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In the Japanese Alps

Japan day twelve


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Kamikochi

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Japanese tourists in Kamikochi

Kamikochi is a high plateau, surrounded by mountains, through which the Azusa River flows. It is part of the Chubu-Sangaku National Park and, because of the climate, only open to visitors from around mid April to mid November each year. When we visited in mid October the foliage was beautifully tinted with reds, golds and greens and the park, always popular with Japanese visitors, was busy even in the rain. And in the rain is how, for the most part, we saw it!

We had been enjoying great weather on our trip through Japan, but in Kamikochi our luck finally ran out. Rain is not at all unusual here, but we got more than just rain – we got one of Japan's autumnal typhoons!

Travelling to Kamikochi

But I am running ahead of myself – first, we had to get here from Takayama where we had spent the previous two days. We had arrived there by train but when we left a few days later it was by bus. The bus station is just next to and north of the train station and has a small waiting area with the ubiquitous vending machines – very useful for stocking up on provisions for the journey or an extra morning coffee. There’s plenty of seating and you can take advantage of free wifi if you’re going to be here any length of time.

Our bus arrived exactly on schedule to take us from Takayama to Hirayu, the first leg of our two bus journey. These are just local buses, not designed for tourists on lengthy visits to Japan, so we had used the excellent Japan Rail luggage forwarding service to send most of our luggage to Tokyo, where we were heading after Kamikochi, and took only small overnight bags on this trip. The buses were quite full, and we were very glad we didn’t have more bags to accommodate.

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Seen from the bus

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Kamikochi traffic jam

The journey to Hirayu took about an hour. There we changed buses, with a wait of about 15 minutes, for one bound for Kamikochi. No private vehicles are allowed beyond the entrance to the long Kappa tunnel that leads to Kamikochi; the only access is by bus or taxi and when you get on the road you see why. It is very narrow and winding and even with those restrictions in place seems to struggle to cope with the traffic. We were stuck for a while behind a bus that was manoeuvring inexpertly to allow another coming in the opposite direction to pass.

The views throughout our journey from Takayama were great, but on this last stretch spectacular – despite (or arguably because of) the very low cloud and rain. I was glad I had secured a window seat and could capture these first impressions of the Japanese Alps with my camera.

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Nearing Kamikochi

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Rainy Kamikochi from the bus

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Soba in hot soup

The bus deposited us at the terminal near the centre of the park, Kappa-bashi. Although it was a bit early for lunch Andrew suggested that we ate in the restaurant there (above the gift shop) as we wouldn’t be able to get anything at the hotel at this time. The wet weather had, it seemed, prompted everyone to have a similar idea, as although the restaurant here is large we had to wait a while for a table and our group broke into twos and fours to secure spaces.

Once seated we enjoyed our warming meal. visit I had soba noodles in a hot soup, which was described as being with ‘edible' (thankfully!) plants, and Chris the katsu (pork cutlet).

Kappa-bashi Bridge

After lunch we regrouped and headed for our hotel. This was right by the river on the far side of, and just a few metres from, the Kappa-bashi Bridge. This wooden suspension bridge is 36.6 metres long and just over three metres wide. It is something of a symbol for Kamikochi and is also the busiest point in the park as almost everyone crosses it at some point in their visit. By the way, bashi means bridge, but most English translations add the tautological 'bridge' to the name.

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Kappa-bashi in the rain

The bridge is named for a mythical creature, the Kappa, a name meaning ‘river child’. The Kappa is a trickster, as found in many mythologies, but a pretty malevolent one. They are said to lure people into the water to drown, to kidnap children and even to drink the blood of their victims in order to capture their soul. Even today you may see a sign warning of the presence of a Kappa by some bodies of water in more remote Japanese towns and villages. According to Wikipedia:

‘Kappa have been used to warn children of the dangers lurking in rivers and lakes, as kappa have been often said to try to lure people to water and pull them in.

