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Seeing more of the city

Japan day three


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In Hamarikyu Gardens

We spent the following day in Tokyo exploring in part with our Inside Japan group and in part on our own, setting the pattern for the rest of this very flexible tour. Most of us left the hotel together after breakfast and walked with Andrew in the direction of the Senso-ji Temple which Chris and I had already visited on our first afternoon in the city. We were happy to return however, as on that occasion our weariness from the journey had meant that we had missed seeing, and photographing, some parts, including the Asakusa Jinja or Sanja Sama (Shrine of the Three Guardians).

It was interesting too, to hear Andrew’s commentary on the sights. While the role of tour leader on an Inside Japan tour is rather different from that of guide (you are warned that he/she is there to help with logistics rather than provide detailed information on history etc.), having lived in Tokyo for some time he was very familiar with the temple and could tell us quite a bit about it to supplement our own reading. It was he who told me, for instance, about the practice of tying an unappealing fortune to a frame to cancel it out!

The Asahi Flame

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The Asahi Flame

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The Asahi Flame

From the temple we walked east towards the Sumida River. Here we had a good view of the Asahi Flame. Apparently the building it sits on was designed to look like a beer glass, as it is one of a small complex housing the headquarters of the Asahi Breweries. But very few people look at the building itself as the eye is inevitably drawn to the structure on its top. The Asahi Flame is said to represent both the ‘burning heart of Asahi beer’ and the frothy head to be found on a glass of it. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, if the company was looking to get noticed and talked about!), the thing that most people consider it resembles is rather more prosaic. Hence its nickname, ‘the golden turd’ or kin no unko!

The flame is hollow but still manages to weigh 360 tonnes. It was designed by the prominent French designer, Philippe Stark, and apparently made using submarine construction techniques. I read somewhere that it was originally intended to stand upright but that this proved impossible to achieve; that may be an urban myth, however, as I haven’t been able to find it substantiated anywhere. Whatever the truth of it, it certainly can’t fail to attract attention and must be one of the most photographed modern buildings in this part of the city.

The building to its left, by the way, is meant to resemble a giant beer jug complete with a foam shaped white roof. I’m not sure it achieves that, but at least it doesn’t remind me of anything else! The complex is built on the site where Asahi started brewing beer over 100 years ago, and although we didn’t go any closer than these photos suggest, you can visit bars and restaurants here to enjoy some of that beer.

Sumida River cruise

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Sumida River boat

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On the Sumida River
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Tokyo Tower seen from the boat

Reaching the river we boarded a boat for a short ‘cruise’ to Hamarikyu Gardens. The ride took about 45 minutes to journey down river. As we travelled we had a commentary in both Japanese and English which seemed mainly to be about the various bridges we passed under (12 of the 26 in total that span this river in the city), but as the volume was set quite low on the English version and there was lots of chatter on the nearly full boat, I may have missed some bits.

We didn’t see much in the way of views of famous landmarks and historic sights on this trip, apart from a glimpse of the Tokyo Tower through the haze, but it was interesting to observe life beside the river. There were some modern apartment complexes and some nicely landscaped green areas where people were jogging or simply relaxing (it was a Sunday morning). Just before arriving at Hamarikyu there was one other famous sight, the Tokyo Fish Market, although this was silent and inactive by the time we sailed past (mid-morning). We then turned into an inlet to moor at the gardens’ dedicated pier.

Hamarikyu Gardens

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In Hamarikyu Gardens

I was really pleased that on our first morning of the tour we were able to visit these traditional Japanese gardens in the heart of modern Tokyo. The gardens were originally built as part of the Tokyo residence of the Tokugawa Shogun during the Edo Period (1603-1867). They are of the ‘strolling gardens’ style – large gardens with ponds, islands and artificial hills that could be enjoyed from a variety of viewpoints along a circular trail. They were first laid out in 1654 by the brother of the fourth shogun who had part of the Sumida River shallows filled in and built a residence on the land thus reclaimed, with strolling gardens and duck hunting grounds by the river. Over time various shoguns made changes and developed the garden, and it was finally finished under the 11th and has remained more or less the same since then. After the Meiji Revolution the residence became a so-called Detached Palace for the Imperial family. It and the gardens were badly damaged in the air raids of World War Two and after the war the gardens were given to the people of Tokyo and reconstructed, opening to the public in 1952.

