Green and pleasant Gambia
PUBLISHED: 16:58 17 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:10 20 February 2013
With a six hour flight and no time difference, the tiny west African republic of The Gambia is fast taking over from the Caribbean and Far East as a winter sun destination. But be prepared for a few (good) surprises, says Georgina Wroe
Land of surprises
When it comes to predicting who youll be sharing an arm rest with on an international flight, there arent many surprises: iPods to Ibiza, Blackberries to Berlin.
But, on the six-hour flight from Gatwick to Gambias capital Banjul, fellow passengers were are as difficult to put a name to as the airline meal.
Further enquiry revealed a party of 30 female bridge players, several Roman Catholic priests, a couple of dozen silver-haired twitchers and (in the tin-foil tupper) chicken in white wine sauce.
Thats the thing about The Gambia. Surprises.
While East Africa has bagged the safari market and north Africa has laid claim to the souk-loving Boden wallahs, West Africa has struggled to come up with what marketers might call a brand ID.
That could all be about to change. Responsible tourism making sure that your holiday cash goes into the countrys economy rather than out of it via a foreign-owned hotel is making great in-roads in the tiny republic, where more than 80 per cent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
The road inland from the airport is bumpy and baking. The 4x4 clanks through a string of colourful towns and villages where the billboards are distinctly African. The Gambia is one of the few countries in the world to reject Ronald McDonalds golden arches.
We are miles away from the sanitised luxury of the coastal resorts, this is proper Africa: awash with noise and bustle of the continent the smell of diesel mixed with charcoal-burning stoves.
Our destination is the award-winning Makasutu Cultural Centre: an eco centre so successful the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) is looking at rolling it out as blueprint to other African countries.
But if eco tourism screams wind-up torches and brown rice rather than fluffy towels and cordon bleu, then prepare for another Gambian surprise.
Accommodation in Makasutu Cultural Centre, in a cluster of Mandina lodges, is nothing short of spectacular.
Four floating lodges nestle along the mangrove-covered shores of the Madina Balong, a tributary of the river Gambia. Access is via mahogany dug-out canoes or a boardwalk cut through the riverine forest.
And while hibiscus flowers perfume the crisp linen pillow beneath a hand-carved four-poster bed, the en-suite is outside overlooking the mangrove swamp. (The facilities include state of the art composting toilets and solar-heated water; if the baboons havent been interfering with panels.)
Three more split-level jungle lodges, with a private roof terrace looking out over the mangroves, offer accommodation for six more visitors.
Even at capacity, the lodges house just 16 tourists, allowing visitors a personal chambermaid, two waitresses and a chef who will seek you out from around the pool, or lazing on a veranda, to take your dinner request.
Previous visitors make an eclectic list ranging from fashion designer Donna Karan, Rita Marley (Bobs widow) to Springwatchs Chris Packham (as well as being a trap for winter sun seekers, The Gambia is a haven for bird watchers and animal lovers).
Makasutu owners are the final surprise. Not a steely efficient management team but a couple of heavily tattooed Brit adventurers with more interest in street art and skateboards than customer feedback forms (although they do welcome visitor comment). Few hoteliers can say they have surfed in Liberia and passed through Afghanistan disguised as Taliban.
So how did the pair, uncle and nephew Lawrence Williams and James English, become the brains behind what the the Sunday Times dubbed Best New Eco Hotel In The World?
Lawrence, who trained as an architect before specialising in film sets, said: We first saw the land on Christmas Eve in 1992. At that time the intention wasnt much more than creating a backpackers lodge. But the longer we stayed, the more we saw how the forest was being cut down for firewood and cleared for farming.
Within a year they had negotiated a deal with the neighbouring village to protect the patch of forest in return for permission to live and work there.
Since then much of the forest has been replanted with 15,000 trees and the pair has acquired 1,750 acres of diverse forest, complete with resident palm-wine tappers and even a marabout, or holy man.
Lawrence said: We didnt want to kick anyone off the land so we just built around them.
What makes the project even more remarkable is its commitment to the community. At the height of its building, up to 250 local workers were employed on the project in a variety of roles from carpenter to drivers. Even the dancing ladies who entertain lunchtime visitors are back in the fields within an hour of their performance.
While theres peace and quiet, there is always a local guide on hand for excursions whether its a paddle in a canoe fishing for barracuda or birdwatching trails or even having your fortune told by the holy man.
Quite a choice; no surprise the tourists flocking to The Gambia are as varied as the country itself.
Georgina travelled with specialist tour operator the Gambia Experience which offers four and seven nights half board at the Mandina Lodges in Makasutu. Both packages include return flights from London Gatwick to Banjul, transfers and taxes. For more information, call on 0845 330 2087 or visit www.gambia.co.uk