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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)

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)

Into the forest

Gambia day eight


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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View from our Floating Lodge, Mandina Lodges

After a final morning at Ngala we said our goodbyes to Jenny, the friendly manager, to all the staff and to Rasta, the cute tabby cat, hoping to return one day.

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Chris at breakfast – sad to be leaving Ngala, but happy to be going somewhere new

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Rasta looks sad to see us leave too

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Arriving at Mandina Lodges

We were picked up in a minibus around lunch time. There were also three other guests already on board who had been staying at different coastal hotels and like us were moving on to Mandina Lodges - a young couple who I think were on their honeymoon, and a man of about our age travelling alone. Incidentally, we learned when we arrived at Mandina and got chatting to him that he had been due to come on this holiday with his wife, but at the last minute she got cold feet as she was nervous about the (very low) risk of catching malaria. Having already paid in full he had decided to leave her at home and come alone. I couldn't help thinking that there would be some 'interesting' conversations when he got back!

Our luggage was piled on the roof and we set off, soon leaving the more touristy strip behind and driving through dusty markets and local villages. After about half an hour we turned off this busy road on to the track to Mandina and immediately saw why everyone comments on this road - it is a very bumpy, sandy track that must take its toll on the vehicles as well as the comfort of passengers. The oft-repeated joke is that you are getting a free Gambian massage! But this part of the journey only lasted about 15 minutes and we were soon pulling up in the car parking area of the lodges, to be welcomed by the smiling staff.

Mandina Lodges

Mandina consists of a small group of very individual lodges set among the mangroves in the Makasutu Cultural Forest. Three of the lodges (‘Jungle Lodges’) are tucked among the trees, with a roof terrace that looks out over the forest. Four of them (‘Floating Lodges’) are moored among the mangroves on the edge of the river, which is an off-shoot of the Gambia. The two most luxurious are large two-storey affairs - one on the river (the ‘Stilted Lodge’) and one slightly set back from it (the ‘Mangrove Lodge’).

We had booked a Floating Lodge as I liked the idea of being near the water, and were allocated Floating Lodge 1, a short walk along the boardwalk from the communal area where we had been welcomed. The room was large, with a centrally-placed four poster bed facing out over the water. It all looked lovely, but this is a remote area so there are some compromises within the apparent luxury - no A/C (we had a ceiling fan however), erratic electricity supply and a composting toilet in the open-air bathroom that was inclined to be smelly at times. But while the room got rather hot during the day, by bed-time it was always comfortable and we even found that we needed the cosy bedding provided; while a good door kept the toilet smells at bay!

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Inside our Floating Lodge

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The open-air bathroom

Outside our Floating Lodge was a large private deck with sun loungers and chairs, from where we had wonderful views of the river with lots of passing birds. On several occasions during our stay we saw the local Goliath Heron here in the mornings as he often comes on to the lodge decking to fish. We could watch the local fishermen paddle past, and the women in search of oysters which they gather from the mangroves.

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Decking outside our Floating Lodge

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Our first priority on arriving had been to make plans for our stay. Every lodge is assigned a private guide - ours was Amadou – and almost all activities are included in the price of your stay. One activity is extra however, but as I had read countless very positive reviews about the Sunset Cruise we were keen to pay the additional cost and mentioned it during our welcome chat. We were told there was space available this evening, so we signed up, and then were free for a few hours to settle in and enjoy our new temporary home.

Once we’d unpacked, we made for the large pool which is well provided with seating and loungers and surrounded by the shady gardens. I had a swim (possibly Chris swam too – I don’t recall!) and we made friends with one of the many cats who live at the lodges.

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By the pool

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One of the cats

We also spent some time enjoying the river views from our deck, but as sunset approached it was time to head for the main jetty to join our ‘cruise’

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Jetty with our boat waiting for us and the Floating Lodges beyond
~ ours is the nearest of the four

Sunset cruise

The small motorboat used for this outing takes six people, but we were lucky to have just one other couple with us, leaving room to move around a little – great! Before leaving we were asked about our beverage of choice - red or white wine, beer or soft drinks. We chose white wine as did the other couple, who had helpfully planned ahead and brought a can of mixed nuts from Marks & Spencer with them which they gladly shared and which made a great accompaniment to the drinks. But I am getting ahead of myself!

