Ken’s Africa Diary Part 4

Back to Tendaba : The Final Phase

Tuesday January 12th :

It’s a sad parting of the ways this morning. While Tim and JJ are leading the main group back through Senegal to Tendaba, Paul, Kayleigh and John will stay here until the weekend, when JJ will return and take them further up the coast towards 30(05)’s wintering grounds for more adventures in the Desert Camp at Lompoul.

We say our goodbyes, and look forward to meeting up again back in the UK. With the departure of Paul, the post of bird-list recorder (‘Oracle’) has to be temporarily filled for the last two nights. Tim suggests I do it, and I accept the privilege with due humility. This also means I get to inherit Paul’s seat on the bus, and move into my new position! People call out birds as they see them on the journey, and I note them down in readiness for tonight’s roll-call.

The journey is long, bumpy, dusty and hot. We think it will take about ten hours. There are plenty of distractions though – colourful birds like Green Wood Hoopoes, a Red-necked Falcon at a loo-stop (new one for the trip), and more views, albeit from the moving bus, of Swallow-tailed Kites. Apparently, we hear, the bus is using more fuel than it should be owing to some loose bits in the exhaust system which will need attention before too long. Meanwhile we rumble on along the dusty tracks. Sitting up here near the front increases my admiration for driver Alajie and JJ. There are no road-signs (apart from the inevitable ‘Deviation 40 kms’ diversion signs), and the ‘road’ frequently splits into two or even three dusty tracks. How do they know which one to follow? Earth-moving monsters obliterate the view with their dust-clouds.  ‘It’ll be good when it’s all finished’, says someone. That’ll be in about a hundred years at this rate.

A few hours later, and the Senegal/Gambia border is in sight. Maureen and Jackie volunteer to write out all our passport details while Tim and Chris read them out, and then we wait as JJ and Tim head off to a little office. While we wait, we notice that just a few metres over the border, in Gambia, there is a proper, made up road! Hurrah! An end at last to back-jangling bumps, ruts and holes! The chaps return with our passports, and we move forwards smoothly (well, comparatively smoothly) into Gambia. The passport authorities did not want Jackie and Maureen’s neatly written lists – they insisted on making their own! Global bureaucracy is the subject of my next blog.

We are close to the ferry now, so we decide to have a late lunch there (approx. 3.00pm). As ever, the environs of the ferry are bustling and crowded, with long lines of heavy vehicles waiting to cross, their drivers often sleeping beneath their vehicles in the shade. We drive past them all, right to the front of the queue, and take our place ready to board the ferry when it comes back. The tide is wrong, and loading vehicles might be difficult, we are told. Traders once again surround the bus. Jackie spots a man selling fabric of a higher quality than usual, and before long two lengths of the deep blue cloth are purchased after the requisite ‘discussion’ about prices.

We decide to have our lunch here – the usual fare of fresh crusty bread, tinned tuna, rather squashy and black bananas from yesterday, and a strange selection of biscuits, cake and Bassett’s jelly babies (the latter supplied by Chris D). Unfortunately one of the Tuna tins does not have a ring-pull, so Tim attacks it with Jackie’s Swiss army knife, much to the amusement of a man standing by the door and trying to sell us Coca-Cola. Having tried various differently-shaped little tools on the knife, and on the point of throwing the whole contraption (tin and all) into the river, Tim makes a breakthrough and the juicy Tuna is revealed. We eat in the hot, sticky bus, crumbs and juice everywhere, but it goes down very well. We feel like real explorers, saved just on the edge of starvation.

Just as we are finished and mopping up the debris, the order comes to evacuate the bus. It has to be lighter to get onto the ferry. We walk on board, with approximately ten thousand other people, lorries, cars, bundles of luggage, babies, saucepans, two goats, a pallet of bricks, several coils of rope, and a pile of car tyres. We cram down one of the aisles on the side of the ferry, scarcely able to raise our arms. I note a Palm Nut Vulture in the trees – probably the same one we saw when we passed in the opposite direction last week. I realise the wriggling form next to my head is a baby, tightly strapped onto its mother’s back.

