Don’t miss out on The Gambia – part 1
It would be a pity to deny yourself an amazing holiday amongst the unique wildlife and friendly people of the West African country of Gambia simply because of an unfounded fear of Ebola, says Sheena Harvey. In this first part she visits the reserves closest to the Gambian coastline
We were walking in the early morning along a red dust track through the Makasutu Forest with renowned British ornithologist Clive Barlow, who has lived in the Gambia for around 30 years. Suddenly, there was the distant sound of a Nightingale, singing somewhere off the track to our left.Clive plunged into the dense, head-height, dry and scratchy wild mint plants, skirting round acacia trees and the thornier bushes to eventually reach a slight clearing. There, he could get out his microphone and recording equipment and capture the melody. We occupied ourselves with keeping the local village dog called Humphrey, who had decided to accompany us on the walk, from spoiling the recording with his panting. Clive, meanwhile, caught the sound of one of the first Nightingales to arrive in that part of the country this year.
There is a question of why male Nightingales sing in Gambia, albeit a shorter, less complicated song than can be heard in our woodlands during their mating season. They are not breeding and have no need to establish territories, so why advertise their presence at all? This is the reason Clive has been monitoring their arrival and recording their song for a while, to add to the sum of knowledge of the birds so far and work out why they do what they do.
Nightingale quest over, we returned to our peaceful accommodation at Mandina Eco-lodges for breakfast. The lodges are situated deep in the mangroves fringing a tributary of the River Gambia and so mealtimes are enhanced by watching Village Weaver birds building their curious round basket nests suspended from branches overhanging the swimming pool, or Pied Kingfishers, Red-rumped and Pied-winged Swallows swooping and dipping into the pool for a drink of fresh water, the river being saline.
Stalking through the mangrove roots just over the low boundary walls are Western Reef Egrets, sending Fiddler Crabs and Mud Skippers scurrying from under their large yellow feet. Overhead, in the rafters of the palm leaf roofs, Epauletted Fruit Bats roost.
There are no crocodiles or Hippos in this part of the river system but there are tales of Manatees. Lawrence and Linda, our hosts, have never seen one but they have apparently been heard snoring, like the lowing of a cow, under the floating lodges.
Where the birds go
Gambia in West Africa is the place to come if you have ever wondered where our summer birds go in the winter time. A trip there between November and March will solve a lot of the mystery. Nightingales, Ospreys and Cuckoos are just some of the birds that nest in the UK and make their way to Gambia for their dry season.
Altogether, the country boasts more than 560 species of birds, and much of its tourism caters very well for the many European bird and wildlife watchers who normally flock - pardon the pun - to that part of Africa in the winter months. This is when the bird life is at its most prolific and the habitats for other wild animals easy to access.Sadly, the current scares over the Ebola virus have badly affected the numbers of visitors to many African countries which actually have no problems of that nature. In fact, the distance between the Gambia and the very nearest report of anyone suspected of having Ebola is in excess of 300 miles, or roughly the distance from London to Paris, a distance that would never deter us from enjoying a wonderful wildlife experience in Europe.
Our specialist bird and wildlife guide for the week was Yankuba Jammeh of the Gambia Birdwatchers’ Association. His organisation’s head office is located next to the Kotu Bridge near many of the beach-front hotels.
There you can hire a guide for anything from a three-hour walk around the creeks and rice fields around the bridge, to a day-trip with transport and driver to one of the many community-run wildlife reserves. Or, you can book up for a multi-day journey with overnight stays up country to take in sites such as the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project at the River Gambia National Park.
There are also information boards with bird highlights of the week, and maps showing the area and the wildlife reserves. There is a tower hide at the end of the bridge from which you can look over the mud flats and mangroves for good views of wading birds such as Saw-winged, Ring-necked and Grey Plovers, Whimbrels, Red Shanks and several types of heron.
As we watched, Fiddler Crabs invaded the mud in their thousands and a Pied Kingfisher hovered over the water right in front of us before making its dart-like vertical plunge to scoop up a tiny silver fish.
Yankuba first introduced us to Marakissa Woods, a bit of a hotspot for birds of all kinds he told us, which is under the guardianship of two village communities. At Marakissa there’s a creek with camps run by members of the community which offer basic but comfortable rooms with shower and toilet for around £9 a night b&b.
At the River Camp they have created gardens specifically to attract the birds, with pools of fresh water and feeding stations offering fruit, sugar water and grain. They even have a pond stocked with young Tilapia fish that helps to tide the local kingfishers over dry spells when the creek levels drop.
The large Baobab tree outside the communal areas at the camp was attracting dozens of Hooded Vultures to roost when we visited, and in the creek a crocodile lurked, only coming into view between two dugout canoes when it was quiet enough. They are quite timid creatures according to Adama, who runs the camp.
Further down the creek the owner of the simple and traditional Kingfisher Lodge took us to see an African Scops Owl sheltering from the heat far up in the crown of a tree.