To start with we followed the small river downstream from the lodge. On the way we saw the small village and factory where the local women open and clean the oysters they collect from the mangrove roots.

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Mangrove roots

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Local children near Mandina

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White-throated Bee-eater

We also saw lots of birds, and our knowledgeable guide, Amadou, pointed these out. Among many others we saw:
~ Egrets - Great White and Cattle
~ Pied Kingfishers
~ Whimbrels
~ White-throated Bee-eater
~ Sandwich tern
~ Spur-winged Plover
~ Various herons - Grey, Western Reef, and the amazing and very well-named Goliath

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Pied Kingfisher

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Grey Heron

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Great White Egrets

After a while we reached the mouth of this river, where it opens into the wide expanses of the Gambia River, opposite Dog Island. The light was just fading, the sky was a pearly hue, and it was time to open the wine. We drifted for a while, enjoying our drinks, those nuts and the beautiful view, and chatting with our companions. We learned that he was now retired but had been the British Ambassador in several countries, which made for an interesting conversation.

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The Gambia River

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Near the Gambia River

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Banyan tree, late afternoon light

After a while Amadou said that we should start to head back up the river in time to view the sunset and more birds. As the sun dipped lower the sky turned a beautiful shade of orange.

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Mandina Sunset

And when Amadou said more birds, he meant it! First we passed a large group of Black Kites, settling down in some treetops to roost for the night.

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Black Kites at sunset

Then we came to the small islet he termed Bird Island, where some Cattle Egrets were doing the same. As we waited near the opposite bank more and more birds started to arrive - Cattle Egrets, Great White Egrets, various herons, Pelicans, Cormorants and Darters. They came singly and in small groups, from all sides, until the trees were thick with them. Several times we exclaimed that there was no room for more, but still they came.

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Pelicans

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Pelican in a dead tree

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Great White Egret

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Goliath Heron at sunset

My video can give only a small sense of what the experience was like, as I wanted to spend most of the time simply soaking up the atmosphere.

Before leaving this amazing sight, we sailed right round the islet, very close to the overhanging trees and the birds just settling down there for the night, who took no notice of us as we passed.

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Bird Island at sunset

Then it was time to return to the lodge, sipping the last of our wine and reflecting on a wonderful few hours.

Dinner time

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Chris at dinner

Stays at Mandina are on a half-board basis. The dinner menus are somewhat limited, constrained by the remote location and the availability in the local markets, but the food is of a good quality and well-prepared. Choice however is limited – understandably, as they can’t be expected to buy in loads of ingredients that may not be used. The chef makes a point of visiting all the guests each afternoon somewhere around the lodge to explain that evening's options and take their orders, and also confirm what time they want to eat. We found that there was a choice each day of two starters (one always a soup), two main courses and two desserts. The main courses were usually both meat or one meat and one fish, but vegetarians could be catered for if advance notice was given, as could other dietary requirements.

Today he had spoken to us earlier in the afternoon to take our orders, so as soon as we returned from the cruise we popped back to our lodge to freshen up and change, and hurried back to the open sided restaurant next to the pool. We were allocated the same table and waiter for the whole of our stay and it was good to get to know ours (whose name I have sadly forgotten), just as he got to know us and our tastes. Although the day had been hot, once the sun set it was quite cool and breezy so I was glad I’d brought a light jumper to slip over my shoulders.

After dinner we had a night-cap around the fire pit, sharing the day's experiences with the other guests. We found that the drinks list was somewhat limited compared with that at Ngala Lodge, but there were some decent house wines and the local Julbrew beer, so we were happy enough!

We went to bed in our beautiful Floating Lodge looking forward to the adventures to come!