We are soon on the south side of the Gambia River again. Alajie skilfully gets the bus off the ferry – not an easy task with the tide like this. Soon we are on our way, refreshed, excited and not a little relieved to be safely across the river. Many thanks to JJ and Alajie for great driving, navigation, and diplomatic expertise!

A little further on, we pull off the road at a spot in a town where some men and boys are working on cars and other vehicles. As we suspected earlier, the roads in Senegal have taken their toll on Alajie’s bus, and some welding work is necessary on the nether regions of the exhaust system before we can go much further. After brief negotiations, a man is under the bus with the welding equipment. No-one tells us to get off, but we think it might be wise! As always, small boys gather round us and chatter away. They tell us their names (Bouba, Lamin and Kedda) and they write them in my note-book. They come here every day after school, they say, and learn how to mend cars. They point out their boss, and he grins back at us. They point to their school too, just up the road, and explain how they go there every day, but only in the mornings. They like colouring books to do at home. Do we have any? Sadly no, but noted for next time. By about 4.30, the bus is mended, and everyone is happy. Can you imagine getting things done that quickly back at home? ‘Well, I’ll have to book you in – a week Tuesday is the quickest I can do it. Might take a couple of days as well.’

We’ve added loads of birds for tonight’s roll-call – my debut! On one stretch we find several Chestnut-bellied Starlings – a colourful bird of the countryside and yet another one for the trip-list. Not far from the turn down to Tendaba, we have an incredible piece of luck, another of those ‘champagne moments’ ………..

JJ knows a tree on the right hand side of the road, a tree that often holds a surprise. He is quick to notice two large birds on a bare branch, and Alajie brings the bus to a quick halt on the verge. We pile out, binocs and ‘scopes ready.

Bateleurs!! Two of them, in the tree, fully visible, unconcernedly preening. Surely one of the most magnificent of the eagles – coal black in body, with the exception of a chestnut patch on the back and grey wing coverts. Legs and face bright red, practically no tail. Whole package positively brilliant! The Bateleur is another of those birds, like the Swallow-tailed Kite, that I have wanted to see for well over fifty years, so this is a very special moment. I stand and watch. One of the Bateleurs sidles up to the other and starts to preen its feathers – obviously some pair-bonding going on here. They are not in the ‘big eagle’ class, but they are dumpy and powerful, and when they fly, apparently (this pair do not) they look like some strange delta-wing aircraft, wing-tips swept back, exaggerating the tailless look. And what about that name – Bateleur – where does that come from? Old books sometimes call this bird ‘Mountebank Eagle’, mountebank meaning a travelling vendor of medicines, who entertains the crowd by juggling or tightrope walking and then sells his wares. Another writer suggests that a ‘bateleur’ is the name used for the long pole a tight-rope walker uses to keep his balance. Magical name, magical bird! I’m going to enjoy saying it at roll-call tonight!

Bateleur's Eagle. (Photo: Tim Mackrill)

Bateleur Eagles. (Photo: Tim Mackrill)

 

We move on, long journey forgotten, hunger and thirst alleviated, bus mended, spirits high. Reaching Tendaba Camp again, having lodged my luggage in Hut 16 with the help of the smiling Kaddy, I’m straight to the bar and raising my beer- bottle to the wonderful Bateleurs, not forgetting the part the ever alert JJ has played in their discovery. At the beginning of this trip I listed three target-birds (besides one of the Rutland Ospreys) that I would love to find, and now, with one day still to go, I have seen two of them. Pretty good going.

Dinner begins with a toast to absent friends. We miss them, but also envy them their extra stay up in Senegal. I don’t eat a lot this evening – I know I have an important duty to  perform in a few minutes. I shuffle my papers and make sure everything is ready. It’s a hard act to follow, but I’ll do my best Paul……

Tim calls for order and ‘roll-call’ begins. I try to invest it with the correct amount of gravitas, as the genuine ‘Oracle’ always does. The phrase ‘I’m turning the page’ brings dignity to proceedings I think. One third of the way down page two, I pronounce the magic word : ‘Bateleur’, and the tick is place in the appropriate column (Day 9). Wow, it gives me the shivers just writing it up now.

