My plan was to make my way down the coast in a land rover defender lent to me for the week by a very good samaritan. I checked out a few places along the highway and then started properly in Brufut, a small town that really marks the end of the main tourist coastal strip. Beyond Brufut are small villages, long empty beaches, eco lodges and plenty of bird life. It’s like the Casamance.
Leo’s, an increasingly popular boutique hotel and world class Mediterranean restaurant (I had the delicious prawns and spaghetti) greeted me with recognition, big smiles and stunning views.
I walked along Tanji beach to see the fishing village, checked out the camels that carry tourists on safaris and had a drink at the bar of the stunning Coral Beach hotel (ex-Sheraton) – with the only functioning elevator in the country.
I made some new friends at Bird view apartments. It was a new place next to somewhere else I’d gone to check but had closed. Frank, a German, lives in a beautiful compound in the forest next to a nature reserve with his wife Fatou – contact me if you want to live there as they have another house nearby and are looking to sell.
Last up, I headed to the Plantation run by Nikki and Neil, an English/Scottish couple. I’ve been before and it’s a lovely little spot carved from the bush with cute round houses surrounding a sparkling pool. Since my last trip, they’ve built a new bar, so I thought I’d better test it out. Despite power cuts (this is the Gambia), the beer was ice cold and the chicken yassa very tasty. They also had some great ways of recycling bottle tops:
Continuing south, I went to a place that had been recommended as stunning by several people. It wasn’t in the current edition of the guide book, so I decided to check it out. My first impression was that it was indeed stunning. Beautiful thatched buildings and a gorgeous tropical garden leading down to endless white sand beach. Then I met the European owner who didn’t give me much of a chance to say anything and made me feel like an unwelcome door to door salesman. So, I cleared off and went down to the beach, where I met some cool local guys selling freshly caught fish and chips for a couple of quid on a stunning beach.
The Tanji village museum seemed to be a labour of love for a group of local people and alongside exhibitions of nature and culture, they have a traditional Mandinka village that you can walk through and some round houses to stay in. It would be a great place to spend a few nights.
Farakunku lodge deserves a mention too – yet another stunning boutique hotel (and the owner immediately bought a copy of “Squirting”) that’s popular with bird spotters. The sort of place I’d happily recommend my guests if they fancy a little more comfort after being with us. And the plunge pool looked very inviting.
I was staying near there that night, but had a couple of hours of daylight, so headed down to the large village of Sanyang. First off I met Kebba at the Jungle Bar who very enthusiastically showed me around.
He was full of ideas, very happy to have made contact with someone from the Casamance and gave me a couple of drinks on the house. It was quieter than the next door Rainbow beach, but in my opinion, much nicer and friendlier. The groves of coconut trees were lovely and I’d be tempted to put a hammock up, if there weren’t coconuts above.
Driving back, I spotted English Cottage gardens, somewhere not in the book, so I stopped to investigate. It had the feel of an English cafe – except surrounded by palm trees, and was indeed run by an elderly Englishman who’d been here since the early 80s. He insisted on feeding me and gave me a plate of rice and curry that matched any curry house I’ve been in.
That night, I was staying at Sambou Kunda, a Gambian-Spanish lodge in Tujering. We’d been in touch whilst trying to organise a driver for an upcoming tour of Guinea, so when they told me that as well as a tour company they had a lodge, I thought I’d better check it out. And I’m so glad I did. The place was very nicely built, the staff – from near Khady’s village in Casamance – were superb and friendly and the food (Spanish with Gambian flourishes), melt in your mouth delicious. I talked into the night with Sylvia, from Barcelona (her Gambian husband was away leading a tour), especially about their other day job – a project teaching solar installation skills to young women, financed by profits from the tourism. Click here to check it out.
Down to Gunjur. I’d long heard of Footsteps and admired their website. Funnily enough, Linda and David, the owners, had contacted me a few weeks earlier, having read my book. So, I arrived to find a friendly group of people having coffee and they all knew of me. Which still feels bizarre, but it’s happening more often these days. A few months I was chatting to an Irish guy in a bar. As we spoke, he looked quizzically and said, “hang on, I’ve heard that before.” It turned out he was half way through my book. And one of the ladies here, Sue, who is the resident yoga teacher, told me she’s currently taking me to bed every night. To read.
David very kindly offered to put me up and so I went off for my days exploration, before returning later. First stop was Wyce (Wonder Years Centre of Excellence) – again they’d contacted me independently of Bradt wanting to meet up and so it was nice to catch up over a cup of tea, find out about their various community projects and plan a visit for them to come see me in Abene.
Somewhere I’ve heard of for years and always meant to visit (but there’s always so much to do….) is Sandele eco-lodge. Many of my friends have talked about Maurice and Gerri who’ve not only built a stunning (must find another adjective) lodge, but involve the entire community and are doing many other eco-projects locally including a turtle rescue programme.
I was introduced to Landing, aka Papa Turtle, who explained that as a teacher he earned 150 dalasi a month (£3), which, unsurprisingly, didn’t support his family, so he took to finding and selling turtle eggs for 600 dalasi. Now he’s been enrolled by the programme to protect turtles and educate people.
I continued south, eco-lodge after eco-lodge. Mostly lovely, but after a while, they did start blending into one and it’s great that with digital photography you can quickly record details. One of the highlights was a visit to the reptile farm where a French guy and his Gambian wife take in creatures that might otherwise be killed as well as teach locals the value of preserving snakes and so on.
People will instinctively kill all snakes here, but they’re important for keeping mice and rat numbers down and so on. And besides, almost all of them are harmless. It’s only puff adders you really have to worry about, and I’ve only ever found three of those on my land.
I spent a pleasant evening eating a barbecue and listening to a magnificent griot perform with a voice that sent chills down the spine.
The next morning, after perhaps the best English breakfast I’ve experienced in the Gambia, it was back to the slog, I went first down to the southern most point on the coast, to a small lodge that’s visible from the canoe crossing to Senegal, but which I hadn’t visited before and this involved a drive across the hard cracked salty sand of the mangrove to simple but clean huts, beautifully positioned on the edge of the river, perfect for fishermen and bird watchers.
Back into Kartong village, having given a slightly incorrect phone contact details to two overly friendly soldiers, I walked through the market and out back to the home of Colin Cross, a bird spotter and ringer, working for a UK birding organisation. He’s the Gambian representative who lives here, spending his days on a verandah overlooking a vast wetland, and leading people around the region to watch birds. We sank a couple of julbrews, discussed collaboration as he’d been looking for a partner on my side of the border and promised to keep in touch.
I looked at a few more places before heading back into Brikama and then to my final destination, Makasutu culture forest and Madina lodges, perhaps one of the most beautiful locations, and lodge in the whole of the Gambia, where Lawrence the founder had provided me with a night in a floating lodge. Not too shabby a spot to wrap up this leg of the trip.