Walking around the extensive woods on the other side of the main road we encountered a huge variety of birds, from larger species such as African Gray and Red-billed Hornbills, African Harrier Hawks and a Violet Turaco, to tiny, brilliantly coloured ones such as the Northern Red Bishop, clinging to a Cous cous millet spike, and the Beautiful Sunbird sipping nectar from a flower-laden bush.
Abuko Nature Reserve
The following morning, along the rough mud road between Makasutu and the main, paved highway there was a partial roadblock. This was caused by a troop of baboons of all ages sitting on the track. As we approached they passed on into the forest, arguing, gambolling along and climbing trees, pausing only to groom and stare at our vehicle.
At a rough count, more than 180 crossed the path with the big alpha male marshalling the younger males and keeping an eye on his many females and infants.A short drive later we were inside the Abuko Nature Reserve, the first protected wildlife area in the Gambia, which was declared a nature reserve in 1968. Over the years it has been added to until it has reached its present size of 106 hectares, around which there is a 300m buffer zone.
The dense evergreen forest of Abuko is one of the few remaining examples of intact gallery forest in the country, a type of habitat that requires much surface water. The River Lamin flowing through it provides that water.
Here the rare Rhun Palm grows well, good for building materials, although permission is now required to harvest it. Strangler figs weave a deadly fretwork around their host trees and beside the sandy paths large termite colonies rise like miniature jagged mountain peaks.
The forest is home to Western Red Colobus, Patas and Vervet Monkeys and the Senegal Bushbaby. They are well camouflaged in the greenery, vines and trailing aerial roots, but their cat-like calls and chatter give them away.
Gambian Red-legged Sun Squirrels run up and down the thick trunks of mature Mahogany and Iroko trees, and Nile Crocodiles and monitor lizards lurk amongst the water lilies and hyacinths in the large, cool pool formed by the River Lamin and which was used historically for water collection.
The pool is a great spot for kingfishers and in just half an hour we saw three of Gambia’s nine species – Giant, Woodland and African Pygmy. A young African Harrier Hawk was preening in the fork of a tree and a Palm Nut Vulture perched nearby.
If kingfishers are a favourite, a lunch stop at a restaurant called Calypso at Cape Point is a must. The lagoon that has formed behind sand banks at the seaside has extensive reedbeds and sandbanks around which crocodiles hide. While we ate we watched six pairs of Pied Kingfishers swooping down to benefit from the plentiful fish stocks in the lagoon.
A Purple Heron crept on its long legs along the grassy margins while several pairs of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters buzzed by. A tiny Malachite Kingfisher, the closest in appearance to our own species of kingfisher, perched on a slender reed close to the surface of the water, not far from the motionless knobbly head of an almost submerged croc.
A tree-top viewing platform next to the main building is designed to give great views over the reedbed as well as a place for refreshments.
Tanji fish market and Bird Reserve
As the sun began to go down we made our way to the seaside at Tanji where the day’s brightly painted fishing boats were bringing the catch home. A huge crowd had gathered at the water’s edge waiting for the fish to arrive, scooped from the bottom of the boats into buckets and bowls that are balanced on the heads of helpers who wade through the surf to the shore.
A colourful organised chaos reigned as suppliers and customers haggled over piles of shining fish. Benefitting from the fishy scraps discarded by the gutters and cleaners, are hundreds of Grey-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Pink-backed Pelicans, Sandwich and Royal Terns and Turnstones.
As we left the hubbub behind and walked along the beach to the bird reserve an Osprey flew overhead. The reserve is perfect habitat for Four-banded Sandgrouse. Our stroll through the prickly ankle-high grasses in the dune scrub inadvertently flushed several parties of sandgrouse that had previously been perfectly camouflaged. As we disturbed the vegetation we also drew out clouds of tiny Zebra White butterflies, so numerous we felt as if we had strayed into a Disney film set.
Birds were everywhere. Golden orioles, Little Bee-eaters and a pair of Bearded Barbets perched on the topmost tree branches, while a Black-shouldered Kite occupied the bare spike of a dead tree. As the light faded herons came to roost in the larger trees.Our time to explore the coastal regions of the country drawing to a close, we looked forward to our trip ‘up country’, which you can read about in Part 2 here.
Sheena travelled with The Gambia Experience on Monarch Airlines from Gatwick. Return flights start at £395pp and flights go once a week.
Accommodation was at the Mandina Eco-lodge in the heart of Makasutu Forest, 1,000 acres of pristine protected forest, savannah and mangroves. There are four floating lodges that rise and fall with the tide, jungle lodges with a spiral staircase that leads to a roof terrace, and a stilted lodge with its own day room and deck. All have four-poster beds and al fresco shower rooms.
There are many modern hotels located along the 40 miles of sandy coastline, including theKombo Beach, with its bars and restaurants, pool, fitness suite, tennis courts and spa, which is just down the road from the office of the Gambia Birdwatchers’ Association.
Lunch by the wildlife-rich lagoon can be had at Calypso Bar and Restaurant at Cape Point Beach, Bakau, Gambia
Tel: +220 99 20 201
With thanks to Ebrima Sanyang for his help with the trip.
For more information visit www.gambia.co.uk