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In Hamarikyu Gardens

So today the gardens retain much of their original appearance despite serving more as city centre park than anything else. For instance, there are several reconstructed duck hunting blinds and you can still see the remains of an old moat. There is even a ‘duck grave’ created in 1935 to console the spirits of the ducks that were once killed here.

One style often employed in these traditional gardens was known as ‘borrowed scenery’; in this, surrounding scenery was incorporated into a garden’s composition. Of course today the surrounding scenery is of city skyscrapers but for me the contrast they create only served to emphasise the tranquillity of this green haven.

As I explored I found it hard to believe that every hill here is artificial – it all looks very natural. The pool at the centre of the gardens is an obvious focal point and is very pretty, with some traditional looking bridges, lovely trees and a teahouse on a small island.

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Nakajima Teahouse

This is the Nakajima Teahouse, and as we didn’t get to attend a full tea ceremony while in Japan, I was pleased that we had the chance to drink tea here. Our visit included many of the main elements of a traditional ceremony – the formal offering of the tea (though the preparation was done elsewhere), the style of the utensils, the accompanying sweetmeats and the detailed instructions on how to drink our tea.

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In the tea house

The Japanese Tea Ceremony is a very prescribed ritual for the ceremonial preparation and offering to guests of matcha, or powdered green tea. It has its origins in Chinese traditions and in Zen thinking. There is a specific order to the events, and responsibilities for both host and guests to follow the particular actions laid down by tradition, from arrival, through the preparation and drinking of the tea, and the clearing away of the (often very precious) utensils.

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Matcha and sweets

For us, drinking matcha here, there were only a few suggested rules. These involved eating the sweets before drinking the tea, as the sweetness is intended to counteract the bitterness of the tea (I’m afraid I disobeyed and ate part before, part after); and holding the bowl in a particular fashion, turning it a quarter turn before drinking. This latter custom relates to the sharing of a single bowl in some parts of a traditional ceremony I believe.

Matcha is rather different to regular green tea and is something of an acquired taste I suspect. For me it was a bit like I imagine drinking grass would be, were that possible! It was certainly interesting to try it, and the traditional setting and sense of occasion made for a great experience which I can certainly recommend even if you aren't too keen on the drink itself.

Elsewhere in the gardens one of my favourite spots was on the north side where a large area is devoted to a sort of wild flower meadow, the Flower Field, which changes with the seasons. When we were there in early October it was the turn of the autumn planting of cosmos – beautiful!

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The Flower Field, and statue of Umashimadenomikoto

Umashimadenomikoto was the god of war. According to a sign next to the statue, it won a contest organised by the former Ministry of War to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of the Emperor Meiji in 1894.

Other features include a peony garden and wisteria trellises (sadly we were here too late in the year for these), a 300 year old pine that has needed to be considerably propped up (said to have been planted by the sixth Shogun in the 17th century and apparently the biggest pine tree in Tokyo), and several pavilions. I loved my time taking photos here and could happily have spent longer, were there not so much more to be seen in this amazing city!

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300 year old pine

Shiodome

After our relaxing time in the Hamarikyu Gardens we emerged on to the busy streets of the Shiodome area of the city. It was a Sunday however, so while there was a lot of passing traffic, the precincts around the skyscrapers were for the most part eerily quiet – very much like visiting the City of London on a Sunday, I thought.