‘Kappa legends are said to be based on the Japanese giant salamander or hanzaki, an aggressive salamander that grabs its prey with its powerful jaws. Other theories suggest they are based on historical sightings of the now extinct Japanese river otter as seen from a distance, otters have been known to stand upright and a drunk, frightened or hallucinating person may think they are seeing a humanoid entity and not a wild animal.

‘The kappa is typically depicted as roughly humanoid in form and about the size of a child. Its scaly reptilian skin ranges in colour from green to yellow or blue.'

The bridge is surrounded by a number of mountains including Nishihotakadake, Okuhotakadake and Myojindake, which are all over 3,000 metres above sea level. But on this first afternoon in the park mountain views were in short supply, so we simply crossed the bridge and made the short walk to the hotel, Nishi-itoya Sanso, a good-sized guesthouse with traditional Japanese accommodation.

Nishi-itoya Sanso

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Exterior of Nishi-itoya Sanso - our room is bottom right

Our ground floor room here was probably the largest we had during our trip to Japan. We had a wash basin, but other facilities were communal - toilets in the corridor nearby, and a public onsen (separate men's and women's) on the second floor.

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Our room at Nishi-itoya Sanso

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Yukuta set

Sleeping is traditional style, on futons, which the staff laid out for us each evening while we were at dinner. But a welcome Western touch was the provision of a small table and chairs in the window alcove, from where we had a good view of the surrounding trees and a footpath traversed not only by human visitors to the park but also occasionally by the resident macaques!

Once we’d settled in we went for a walk in the immediate area, and despite the rain enjoyed taking photos of the trees, with the autumn leaves just turning, and the low clouds drifting through the wooded hillsides.

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Kamikochi in the rain

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Autumn colours

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Rainy day details

But having been warned not to be out after mid afternoon because of the approaching typhoon, we quite soon returned to our room to enjoy the views of the rather damp trees and equally damp passing macaques.

The macaques of Kamikochi

One of the delights of a visit to Kamikochi is the opportunity to observe the resident macaques, who are not too timid to venture into the ‘populated’ area around the hotels. From our limited two days’ experience, it seemed they would put in an appearance mid to late afternoon, with a troop making its way along the path in front of our hotel and others taking a short cut across the staff car park behind. It was so much fun to observe their antics, especially those with little babies in tow or (very cute) riding on their backs.

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Bedraggled macaque with baby

The Japanese macaque is the most northerly-living primate (apart from humans, obviously!) and is sometimes called the ‘snow monkey’ because it is happy to live even where snow regularly covers the ground in winter. But you’re unlikely to get the opportunity to see it in the snow in Kamikochi because the park is closed during the winter months. However, we found that soggy-furred monkeys are almost as cute as snow-covered ones!

The macaques have a distinctive red face which makes them look permanently a little cross. They have thick brown or greyish fur which grows thicker in cold weather. They live in large groups or troops with males, females and infants all living, feeding and travelling together. The babies spend their first four weeks hanging from their mother’s belly before being transferred to her back where they spend most of their first year.

The macaques move quite quickly (or at least, they do when it rains) so you need to have your camera at the ready. I have a lot of very blurred photos to show for my efforts, and more than a few of bushes where, a fraction of a second before I pressed the shutter, a monkey was passing! The photo above was my only successful effort on this first afternoon, although I was to do better the following day.

After a relaxing couple of hours watching their antics, reading and catching up on my journal notes, it was time for dinner, which Andrew had promised us would be quite an experience – and it was!

A Japanese feast

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Table set for dinner

Stays at Nishi-itoya are on a half board basis and the dinners served are amazing, classic Japanese feasts, with multiple courses (albeit all served at once in the Japanese way). The table as we walked in to our group's private dining room on the first evening had us all gasping, and even so this was only part of our meal, as various hot items were added soon after we took our seats.

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An individual place-setting

Even with a printed menu sheet in English, some of the items remained hard to identify, and some of us found some of them a little hard to stomach, but really there was nothing here to deter anyone other than the ultra-squeamish (no odd parts of animals or insects, for instance!) and most of us sampled most things, though the non-fish eaters struggled a little at times. But everyone, whether they cleared their plates or simply grazed, found this an experience to remember.

