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Makasutu Culture Forest, Gambia
   
 
INTRODUCTION:
Makasutu Culture Forest is a private, ecotourism woodland reserve in the Kombo Central District, of the West Coast Region of The Gambia in West Africa. The woodland is 5 kilometres to the northeast of Brikama town, and is directly south of the Banjul capital. The nature park has a land area of 405 hectares (1,000 acres) and encompasses the Mandina Bolong, a tributary of the Gambia River. The protected wilderness is a pristine expanse of riverine, palm and hardwood-forest, mangrove creek, savanna and salt-flat ecosystems.

ACCOMMODATION:
Within the conservation area is the award winning, luxury eco-lodge called Mandina Lodges, the country's top holiday eco-resort, created by two Englishmen from London. It's said that during its construction no trees were felled in Makasutu Culture Forest, and the lodges were designed to fit available gaps between trees. Local people in neighbouring settlements, such as Kembujeh Village, were employed during construction, as hotel staff and as tour guides on the reserve.

BACKGROUND & HISTORY:
 Myths & Legends
Makasutu is a Mandinka word: 'Maka' is Islam's holy place of Mecca, and 'Sutu' means forest, which translates to 'holy forest'. The original name 'Maka Sutu' dates back to the 12th century when Islam swept down into the Senegambia region from the Sahara. Mandinka folklore, traced back to the 12th century, says that a dragon like creature lives in the swamp, known as the 'Ninki Nanka' (also known as Ninkinanka or Ninkinanko), and guards the buried clothes and crown of Mansa Jatta, a tribal king from the Soninke Kingdom of Busumbala,  who was slain in battle by Kombo Sillah, a Muslim king. The Ninki Nanka is also believed to protect the woods, and adjacent community held orchards from potential thieves. Local legend also maintained that the woodland was haunted by spirits or 'djinns', as well as giants, and as a result, the sacred woodland was uninhabited, and used mostly for prayer and tribal rituals, such as the bathing of newly circumcised boys in the waters of the Mandina Bolong. Local kings forbade any hunting and tree felling on these sacred grounds.

As the 20th century progressed, migrants from Guinea settled in the area, with the permission of local kings, and began cultivating rice in the western section of Makasutu. With this encroachment people's fears of the 'Big Forest' began to diminish, and the area soon became a valuable source of wild food and timber for locals living in and around the vicinity.

 Modern Day Development
The forest was on the brink of being cleared bare when in December 1992, two adventurous Britons, James English, an engineer, and Lawrence Williams, an architect, came to The Gambia to continue their 3 year search for a location to build an eco-retreat in the wilderness, and finally decided on a parcel of land in the Makasutu. Initially, local people and the Alkalo were reluctant to sell it to them based on the areas sacredness. Eventually they managed to acquire 4 acres of land from the Sanneh Kunda (family) who held ancient title to the land. The entrepreneurs' intention was to create a small camp oasis for adventure travellers and backpackers. After buying the land they departed to Europe on a 3 month trip. During their absence about 200 trees bordering the fence was cut down, and accelerated tree felling was underway, the spot's sanctity having been further eroded. With all of the deforestation that was occurring in the area, Sanneh Kunda, as well as the Department of Forestry, urged James and Lawrence to purchase the area to protect it.

Baboons Base camp

The initial plan for just a small base camp for backpackers was abandoned, and they eventually bought the remaining 4 square kilometres of land and proceeded to fence it. Over the next few years 15,000 trees were replanted, and 70 water wells were dug to keep them watered. The fenced area was now to be a nature and cultural reserve, emphasising how the local people live, and also to encourage the return of wildlife to the sub-tropical woodland and riverine. The local people that were living and utilizing the woods and streams, prior to the arrival of James and Lawrence, were permitted to stay on the land, meetings were held with them, and it was decided to integrate them into the sustainable eco-tourism venture that was in the pipeline. It took seven years to complete the project and the first place to be developed was called the 'Base Camp', followed by the Baobab Cultural Centre. Finally, on the 20th July 1999, Makasutu Culture Forest was open to tourists as well as the general Gambian public.

Many visitors expressed their wish to be able to sleep on the site because of the serenity they experienced at the ecological project. As a result of this feedback it was decided to further develop the site to include a 5 star, creekside eco-lodge, known as 'Mandina River & Jungle Lodges'. It incorporates sustainable measures, such as composting toilets, and solar-powered water heating and lighting systems.  Designed by Lawrence, building began in 2000, and since its completion and opening in late 2002, the project has created alternative livelihoods in the community through the employment of over 250 local people from the nearby villages; and it is estimated that the wilderness project and Mandina River Lodges, indirectly benefits about 3,500 local people.



