We have had some significant events good and bad along our timeline of 15 years. One of the more memorable came in February 2007, the 24th to be exact. This was the day everything very literally went up in smoke.
Can you smell smoke?
I can hardly believe it is nearly ten years ago since we suffered an horrendous bushfire at our lodge. I can remember it as if it were yesterday. There had been many bushfires across Gambia that year. I had just returned from Bird safari Camp up river and had seen three separate fires on my journey there.
I remember asking the staff if they could smell smoke. Karamo, our pool man, went up onto the roof of our main restaurant building. That was the best vantage point to see if there was anything to worry about. Karamo said he could see a very big fire several kilometres away. It should not pose any threat to us.
Later that evening, around our big table where all the guests gather for evening drinks and food, the topic was predictably the fire. Was there any cause for concern? Since the fire was still too far away to be a threat I did not want to worry our guests. I said “There is nothing to worry about tonight. However, if we can all be at breakfast by 8 am, we will be able to assess the situation better and decide if evacuation is something we should think about”.
We were going to need more than luck!
During the night the fire had been fuelled by not only the strong Hamatan winds blowing from the Sahara, but also the extreme dry condition of the forest and bushland due to the poor rains that year.
It meant that I had to make the decision to evacuate all 22 guests immediately after breakfast. We would have to move them 17 km along the coast to The Boiboi Beach Lodge. The fire at this time was about 5 hours away. We were still hopeful it would not reach us. It might still burn itself out or a change of wind direction could cut its fuel source.
We finished a successful evacuation of all our guests and left them at Boiboi. They were all so supportive and wished us the best of luck. Unfortunately, as it turned out that day, we were going to need much more than just luck!
Facing the fire
The fire moved ever closer and by early afternoon you could hear it. When a fire is big it has a sound and presence all its own. It’s powerful. Whole trees ignite bottom to top in just seconds. The heat is overwhelming and the feeling of just how small and insignificant we are suddenly becomes very real.
Our staff fought the fire voraciously, as did many of the local villagers who came to help. No one left during the blaze and incredibly no one was hurt, bar a few small abrasions, scratches and minor burns. The fire took a brief 1 hour and 45 minutes to destroy everything: the huts, the pool, the restaurant and our spirits.
Dealing with the debris
By 6 pm we all sat around looking at the smoking wreckage of what was once Gambia’s newest eco lodge. How could we ever recover from a catastrophe such as this? I honestly didn’t know. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to try.
One thing I did know was that the staff wanted to try. In fact, they were so determined to not be defeated that the very next day they all started clearing away the debris. Not just the staff, but their families and their friends too. Several hundreds of local villagers turned out every day, with nothing in return for them but food and of course my gratitude.
Since that day we have not only rebuilt but have built it better. The new hut design was created by a Dutchman called Gijs De Groot. He was waiting for me at the lodge one day shortly after the fire and said “I heard of your fire on the local tv GRTS and would like to help”. I remember saying “Unless you know how to build a tension dome, there is probably nothing to help with” and he smiled broadly. He said “Yes I can do that”! I’m not a religious man, but he was an angel sent from above.
Some days later we had a couple arrive who were camping and travelling across West Africa. Their names were Lander and Freya. They asked if they could pitch their tent and stay for some days. I told them “If you can find a spot that isn’t still smoking, you are welcome”. They ended up staying some weeks. Long enough for Lander to help with some tiling and for Freya to paint an 8 foot tall adaptation of ‘The Phoenix Rising From The Flames’ at our reception entrance.
10 years later
In February 2017 we mark 10 years since that fateful fire and we now see those 10 years as something to celebrate. We celebrate our strength of character, our community and most of all our spirit of love for everyone. We have received many awards since then and have continued to go from strength to strength. We still have the same wonderful staff though, a few years older and a lot wiser.
We’ve tried to offer something special for all and every month. We are commemorating these offers by calling them ‘Footsteps Phoenix Promo’s’. If you would like to meet our amazing team and celebrate with us this next season, then take a look:
Painting by Freya Meredith