Don't miss out on the Gambia - part 2
In the second part of her trip to the amazing West African country of The Gambia, Sheena Harvey travels up river to find chimpanzees, hippos and the biggest owl she has ever seen.
Pre-dawn on day four we were on the road “up country”, following the Gambia River further upsteam to visit some of the country’s most important wildlife conservation areas. The reason for the early start was to give ourselves time to stop along the way to do some roadside wildlife watching.
First stop was the Kampanti rice fields, green and cool in the early morning light. It’s a spot that attracts birds of prey, and almost straight away we spot a Black Kite and a Harrier Hawk perched in small trees and a Yellow-billed Kite soaring over the fields. According to our guide, Yankuba Jammeh of the Gambia Birdwatchers’ Association, you see the greatest numbers at noon, when the heat forces them to find cooler places for an hour or two. But we had a ferry to catch and places to be at noon.
Ferry ‘cross the Gambia
Our second stop was at the town of Soma for the packed breakfast that had been provided by the chef at Mandina Lodges and a sweet coffee from a little snack shop in the town’s main street.
Outside the town are some wetlands that attract a myriad of birds such as Black-winged Stilts and Pink-backed Pelicans. Our thrill of the moment was watching an Osprey plunging into the water and emerging with a large fish.The road to the ferry at Yelitenda, for the crossing from the south bank of the river to the north, was lined with dozens of lorries waiting patiently for the small number of heavy goods vehicle places on each boat. The closer we got to the ferry the more roadside stalls selling everything from iced water and fast food to sunglasses and socks appeared. The busy throng of people, cars and trucks didn’t deter the wildlife, though. A small flock of Woolly-necked Storks passed over, while Abyssinian Rollers swayed on the telegraph wires and a Striated Heron picked its way near the docking ramp in amongst a group of wandering sheep.
Crossing to the north bank provides access by road to the Bao Bolong Wetland Reserve but we were going to tackle that later by boat, so we turned east and made our way to the Kau-ur Wetland, a vast area of pools, mud banks and rice fields where a hundreds-strong Collared Pratincole flock made an impressive sight. The scrubby bushes were populated by Yellow-backed Weavers and tiny cerulean blue Red-cheeked Cordon-bleus. There were plenty of Senegal Thick-knees and Spur-winged Plovers and even a very beautiful Egyptian Plover searching for insects where the cracked earth met the shallow pools.
Further along the road we came across one of the highlights of the trip – the carcass of a cow that must have recently been the victim of a road accident, and which had attracted a crowd of more than 60 vultures performing their valuable service as carrion clearers.
Among the Hooded and White-backed vultures were also a lofty Marabou Stork and some extremely impressive Ruppell’s Griffon Vultures, massive birds with colossal wingspans which give the lie to people who regard them as ugly and repulsive. Close up and in reality they have a magnificent grace and beauty.
Our return journey involved crossing over the Gambia again at Janjangbureh, formerly Georgetown. This was a slave-gathering area in the time of the slave trade and there is a small museum at the side of the river that brings home the reality of those dark days.
Further west, at the end of a half-hour rutted road journey is the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project headquarters which was set up in 1979 to establish a refuge for Gambia’s few remaining chimpanzees. Here, the river glides round several large islands that have never been populated and so contain some of the few examples of pristine native forest left in the country.
The chimpanzees live on these islands in safe seclusion, protected by the local community and the government and studied by researchers led by primatologist Lisa Lane. They share the islands with Red Colobus, Senegal Bushbabies and Green Monkeys and many bird species, such as Squacco Herons.
Guests are welcome to stay on certain days of the week in the small tented camp set in cliffs overlooking the islands. Once a day, in the late afternoon, fruit and ground nuts in biodegradable brown paper bags are left in strategic places on the islands for the chimps. This gathers them in a natural way so that the researchers can check them over without interfering with them, and visitors can get close-up pictures.
Our boat trip round the islands led to an unexpected and exciting encounter. In the shallower water between two islands we came across a group of nine hippos. Getting to the total of nine was tricky as they were ducking and diving as they made their way across the submerged sandbank, the younger ones play-fighting and giving low, grunty roars.
Tendaba Camp and Bao Bolong
We spent a night in the basic rooms with shower and toilet at Tendaba Camp. The camp is in need of refurbishment but it is functional and accommodation in the area is limited. After a simple help-yourself breakfast we set out by small boat to explore the saltmarsh, mangrove and savanna woodland of the Bao Bolong Wetland, a RAMSAR site and an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area by the Birdlife International organisation.
