As others have said words can't begin to describe the thrill of the adventure with Hidden Gambia which is run by Mark Thompson. Due to tough circumstances beyond Mark Thompson's control we were unable to stay at his Bird Safari Camp, which he has worked so hard to create, creating welcome business and employment for locals. Mark went the extra mile to reorganise our trip with 3 nights at the Baobolong Annexe in Janjanbureh, one night at Tendaba and two at Nemasu lodge on the coast. It was non-stop excitment with 7 boat trips, a stunning sunset combined with full moon rise, beating drums by a BBQ banquet, beautiful birds, thrilling wildlife and freshly cooked food with local ingredients. Adventures like this are difficult for us with challenging arthritic problems but Mark's thoughtful touches to secure seats we could manage and hire bikes for us one morning made this holiday of a lifetime possible. The Hidden Gambia staff were friendly and excellent to spend time with.
Our room at Tendaba was very acceptable - in fact much larger and lighter than the one at the Annexe and hence much easier to manage. The food at Tendaba was weak compared with elsewhere but more than compensated by the magnificent boat trip though the mangroves.
We just pray that Bird Safari Camp will return to Hidden Gambia very soon so that future travellers and all the local businesses and staff can continue to benefit from Mark Thompson's dedication to the Gambia for many years to come. Thanks!
I can't really add much more to the 2 reviews before this one. Bird Safari Camp is a lovely experience, the river trip to get to the camp, the o/n in Tendaba camp and the people at the camp itself. I agree that the tents, half canvas and half brick with a royal throne room! are fantastic to stay in. Ours had local women outside most days, sitting by the river washing clothes and drying them on the bushes outside our tent.
We enjoyed the bird watching trips and the boat trips up river.
Booked 2 week Gambia trip through Hidden Gambia - because I was travelling on my own, was new to the Gambia but wanted to try different areas and wanted the convenience. Stayed Safari Lodge in Fakara 3 nights, 5 night trip up river with Hidden Gambia (with o/n stop at Tendabi camp on the way up and 4 nights at Bird Safari Camp), then 3 nights at Jinack Lodge north of the river, then 3 nights at Boi Boi Lodge near Kartong in the south. While this may not have been the cheapest way of doing this trip, I only had 2 weeks and wanted a smooth trip - I was able to try different places with a minimum of effort on my part, and was really glad to have seen the different places. The transport connections and bookings all worked very well. After I retire later this year I might do another trip where I use the local deli deli transport etc, but on this trip I wanted convenience. If I ever go to The Gambia again, up river to Bird Safari Camp is top of my list. It was wonderful, but you probably need to have at least a passing interest in birds, seeing them, knowing what they are called or photographing them, because even though there are other things to do I think most people there are birdy/wildlife people in some shape or form. Bird Safari is posh camping rather than 5 star accommodation. To me it was heaven to stay in my half brick, half canvas den at the side of the river. There are available inclusive activities and trips out arranged every day, but it is all very flexible and optional. The 7am bird walks with the brilliant local guides then back for breakfast at about 8.30 became a real favourite with me. People come and go every couple of days so the group changes regularly. Mark coordinates the whole thing from his 'office' in the bar/eating place, and this is an ongoing project he runs - things developing all the time. I recommend the o/n at Tendabo camp on the way up river - we then arrived at the magical Bird Safari Camp by boat at dusk on the 2nd day after seeing birds, birds, birds a couple of crocs, hippos, chimps and baboons en route - and Ibrahim our young Gambian guide was truly excellent! I think Hidden Gambia is excellent and would recommend both the up-river trip - and booking everything through them if you want to sample some of the smaller Lodges etc. Of the other places I stayed I met wonderful people involved in voluntary work at Safari Lodge and loved Boi Boi Lodge - another posh camping experience with a well designed en suite round hut, beautiful quiet beach, friendly staff and the simple friendly town of Kartong nearby.
Bird Safari Camp has nice large clean tents on the River Gambia with clean and functional on suite bathrooms. The location is superb if you like birds and wildlife, the staff are friendly and generally - but not always- helpful and the food was good. Travelling up river on the Lady Hippo seeing hippos, dolphins, osprey and chimps was the highlight for me. I loved that we were in the Gambian National Park and could hear animals moving around and even fighting at night. If you go here for the wildlife, I suggest you make it clear that that is what you are going for. The area is protected in principle but this does not seem to be enforced at all. Talking to people there, illegal logging, bird trapping and killing of animals still sounds common. Many people in the area, and arguably the Gambian Government as well, don't seem to understand that they need to actively look after their natural resources if they want to continue to benefit from the wealth that wildlife tourists brings. The other thing to say is that I did feel let down when we booked to go out on a boat in the afternnon only for it to be taken by another group. We got no apology for this and I was actually told the request to do this was stupid. People in the group asked to go the next morning at dawn and this was met with a luke warm response of 'this might be possible' which added to the irritation. I was with a group who take no nonsense and we got our trip but be prepared to push for what you want. I understand from others that the minute the boss leaves the camp to go on holiday the staff all lie down, do nothing and you can't get any service or trips so perhaps try and go when you know Mark is in residence.
