How I Became A Forest Chump
Written by Jaillan Yehia
Remember when Britney Spears married backing dancer Kevin Federline and the tabloids nicknamed the wannabe rapper who wooed the pop star and her millions ‘Kevin Fed-Her-A-Line’?
Well, I’m channeling Britney circa 2004 whilst in The Gambia and being fed plenty of lines during my trip, mainly from the omnipresent ‘bumsters’ – smooth-talking local lads who hang around the beaches befriending female tourists.
But despite their best efforts the most memorable line I’m fed all week turns out to be rather more literal than ‘hey beautiful lady, you’re one in a million.’…
I’m at Mandina Lodges, an exclusive forest retreat nestled in the tranquil riverside mangrove reserves which run the length of this riverine nation, and my friend and I rock up to find we’re the only female guests amongst a large party of British tree surgeons, here to scope out the surrounding forest as a potential zip line location.
We learn that the Makasutu land which runs alongside a tributary of the river Gambia (itself bisecting this British-made territory) is perfect tree climbing fodder boasting the tallest tree in West Africa, and the professional tree climbers have used their 83 years of combined experience to conquer it in 37 degree heat via ropes, harnesses, carabiners and sheer determination.
As we busy ourselves with traditional female tourist pursuits such as hanging out with the local kids, shopping in the dusty markets, lazing by the water and checking out the nearby villages, the men are picking their way through ancient forests, past the resident baboons and dodging falling cashew nut pods, eyes peeled for snakes; the only thing that unites the sexes here and tells us we’re in the modern era is a shared reliance on our Nikons, iPhones and GoPros to document it all.
The boys arrive back at the lodge each nightfall like weary returning soldiers, fully camouflaged in dust and leaves, backpacks, kit and ropes by their sides, regaling us with stories from today’s forays over well-earned cold beers.
They’ve converted the drummers from the nearby cultural centre into ardent climbers too (though having been subjected to my artless drumming the locals probably fled up that tree for respite) and soon we girls are invited into the foresty fold with the promise of a sunset ascent to the canopy.
But it turns out that ascending native baobab and grey plum trees using SRT (that’s single rope technique), which requires you to support your own body weight on, you guessed it, a single rope, is a great deal harder than anyone could anticipate – especially when that anticipation is based on being repeatedly told it’s ‘as easy as climbing a ladder’: yeah if the ladder is made of chewing gum, and dangling from an airborne helicopter being piloted by a Bond villain’s cat.
I’m harnessed in, shown a variety of equipment and start off full of hope. But after 20 minutes of gut-busting effort on my part I’ve barely managed to get off the ground and the only thing I’ve really succeeded in climbing is my instructor, whose line is adjacent to mine so he can dangle helpfully alongside me.
My arms are shaking like I’ve gone into epileptic shock from the sheer effort of hauling myself to an upright position and I’m employing the breathing techniques normally used by women in labour. As with my drumming, I’m totally lacking rhythm – but this time the embarrassment factor is multiplied as my hopeless flailing is witnessed from a variety of angles and viewpoints, and I can hear laughter emanating from the branches; it’s like some kind of bizarre nightmare where the trees are actually tittering at me.
But after setting myself the goal of reaching a branch around 20 feet up (which would take a professional precisely 5 seconds to reach) where I aim to enjoy a sensation I vaguely remember called ‘rest’, I manage a series of three-at-a-time steps and mini-climbs and my small victory is in sight.
So with some helpful shoves in interesting locations from my instructor (after a week of solid man time I can’t blame him for being only being semi-professional, well semi something anyway. Just kidding.) I finally plonk myself onto a branch and my bum savours the once-familiar sensation of taking my weight, rather than it being supported by muscle groups I never even knew I had. I now get why the tree climbers are suspicious of empty gym muscles – my time at the gym has been metaphorically spat on by these innocent looking ropes.
I hang in the branch for a few minutes and can see why this feeling would be addictive, and why the idea of setting up a climbing school and canopy walkway here is genius.
But as I’ve manage to land in a nest of biting ants I have just enough time for a quick glance around at the view – and a reality check when I gaze up at the amount of tree I’ve failed to climb – before I’m winched down to the safety of the forest floor, and my line expertly unhooked from the trees, to start our twilight march back to base.
I’m covered in ants, filth, sweat and I probably smell pretty questionable, so a primeval desire to reconnect with my feminine side kicks in and I head back to my floating bungalow to get properly girled up again. In my experience a successful line usually leads to me donning a pretty dress and covering myself in perfume and make up – but never before quite like this.
Mandina Lodges provide a stylish and peaceful haven amidst the African bush from which you can discover The Gambia’s birdlife, villages, markets and nature walks.
The hotel has stilted lodges perched on the water and inland jungle accommodation and offers a guide during your stay as well as use of canoes and motor boat.
There is a cultural centre a short walk away where you can experience African drumming and buy hand-made souvenirs, and the plan is to offer zip lining or canopy walks in the future in the local Makasutu forest.
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