A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about wildlife

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)

Tiger, tiger burning bright

India days fourteen and fifteen


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Ranthambore

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Like just about everyone else who visits, we came to Ranthambore with the aim of seeing tigers. And Ranthambore is all about the tigers. Every conversation you have here is guaranteed to start with “Did you see any tigers?” The answer is quite likely to be yes, although there are, as ever with wildlife, no guarantees ...

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Painted storks

We drove (or rather, Mehar drove!) to Ranthambore from Bundi, a drive of about three hours. We weren't able to stop too often for photos, as we had an afternoon safari drive booked and had left Bundi fairly late after a visit to the palace there. But we did stop briefly twice. The first was at a pretty lake where lots of Painted Storks and other birds were feeding. Painted Storks get their name from the bright pink feathers near their tails, which do look just as if someone had dabbed them with paint! They are found in the Indian subcontinent south of the Himalayas as well as in south east Asia. Wikipedia’s description of their feeding behaviour matches exactly what we observed:

“They forage in flocks in shallow waters along rivers or lakes. They immerse their half open beaks in water and sweep them from side to side and snap up their prey of small fish that are sensed by touch. As they wade along they also stir the water with their feet to flush hiding fish.”

Our second stop was to take photos of some young girls in colourful saris working in the fields. This was a shot I had been after for the whole trip, but it proved slightly difficult to get because as soon as the girls saw us and our cameras watching them over the hedge they stopped work to pose rather stiffly – very nice of them, but not what we had in mind! Luckily after a while they relaxed and went back to work, and I got my shots.

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They've spotted us!

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Back to work

Tiger Den Resort

Our base for our two nights near the national park was this fairly basic resort not far from the entrance. This was the least good of all the accommodation we used in Rajasthan, by some way. Of course a visit to Ranthambore is all about the animals and the quality of the accommodation comes second. But you get the same safari experience wherever you stay, and between drives you want somewhere to relax – and from what we saw there are better quality places than this in which to do that. Having said that though, Tiger Den is certainly more than adequate and not without its quirky charms.

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Our bungalow is the one on the far left

Our bungalow room was a good size and had all the basics, including a comfortable (but creaky) bed and air conditioning. The bathroom had a bath with shower over and basic toiletries were provided, although not as nice as those in other hotels we stayed in on this trip, and although there were sufficient towels, several were fraying and one unpleasantly stained. Some of the light fittings didn't work either, making the room a little gloomy at night.

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Our room

Wifi is available, at a cost - 500IR for two days' use on a single device. It only works in the reception and restaurant areas, although as our room was right behind the reception desk we found we could pick it up there too, which was a bonus. The “resort” has a swimming pool, which we didn’t use, and a small shop selling souvenirs rather than practical items.

Overall we found this a reasonable base for a couple of days but I wouldn’t choose it for a longer stay because of the dull and repetitive meals and unwelcoming bedroom. By the way, do check out the website, Tiger Den Resort, if you’re a fan of ludicrous hyperbole! Here’s a small sample:

“An ideal RE-SORT (yes, you will re-sort your self) to distress and detoxify away from the maddening crowd away from the constant ringing of your cell phones, emails, Internet and newspapers. You definitely deserve it, and we know you desire it as well. Come and live your dreams, of a peaceful life, close to nature, close to God, and above all close to yourself….

Experience immortal bliss and behold peace in your body, mind and soul. You will really hum the famous line by Robert Frost:
‘Woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promise to keep.
And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.’”

Arriving here meant saying farewell to Mehar. As we would be travelling back from here to Delhi by train there was no need for him to hang around while we did our game viewing, so he was headed back that afternoon, with more work waiting for him there the next day. We took some photos, exchanged contact details and promised to send pictures and to recommend him in our reviews and via the tour company. We were sad to say goodbye to him, but very happy to see him again briefly when we bumped into him at the station in Delhi a few days later where he was picking up another couple of tourists who had been on the same train as ourselves.

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Farewell to Mehar

Ranthambore National Park

Ranthambore can be regarded as something of a wildlife preservation success story; a former hunting ground for the maharajas of Jaipur, it is today a hunting ground of a rather different type for camera-wielding tourists. Its almost 400 square kilometres were declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1957 and it became a national park in 1981. Although you come here to see the wildlife, and the tigers in particular, it is worth saying that the park itself is beautiful in places and was especially so on our one early morning safari, when the light was at its best.