Another beer goes down amazingly well tonight, but I need to get some notes written before the memories fade. I wander off to my hut in totally the wrong direction, until calls from friends still at the bar remind me that it’s just the river down that way. I re-adjust and I’m fine – the mental satnav clicks in and I’m straight to the door of No.16.  Shrieking Bateleurs and echoing roll-calls reverberate around my head, but I’m soon under the mosquito net, and then I hear nothing more.

 

Wednesday January 13th :

Our final full day, and we’re out early on a woodland walk down a track off the main Tendaba – Banjul road. JJ leads the way as we leave the bus and go out into a recently burnt area of scrub and scattered trees. I made the mistake of wearing light-coloured trousers today, and they’re soon turning black after pushing through the ash-covered grassland. The new bird species keep coming – every tree and bush seems to hold something interesting. I reckon that our 200th species for the trip is the Chestnut-backed Sparrow Lark – the male being pointed out to me now is a really striking bird moving about in the grass. Other notable species include dazzling African Golden Orioles, a Nuthatch-like Northern Crombec deftly climbing up a tree, a male Cut-throat Finch displaying that decisive slash of red on its neck, and more giant Abyssinian Ground Hornbills strutting around in the dry grass, the males displaying their grotesque head gear to full advantage. ‘Now that’s a beak,’ someone says. Beyond them, a shape in a tree suddenly sprouts arms and legs – a large monkey called a Patas, also known as Red Monkey in these parts. Further on we encounter a boy looking after a flock of sheep. He has a donkey too, which tolerates the Yellow-billed Oxpeckers on its flanks, but flicks them off if they get too close to its ears or eyes. It is odd for us to meet Kingfishers so far away from water, but there are two species here which live in this sort of habitat  – Striped Kingfishers and Grey-headed Kingfishers – and they both prove to be very attractive and popular additions to our observations. Those who are familiar with the calls of the birds catch a new sound and go in search of an active but elusive bird giving out a long, far-carrying whistle. It’s a Brubru (a type of shrike) and we manage to see it (just) high in the tree. We pause for Hoopoes, Drongos, Canaries, Seedeaters, Queleas, Sunbirds, and many others before turning back towards the bus. Butterflies excite us too, especially one which is blue, grey and black – the photographers have fun trying to get a good shot, but we cannot name the species.

Just a few metres away from the bus, Chris D is concentrating through his ‘scope on a very distant large bird on the bare branch of a dead tree on the horizon. Even through my binoculars it looks enormous. A vulture perhaps? No, it’s not. It’s a Martial Eagle, for goodness sake! Through Chris’s ‘scope, and then through my own, I can see it clearly, its huge shape clearly outlined in the lens. The Martial Eagle is one of the most powerful birds of prey in the whole of Africa, and, even at this distance, it looks pretty formidable. Our bird does not move all the time we are watching it. Its underparts are white, contrasting with dark wings and back. It is awesome to see one – and of course it’s the third bird on my wish list. Swallow-tailed Kite, Bateleur, and now Martial Eagle! Bring on roll-call tonight!

Next we fit in a quick visit to Wurokang Lower Basic School (motto : Hard Work, Discipline, Success). JJ did an Osprey talk here for parents, teachers and pupils, and we are calling in now to introduce ourselves and say ‘Hello’. As soon as we leave the bus we are surrounded by small figures in blue, who hold our hands, tell us their names, and ask ours. Tim and JJ greet the Head and his colleagues at the door, and we present them with two copies of ‘Ozzie’s Migration’ and pose for photographs. Meanwhile the two Chris’s are enjoying an impromptu game of football with the boys – a pretty wild game it is too. Away to the side some older children are attacking the ground with machetes, shovels and picks, preparing it for some sort of sporting event soon. We leave with much waving. We wish them all well.

Back at Tendaba Camp at 12.30, we sit down on the jetty with a celebratory beer (well, how else to acknowledge a Martial Eagle?), with Ospreys passing by and Dolphins playfully breaching in the river. A Yellow-billed Stork passes over, and Jackie reports an African Hobby, which we managed to miss down here on the jetty. Lunch is as always a jolly affair, tempered by the fact that we are nearing the end of our African idyll. Afterwards, chatting with JJ, he suggests I might like to choose a wife from the five African women currently on view in the bar. I decline politely. He is joking……….isn’t he?

