A Travellerspoint blog

Gambia

The perfect winter sun destination?

Gambia day one


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Mandina Lodge view

We’re not ones for lazing on a beach or by a pool, but during the English winter we do crave a bit of heat and sunshine. Ideally, we want somewhere completely different from home, and yet not too challenging to travel to, especially if we can’t spare the time for a lengthy break. We want time to relax, and time to explore. Hopefully we’ll find cloudless blue skies, hot sunny days tempered by fresh breezes, and temperate evenings blessed with dramatic sunsets.

Such a place, we discovered, is The Gambia.

In early 2014 we spent a week relaxing by the sea in Fajara, at the wonderful Ngala Lodge, and also managed to get out and about from there to see the local area.

We then had four nights inland at the equally wonderful (but very different) Mandina Lodges in the Makasutu Cultural Forest, among the mangroves on the banks of the River Gambia.

This series of blog entries is compiled from the reviews I wrote for Virtual Tourist after our return.

Flight to Banjul

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Leaving rainy Gatwick Airport

As (unusually for us) we had booked a package with The Gambia Experience, our flight was a charter one, flying with Monarch from London Gatwick. It was a sort of semi ‘no frills’ experience - we didn't pay for meals, but we did for drinks (even soft drinks). Service throughout, both check-in and on board, was well organised and despite limited leg room, the plane was modern and not uncomfortable.

The lunch that was served was reasonable too, with good marks for including some fresh fruit in particular (grapes, pineapple and mango).

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Landing at Banjul Airport, in bright sunshine!

We landed just a little later than scheduled and stepped off the plane into temperatures more than 20 degrees higher than at home. The sky was blue, there were palm trees and white cattle egrets - we had arrived in the tropics!

The queue for immigration was not too bad, although the luggage carousel was mobbed and someone else nearly walked off with Chris's bag! But soon our luggage had been screened and we were being greeted by The Gambia Experience rep and directed to our buses. The holiday could now begin.

If you travel with The Gambia Experience you can if preferred book a private transfer but we were happy to go in the group buses and found it to be relatively hassle-free. The main downside was that we had to wait until everyone was through customs and ready to leave, but we were given a bottle of cold water and a straw fan, and there was plenty of activity to look at outside while we waited the 15 minutes or so for everyone to board the bus.

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Waiting buses at Banjul Airport

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Roadside drinks stands near the airport

The drive to our hotel took about 30 minutes and took us through Serekunda with its markets and local shops. I was able to grab some photos in passing - children in a school playground, women and children shopping for dinner, a sponsored walk that looked more like a protest march and more snapshots of local life.

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School in Serekunda

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Shop in Serekunda

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Sponsored walk or protest march?

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Serekunda scene
~ all the above photographed from the bus

The journey passed very quickly and we didn't regret for a moment not paying the extra for the private transfer - especially when another couple arrived at the hotel shortly after us in their private taxi that had run out of fuel en route!

Ngala Lodge

Most people who come to The Gambia do so in search of sun, sea and sand – especially winter sun. For northern Europeans especially it offers a guarantee of good weather at a time when their own country is cold, dull and dark. So most hotels are located on the short stretch of Atlantic coastline that runs south from the capital, Banjul. There is something for every budget, from basic guesthouses through budget hotels to all-inclusive resorts. We wanted a bit of a treat, but don’t particularly like large hotels which can be a bit soulless and which often offer (and charge for) facilities we have no intention of using. So we were glad to discover the boutique Ngala Lodge in Fajara.

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In the grounds of Ngala Lodge

This is a quiet adults-only haven perched on the low rocky cliffs a little away from the main tourist areas but still within easy reach (by taxi or on tours) of some of the main sights. It is a tranquil place and won’t suit everyone. No children are allowed, and you don’t find any organised entertainment beyond low-key music provided by local musicians each evening. There are no pool games, beach sports or other activities. If you want to be continually busy and urged to ‘join in with the fun’, you need to go elsewhere.

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In the grounds of Ngala Lodge

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But if you want to relax, recharge the batteries and be just a little bit pampered in an understated way, this is the place! We had a wonderful week here and will choose it again for sure if we return to The Gambia.

First evening at Ngala

On this first afternoon we settled into our room. All rooms here are suites, some more luxurious and larger than others, but we had chosen one of the standard ones and were very happy with it. It was a first floor (second for US readers) corner suite, with a large private balcony, huge sitting room, bedroom with king-size four poster and good-sized bathroom with a shower. We had views through some trees towards the sea.

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The bedroom

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Balcony

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Lounge area, looking out to the balcony

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Lounge area

We’d been invited to meet with the rep from The Gambia Experience along with the other new arrivals that afternoon. As I said, we don’t normally take package holidays and weren’t planning on booking loads of tours but there was one I was keen to do, to the villages associated with Alex Haley, author of Roots, which are hard to get to independently in a single day, so we went along to sign up for that. It was also a chance to get some advice about changing money and to meet one of the resident cats, Rasta, who was to become a firm friend over the next week!

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Rasta

After the meeting we took a walk through the grounds down to the edge of the cliffs, where a path leads down to the small beach, covered at high tide. The sun was starting to sink over the rocky shore.