Posted by ToonSarah 07:32 Archived in Gambia Tagged birds boats sunset views hotel river africa cats gambia Comments (13)

In Makasutu - birds and baboons (and the occasional cat!)

Gambia day nine


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Mandina sunrise

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Jenny

Every morning at Mandina tea or coffee is brought to your deck at a pre-agreed time, so we were woken this morning by the pleasant sound of a tray being placed on the table outside and a cheerful ‘Good morning’. As soon as we were dressed we hurried outside to enjoy our coffee and watch the river come to life around us.

Floating Lodge 1 has been adopted as home by one of the eleven resident cats, Jenny, who joined us here today (and each subsequent morning), as well as regularly visiting us inside (at our invitation). By the way, the fact that she shares her name with the manager of Ngala Lodge is no coincidence – the managers of the two properties are good friends and Jenny the cat was named after Jenny the hotel manager!

The sun was just rising over the trees and the river was coming to life. A Goliath Heron flew down from its roost to land on the deck of the next-door Floating Lodge.

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Goliath Heron at sunrise

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Goliath Heron on the decking of the neighbouring lodge

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Mandina sunrise

Makasutu Cultural Forest

Once we had drunk our morning coffees sitting out on our deck it was time to meet up with Amadou to go for a walk planned with him the previous evening. We were going to explore the immediate surroundings of Mandina, Makasutu Cultural Forest.

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Makasutu, early morning sky

Makasutu means ‘sacred forest’ in Mandinka. This 500 hectare reserve was founded by two British men, James English and Lawrence Williams, who had a passion for The Gambia and wanted to help to preserve its wildlife and natural environment. They gradually bought this area of land and restored it to its natural state. It encompasses five different eco-systems including gallery forest, savannah, mangroves, palm forest and wetland. In addition to the luxury lodges at Mandina itself they built what has become known as Base Camp (because this was where they first settled and camped while developing their project) where day visitors to the forest are welcomed.

Despite all the tourist activity Makasutu is still primarily a wild and natural environment. Or at least, so it appears. In fact, it owes its present-day appearance to the efforts of English and Williams who spent seventeen years restoring it, planting thousands of trees and working with local people to ensure sustainable use of the land. Today those same locals still farm some areas, and the village women harvest oysters from the mangroves, but most of the land is covered with trees and provides a perfect home for birds and other wildlife.

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A variety of trees

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Tree and strangler fig

Makasutu has become something of a prototype for what a sustainable approach to expanding tourism in The Gambia might look like, and has also shown what the passion of a couple of individuals can achieve. According to the Mandina Lodges’ website:

‘Jebril, a Jola tribesman, has been working at Makasutu for the past seventeen years and revealed that long before the Englishmen arrived, he and the others had dreams that two whites would come by river and settle at Makasutu and keep it from harm – a myth that has now turned into reality.’

Sadly James English died three years before our visit, but Lawrence kept Makasutu alive and going from strength to strength. We met him during our stay and his passion for the project, the area and for The Gambia as a whole really shone through.

But I digress, as we learned much of the above only gradually throughout our stay. Back to this morning, when Amadou led us out of the lodge complex and along the main track a short distance, before turning off into the ‘forest’. In truth it is more a wooded scrubland but was very pleasant to walk through at this time of day, with a fresh breeze wafting the scent of mint and other herbs across our path.

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Chris and Amadou

Amadou was very alert to any movement in the trees and we saw lots of birds. I was particularly taken with the pretty red Bearded Barbet and the impressive Crested Eagle. Others we saw included Plantain Eaters, a couple of Red Hornbills, a Pied Crow, a Blue-spotted Wood Dove, a Black Kite and some Long-tailed Glossy Starlings.

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Bearded Barbet

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Blue-spotted Wood Dove

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Pied Crow

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Crested Eagle

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Red Hornbill

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Red Hornbill

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Plantain Eater

We emerged into open space surrounding a dried-up lake where local villagers often grow rice.

