Thursday 6th December to Saturday 8th December 2001.
Our first visit to Africa wasn’t to Egypt. No, in fact in November 2001 we took a two week vacation in The Gambia, in West Africa. It’s an odd country, basically comprising the two shores of the River Gambia and about 50 km of coastline on the Atlantic. It is surrounded on three sides by Senegal and no part of the country is wider than 50 km. It has a quite good tourist infrastructure, with reasonable beach hotels, and was easy to get to; for this reason it was enjoying some popularity with birders as ‘must go’ place. No real endemics, but a good selection of West African birds in an easy location, what’s not to like?
We booked with a company called ‘The Gambia Experience’, and they offered good service at reasonable prices. We chose the Senegambia hotel, at Kololi, which had good birding in the grounds, and we were set. The hotel had good facilities, largish grounds to while away the hours birding, a good beach (and good seabirds) and a birdguide on staff, the famous Mass Cham. He or his helpers fed the Hooded Vultures at the hotel every morning at 11.30 am. The lawns were soon covered in wild birds, a genuine spectacle!
So far, so good, but we didn’t want to spend all of our time in the confines of the hotel. Venturing out, we were surrounded by so-called ‘tourist guides’, wanting to show us the way to the ‘Gambian Tesco’ (the local supermarket), for a suitable fee. Mark deals with this sort of thing much better than I do, I found it genuinely distressing. However, The Gambia is a poor country, and the tourist season is limited to the drier parts of the year, so a little urgency is understandable when you have to make enough money to see you through the year in only 6 months. Amongst the ‘tourist guides’ were a few genuine bird guides, some better than others. We met a young man called Ebrima Siddebeh in the area outside the hotel, early in the trip. We went out with him once, to judge his level of knowledge, and was impressed with what we saw. After that, we went on all of our trips with him. Having chosen to retain a guide meant that we were left alone by the posse at the hotel gate and, although we usually don’t go guided, in this case the complications of ground transport (hiring a car is not recommended and taxis are expensive) made it worthwhile.
One of the things we (well Mark, really, but I always go along with it) wanted to do was to go upriver to find a very special bird, the Egyptian Plover. This bird, the only species in its family (Pluvianadae), can be very hard to find but, every rainy season, a few move down the river to Basse, at the very furthest tip of The Gambia. This is known to be the most relaible spot to see the species. Ebrima was happy to arrange the trip. Although only about 700 km in total, the trip was to take three whole days, with two nights away from the hotel. It seemed a long time, even with stops for birding, but it soon made sense.
Ebrima had hired a car and driver, his friend Armadou, who had apparently borrowed quite a posh-looking Mercedes from his employer. Settled into the back, we headed off, starting at the river ferry at Banjul, and heading east along the northern bank of the river. The road was awful. Living (as we do now) in Canada, you get used to potholes (you think!), but this wasn’t so much pot-holed road, as pot-holes with occasional inches of road. Armadou wasn’t about to risk his employer’s lovely motorcar, so we bumped sedately along, sweating in the heat, and listening to a single C45 cassette tape (remember those?!) of reggae music. The same tape, for 10.5 hours (and the same on the next two days); if Mark hated reggae beforehand (and he did), it was nothing to what he felt about it after!
To be fair to Armadou, the roads were not safe for speeding. We passed a pretty nasty-looking accident, at one point, where a bus had an argument with a truck, so taking care was sensible. It did make for a long, hot and tiring journey, though. Maybe a posh Merc was not the optimal vehicle for up-country touring?
Stops for birding were quite sparse, but on one occasion Ebrima spotted a bush fire, near a village next to the road. Bushfires are unfortunately quite common, the villagers did not seem too concerned, although they were perhaps a little surprised to see Ebrima lead two ‘Twobabs’ through their village, heading for the edge of the fire. It seems that many insectivorous birds follow bushfires, as insects take to the air as the fire reaches them, only to be snapped up, ‘ready-cooked’, by the birds. Abyssinian Ground Hornbills, a pair, was a notable species seen doing this. Incidentally, there was no problem accessing fields or villages that were unfenced, because the country had a ‘common land philosophy’, we were never chased off by people shouting the equivalent of ‘get orf my laaand’ in Mandinka.
‘Twobab’, a term for a white person, was a common call from the local children, whenever we hove into view, along with ‘Minty Baby’ and ‘any pens’. ‘Twobab’ stems from ‘two bob’ (or shillings), presumably a common tip when The Gambia was still part of the Empire, whereas ‘Minty Baby’ and ‘any pens’ are just pleas for treats. It’s worth having a bag or two of sweets and cheap biros to hand out at such times, although we ran out of treats well before we ran out of kids wanting them!
After 10.5 hours of hot road, and another river crossing, at Georgetown (now apparently renamed as Janjanbureh), we arrived at our evening accommodation, the Baobolong Camp, but not before Armadou managed to find us the target bird. We had stopped to scan a wetland area, bisected by the road, when he spotted an Egyptian Plover, walking along the track! Well, that was unexpected, they are not normally that far down the river. We could relax, now that the target bird was in the bag, but we were still hoping for better views at Basse, the next day.
