't black but reddish-brown!)
~ Various herons - Grey, Western Reef, and the amazing and very well-named Goliath
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 and the beautiful view, until Amadou said that we should start to head back up the river in time to view the sunset and more birds.
And when he 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. 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, 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. 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. Then it was time to return to the lodge, sipping the last of our wine and reflecting on a wonderful few hours.
The price for this trip varies according to the number of passengers, which to some extent is out of your control, depending on how many other guests want to go out on the same evening. With only two guests it is £75 per couple, including the bottle of wine. Going in a group of four we paid £65, and for six (the maximum) it is less again though I'm not sure by how much. Really, if you have spent the money to come to Mandina, it would be a mistake I think not to find the little bit extra to pay for this special experience, especially when you consider that all your other activities here are included in the price of your stay and this is the only one you will have to pay for on top.
Next tip: an early morning walk
- Jungle and Rain Forest
Favorite thing: One 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. On e partial solution adopted by the Mandina management is 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 it is obviously achieving the second aim, I am not sure about the first, and it may be that they will have to make some difficult decisions about the future of these engaging creatures at some point.
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 are currently a single troop but their numbers 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.
Fondest memory: We saw a large number of the baboons (I imagine one of these harems) near the entrance to the lodge when returning from our first early morning walk with Amadou, and a couple of days later saw some settling down for the night in the trees near Floating Lodge Four. The guests staying there told us that they heard them a lot and saw them several times very close to the bathroom. Another guest, staying in the Mangrove Lodge, heard them on his terrace one morning, but by the time he had returned to his room and brought his camera, the alert staff had already chased them away – as they have to do (encouraging them would lead to major problems for the smooth running of the lodge, especially the kitchen no doubt!) I had expected that the presence of several dogs at the lodge might deter them, but we soon found out that the opposite is true. One of these dogs had accompanied us throughout our morning walk, usually running well ahead of us and clearly enjoying himself very much. But when we encountered the baboons he retreated as soon as the large male showed some sign of aggression, and hid himself behind me and Chris (as though we could have protected him!) In fact, it seemed that the baboons were a bit aggressive towards him but not at all towards us; they more or less ignored our presence, which meant we could get great photos and really enjoy watching them - especially the cute youngsters!
Next tip: a visit to Base Camp
- Jungle and Rain Forest
Favorite thing: 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.
As we walked through the village we not only saw lots of examples of the art but also 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. But in general the village is 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, to some extent at least, at the former slave trade villages on the River Gambia.
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.
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. 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.
Next tip: oyster- harvesting