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Ngala Lodge sunset day one

It’s possible to book half-board at Ngala but we were keen to have the option to eat elsewhere on some evenings at least, so we’d opted for bed and breakfast. However on this first evening it made sense to have dinner here, and a delicious meal it was – preceded by a drink on the terrace outside the restaurant and followed by a night time stroll through the grounds before heading to bed, grateful that there is no time difference between the UK and The Gambia and hence no jet-lag to overcome!

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Pre-dinner drinks

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Spring rolls starter

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Butterfish carpaccio starter

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Cajun tuna

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Restaurant terrace at night

Posted by ToonSarah 08:55 Archived in Gambia Tagged planes food sunset coast hotel flight airport garden africa cats gambia street_photography Comments (16)

Settling in

Gambia day two


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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The beach at Ngala Lodge

We spent our first day in The Gambia settling into our accommodation at the beautiful Ngala Lodge, enjoying the pretty gardens, refreshing pool and the small but attractive beach.

The grounds were very nicely planted and decorated with lots of art pieces. Paths wound between the bushes leading to the restaurant, pool and down to the beach.

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Bougainvillea

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Hibiscus

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We wandered around for a while, with me taking photos of, and trying to identify, the birds, many of which were new to us. Everywhere we went in the grounds we were greeted with a smile. The staff here are well trained, and we got the impression they genuinely enjoy their work and meeting the visitors who stay here.

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Laughing Dove

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Laughing Dove

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Senegal Coucal

The pool wasn’t large, but I found it more than adequate and it was well supplied with loungers, shade umbrellas, towels etc, and surrounded by pretty bougainvillea. Since our visit they have added a cliff-top infinity pool, as well as a few more rooms, but it remains very much a boutique hotel.

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More bougainvillea

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By the pool

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After our initial explorations we spent much of the morning by the pool, so I could swim, but after a light lunch on the hotel’s restaurant terrace, we headed down to the beach.

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Tempura prawns for lunch

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Art work in the grounds

On the beach

The beach here is fairly small and is almost completely covered at high tide, but the hotel has thoughtfully built a substantial decking area at the foot of the cliffs that allows guests to sunbathe, or rest in the shade of a day bed, close to the sea at all times.

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View of the beach from the decking

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Chris relaxing on the decking
~ you can see the wooden steps that lead down here on the left

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Colourful pots on the decking

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At low tide a pretty cove is revealed, scattered with some rocks and a few little rock pools and surrounded by low red cliffs. We found this very pretty and photogenic, and spent some time today, and on later days too, trying to capture its charms on camera.

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The red cliffs

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The beach

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Reflections on the beach

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Rocks and shells

I also chased a Whimbrel around for a while, trying to get a good shot!

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Whimbrel on the beach

If you time your walk here carefully you can apparently go round the headland to the south and on to the much larger beach at Kotu, but you will probably have to return by road or on the footpath through the golf course as the beach route is only open for a short while each day. This does mean though that for most of the time the beach is private, accessible only to guests at the lodge and only occasionally visited by hassling bumsters. The latter are a Gambian hazard which we were to encounter several times on our explorations outside the hotel, but thankfully not really on the beach, although we saw a couple today.

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Bumster on the beach
~ you can also see a couple in my photo of the beach from the decking area above

The beach isn’t the best of places for swimming, as the waves can be large and unpredictable, and there’s a strong undertow. Some other guests at the hotel, who come here regularly, told us that a young lad died here a year or so back – a local who you might have thought would know the waters too well to be caught out. So I restricted myself to waist-deep splashing in the waves and used the hotel pool when I wanted to swim.

While relaxing on the decking area we could watch the fishermen from Bakau, the village to the north of the lodge, coming and going in their colourful boats, known as pirogues. The use of the French word reflects that country’s former colonialisation of the region although The Gambia itself is of course a former British colony and currently (2020) also a member of the British Commonwealth. Interestingly at the time of the visit I’m describing here it had left the Commonwealth, in October 2013, and only rejoined in February 2018.

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Fishermen seen from the beach

The Butcher's Shop

In the evening we took advantage of our decision not to book half board and rather than eat in Ngala Lodge’s restaurant, excellent though it was, we went to this recommended local one in nearby Fajara. It was a bit far to walk so the hotel kindly booked us a taxi there and back. Our driver was Habib and as we had already booked him for some tours later in the week this was a good opportunity to have a chat to him about the plans and settle on the sights we most wanted to see.

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The Butcher's Shop

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Chris in the Butcher's Shop

This is a somewhat unusual restaurant which started life as (as the name suggests) a butcher, branched out via deli meats into serving lunches, and today is a fully fledged restaurant with a very good reputation - the chef even has his own TV series! We ate at an outside table from where we could watch all the passing activity on the street – but also unfortunately suffer a little from the traffic fumes. Despite this, we really enjoyed our evening and I’m pleased to see the restaurant is still going strong, offering a take-away only service during the current pandemic of course.

I ate the fried Brie as a starter and the Moroccan chicken for my main course, both of which were very good. I was less impressed by my dessert of grilled fruits as there was a large proportion of watermelon which didn't really suit this way of serving, in my opinion. Chris liked his duck spring rolls, simple grilled chicken and the home-made ‘Italian’ ice cream he had for dessert.

