I had a spare few days and decided to check out a couple of places to the north as part of my guide book research. Just north of the Gambia and back into Senegal is a nature reserve called Fathala – a popular day trip for tourists to the Gambia. The 6000 hectare reserve has been around for several decades, run by the Senegalese with support from the Czech republic. More recently, South Africans have set up a luxury southern African style lodge and imported several species including lions, giraffe, zebra and rhino. Nearby is Jinak island, a long narrow strip of land that straddles both Senegal and the Gambia.
Before heading that way, I caught up in Senegambia with couple of guys who are travelling West Africa by jakarta (the local name for cheap Chinese motorbikes). Phil (in the Blank) Paoletta has been writing a blog about his life in Mali and Cote D’Ivoire for several years – it was one of the first West African blogs I ever found and inspired my own – we’ve long corresponded but until now, never met. He was travelling with Aussie fellow Bamako resident Matt Christie (they are both involved in the popular hostel there – the Sleeping Camel) and it didn’t take us long to realise we had many mutual friends and acquaintances. After a full day of dehydrating ourselves via the medium of beer, we said farewell – they continued down to stay with Khady at the Little Baobab.
I set off early the next morning to Banjul and rather than wait for the ferry which can take hours, I decided to take the slightly more adventurous pirogue. This involves a slightly undignified method of boarding and disembarking. A strapping young man sticks his head between your legs, hoists you up on his shoulders and wades up to his waist in the choppy sea to dump you onto a boat., whilst you question the wisdom of bringing your lap top and other electronic goods. Then you have to clamber across to another boat on the other side. Everyone’s shouting and screaming to hurry up as it’s leaving, then you sit there waiting for several other people to board, for the engine to be fixed and so on.
I was soon hurtling up to the border in a clapped out bush taxi, crossed and then took a motorbike the 5 km or so to the entrance gate of Fathala. They were expecting me and I was transferred to the lodge in one of those safari pick-ups with high seats in the back and a canopy. We drove for a few kilometres through scrubby bush, seeing a few gazelle and wart hogs, then arrived at the lodge.
Being greeted with an ice cold towel and a glass of bissap (juice from hibiscus flowers) was a nice touch and the main thatched restaurant/bar area opened onto a swimming pool beyond which was a water hole where several West African giant derby Eland were grazing. The reserve has specialised in saving this rare species of antelope from extinction – it is only found here and the males can grow up to a tonne in weight. The thatch of the restaurant was perhaps the neatest and most professional I’ve ever seen. Leading either side were wooden walkways to the accommodation – luxury safari tents.
This was no ordinary tent. I entered to find a four poster bed, air conditioning and bathroom to rival any 5 star hotel. Mind you, the drinks were 5 star prices too – 3500 for a beer we sell for 1000 cfa.
After a rest, I wandered out to see three giraffes casually sauntering past. They’ve long been extinct in these parts and these ones have been imported from South Africa. There were not only giraffe waiting to see me but also wart hog, monkey (red colobus and callithrix) and various species of gazelle and antelope.
I clambered back into the pick up for an afternoon safari with a guide. Before not too long I’d seen roan, bushbuck, waterbuck and then some zebra.
Then I saw the one remaining rhino laying beneath a tree.
By the time I’d gotten back to the lodge I’d seen a large group of buffalo as well as a big croc in one of the waterholes. Upon return, a sundowner by the pool whilst watching monkeys seemed appropriate.
I wandered over to the restaurant that evening, listening to all sorts of animal noises in the darkness. The staff had told me not to leave the wooden boardwalk although that hardly seemed to offer any protection. The waterhole was lit and I could make out the shapes of antelope, monkeys and wart hog, all whilst eating the best restaurant food I’ve had in a long time, aside from Khady’s of course.
One of the very popular tourist excursions is the controversial walking with lions experience. In southern Africa, cubs are separated from their mothers, trained and later used for canned hunting, although that didn’t appear to be the case here. I didn’t get the impression that the animals were drugged or mistreated but there was an atmosphere of boredom as the two animals – a brother and sister – were tempted with lumps of donkey meat and made to pose in a series of trees and mounds that made for postcard perfect photos. The guides had to keep running after them into the bush to tempt them back and I left feeling more sad for the animals than happy to have spent precious moments in their presence.
Moving on, I returned on the back of a motorbike to the border, crossed and enquired about a taxi to the river crossing across to Jinak island. This was met with guffaws – no way was a taxi going that route. There were two choices – a taxi back to Barra, then hire a 4wd or to continue with the motorbike. I went for latter option and nearly regretted as he sped along sandy roads, almost veering into the bush as he took corners too fast and coming off a couple of times. The sand was soft. We’d actually gone back into Senegal, then along a long orange dirt track before eventually reaching a beach by a baobab on the edge of the mangrove.
A boat and a rasta with a huge joint hanging from his lips greeted me and we set off to the island, reaching a village set amidst coconut palms about half an hour later.
The island is known as Paradise island and indeed, given the Fathala style lodge treatment, it could be. As it is, it’s desperately poor, receives a very small trickle of visitors and probably makes most of it’s money from this stuff that grows everywhere:
I trudged through the sandy lanes of the village, past a well kept clinic and then through the “agricultural fields” and across to the ocean side beaches, guided all the way by a group of small children.
I’d arranged a stay at Jinak Lodge and was greeted by Amadou. It was fine, if a little run down and backed straight onto the beach.
There wasn’t much to do but walk down the beach, where I found a couple of abandoned campements and what appeared to be the bar at the end of the world.
There was a small group of English teachers taking a break from volunteering at a local school, and a couple of English tourists. We were all served a plate of rice and beans that evening then I went for an early night.
The journey home was quite an adventure – the great thing about this entire trip was the extremes from 5 star luxury to hair raising journeys, wildlife spotting and laid back tranquil island life.
I visited the other guest houses, all empty and fairly run down, then took a boat across to where a 4wd awaited.
It was another safari style truck – three rastas (again with big joints) blasted out reggae and I clung on to the back as we drove through stunning tropical landscapes with palm trees, monkeys and salt pans. This time I took the actual ferry back to Banjul as there wasn’t a long wait. In the evening a friend invited me for dinner at Ngala lodge, one of Gambia’s finest.
Here’s the view at sunset on a chilly February evening: