“Here we were, having a surprise breakfast in a secret Oasis in the Niokolo-Koba Forest as 150 monkeys were crossing their daily path in front of us to go to school!”
This is when I knew I would never forget this place!
Our next stop during our Senegal wanderlust tour was the Niokolo-Koba Forest in the Tambacounda Region; Senegal’s largest national park (2.2 million acres; 3 times the size of all of Dakar). This World Heritage Site was truly one of my most memorable life experiences.
The Surreal Entrance Into a New World
After a 9-hour road trip through Senegal, we finally arrived at the entrance of the Niokolo-Koba national park. We entered the park around sunset and were driven in safari SUVs on dirt roads for about an hour to get to our lodge. We watched our phone signal bars slowly disappear, easing into a slowdown with nature, disconnecting from the internet and cell service, and entering into another cycle of life as the sun was magically setting and the day was shifting to night. We were leaving a completely different world behind and entering a new one, in the most surreal way.
The Niokolo-Koba forest and its thriving ecosystem welcomed us, with exquisite views and soothing sounds. We arrived at our hotel, the Niokolodge, after sundown and were received by the Maître d’ Hotel Ousmane who hosted us as if we were part of his own family; one of the kindest humans we have ever met.
The Luxury Glamping Experience
The Niokolodge is the only hotel in the forest and represents less than 1% of the forest’s superficy. This hotel’s spacious tents were the luxury glamping experience I always dreamt of. We were in the heart of a national park and overlooking the Gambia river that stretches to the horizon. Inside, the structure is made from locally sourced wood and other sustainable materials. The woven neutral accents made the space cozier. The outdoor showers, attached to the rooms were literally a manifestation of my dreamiest pinterest boards. Whether it is showering under the moon and stars at night or under the sun’s brightest rays during the day, the child in me never enjoyed bath time so much!
Niokolodge’s staff consists of passionate locals from nearby villages. We could see how the hotel is very intentional in being a sustainable haven for both its guests and employees. From the soap they use (made by locals using banana leaves) to the ingredients they use in their scrumptious and delectable food, the establishment makes an effort in bringing local communities together to create magical experiences. When you are their guest, you feel like you are in a home. The menu is created daily for you and the staff is fully present for all your needs.
THE SLOW SAFARI
We stayed at the hotel for three nights and every day was a safari experience organized by the hotel. We had morning safaris from 9 AM to 1 PM and afternoon safaris from 5 PM to sundown. If you’re not familiar with the concept of slow safaris, it basically means you are not in a zoo-like situation where the animals are waiting for you. Instead, you search for the animals and there’s a chance that you won’t be able to spot any and that’s ok! You learn to be a guest in the wild and to wait. The experience of trying to see them is so rich in terms of learning about patience and how to be in an environment where the human no longer rules.
We saw families of monkeys jumping from tree to tree, hippo footprints (the actual hippos were hiding under the water due to the hot temperature), and leopard steps from the night before (they are nocturnal and sadly we didn’t get to see them in person), among other things.
Here are hidden camera images of animals who come to the lodge at night at different times of the year, luckily we didn’t cross their path. (ph: @niokolodge)
Animals walk freely around the park and humans are expected to behave accordingly. For example, you cannot leave your tent after dark and you need a guide to be able to navigate the park. After spending a few days with our guides, they shared some insights on how living among these creatures teaches them about humility because you may not know when the human can become the victim to these massive prey. Eventually, you learn to coexist with animals respectfully.
We spoke about the famous lions multiple times, and Ousmane shared with us how the lions often come to drink from the restaurant steps or casually walk around the hotel. We didn’t get to see them this time around, but it’s not uncommon to have them come near you. He shared that the lion will not attack you as long as a) it feels respected and b) you don’t show fear. If you want to stay alive, you can’t scream or turn your back. Lastly, we asked him how he would handle a lion or leopard charging at him, given that they generally come and sit in front of his doorstep, and he calmly replied, “You pray!”
The Incredible Surprises
The hotel staff was amazing, courteous, and ‘notorious’ for surprising us. On the first day, they took us on a Safari walk in the hope of spotting a certain animal and lure us into surprise sunset drinks with music and scrumptious desserts under a baobab tree. Way to earn plus hospitality points! The experience was lovely and the drinks were the perfect addition to our afternoon walks.
On the following morning, they lured us into coming to watch 150 monkeys on their way to school (a.k.a. the forest, haha). The monkeys cross the same path every day at the same time and would curiously stare at us. We were already blown away by this sighting, but little did we know that it was actually a distraction for a surprise breakfast in an oasis on top of a hill that overlooks the forest and river. They literally set up tables and drove a breakfast cooking station in golf carts. Here we were, getting omelettes, crepes and tropical fruit bowls made fresh in front of us, with an infinite view in the largest forest in Senegal. It was pure magic!
The Much Needed Lessons
Our trip to Nioko Lodge taught me so many important lessons, with gratitude being the most important one. From the sounds of the forest to the soothing breeze from towering trees, I’ve never felt more centered and aligned with nature. This experience gave me a renewed perspective on life and how to live it more intentionally and with more gratitude for the smallest things.
I also learned about patience. Try spending three days searching for wild animals that you may or may never see. To sit in silence, to relinquish control and to be comfortable waiting, taught me so much about myself. Just like our lovely guides, I learned to be more humble. I realized how tiny I really am in this vast world and learned to let nature be in power and sit with comfort in that.
Lastly, I learned the importance of fully disconnecting. Not having phone reception and internet for three full days was the longest for me and my team. It taught us the importance of slowing down, reconnecting with each other, and easing into life. I wrote so much in that time, from gratitude letters to my friends and family to self-introspection journals to focus on growth. I got to spend more time with Joe, Ranier, Adriana, Payam and Monica. I got to listen more. I got to watch and pay attention to body language, sounds, gestures, smiles. I ultimately got to have the incredible realization that actually we are enough and that in itself made me feel so centered.
It took us a 10-hour road trip to a remote forest, disconnected from the world as we know it, to realize how connected we all really are in the simplest ways and that in itself was the most beautiful lesson
MORE INFORMATION ABOUT NIOKO LODGE
ROOMS AND RATES
We had the privilege of staying in one of the hotel’s luxury tents (price starts at €145 per night). You have all the amenities you need, including hot water, a large fan, AC, a coffee machine, and a fridge bar. To know more about their rates, visit their website here: https://niokolodge.sn/.
HOW TO GET THERE
The hotel offers transfers from Les Manguiers de Guereo for a one-way trip. Learn more about it here: https://niokolodge.sn/reserver-votre-sejour/.
HOTEL CODE OF CONDUCT
Nioko Lodge is home to hundreds of different species that are protected by Senegal. You’ll be totally immersed in nature when you get here, as we have been, so it’s important to follow the hotel’s rules at all costs. Visit this page to learn more: https://niokolodge.sn/une-journee-au-camp/les-regles/
Muses & Photo Credit: Adriana, Ranier, Joe, Payam, Monica, Diarra