Having just returned from an 11 day trip to the Gambia, incorporating 4 days with Hidden Gambia, I felt compelled to write a fair and honest account of our experience for people considering a trip, who may have been put off by some of the earlier poor reviews.
First things first, this is not the trip for people whose idea of a good holiday is to lay on a beach all day, or by the pool at a luxury resort. The camps that are owned by - or used by - Hidden Gambia are basic (some more than others, more details to follow!) but the beauty of getting out of the main tourist strip and ‘up river’ is that you see a side to the Gambia which you wouldn’t otherwise get to see. The River Gambia is extraordinarily beautiful, serene and has an abundance of wildlife. During our 4 days with Hidden Gambia, we saw chimpanzees, baboons, red colobus monkeys, hippos, crocodiles, dolphins and various bird and reptile breeds.
Booking a trip with Hidden Gambia is very easy. Not only is the owner, Mark Thompson, very helpful and a source of information, but the website is easy to use and you even get a password to enable access to a part of the website where you can look at information sheets and view your own personal itinerary and booking details. The information sheets include topics such as what clothes/shoes to bring, what the weather is like and even how much daily spending money you should allow for (incidentally, it’s virtually impossible to exchange sterling for dalassi in the UK so just do it when you fly into Banjul – most of the hotels are quite happy to change money for you, and it also helps the local economy).
Transport up river is a mixture of boat and vehicle, and while some of the days can be quite long and tiring, the mixture of the two is fascinating as you get to experience the calm of the river and the diversity of the villages – some of which are noisy and colourful market towns, and others which are quiet and dusty, where goats wander aimlessly in the road and children stop their playtime to giggle and wave as you go past.
Passengers are well looked after with refreshments and – during the long road journeys – we were given opportunities to stop and have a walk about and stretch our legs.
During our four days with Hidden Gambia, we spent two nights at Bird Safari Camp on McCarthy Island and one night at Tendaba Camp. Bird Safari Camp is great – we had a fantastic welcome when we arrived on the first evening. Binta is the camp ‘house-keeper’ and welcomed us with cold drinks and a big smile. We had planned to look at both the huts and the tents before we made a decision, but we opted for a hut as soon as we saw them. According to other guests, the tents have larger en-suite bathrooms, and are apparently cooler in the evenings although we were more than happy with the hut we were allocated. The huts and tents have double beds and single beds and a bathroom with toilet, basin and shower. There is no hot water but if you wait until the end of the day to have a shower, the sun will have warmed the water sufficiently. There is electricity in the evenings as well, and free wi-fi. As well as the tents and huts, there is a communal dining area and bar where the meals are served, and a swimming pool with clean, chemically treated river water. Tendaba Camp seemed to be bigger, but in poorer condition than BSC. The accommodation consists of huts which are very basic but ok if you’re only staying a day or two. There are two bars where you can buy cold drinks and Jul-brew (Gambia’s famous beer, well worth a try!) and also a swimming pool. Incidentally, do try and spend some time walking around Tendaba village. It’s incredibly poor but the kids are delightful and love to have their photos taken. If you can, visit the school and give them a small donation – the teachers there do a great job and they will be very grateful for anything you give them.
The food at Bird Safari Camp is great – especially breakfast which consists of egg, cheese and the most amazing freshly baked bread you will ever taste!!! (cooked outdoors in a wood burning oven). Lunch and dinner are just as good, and there are always vegetarian options available. Meals are served buffet style, and if you have a long boat trip planned for that day, you are given a packed lunch – usually a baguette or something. The meals at Tendaba are satisfactory as well, although not quite up to Bird Safari Camp’s standard!
Tea and coffee seemed to be available the majority of the time. Plus, you could buy water and cold drinks from the bar.
The wildlife guides who work for Hidden Gambia are amazing at spotting birds and animals from miles away, so make use of them, especially if there is a particular animal that you want to see – they know the parts of the river where a sighting is most likely. The boat trips were brilliant, and I would recommend doing as many as possible. If you see an animal, they will get as near as possible (without frightening it) and will turn off the boat engine so that there is plenty of time to watch and take photos etc. One tip for keen bird watchers – bring binoculars with you!!
To summarise, Hidden Gambia is a company I would definitely recommend getting in touch with if you want to see a side to the Gambia that you definitely WON’T experience if you stay in the huge resorts near the coast. The people are lovely (especially Binta, Sam and Ansu) and you will be well looked after. We didn’t get to meet the owner Mark Thompson but he provides his mobile number and encourages people to ring him if they have a problem. We met a couple who go back to Bird Safari Camp year after year – surely testament to the fantastic hospitality and experience. Well done Mark and his team!!!