At Makasutu's Base Camp, an impressively tall, white viewing tower was opened in December 2013, straddled by two spiral staircases and 3 elevated viewing platforms. From here you can take in fantastic vistas of the palm trees, mangrove creeks, the Mandina Bolong and savanna habitats. You also get the chance to cool off in the irregular shaped swimming pool  with its own island, set in a landscaped garden and dotted with palm trees and night lights. Visitors can also do a little shopping at the Craft Centre, where you can pick up wooden masks, drums and other tourist souvenirs. You can also see people weaving, silversmiths at work and other craftsmen.  You can also try your hand at pottery, cooking, furniture making and a wood carving lesson.

AWARDS:
Mandina LodgesSince the opening of Makasutu and Mandina Lodges, the project has gone on to win several international awards, such as being voted the 'Best New Eco Hotel in The World' by the UK's Sunday Times (2003); 'Best Overseas Development' by the 'British Guild of Travel Writers Award' (2004); and has been highly commended at the 'Responsible Tourism Awards' as the 'Best Poverty Alleviation'. It has also featured in past editions of Travel Africa Magazine.

NATURE TRAIL & CULTURE TOUR:
Most tourist visitors come on the one-day organised excursion, including return transport to the resorts. The entry fee includes the standard full-day guided tour, including entertainment and lunch. However, your group size could number up to a couple of dozen. Independent travellers can choose to go on a full-day or half-day guided cultural  / eco-tour. To get the most out of the full-day excursion to Makasutu Culture Forest, an early start is required. If the drive is from hotels in the main coastal resorts of Kololi, Kotu or Bijilo, then it takes about 1 hour to the nature park. If you are part of a ground tour operator organised day-trip, then on your arrival you begin by walking through woodland to the assembly area. From there your tour group then takes a nice stroll to the Baobab Bar and Restaurant, where you will be greeted and given a brief history of the place. On the way there you will see some tree stumps carved into sculptors, these are the remnants from the time locals were chopping down trees.

From here your itinerary can involve cruises along the mangrove creeks or guided foot treks. Along the nature trail through diverse ecosystems including Guinea savannah and tropical gallery woodland, your appointed guide might point to the various tree species, such as mahogany, rhun palms and baobab. Depending on the time of day you might see some birds and monkeys, though the simians here are more withdrawn than their counterparts in Bijilo. During your walk look out for the ubiquitous termite mounds, some over 2 metres high.



While along the bush walk you are likely to walk by the hut of a traditional Gambian medicine man, who produces and sells herbal potions of traditional medicines and remedies from trees and bushes growing in the area, as well as charms. The holy man or Marabout also reads palms and 'predicts' your future. Further on the trail you will get an opportunity to watch how a palm wine tapper hauls himself up a tree using a leather belt (traditionally a palm frond sling) which straps him loosely to the tree, to collect the  sweet flower sap. You will also get the opportunity to sample some of the fermented wine.



Probably the best part of the day in Makasutu Culture Forest is the canoeing along the Mandina Bolong and adjacent mangrove creeks in an African pirogue, a wooden dugout canoe made from a single log of mahogany. This is a most relaxing cruise with some wonderful, close up views of the region's mangrove and palm fringed habitats. The meandering waters are calm and glistening, with lots of silence and serenity, and all you will hear as you drift down the waters are the sporadic bird calls, the constant dipping of the rower's paddle and the occasional chatter of the other tourists. You might spot Mangrove Sunbirds feeding off nectar, and African Darters swimming with only their head and neck above water while hunting for fish, or Lily Trotters walking on the floating vegetation of the mangrove swamp. Occasionally you will see local village fishermen at work or women collecting oysters from underwater roots. You might even be able to take a canoe ride to nearby Kubuneh Village, where you can visit the living art project called "Wide Open Walls". The idea is to paint some of the compounds in the Ballabu area with murals, and promote The Gambia as a desirable tourist destination.  Note: if you bring along your own rod and tackle it is possible to try your hand at a little fishing from the main jetty on the Mandina Bolong.