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Looking up at the fort

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Small temple by the lake

The park lies at the junction of the Aravalli and Vindhya ranges, and the landscape varies from grassy plains to rocky hills. The park is named for the fort that lies at its heart. Historically this changed hands several times, passing from Mewar rulers to the Rajputs of Bundi, from them to the sultans of Gujarat and from them to the Mughals under Akbar, before passing to the maharajas of Jaipur in the 17th century – hence the development of the area around it as their favoured hunting ground. Inside the fort are three Hindu temples and one Jain temple. It’s possible to visit the fort, although we didn’t do this, and Hindu pilgrims are allowed to walk up to the temples without paying the park entrance fee – you will probably see many on your way into the park.

Our first drive in the park

The basis for everyone’s activity when staying in Ranthambore are the safari drives. Regardless of where you stay you will have the same options and the same experiences – it is not your hotel which organises these but the park. The drives operate twice a day, leaving around 6.15/6.30 and around 14.30/15.00. They last about three hours, but that can include picking up other tourists from their hotels, unless you have paid the extra for a private safari.

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Rufous Tree Pie on our jeep

There are two types of vehicle used – open-topped jeeps seating six people, plus driver and guide, and so-called cantors, large vehicles accommodating 20 people. The jeeps offer the better experience as you are seated only three to a row rather than four, and can manoeuvre more quickly to reach the best viewing positions for the wildlife. To get a seat in a jeep seems to be something of a lottery however, as although you can book in advance, numbers are limited and there are no guarantees. We got our tour operator to reserve ours at the times of booking the holiday, about three months before our visit, but even then they could make no promises, and it was only on arrival in Ranthambore that we knew we were sure of the jeep places.

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Map by the entrance

The other lottery is where in the park you will go. Some areas are closed for visits, and the remainder is divided into nine zones. Each driver is allocated a zone by the forestry authority that administers the park, and only learns what zone they will be visiting about 30 minutes beforehand. For the tourist this means that it is pot-luck whether you get a "good" zone or otherwise (although this hasn’t prevented loads of online discussion about which is “best”). In practice however there is no saying what constitutes a good zone, as of course the tigers move freely between them, and a sighting in a particular zone on one day is no guarantee of a sighting on the following day.

You can book to do as many or as few drives as you want during your stay, but with little else to do here apart from relax by a hotel pool, you might as well do as many as you can fit in and afford. Received wisdom is that if you do three or more you have a close to guaranteed chance of seeing tigers, but of course there is no such guarantee. We met people who had done four drives and only seen tigers on the last of them, so three would not have been enough for them. Other people see them on their first drive and may ask themselves why they paid for more! It’s all a matter of luck, and the only thing that can be said for certain is that by increasing the number of drives you are increasing your chances.

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One of several lakes in the park

We had our first drive on the afternoon of our arrival and were allocated zone four (zone three is generally held to be the best!) The other four people in our jeep had already done a drive that morning but not seen a tiger, and as someone (our tour company? our hotel?) had told our guide that it was my birthday he was determined to find me one.

For a while though it seemed we would be unlucky, although we enjoyed getting our first views of the park which is, as I have said, very pretty. And there were plenty of other wildlife sightings:

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Spotted deer, also known as chitral, with faun

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Sambar deer

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A crocodile

We also saw a number of colourful birds:

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White-throated kingfisher and Bulbul

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Peacock

Then our guide got a message that a tiger had been seen in one of the neighbouring zones and was walking towards ours. Cue great excitement! The jeep was turned around and we headed back to a likely spot, where several other vehicles had also gathered, lining the road and looking towards an area of long grass. And we waited … and waited … Then our guide exclaimed – he had spotted movement at the edge of the grass. Most of us could see nothing at first but then we spotted him – a solitary male, some distance away, just emerging from the grass. We need binoculars to see him clearly, and I was grateful for the good zoom on my camera that ensured I got a couple of reasonable photos. He lingered for a while, turned and followed the edge of the grass for a distance, then disappeared into it again. Our first drive and we had seen a tiger!

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Our first tiger sighting

As we drove back to the park entrance we saw for ourselves that there is no “best” zone for tiger sightings. We passed the low chain barrier that separates zones three (generally talked of as the best) and four. Lined up on the far side were all the vehicles who had been allocated zone three that day, their passengers desperately hoping that the tiger we had seen was coming their way – but he wasn’t, and they would leave without a sighting on that occasion. We on the other hand were very happy – and I think our guide may have been the happiest of all at having found me a tiger on my birthday!