The menu on that first night was (taken verbatim from the printed sheet provided):

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Walnut tofu

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Assorted samplers

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Grilled char

Appetiser: walnut tofu

Assorted samplers
~ burdock rolled with sea bream
~ boiled prawn
~ chestnut
~ cheese with citron

Sashimi: local salmon and char

Grilled char with salt

Sweet bun of lily root

Roast beef and salad

Fried salmon with eggplant
Fried potato with shrimp

Clear soup with mushroom paste

Rice with vegetable pickles

Fruit [grapes]

Wow! Of course, some dishes appealed to each of us more than others. My own favourites were the walnut tofu (I normally don't much care for tofu but this was a revelation), the sashimi and the fried potato with shrimp - a sort of Japanese fishcake. I also rather liked the lily root bun, which had the texture of mashed potato and a fairly mild flavour. The char was good too, though I found it a challenge to eat with chopsticks! Chris is not a big fan of fish so I traded some of my beef (which was his favourite) for his sashimi, and I noticed that around the table others were engaged in similar negotiations – one of the advantages of eating with a group ;)

After dinner we sat in the coffee shop for a while with Andrew and another couple from the group, Sue and Jim from Australia, with whom we were becoming friendly. We could buy sake here, tea and coffee, water and beer, although as the coffee shop closes at 21.00 we didn’t stay up late but headed back to our room to snuggle down in our futons and hope for better weather tomorrow.

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Andrew, Jim and Sue in the coffee shop

Posted by ToonSarah 10:05 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains trees monkeys food rain japan weather national_park kamikochi Comments (9)

Kamikochi in the rain

Japan day thirteen


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Rain over Kamikochi

After yesterday’s typhoon and associated rain, we awoke today hoping for better weather. Well, it was slightly better, in that the typhoon had passed and there was nothing to stop us getting outside, but the rain was still falling and not forecast to stop before the evening. Clearly we would not be getting mountain views today, but we were still keen to get out and see something of Kamikochi.

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Breakfast at Nishi-itoya Sanso

Over the Japanese style breakfast (salmon, pickles, miso soup, rice and tea) Andrew proposed leading a group on a walk to the Myojin area of the park, east of our hotel. The shrine that is located at the Myojin Pond is a popular sight and sounded lovely, but Chris and I decided we would rather do our own thing today. So after supplementing the breakfast with the free coffee available in the coffee shop, we got ready to face the elements. Chris’s umbrella had given up the battle with these in yesterday’s wind, so it was good that the hotel provided them for any guest needing one. While we had waterproof clothing, I find an umbrella invaluable in protecting not just me but my camera – most of the photos on this page were taken juggling camera and umbrella!

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Chris with hotel umbrella

Our riverside walk

Leaving the hotel we turned right, having decided to explore in the opposite direction to the main group. Kamikochi is a park for walkers and hikers (there isn’t much else to do here) and there are paths to suit everyone, from an easy stroll by the river to a challenging hike up one of the mountains. In this weather however the riverside routes are the only practical ones (even the best walkers in our group stuck to these) and the area around the hotels and Kappi-bashi was busy with visitors. But many don’t go very far from the hotels and bus terminal and we knew we would soon leave the bulk of them behind.

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The path by the river

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Information sign

The trails are easy to follow and clearly marked, and helpful little maps are available, small enough to slip in a jacket pocket. I had picked up one of these at the hotel, where they are free, but you can also buy them for 100¥ from the tourist information office at the bus terminal and from various shops. There are also signs along the way describing the landscape, trees, bird life etc. These are in Japanese and English, and are very informative – although it was somewhat frustrating to see on some of them the pictures of the stunning mountain range that was totally hidden from our view by a blanket of low cloud!

Following the park rules (naturally!)

