Whilst my updates from Africa have reached an end, there is more to come about our adventures in the shape of Ken’s Diary! Education Officer and volunteer Ken Davies was one of the lucky ten who accompanied us to Africa this year. Below is part one of four detailing his experiences of our trip.
An African Journal, Part 1 : The Gambia and Senegal, January 2016.
Thursday January 14th :
7.15am : Dawn on the Gambia River, Tendaba Camp. I am alone on the wooden seats at the end of the creaking jetty, narrow fishing boats moored alongside. We leave in fifteen minutes. Having breakfasted on eggs, cheese and bread, I have brought my last coffee down here for one final lingering look. Light is just beginning to reveal the distant, mangrove-clad bank of this vast river, and already I can make out tiny white dots amid the greenery – herons, egrets, pelicans. In the mid-distance, playfully rolling and arcing in the river’s central flow, two or three dolphins ripple the water, while closer to me two Ospreys beat steadily up and down, heads downwards and seeking their first fish of the day. We knew we would not encounter too many Ospreys this far up-river, but these two have been about nearly every day. Relaxing for a moment, I sense a black and white shape very close, and a Pied Kingfisher has landed on the sharp prow of one of the boats, dagger-bill angled downwards – he too intent on his work. This final early morning riverscape will stay in my memory.
I walk back up the jetty and return my coffee cup, with thanks to the ever-smiling people who have provided for us so well. Back at my sleeping lodge (No.16), I find a young Gambian waiting to carry my luggage to the bus for me. She is called Kaddy. I met her earlier when we first arrived, and from our hesitant, halting conversations I learned that she is nineteen and training to join the Gambian Police Force. I hastily throw the last few things into the case, which she takes from me. It is apparently something the girls of the village do, as I see many others carrying cases for my fellow guests. At the bus, I rather awkwardly and with some embarrassment push a few Gambian notes into her hand, and she thanks me with a smile. I then remember I have a copy of our little book ‘Ozzie’s Migration’ in my bag, so offer her that as well. Maybe she could read it to her little brothers and sisters, if she has any. Once on the bus, I look back to see other girls gathered round her, looking at the book together, and having their photographs taken. A good moment.
As the bus trundles up the dusty track and out of Tendaba, we are all strangely quiet. Perhaps, like me, everyone is beginning to realise that we are near the end of our adventure, and that this time tomorrow, after a long flight home, we will be back in England. I flick back through the pages of my dusty, sandy, at times barely legible hand-written journal, and as we turn on to the main Banjul road, I settle in my seat and re-live some of the thrills and spectacles of the last eleven days…….
Monday January 4th :
Our evening arrival at Tendaba Camp is accompanied by excited chatter and laughter amongst the young women who have gathered to help unload the suit-cases and rucksacks from the rack on the roof of the bus. I see mine come down. A very slight young girl lifts it, but immediately rejects it in favour of a lighter one, and one of her older companions takes it instead. I follow to my sleeping quarters (Hut No. 43). There is little time for unpacking, as dinner is served almost immediately, accompanied by a cooling bottle of beer from ‘The Gambia’s Very Own Brewery’, with its colourful label featuring the elusive Woodland Kingfisher. Afterwards I sleep lightly but pleasantly, enshrouded in mosquito-proof (hopefully) netting, accompanied by occasional scuttling, scraping and scratching sounds which are all part of the African night-time experience. At one point I shine my torch through the netting to reveal a green, grasshopper-like creature clinging to the wall, but in the morning it’s gone.
