We discuss the history of the Makasutu Forest and Mandina Lodges, from an endangered forest area to a stunning eco-lodge and a gem in The Gambia.
Located amid the wild beauty of the African bush, beside a mangrove-lined tributary of the River Gambia, the striking Mandina Lodges at Makasutu offer a tranquil and unique, yet easily accessible hideaway, immersed in a landscape of alluring natural splendour. But the area of Makasutu wasn't always a haven for those in search of solitude and rejuvenation. So where exactly did this journey begin?
Finding and creating a haven in the forest
It was on Christmas Eve 1992 that two Englishmen, James English and Lawrence Williams, discovered Makasutu, an area blessed by immense natural beauty and fascinating cultural heritage; quite the Christmas present!
At the time, James and Lawrence were undertaking a nine-month expedition through Africa, with the former hoping to find land in The Gambia on which to build a lodge. Upon the exciting discovery of this idyllic area, James and Lawrence quickly formed a business partnership and became the owners of four acres of forest.
After witnessing the deforestation taking place in the area, the duo's approach changed to one of conservation, triggering a strong motivation to help protect the forest, as well as opening the area as a cultural reserve. 15,000 trees were planted over the next few years, while 70 wells were dug to help provide water for the new flora on the site.
Base Camp and the Baobab Cultural Centre followed after seven years of development, before the Makasutu Cultural Forest was finally opened in July 1999. While the project aimed to encourage the return of wildlife to this subtropical woodland, the local people living in the Ballabu Conservation Area were also integrated into the sustainable venture, allowing the project to showcase how these people live in harmony with the surrounding flora and fauna.
The site at Makasutu quickly became one of the most popular attractions in The Gambia, with many visitors to the forest expressing the desire to reside amid the reserve in order to further soak up and experience the unique tranquillity of the area. This triggered the idea of Mandina Lodges, a five-star eco-lodge surpassing anything seen in West Africa before - a far cry from the original idea of a backpackers’ lodge.
Work began in 2000, with a total of nine, exquisite and detailed lodges completed over the course of several years. The lodges featured innovative designs both on and off the water, while a striking swimming pool (one of the largest in The Gambia) was constructed with the help of up to 150 people! Since their opening, the lodges have been granted countless environmental tourism awards, including being named ‘Best New Eco Hotel in the World’ by the Sunday Times in 2004, shortly after opening.
In 2011, everybody was impacted by the sad news of James English’s passing, and for a time there was perhaps a state of uncertainty about the future of Makasutu and Mandina. James’ pioneering spirit has lived on however, with his wife, Linda, arriving to help Lawrence manage and further develop the Mandina experience.
The following year, Makasutu was awarded the National Order of The Gambia, an award that is granted in recognition of the outstanding services of a person, institution or group to the country; a just reward for many years of hard work and dedication to improving this magical area.
Embracing and exploring Makasutu
Whether you have booked a stay at Mandina Lodges or aim to visit the cultural park for the day, Makasutu is located a mere 45 minutes from the coastal resorts and yet is home to many attractions, spanning both natural and artistic avenues, all presenting a fascinating insight into authentic Gambia.
The Gambia is famous for its extensive birdlife, home to over 540 species, many of which reside throughout the mangroves that snake inland from the coast. Mandina Lodges is a superb location for ticking off several of The Gambia’s most exotic species, one of the reasons that BBC presenter Chris Packham chooses to base part of his birdwatching tours with The Gambia Experience in this magical setting. The collection of on-site canoes allow guests to get out on the water and explore the rich surrounding habitats, spotting the likes of kingfishers, weaver birds and mangrove sunbirds, with the help of an expert guide.
It’s not just birdlife that will keep nature lovers captivated. The 1000-acre reserve of Makasutu is also home for the likes of lizards, baboons, the odd crocodile, and several species of monkey. Exploring the forest is one of the most rewarding educational and adventurous activities on offer during a visit to Mandina, supported again by the navigational skills and local knowledge of one of the lodge’s expert guides.
For a completely different kind of experience, paying a visit to the nearby Wide Open Walls Project is a fantastic way to spend a couple of hours in The Gambia. Just a short canoe or truck ride away, the project was started by the owner of Mandina Lodges - Lawrence Williams – when he invited talented street artists to begin painting some of the local villages. Now a living gallery, guests can go and visit some of this wonderful work, and in doing so, will help to support the villages of the Ballabu Conservation Area for future generations.