Evening at Tiger Den

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My birthday cake

Stays at Tiger Den are on a full-board basis, but the included meals are nothing special – rice plus the same, or very similar, curries served buffet style for both lunch and dinner. On this first evening the latter was served outside, with tables and chairs set round small bonfires. Unfortunately, the staff insisted on regularly dowsing the flames with kerosene (even when asked not to by some guests), making the eating area unpleasantly smelly. The food was unexciting but OK (I did like the stuffed potatoes), while the inevitable music and dance performance was quite fun to watch as a young boy did a sort of hobby-horse dance and one of the men was a flame thrower (more kerosene!)

The local agent had clearly told the hotel that it was my birthday as I found a cake awaiting me in the room after dinner that night – a sweet touch (very sweet, as it turned out – Indians love their sugar!). In fact, the staff here were the best thing about the place, as they were generally very friendly and attentive, anxious to hear if you had seen a tiger (we had), wanted more coffee (no thank you) or beer (yes please), and were enjoying your stay (we were).

Safari drive two

The next morning we were up early for our second drive in the park. The hotel provides much needed tea, coffee and biscuits for early risers, but breakfast would have to wait.

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Early morning in Ranthambore

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Tiger tracks

There was much to enjoy about this morning’s drive. Our companions in the jeep were friendly and interesting to chat to. Our guide was the best of the three we had. We were allocated zone two which is one of the prettiest areas and looked lovely in the soft early morning light. And we were told that there had been a good tiger sighting in that zone the previous afternoon and it was likely that he was still here. Wrong! Despite the best efforts of our guide and driver (even lingering slightly longer in the park than is strictly allowed), and seeing some tracks at one point, the tigers eluded us on this drive.

Funnily enough, that didn’t seem to matter over much, and I realised on reflection afterwards that in many ways this was my favourite of the three drives we took. The light was beautiful for photography, we saw lots of other wildlife and I got my best bird photos, and the lack of tiger sightings made it a more relaxed experience. Of course, had we not seen a tiger on our first drive we might have felt differently (luckily our companions had also seen some the previous morning).

Our best sightings on this drive included lots more chitral, some langur monkeys and a wide variety of birds.

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Chitral

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Langur monkeys

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White-throated kingfisher, back and front

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Bulbuls and Rufous tree pie

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Lapwing

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Brown heron

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Scops owl

Back at the hotel we had a leisurely breakfast and spent the middle part of the day relaxing, catching up on photo sorting, and eating the unexciting but included lunch.

Safari drive three

We had already seen one tiger but were keen to see more, so we were pleased to have this third drive in our schedule to increase our chances. It didn’t start well as the jeep was rather late in picking us up (so much so that the concerned hotel staff, spotting us still sitting on the terrace when others had already left, called the local agent to check that we weren’t forgotten). When the vehicle did arrive, we found that our companions for this drive were already in there and I suspect they may have caused the delay by not being ready for pick-up. No matter, we were off – and pleased to hear that we were to visit the much-coveted zone three!

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By Rajbagh Lake

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Cormorant

This took us past one of the several lakes in the park, Rajbagh Lake, where we saw cormorants and other birds, and a crocodile. We also got some nice shots of the ruined temples dotted around the lake and saw some Sambar deer among the trees.

But like all the guides, this one was keen to find tigers for us. He heard that there might be one in a certain spot so we headed in the direction of a path he thought the tiger might take, and parked up to wait. While we did so he showed us some photos of previous sightings on his phone – he was clearly proud of the photos and they were good but of course not the same as seeing for ourselves. After a while I found myself thinking it would be better to drive around seeing other wildlife even if it meant missing a possible tiger, but I didn’t say so as I had a feeling our companions (who were from another part of India and didn’t speak much English it seemed) hadn’t yet seen one.

Then a message came through that the tiger seen earlier had gone in the opposite direction and was now to be found in another part of our zone, with her eight month old cub! The driver started the engine and we were off, racing along the track to get there while they were still in view. And he made it, but our time spent waiting at the wrong spot had cost us a bit, as other vehicles were in better positions to see them. Our guide was confident though that mother and son would come our way, and he was right. They followed a path past the other vehicles and came right alongside our jeep.

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Walking away

This should have been a wonderful opportunity to get some great photos, but the experience was somewhat marred by the bedlam caused by the drivers and guides of all the other vehicles jostling for position to give their passengers the best view. While our guide and driver jostled with the rest, the vehicle was rarely still enough for photos, and when it was our guide stood up and blocked our view while taking his own video "to show his tourists", he said. In fairness, he did sit down when we asked, but by then the tigers were walking away and the best photo opps were past. I did point out that we too were “his tourists” and that we had very limited time here to see and appreciate the tigers, while he could come every day to take photos. I have also since complained about his behaviour to the tour company.