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Fried Brie

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Grilled chicken

Habib arrived to pick us up not long after we had finished and paid for our meal, so we were soon back at Ngala Lodge for another comfortable night in our beautiful room.

Posted by ToonSarah 07:48 Archived in Gambia Tagged people birds food flowers restaurant beach hotel garden africa gambia Comments (14)

Roots

Gambia day three


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Slavery museum, Albreda

For anyone who has read Alex Haley's book, Roots, or seen the TV series, it's possible to take an organised ‘Roots’ tour which provides an insight into the places and people behind his story and that of thousands of others.

We had never read or seen Roots, and tend to shy away from large group tours, but I didn’t want to visit The Gambia without acknowledging, and learning more about, the history of slavery in West Africa. And with limited time this seemed as good a way as any of visiting some key sights.

The trip was expensive compared with what we would have paid had we arranged it with a local guide, but we decided it was worth the extra cost to have someone put it together for us and take care of logistics. However if we were to go to The Gambia again I would probably make the extra effort to plan any similar outings myself.

On the river

We were picked up at Ngala Lodge by a bus that already had a number of tourists on board, and stopped at one more hotel before driving to Banjul to board a boat for a two hour journey on the River Gambia. We secured seats on the top deck with excellent views of all the activity on the river as, although the sun was hot, the fresh breezes made sitting in the open bearable – a decision I was to regret later however!

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Old pleasure boat near Banjul

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Fishing on the Gambia

Albreda

After two hours on the Gambia River we arrived at our first stop, the small fishing village of Albreda on the north bank. In less happy times this was one of the embarkation points for slaves being transported to the Caribbean and Southern states plantations, and the village contains several memorials of those days.

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Welcome to Albreda - view from the jetty

Albreda was formerly a French outpost, having been given to the French by a local ruler, Niumi Mansa, in 1681 to strengthen trading ties with Europe. This gave the French a foothold in the otherwise British-owned territory in this region and led to regular skirmishes, with nearby Fort James changing hands between them several times, before settling down under British control from 1702 onwards. Albreda itself was transferred from French control to the British Empire in 1857.

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By the river in Albreda


Today the village survives on fishing and tourism, the later sustained by these memories of its dark past. Down by the river where the boats dock is a dramatic statue of a human figure, part black and part white, with broken chains hanging from its wrists and a globe for a head. On the plinth are inscribed the words, ‘Never again’.

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Slavery monument, Freedom Flagpole and cannon

Nearby are the ruins of a ‘factory’ or fortified slaving station, and the so-called Freedom Flagpole which we were told gets its name from a story that if a slave managed to escape from James Island and swim here, and to touch the pole before being caught, he would gain his freedom - but none ever did because they feared the river and never learned to swim. I am not sure how true this is ...

The cannon next to the flagpole dates from the 19th century and was used by the British to deter slaving ships from sailing further up river.

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In Albreda

From here our group was led by the local guide who had met our boat on a stroll through the village with its dusty football pitch and shady baobab trees. As we walked we were ‘serenaded’ by local children with drums, singing and some rather bizarre costumes and dancing. Every group had a bowl for tips, but we were encouraged instead to make a single donation to the village in a box outside a small council office.

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Village children

I shot some video clips of the various groups.

Slavery Museum

Our walk brought us to the slavery museum, housed in a wooden building dating from the mid 19th century, known as the Maurel Freres Building. This building was somewhat ramshackle, despite being described in a sign on the outside wall as ‘one of the best structurally preserved historical buildings in the James Island and related sites world heritage complex’. It was built by the British in the 1840s and is named for a Lebanese trader who later used it.

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Sign on the Slavery Museum

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According to the same sign, the James Island and related sites present ‘a testimony to main periods and facets of the encounter between Africa and Europe along the River Gambia, a continuum that stretched from pre-Colonial and pre-slavery times to independence.’ That could be said to be the aim of this little museum too.

We were left by our guide to walk around three rooms which tell the history of the slave trade (both in this region and more generally), describe the appalling lives of the slaves, and, more positively, celebrate the more recent achievements of black African-Americans. A number of artefacts such as manacles, chain neck-locks, and foot-locks bring the gruesome history to life, as do quotes and posters from contemporary sources. It is somewhat cramped, and the artefacts not imaginatively presented, as they might be in a more sophisticated museum, but they are all the more telling perhaps for that reason.

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Old photo

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Manacles

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Yoke

Outside the museum was a moving sculpture in a naïve style depicting a slave family – father standing and manacled to the mother kneeling at his feet with a baby on her back. There was also a replica slaver ship which we could climb inside to see the cramped conditions suffered by the slaves.

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Monument outside the Slavery Museum

Village school

Next door to the museum was the small village school which we were encouraged to visit. Although it was a Sunday, some children were inside doing colouring and happy to chat to their visitors. We made a small donation, as had been suggested, and some people in the group handed over pens, pencils etc., but were discouraged, I was pleased to note, from giving sweets.

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Pupils at the village school

We all sat for a while in a nearby sheltered area known as a bantaba, which gave us a welcome break from the hot sun. A local musician was playing the korah (a stringed instrument) here and aiming to sell CDs to the visitors although I don’t think anyone from our group bought one. Some of the other villagers had gathered here - perhaps to listen to the music, perhaps to inspect the visiting groups!