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Dried-up lake in Makasutu Cultural Forest

From here the path led past a small cashew grove and back towards the hotel complex. As we approached the gate, we saw that a large troop of baboons had gathered there and we were able to get lots of photos of their antics.

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Approaching baboons!

The dog who had accompanied us on our walk (one of six that live at Mandina) was challenged by the largest of the baboons and retreated sheepishly behind me and Chris as we stood there taking pictures!

A possibly unforeseen result of the reforestation of Makasutu has been the return of the baboons. Or rather, they foresaw their return (one of the aims in reforesting the area was to encourage wildlife) but perhaps not the impact they would have on human activity here. They are something of a mixed blessing, it has to be said. On the one hand, we tourists love to see them and their relative habituation to humans means that we can get quite close to observe and photograph their behaviour. On the other hand, their almost daily incursions into the hotel’s grounds in search of food make work and worry for the staff. We were warned not to leave any toiletries in our open-air bathroom as the baboons would certainly snatch them thinking they might be edible, although of course would discard them as soon as they tasted them!

Also, the baboons are starting to steal crops planted by the local people who have traditionally cleared the forest to grow rice and other cereals. They have been able to retain their patches of ground which have been kept clear of trees in the general replanting, but they are unable to stop the baboons.

One partial solution adopted by the Mandina management was to feed the baboons at a specific spot near Base Camp, to encourage them to go there for their food and also give the day trippers some certainty of seeing them. While this was obviously achieving the second aim, I wasn’t sure about the first, and I wondered if they might have to make some difficult decisions about the future of these engaging creatures at some point.

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Baboons near Mandina Lodges

The baboons found in The Gambia are the species known as Guinea Baboons, the smallest of the five species. They seemed cuter to us than others we have seen elsewhere, perhaps because of this smaller size and also the attractive colouring – reddish brown on their backs, a more olive mane around the face, and that black hairless face with brown eyes peering at us quite intelligently and inquisitively. They sleep in trees, so their numbers are regulated by the availability and spread of these – hardly surprising then that with the reforestation of Makasutu the baboons have returned. They live in large groups or troops of up to about 200, with the most common troop size being about 30–40 individuals. The Makasutu baboons were at the time of our visit a single troop but their numbers were growing so fast that Amadou predicted that soon they may split into two, which could make for some interesting arguments! Within the troop the baboons live in ‘harems’, with one dominant male and one subordinate male plus several females and juveniles.

After spending some time with the baboons, we were ready for breakfast so headed back into the lodges complex and the restaurant area, very satisfied with our morning outing.

A day at Mandina

Breakfast consisted of a choice of juices (the baobab was my favourite), a plate of fresh fruit, good crusty bread with jams and honey and a cooked breakfast with eggs done to your taste – the scrambled eggs were excellent! The table was beautifully set with fresh flowers (hibiscus) as decoration.

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Breakfast at Mandina Lodges

We spent the rest of the day relaxing and enjoying all that Mandina had to offer. We swam in the pool and met another of the resident cats who liked to hang around there and make friends with the guests.

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Chris with one of the cats, by the pool

I took photos of the various birds, many of whom were attracted by the large expanse of water in the pool, including Bee Eaters diving down to grab a drink on the wing (far too fast for me to capture on camera) and several others enjoying the fresh water available from a bird bath on a small island in the middle of the pool – a Speckled Pigeon and Firefinch among them.

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Firefinch

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Speckled Pigeon

Later we hung out on our decking watching life on the river, with the local fishermen paddling past, and the women in search of oysters which they gather from the mangroves. The latter is one of the mainstays of the local economy in this region. Collecting them is a tough job, and one traditionally done by the women from their dug-out canoes or pirogues.

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Local woman collecting oysters

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Fisherman

Jenny came to visit us there again, and I spotted some more Bee Eaters (White-throated, I believe) although didn’t get great photos on this occasion.

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Jenny on our deck

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White-throated (?) Bee-eater

In the evening we enjoyed another dinner and a night-cap by the firepit before strolling back along the board walks to our cosy Floating Lodge.

