Many golden suns have circled the arc of the sky and your time in this magical land is nearly coming to an end… You have been welcomed into this coastal realm by all her people, you walked her sandy shores arm in arm, traversed her rocky plains and her dusty cities under her guidance, you rested your weary traveller’s feet in her sweet oasis, and you danced your first dance in the desert… But before you leave, this place, the land of Teranga, which others called Senegal, she has one more gift to offer you… the chance to connect to the deepest roots of her forest, where tall trees grow, creatures walk on four legs, undisturbed, untouched, where humans and nature coexist in a special harmony, and the lion is king.
Now, finally, she gives you the chance to be born again…
To be Born Free.
After my journey through the north to the south of Senegal, before reaching the borders of the Gambia, I spent some time in the magical Fathala Wildlife Reserve, a place I’d been longing to visit since the beginning of my travels in West Africa, ever since I’d heard it existed.
My time on the reserve was an extraordinary experience; earthly, rich and inspiring. Surrounded by 6000 hectares of protected and original forest, I had the chance to walk in this wild environment with a herd of wild giraffe, track hyenas and rare monkeys, to witness the living beauty of the endangered and most beautiful of all African antelope, the Western Giant Eland, I slept in a tent in the middle of the Senegalese Bush where rhinos and wild dogs roam at night, and had the chance to walk amongst a pride of lions, saved from the perils of ‘canned hunting’ and reared within the park for eventual release into the surrounding reserve…
This landscape is stunning, perfectly pristine and untouched.
To find original forest in this part of the African continent is an increasing rarity.
It was supposedly the ‘rainy season’ when I arrived, even though it didn’t rain once whilst I was there. For an Englishman, the ‘rain season’ is all bloody year in London… However, the rains, as before with my travels, were in fact a blessing – the green of the land was as vibrant as fable, the food distribution was resultantly wide-spread for the varied wildlife, which meant the park was evenly populated (not all crammed around the waterhole like so often the case in dry climates).
My safari felt like a proper adventure… roaming and scouting the thickets of the Bush, which was quiet, still and perfect for bird and animal spotting – and the famous savannah heat was actually quite tolerable. Unlike with safari parks in other, better-known parts of Africa, the site wasn’t overrun with crowds or noisy tourists, and I could wander peacefully, at my own pace…
I’ve never been one for rushing or pushing my way to the front to get ‘that shot’… people are too impatient these days. They jump on the jeep, whizz around a park in a couple of hours where all the wildlife is constantly watched and tracked, you are ‘guaranteed’ to see all the top wildlife, a promise to all tourists, except you might have to wait your turn to get your selfie with an ostrich… I prefer the thrill of the chase… to sit, to walk, to watch… and let the wilderness reveal itself to you. Chance makes things so much more exciting; taking chances has always been the secret of my travel successes. Every inch of the forest was bursting forth with life; for me, it was more than I could have wished for – I’ve never seen so much wildlife in such short time. I will be forever thankful to the Fathala team for my experiences here, for their patience and willingness to answer all my questions and thoughts.
My every need was taken care of. I was utterly spoilt… as usual.
I would sit on my terrace or by the edge of the pool watching the glories of this forest kingdom open up before me, spent hours staring out into the green, clocking every little movement amongst the trees, every flutter, every call of the wild.
There were monkeys everywhere! As I sat and watched, listening to bird and cricket song in mellifluous cacophony all around, the cheeky monkeys would slowly creep up, climb down carefully from the ancient trees, moving ever closer, their keen eyes on the forest mangoes I had picked and was trying to seduce them with from my luxury private tent…
I guarded the mangoes closely, even fiercely, but what can I say? I had to let them have it eventually… once I was done with posing that was. I literally went inside for two minutes, came back out and my fruits were gone! Monkeys don’t wait around when there’s food to be had. I learnt that first-hand in Ghana.
The beauty of actually staying in the wild is not only the more natural interaction with the wildlife around but also more time to explore and see what a place has to offer. It’s far more personal, unique, and I try to stay in such places whenever travelling through a nature or game reserve. I highly recommend any form of slower travel to anyone travelling in a developing country – with bad road networks and infrastructure and a generally way more laid back way of life than you’re probably used to, you get so much more from stopping off in a place at least for a night. As always I definitely recommend booking directly, no overpriced tour companies, and organising your own transport too. I normally just walk around and speak to people to get information. It’s harder work, but always cheaper, and the experiences with locals in-between are priceless.