Our final trip takes us onto the woodland area above Tendaba Camp again, and we enjoy a last look at some familiar birds, and a few new ones too. Someone has found Bruce’s Green Pigeon, but by the time I catch up I can’t see Bruce or his pigeon. A Tawny Eagle tries hard not to be seen, but Tim spots it hiding in the foliage of a large tree. And a Grey-headed Bush-shrike – a medley of greens, greys and yellows – is an unexpected bonus. The heat is really oppressive here, even though it’s gone 6.00pm, and we rest on a low wall by one of the so-called ‘Irish Crossings’ on the road to the Camp. As the light fades, Rollers flit about pretending to be Nightjars, and we get a good view, in silhouette on a branch against the moonlit deep blue sky, of the splendid Verreaux’s Eagle Owl as it prepares for its night time activities. The hoped for Standard-winged Nightjar does not appear, but our vigil is rewarded late-on by the flickering flypast of another Long-tailed Nightjar. It’s the final curtain. We are all ready for dinner.

Has anyone seen Bruce? Or his Green Pigeon? (photo : Chris Wood)

Has anyone seen Bruce? Or his Green Pigeon? (photo : Chris Wood)

 

My second roll-call is once again attended with due reverence, and several new species, including the magnificent Martial Eagle, are added to the list. Afterwards, we decide to conduct a little survey to discover the most popular bird sightings of the whole trip. Each person is invited to submit their six favourite bird moments – excluding, of course, the finding of Osprey 32(11) in Senegal, which we assume would be top of everyone’s list. The slips of paper are collected in, calibrated and checked. ‘The results are in’ :

Unsurprisingly the birds of prey do very well, with Swallow-tailed Kite and Bateleur receiving many votes, but there is a lot of support for the Pearl-spotted Owlet, Grey-headed and Striped Kingfishers, the Ground Hornbills and the Grey-headed Bush-shrike. Cameo performances by the Black Storks (27 of them!), the ‘kettle’ of Vultures including the ‘King’ (Lappet-faced), the Woolly-necked Storks and African Spoonbills over the river, the Rufous-crowned Roller on the wire with the girl selling milk beneath – all these receive honourable mentions. And people also remember the Bearded Barbets, Grasshopper Buzzards, Fish Eagles, Brubru and Goliath Herons, and of course the impressive Martial Eagle. Our talisman for the whole trip is the Osprey, but close behind, in many people’s view, is the poise and slender beauty of the Abyssinian Roller, which we have seen on every day of our trip, but never tire of admiring.

Back in Hut 16 for my last night, I am immediately conscious that an African family has moved into the adjoining room just the other side of a flimsy partition. The man’s voice is loud and deep, the responses of his female companion(s) lighter. They seem so close it’s like being in bed with them. I don’t understand a word, but they seem to be having fun – until the man has a sneezing fit and is in danger of bursting through into my side of the hut. By 2.00am it’s quiet. All part of the rich tapestry of African life.

 

Thursday January 14th :

7.15 am : Dawn on the Gambia River. I’m sitting on the bus, awaiting departure, flicking back through my journal, re-living all the marvellous moments both here and in Senegal, since we arrived eleven days ago.

We certainly intend to make the most of our final day.

Our first stop is at a wetland area on the road to Banjul, called Bulok. A Dark Chanting Goshawk is on the telegraph pole just as we leave the bus, and very quickly we are scanning across the ditches and muddy flat area and the surrounding trees, and racking up new species for the trip one after the other. In quick succession we add African Jacana – the famous Lily Trotter – , Violet Turaco, Black-headed Heron and Yellow-throated Leaflove! It’s the first time we’ve seen habitat quite like this, which explains our joy in locating the Jacanas at last – a real wetland speciality. In addition, starlings of three species, Squacco and Purple Herons, a pair of Grey Woodpeckers, Wood and Green Sandpipers, Harrier Hawk, and Bruce’s Green Pigeon (good old Bruce) all put on good shows for us. Just as we are getting back on the bus, JJ spots a Northern Puffback, and shows it to Maureen. It’s our last new species of the trip.

