Up on the highway to Brikama, the road is deserted. No one is going anywhere today in The Gambia – because to drive is to risk a government fine. It's "Operation Clean the Nation" day, a monthly initiative that's part of a crusade for a cleaner environment.
News filters slowly down the long track to Makasutu Cultural Forest, which I am visiting as one of the Eden Friends, a group of the Eden Project's supporters here to see the charity's latest outreach work. It means no nasty gas-guzzler will be able to take us on our eco-tour.
This lush, rare tract of mango and mahogany forest has a wealth of birdlife and endless nature trails to explore. Rescued from the axe by two British travellers, James English and Lawrence Williams, Makasutu has become the leading ecotourism attraction in a country better known for its beach holidays.
From an original four acres, James and Lawrence now oversee 1,750 acres of land, much of which had been deforested, its inhabitants suffering from the traditional rural African plight of lack of income and the urban drift of the young. Now 250 local staff work at Makasutu and its award-winning Mandina eco-lodges in an attempt to turn this situation around.
The Ballabu Conservation Project aims to create a conservation area of 14 local villages and 100,000 people where the locals become self-sustaining through conservation, responsible tourism and biodiversity. Already in place are a mobilised community, a committee of village chiefs and, now, the participation of Cornwall's Eden Project. This month the scheme goes live, so we are the first tourist group to see the Ballabu's work in progress.
Don Murray, curator of the Eden Project's rainforest biome, sees his role as sharing knowledge and lobbying for funds. But the Eden Project is also involved at ground level through its Gardens for Life scheme, set up in four schools in the Ballabu area, which helps pupils to plant crops and share their experiences with schools in other countries.
We are all set to visit a school garden but, thanks to the driving ban, we begin with a nature walk through the Makasutu forest with our guide, Lamin. He was unemployed for five years before approaching James for work. His path of knowledge eventually leads to a clearing, where we sip a sweet brew of palm wine as a local tapper climbs into the tree canopy.
With the air as sticky and thick as in an Eden Project biome, lunch is served at a second Makasutu camp to the soft sounds of a kora player followed by a tour through the Abuko Nature Reserve. The real highlight, though, is a visit to Kembujeh village school where pupils sing their ABCs and the Ballabu project's inaugural speeches are made by the elders who talk about everything from the disappearing trees to livestock predators. We are encouraged to ask questions of them, and they of us, in a kind of cultural exchange.
Meeting the locals is part of the Ballabu ethos. Fortunately, how much tourist interaction takes place is down to the villagers to decide.
How to get there
Fiona Cullinan travelled to The Gambia as a guest of The Gambia Experience (0845 330 2087; gambia.co.uk), which offers a seven-night, twin-centre holiday at the Coconut Residence and the Mandina Lodges at Makasutu, from £1,089 per person, based on two sharing, including flights, transfers, half-board and tours of Ballabu villages.
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