It was early morning and there was total peace broken only by the bird calls all around us. The three-toned whistle of the Banded Kingfisher sounded loudly as we entered one of the creeks that wends its way through the mangroves. The tide was low and the dark muddy banks under the exposed mangrove roots were peppered with the holes of Fiddler Crabs. We inadvertently startled a Masked Mongoose at a bend in the creek, presumably in search of a crustacean breakfast. It gave us a hard stare before scurrying deeper into the shadows.
All along the creek, perched on branches above the water, were African Darters. These Cormorant-like birds with their long flexible necks plunge into the water with a great splash chasing their prey. Occasionally they bob up and swim on the surface. With their sinuous necks weaving backwards and forwards it’s easy to see why they’re known as the ‘snake bird’.
Every now and then, the mangroves gave way to vast stretches of saltmarsh covered in a green lawn of succulent plants through which every type of egret and heron you could ever wish to see prowls. There are Great, Intermediate, Little and Western Reef Egrets. Black, Black-headed, Grey, Purple, Striated, Squacco and the hugely impressive Goliath Herons.
Hiding in the mangroves at the edge of the marsh we found the huge-eyed White-backed Night Heron roosting in the gradually warming day. Great White Pelicans and Woolly-necked Storks were squadrons flying overhead.
A Great Cormorant breeding colony occupied a stretch of the creek. Hundreds of nests in various stages of production decorated the forks in the sparsely leaved and heavily limed trees. Cormorant pairs bonded or conducted noise disputes with near neighbours, almost completely ignoring a boatload of curious tourists snapping away with their cameras.
Bonto Pirang Forest
The route back towards the capital, Banjul, and our final couple of nights at Mandina Lodge led past the community-run forest of Bonto Pirang. This precious area of 65 hectares of natural woodland bounded on all sides by encroaching agriculture is one of the best places for rare forest species, explained Kawsu, the head of three wardens who look after the reserve. The upkeep of the forest comes only from the small entrance fee (around 75p) they ask of visitors and Kawsu and his men are struggling to make the area important to the community so that no more trees are felled for fuel or to extend the red sorrel and millet fields or the vegetable patches.
Kawsu had a treat to show us deep in the forest. Very well camouflaged at the top of a tall baobab tree was a bird with a body like a fluffy grey Emperor Penguin chick perched incongruously on a branch. Above the almost rectangular torso we could see through binoculars a huge round head with a face defined by black crescents, large ear tufts and big dark eyes. It was a male Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, over 65cm (2ft) tall, surveying his territory.
He was not only guarding his patch, he was also keeping an eye on the female which our guide then pointed out, sitting on a nest in the fork of a tree, with only the top of her head and her ear tufts showing.
Egrets and exit
A sunset cruise from Mandina Lodge was the final episode in our Gambia adventure. As the sun slowly lost power we glided quietly along the Makasutu section of the river watching the now-familiar African Darters and Goliath Herons coming and going from within the mangroves.
The local baboon troop was gradually settling down for the night at the tops of the mangroves, youngsters cuddling up to their parents or siblings, older males keeping a wary eye out for danger.
A Wahlberg’s Eagle and an Osprey passed by but the excitement of those birds of prey was far surpassed when we came across the first cluster of Black Kites that had come to roost by the riverside. As we searched the trees in the lowering light we saw more and more of them, until we lost count at around 200 and the boat turned towards our final call of the evening.
In a little backwater we arrived at a small island covered all over and right down into the water by multi-branched trees. The boatman shut off our engine and allowed the boat to drift into the bank opposite the island. We waited in silence, watching a few egrets that had landed in the trees.
Then the crowds began to arrive. Flight after flight of white birds swooping over the mangroves and coming to rest with much fluttering and adjustment to position on the island’s trees. Hundreds, then thousands of birds congregated on every branch. The whole island began to turn white. These egrets had long ago worked out that there was safety in great numbers, hugger-mugger on an island in the middle of a creek. It is one of the most amazing bird spectacles I had ever seen, and a fitting end to my introduction to an amazing country.
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.
Accommodation at Tendaba Camp is in very basic rooms with shower and toilet. Meals served individually at refectory tables. Boat trips to Bao Bolong Wetland from the camp pier.
There are many modern hotels located along the 40 miles of sandy coastline, including the Kombo 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.
For inofrmation on staying at the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project visit www.gambia.co.uk/chimp-rehabilitation-project
With thanks to Ebrima Sanyang for his help with the trip.
For more information visit www.gambia.co.uk