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Village woman

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Korah player

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Woman in Albreda

After a brief rest it was time to move on, walking to the next village, Juffureh.

Juffureh

Juffureh is the neighbouring village to Albreda, about a kilometre away along what appeared to me to be a wide sandy track but could equally as easily have been a dried-up river bed. Only the ‘Welcome to Juffureh’ sign gave any indication that we were entering another village.

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Entering Juffureh

And Juffureh would be just that, ‘another village’, were it not for one black American man, Alex Haley, and his search for his African ancestors. He told in his semi-fictionalised account how he traced his family back to a certain Kunta Kinte who originated from Juffureh, from where he had been captured and sold into slavery in the plantations of the American South. Haley came here to see if any of his relatives could be found. He discovered the descendants of Kunta Kinte's brother still living here in the family compound. Alex Haley himself claimed to be a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte and here he met a woman also of that generation. She has since died but other members of the family remain and take it in turns to represent the rest (‘sit for the family’, as our guide put it) when tourist groups visit. We met the daughter of that seventh generation woman who had welcomed Alex Haley, and another family member whose relationship was not explained. The women greeted visitors and posed for photos, and in return sold small booklets about the story or simply accepted a small donation for their time.

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Kinte women, Juffureh

There have been some challenges to the authenticity of Haley's account. He himself admitted that he took some details of Kunta Kinte's story from another book, and papers found after his death cast doubt on his claim that he was descended from him. But there is no denying the fact that these villages, like most others in the region, suffered terribly from the impacts of the slave trade – both on those who were taken and those left behind.

Not having read ‘Roots’, I was more interested in the general history of slavery than this one man's story. For me the more memorable encounter in Juffureh was not with the Kinte family but with the village chief, who just happened to be, at the time of our visit, a woman – still an unusual and remarkable occurrence here. She sat in the village banaba to receive visitors, welcomed us (through a translator) and spoke a little about her appreciation of the efforts we had made (truly not that considerable!) to leave our hotels for the day and travel to see something of village life. She happily posed for photos with anyone who wanted to (I myself preferred to take more candid shots of her alone as she spoke) and gave anyone who wanted it a small ‘certificate of visitation’ in return for (another) small donation. I made the donation in recognition of the photos I had taken but declined the certificate. But it was certainly an interesting experience to meet her and one of the highlights of the day out for me.

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Village chief

In addition I found that visiting Albreda and Juffureh not only gave me an up-close perspective on the impact of the slave trade on this region but also the opportunity to see a bit of life as it is lived in these rural villages (notwithstanding the fact that these villages are visited by many tourist groups). OK, we didn’t have the place to have it to ourselves, and there was a (manageable) degree of hassling, but, I concluded, why shouldn't these people cash in on the opportunities we bring their way?

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In Juffureh

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Woman in Juffureh

In Juffureh this ‘cashing in’ included a small range of items for sale beside our route (loofahs, textiles etc.), more children adorned in leaves as in Albreda, and enthusiastic demonstrations by several women pounding maize – all designed to increase the donations we made to the community, no doubt.

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Women pounding maize

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Woman pounding maize, and loofahs etc for sale

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Child in Juffureh

Kunta Kinte Island

After our visit to Albreda and Juffureh we returned to the boat to travel the short distance to Kunta Kinte Island. Formerly known as James Island (the name was changed in 2011) and prior to that St Andrew's Island, this small island in the River Gambia is home to the ruins of a fort that once belonged to colonial Britain. For many slaves, this would have been the last patch of African soil that they saw before being transported in the bowels of transatlantic slave ships to the Americas.

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Kunta Kinte Island

Prior to coming into British hands in 1661 it had been occupied by first the Portuguese and later the Dutch, among others. For the British it represented their first imperial exploit on the African continent. They renamed the island James Island and the fort Fort James after James, the Duke of York, who was to become King James II of England. The island subsequently changed hands many times, particularly between the French and British. The fort was destroyed and rebuilt several times during this period, both in these conflicts and by pirates.

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Ruined fort on Kunta Kinte Island

Today you can see the ruins of the fort and some of its outbuildings, though many of the latter, including the slave houses, have been lost due to erosion of the island. It is now apparently only about one sixth of the size it was at the time of the slave trade, although much of what has been lost was in fact artificial island that had been built up around the natural water’s edge to enable more buildings to be constructed here. Without constant maintenance it is not surprising that these reclaimed patches of land are being lost again to the river.

Our guide, Ibrahim, bemoaned the fact that his government is doing so little to protect this part of the country's history (and this despite the fact that it is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with related sites including Albreda, Juffureh and Fort Bullen). You can still see the ruins of the main fort building and can enter one of the cells where recalcitrant slaves were imprisoned, and there are still cannons in place on the crumbling bastions. But the outlying quarters where the majority of the slaves were housed are among the buildings no longer standing, so we got only a partial idea of the conditions they suffered, although my imagination, Ibrahim’s explanations and my own reading of history could fill in the rest.

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Our guide Ibrahim

Despite its gruesome history this is quite a peaceful spot. I loved the shapes made by the ancient baobab trees against a backdrop of sparkling river water and wandered off from our guide, informative though he was, to take some photos.

