Senegalese wrestling and ginger juice? Not your average bootcamp

First appeared in Escapism magazine.

It’s Monday morning and I’m smashing gloved fists against boxing pads held aloft by a Herculean Personal Trainer.

“One two three, roll!” He yells, as I misexecute yet another set of punches.

I’m not yet fully awake, my shoulders are throbbing and all I can think about is coffee. 

Not such an unusual way to start the week, I hear you cry! But wait… the sand under my bare feet reminds me I’m not actually in a windowless basement, city gym, but on an adventure holiday in Senegal. Because here in the small, bush village of Toubacouta, a 25-minute drive from the Senegalese-Gambian border, is the luxury resort of Les Paletuviers (www.paletuviers.com). It’s a destination cherry-picked by Fitness Travel Company founder, Robert Tynan, who runs small group holidays aimed at getting people fit, but with plenty of education and empowerment thrown in.

“Luxury used to be about fluffy pillows and elaborate decor,” he tells me, as we feast on a breakfast of eggs, bacon and lentils that has been (literally) worth fighting for. “Now, luxury is in the experience. It’s about creating adventures for those seeking a rounded, active holiday.”

It’s the mixture of water, beach and grassland that’s so special, providing everything we need to train our bodies, caveman style. Dune running? That’s what people did before ‘hill running’ became an actual training method, I discover, as we take a boat to a deserted beach, to charge repeatedly out of the water and up some small, steep dunes.

And here, on the edge of the Saloum Delta National Park, located three taxi rides and one rather chaotic boat crossing from the Gambian capital of Banjul (where our plane landed) is an unexpected, and still relatively secret, fitness playground. It’s the mixture of water, beach and grassland that’s so special, providing everything we need to train our bodies, caveman style. Dune running? That’s what people did before ‘hill running’ became an actual training method, I discover, as we take a boat to a deserted beach, to charge repeatedly out of the water and up some small, steep dunes. But what about some tyre flipping? It’s weight-training-in-disguise for the bum, legs and back, (and, turns out, a whole lot more interesting and fun than lifting dumbbells). All of which, since we do it barefoot and on sand, causes some well-worked and stiff calf muscles the following day. And this is never truer than after a game of ‘flag rugby’ on the private island hideaway, as I find out the day after our overnight trip to Plage D’Or (75 minutes by boat from our base). We take time to relax here too: enjoying a bonfire, fresh oysters and a very silent night in simple, square beach huts. Next morning my muscles might be tense, but my mind is unwinding, finally.

Other chosen missions (should we choose to accept them) during the trip include; a hot and sticky run through the local village of Toubacouta; various educational resistance training sessions (suspension training, kettlebells, all done on the landscaped lawn of Les Paletuviers); a gentle cycle ride on some fairly rickety African bikes (we’re not exactly within seconds of the nearest snazzy bike shop); a kayak trip around the bay, a mini triathlon; some more kickboxing; and – nope you probably didn’t guess it – a lesson in the most revered of local contact sports: Senegalese wrestling.

Almost everything we learn (maybe even the head-pushing technique of the wrestlers, intended to force the opponent’s eyes elsewhere so that a quick choke-hold can take place…), can be taken home and worked on in some way, shape or form. Movement patterns are broken down, taught and explained, with gym-style alternatives offered. We’re incredibly lucky to have celebrity Personal Trainer and Biomechanics expert, Gus Olds leading the pack. Usually resident in Central London, busy realigning and strengthening the bodies of the GB Ski and SnowSports team, Olds has an x-ray vision that would impress even the most cynical of trainees.

“You run like the terminator,” he tells me, as we go together for a jog across the West African grasslands. “There’s no movement in your thoracic spine. And it’s partly causing the issues in your hips. But that’s also because of…”

An important conversation ensues (along with some guided hip mobility work) during which time I learn more about my body and hormonal make-up than I have in the last decade. And I find myself listening, really trusting, the holistic approach of this health genius, who gives me realistic take-home goals and a personalized eating plan to boot.

“It’s kitchens, not crunches, that get you abs,” Olds insists.

But nutrition is of paramount importance out here too. The menu is based around dishes high in the ‘good’ fats, as we feast on locally-sourced white fish, cooked and seasoned to perfection, melt-in-the-mouth beef and, of course, plenty of nutrient-dense green vegetables. That, along with snacks of fruit with peanut butter (all natural, no added sugar, and made in the local village – it tastes quite different from the processed stuff back home) keeps us fuelled for each and every physical challenge. This way of eating helps each of us shift fat, build lean muscle tissue and (because what we eat, we learn, affects everything, repeat, everything) boosts mood and promotes deep, nourishing sleep.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, everybody looks and feels different by the end. And yes, I’m sure it has something to do with the daily, wall-to-wall, 30 degree sunshine, as well as the portion control and press ups. But a bit of routine and discipline on holiday, isn’t so bad after all we agree, each returning home with a little East African sand between our toes, lean and strong like warriors! But, unlike with drastic detox retreats or military-style bootcamps, there’s a genuine sense that some changes might stick. Staying off processed food and switching on my abdominals in each and every exercise I do should give me a half-decent chance that it won’t all go to (pot) belly in a few weeks. But downing a fresh ginger juice with spicy, raw honey, as delivered to my door, before my morning training amongst the Mangroves? That’s the stuff of Senegal, baby. And it’ll bring me back, no doubt. 

A WALK LIKE NO OTHER…

A 10km jog, cycle or drive from Les Paletuviers, the Fathala Wildlife Reserve (www.fathala.com) is one of only five places in the world where guests can walk freely (for around 30 minutes at a time) alongside lions. Though you’ll only walk with two at any one time, all of the five of these impressive felines resident here have been trained from birth by their adoring, South African guide, who commands them with nothing more than the tone of her voice and a light stick.

“Go and sit behind him, he’s friendly,” she tells me, pointing at the one lying on the floor. I inhale, nervously. This “baby” lion is only approaching two years old but already reaches to above waist height on the average person. I guess it’s about as safe as hanging out with huge, powerful, carnivorous cats can get, I think, and settle down behind him, my hand on his mane. “Relax,” the guide soothes, adding mischievously: “They like their meat tender and relaxed, with a wink…”

GETTING THERE AND AWAY

To get to Les Paletuviers with Fitness Travel Company, guests must fly to either Banjul airport in Gambia (involving a boat trip, taxi ride and border crossing, approx. 3 hours) or into Dakar, Senegal and travel by bus/car (approx. four hours on bumpy roads). Banjul is recommended,

PLEASE NOTE

If you are and UK citizen, full member of the EU or ECOWAS member, Commonwealth country or nation with a reciprocal visa abolition flying into Banjul, you will not require a VISA to go via the Gambian airport but you WILL need one enter Senegal.  To obtain your Senegal VISA, visit www.senegalembassy.co.uk/visa-applications  (approx. 50 euro)

US citizens will need an additional VISA to travel via Gambia, which can be obtained from your local embassy.

– By Lucy Fry

 

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