Still, we had seen the tigers at close quarters and that counted for a lot. And maybe one or two of the photos were OK! So we headed back to the hotel pleased to have had this second sighting and to have got so close to these magnificent animals.

Dinner on this second evening was in the restaurant and the food a little better, and we enjoyed sitting out on the terrace afterwards over a Kingfisher beer.

The next morning we left Ranthambore for Delhi, the last leg of our tour around Rajasthan. Meal timings here are planned around safaris, so breakfast doesn't start till 9.00 when the early morning ones return. This is fine if you're going for a drive, but if not you just have to wait, which was a little frustrating. However we had plenty of time before our pick up for the drive to the station at Sawai Madhopur, and the helpful driver who took us stopped on the way so we could buy cold drinks and snacks for the journey in a local shop, so we were all set for the six hour journey back to where we had started.

I have described this journey already in my Delhi entry but as it completes the circle I repeat it here – feel free to skip!

Our journey from Sawai Madhopur, near Ranthambore, took something over six hours. The train had started in Mumbai the previous evening so the second class a/c carriage where we sat was a sleeper one. We had been allocated both lower and upper berth in a four person curtained section, but only used the lower for sitting as the journey was an afternoon one.

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At Sawai Madhopur station

For part of the time we shared the section with a friendly young local couple. She spoke some English and chatted to us a bit about our holiday as well as pointing out one of the stations in which we stopped as being Mathura, believed by Hindus to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna, and offering us bananas.

I enjoyed taking my last long looks at the passing landscape, watching the largely rural communities we passed through going about their daily lives. This was to be our last day in the country (for this trip) as we flew home the next morning. The windows were just a little less grubby than had been the case on our first train journey and I was able to take some reasonable photos of the various sights.

The train pulled into Hazrat Nizamuddin station only slightly late. We were met there (and as I have already mentioned, bumped into Mehar) and driven to our Delhi hotel for one last night in India before our flight home. A last night, that is, for this trip, as we would quite soon be back …

If I have whetted your appetite and you would like to read about our next visit to this fascinating country, you can do so on my other blog: Return to India

Posted by ToonSarah 05:35 Archived in India Tagged birds monkeys wildlife india tigers rajasthan big_cats Comments (9)

Travelling to Fathala

Senegal day two


View Senegal 2016 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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River bank in Banjul, from the ferry

Having spent the night at the Kombo Beach Hotel, we were up early and eager to set off for Senegal. But first came breakfast. This was included in our stay and served buffet-style. We didn't have time to sample everything because of our early departure for the ferry, but what I did have was good - a roll with pineapple and ginger jam, a croissant and wonjo juice (made from hibiscus flowers – delicious). The exception was the coffee which was weak and flavourless. However, on our second visit to the hotel at the end of our trip I found the coffee rather better, so maybe I was just unlucky this first time.

The Banjul ferry

We were picked up after breakfast by a driver who took us and three other tourists to catch the ferry in Banjul. We arrived at the port in good time and stood chatting for a while before the boat arrived. When it did so it was packed with people travelling to the capital to start the working day – some carrying goods to sell at the markets, some coming to buy; some dressed, it appeared, for office work, others labourers probably seeking day work; school children in uniform and a few goats and chickens!

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Ferry passengers in Banjul

After the people, the cars and lorries trundled off, and then it was our turn to board. Thankfully at that time of day the northbound voyages are quieter so there was plenty of room.

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Boarding the ferry in Banjul

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River bank in Banjul, from the ferry

On our driver's advice we secured seats up on the top deck while he guarded the luggage down below. It took a while for some lorries to come aboard but once they had we were off.

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Departing from Banjul

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Ferry passengers

The crossing took about thirty minutes (I gather though it can be as much as forty or fifty) and we then disembarked, being careful to stay out of the way of the lorries doing the same.

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The north bank of the river

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Disembarking in Barra

Fathala Lodge

We were met here by a driver from the lodge we were heading to in Senegal, Fathala. The drive took about an hour, with a stop at a police-check and further stops at both the Gambian and Senegalese borders. The scenery was dry, dusty but rather attractive bush, and the road well-surfaced, so we enjoyed our journey - indeed, I would have been happy if it were a little longer!

[Aside: this was perhaps just as well, as two days later we were to repeat the trip – a broken tooth meant a return to Banjul for a morning for dental treatment, helpfully arranged by the hotel manager and staff.]