Just a little way further on, we stop to deliver more books and pencils to the Head of the Wurokang School which we visited yesterday. JJ quips he that he will be back soon, making sure that the pupils have read the books and become real ‘Osprey Experts!’

Our next call is Tanji Lower Basic School, a few miles south of Banjul Airport. JJ is a regular visitor here, and we were last here two years ago when, together with generous funding from Melton Mowbray Rotary, we were able to help them install computer equipment for the children. Now we have come back to see how they are doing. As we arrive, hundreds of children are running about in the large sandy square, with buildings on all four sides. They greet us warmly, and so do their teachers. We are taken into the computer room, and the machines are switched on. Chairs are set out for us, and a group of young people come in and take seats in front of us. They are all members of ‘The Osprey Club’ !! How cool is that! An ‘Osprey Club’ here in Gambia! We are treated to a song, some short speeches of thanks to us by the Head and some of his staff, and then the children read in turn some facts about Ospreys, with applause after each one has finished. After the formal part is over, Tim ‘logs on’ to the website so that Jackie can demonstrate how the school can make use of all the resources which are on there, and then she presents the Head with some copies of her new book ‘Osprey Expert’. These cause lots of interest, and the children want to start doing the puzzles straightaway!  I only have one copy of ‘Ozzie’ left, so I give it to one of the teachers and he immediately asks a girl to read it aloud to me. She does so really fluently, and Sarah takes our picture. A very good moment.

Tanji School student reading to Ken from 'Ozzie's Migration'. (Photo: Sarah Box)

Tanji School student reading to Ken from ‘Ozzie’s
Migration’. (Photo: Sarah Box)

 

Outside in the sunshine, our whole group lines up with members of The Osprey Club for more photographs, and then we have to leave, after much hand-shaking and promises to keep in touch. JJ will of course be returning here, talking to the children and hopefully taking them out sometimes to see Ospreys for themselves.

Tanji Marsh is just a short distance away, winter home of a large number of European Ospreys, including our own 5F, who has been here for several winters now. We don’t have long – we have to be at the airport at 2.00 – so we quickly consume our last picnic of crusty bread, tuna and watermelon, and then we skip down to the lagoons to see if by any remote chance 5F is at home today. Chris W’s Gambian friend Fansu has come to meet him, and he joins us in the search. Of course it’s a forlorn hope – there are plenty of Ospreys here, but not the one with the blue ring on the right leg. Tim has his shoes and socks off and is in the shallows with his ‘scope to get a better angle on one or two suspects, but time is against us, and we have to leave. The airport is still 45 minutes away. Ospreys are flying over the main Banjul road as we emerge from the marsh.  Chris will have the pleasure of finding 5F when he returns here with Fansu in February.

5F could be just behind that mangrove…………Tim gets ready (photo : Sarah Box)

5F could be just behind that mangrove…………Tim gets ready (photo : Sarah Box)

 

After heartfelt farewells to Alajie and JJ, we slump in the departure lounge and take stock. It’s been an absolutely brilliant trip, and the principal reason for that has been the wonderful camaraderie and friendship that has built up amongst us, not just amongst those here at the airport, but also the three still up in Senegal. Thank you to you, one and all –

Tim, John, Paul, Kayleigh, Jackie, Liz, Chris D, Jan, Margaret, Chris W, Maureen, Chris N, Sarah, JJ, Alajie.

11.00pm : Gatwick Ibis Hotel, UK : Room 120 : Alone in my hotel room, with a cup of tea and a ginger nut biscuit, I conduct a silent and solitary roll-call for Day 11. Five new species added.

Total for the whole trip (unofficial) : 227.

Final numbers to be confirmed after the return of the No.1 Oracle.

 

2 responses to “Ken’s Africa Diary Part 4”

  1. Christine williams

    Just woken up, on yet another sunny day here in Sydney and just time to catch up on your diary. A lovely read Ken, thank you.

  2. Mike Simmonds

    Thank you again Ken for such a comprehensive account.