Hang up your boots and stay a night or two. The chance to unwind, be present, still and mindful, with unique experiences you may only have at dawn and dusk or under the starry skies – they are the ones that will stay with you forever,
as you look back on the story of your life…
I organised a game drive through the reserve one afternoon, as the sun cooled and the animals came out of hiding. I was fortunate enough to go alone with my guide, Mamadou Jallow, who was absolutely excellent, patient to my every whim, and keen of eye. Be sure to ask for Mamadou when making a safari booking.
Tropical birds could be seen everywhere. I was amazed by their flight, their colour and song. I’ve always been fascinated with the freedom of birds, with the flight of the falcon, the call of the cuckoo… the beauty of wild hornbills.
Indeed, my eternal symbol, the falcon of freedom, made an appearance – a sign I have always seen since a child – for me, a sign of being watched and guided, which forever stays with me… a reminder.
As we made it deeper into the Bush a variety of antelope began to appear, standing still and attentive amongst lush green clearings in the forest, and herds dashing across the small mud roads as we approached, taking my breath away.
I got close to zebra, foraging warthogs, waterbucks and rare red colobus monkeys. It was a thrill to see these creatures so peacefully in a natural environment. Protected and nurtured. No trip to a zoo can ever compare to seeing an animal in the wild, in all its majestic glory, as nature intended. Here, animals do not pace up and down through boredom, have to perform tricks or live in restricting cages… Humans have a talent for putting things in cages, even each other… one day I hope we learn the true value of freedom, and the importance of protecting it.
Mamadou taught me a few Bush survival tricks he’d learnt off the monkeys – which leaves could be eaten and where to forage… although I told him I already knew the bit about bush mangoes… I think it was me who taught the monkeys in the first place!
At the entrance to a larger clearing in the forest we came tête-à-tête with a large male giraffe, a bull, the alpha male of a family on the reserve, which I could see hiding further back in the clearing behind him. He was so impressive, strutting around, proud and ready to protect his family from this strange approaching vehicle. I was amazed, just watching, eyes wide, not talking. Amazed. As he eyed me and I eyed he…
After threatening to kick the car a couple of times he eventually turned away from us and moved into the trees to graze, a sign he didn’t feel threatened… so we got out of the vehicle and made it to the middle of the opening. Amazingly the giraffes seemed much more scared of me than I was of them. Which is nothing but a good thing. You wouldn’t get kicked by a giraffe and live to tell the tale! And for animals that are so often illegally poached (and legally poached), being scared of humans is nothing but animal wisdom.
I walked around the muddy opening for what felt like eternity and yet a second of time, my eyes fixed always on these otherworldly, majestic creatures, who, while cautious, graciously let me walk among them, no cages, chains or barriers between us. Just an understanding, that we were not there to harm each other, just to share a moment. Just to be.
To walk among such creatures feeling nothing but peace is a memory as vivid as when my brain first recorded it, and an utter privilege.
The sad reality for Senegal and much of West Africa, is most of the glorious wildlife one usually associates with Africa has been poached, culled, eaten and generally driven into extinction. Long gone are the great wildlife grasslands and forests of West Africa, where plentiful herds of elephant and large prides of lion roam. Now only pockets of protected reserve remain, scattered throughout various countries. Fathala is one such protected reserve.
People often make the mistake of thinking an enclosed reserve is somehow unfair on the animals who dwell within when in fact, in this modern landscape shaped by earth’s top predator (Man), it is quite the opposite: these protected and managed reserves are absolutely crucial to the survival of Africa’s thick tree savannah and remaining fauna, especially in West Africa where so much of it has been lost. Gives weight to one of my favourite recently-coined sayings – “Everybody has opinions but nobody has the facts”.