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The Old Landing Place

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Ruins and baobab trees

Then it was back to the boat for the two hour journey back to Banjul and from there the bus transfer back to Ngala Lodge.

That evening …

It had been a long, hot day. We had only been in the country for 24 hours and I was unaccustomed to the heat, coming straight from an English winter, so I found myself suffering a little later that evening with what I concluded was mild heat exhaustion. After our morning ride on the river, when I did sit in the sun, I had tried to stay in the shade, and I’d taken plenty of water, but clearly the damage had been already done. As a result I felt decidedly wobbly for a few hours and had to skip dinner and miss what sounded like an excellent evening’s entertainment with musicians and dancers from the local area. A lesson learned, the hard way!

Posted by ToonSarah 06:29 Archived in Gambia Tagged people children boats islands fishing history ruins fort village river museum school africa slavery gambia Comments (12)

Exploring Bakau and ‘The Strip’

Gambia days four and five


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Shopping for fruit and vegetables, Bakau

As I wrote at the end of my last entry, after our long hot excursion to the villages associated with Alex Haley’s book ‘Roots’, I was a little heat-struck and wobbly. So we decided to take it easy this morning and enjoy relaxing at Ngala Lodge. Inevitably though after a few hours we got itchy feet and decided to walk into nearby Bakau to explore.

Bakau

The town of Bakau lies on the coast not far from the capital Banjul. It has grown up around a fishing village and today has a mix of basic traditional housing; fancier properties occupied by more affluent business leaders, politicians and ex-pats; and hotels.

Following the road along the coast we passed all of the above, plus local food shops and those targeting tourists. I found the colourful clothing of the women especially attractive so I took lots of candid shots of them as well as quite a few of the men too. This was our first visit to this part of Africa and we found almost everything fascinating!

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Fruit stand in Bakau

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In Bakau

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Shop in Bakau

For the most part our cameras were tolerated – people here are used to tourists. Too much so, in some cases! We had been warned at our welcome meeting about the activities of the so-called Gambian bumster, and on our walk through the town we encountered several, including one particularly persistent young man. Indeed it was pretty much inevitable that we would do so, unless we spent the whole holiday cocooned inside the grounds of the lodge. These are unemployed, mostly young, men who hang around the hotels and tourist areas in the hope of making easy money out of gullible visitors. They are not dangerous in any way, and a modicum of common sense and astuteness will ensure you don’t fall victim to their scams.

The most common of these usually involve a claim to know you. They will approach with a smile, ask how you are, and when you appear not to recognise them will say that they work at your hotel. The more ingenious among them may work in pairs – one will approach, engage you in conversation and ask your name. Further down the road a second man will greet you by that name (having had a call from his mate who will have described you: ‘a blonde English guy in a red t-shirt called John’, for example). If you say you don’t know him, he will seem offended and ‘remind you’ that you have talked at the hotel, or he served you last night at dinner. The naïve tourist, embarrassed not to have recognised him, will be lured into further conversation and into accepting his services as ‘guide’, for which they will be expected to pay at the end of the day. We had been told that all staff at Ngala were specifically trained not to pull this trick so that anyone who tried it on us would for sure not be genuine!

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Bumster in Bakau

Another common scam is to claim to be very recently married and to invite you home to meet his new wife. Seeing an interesting opportunity to visit a typical Gambian home and interact with locals, the tourist agrees. At the home the ‘wife’ (probably in truth a sister or friend) will be traditionally dressed and will shyly accept congratulations and offer tea. But when the unsuspecting visitor makes to leave they will be told that in The Gambia it is expected that anyone paying a visit to a newly married couple will bring money as a gift – and if they say they don’t have any with them, they may be firmly escorted to an ATM to withdraw the necessary cash.

Some of course are less sophisticated and simply ask for money or offer to show you around in the expectation that you’ll reward their services. In all cases it’s best to either ignore them or give a polite but firm refusal, and if the bumster persists just walk away. Or you can do as Chris liked to do, and engage them briefly in conversation just for the fun of it, while making it very clear he has no intention of handing over any money.

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Barbershop

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Batik for sale

Bakau fishing village

We spotted a turning on our left which led to the fish quay, a great spot for more photos. Although tourism has long since overtaken fishing as the main source of income here, the latter is still an important part of the local economy.

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Fishermen and their boats

Although it was by now late morning there was plenty of activity – a few boats still coming in with their catch, others being tidied up and nets mended, fish being prepared, sold or cooked.

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Fish stalls

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Fishing beach

I was interested to watch the various manoeuvres as men moved from boat to boat - presumably to help each other with nets or catch.

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Fishermen in Bakau

Some of the fishermen were trying to make a few extra delasi by showing tourists around. We refused their sometimes persistent offers as we didn’t see any need for a guide when all we wanted to do was wander around and take some photos. We had to be discreet when taking ones of individuals – we could of course have asked permission but getting it could have meant tipping which would have proved expensive given how many photos we tend to take!

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At the fishing quay in Bakau

Fish caught here include barracuda, captain fish and lady fish, all of which you can see on hotel and restaurant menus, plus some smaller fish which tend to be eaten only by locals because of the large number of bones they contain. We were also shown a so-called ‘ugly’ fish by one would-be guide, which had weirdly human-looking teeth!

