We’d been to The Gambia in West Africa once before - five years ago in February 2013. We stayed at a lovely lodge within the private Makasutu Forest reserve, which is only a short drive from the airport. Other than a couple of boat trips down the Madina Bolong to the Gambia River we didn’t venture outside the immediate area. We had a good time, but looking back now after this latest trip, we realise that it was a very sanitised first experience of the country.
In January 2018 we returned for a two-week tour that started in Kotu on the coast just south of the capital Banjul. We stayed in Kotu for three days so that we could visit locations in the local area including Tanji Beach, and further south to the Allahein River on the Senegal border. We then travelled around 180 miles inland to Janjanburgh (formally known as Georgetown), stopping off en route at various sites and staying in Tendaba for four nights. It was a similar arrangement on the way back.
Western Reef-Heron [Egretta gularis]
The Gambia is a small, narrow, elongated country; no more than a sliver of land that extends east from the Atlantic coast, split down the middle by the mighty Gambia River and landlocked on all sides by its close neighbour Senegal. Shortly after achieving independence in 1965, the country considered merging with Senegal to form a single nation, which was going to be called Senegambia but, despite subsequently signing a 'treaty of confederation', the pact didn’t last. The country had previously been part of the British Empire since 1765 and later a British Crown Colony known as British Gambia. In February 1965 it became a constitutional monarchy within the Commonwealth until April 1970 when it was re-established as a self-governing republic. The country left the Commonwealth in 2013. Its borders were defined in 1889 following an agreement between the British and French, the then governing powers in the region, and although it took a further fifteen years to finalise the exact boundaries, they have remained in place. The country’s official name became the Republic of the Gambia and later, for a short time just before the current president was elected, The Islamic Republic of the Gambia. It is now formally back to its original name, but is usually shortened to The Gambia. It is one of only two countries in the world that can officially use the word 'The' as part of its short name, the other being The Bahamas.
Slender-billed Gull [Chroicocephalus genei]
Our journey kept us south of the Gambia River, only crossing to the north bank on a couple of occasions, either when out on boat trips or when we took the short ferry crossing to visit a bee-eater colony at Wassu in the northern Niani district. Given the geography, I was rather surprised to learn that there are no bridges across the river, which means that if you need to cross from one side to the other you have to take a ferry, but there are only three along the full length so a degree of patience is necessary as, not surprisingly, they can get very busy. The Gambia is an over-populated, poor country whose economy is almost entirely dominated by agriculture, fishing and, more recently, tourism. There seems to be little investment in infrastructure. In fact the main road from the coast through to Soma and beyond has only been completed in recent years, so perhaps it's no surprise that the country is still relying on ferries to cross the river.
When you travel inland as a tourist you have to accept that there are very few places to stay. The mid-way stopping point between the coast and Janjanburgh is Tendaba. Every tourist who takes this route - which will invariably be birders or photographers - will stop at Tendaba for a few days. And everybody will stay at the one and only lodge. There’s no choice. The situation at Janjanburg is much the same, although there you will find two or possibly three establishments which are regarded as lodges. The accommodation at these inland locations is extremely basic. There are very few facilities. It’s a totally different experience from staying in one of the coastal hotels and a shock to the system if you haven’t been pre-warned! Be prepared for cold, often intermittent water, poor plumbing, rooms with nothing more than a thin mattress on a concrete base and equipped with little or no furniture or anywhere to hang clothes. For some unfathomable reason, there is no use of solar power so any electricity is via a generator that may only be switched on once it’s dark. Even when power should be available it’s unreliable. We even experienced this at the airport on the way home when the power in the terminal went off briefly on no less than three occasions during the two hours we were there. The food varies from poor to pretty good depending on where you stay. Beer, a few soft drinks and water are readily available, but you’ll be lucky to get a glass of wine.
Tendaba Pier, Gambia River (note the use of a wheelbarrow as a pushchair!)
We were with a small group of eight plus the tour leader and two local bird guides. Without doubt it was the most sensible and practical way to do a trip of this nature. We have no regrets in that respect, even though there were many occasions when we felt we were on a bird-watching trip rather than a designated photography tour, although on reflection that was inevitable as you can’t always expect to have birds close to hand. The guides certainly knew the areas that we visited very well and were excellent in finding birds that we would never have seen without their local knowledge and expert help.
Purely from a photography point of view, I would say the trip was a success. However, apart from the morning on Tanji Beach photographing gulls and terns and the two boat trips we had in the Bao Bolong Wetlands, all of the other photos were hard-earned. I knew that rollers could prove difficult, but thought that kingfishers and bee-eaters would be easier than they were. This is why I was pleased that the trip was a full two weeks' duration, because you needed that time to maximise your opportunities. The associated ‘photo gallery’ provides an insight into what we were able to see and photograph - statistically I managed to get usable shots of no less than 126 species of which 39 were new entries for my ‘world bird list’. Whilst some of these photos were obviously better than others, I was very pleased to add species such as the elusive African Finfoot and Greater Painted-snipe, and the rarely encountered Shining-blue Kingfisher.