It is not the way God intended but the reality of enclosure is becoming less and less about keeping animals in than it is about keeping humans out. In other parts of West Africa I can honestly say finding out information on where to buy illegal ivory items was easier than finding out where to see populations of wild elephants. In India tiger reserves are heavily fortified to keep the populations healthy and unreachable to local poachers. People criticise the ‘management’ of natural environment (like coppicing, for example) when because now we have interfered so much, human intervention is becoming more and more needed to protect what is left of our Earth’s natural spaces and wonderful creatures. Man destroys so much, and it will take centuries to put our earth right again. But all is not yet lost…
Mother Nature fights on to live another day – to allow her scattered children to run, fly, and keep being free…
any good mother’s wish.
It’s certainly not all bad news. Over the last few decades the diversity of fauna has been increased in many parks across the globe and Fathala is no exception. Not only have giraffes, zebras, waterbuck, African buffalo, rhinos and a variety of antelope been re-introduced into the park, but the team have also successful bred Western Giant Elands which are now thriving, making Fathala the only place in the world you may come face-to-face with this impressive creature. All of this contributes greatly to the park’s ecosystem and general sustainability. Only controlled fire is encouraged in the grasslands and forest (important for biomass growth) and protection is in place against larger, damaging fires. Slowly, the world is coming round to ideas of slow travel and sustainable tourism options. Slowly, man is learning from his past mistakes… Visiting such reserves, investing time and money to see and learn about our remaining natural places and their inhabitants, are vital contributions to the future of our wildlife.
Above: the thriving Great Eland on the reserve.
Below: a wild hyena footprint I found whilst walking the Fathala forests.
Above: my hand over a lion paw print.
Now, there is no doubt that the Lion is king of the jungle, and anyone who knows me knows that I have been obsessed with these creatures since I was a child… their beauty, their strength, their pride…
To be given the chance to walk alongside them was, naturally, a dream come true.
Impressive, isn’t he?
Fathala has its own small pride of five lions, brought to the reserve together from South Africa when they were just three and a half months old and first able to fly.
They were then hand-reared within the grounds of the reserve by this lady (click), who became their loving surrogate mother.
The lions are now four years old, which, regardless of their impressive size, is actually only half grown.
Each day they are taken on walks through the Bush, not only for important exercise (lions are famously lazy) but also to develop their natural instincts – marking their territory, climbing trees, a chance to sniff out the other animals in the area and generally get a sense of the natural environment. One morning, I had the fortune of accompanying some of the lions on one such walk…
It was mesmerising, fascinating… and so peaceful.
Their might was somehow calming, their acceptance of me amongst the pride so natural, and easy.
They did not see me as a danger or as prey, but as an honorary member.
Of course, it really was an honour…
When I first walked up to meet them I just froze with awe, I couldn’t do anything but stare at them for quite some time… those eyes, those huge paws. They truly are a perfect creation indeed. God knew what he was doing when he created lions. Humans on the other hand…
So by now I guess you’re wondering… where is their true mother? Why are they in captivity in the first place? Shouldn’t a wild creature be just that, in the wild, where it belongs?
The truth of wild lions is another sad story for our world.
We all imagine Africa to be teeming with prides of lions in every corner, but did you know wild lion populations decreased by as much as 43% between 1993 and 2014? Two hundred years ago lions could be found across the entire continent of Africa, across the Middle-East and even as far as India… today, there are just a scattering of protected parks in Africa where they can be seen ‘truly wild’… Did you also know, that there are now more lions in captivity in South Africa than there are in the wild?
The litter of lions brought to Fathala Wildlife Reserve were originally born in captivity in South Africa, on a ‘lion-farm’ where they would later have been sold into the Canned Hunting Industry or to the Chinese for exotic medicines.
Not sure what a lion farm is? …
Oh, and Canned Hunting? …
Images from Google. All copyright belongs to original owners.
Canned Hunting is a huge industry in South Africa, where animals (especially lions) are bred on farms, abused and cramped-up together in small cages, then pumped full of sedative, shoved in the back of a truck and dumped, dazed, to wander around an unfamiliar fenced-in bit of land where they are shot at by wealthy Americans and Europeans who pay small fortunes to kill a ‘wild lion’ or zebra…
These images break my heart… so deeply.
But places like Fathala, where captive-bred lions are given another life, give me hope.