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Bat in the rafters of the restaurant

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Mandina Lodges at night

Posted by ToonSarah 04:52 Archived in Gambia Tagged people trees animals birds fishing wildlife hotel africa apes gambia Comments (13)

Surprising art works … and then home

Gambia days eleven and twelve


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Mandina Lodges sunrise

We had a later start for today’s final outing with Amadou, so there was time for some photos from the decking before breakfast, as we enjoyed our customary coffee. It was still not quite light – Venus was visible above the mangroves, a heron was silhouetted against the sunrise, and a Goliath Heron kept watch from the trees – probably the same one we had seen on other mornings.

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Heron at sunrise

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Jenny

And of course Jenny was there to keep us company!

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Dawn over Mandina Lodges

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Goliath Heron at sunrise

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Local woman by the river near Kubuneh

Kubuneh

I had read before leaving home about the Wide Open Walls art project and was keen to visit, so we asked Amadou if it would be possible to see some of the art and he proposed a visit to one of the villages involved, Kubuneh, about a half hour boat ride from Mandina Lodges.

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By the river in Kubuneh

We landed on a small beach where local women boil the oysters they have prised off the mangroves. Collecting these is a tough job, and one traditionally done by the women whom we saw frequently passing Mandina in their dug-out canoes or pirogues.

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Oyster shells on the small beach

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Local woman carrying oysters

The oysters have to be boiled for an hour to make them edible (you can’t eat these raw as you do the coastal ones, we were told). Some are eaten by the locals but most sold to restaurants. The discarded shells are picked clean by Hooded Vultures and Piapiacs (an African crow) before being smoked, ground to a powder and mixed with water to make a wash for the walls of buildings.

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Hooded vulture

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Hooded vultures

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Piapiac

The Wide Open Walls project

Some years ago, one of the owners of Makasutu and Mandina, Lawrence, who is a keen artist, decided to use art as a way of bringing some income to the local villages. He invited internationally known artists to stay at Mandina after the end of the tourist season, and to create street art in the most unlikely of settings, the small rural Gambian villages dotted around the area. The idea was that the works would function as a valid art installation in their own right and at the same time promote The Gambia as a tourist destination and thus benefit local communities. Progress has been slow, mainly because of the recession, but gradually the project, known as Wide Open Walls, has begun to create more and more interest. You can read more about it on the Mandina Lodges website: https://www.mandinalodges.com/makasutu-forest/wide-open-walls.

It was fascinating to see the works as they seemed at the same time both incongruous and totally in their right place. They are on public buildings, private houses, walls and even on the trees! And because quite a number of artists have been involved since the project began, there is a good chance everyone will find some that appeal.

As you can imagine, I took lots of photos. Here's a selection for you to enjoy - or scroll past, depending on your levels of enthusiasm for street art!

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Wide Open Walls

As I said, even some of the trees have been used by the artists as 'canvasses'.

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Faces on the trees, Kubuneh

Life in Kubuneh

Visiting Kubuneh didn’t just give us the opportunity to see the Wide Open Walls street art but also to see a rural Gambian village.
The village seemed still largely untouched by the extra attention it is starting to receive but there were some early seeds of the development of a tourist infrastructure – a part-built restaurant, a small craft stall under a baobab tree, signs promoting bird-watching trips. I hoped that this would benefit the local people but not spoil the special atmosphere here – from what I learned about Lawrence I thought it fair to say that was unlikely.

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Sign on a tree

Certainly overall the village was then (2014) still largely untouched by the presence of visitors, and although some small children called out a hello, in the vain hope of being given sweets (giving which is strongly discouraged by the authorities and tour companies), there was no sense of the commercialisation that we had experienced earlier in this trip, to some extent at least, at the former slave trade villages on the River Gambia.