Baobolong (or BB) camp was a bit basic, clean but with little in the way of luxury. We were glad that we had packed our own, insecticide-impregnated mosquito net and used it for safety, although the accommodation certainly sufficed for one night. The next morning we were up early for the final leg of the trip to Basse Santa Su, the capital of the Basse region.
Acting on suggestions in trip reports from other birders, we had brought with us a selection of paper pads, some packs of pens and a deflated football. We wanted to give them to a school, and asked Ebrima to suggest somewhere. He, of course, took us to his own old village school at Bansang. We were stopping near here, anyway, as Red-throated Bee-eaters were known to be at a local quarry. All Bee-eaters are worth searching out, and this was certainly a beautiful species, but first we were escorted to the school, where we handed over our pads and pens (and the football), to the Headmaster. We were treated like royalty, and had to have out photos taken with the Head and one of the students; it was all rather embarrassing but showed just how much they appreciated the supplies. Ebrima said that the schools near the coast get far more of this sort of thing from the tourists, who tend to stay in coastal regions, and so up-country schools get very little donated-that was worth knowing as we hadn’t actually thought it through.
The Gambia is a mostly muslim country and, as it happened, it was Ramadan. Both Ebrima and Armadou were muslim, and Armadou in particular was keen to keep the fast-a slightly worrying thought for the driver on a very hot trip. He refused any food or drink during daylight, even extending to medical supplies. He seemed to have some eye inflammation, that made them runny and sore. We offered eye drops from our first aid kit but he wouldn’t use them until nightfall. His eyes did seem a little better the next day, so he must have used them once it was dark, but it was another reason to be concerned during the day. A half-blind driver is not recommended! Anyhow, it being Friday, we stopped by a mosque so that Ebrima and Armadou could go to prayer. Mark and I stayed in the car, getting hotter, and were immediately surrounded by the inevitable group of children (‘Minty Baby’, ‘Twobab’, ‘Any Pens’, etc.).
Eventually we reached Basse Santa Su and a sandy patch near the river, where we found 7 further Egyptian Plovers, one of which was quite amenable for photos!
Armadou got a bucket of water from the river and proceeded to wash his precious car, being not at all interested in these special birds. My memory is that Ebrima and Armadou then disappeared for a while, as Mark and I explored a nearby sandy track, before we all started the long trek back. This time we were heading for Tendaba Safari Camp, further down towards the coast than Georgetown, for our overnight stop. Tendaba was a cut above the BB Camp in its accommodations; it even boasted its own mosquito nets! They were needed too; the staff uniforms were T-shirts bearing the legend ‘Tendaba Bush Camp- 1 million mosquitoes can’t be wrong!’, and they had a point. Lots of bug cream slathered on kept the worst of it at bay.
The next morning at Tendaba, we took a trip across the river in a pirogue, a sort of long, thin canoe-like boat. The point was to try for African Finfoot, a very secretive bird of the same family as the Sungrebe of Central and South America, which is rarely seen and thus very much prized. Two creeks (Tinku Bolon and Kisi Bolon) had occasionally recorded this species so we thought it worth a try. Unfortunately, we followed a very noisy boat full of holidaymakers across the river, so we had little expectation of success, which made it all the sweeter when we saw a female African Finfoot emerge from the overhanging vegetation and stay around the boat for at least 5 minutes (I’m very proud that I spotted it at the same time as our Tendaba guide!). This was a very special bird, very hard to see, many birders don’t see them at all. So little is known about this species that it isn’t clear whether they spend much time on land (they are always seen on water), or even how many birds there are in the wild. Typically, the dark creek was just not suitable for photography, especially in those pre-digital days, so we have no photographic record of our special prize bird.
Heading back across the river to Tendaba, we realised that the pirogue was filling with water. This did not come as a surprise to the boatman, who just pulled out an old cup and started bailing, although it was a bit worrying for us-there was a lot of water between us and the distant shore! Half-way across, he exclaimed in delight and altered course a little to come up alongside a very large, very much decayed dead fish, lovely. Tying this to the back of the boat, he pulled it into land. Apparently, a local delicacy (we didn’t try it!) is made from fish left to rot in the sun. This specimen was already half-way there!
Close to Tendaba was an airstrip, basically just a flattened area of the bush, that birders have jocularly named the ‘Tendaba Airport’ (there is even a sign!).
I’m pretty glad that the real airport, at Banjul, was in much better condition than this! It was a spot to check before hitting the road for the final leg of our journey, back to Kololi and the Senegambia hotel. We did stop at a couple of sites, Lamin Corner and Abuko nature reserve, so as to make a day of it, but I, for one, was quite glad to get back to the hotel for a good shower, a hot meal and some time away from the C45 reggae tape!
A selection of birds seen during the trip.
I wouldn’t have missed it for the world and it really was a memorable trip. We were very grateful to Ebrima for organizing it, and to Armadou for the careful driving-we got back in one piece, with some excellent birds seen. I just wish we’d had digital cameras, because the pictures we have are limited and the quality is poor. It is what it is!
Cameras: both film.
Scenery, etc., pictures scanned from prints
Bird pictures (all Mark Dennis) digitally photographed from slides