Sandele Eco-Retreat: A Spirited Bubble of Sustainability
Arriving at Sandele Eco-Retreat and Learning Centre near
Kartong in southern Gambia is like being swallowed up in a little cocoon where the
outside world ceases to exist for a while. Nestled behind the dunes on a
forested stretch of coast, you wouldn’t guess it was there, neither from the
road or the beach. This is exactly as intended – to blend in with surroundings
both physically and conceptually.
Built on land leased from, but still owned by the local community, the long game is to hand the entire operation to a village trust. In the meantime, residents of Kartong are being trained and employed at Sandele in what has blossomed into a truly responsible tourism project.
The main guest lodges are domed and circular, creating an airy and unusual space within. Roof terraces offer views over the beach and the sound of the waves envelops you. Curiously, it feels wild and very calm, all at the same time.
To escape the heat there are plunge pools between the lodges with two sharing each one. Whereas for some this might not be as private as they would like, I quite enjoyed the social element of chatting with the neighbours, comparing experiences and swapping tips.
You definitely won't starve with a parade of palatable dishes being served up each day. Breakfast is a buffet of fruit, serials, sour milk (much like yoghurt) and a type of donut, little delicious ballistic missiles heading straight for the hips. Very hard to resist! You can also order cooked breakfast and bread with spreads. Lunch is mostly vegetarian and dinner is a three course affair. Portions are kept small on purpose to avoid food waste and it's perfectly OK to ask for seconds.
Sandele is the creation of Geri & Maurice, a dynamic and forward thinking couple originally from the UK but by now very much assimilated in Gambian culture. They came to The Gambia 16 years ago with a very specific mission in mind: To work with people and help create experiences to enjoy and learn from.
The Sandele logo is a traditional Mandinka symbol, but it
also represents ripples of learning spreading out from the centre. The
Mandinkas are the biggest tribe in The Gambia, one amongst seven others and they make up the majority of the population in the village of Kartong.
Geri describes Sandele as “an idea that emerged like a genie out of a bottle”. This was at a time when she and Maurice had a chance to contemplate their life plans. The Gambia was an obvious choice: Not too far from Europe, winter sun and a relatively stable government.
Sandele is much more than just a resort – it is a hub of inspiration with sustainability at its heart. It seems that like-minded people are drawn there like bees to an abundant flowerbed providing the perfect conditions for cross-pollination of ideas.
There are surprisingly few hawkers (or bumsters as they are called in The Gambia) around this area. This may well have to do with the ingenious Guaranteed Gambian project where crafts are sold in a shop onsite at a set price. No commissions are taken and it has proven hugely successful. Sandele also has a Craft Showcase, a place where visitors can go and see things being made, away from the selling area. The benefits are two-fold: The dynamics of the selling process have completely changed and producers no longer feel the need to copy each other which inevitably means a wider choice of goods.
To illustrate this, Geri tells the story of a shy young guy who used to have to get very stoned to build up courage to approach tourists on the beach. He used to sell a bracelet every couple of weeks. Now he is sober and has orders for hundreds of bracelets on a regular basis.
Still a work in progress, there are so far ten completed double guest rooms in addition to the four lodges. This number is about to double in a building surge this summer.
Ingeniously, bricks are made onsite by what has been dubbed “Kartong’s first factory”, a specially made machine crafting bricks from earth and the lime extracted from oyster shells. Both ingredients are found naturally in the area and the machine can churn out 1000 blocks a day. This is in line with sound principles of sustainable construction: Minimizing the use of concrete and timber and using locally sourced materials. Astonishingly, cement is responsible for 5% of global carbon emissions, a figure that very much surprised me. In relation, aviation pumps out under 2% (World Resources Institute Report published in 2009 based on figures from 2000).
Another innovative project onsite is the mango drying plant. Most mangos are dried using butane gas, not a particularly nice thought. At Sandele a technique using renewable energy to power a drying chamber has been developed. Solar panels on the roof heats the room by day while heating up water that keeps the chamber hot throughout the night. The plan is to export dried mangos to Europe, but right now trade walls have been put in place making progress difficult.
These are just some of the things going on at Sandele. It is also regularly used as a conference center and renowned online people power movement Avaaz chose this spot for a global meeting in 2009 and hope to come back. I have been a fan of Avaaz for a long time – if you don’t know them already, please do check them out. They do excellent online campaigning work!
Yoga retreats are another brilliant jewel in the crown of Sandele with two gorgeous yoga shalas onsite; one under the palm trees and one on the beach. I was lucky enough to arrive for the last two days of a retreat and was generously allowed in as a latecomer. More on that in a later post!
There are lots of other activities on offer too. Bird watching, bike riding, visiting the local village and school, Tanji fish market and much more. I did some of these, but the lure of the interesting people to be found in the navel of Sandele, the restaurant, was too great to not spend a considerable amount of time there too. And for that cheeky holiday nap in between, there are hammocks scattered in the shade amongst the trees, perfect little havens of swinging stillness.
Sandele is great as a base where you can relax, meet engaging people and experience culture in a way that improves the lives of locals. The staff are all super friendly and always willing to share their extensive knowledge of the area and the many projects going on at the resort.
You can choose to take the hassle out of organising and book your trip through the Gambia Experience who will include transfers to and from your chosen resort. They also offer a flight only option and you can book your stay directly with Sandele. It is just under an hour's drive from Banjul International Airport and you can expect to pay just under 1000 Dalasi (around £20) each way if you make your own way.
I was kindly hosted by Sandele Eco-Retreat and the Gambia Experience on this trip. All opinions expressed are, as always, my own.