Gambia product manager Karen describes her first ever trip across the border to neighbouring Senegal, plus a visit to Fathala Wildlife Reserve.
I have been travelling to The Gambia regularly for the last 15 years, however have never found the time (or excuse) to venture across the water into Senegal and this October I decided it was time to put that right. Ferry and visa issues are now a thing of the past and, with the addition of Fathala Wildlife Reserve to our programme last winter, visitor numbers are increasing rapidly so I wanted to see what all the fuss is about.
With passport in hand and French language skills dragged to the forefront of my memory, I set off from my hotel in Kotu for a 30 minute crossing to Barra on the North Bank. Travelling as a foot passenger is definitely to be recommended as, although it can be crowded, the limited space available for vehicles means a long wait is guaranteed and arrangements were in place to ensure our transfers went extremely smoothly – we even had a Gambian escort who carried our bags on board and accompanied us to our waiting transportation on the other side.
I like to think of the 3 mile river crossing as part of the adventure – and it certainly ensures that the journey to Senegal isn’t dull; as the gates are opened the passengers descend on the ferry at speed to secure the best seats (we were already comfortably installed) and the sight of locals sporting multi-coloured traditional outfits with children in tow and baskets (and even the odd cool box) balanced precariously on heads is one that will stay with me for some time. The alternative route across is by pirogue and I watched with interest from the relative comfort of the ferry as passengers were carried on shoulders through the shallows to be deposited with their belongings in these local craft for their rather longer crossing. Dolphins even put in an appearance half way across to make the journey even more memorable.
My initial thought on landing was that we were now in Senegal – however the border is actually another few miles up the road. Formalities were taken care of by our driver – this part can take some time but again provides an opportunity to witness the locals going about their daily lives, be it cheeky teenage girls offering cashew nuts and bananas for sale at our window or families installing themselves on waiting donkey carts (the preferred mode of transport in this part of the world it seems, making our air-conditioned vehicle seem rather dull in comparison!)
And then we were on our way once more, reaching the gates to Fathala less than 3 hours after we had departed from our Gambian hotel.
What can I say – this was everything I had expected and more. The cold towels on arrival were very much appreciated as well as the local juice that was offered after our journey. I was surprised (and relieved) to find that the camp is currently run by Dine and Marzanne, two extremely interesting South African ladies who had some fascinating tales to relate, assisted by a number of Gambian and Senegalese staff, so no language barriers to contend with during our stay. We were then shown to our ‘rooms’, air-conditioned safari tents elevated on platforms and just as impressive in reality as in the photos, to settle in and prepare for our afternoon game drive.
Having been on safari previously I was not sure how this experience would compare, however I don’t believe you can ever tire of witnessing large animals in their natural habitat and the family of giraffes certainly entertained us. There are no herds of migrating wildebeest or stampeding elephants, but you may be lucky enough to encounter the white rhino or rare Western Derby Eland who call the park home – and who can fail to be entertained by the comical warthogs and monkey families going about their business?
On our return, after witnessing the African sunset in the bush with drink in hand, we discovered that the main lodge had been transformed into a welcoming dining area with flickering lanterns and a fire pit alongside. More cold towels and a G&T later, we found ourselves enjoying tasty dishes overlooking the pool and watering hole, with a family of Waterbuck for company in the shadows – although not refined cuisine, the food was extremely appetising and well presented. But with another excursion planned for early the next morning, we retired early to sleep soundly in the most comfortable beds I have come across in a long time!
An optional activity offered by Fathala is the opportunity to walk with their lions – although as a company we do not offer this for pre-booking, guests are able to make their own decision on whether or not to participate after discussion with the handlers locally. Having discussed how the lions were raised and cared for, and being convinced of the good intentions of the enterprise, we took the personal decision that the opportunity was not to be missed and it was an experience that will stay with me for quite some time – to witness these majestic creatures at close range and to feel the respect and affection that exists between the animals themselves and their human handlers was an emotional experience – but not for the feint-hearted!
We did make a very short trip to nearby Toubacouta whilst in Senegal, gateway to the Sine Saloum Delta where you will find a couple of riverfront properties that offer a wealth of excursions to enable you to enjoy this area to the full; be it boat trips through the mangroves for fishing and birdwatching experiences or visits to the local beaches and island hideaways – similar excursions can also be taken from Fathala but I think a twin centre holiday, or a combined holiday with The Gambia, would work rather well.
Across the water lies a whole new world to explore and I can’t imagine why it took me so long to visit – but one thing I know for sure is that I will be back!
My first impressions of The Gambia and Senegal Read more