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Ugly fish

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Preparing fish for cooking

And of course, as anywhere where fish are caught, there were plenty of small cats and large birds (here mostly egrets) hoping for a bite too.

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Egrets on the fishing beach

Back at Ngala Lodge

After our hot walk we spent what remained of the day relaxing at Ngala Lodge. I had a swim and we took some photos around the grounds

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Bulbul

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In the grounds

Later we were treated to a beautiful sunset. Indeed, almost every evening of our stay at Ngala, we had a beautiful sunset. Some were pale and subtle, some fiery, but all were lovely when viewed from the cliff-top just above the beach.

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Ngala sunset

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Fish for dinner

We had dinner at the lodge’s excellent restaurant, where there is live music every evening. This evening it was a wonderful Senegalese singer called Tabou Diop. We enjoyed her singing so much that later in the week we bought a CD in the lodge shop. You can see and hear her on this video, which looks to me as if it was shot at Ngala:

While this one definitely was:

The next day: around the lodge

The following day was equally restful, although there was the excitement of seeing the UK Ambassador to The Gambia visit the restaurant for a business lunch. The embassy is almost next door to Ngala Lodge, but of course being a VIP, he arrived by car!

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The ambassador's car, and bougainvillea in the grounds

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More bougainvillea

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Red Hornbill

We split our time between the hotel grounds, where I enjoyed several swims in the pool, and the decking down by the beach with lovely views out to sea.

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View from the decking

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Beach and decking from the cliffs

I managed to shoot some video footage of one of the pirogues, with the fishermen hauling in their nets. You can see they caught some decent sized fish.

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Fishermen seen from the beach

On the Strip

Having spent all day at the hotel we were keen to get out for the evening, so we booked a taxi to take us to what is known locally as the Senegambia Strip or more simply just The Strip. This is a short road that leads from the Senegambia Hotel in Kololi to the main road. With several large hotels nearby, it has become a focus for tourist nightlife as well as for locals looking to meet and mix with those tourists.

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On the Senegambia Strip

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We checked out a few of the restaurants and settled on Darboe's for dinner, just off the Strip. We ate on the outside terrace (there were only a handful of table inside and outside looked by far the more attractive option) and decided to try some local Gambian cuisine, though standard international dishes were also available (steaks, seafood, pasta etc). We asked the waiter to describe the dishes and both opted for the style known as benechin, in which meat, fish or vegetables are cooked in a red sauce and served with rice which is also red (I believe tomatoes account for the colour). Chris chose a chicken one and I asked for vegetable, foolishly forgetting to ask what vegetables are included. When it arrived, I was taken aback to find the dish full of peas, which I really really don't like! Luckily I was able to find quite a few other vegetables in there too but it wasn't the best choice to have made. The sauce though was good, and Chris liked his chicken version.

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Chris at Darboes

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Darboes

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Dinner at Darboes

After dinner we went for beers in the Jazz Café on the Strip itself. Prices seemed very low after getting used to those at upmarket Ngala Lodge – our JulBrews would have cost probably three times the price there.

The Strip is an excellent place for a spot of people watching. We observed young local men hanging out in the hope that a (by local standards) ‘rich’ female visitor would take a fancy to them and buy them a few drinks in return for their company, or maybe more. We also spotted several ill-matched couples that were almost certainly the result of such an arrangement. We saw ex-pats chatting up young local girls, groups of these girls out for a giggly night out over a few soft drinks, and older men chewing the fat and making one beer last as long as possible.

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The Jazz Cafe

After our beers we took a few more photos then walked back up to the taxi rank at the main road to go back to the hotel, where we enjoyed a final much more expensive drink in the bar while enjoying this evening’s low-key entertainment, a local jazz trio.

Posted by ToonSarah 02:01 Archived in Gambia Tagged beaches people birds night boats food fishing flowers restaurant coast hotel music africa gambia street_photography Comments (20)

An outing with Habib

Gambia day six


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Habib at Kachikally

At our welcome meeting on arrival at Ngala we had not only been told about the organised tours, only one of which we chose to do, but also the possibility to book a private local driver/guide through reception. The guide of choice here was (and still is, judging by reviews) Habib, and we were able to secure his services for two morning trips, the first of them today.

We had already met Habib as he had been our taxi driver when we went to the Butcher’s Shop restaurant, and after chatting to us then and making some suggestions he came up with a great programme.

On our way to our first planned stop, Serekunda Market, he detoured to show us a local sight, the so-called Serekunda Big Tree. This is a silk cotton tree so well known that it has given its name to this district of the town (tell any local you are going to Big Tree and he will know where you mean).

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Serekunda Big Tree

Silk cotton trees, also known as kapok trees, grow to a large size and the trunks are massive, with striking buttresses. The fibres from its pods are used to stuff mattresses and pillows, sofas etc., and also sometimes for insulation. In the photo of Habib above, taken at Kachikally, he is standing in front of another huge silk cotton tree.

Serekunda Market

From the Big Tree Habib drove a little further into Serekunda and squeezed his large vehicle into what seemed to be an impossibly small parking spot a couple of streets away from the market.