Kamikochi is part of the Chubu-Sangaku National Park and, like national parks everywhere, there are various regulations in force to ensure the protection of the wildlife here. These include specific protection for certain animals, the rock ptarmigan, antelope and char, which are designated as ‘Precious Natural Animals’ in Japan. A voluntary group called ‘Kamikochi Preservation’ was established by the local community in 1965 to support conservation activities in the area. They promote three regulations that visitors are asked to observe in order to preserve Kamikochi for future generations:

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Tree with moss

1. Don't Feed & Disturb!
Do not disturb or feed birds, insects, fish or other wild animals.

2. Don't Harm!
Do not harm or damage wild flowers and plants.

3. Don't Dump!
Carry all your garbage home with your splendid memories.

With these in mind, and cameras and umbrellas at the ready, we started our explorations!

The Weston Relief

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The Weston Relief

This is the shorthand name given locally to the Reverend Weston Memorial Plaque, which we came to after a short walk from Kappa-bashi. It commemorates the Reverend Walter Weston, an English clergyman and missionary of the Church of England during the late 19th / early 20th centuries. He first visited Japan at the age of 27 and was captivated by its mountain regions which he introduced to the world through his book, ‘Mountaineering and Exploring in the Japanese Alps’ (1896). It is he who is credited with spreading the popular name for this region, the ‘Japanese Alps’, around the world. He was influential in establishing the Japanese Alpine Club in 1906 and was its first honorary member.

In 1937, Emperor Hirohito conferred on him the Japanese ‘Order of the Sacred Treasures (fourth class)’, and the Japanese Alpine Club erected a bronze plaque in his honour here at Kamikochi. Today’s plaque is a 1965 reproduction of that earlier one which had got badly damaged over time.

From here we continued along the riverside path.

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The Azusa River near the Weston Relief

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Colours of Kamikochi

Tashiro Bridge

About a kilometre from Kappa-bashi the path, which at first follows the northern bank of the Azusa River, crosses it via the Tashiro Bridge. The river views on and near the bridge are great, and the water so clear as it runs over the pebbles, even on a wet day. On the far side of the bridge is a small shelter with some interesting information displays about the park’s wildlife. From here you could walk straight ahead to reach the main road and bus stop, but we turned right to continue along the trail.

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Kamikochi streams

Soon after this point the path divides and you have the choice of following a route near the river or one that runs among the trees. We chose the former, and followed the path as it crossed a couple of smaller streams that feed the Azusa near here, before arriving at the beautiful Tashiro-Ike.

Tashiro-Ike

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Tashiro-Ike

This was easily my favourite spot of those we visited in Kamikochi. We had been walking in the rain for some time, enjoying the soft light and changing colours, when suddenly the path through the trees emerged into a more open area, filled with rust-tinted reeds and edged with larch and other trees. This was Tashiro Marsh, which is gradually being formed by the silting up of Tashiro Pond through many years of accumulated dead leaves. A raised path crosses the marsh and leads to the edge of the pond itself, Tashiro-Ike. Its clear waters reflect, on a bright day, the surrounding mountains but today, in the soft Kamikochi rain, they glowed deep and green, reflecting only the nearby trees. In this busy park, and only minutes from its most popular trail, we had this spot almost to ourselves; many visitors, it seems, don’t bother to make the 100 metre or so detour to see this pond. They are missing a treat!

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At Tashiro-Ike

Tashiro is from all accounts lovely whatever the season. In late spring and summer it is surrounded by flowers, including Japanese azalea, and later the autumn colours that we enjoyed appear. In winter Kamikochi is closed to visitors, but if you were able to visit Tashiro you would find the waters still flowing, as it is fed by an underground spring and never completely freezes over.

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At Tashiro-Ike

From here we retraced our steps to the main path and continued in the direction we had been walking.

