We got the opportunity to spend a few days at Mandina River Lodges, the most amazing place in the middle of the forest around half an hours drive from the small capital of The Gambia, Banjul.
Mandina River Lodges is founded by two Englishmen, Lawrence Williams, and James English. Lawrence is a friend of a friend of mine – and also an avid traveler with an exciting story. Unfortunately, Lawrence wasn’t in The Gambia at the time we were there, but I promise to catch up with him at some point to get his story.
James English is his uncle. Or was. Because he passed away very unexpected in 2012, five weeks after being diagnosed with cancer.
James and Lawrence had been traveling a lot together and now, whenever Lawrence visits a new country, he spreads a little bit of his uncle’s ashes in the country as a gesture. A thing that almost got him arrested in North Korea. Like I said: He has a lot of stories that I promise I’ll have hin share at some point when I finally meet him.
For years James had been searching for a piece of land suitable to create a tourism project, and on Christmas Eve 1992 they found Makasutu.
Today Mandina River Lodges is run by his former wife, Linda English. And it was only after James passed away that Linda came down here. In fact, the thought it was a crazy idea to put money in a piece of forest in The Gambia.
She’s been here six years already and loves the place.
Makasutu is a tropical 1000-acre reserve encompassing five different eco-systems. Fifteen thousand trees were planted over the next few years, and the wildlife came back. Now the wildlife is plentiful with many bird species, monitor lizards, baboons, vervet and red colobus monkeys, and the occasional crocodile, and even the odd mongoose can be spotted on the riverbanks.
In the afternoon on the first day we were invited to go for a walk through the a with a local guide, dressed in green and khaki and with a monocular around his neck ready for bird watching.
Makasutu, meaning ‘sacred forest’ in the local language Mandinka, and they started it as both an ecology project and a place for people to come and learn about the local culture and people.
James and Lawrence spent the first seven years living in tents on the land, with no running water or electricity. They did this getting to understand the land and environment, which is why you notice the attention to detail that has gone into the design and construction.
The initial idea was to a small backpackers lodge, but after many nights sitting around the campfire they decided to try to help in the re-foresting of the area, and eventually to open the site as a cultural reserve, highlighting how the local people live, and also to encourage the return of wildlife to the area. One thing lead to another and instead of the small backpackers lodge they decided to develop a five-star eco-lodge like no other in West Africa.
Construction began in 2000, with as many as 150 people working on the swimming pool alone. Due to the standard of the carpentry, the lodges were very time consuming to produce, however, the finished result is impressive with a total of nine lodges being completed over several years, with differing designs both on and off the water. And apart from the birds singing it’s very quiet and peaceful here.
The staff at Makasutu all come from the surrounding villages, a deliberate measure to try to help stop the urban drift to the city, and allowing the surrounding area to directly benefit from this place.
One of them The head of security at Mandina River Lodges, his name is Dawda. We met him at the Base Camp when we were doing the jungle walk. He used to be a policeman, and then he’s a popular radio DJ in his free time.
We agreed to meet later and chat some more. So the next day Dawda came and picked me up at the main gate. I got on the back of his motorcycle, and we took off down the dirt road. He wanted to show me a spot that was very important for his work as the head of security. So I was a bit surprised when we stopped in the middle of the forest. That’s where they have the main borehole, the main well. You have to listen to the episode, to learn more about why this was important.
Also, there is much more in the episode, about the unique experience I had here in the middle of a forrest in The Gambia.