As I walked down the lane I was met by a group of smiling Gambian ladies, apparently some of the staff going off duty, and soon emerged into a clearing where I had my first sight of the emblematic domed lodges. By now however I was being greeted by another smiling lady and was soon esconced in a comfortable chair on the terrace with a refreshing glass of wonjo juice. Two wonjos later, and following an excellent lunch, I met Maurice – one half of the team behind the vision of Sandele, and was soon being shown to palatial quarters in lodge no 2, quietly situated along with three similar lodges in the bush a few yards away.
These lodges designed and created by Maurice and Geri using compressed earth blocks are each characterised by a large domed brick roof thus minimising the use of timber (deforestation is a major problem in the Gambia as the population cut down vast areas of trees for building and firewood leading to serious land degradation and erosion). This building technique was new to the Gambia and they had to import the block-making machine and send two local craftsmen to India to learn the skills necessary for construction – skills which since then have been put to use elsewhere, most notably in the construction of the Ebujan Theatre in Kanifing which is presently the largest brick domed structure in (West) Africa. Sandele is built on principles of sustainability, and this principle extends not only to the construction of the lodges which are equipped with solar water heating, composting toilets and water recycling, but also to solar panels and wind turbines to produce power, the employment of over 75% staff from the local community, sourcing of all food locally, support for local craftsmen, and establishment of a community development fund which receives a contribution for every bed/night booked. In addition when they began the creation of their dream, Maurice and Geri entered into an agreement whereby after 25 years the 26 hectares of land on which Sandele stands, together with everything on it, becomes the property of the community of Kartong.
I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and inspecting my surroundings before enjoying the luxury of a HOT shower for the first time since I arrived in The Gambia, followed by dinner in good company on the terrace, and then retired to a huge half tester bed with crisp linen sheets and only the ocean for company, lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves instead of the usual loud music and drumming into the early hours to which I have become accustomed in Bakau.
I was woken by bird song at first light and spent an hour wandering alone along the beach watching fishing boats in the distance and trying to pick out the birds in the thick vegetation of the forest. About nine o’clock, after taking breakfast in solitary splendour – it was a Sunday after all and my fellows were apparently taking advantage of a lie-in, I set off down the road to Kartong. The only traffic was on foot like myself, or on bicycles which approached slowly in the heat or crept up noiselessly behind. I met a few small children eager to greet me with the standard “Hello, how are you? What is your name?” and shake hands, and by ten I was turning off the tarmac down a wide red strip heading through the Bird Sanctuary towards the beach. From time to time I had to step off the road to avoid the dust from a stream of tipper lorries carrying more red earth to where a bulldozer and a motor grader were making a new road section. It seems that a new mosque is being built here right on the coast and quite a way from any major habitation which seems an odd choice of site, particularly as there is an existing mosque which is currently being extended and refurbished on a sand dune next to the sea only a couple of miles away. When I had seen it the previous day I thought it was a luxury hotel being built, but it seems that the site is considered sacred since a visit by Khalifat’ul Tijanniyya Sheik Umar Taal a famous Islamic scholar, pilgrim and militant leader in the late 19th century. He visited Mecca between 1828 and 1831 then returned to West Africa and established his authority over a large area from Senegal to Nigeria attracting thousands of disciples from all over the region.
Down on the strand I was alone apart from a solitary figure collecting sea shells and a small herd of cattle lying peacefully on the sand in the distance. I was nearly at the border with Senegal so turned north again for another walk along the deserted shoreline back to Sandele. All went well apart from having to avoid a few small purple jellyfish washed up at the water’s edge, but I thought I was in trouble when I saw the vultures gathering in front of me. As I plodded slowly towards them I could see what appeared to be a large white shape on the sand that from a distance could have been a plastic jerrycan but when I got closer I found it was the upturned shell of a dead turtle.
The vultures didn’t seem too bothered by my presence and merely hopped away from my immediate vicinity and we sat and watched each other in silence. They made no attempt to feed, although something had pecked away part of the head and two legs, but just sat in a ragged group as if waiting for me to leave. One or two others circled overhead then also landed on the sand and scuttled towards the turtle then just stood patiently watching and waiting. I left them to it and continued my trek, along the way meeting up with Bubacarr and his friends sitting watching the ocean. They were apparently intending me to join them for more attayah but it was already midday and I was looking forward to lunch so I made my excuses saying that Maurice and Geri were expecting me and continued the last section back to Sandele!
Another excellent lunch ensued followed by a tour with Geri who explained to me the principles on which Sandele was built, how the project had taken shape, and what plans there were for the future development of the area. I saw the machine from which the building blocks for the entire site are made, and visited some areas I had missed in my self guided inspection the previous afternoon, including the conference/student accommodation complete with a cool shady cloister, and the “temporary” restaurant dining area which will be dismantled block by block when the planned replacement is built. Finally and with some regret I bid farewell and accepted the offer of a lift back to Gunjur where I was lucky enough to catch a van to Brikama almost immediately and from there another back to my starting point in Bakau.
It had been a relaxing two days although my legs ached from all the walking, and it certainly won’t be the last time I visit Sandele. Perhaps the next time I’ll have more time and be able to stay a little longer.