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Small shop near the market
~ not in north west England as the sign might suggest, 'typo' notwithstanding!

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Serekunda Market

Serekunda Market is the largest in The Gambia, and we spent around an hour wandering around here. We were very pleased to have Habib’s company as I'm not at all sure we would have found our way around this maze of lanes on our own, and we would certainly have attracted more attention, more hassle, and found it harder to take photos. As it was, most people were comfortable with our presence and our cameras - and the few that complained, we stopped photographing.

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Serekunda Market

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Market sellers and shopper

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At Serekunda Market

This market takes place all day and every day. Few Gambian homes have freezers, and with frequent power cuts the fridge cannot be relied on to keep food fresh, so the women (and it is still always the women) shop daily for fresh vegetables, fruits, herbs, fish etc. The place was so packed it was hard to make progress at times, especially with the occasional car or bush taxi trying to squeeze through the crowds and the many porters with their wheelbarrows (all licensed by the government, with ‘number plates’ to prove it).

Among the huge variety of goods on sale we saw:
~ chillies of all shapes and sizes
~ peppers – red, green, orange and yellow
~ tomatoes, aubergines and courgettes
~ yams, cassava and sweet potatoes
~ fruits of all kinds, with oranges the most common
~ palm oil in shades of yellow, orange and brown
~ rice, corn and other grains
~ fish both smoked and fresh
~ red sorrel flowers for making tea or wonjo juice
~ leafy green herbs
~ aluminium cooking pots, small, large and huge
~ second-hand clothes (including underwear and shoes)
~ colourful fabrics hung up and sold by the metre
~ batteries and small electrical goods
~ and so much more!

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Herbs for sale

There are of course many other markets in The Gambia but as the biggest and liveliest I thought Serekunda was well worth a visit, though you have to be prepared for a degree of chaos and be comfortable in crowds. For me the main highlight was the sense of colour that surrounded me - not just from the goods on display but also the women's clothes. I think it was here I fell in love with African prints!

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At Serekunda Market

Kachikally

Have you ever petted a full-grown crocodile?! No, nor had we, and when Habib suggested that we might do just that at the Kachikally Crocodile Pool I was in two minds about the idea. But as it turned out we found the crocs docile enough that we did pet them, and lived to tell the tale!

Kachikally is part tourist attraction, part shrine. It is one of several sacred crocodile pools in The Gambia which are used as sites for fertility rituals – Wikipedia says there are three in total while information I found on a Gambian website claims that there are dozens, though not all have crocodiles now.

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Crocodile at Kachikally

Kachikally itself is a privately owned shrine belonging to the Bojang family of Bakau, one of the most prominent families of the city. It was a palm wine tapper from that clan who first found it over 100 years ago. It is located right among the residential compounds on the outskirts of town and is thus the easiest of The Gambia’s sacred pools for tourists to visit. But its original role as shrine is still very much alive, I understand, though we saw no sign of that on our visit.

Some local people believe that these pools have supernatural healing powers and also that bathing in their waters can aid in fertility. Habib told us that these beliefs are still quite common and many people take them seriously and believe in the powers of Kachikally’s waters. I found this description of the rituals on a website:
‘Infertile women travel from far and wide from both within and outside the Gambia to visit the site where they are washed with sacred water from the pool by specially trained women of the Bojang clan. After the ritual washing the women are given some of the water in a bottle to be applied to certain body parts before going to bed and first thing in the morning. In return, people washed at the pool are expected to make a small cash donation, a piece of cloth and a cola nut – half of which is shared among the elderly and the other half of which is thrown into the pool to appease the crocodiles. Once the ritual is performed, one is not supposed to shake hands with anybody from Bakau. Members of the Bojang clan are forbidden from exploiting the pool for financial gains lest it loses its sacredness.’

While they may be forbidden from making money from the pool (or at least from those seeking its cure), this doesn’t stop them from charging tourists a small admission fee and we were also asked once inside to make a further contribution to food for the crocs before we could progress round the pool.

The museum at Kachikally

But I am leaping ahead. The first area you visit after paying your admission is a cluster of small round buildings that house a little museum dedicated to tribal customs. It was interesting to look round this with Habib as he told us more than the signs did in some cases. He also made it personal by telling us which was his own tribe and that of his father, which his mother’s and which his wife’s (marriage between the tribes is normal and even encouraged). There was a variety of musical instruments in one room, tribal costumes in another and some rather less attention-grabbing old photos of military aircraft in the third.

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Museum exhibit

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Fangbondi

I found the displays about Gambian culture and beliefs far the most interesting. The fearsome looking creature in my left-hand photo above is Fangbondi, a Mandinka tribe circumcision mask. Habib is himself Mandinka and he told us something of the custom that it relates to, which I have supplemented here with information on a sign in the museum.

Young boys in The Gambia, from all tribes, spend some nights in the bush just before reaching puberty, when they are circumcised and go through various rituals to mark this rite of passage. While in the bush they are initiated into manhood and are taught abut such as tribal traditions, ‘the facts of life’, male responsibilities, respect for the elders and the medicinal uses of various herbs and plants.