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On the road to Samé

Fathala Lodge lies not far from the border near a small village called Samé. It claims be a unique hotel for Senegal – a tented lodge on a private wildlife reserve. Accommodation is in large tents set along boardwalks that lead away from the public areas on either side. As we were shown to our tent, about halfway along the row to the left of the central area, we were warned to stay on the boardwalks at all time, as the long grass below often harboured snakes. You can believe that we followed this advice to the letter!

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Our tent

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The tents all have mosquito nets, free-standing bath tubs and twin washbasins. In a separate block behind are two outdoor showers (I love outdoor showers!). There is plenty of storage, a small fridge, tea and coffee, but no TV – this is an away-from-it-all destination.

The public areas are all open air under a large thatched roof. There is lots of comfortable seating, a bar and restaurant, and a small plunge pool with sun loungers. The atmosphere is one of casual but well-designed comfort, with local crafts, a few antelope skulls and similar African decorative touches. There is free wifi available here, although not in the tents.

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Bar and lounge

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Plunge pool and deck

We had arrived in time for lunch which we had on the terrace overlooking the lodge’s small waterhole just beyond the plunge pool. This naturally attracts local wildlife. If you are lucky (we weren’t, either today or throughout our stay) this will include the resident white rhino, as well as the frequently-visiting waterbucks. But we did spot some warthogs this afternoon, getting us in the mood for our planned afternoon activity.

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Warthogs at the waterhole

Safari drive in Fathala Reserve

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In the reserve, Fathala

The lodge has a variety of activities on offer (all of which are available to non-residents, by the way, who come on day trips from hotels in nearby Gambia). We signed up for a number of these as soon as we arrived, starting today with a safari-style drive in Fathala’s own game reserve.

The reserve has been stocked with some species that would once have been at home in Senegal, such as giraffe and rhino, and of course has still-native species including a wide variety of birds and several monkeys. A highlight of the reserve is the rare Western Giant Eland (also known as the Giant Derby Eland) which is bred here as part of a rescue programme for this endangered species.

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Western Giant Eland

We went out in the late afternoon with a driver plus a local guide who spoke good English and was adept at spotting the animals and telling us something about them. We didn't see all the species that the reserve has (you would have to be exceptionally lucky to do so) but we did see a lot, including several of the Western Giant Eland. On our drive this afternoon we also saw ...

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Plains Zebra

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Giraffes

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Patas Monkey
- we saw both Red and Green Patas Monkeys, but I'm not sure which this is, although my guess is red!

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Warthogs

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Roan Antelopes

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Waterbuck, and another Western Giant Eland

We also saw lots of birds.

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Both Red-billed and Grey Hornbills

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Palm Nut Vulture

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Abyssinian Roller

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Blue Glossy and Purple Starlings

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Stone Partridge

Plus some I failed to get decent photos of:
African Harrier Hawk
Rose-ringed Parakeet
Red-eyed Dove
Guinea Fowl
Drongo

We stopped a little before sunset, when the light was at its best, to enjoy a beer and some nuts while photographing the starlings at a waterhole. I also videoed them, and later combined that footage with some taken earlier of the giraffes:

So while we didn't see the hoped-for White Rhino this was still a great outing and we thoroughly enjoyed the more than three hours we had spent driving around the reserve. The light was fading as we drove back to the lodge, ready for our dinner.

Evening at the lodge

Our stay at Fathala was on a bed and breakfast basis. I found it surprising that they didn't just make it half-board, since there is nowhere else to go to eat round here! So of course we took all our meals in the restaurant and found them very good on the whole, although the choice was understandably limited.

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Thai fish curry

Dinner was a set three course meal, with no choice of starter or dessert and just two options for mains. Although we didn’t have any specific needs ourselves, we were told that the chef will cook for these, e.g. vegetarian, with prior notice. We got chatting this evening to a young vegetarian girl (another Sarah!) who was staying here with her mother, and she told us that she was very impressed with the variety and quality of the dishes prepared for her. As indeed were we – the choice might have been limited but the meals were excellent and I loved this evening’s main course of a butterfish fillet in a Thai curry sauce.

Before and after dinner we enjoyed drinks in the Baobab Bar, an informal spot with views across the dried up river channel and, after dark, a fire pit. Then we walked back along the boardwalk, watching carefully for snakes, and settled down in our cosy tent, excited about what tomorrow would bring ...

