touring | gambia & senegal - wandering with lions in the west african mangroves
lazy days on the banks of the saloum delta
i have travelled africa extensively over the past few years but west africa had always alluded me until now. the tiny country of gambia & its big brother senegal was my first foray into this beautiful region.
our journey took us along the along the atlantic coast into local villages, later crossing the gambia river into northern senegal where the vast mangroves forests of the saloum delta take root. finally, we soaked up the history of capital, dakar & its unesco world heritage former slave trade island, gorée.
the smallest country on the continent's mainland has become known as the 'smiling coast' and not without good reason. whether its old friends or total strangers, most have beaming smiling for you. from strangers on the beach to taxi drivers we met many super friendly people always happy to chat & while some had ulterior motives most were friendly & helpful.
the gambia is known for its diverse ecosystems especially around the gambia river. the abundant wildlife that can be found here is mind blowing from monkeys, leopards, hippos & hyenas to rare birds.
most visitors converge on the tourist beach area of kololi where you will find one of the coolest places to visit in the county. the bijilo national monkey park as the name suggests this is a small conservation area where varied species of monkeys have the safety of the park to roam in the palm trees. it's an awesome place to get some great photos of these super intelligent creatures.
all in a day
we decided the best way to get around & have an immersive local experience was to go with a guide. lamin a native guide from arch tours took us on a wonderful trip across the region.
the four tours in one day trip is the perfect way for those short of time to visit some of the best attractions the country has to offer.
an early morning start saw us make our way to serrekunda market 'the largest in the country', the sprawling market was such an eye-opening experience for us. the sheer scale & variety of items you can buy is mind-blowing from fish, livestock & electronics to vendors selling kitchen utensils made from recycled aluminum cans they collected from the street, an ingenious way to recycle single use metals on a local scale. our next stop was a sacred crocodile lake where we were lucky enough to see an albino croc before heading over to a chat with a friendly local family in a village where there is no running water or electricity. we then headed over to the tanji fishing village, a famous market where people from all over the country come in their droves to buy the freshest seafood the east atlantic has to offer.
gambia can be a complicated place to travel as a foreigner due to the lack information on public transport routes. while most people speak english i believe the easiest way to experience the country and to get a local perspective is to go with a guide.
les palétuviers boutique hotel
an arduous journey across the river to the northern border of gambia & into senegal seen us take three taxis', a ferry & a motorcycle. in the afternoon we finally arrived at a little piece of paradise that is les palétuviers.
located in the saloum national park elevated above the banks of delta where the mangroves grow as far as the eye can see. this little piece of paradise is a world away from the hustle & bustle of the towns & cities of west africa. bird songs are your wake up call, nature is your entertainment & relaxation is built into your entire experience.
we stayed in room 45, a delta view lodge with uninterrupted epic views of the delta & mangroves. made with traditional materials such as a thatched roof that blends in with the local style, each lodge is separated giving a sense of isolated privacy. inside you will find a super comfy bed with luxurious linen sheets, air conditioning, huge shower, wifi & work desk along with patio doors that open onto your very own private terrace that has incredible sunset views over the mangroves.
the included à la carte breakfast was a wonderful way to start the day. they also offer both half & full board meals options for approximately ($25-35) per day.
-breakfast; coffee & juice served with homemade french pastries along with your choice of dishes from omelets to granola.
-lunch & dinner; the three course daily menus offered a choice of fish, meat or vegetarian dishes that are sure to suit anyone's palette. the fresh fish dishes with french influences were superb.
les palétuviers has gone above & beyond in terms of what activities are on offer to guests here. way too many to mention; but we loved the walking with lion's safari, evening delta boat trip into the mangroves, fishing, market & local village tours can also be arranged.
there are plenty of free activities too. from kayaking & paddle boards to games for the kids you will never get bored here.
environmental, community & conservation credentials
community outreach has been a core initiative since the hotel first opened. they employ & train locals, cover medical costs for employees' families, donate medical supplies to the local clinic. built & support the local school along with many more admirable causes.
rooms from: ($200) book here
fathala wildlife reserve
although west africa is not known for its safari's this little gem four hours south of the capital is pioneering the private reserve safari that other countries such as south africa have become famous for over the years. fathala wildlife reserve is giving visitors to senegal a taste of conservation tourism.
the park spans over 6000 hectares of original protected forest, providing guests with the opportunity to visit a unique stretch of the african wilderness in all its authentic glory. they not only offer day trips but have a fabulous lodge onsite at bargain prices that are impossible to find at similar reserves in southern africa.
this is one of only a handful of places in the world where you can walk with lions, yes walk side by side with majestic animals & although a little scary at first, it was an experience that we will never forget. the main reserve is home to a diverse collection of birdlife, antelopes, including rarest of them all the 'western giant eland' along with rhino, zebra & giraffes.
we had an unforgettable day at the reserve, it genuinely is one of the highlights of senegal.
dakar & gorée island
after a comfortable four-hour journey in the les paltuviers transfer wagon we arrived to the lively capital dakar. we set our sights on the almadies area of the city where most of the foreign embassy's base themselves. it's also home to the most westerly point of the african mainland, a stunning place to have a beer & watch the sunset.
our base in the area was the excellent yaas smart hotel. whilst searching for a place to stay this hotel stood out to me with its design & ethos. by far this was the most technologically advance hotel that we have stayed in africa. the moment you arrive at reception you are transported away from the swelteringly hot streets to a hotel that would not be out of place in new york or zurich, the quality was superb.
our room was a super modern pod style room that you tend to find in japan. everything has been designed to make your stay more comfortable from the under-bed storage to the internet tv & awesome air conditioning. we were always super comfortable here. the included breakfast buffet was fantastic way to start the day, the wide selection of items from pancakes to fresh baguettes & local juices made me want to stay for hours.
a short ferry ride from dakar seen us arrive to gorée island. this former atlantic slave trade island is now a unesco world heritage site that reminded me of the small towns that cling to the coast in southern italy. the brightly colored homes adorned with magnificent local flora & small, cobbled streets made for some epic images. despite only being a few kilometers from the city it felt like a world away, such a serene corner of the globe.
those with an adventurous spirit will love what senegal & gambia have to offer. it's not for the faint hearted but if you are willing to get a little dirt under your nails at times then you will be rewarded with some genuinely breathtaking experiences that cannot be found anywhere else.
how to get there & costs...
we flew with turkish airways via istanbul. both countries are well connected with international airlines. i would budget for approximately ($4,000) for a one week trip for two, including airfare.
- budget ($4,000) for two people, 7 days.
- if you travel often get yourself a curve card. it's the best travel card around, i have saved thousands of $$$ using it. get a free card & $/€/£5 in credit here.
- need an international bank account or transfer money at the lowest rates? i use transferwise. i make all my transfers with then and have even opened a remote eur, usa, gbp accounts for free. click here to get your first transfer for free.
country travel tips
atm: most banks offer withdrawals for ($5). don't accept the on-screen conversion.
sim card: orange. 10GB is ($8) for 30 days. got an e-sim enabled phone, try airalo.
transport: hotel transfers & tours companies are the safest.
taxi: uber? use promo: carlm5078ue for free ride.
accommodation: get ($20) off your first booking.com reservation here