There is an alfresco buffet lunch of organic Gambian food such as rice with peanut stew (Domoda), Jollof Rice with fish and vegetables, served back at the Baobab Restaurant, with its tall, spacious Bantaba (thatched, shaded structure).

After lunch comes the entertainment. A group of Makasutu based Jola dancers and drummers from the nearby Kembujeh Village, start their routine performance on a natural stage, under the gaze of a huge baobab tree. You are often encouraged to join in the dance. This however is not necessarily the end of the entertainment. If you stay until the early evening then you can experience the 'Night Extravaganza', fires are lit, the barbecue gets going and the heavy entertainment gets underway; often featuring djembe drumming, cultural dancing, acrobats, fire breathers, jugglers, stilted men (Mamapara). At the end of it all you are escorted out, dancing along a lantern lit procession between the trees before departing for your hotel.



ANIMALS / FAUNA:
Among the mammal species you might encounter in the various habitats are monkeys such as a troupe of Guinea Baboons, Western Red Colobus Monkeys, Vervet Monkeys. Other animals include the elusive mongoose, bats, squirrels and Dwarf deer. There are also reptiles such as monitor lizards and crocodiles along the riverbanks and in the water. Among the invertebrates are fiddler crabs, and insects such as termites and ants.

BIRDS / AVIFAUNA:
Among the over 100 bird species birdwatching enthusiasts might see in Makasutu Cultural Forest are the Splendid Sunbird, African Paradise Flycatcher, Four-banded Sandgrouse, Little Bee-eater, Mouse-brown Sunbird, Blue-bellied Roller, Wattled Plover, Jacana, Western Reef Heron, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu, Red-billed Firefinch, Senegal thick-knee, Palm-nut Vulture, Great White Egret, Yellow-Billed Shrike, Violet Turaco, European Pied Wagtail, Senegal Coucal, White-throated Bee-eater, Long-tailed Cormorant, Bearded Barbet, Red-billed Hornbill, Western Grey Plantain Eater, Laughing Dove, Lizard Buzzard, African Grey Hornbill, Black-crowned Tchagra, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Speckled Pigeon, African Darter, Goliath Heron, Purple Heron,  Blue-breasted Kingfisher and the Senegal Parrot.



VEGETATION / FLORA:
Among the vegetation in the woodland and wetland habitats are various palm trees such as coconuts, mangroves, silk cotton trees (kapok), banana, camel's foot tree, strangler figs, mahogany and baobab trees.

HEALTH & SAFETY:
Before your visit to Makasutu Culture Forest consider carrying or wearing boots, thick trousers, a hat, UV sunglasses, a pocket torchlight, purified water, hand sanitizer, lip balm,  a small rucksack, and rub on or spray plenty of mosquito repellent. Avoid turning over logs and stones due to the possible risk of being bitten by spiders or snakes, and don't swim in the creeks or river as there maybe crocodiles and other things around. If you have a modern mobile phone then carry it with you, along with a few phone numbers of members from your group, as well as your appointed tour guide. Download the Google maps app and find your location before your arrival, and learn how to use it. Finally, never wonder off alone.

TRAVEL INFORMATION & HOW TO GET THERE:
The best time of year to visit Makasutu is after the end of the Gambia's rainy season, between the end of November to April, when the grass is cleared from paths, visibility is best and animals congregate around ponds and streams. Independent travellers should take one of the bush taxis or 'Gelle Gelle' van from Serrekunda to Brikama, then get out and change to a taxi going to Kembujeh Village, however, it's a 3 kilometre walk from there. Alternatively, from Brikama you can take a 'town trip' (exclusive hire) to take you directly to the forest. The park also has a shuttle service departing from Brikama at about 9am and returning you at 4.30pm. The most convenient (and expensive) way to go is to simply hire a green jeep style 4x4 taxi for the time you want, from the Senegambia Strip taxi rank in Kololi. It will take you there and stay with you until you are ready to go back to your hotel. Expect to travel for 1 hour each way.

Contact Address Details:
Makasutu Culture Forest (MCF)Base Camp
Nature Reserve & Day Visitor Centre
(near Kubuneh & Bafuloto villages)
Makasutu Wildlife Trust
Abuko Nature Reserve

P.O. Box 2309, Serrekunda
The Gambia, West Africa

Tel no: +220 448 3335

Email: drumohq@qanet.gm


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[Geographical coordinates 13.1000 N, 16.7667 W / Kombo Central, Western Region]





















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