A hunt for winter sun leads Stephanie Maskery to West Africa’s tiny slice of paradise
THINGS started slowing on the “M1”. Up ahead I spotted the hold-up: a local bus with four goats strapped to its roof. “This is our National Express,” grinned our guide, Mucki, as we stared wide-eyed out the window. This, after all, was Gambia, where a few goat-laden cars are normal rush hour traffic.
We’d arrived just in time for Tobaski, a festival Gambians look forward to all year. Men spend up to four months’ wages on a sacrificial ram for the family feast, and as we bumped along Gambia’s only highway, hundreds milled by the side of the road waiting to be bought. This was my first taste of Africa, and a visit to Brikama, Gambia’s second largest town, was quite the eye-opener. Markets crammed with stalls sold unusual fresh fruit, battered TVs and Premier League football shirts. Excited children ran about waving as we pushed through a throng of women in vibrant, traditional African dress, haggling over metres of material.
Yet, in all honestly, my partner and I weren’t just here to soak up local culture – we were in Africa for the sun. Gambia is hot, with average winter temperatures rarely dipping below 30°C. Due to the intense heat, much of the market was covered with colourful sheets – stepping into the cool red-hued tunnels, we were welcomed with broad smiles everywhere we went. I guess they don’t call it the Smiling Coast of Africa for nothing.
But I had more to investigate beyond the interesting sights – and smells – of the market, including our home for the next five days, the Coco Ocean Resort and Spa, half an hour away on the Gambian coast. Located in Bijilo, just 15 minutes from the airport and set right on the beach, it’s Gambia’s most luxurious hotel. Designed in a Moroccan style that aims to be more like a small village than an imposing hotel, the grounds feel mature and natural. It’s hard to believe it’s only been here three years.
Intricately tiled paths lead down past Moorish domed restaurants and a three- tiered infinity pool to the beach, where a roaring Atlantic battles golden sand. Cabanas invite lazy days enjoying the warmth and attentive staff provide cocktails.
With so many luxuries to hand, many guests forget to stray from the pool. But not being the best sunbather, I tried one of the excursions offered by our tour operator, The Gambia Experience.
For those interested in something more adventurous, they offer boat trips, fishing and birdwatching days, and a chance to get out into the wild. We headed to Makasutu Culture Forest, a 1,000-acre reserve of mangroves, palm forest and wetland. As we made our way deeper into the bush, the ruts in the dirt road opened up like chasms. Towering palm trees crowded around the bus, huge termite mounts littered the roadside.
Our guide had been to Britain and, keen to make us feel at home, he’d thought of some safety rules – because we Brits love that, apparently. “Remember, guys, do not put your hands in the termite mounds, or you might lose a finger.” It was different to your typical support chat, but with snakes occupying older mounds, it was good advice.
Two English backpackers discovered Makasutu in 1992. They fell in love with Gambia and decided to protect its wildlife. Since then, they’ve made it one of West Africa’s premier eco tourist destinations, offering guided walks to meet the forest’s indigenous people and try their homemade palm wine.
We lazily made our way downstream in an African dugout canoe. Sitting low in the water, we had spectacular views of mangroves, greedily stretching out their roots on either side. Sparks of colour flashed through leaves as long tailed glossy starlings and giant kingfishers danced for food. On muddy banks, lively clusters of red crabs waved their claws.
For such a tiny place, Gambia has a stunning array of wildlife, including an impressive 540 bird species. While there’s no big game, Gambia boasts dolphins, hippos and crocodiles.
Stopping for a drink at one of the reserve’s lodges, currently under construction, the forest came alive with a cacophony of raucous screeches. By the unfinished pool, baboons jumped gleefully into the water, pushing playmates. On the edge, mothers fussed over babies. Seeing them at close range, without the tourist crush that may normally drive them off, was wonderful.
My visit wouldn’t be complete without a trip on the River Gambia, from where the country derives its name. At 700 miles long and nearly six miles wide at its mouth, this huge river dominates a relatively tiny county, dividing it into two halves: the south, where the majority of towns and resorts lie; and the north, which is wilder and less developed.
We cast off at Lamin Lodge, a ramshackle wooden building, perched on stilts over the river. A well-worn pier of weathered wood led us out to our modern catamaran, nestled among a motley crew of brightly painted fishing boats.
Long-tailed monkeys clattered about on the lodge’s rusting tin roof while Gambian men sat contemplating life in the shade. As the sun rose in the sky, the temperature followed suit. It was a relief to be on the water.
With legs dangling over the edge, I sat blissfully drinking in the sun while watching the river widen to lake-size. Up ahead, a woman in a rickety canoe paddled industriously towards the mangroves to harvest oysters that live on their roots.
We stopped at Situnuku, a new set of lodges two hours upstream on the north bank. Its landscaped gardens, filled with towering African baobab trees and fuchsia bougainvilleas, made for a secluded idyll. Visitors can hire kayaks and explore the river, but I was content to slow to the Gambian way of life and watch the world pass by. A perfect end to my trip in a perfect winter paradise, without the hefty price tag, just six hours from home.
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