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Children in Kubuneh

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Local people

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The village church

On our walk through the village we stopped to chat to a local woman whom Amadou knew. She was happy for us to take photos of her and her children (twin boys and a baby) and we gave the boys some postcards from home in return which they seemed to like (and much better for them than sweets!) This is one of the houses that has been painted through the Wide Open Walls project and the woman told me how much they like it.

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Mother and two of her children

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The twins with their postcards

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Amadou also took us to visit the local community-run school, which takes children from the ages of three to nine as these are considered too young to walk to the nearest government school 1.5 kilometres away. Unfortunately for us (but not presumably for the children!) the pupils had been given a day off in recognition of having won a sports competition the previous Friday, so we weren’t able to see and interact with any of them.

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The (almost deserted) village school

But we were able to meet the headmaster, Malik, who showed us the classrooms and told us a bit about the school. They are currently setting up a programme to give all the children a breakfast each morning, as many arrive without having eaten anything (or generally eat poorly at home), so we gave Malik a donation towards that as well as some pencils and crayons we had brought with us from home. He has a donations book which we were asked to complete and it was interesting to see how many others, from a variety of countries, had been here and done the same.

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Classrooms

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School motto

The writing on one of the blackboards tells a surprising story for a school whose pupils are relatively young, of a man accusing his son of being a bandit and asking the police to 'take him away'. His only crime seems to have been playing his music too loud and not reading his books!

There is also mention of the man beating one of his two wives before throwing her out, accusing her of stealing a chain in order to buy cannabis.

Last day at Mandina

The rest of the day passed in the by-now usual mix of swimming, relaxing and photographing the birds. Among the latter were a pretty Firefinch and some White-throated Bee-eaters who enjoyed darting down to the pool water in search of any insects floating there.

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View from my lounger!

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White-throated Bee-eater

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Firefinch

Another highlight was a Malachite Kingfisher on one of the posts of our decking. He didn’t hang around long enough for me to get a great photo but at least I got something!

A Giant Kingfisher paid us an even more fleeting visit but again I managed to get some sort of photo although his head was in shadow.

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Malachite Kingfisher

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Giant Kingfisher

Later we watched the local women on their way home after collecting oysters – some presumably heading to Kubuneh and the beach where we had photographed the discarded shells this morning.

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Local women collecting oysters

That night at dinner some excitement was caused by a Goliath Heron in the shallows right next to the restaurant – very difficult to photograph in the dark but of course I had to try!

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Goliath Heron at night

Time to go home

On our last morning there was time for a few more photos from the decking of our Floating Lodge.

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Last morning coffee

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Sunrise panorama

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View of the other Floating Lodges from our deck

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Jenny was there again, naturally!

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Lizard on a tree

Jenny tried to make it difficult for us to pack and leave but sadly we couldn’t linger as we had a plane to catch.

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Please don't go home!

Our transfer back to the airport near Banjul went smoothly, and we found the airport surprisingly well-organised, with only a short queue to check in and a reasonable one for customs and security. It helped that we had already filled in our departure card, but these are available at the airport if needed. Security was cursory by modern standards, with no request to screen electronic devices separately or to remove liquids for inspection.

The departure lounge had three duty free shops all selling much the same goods (mainly cigarettes and alcohol) plus one souvenir shop and a couple of bars. One of these, the Sky Bar, had very pro-active waiters who handed us a menu as soon as we entered the lounge and helped us find a space among the crowded seats. They sold snacks, cold and hot drinks, Julbrew and ice creams, all at reasonable prices, so we enjoyed a cold drink while waiting to board. The other bar was outside on a terrace with good views of the planes but very exposed to the hot African sun, so we gave that a miss.

The return flight was in a smaller and more cramped plane (it seemed that Monarch used smaller planes for their Tuesday flights than their Friday ones) but was similar in terms of service quality. We landed at Gatwick on a chilly February evening. The warmth of The Gambia already seemed a long way away …

Posted by ToonSarah 02:10 Archived in Gambia Tagged art people children birds lizards wildlife views hotel flight airport village river school africa cats street_art customs gambia Comments (32)

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