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In Shiodome

Shiodome is a very recent development (2002) and it shows. The glitzy modern towers accommodate offices, shops, cafés, restaurants, etc. etc. They are separated by elevated walkways and footbridges that allow pedestrians to stroll undisturbed by city traffic. It is all slightly reminiscent of Blade Runner. But Shiodome wasn’t always like this, naturally. The clue is in the name – Shiodome literally means ‘halt the tides’. This was at one time a tidal marshland which separated the Imperial Palace from Tokyo Bay. During the Edo Period (1603-1867) the marshes were dried out and developed into residential land for feudal lords. Later this became the site of Shimbashi Station, the Tokyo terminus of Japan's first railway line. When the railway tracks were later extended to Tokyo Station, Shimbashi was moved to its current location a little to the west, and the Shiodome area was converted into a freight yard. It remained like this into the 1980s when the yard was demolished to clear the site for the development we see today.

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Plastic pub food

We only passed through the area on our way to Shimbashi Station, but there was time to stop for photos and to get a bit of a sense of what was here. Some of the bars and restaurants looked good and seemed popular as a Sunday lunch destination with locals. I spotted a very incongruous-looking bar that styled itself a Victorian pub, the Rose and Crown, but which could not have looked less Victorian, or less English – at the foot of a modern skyscraper block and with a typically Japanese display of plastic food to tempt you into its equally plastic interior!

One sight worth looking out for here is the amazing clock on the side of the Nippon Television Tower. Its official name is the ‘NI-TELE Really BIG Clock’ (yes, really!) and it was created by a famous manga artist and anime director Hayao Miyazaki over a period of four years.

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The NI-TELE Really BIG Clock

Its design reflects his enthusiasm for what is known as ‘steampunk’, a term coined in April 1987 by the American writer Kevin Wayne Jeter. He defined it as a sub-genre of science fiction, alternate history and speculative fiction characterized by worlds which use all kind of steam-powered machines, from trains to airplanes and even computers. In addition to steampunk stories and movies, fans of the genre have created real-life steampunk objects, some of them totally functional, and this is apparently one of the best-known examples, though I had never heard of any of this when I was brought up short by the sight as we passed by. The clock is made mainly of copper and lives up to its ‘Really BIG’ name, being ten metres tall and 18 wide. At certain times of day its 32 mechanical scenes come to life – the various human-like robot figures spin wheels, turn levers, work the smithy and perform other operations. But unfortunately, our timing was wrong for seeing this all happen, so I can only go by what I have since read when I say it must be quite a sight. If you want to time your visit better than we did, the ‘show’ happens at 12:00, 15:00, 18:00 and 20:00 every day of the week, with an additional performance at 10:00 on a Saturday and Sunday. The show starts 3 minutes and 45 seconds before each hour so get there a bit early!

From Shimbashi station we took the subway to Harajuku on the JR Yamanote line. Here our group split up, with Andrew going off to collect our JR Passes for tomorrow, when we would be leaving Tokyo to start our journey around Honshu Island, and the rest of us fanning out to explore on our own or in smaller groups.

Takeshita Dori

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Entrance to Takeshita Dori

Harajuku is known as a focal point for some of Japan's most extreme teenage cultures and fashion styles, and Takeshita Dori is the epitome of this. Its narrow pedestrians-only (thankfully!) length is lined with uber-trendy clothes shops interspersed with the kind of refreshment stops likely to appeal to its mainly teenage market. This is a great place to come, and in particular on a Sunday, if you want to see Tokyo’s youth at play.

The most eccentric and colourful fashions will be those of the so-called ‘cosplay’ aficionados, cosplay being short for costume play, in which fans of animė, manga etc. dress in the costumes of favourite characters. While this started as a practice for fan conventions and similar gatherings, today it has extended into life on the streets and the range of costumes widened. As well as these costumes you’re likely to see Goth, punk and many other styles – often several combined in the one outfit! And the shop windows of course display fashions in the same vein. I wasn’t surprised to read later that Lady Gaga apparently shops in at least one of these!

