As a female baboon with baby in tow passed by Neill, he glanced my way, grinning from ear to ear before returning his gaze to the troop of baboons that were casually marching by him, just a couple of feet away. I doubt when I suggested we had a second honeymoon, this time in West Africa, he ever imagined he’d be getting quite this close to the wildlife.
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I’ve been visiting this little corner of our globe for over 12 years, for work, on holiday and as a volunteer. The first time I saw the Mandina floating river lodges I fell head-over-heels in love with them. I had to wait nearly eight years before I had the chance to stay in one, when I took a group of bloggers on a press trip to The Gambia. And I was thrilled to be invited back a year or so later on a photographic assignment, during which I stayed in one of the stunning Jungle Lodges.
Mandina Lodges is one of my favourite places in the world, a little slice of paradise. Being able to return as a guest this time, on honeymoon with Neill, really was a dream come true.
The resort is tucked away in Makasutu Forest by a tributary (or bolon, as it is known in the Mandinka language) of The River Gambia. While only about an hour’s drive from the bustling resorts that line much of the coast, it seems a million miles away. The forest is a haven of tranquillity with two rather wonderful exceptions. Firstly, just before sunrise, every bird in the forest sings at the top of its voice, welcoming the new day. So many different bird calls fill the air. It’s astonishing. The other, more irregular, disturbance occurs when the baboons come passing through. It can be quite an animated affair when the staff at Mandina try to hurry them on their way. You have to be careful with your belongings when you stay here. I once caught a baboon with his hand in my bag. He ran away empty-handed as soon as he realised he’d been spotted. Every arriving guest is warned not to leave their toiletries in the open-air bathrooms, just in case.
Each morning, we’d wake with a view of the river from our four-poster bed to find a flask of coffee outside. Sitting out under a striped canopy we’d watch the sun rise in the sky. A fisherman or oyster lady might pass by in a dug out canoe with a friendly wave or a simple nod and a smile. Our guide would then join us for an early morning stroll through the forest, telling us about the plants and the wildlife of Makasutu. If you spot white droppings on the ground beneath a palm tree, look up! You’ll most probably see some fruit bats having a nap.
One morning we went a little further and visited the Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust’s new centre, giving us a fascinating insight into the work this charity does in looking after The Gambia’s equine workers.
Back at Mandina, after a full English breakfast with fresh fruit, homemade preserves and slices of the local tapalapa bread, we’d relax by the river or the pool, go for a swim or read a book. There’s no WiFi here and it surprised me just how much I enjoyed a digital detox.
For lunch, the fish cakes were particularly good, washed down with a cool Julbrew, the local beer, or a glass of Isa’s lemon and ginger cooler.
In the late afternoon, our guide would seek us out and we’d head off in a canoe to explore the waterways. Drifting along with just the sound of the birds and the rhythmic slap of the oars in the water is one of my favourite things to do here, or anywhere for that matter. Our guide pointed out so many different birds that we soon lost count — Malachite Kingfishers, Long-tailed Cormorants and a Goliath Heron.
Every now and then we’d hear a splash and whisk our heads around to see what it was, but we’d see nothing more than a ripple in the water. Just once I managed to catch the action with my camera as a shoal of fish leapt into the air.
As the sun sank low in the sky, we’d return to Mandina and eat dinner under the thatched cabanas by the pool.
Recommended for you: Top 10 things to do in The Gambia.
We’d only been in The Gambia a couple of days when Neill started talking about coming back again. Just like I did many years ago, Neill fell in love with The Gambia and Mandina Lodges. He had never been anywhere like this before and it was wonderful to see The Gambia through his eyes. We’ve been together for seven years, but we don’t get to travel with each other as often as I would like. While I love travelling solo or in a group, it’s wonderful to make memories together that I am sure we will look back on with much happiness in years to come.
Mandina was just part of the story. Next up, Senegal, where we learnt about the struggle to save a strikingly beautiful sub-species of antelope, the Western Giant Derby Eland.
Recommended for you: A night on the river in Makasutu Forest
More of my images from Mandina Lodges
Check out all my articles from The Gambia, West Africa.
Disclaimer: Our honeymoon was booked through The Gambia Experience. I have worked for them, now part-time, for over 12 years but, as always, I will only share with you my honest opinions. As a member of staff, we paid a reduced rate for this holiday.
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