There is a belief that boys just circumcised are most vulnerable to attack by evil spirits and witches, So Fangbondi is usually seen late at night when it comes out to protect the initiates from these. As the museum sign explained, 'it has extraordinary abilities to fly or disappear from sight and is dressed in the red bark of the fara tree.' It usually carries two blunt cutlasses that it strikes against each other while making what the sign called ‘esoteric’ noises – I suspect they mean exotic but am not sure.

So far, so interesting, and we were intrigued by Habib’s explanations. But I have since read (see http://www.accessgambia.com/information/female-circumcision-fgm.html ) that regrettably in rural areas of The Gambia female circumcision aka FGM is also still practised, albeit in reducing numbers – a discovery that makes such tales of tribal customs much more disturbing.

Near the museum was another huge silk cotton tree, and Habib was happy to pose in front of it to help demonstrate its size – the photo at the top of this entry.

Crocodiles!

From here we proceeded to the pool itself. We were introduced to our ‘pool guide’ and warned not to touch any crocodile without his express permission. A particularly docile and sleepy croc was resting nearby on the bank and this was the one we were to pet. We waited while one other visitor took her turn, and as she came away with all fingers intact I decided to give it a go. As you might expect, the texture of his skin was hard and leathery, but also a little slimy with pond weed. Chris was next but before stepping forward he declared his cynicism by suggesting that this particular creature was not alive but stuffed. A prod of the guide’s stick soon showed him that he was wrong!

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Petting a crocodile

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We then, having made our payment for the food, headed round the pool to an area from where we could see lots of the crocodiles (there are apparently over 80). Many were lazing on the banks but some were swimming rather languidly, and I made a short video of these.

It is said that the reason these crocs are so relaxed and unthreatening is that they get plenty to eat and are given only fish, so they have lost any taste for red meat. Certainly none of them took any interest in their human visitors.

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Crocodiles at Kachikally

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Jewellery stall

As we left there were a few small shacks selling crafts such as batik. I bought a silver bangle from one of these – I liked the fact that you could see the guy working on the jewellery here and also Habib vouched for him as genuine. Whether the silver was I wasn't quite sure, but the price was low enough and the bangle pretty so I didn’t much care if it was slightly less than pure.

This was a favourite piece of jewellery for some years until I lost it when we were burgled – one of many holiday souvenirs that I mourned on that occasion.

Bakau Botanic Gardens

Our next stop was at the botanic gardens in the centre of Bakau, not far from the fishing quay. After the colourful flowers on many of the shrubs in the grounds of Ngala Lodge this struck us as a little dusty and bare, with few flowers and some plants looking less than well-tended.

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Dutchman’s Pipe, Bakau Botanic Gardens

However it was an interesting opportunity to see some of the country’s native plants and a few were very striking – none more so than the 'Dutchman’s Pipe' (Aristolochia Macrophylla) above, with its large dramatically marked blooms that reminded me a little of brocade or maybe flocked wallpaper! I also liked the Caesalpinia pulcherrima or 'Pride of Barbados'.

This is also a good place to spot birds. We saw several Long-tailed Glossy Starlings which I managed to photograph and two Green Wood Hoopoe which I did not! There was also a Red-billed Hornbill and several smaller birds which Habib couldn’t name.

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Caesalpinia pulcherrima

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Long-tailed Glossy Starling

Calypso at the Cape

Habib then suggested a refreshment break to round off the morning, and when we agreed brought us to this bar by the mouth of the Gambia River, north of Bakau. We found a shady table overlooking the pool and a great view of all the bird life there and had a lovely relaxing time sipping cold fresh wonjo juice (made from sorrel, as Habib told us, not as is usually claimed from hibiscus).

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Chris with wonjo juice, Calypso at the Cape

We especially enjoyed watching a pair of Pied Kingfishers fishing in the pool. We also spotted, with Habib's help, some Caspian Terns, a Cinnamon Roller and various others including weavers and lots of swifts and swallows.

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Weavers (not sure which sort)

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Cinnamon Roller

A large Gambian lizard sat sunning himself on a nearby wall, while a couple of crocodiles swam lazily across the pool. A wonderful spot!

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Gambian lizard

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Spot the croc!

More relaxation at Ngala Lodge

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Grilled goats cheese salad
for lunch

Habib dropped us off at the lodge in time for lunch, having made plans to pick us up again after breakfast tomorrow for another short tour. We had been chatting about football during the morning and of course had mentioned that we were Newcastle United supporters. Habib told us that he had a Newcastle strip, a gift from a previous client, and promised to wear it tomorrow in our honour, although we weren’t sure whether to believe him. Let’s see, we said!

We spent the afternoon taking it easy – a light lunch, a bit of swimming to cool off, bird spotting around the grounds (a Red-billed Hornbill and several Whimbrels, among others).

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Red Hornbill

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Whimbrel

Later there was another gorgeous sunset ...

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Ngala sunset

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The perfect spot from which to watch a Ngala sunset

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The sea at sunset

... and of course an excellent dinner in the restaurant with another great music set by Tabou Diop.

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Dinner at Ngala Lodge - duck ...

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... and Jamaican mousse for dessert

Posted by ToonSarah 02:19 Archived in Gambia Tagged trees animals birds lizards food sunset flowers coast culture fountain views market museum garden africa reptiles crocodiles customs gambia street_photography Comments (14)

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