Posted by ToonSarah 06:33 Archived in Senegal Tagged people animals birds boats wildlife hotel africa safari zebra giraffes gambia senegal fathala Comments (12)

Walking with lions – and an (unrelated) mishap

Senegal day three


View Senegal 2016 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Walking with lions

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Lioness in a tree, Fathala

While Fathala Lodge might well have appealed to us regardless of the specific activities on offer, there was one thing in particular that really drew us here – an opportunity to walk alongside lions. We both love big cats (and also small ones, come to that!) so this was a must-do as soon as we read about it, and we had signed up as soon as we had arrived yesterday.

We were up and eating breakfast quite early as it's best to do this activity first thing in the morning if staying at the lodge; it is also offered to day trippers from other hotels (including some in Gambia) and thus walks later in the day tend to have more participants. We had booked for the first slot of the day, at 8.15 AM, and were pleased to discover that there were just the two of us on the walk.

The lodge has five lions which live in their own large fenced-off area of the reserve at some distance from the lodge. When we arrived at the reception area we were given a very thorough briefing, as you can imagine. There are a number of rules that you have to follow, which we had been warned about in advance. These include not to wear sunglasses (the lions might be spooked by seeing their own reflections), flapping clothes or animal prints (for obvious reasons!) and not to carry a bag. Of course it is more than fine to bring your camera, and actually a good idea to bring more than one, not only for back up but because a guide will take one and shoot the pictures that you cannot, from the front. This is because another rule stipulates that while walking you must always stay behind the lions, although at photo stops you will be shown where you can stand to take face-on shots, as well as to pose with them. Other rules include not shouting or running.

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Sign by the gate

Having read all the rules, we were asked to sign a waiver form. It was at that point that I did start to wonder if this was such a good idea after all! But I knew that the lions have lived here since they were just three months old, when they were rescued, (they were by now, in February 2016, almost five years old) and have been used to being around people throughout that time. They know the guides and understand the signals they give with their sticks. But they are nevertheless wild animals, to some extent at least, so it was made clear that we were participating at our own risk – but also that in the three years (at that point – now six years) that they have been running this activity there have never been any problems.

My other reservations centred around how the lions were kept. As rescue cubs from (I think) South Africa, I knew that they had grown up in a somewhat unnatural environment (there are no longer any lions in Senegal), and that releasing them into the wild would not be an option. From all I had read prior to our visit I was confident that they are well cared for here, and indeed they appeared to be so. I have read one or two reviewers expressing concerns about the use of sticks, but the reserve has stated clearly that ‘The walking sticks are part of the lions’ training program since they are cubs to adultery (sic) and merely a symbol of respect, none of our lions have ever being beaten. The guides and lion handlers have the utmost love and respect for these lions and will never do anything to harm them.’ From all we saw I believe this to be the case and could see that bond between human and animal in the way the keepers and lions interacted.

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Keeper showing us a lion's claw

So, to our walk … We approached the gate with our guide somewhat cautiously, especially when we saw beyond it the two lions with whom we were to walk. The five lions are taken out for a walk with guests in rotation; we were with Masai, the alpha male, and one of his three sisters. The gate was opened, we walked through with our guide and it was locked behind us – we were committed!

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Masai, the alpha male

In addition to the guide who had briefed us and entered with us, there were three other keepers with the lions, all of whom came along on the walk. We followed a path clearly known to the lions, who went on ahead. We were not so much walking with lions as following them at close quarters, but that was fine with us. To see the movement of the muscles in these magnificent creatures as they stroll long gave me a strong sense of their power. Their golden fur glowed in the early morning sun, and occasionally they would look back at us as if to check we were still there. A couple of times the female wandered a little way into the trees to the side of the path, but each time soon rejoined her brother. One of the keepers had taken Chris’s spare camera and shot a great little video of us all as we walked:

When we reached a small group of trees the lions stopped. I got the impression that they had been taught to do so, although maybe they just wanted a rest.

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The male lion

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Lioness licking for salt

This was an opportunity for more and better photos, and the keepers showed us how we could get closer and exactly where to stand, as well as taking some photos of us with the lions. By the way, some old reviews mention being able to touch the lions but that was only when they were young cubs – it is very definitely not allowed now they are bigger!

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With the lions

The lioness seemed to know that we wanted to get good photos. First she had a good stretch and scratched at one of the trees, then she climbed it and posed beautifully on a branch.

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The lioness

All too soon though we were given the signal to turn back to the gate, still following the lions. Our 50 minutes had gone really quickly and now we had to say goodbye to the lions, who went off to their run with their three escorts while our guide walked us back to Fathala's day centre where our jeep was waiting. What a memorable experience it had been!!

And now for the mishap!