Tuesday January 5th :
By 8.00am we are crossing the wide Gambia River in a long wooden fishing boat, making for the creeks and lagoons on the opposite bank, where countless birds of all shapes and sizes live and breed in the mangroves. At first it is hard to know where to look as John, Tim, JJ and Chris call out the names of birds they can see, but I soon learn to look long and hard at the ones I can spot, so that I’ll know them myself next time. I love the Kingfishers with exotic names (Malachite and Blue-breasted), the Rollers (Broad-billed, Blue-bellied, Abyssinian) and the amazing Bee-eaters (Swallow-tailed, Blue-cheeked, White-throated). We move quietly through mud-lined creeks where African Darters, Senegal Thick-knees, mythical-looking Hamerkops and the occasional huge Goliath Heron regard us with mild curiosity. Suddenly we are in the middle of a Cormorant metropolis, where hundreds of pairs of these white-breasted birds (sub-species lucidus) have recently set up home. The pungent scent of guano, the sounds of Cormorant domestic life, the sights of gleaming white breasts, coal black backs and deep green mangroves, the ripple of cool water – a truly multi-sensory experience. Two rare species of Night Heron are shown to us in quick succession – White-backed and Black-crowned – and our boatman even skilfully manoeuvres the boat close in to the side to let us catch a glimpse of these secretive creatures at their nest. Another cry goes up : ‘Crocodile!’ And there it is on the bank, immobile, jaws agape, glassy eye all-seeing. We glide up silently. Still it does not move. Suddenly, it has had enough of us, and with one sweep of its great tail, and a snap of the jaws, it is in the water and gone. We see four more of various sizes during the morning. All the while, birds familiar and unfamiliar surround us. The commonest wader by far is the Whimbrel, singly and in groups, migrants from Northern Europe, probing and resting on the muddy banks on either side. House Martins in January provide a warming, homely sight. Hopefully they’ll be back in my village street in three or four months. No time for dreaming! A large brown mammal ahead of us puts me in mind of an Otter, but no – it’s a Marsh Mongoose, running along the bank and then swimming across the creek. And so we carry on, criss-crossing this maze of watery wilderness, until we see the wide river ahead of us again. One more thrill before we set out to cross to our camp. The final tree on the left, a massive bare baobab, holds on its top-most tip that majestic bird which for many is the most iconic symbol of Africa : the African Fish Eagle. Proud, erect, surveying his domain with unerring eye, he watches us pass beneath him. Everyone turns and keeps him in view as long as possible. I cherish the hope that he will throw his head back and utter that shrill and evocative cry so wonderfully described in many travellers’ tales, but he remains silent as we slide into the now choppy waters of the river and begin our homeward crossing. Half way across, the waves start to enter the boat and give us a mild soaking. Fortunately the person in front of me (Jackie) is sheltering me from most of it, so I still have my equipment dry as yet another ‘Look up!’ shout goes up, and there, perfectly outlined against the blue sky, a flock of 45 Woolly-necked Storks fly in perfect formation over us, while a smaller flock of African Spoonbills cross with them, flying in the opposite direction. As we lurch up and down, and waves continue to wash over us, that is certainly a ‘champagne moment.’ No champagne perhaps, but certainly worth another Banjul beer on our return to camp. As the water calms and we approach the jetty, I look back. The Eagle is still there in his baobab, a mere white and brown dot now, but seared forever in my avian memory.
After the briefest of rests (and that beer in honour of the Eagle), we are out again at 11.30am, this time following John on a late morning walk through the busy village and up the track, past woodland and scrub, acacias and baobab. We encounter crowds of small children, all dressed in kindergarten pink. They run amongst us, grabbing our legs, our tripods, anything they can reach. Their mothers and elder sisters regard us from a distance. There are no men around. Either working or resting, we are told. Gradually we leave the village behind, and become immersed in the colourful bird life all around us. John calls out name after name, and ‘scopes are set up to allow us to admire these stunning creatures one after the other. A technicoloured Bearded Barbet poses long enough for everyone to enjoy its splendour. Red-rumped and Red-chested Swallows flit around us, while the larger Mottled Spinetails (a sort of Swift) are a definite new and interesting species for me. A commotion in a tree behind some huts alerts John, and he has soon found a resting Dark Chanting Goshawk being mobbed by a smaller falcon, a dashing Shikra. The Shikra whirls around and around, attempting to dislodge the Goshawk, but its assaults are largely ignored, and both are still there as we retrace our steps and head back to Camp for lunch, noting as we go several more new species, including Glossy Starlings, Sunbirds and Weavers.
