A typical colourful lifeguard tower.
A typical colourful lifeguard tower.

Beach, bush and birds

By Myrtle Ryan Time of article published Jun 23, 2018

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Tendaba Camp, on the southern shore of the Gambia River, was the first inland hotel in the country. Small, old-fashioned rondavels doze sleepily in the neatly swept grounds, beneath an avenue of trees. Its glory days are set back decades ago, yet it has a certain rundown charm - a sad place, which time and tourists have passed by leaving it with just its memories. Wrong!

As the day drew towards its end, buses, jeeps and cars, arrived, disgorging excited tourists raving about the birdlife they had encountered during the day. It is, in fact, one of the most popular spots in the country for birdwatchers, and the twitchers’ feathers were all a-ruffle.

By dinner time, the large dining room (filled with long tables similar to those in a Harry Potter movie at meal time) pulsated with the babble of voices.

The manager clapped his hands, welcomed the guests in a booming voice, and invited them to partake of the food. He then indicated who should be first at the banquet table. Thankfully, it was our group - we feared the food might run out and made a rapid dive. There was no danger of that, though.

Gambia once was administered by the British, so it is an English-speaking enclave among the surrounding French countries. Consequently, the food was hearty and tasty none of this French minimalism on the platter.

Tendaba is located opposite the Bao Bolong Wetland Reserve, one of the premier birdwatching sites in Africa. A boat trip on a motorised pirogue into the mangroves was special. Oysters grow on the roots of the mangrove trees, while birds preening in the treetops added to the scenery.

To my mind, though, nothing could ever rival a trip up the Niger River in Mali some years ago, where we parked off in a vast lagoon overnight. At sunset the sky turned black with thousands of birds flying in formation towards their roosting spots. Rather as Africa must have been at the beginning of time.

That said, Bao Bolong is home to more than 300 species of birds, including vultures, harrier eagles, sandgrouse, hawks, falcons and kingfishers.

There is something timeless and restful about drifting up a river. Another popular activity is to take a safari truck into the dry deciduous forests of Kiang West National Park.

Hailing from South Africa, with our reserves teeming with wildlife, I decided to give this a miss and instead went walking along the elevated banks of some rice paddies, watching the locals at work.

There are many international agricultural NGOs working in Gambia, in conjunction with the government, and in this area they were specialising in limiting flood damage when the Gambia River bursts its banks, by installing a network of raised walls and water ducts.

The southern bank of the river is heavily populated, but cross on the ferry to the north bank and it’s a different story.

Isolated kraals, long grass, and long-horned cattle in mottled shades abound. It’s much more reminiscent of what one expects of Africa.

With some nostalgia the locals told us a bridge was to be built here and the ferry would move further upstream. Apparently, one by one the ferries is being replaced by bridges.

As a consequence, a way of life of locals plying their trade to those coming off the ferry is fast disappearing.

British tourists often make their escape from the English winter to some of the Gambia’s coastal resorts. Our group - hardened campers - enjoyed a night of luxury, but to a man said: “Give us the bush any day.”

What was fascinating here, though, was to watch baby crabs scuttling across the mud beneath tiny mangrove shoots. Following them were dozens of small hooded vultures, snapping up tasty morsels. There were so many thousands of crabs they did not even make a dent in the population.

Apparently, the upper reaches of the Gambia River are the most evocative, as it twists and winds its way through the bush. Here, they say, one can really experience one of Africa’s last untamed riversand even spot hippos.

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