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On Takeshita Dori

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Shop window, Takeshita Dori

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A face in the crowd, Takeshita Dori

Chris and I squeezed ourselves into the crush of people walking along Takeshita Dori and wove our way between them. The shops here are mainly independent ones, clearly targeted at the young people who flock here to shop for cute accessories and the latest fashions, but there are one or two chains among them, including 7-Eleven and McDonalds for refreshment breaks. We wanted something more Japanese than the latter so, despite feeling a little out of place in this youthful crowd, decided on lunch at the Caffe Solare which had both Western and Japanese light meals (I had a great toasted sandwich with avocado and cheese – so not so Japanese after all maybe!) We managed to get a table by an upstairs window which gave us a great vantage point from which to watch the passing crowds.

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Shopping on Takeshita Dori

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In the Caffe Solare

After lunch we walked a little further down the street and grabbed some more photos. But we are clearly not in the target market for these shops, so relatively soon we retraced our steps and crossed the road by Harajuku station to enter Yoyogi Park.

Meiji Jingu

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Meiji Jingu: torii gate

The main draw in Yoyogi Park is the Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken. It was originally built between 1915 and 1921 but was destroyed in the Tokyo air raids of World War Two, so what we see today is the 1950s reconstruction.

Emperor Meiji was born in 1852 and ascended to the throne in 1867 as the first emperor of modern Japan. His accession brought an end to the feudal shogun era and ushered in a period known as the Meiji Restoration, during which Japan modernised and westernised herself to join the world's major powers. This shrine celebrates that achievement so is a significant place in the country’s history and sense of itself.

The shrine is surrounded by an evergreen forest that consists of 120,000 trees of 365 different species, by people from all over the country. We strolled through these trees along wide paths, following the crowds of both Japanese visitors and tourists. The first thing we saw was a large number of sake barrels displayed by the side of the path. These are offered every year by sake brewers from around the country to show their respect for the souls of the Emperor and Empress in recognition of the encouragement given to the growth of this and other industries under the Meiji Restoration.

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Sake barrels

Near here we passed through the first of several torii or shrine gates. This one is the biggest of its style (known as Myojin) in the country – 12 metres high with a 17 metre cross piece spanning its 1.2 metre wide pillars. It was made from 1,500 year old Japanese cypress or hinoki in 1970 and is an exact replica of the 1920 original.

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Torii at Meiji Jingu

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Part of the main complex

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The temizuya

Passing beneath this the path continued to the main shrine which we entered beneath another torii. Just before this on the left is the temizuya or font where the faithful purify themselves before entering the shrine.

Once inside we found ourselves in a large courtyard surrounded by several buildings and with the shrine itself in front of us. People were milling about, and there were amulets for sale and prayer plaques, known as ema, on which people were writing prayers and wishes before leaving them hanging for the spirits to read. Around two sides of this courtyard we saw hundreds of dolls and soft toys lined up in rows, with more being added even as we looked. I wasn’t sure whether these are given in gratitude for prayers answered or as offerings to ensure a positive response to entreaties.

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The ema or prayer plaques

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Soft toys and dolls

Perhaps because it was a Sunday, we were lucky enough to see several weddings in progress while we were here, and no one seemed to mind us watching and taking photos. The bride in the photo below had an especially beautifully embroidered white kimono and a striking headdress, but all were lovely.

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Wedding procession

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Wedding photo

After some time wandering around and taking in the sights I was a bit weary and wanted to rest. We sat on the steps near the entrance but were asked to get up – this is sacred ground and it seems sitting on it is not allowed. So we headed back to the visitor centre area beyond the outer torii. Here there is a self-service café selling light meals and drinks, a restaurant, shop and also a treasure house where you can see personal belongings of the Emperor and Empress, including the carriage which the emperor rode to the formal declaration of the Meiji Constitution in 1889. We decided to skip the treasure house however, as time was getting on, so after a cold drink we headed back to our hotel to rest up for a while before dinner.

