I always love a challenge and was delighted when Karina contacted me to assist with her holiday as she wanted something a little different to the standard fly and flop. Being their first holiday without their children in 25 years, I knew it had to be special. I loved reading Karina’s blog - she definitely has a great way with words! It’s easy to see why she is a super celebrant who writes bespoke ceremonies for her couples...
After spending many years holidaying with parents and then our own children, camping in the Dordogne or quaint thatched cottages in Devon and Cornwall, we found an opportunity to head off, somewhere special, just the two of us for the first time in 25 years.
It was quite daunting to be leaving the kids behind but we knew that if we were going to have the holiday of a lifetime, we couldn’t afford to include them too 😂. So we contacted Nikki to find us the perfect country.
We wanted somewhere that wasn’t somewhere on everyone’s radar and after looking at a few options we decided to go with The Gambia Experience. We wanted culture; we wanted experiences which would stay with us for a lifetime... and we got it in bucket loads, without a long flight (I get a bit icky). The Gambia is just six hours away. After much work, Nikki had our itinerary finalised and what a success it proved to be.
We stayed for ten nights at the Sunbeach Hotel & Resort at Cape Point. Miles of sandy beach with an all-inclusive package.
The staff were attentive and the food was great. The outdoor bar was close to the pool and served a great selection throughout the day. There was an additional à la carte, rooftop restaurant which we also took advantage of on a number of occasions, and from here you could also watch the evening entertainment without the fear of having to get involved!
We booked a number of tours as we are great believers that you don’t go all that way just to stay in the hotel, and we were treated to crocodile sanctuaries, trips out to watch the fishermen bringing in their catch, smoked fish warehouses plus a trip to Kunta Kinteh Island where the African slaves were housed before being shipped to the Americas and Europe... if they survived the boat trip.
There were the usual craft centres to visit and plenty of opportunities to spend your pennies on crocodile teeth necklaces, hand-dyed sarongs and wonderful hand-carved animals, including elephants. I’m not sure why I bought an elephant considering there aren’t any in the Gambia. But hey ho... when you like something...
We also visited the Fathala Wildlife Reserve in Senegal. Our trip across the border was incredibly exciting as we stopped for our passports to be checked in an area completely surrounded by chickens, donkeys and plastic containers and bottles. What an experience!
Some visitors had their yellow fever certificates (we had thrown ours away when the ten years' validation expired only to find out that they now have a lifetime validity) so we did as requested and placed the equivalent of £5 into our passports to bribe the officials to gain entrance to their country. Obviously it worked and we spent the day searching for zebra, giraffe and the last remaining rhino in the country.
We paid extra to walk with the lions. One couple we met have been visiting the Gambia and Fathala conservation park for 20+ years. They knew the 5-year-old lions who were walking with us and had walked with them since they were cubs. We were given walking sticks and we were warned not to turn our backs on either male or female. We were glad to know they had been fed earlier that morning.
I felt like I was in an off-shoot of the film Born Free. With the lioness demonstrating her ability to crash through the under growth, climbing trees for food, this additional experience was magical.
It was a hot day and to be honest, both lions along with us, would’ve probably preferred to lie by the pool with a cocktail or two. When the male lion roared at the suggestion of continuing his walk, the ground shook for miles. It was incredible.
We spent the last four days at the Mandina River Lodge, an exclusive, privately run bird reserve in the Makasutu Forest. We chose to stay in a forest lodge rather than a floating river lodge - we had a hexagonal room with a four poster bed in the centre and an outside shower under trees. Upstairs was an outside rooftop terrace with another four poster for afternoon naps!
The next four days were most relaxing times. At dinner, we were watching tiny birds dipping into the pool for a quick splash to cool themselves down. On another occasion our personal guide took us walking in the forest to watch the birds and see the enormous anthills. There were early morning trips out on the canoe to watch the sun rise and see the baboons waking up by the riverside before they caused mayhem, by running through the restaurant, chased by wardens and dogs. It was a spectacle to watch and highly entertaining.
We paid extra for a sunset trip on a motorboat. So many birds to see - egrets, vultures, herons of all sizes and so many varieties of kingfisher. Our biggest mistake was to forget to charge the camera batteries, so we missed the opportunity to photograph the riverside crocodiles, and the whole point of the trip... the nightly return to roost for the egrets.
OMG! Words can’t even express what we saw or felt. We moored in a river cul de sac with a tiny island in the centre, housing a large, leafless, rotten tree in the centre. Earily quiet, but our guides opened the chilled fizz and we sat and waited, glass in hand.
Two egrets flew in from the main river and landed on the tree. Closely followed by four more from the left, and three more over our heads.
In the space of half an hour, a thousand birds flew into the tree. The noise was incredible. Little ones on the top branches, bigger herons on the lower branches. More flew in, they shuffled for space, budging up, fighting for their piece of branch. At 8 o’clock... bang on... the tree was full... the birds were quiet, asleep, no noise at all. We started the motorboat engine and it was time to head home to dinner.
I was disappointed not to be able to take photos but I know that they would never have done the sight of a thousand birds in one tree the justice it deserved.
Visiting the Gambia was the dream holiday of a lifetime. It was everything we had hoped for and more.
Nikki came up trumps and we can only thank her and The Gambia Experience for making this holiday one I still talk about many years later.