Taisho-Ike

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Taisho-Ike

This trail ends at the Taisho Pond, one of Kamikochi’s most popular and photographed spots. The pond is a relatively recent addition to the landscape here, having been formed in 1915 by the volcanic activity of nearby Yakedake. On June 6th that year an eruption caused an avalanche of mud which blocked the Azusa River and led to the creation of Taisho-Ike. The trees drowned when the river was dammed still stand, withered but upright, and make for an eerie sight, especially in the grey misty light of a rainy day. By contrast, a clear day will reveal reflections of Yakedake and Mount Hotaka in the pond’s still waters (we were to get a glimpse of this from the bus the next morning as we left the park).

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Taisho-Ike

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Reflections, Taisho-Ike

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Taisho-Ike

To reach the water’s edge we scrambled over the rocky foreshore to take some photos. We then climbed a short path up to the hotel that sits here, which in fine weather has great views of the reflections in the pond, and is consequently often crowded, I believe. But today it was quiet here and it was easy to get good photos from both foreshore and above.

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Taisho-Ike

Once we’d seen and photographed all we wanted to, we climbed up the short path to the hotel where we were able to use the toilets. We also went in the café here to get a hot cup of coffee to warm us up after the rainy walk. The café also has lovely views of the pond so there were more photos to be taken of course!

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On Taisho-Ike - taken from the hotel above

A relaxing afternoon

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Salmon and meat patty set

The only walking route back to Kappa-bashi from here is to retrace your steps along the same path, but we decided we had had enough rain for one day. So instead we caught the bus from a stop just outside the hotel. This took us to the bus terminal from where it is just a short walk to the bridge and hotels on the far side. But by now we were hungry so we went back to the restaurant above the gift shop where we had eaten on our arrival in Kamikochi the previous day. Again it was busy with visitors escaping the wet weather but we didn’t have to wait too long for a table. I had a ‘set’ with a small piece of salmon in crispy crumb, a meat patty cooked the same way, salad, rice, miso soup and pickles. It was more than I wanted but I fancied having salmon, so I ate that, the salad, a little rice and the soup. Chris had the meat patty along with his ‘curry rice’ - the Japanese take on curry which consists of a rich meaty curry sauce with very little actual meat! While this meal too was fine, I have to say I had preferred my soba dish of the previous day.

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Bedraggled Macaque

After this late lunch we crossed Kappa-bashi back to the hotel where we relaxed in our room for a bit. Later we visited the coffee shop for cake and coffee, and sat at a counter with a great view of the path outside that was favourite route for passing macaques. I loved watching their antics, especially the young ones, and managed to capture a few more photos than on the previous afternoon. I also made a little video of a couple of them, although unfortunately the window frame kept getting in the way, so you only get short glimpses of each as it passes.

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Macaque with baby on board

Dinner that evening was as much of a feast as on the previous day and served in the same traditional style, with all courses beautifully presented and served individually to each place-setting at the same time. This time the menu was:

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Assorted samplers
including river crab

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Sashimi

Assorted samplers
~ grilled saury [a fish] with citron flavour
- river crab
- chestnut
~ persimmon jelly
~ pumpkin millefeuille

Sashimi: local salmon and maraena white fish

Grilled sweetfish with salt

Hot buckwheat noodle

Beef steak and salad

Fried buckwheat noodle rolled with laver
Fried ginkgo nuts

Clear soup with mushroom paste

Rice and vegetable pickles

Fruit [apple slices]

Again, a fabulous spread! I loved the sashimi again and also enjoyed the buckwheat noodles both fried and served in their hot sauce. The river crab was really too tiny though to have any significant flavour or meat to it. But as on the previous evening we all came away from the table feeling very full and rather pampered by the whole experience.