My guide, Amadou Jallow (pictured above), gave me a stick made of a wood locals call ‘Kenkelibah’ and guided me and the lions as we walked the Bush together. He’d made the beautiful stick himself, a symbol of authority that the lions respect; a sign of leadership always carried by the guides and visitors. The importance of establishing something of a hierarchy amongst the lions and carers is paramount among these naturally highly-social cats.
I didn’t walk with any other tourists so I had a chance to really observe and watch the lions as they climbed trees, marked their sent, roared and played together. No sedatives, no cramped cages, barriers or abuse. We walked as one pride, always watching each other, apparently they equally fascinated by me as I was of them.
Above: my Kenkelibah stick.
You are reminded to respect that these are not domesticated creatures, and this is no petting zoo. These creatures are wild at heart, their teeth and their instincts sharp. Whilst our walk was peaceful the lions were very wary of me, always watching, especially the female, Masai, who prefered to watch me from the safety of the trees above. It is important also, to not act like prey – no screaming or sudden movements – just in case you remind them of their favourite food…
This is not a breeding programme, and the females have been given a contraceptive to ensure no more lions are bred outside of the wild, or given a doomed-release into the wilderness like so many pseudo-programmes promise in Africa, regardless of the fact that no captive-bred lions have ever been successfully released into the wild and survived…
Once these lions are fully-grown they will be released into a larger part of the reserve where they will have the chance to live a life as close to natural as possible. They will live together and have the chance to hunt some of the more common game such as Waterbuck, Roan Antelope and Warthog and tourists will be able to view them from vehicles like the other fauna in the reserve.
You know, watching these magnificent creatures walking around and learning their story
I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own journey…
Born in the captivity of modern society, stuck in small rooms with loads of other kids your age being forced to learn and obey, everyday reminded that you must ‘fit-in’ to what ‘they’ say in order to succeed in life, being moulded and pushed into a formula, only one day to be stuck out in the cold of the ‘real world’, the freedom you were always promised you’d achieve if you worked hard enough, only to find really you are still fenced-in, but in a bigger arena, and now you’re being shot at by fat cats with guns for some twisted sport.
We live in a society where our food is intensively farmed, modified, caged, force-fed and penned, where we are told what to believe, what to worship, a place where animals are bred to be slaughtered just for fun and the flexing of over-pumper egos, and people cannot cross borders unless they have the desired skin colour or heritage.
Like the lions at Fathala, by some grace I was saved. A few years ago some fate, or God or higher power that I don’t fully understand, stuck me on a plane to the other side of the world, where I was given the chance to see a different kind of freedom, a different kind of light. The chance to travel and see another side to the world I thought existed only in stories and hollywood. I realised I had been lied to, that I could be truly free if I continued to live this life on the edges and refuse to be boxed-in again by powers I no longer believe in. By a system I no longer have any faith in.
The Road has given me a taste of freedom outside the cage I once lived.
The Road has given me the chance to find a different path through this strange, man-made environment we called the world.
All creatures deserve to be Born Free,
And those of us who weren’t deserve the chance to be Born Again.
There is a truth left, out there, in the wild places man has not yet fenced-in.
There is a movement, among stars and in open minds and open hearts.
They have tried to tame us, but the Lion still lives, He walks among us, to roar another day.
Be free beautiful creatures…
I finally left the reserve, thanked my guides and the people who helped me, my bag back on my back, my mind full of images and stories I couldn’t wait to tell the world. My journey through the Forests of Fathala was a fantasy come to life and I felt truly thankful for this life of travel, the people and wild souls I have met, and the knowledge and enlightenment each new experience brings me. This quest for Truth is not always easy; the answers to questions one seeks are not always easy to accept… there are some terrible things happening in this world… but, there is always hope, and as I began walking down the road waiting for a car to pass so I could thumb a lift, a few children from the local village started to follow me, clearly intrigued by who I was. It wasn’t long before we started singing… We walked nearly the whole way together, and I saw, in their innocent eyes, that same magic and hope that always keeps me going…
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For more information about Fathala Wildlife Reserve,
the work they do and for rates and reservations, please click on the link above or visit www.fathala.com