We returned to the lodge for lunch and, with no further activities booked for today, were looking forward to a relaxing afternoon and a dip in the plunge pool. Although choices for dinner here are limited, at lunch time you can choose from a menu of lighter dishes, and both of us opted for a burger. We sat on the deck enjoying our meal and keeping an eye open for any animals who might come along to the water hole for a drink. None did, but we enjoyed watching the antics of a troop of Patas Monkeys in the trees beyond.

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Patas Monkeys

Halfway through our meal, however, I felt what I thought was a small piece of bone from the burger in my mouth, but it wasn’t – a large part of one of my teeth had come away as I ate!

While I didn’t feel any pain, I was concerned that I could do so if I continued to eat with it, and also that we were heading deeper into Senegal in a couple of days and would be even further from ‘civilisation’ (aka dentists!) than we were here. So I spoke to the (French) lodge manager and she called for her assistant, who was from Banjul and therefore almost local, to advise. He proved to be hugely helpful. He told us that his neighbour back in Banjul was a dentist, trained in France (which I found reassuring), and should be able to provide at least temporary treatment. I agreed that he should call his neighbour, which he did, and arranged an appointment for me the next morning – great. Now all I had to do was get to Banjul and then back to the lodge afterwards. This was where the manager herself came to my aid. She arranged a car to take us and a guide to go with us, and said we could just pay half of the usual transfer fee in order to cover their costs, which we were happy to agree to.

With all of these plans made there was nothing more that I could do today, so we resumed our original plan of a relaxing afternoon. This was enlivened by a bit of excitement from the tent next to ours. The occupants were a couple from Belgium, with whom we’d had a brief chat the previous evening along with the English mother and daughter and two older English women, friends travelling together. This afternoon on returning to our tent we saw the two Belgian guys standing outside theirs, looking concerned, and several of the lodge staff going inside as if to look for something. Had one of the snakes we’d been warned about somehow got into the tent, we wondered? But no – when we called across to ask what the problem was we were told they had a mouse visiting the tent and eating the sugar from the sachets provided for tea- and coffee-making, and had called on the staff to evict their unwanted guest.

Later that evening it became clear that the staff had been unsuccessful in their mission, as the guys had moved to another tent further down the row. Chris and I were rather amused that two grown guys had been chased out by a tiny mouse, and also were inclined to believe that a mouse could easily visit any of the tents, including ours and the one to which they had moved. And although we never did see a mouse here at Fathala, we were to be forcibly reminded of this incident, and our reaction to it, at our next lodge!

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Enjoying the pool

After the minor excitement of the ‘mouse in the tent’ incident we reverted to our plan of relaxing on the deck. I had a dip in the pool (a broken tooth wasn’t going to stop me enjoying the water!) and we spent some time watching for wildlife at the waterhole. And while the white rhino continued to elude us, we did see some waterbucks, various birds and a large lizard which joined us on the deck for a while.

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Lizard on the decking

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Waterbuck

Our leisurely afternoon was followed by a pleasant evening – I even managed to eat some dinner, albeit very gingerly!

We went to bed still buzzing about the morning walk with the lions, but in my case at least conscious that tomorrow morning could be a lot less pleasant!

Posted by ToonSarah 02:01 Archived in Senegal Tagged monkeys lizards wildlife africa lions senegal big_cats Comments (14)

Dealing with the mishap, and a holiday resumed

Senegal day four


View Senegal 2016 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Back to Banjul

It was just as well that we had enjoyed our ferry ride from Banjul to Barra two days ago, as here we were, back again. My broken tooth necessitated a visit to the dentist, the dentist was in Banjul, and so we were making the day trip from Fathala Lodge (in Senegal).

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On the road to the ferry

Of course a broken tooth wasn’t going to stop me taking photos and the scene at the port in Barra, where we had to wait quite a while, was as colourful as it had been on our previous trip. Women carrying babies, women carrying chickens, children travelling to school, labourers to work, farmers with goods to sell in Banjul’s markets.

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Waiting for the ferry in Barra

And once we boarded there was plenty of activity on the river bank to watch, with colourful pirogues ferrying other locals across the river. I was amused to see how passengers boarded these vessels, carried on the shoulders of one of the boatmen!

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Boats in Barra

The journey passed smoothly and as before we enjoyed sitting on the top deck and watching all the activity, although apprehension about visiting an unknown dentist in this very different part of the world prevented me from fully appreciating the scenes around me.

