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, & is directly south of the Banjul
capital. The nature park has a land area of 405 hectares
(1,000 acres) & encompasses the Mandina Bolong,
a tributary of the Gambia River. The protected wilderness
is a pristine expanse of riverine, palm & hardwood-forest,
mangrove creek, savanna & salt-flat ecosystems.
the conservation area is the award winning, luxury eco-lodge
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:
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.
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.
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
of Forestry, urged James and Lawrence to purchase
the area to protect it.
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.
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
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,
furniture making and a wood carving lesson.
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.
& Culture Tour:
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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,
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.
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
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:
the over 100 bird species bird watching 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:
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:
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.
[Geographical coordinates 13.1000° N, 16.7667°
W / Kombo Central, Western Region]
Nature Reserve & Day Visitor Centre
(near Kubuneh & Bafuloto villages)
P.O. Box 2309, Serrekunda
The Gambia, West Africa
Tel no: +220 448 3335