The Asakusa Grill Burg

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The Asakusa Grill Burg
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Burger with egg

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In the Asakusa Grill Burg

In the evening we decided to try the Asakusa Grill Burg restaurant, almost opposite our hotel on Kokusai Dori. The menu (there was a single English one, which we had to wait to see) suggested a fusion of Western and Japanese cooking styles, which we thought might be interesting. The decor appealed to us too, with an interesting mix of art work displayed on the walls.

To start with we shared some crudités, and for mains both chose burgers with cheese and egg topping and soy sauce with wasabi. These came with a few vegetables (including bean sprouts and broccoli) and rice. We drank two small, draft Asahi beers each. The meal was OK although nothing special, but the beers were good and the service friendly, with a little English spoken, so we had a good evening.

The next morning we were to leave Tokyo after breakfast, but return eleven days later to a very different part of the city.

But that is for a future entry!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:06 Archived in Japan Tagged skylines people tokyo shrines parks architecture flowers japan culture temple restaurants city garden customs street_photography Comments (8)

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)

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


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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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)

Monkeys galore!

Gambia day seven


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Green Vervet Monkey, Bijilo Monkey Forest

This morning we had booked another trip with the excellent Habib, who picked us up soon after breakfast when the air was still fresh and pleasant. As I mentioned in my previous entry, following all our chat about football he had promised that today he would wear his Newcastle United strip (a gift from a previous client) in our honour and sure enough, he did!

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Chris with Habib
~ not only is Habib wearing his NUFC strip, but Chris has his NUFC shorts on!

Bijilo Forest Park

Bijilo Forest Park is an easy and popular excursion from any of the coastal resorts. It’s an area of natural sandy-soiled forest that was preserved when the coastal strip was being developed, so that tourists would have a chance to see something of natural Gambia on their doorstep. It has become home to troops of monkeys, with two species living here: Green Vervet and Red Colobus. While the latter are relatively shy and sightings not guaranteed, the Green Vervets are habituated to humans and incredibly friendly and inquisitive – probably because they have learned that most tourists come bearing gifts in the form of groundnuts. Not for nothing are these also termed monkey nuts, as the creatures clearly love them!

In theory feeding the monkeys is not encouraged; in fact, there were signs at the entrance to the park saying that it was not allowed. But in practice all the guides seemed to me to encourage the tourists to do so and the park security guys must know this and turn a blind eye as long as the food (bought from sellers just outside at 50D a bag) is hidden from view in your bag as you enter the park. Arguably we should have resisted the temptation to buy any food, but as it was clear that everyone else fed the monkeys there seemed little point in not doing so ourselves, so we succumbed.

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Sign at the entrance

Strolling among the different trees was lovely, and for a while we were happy with sightings of birds (a hornbill and bee-eater in particular), ants’ nests, various trees etc. But to start with at least, there were no monkeys to be seen. Habib explained that they would have gone to the nearby hotels to forage for breakfast scraps and would be back soon. He promised that we would see the Green Vervets for sure, and get some good photos, but gave no guarantee about the Red Colobus monkeys.

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Red Hornbill, and Swallow-tailed Bee Eater
~ and you can just see the tail of a Long-tailed Glossy Starling behind the hornbill, I think!

After we had been walking for about half an hour, and while I was engaged in photographing an interestingly shaped baobab tree, suddenly there was a small Green Vervet monkey at my feet! Soon several more appeared and as Habib pulled our bag of nuts from his pocket, even more. I reckoned that even without food you’re pretty much certain to see these cute animals here, as they will surely come to check you out. But if you have some nuts they will linger and you'll get a chance to really interact with them and get some great photos too - although I found the latter wasn't as easy as you might think at these close quarters, as they are almost continually on the move.

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Green Vervet Monkeys

We spent some time with this group - in fact until all (or so I thought) our nuts had gone. It was a wonderful experience to feel their soft hands gently tugging at your finger to see if you had a nut for them. What intrigued me most was the very clear distinction of characters within the group. Most were friendly and eager, without being pushy. But one large male, clearly the alpha male, threw his weight around and tried to shove the smaller monkeys away if he felt he wasn't getting his fair share - on a couple of occasions a brief scuffle ensued. One younger male in particular took my fancy, sitting patiently in a nearby tree, at shoulder level, and seemingly accepting each nut I passed him with almost spoken gratitude. And one poor little one was so self-effacing that she hung right back and wouldn't even pick up a nut that landed nearby when I tried to toss it to her, because she just knew a bigger, bolder monkey would easily grab it from her before she could eat it.