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Ferry passenger

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Refreshments on board

We had been given instructions on how to find the dental clinic in Banjul and had been told that the lodge guide would just see us on to the ferry and then wait for us on the other side, but he insisted on coming with us to make sure everything went well. With his guidance we easily found the clinic, where the dentist was on the lookout for us. Somewhat ironically, since I had been thinking that it was good to be visiting a French-trained Gambian dentist rather than a Senegalese one (after the manager at Fathala told us that the usual practice in that country was to pull out any tooth giving trouble rather than try to save it), it turned out that although living in Gambia he was actually from Senegal! Incidentally, it might also be considered a bit ironic that my dentist back at home did have to eventually remove the tooth to deal with the problem!

Anyway, this particular Senegalese dentist, who spoke reasonable English to match my passable French, agreed with me that a temporary filling would be the best solution in the immediate term. He had soon performed the procedure but not without giving a running commentary on the quality, or rather the lack of quality, of previous work I’d had done on my teeth – even calling on Chris to come and have a look at one point!

But he worked well, and quickly – so much so that we were able to hurry back to the port afterwards and catch the same boat that we had arrived on back to Barra rather than have to wait several hours for the next one. On the way back we got talking to three local guys who had parked next to our vehicle on board, who insisted that I took their photo, so I did!

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On the ferry back to Barra

What is more, thanks to the speedy work of the dentist, we were back at Fathala in time for lunch, and I even managed to eat some!

By the way, the dentist had done his work well – the filling lasted for the rest of the trip and until I was able to visit my own dentist back in London.

Boat ride among the mangroves

The prompt work of the dentist meant that we were back in plenty of time to go ahead with our planned activity, a late afternoon ride among the nearby mangroves. We took a jeep ride of about half an hour through some small villages, where children rushed out to wave to us as we passed. We felt a little self-conscious and pseudo-regal waving to them from our high perches in the vehicle, but it would have been mean to disappoint them and it was fun to see their excitement. One toddler in particular shrieked with such joy you would have thought we were the only foreigners he had ever seen, despite this being a fairly well-visited tourist area.

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The road through a local village

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Local children


We reached the point where our boat was waiting for us – one of the traditional local vessels known as pirougues. Once we were all aboard (as well as the two of us there were the two elderly English ladies in our group) we cast off, and spent the next couple of hours cruising slowly among the mangroves.

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The waiting pirogues

Although there was less bird life than we had seen on similar trips when staying at Mandina Lodge in Gambia two years previously, we did see quite a few.

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Goliath Herons

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Osprey on mangrove tree

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Hooded Vulture

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Great Egret

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Egrets in flight

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Hamerkop in a baobab

The other birds we saw, but I failed to photograph, were:
Senegal Thick-knee
Lapwing
Pied Kingfisher
Caspian Tern
Whimbrel
African Darter

We also saw a crocodile and, as at Mandina, a number of locals collecting the oysters that grow on the mangrove roots.

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Collecting oysters

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Crocodile


Part way through the ride we stopped in the shade to enjoy cold drinks and some snacks in this peaceful setting. As we watched we chatted a bit with our companions, who were an interesting pair. They were clearly good friends but were like chalk and cheese! One seemed to be a fairly experienced traveller, taking everything pretty much in her stride, while the other was in an almost constant state of bewilderment. Neither of them could manage to work the rather complex camera that a daughter had lent them for the trip and were in unjustifiable awe of the photos we were capturing – so much so that we swapped email addresses so I could send them some as a reminder of the outing. I wondered afterwards if the mother passed them off to her daughter as her own, so that her incompetence with the camera could remain a secret!

As the sun sank a little lower the light became rather magical, and I especially enjoyed seeing the almost sculptural silhouettes of the baobab trees that dotted the landscape, rising out of the deep greens of the mangrove trees.

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Sunset on the river
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Baobab, late afternoon light


After a couple of hours we returned to our starting point and boarded the jeep for the ride back to the lodge. The landscape glowed red in the late afternoon sun and our ride home was punctuated by even more greetings and waves from the small children we passed.

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Senegal sunset


Although not so exciting as the other lodge activities (and especially the lion walk), this was a very pleasant way to spend a few hours, and visiting the mangroves introduced us to a very different landscape from the dry and dusty bush surrounding Fathala.

We spent the last evening here much as we had the others, with drinks at the bar and a tasty dinner, which tonight I was able to enjoy as much as on the first evening, thanks to my newly mended tooth! And we went to bed in our cosy tent looking forward to seeing more of this fascinating country tomorrow, when we would travel north to the Saloum Delta in the Sine-Saloum region.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:06 Archived in Senegal Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises children trees animals birds boats wildlife village river reptiles dentist gambia senegal fathala Comments (9)

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