Abyssinian Roller [Coracias abyssinicus]
But it was the country and the accommodation that unfortunately let it down. Having visited Africa a number of times we’re very aware that life for the locals is very different from what we enjoy in the UK. Without doubt the Gambian people are pleasant and welcoming and, of course, many work hard to improve their lifestyle, but when you travel around the country you get a distinct feeling that the majority of the population, particularly the men, are lazy. When you drive through a town you’ll often see enterprising women trying to sell anything they can at the roadside, but the men just seem to be sitting around talking rather than putting their time to better use. It wouldn’t take much effort to improve some of the conditions in which they live. The country has a rapidly expanding population with a deepening divide between the well-off and the poor. Most people live in extremely basic ‘houses’ with no running water and, consequently, I feel that their standard of living and somewhat uncaring attitude is reflected in what the tourist lodges provide for guest accommodation. I commented on that earlier so won’t elaborate further, but it really is a great shame as the country definitely has some potential for expanding its inland tourist industry.
Western Red-billed Hornbills [Tokus kempi]
Another very noticeable thing you simply cannot get away from the more and more you travel around is the rubbish. There appears to be no facilities for either collection or dumping and, therefore, most areas you visit are litter-strewn. It is not pleasant. We even visited one well-known bird site where the local hospital frequently dumped their waste which consisted of all manner of unsavoury objects including syringes! And, of course, much of this litter is both dirty and smelly, and extremely unpleasant. Who wants to walk round an area like that? Hopefully the new president Adama Barrow who finally replaced longtime leader Yahya Jammeh at the beginning of 2017 will do something to combat the problem, but with the rubbish being so widespread I see very little chance that conditions will improve in the foreseeable future. The country needs to invest in its infrastructure and tourist industry, which in turn will help to bring more money in.
A further point to note is that the country is hot, dry and dusty. Even if you've experienced the East African bush in the dry season it cannot prepare you for what you’ll encounter in the Gambia once you’re off the main road. You no sooner blow the dust off your camera than it’s settled again. Everything ends up filthy, which is why at the end of a long day out you’ll want to clean your camera and lenses, and have a shower - water permitting! Many of the roads are no more that dirt tracks and even when you’re on a proper tarmac surface the roadside is just dry earth and dust so the air is almost permanently affected.
With the limited area and the ever-growing population that has to live off the land there is considerable pressure on natural resources. Wildlife has suffered with many mammal species becoming extinct. After decades of decline the situation has now been recognised with a plan to establish a few protected areas. The first of these was the Abuko Nature Reserve, established in 1968. The Gambia now has a 'Department of Parks and Wildlife' to manage these areas and to try to promote public awareness of the fact that the country’s wildlife needs to be protected for survival and to ensure that the birding tourists continue to visit.
Red-throated Bee-eater [Merops bulocki]
African Jacana [Actophilornis africanus]
During our two-week adventure we visited around twenty-two different locations, all of which are known and listed bird sites, but only three of them were in a designated protected area. A couple of the other locations such as the Dalaba Wetlands were in open country, but all the rest were quite close to where people were living. It was these areas around the outskirts of the villages where you particularly noticed accumulated rubbish and where you would often find cows, goats and vultures picking through the contents, as well as bare-footed children playing amongst it!
For personal reference and for general interest, I’ve carefully keyworded and captioned every photo I took with both the name of the site and the district in which the photo was located. The main sites were Kotu Creek and Ricefields, Abuko Wildlife Reserve, Brufut Woods, Kartong Wetlands, Allahein River, Tanji Beach, Pirang Bonto Forest, Kanpanti Rice Fields, Bao Bolong Wetlands, Dalaba Wetlands, Jahali Rice Fields, Boraba Quarry and Forest, Bansang Quarry, Wassu and the Gambia River at Janjanburgh.
White-faced Whistling-Ducks [Dendrocygna viduata]
Footnote : I’m conscious that this is the most negative destination write-up that I’ve written to date. It was not my intention, but I write as I find and try to give a balanced view. I think it would be wrong, and somewhat misleading, if I glossed over the not-so-pleasant experiences of the places we visit. But, at the same time, I certainly don’t want this report to put anybody off going to inland Gambia. It’s just a case of being aware - 'forewarned is forearmed' as they say. And, of course, one has to remember that a trip of this nature is primarily for the photography and/or birdwatching rather than being a holiday, so perhaps some discomfort goes with the territory - 'no pain, no gain’. It’s how much discomfort you’re personally prepared to accept, which I guess is also determined by whether you travel on your own or as a couple. I noticed this on our trip when all the ‘single’ people were far more accepting of the conditions regarding the accommodation than we were, so perhaps I would have felt the same if Tris hadn’t been with me. But, that’s not the way we operate, so in future we’ll be asking a few more questions before we commit to another group adventure into unknown territory. All we want is a clean room, a decent bed, somewhere to unpack and hang clothes, and a functional shower and toilet. I really don’t think that’s too much to ask!