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Green Vervet Monkeys

Eventually we moved on. Habib was continually on the watch for the Red Colobus monkeys and we were in luck! It was not too long before he spotted a group in some trees above our heads. We grabbed a few shots but it wasn't easy; however he soon motioned us to a better position on a side path and we were able to get some better ones and to enjoy the sight of a small baby with its mother high above us.

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Red Colobus Monkeys

As we returned to the park's entrance we found that more tourists had arrived (up to this point we had seen only a handful of other people) and also a lot more Green Vervets, who were interacting with the visitors and enjoying a bounty of nuts. One was even sitting on a man's shoulder!

It was at this point that we found that Habib had kept back a few nuts. He suggested I sit on a low branch and hold a nut by my shoulder to see if a monkey would take it from there. As soon as I did so I had a monkey on that shoulder, with his tail draped round my neck, and a couple more on my lap! They quickly realised that my small supply of nuts was in my pocket and when that ran out one monkey even stuck his head inside the pocket to look for more - so cute and clever!

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Feeding the monkeys

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Altogether we spent almost two hours here and had a great time, although I realised afterwards that I should have worn old and/or darker shorts – monkey paws aren’t very clean! If you look at my legs in the photo above you can see how dirty they got!

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Green Vervet Monkeys

Back at the lodge

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Habib dropped us off back at Ngala Lodge in time for lunch. We’d had two super outings with him at a very reasonable cost, much more so than the official tours. We paid him, as he had requested, in sterling – he preferred this as he could wait till the low season to change it and get a better exchange rate. As you can imagine we also tipped him well, again in sterling. Incidentally, it seems from reviews I’ve read that Habib is still working with Ngala Lodge and their guests and still providing a great service – worth knowing if you ever find yourself in the area!

[Postscript: after our return from The Gambia I wrote a number of reviews including of course a very positive one about Habib. We had exchanged email addresses, so that I could book him directly for future trips should we return, and could include his contact details in my review. I duly sent him an email with a link to the review, asking him to let me know if I’d said anything incorrect and/or if he was happy with the photos of him I’d posted alongside it. The next evening I was sitting at home when my phone rang. It was Habib calling, having found my number in my email signature, to thank me for the review. He was so pleased with it, as up to now, although people writing reviews of Ngala Lodge quite often recommended him, no one had ever written a review solely about him! And I was equally happy that he had gone to the trouble, and the expense, of calling me to say thank you rather than just reply to my email. A lovely man!]

This was our final day at Ngala, so we had another relaxing afternoon of swimming, reading by the pool and taking photos.

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Bougainvillea at Ngala Lodge

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Bougainvillea at Ngala Lodge

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Pyrostegia venusta
[I think!]

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The pool

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In the pool

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Chris by the pool, and Common Bulbul

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Gambian currency

We also went to the small office to change some money – we’d been warned that our next destination, Mandina Lodges, only accepted cash payments so needed to take plenty with us. One small issue was the lack of large denomination notes. The highest available was the 100 Dalasi note, worth only about £1.60. Although prices here were lower than at home, we found ourselves with an envelope stuffed with banknotes to take to Mandina!

Towards the end of the afternoon we packed our bags ready for our onward journey, then spent our final evening here as we had many of the others, enjoying the sunset, drinks on the terrace and another excellent meal in the restaurant. We were excited to be heading inland a bit tomorrow, to see more of the country, but knew we would be sorry to leave the haven that is Ngala.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:02 Archived in Gambia Tagged people animals birds monkeys flowers wildlife hotel africa gambia Comments (12)

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