When the skies cleared

Later that evening, at around 9.00 PM, we were sitting in the inn’s coffee shop, drinking beers and sake with some of the group, when the guy who was on reception came hurrying in. In his limited English he explained that if we came outside we would see the full moon and ‘white mountain’. So we left our drinks and hurried out, to find that at last the skies had cleared and we could indeed see the nearest mountain glowing palely in the light of the moon. It was bitterly cold, so we didn’t linger long, but that tantalising glimpse made us eager for the next morning.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:27 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains trees monkeys rain water wildlife monument river weather national_park kamikochi Comments (5)

An outing with Habib

Gambia day six


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Habib at Kachikally

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

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

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

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Serekunda Big Tree

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

Serekunda Market

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

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

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Serekunda Market

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

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Serekunda Market

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Market sellers and shopper

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At Serekunda Market

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

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

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Herbs for sale

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

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At Serekunda Market

Kachikally

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

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

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Crocodile at Kachikally

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

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

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

The museum at Kachikally

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

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Museum exhibit

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Fangbondi

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

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

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

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

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

Crocodiles!

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

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Petting a crocodile

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

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

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Crocodiles at Kachikally

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Jewellery stall

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

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

Bakau Botanic Gardens

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

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Dutchman’s Pipe, Bakau Botanic Gardens

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

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

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Caesalpinia pulcherrima

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Long-tailed Glossy Starling

Calypso at the Cape

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

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Chris with wonjo juice, Calypso at the Cape

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

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Weavers (not sure which sort)

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Cinnamon Roller

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

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Gambian lizard

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Spot the croc!

More relaxation at Ngala Lodge

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Grilled goats cheese salad
for lunch

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

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

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Red Hornbill

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Whimbrel

Later there was another gorgeous sunset ...

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Ngala sunset

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The perfect spot from which to watch a Ngala sunset

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The sea at sunset

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

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Dinner at Ngala Lodge - duck ...

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... and Jamaican mousse for dessert

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

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)

Seeing more of Makasutu

Gambia day ten


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Makasutu Forest near Base Camp

Baobab Cultural Centre

After our early morning coffee on the deck we headed out on another walk with Amadou. We were heading to the area of the forest known as Base Camp, but on the way we stopped off a small craft market aimed mainly at the day trippers who come here from the coast. Of course, they are also not averse to welcoming visitors from Mandina whom I imagine the guides are encouraged to bring.

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At the Baobab Cultural Centre

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Our purchase

We felt sort-of obliged to look around and consider a purchase, especially as it was so quiet this early in the morning. There were bead bracelets and necklaces, traditional instruments, sand paintings and a few really large (and mostly very good) carvings made from tree roots, as well as many smaller carvings.

We settled on a woodcarving of a woman carrying a bundle on her head and a baby on her back, much as we had seen women do at Serrekunda Market. Although not especially finely carved, it seemed an appropriate reminder of our visit to The Gambia and we were able to get it for a reasonable 300D (about £4.60 or $7.70), reduced by the seller, after some bargaining, from his original 450D. A smaller one offered at 200D (reduced from 350D) we rejected for its poor workmanship.

Soldier ants!

Before arriving at Mandina we had expected that the insect that we should be most concerned about would be the mosquito. But when we arrived Linda, the manager here, told us that there would be very few mozzies at that time of year (February), although of course we should take precautions. The insect she said we should be most alert to, however, was the soldier ant. So when we saw these ones on our walk to Base Camp we were careful to heed Amadou’s warning to step over them very carefully – although I did stop to take a few photos and shoot a little video of them on the march.

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Soldier ants
~ although not great photos, you can clearly see their pincers!

There are numerous species of these ants in various parts of the world (we saw some years ago in the Amazon) but they all share this habit of moving en masse and in a very purposeful line. They are very aggressive and hunt prey such as larvae, worms, small insects and their eggs. According to Wikipedia, a colony of army ants can consume up to 500,000 prey animals each day! They attack as a group and have been known to overwhelm large animals. It’s more likely though that they will just give you some nasty and painful nips from their amazingly powerful jaws. So we were wise to stay well clear!

Base Camp

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At Base Camp

This is the location where the founders of Makasutu (and later Mandina), Lawrence and James, lived when they first came to this region. They spent the first seven years living in tents on the land, with no running water or electricity, really getting to understand the environment and planning how they would develop it without spoiling it. This led to them first developing the area around their base, thus the name of Base Camp, and later Mandina Lodges.

