Article by Kathryn Burrington, the Gambian specialist for Fleewinter, a UK based tour operator offering tailor-made holidays & expert advice.
 

Luxury lodges on a tributary of the River Gambia, deep in the heart of Makasutu Forest.

Hidden in the sacred forest of Makasutu, Mandina Lodges, is one of my favourite corners of the world. It’s the perfect place for a relaxing holiday steeped in nature, and, with no WiFi, a digital detox is guaranteed. I’ve stayed here several times, including on my honeymoon. Sharing a place I love so much with my husband was a joy. I’ll never forget the smile on his face when, having just arrived, a troop of baboons walked straight by him. They were so close he could have reached out and touched them. Just as I had been many years before, he was soon smitten with The Gambia.

Each morning, a flask fo coffee was left outside our door for us to enjoy as we watched and listened to the forest awake. I’ve never heard so many birds.

The early mornings are a great time to get closer to nature. We’d explore the forest on foot with our guide, before heading back to the lodges where a hearty breakfast awaited. Sitting under the thatched cabanas by the pool, we’d tuck into bacon and eggs, fresh fruit and the local tapalapa bread with jam washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice and more coffee.

We’d spend the rest of the day relaxing on our terrace watching the river or by (and in) the lovely free-form swimming pool. It’s surrounded by lush foliage and many different birds visit throughout the day.

In the late afternoons, as it got a little cooler, we head out again to explore, this time by canoe, and drift along the Mandina Bolon. All the while, your guide will be pointing out the local birdlife and other animals. At low tide, you might see ladies collecting oysters or a fisherman casting his net.

Exploring the bolon by canoe, Mandina Lodges, Makasutu Forest
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Mandina Lodges swimming pool
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Mandina River Lodges

There are only nine lodges at Mandina, so it never feels crowded here. Quite the opposite.

Four of the lodges are reached by a wooden walkway through the mangroves. These floating lodges are simply furnished yet comfortable. The spacious double bedroom has a four-poster bed in the centre looking out over the bolon (river tributary) and an open-air, ensuite bathroom with composting toilet. A narrow verandah surrounds the lodge on three sides. And there’s a small canopied seating area. It’s the perfect place to sip your morning cuppa, brought to you with a thermos flask of hot water each morning (at the time of your choice). Relax and watch the river and forest awake; a wonderful experience.

Tip: All arriving visitors are warned not to leave any toiletries in their open-air bathrooms as the baboons may well whisk them away.

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For our honeymoon, we stayed in one of these floating river lodges. You can read about my first visit to Mandina on my travel blog, Travel With Kat – A night on the river in Makasutu Forest.

“As I lie in bed, I can feel a gentle movement in the decking beneath me or is it my imagination. I listen to the creaks and groans of the wood… splashes of water… silence… another splash. Getting out of bed, I draw back the muslin curtains and catch my breath. A multitude of stars shines in the African night sky, each with its reflection shimmering in the water that surrounds me. So many stars. Deep in the Makasutu Forest, there’s no such thing as light pollution.”  

Tip: If you hear a loud bang in the night, it’s likely to be a Goliath Heron, stunning a fish against the side of your lodge.

 

Stilted Lodge

Another great choice for a honeymoon or special occasion, the Stilted Lodge has a lounge and a separate double bedroom with an ensuite open-air bathroom and a composting toilet. A raised day room with a second double bed is the perfect spot for sleeping under the stars.

Stilted Lodge, Mandina Lodges, Gambia
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For more information or to book a holiday at Mandina Lodges visit Fleewinter.

 

Jungle Lodges

Set back from the river in the gardens are three stunning Jungle Lodges. Each has an open-air shower and an internal flushing toilet. Spiral stairs lead up onto the rooftop terrace.

Jungle Lodge, Mandina Lodges, Gambia
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Jungle Lodge interior, Mandina Lodges, Gambia
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Mangrove Lodge

The most recent addition is the Mangrove Lodge. This thatched lodge is set on one level with a large bedroom, an indoor bathroom with a flushing toilet and a private terrace with views across the mangroves and the forest.

Mangrove Lodge, Mandina Lodges, Gambia
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The staff at Mandina Lodges

I found the service at Mandina superb and suitably laid back. Anything rushed here would seem out-of-place. I was also impressed at just how quickly all the staff remembered my name. There is a wonderful atmosphere here, no doubt due to the glorious location enhanced by the friendliness and charm of the owners and the staff. I was very sorry my first stay was just for two nights, but I’ve been lucky enough to have returned twice more since then.

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Dining at Mandina Lodges

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the alfresco dining area by the pool. Both Continental, as well as a full English breakfast, are available, cooked to your requirements. There is a small choice of lunch dishes that varies each day. I can highly recommend the fishcakes.

Each afternoon, the chef will seek you out, and tell you about the choice of evening meals available. Usually, there will be just two starters, two main courses and two desserts. Vegetarian options are available on request if notified in advance. If you prefer to eat at your lodge, whether inside or out, that can easily be arranged. While the choice of dishes is limited, in part due to the remoteness of Mandina, the food is delicious.

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Mandina Lodges’ sustainability policy

When the founders of Mandina Lodges first moved to Makasutu, they set about re-planting the decimated forest. Some 20 years later the reforestation has been such a success that baboons have returned and now number around 200. You can read about my encounter with these mischievous monkeys on Travel With Kat – The Baboons of Makasutu Forest.

The lodges were built, and are run, with sustainability foremost in mind. There’s no energy-sapping air conditioning. Instead, there are ceiling and free-standing fans. It’s worth noting that during the day, electricity in the lodges is switched off to conserve energy, which is produced by solar panels.

 

Mandina Lodge’s location

Mandina Lodge is about a forty-minute transfer from the airport. Most of the way is along tarmac road, but the last section is a bumpy dirt track that leads you into the forest. You’ll pass the Gambia Horse Donkey Trust which can be visited during a morning walk. I met some of the volunteers here and found it fascinating to learn more about the work they do and the challenges they face.

While you will probably spend most of your time at Mandina Lodges simply relaxing or exploring Makasutu on foot, or by canoe, it is well worth seeing more of this magical little country. It’s the smallest on mainland Africa. But don’t let it’s diminutive size fool you, there are plenty of things to do in The Gambia. Just a relatively short taxi ride will bring you to a colourful, local market in a bustling town, a sleepy village or a deserted sandy beach, backed by palm trees.

 

Is Mandina Lodge suitable for children?

While children over ten years are allowed at Mandina Lodge, please keep in mind that there is no WiFi, the food choices are limited due to the remoteness of the lodges, and there is little fencing by the riverside walkways and verandahs. However, if your child loves wildlife and would like to see baboons, a myriad of birds and possibly, bats, monitor lizards and more, would be happy in a canoe, doesn’t mind creepy crawlies and isn’t a fussy eater, a stay at Mandina Lodges will be a fabulous experience, they’ll NEVER forget.

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For more information or to book a holiday at Mandina Lodges visit Fleewinter.

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