Lunch is taken in the shade of the bar, overlooking the river. We have rest time now, but will be going out again at 4.00, for a longer walk through woodland and grassland, taking in a drying-out lake, and ending at dusk back on the road, the well-known haunt of owls and nightjars. Meanwhile, time for a short siesta back in my hut……………
4.00pm already, and we leave the road on foot to follow a path through the woods and scrub. Our friend and guide JJ has brought one of his young protegees from the village, and she is soon looking down our telescopes and having close views of the birds that surround her every day. Our first quarry is an elusive bird sitting high up in the foliage of a tree – Bruce’s Green Pigeon – a startling green and yellow pigeon on the page of the field guide, but remarkably difficult to see when surrounded by green and yellow leaves! We move on. At a point not much further on, I am waxing lyrical about three birds visible in my telescope lens at the same time – Senegal Parrot, Abyssinian Roller and African Grey Hornbill – a riot of colours, a pure vision of vibrant African birdlife. I am in my own zone, totally enthralled, talking in hushed tones about the wonder of it all. I suddenly look up from my ‘scope, and realise I am totally alone. Everyone has moved on, and there is not a soul in sight. They can’t have gone far. It was only a moment ago when someone was here……wasn’t it? I listen….but my defective hearing just picks up the gentle swish of the breeze in the head-high dried grass and tree stems. I look up. Two Hooded Vultures are circling high above me. Moving along the track, I notice the path divides into three just before entering the high-stemmed grass. Which way did the group go? I listen, but there is not a sound. I do not panic. Best to wait…….someone will come back for me any moment…… won’t they? Is it my imagination, or are the vultures lower? I check my water bottle – still half full. I attempt a call. ‘Hello’. No reply. Louder. Still no reply. I think of taking my shirt off and tying it to a branch to wave above the grass…………..but suddenly a familiar voice as Tim emerges from the foliage and asks if I am OK. ‘Oh yes, fine,’ I say casually, ‘ thanks for coming back for me.’ I resolve to stay up with the group from now on.
We move on, stopping frequently to watch an incredibly varied array of birds of many different species. For me the birds of prey are the most exciting. A Long-crested Eagle sits in a tree, the wind gently catching its long crest and blowing it back and forth. A Grasshopper Buzzard moves from tree to tree, revealing its rufous, black-tipped wings. At last it stays still on its perch, and John decides to stalk it for some close-up photographs. Meanwhile a Green Turaco flies past us, the prettily named Bush Petronia (actually rather dull looking) and several other small birds entertain us as we wait in the shade of an acacia tree. We move off again towards a rapidly drying out lake, where we can see Black-winged Stilts, Sacred Ibises, Slender-billed Gulls, a single Purple Heron, Wattled Plovers, Greenshanks and many more familiar waders of several species. We wait under another tree for everyone to catch up, and soon we are seeing warblers, woodpeckers and even a Lesser Honeyguide (another new species for me). Local people used to follow the calls of the Honeyguide, as it could lead them to the honeycombs in bees’ nests. As we skirt the lake, Yellow-billed Storks fly high over distant trees, whilst Kites and Snake Eagles seek their evening meals all around. The bus has moved to meet us, and people already on it tell us they have just seen a Warthog! I’m glad we avoided that in the fading light. We move back towards camp and stop in the road in the gathering gloom to wait for owls and nightjars. JJ skilfully mimics the call of the Pearl-spotted Owlet, and gets an immediate response from the real bird! It’s too dark to see now, but the Owlet calls and calls. A flitting shape is recorded as a Long-tailed Nightjar, and someone glimpses a huge Verreaux’s Eagle Owl as it flies across the road. It is the last bird of an enthralling day.
Back at camp, it’s dinner, roll-call, and bed. Tomorrow is another day, another country. Tomorrow we’re off to Senegal!