The Mandina website explains how this part of the forest was developed:
‘Fifteen thousand trees were planted over the next few years, as well as 70 wells to help water the new trees. The local people that were living and using Makasutu before James and Lawrence arrived, were left as they were on the land, and discussions were held with them, and it was decided it was possible to incorporate them into the tourism project that was planned.

The area was developed in a sensitive way, making sure that no trees were cut down in the development, and actually designing the buildings to fit into the spaces that the trees dictated. The site took seven years to develop, and finally the day park was officially opened on the 20th July 1999 by the then Minister of Lands and Local Government, Mr Bajo, on behalf of his Excellency President Jammeh.’

Today Base Camp functions as a base for day trips to Makasutu, with a pool where visitors can cool off, a restaurant which serves traditional food for the visitors’ lunches, and a stage for cultural performances. A brand new four storey tower sits at the edge of the creek, from the top of which you can get sweeping views of the mangroves and forested areas.

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Views from the tower

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Roof tops of Mandina from the tower

I loved the views from this but felt the structure looked very out of place. Its gleaming whiteness can be seen from some distance – my photo below was taken the following day and shows the view of it from the jetty at Kubuneh, about 1.5 kilometres away. Something more traditional-looking might have blended in better with the landscape.

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Base Camp from Kubuneh

There are some colourful murals and various sculptures dotted around, reflecting Lawrence’s interest in art.

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Art works at Base Camp

We saw a number of birds here, and Amadou showed us where a Barn Owl roosts inside the roof of the bar/restaurant.

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Red-billed Hornbill

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Long-tailed Glossy Starling, and Barn Owl

On the way back to the lodges we stopped off to photograph a particularly large termite mound, and got back in time for a late breakfast, as we had done yesterday.

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Termite mound, with Chris showing the scale

Bird-spotting and swimming

We then spent a relaxing day enjoying the pool and surrounding gardens and taking photos of some of the birds, including the Village Weavers enjoying the bird bath on the little island in the centre of the pool and a Plantain Eater in the nearby palm trees.

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Village Weaver

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Plantain Eater

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Later while we were enjoying the river views from our decking a Pied Kingfisher came and posed beautifully.

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Pied Kingfisher

And Jenny the cat joined us again for part of the afternoon – we were fast becoming great friends!

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Jenny

Evening paddle among the mangroves

Towards the end of the afternoon we met up again with Amadou for a boat ride, paddling along the mangrove-edged waters in search of bird life and just generally relaxing in the cooling air.

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Evening paddle

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Chris and Amadou

As we left the lodges a Goliath Heron caught our eye, perched among the mangroves. These amazing birds stand 120–152 cm (47–60 inches) tall!

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Goliath Heron

We passed some fishermen near a village, casting their nets in the traditional way, and some women returning from a day spent collecting oysters from the mangrove roots.

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Fisherman

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Passing one of the local villages

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Evening on the river

Among the other birds seen on this trip, which lasted a bit over two hours, were:
~ Senegal Thick-knee
~ White-faced Whistling Duck
~ Swallowtailed Bee-eater
~ Redshank
~ Greenshank
~ Pied Kingfisher
~ Grey Heron
~ Whimbrel

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Senegal Thick-knees

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White-faced Whistling Duck

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Swallowtailed Bee-eaters, and Pied Kingfisher

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Heron among the mangroves

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Mangrove reflections

As we returned to the lodge we saw some baboons settling down in the trees for the night, although they were too hidden in the trees to get any photos. The sun was setting, and we did get some good photos of the lodges in this beautiful light as we returned to our own - just in time to freshen up for pre-dinner drinks in the bar.

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Mandina Lodges at sunset

After dinner we enjoyed a night-cap by the firepit, chatting with a few of the other guests.

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Firepit, evening at Mandina Lodges

Posted by ToonSarah 08:10 Archived in Gambia Tagged landscapes people trees birds boats fishing sunset tower views river africa cats insects crafts gambia herons Comments (14)

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