This is a report from a mature but fit couple, life-long naturalists, taking a Thomas Cook package holiday to the Bakotu Hotel in Kotu and engaging Ebou Barry as a bird guide for the duration of our stay. Most of the text here was written by Mary, with birding summaries by Tony. We are well travelled and this is our fourth visit to Africa but the first visit to the north west. Our itinerary for the fortnight included visits to many of the best sites in western Gambia, plus an ‘up country’ expedition as far as the Niokolo Koba National Park in Senegal. In total we saw 272 species (this excludes glimpses or questionables).
It was a difficult time for Gambians and for holiday makers in The Gambia. In December 2016 the presidential election in Gambia sparked a constitutional crisis when long-term president Yahya Jammeh refused to accept his defeat. All British nationals on holiday had been flown home and flights to Banjul were discontinued. The situation was not resolved until the end of January 2017.
Although there were fewer tourists in The Gambia, and half the normal number of flights, by the time we got there it was ‘business as usual’ within the country.
Ebou came to meet us soon after we arrived. We had done our research before leaving home and we had booked him on the recommendation of others. We required a local guide who really knew the area and the birds, was sensitive to the well-being of wildlife and wild places, and who could share his knowledge about the country and culture. We are also a quiet pair who do not appreciate unnecessary commentary and the background noise that is inevitable with a large group. In all these aspects Ebou Barry did not disappoint.
By the end of our 14 days we had seen 272 species of birds.
Ebou booked everything; the cars and drivers, entrance fees, where necessary the compulsory reserve wardens, the boat trips, the accommodation and meals for the safari ‘up country’, and he provided bottled water, ice-cold soft drinks and lunches for whole day excursions. The original booking cost £1250 each (reflecting the extra costs involved in the Senegal extension) and was based on four people sharing. When the other couple cancelled there was a supplement to pay.
Ebou Barry is indeed a professional bird guide with a phenomenally keen eye and a good ear. He is a great birder who knows his stuff. Having spent a lifetime bird spotting and served his apprenticeship with the local association of bird guides based on Kotu Bridge, Ebou now has students and trainee guides himself. They sometimes accompany him and help with locating more difficult target birds. Ebou prefers leading people who have a goal in mind: to see particular places or special birds, or to see as many birds as possible. He is well-respected amongst other guides which means that you will never be hassled by chancers or bumsters, even in Banjul’s Street Markets. He speaks good English and understands spoken English well. This is especially important when pointing out the whereabouts of birds.
Ebou will create a tailor-made itinerary based on your level of fitness, your sense of adventure and the birds you want to see. He does not, however, suffer fools. He gets booked up well in advance, so if he is the man for you, as he was the man for us, his contact details are below.
Contact details: Ebou Barry, Bird Tours Gambia, firstname.lastname@example.org , www. Birdtoursgambia.com
The Bakotu Hotel is clean, quiet and comfortable. The staff are friendly and helpful. The rooms are laid out in the form of a tribal hut. We were able to change to a room at the back of the site that was cooler and altogether more comfortable than the one we were allocated, which was facing the glaring sunshine around the pool. Breakfasts at The Bakotu can be taken at the Baobab Bar/Restaurant from 7am or packed into foil for a pre-dawn start to your birding. We ate every evening at the hotel’s restaurant ‘The Captain’s Table’. It was excellent, offering a range of beautifully cooked and well presented food; both familiar dishes and local dishes that were new to us. They were all delicious, served in the calm and relaxed surroundings, but the Butterfish was a particular favourite.
There is a reliable wifi signal from the Baobab Bar. We hired a safe deposit box and a fan. These were expensive: the former was for reassurance, the latter we could probably have done without.
Before leaving home we had had the usual appointments and checks with our GP making sure that our vaccinations were up to date and that we had adequate anti-malaria medication. The yellow fever vaccination is now valid for life. (WHO guidelines, July 2016. www.nhs.uk). Having had the jab in 1986, we did not need to have this redone. Make sure that you can unearth your vaccination certificate from long ago; check your old passport.
Apart from our eyes and noses being affected by Africa’s red dust we stayed healthy for the duration of the holiday. We drank bottled water, stayed clear of ice and, reluctantly, ate no salads.
During whole days out we ate a variety of African lunches at places chosen by Ebou.
We spent the first six days in and around the Kotu peninsular/Kombo area, before travelling along the south road of the Gambia River and then south east into Senegal to the Niokolo Koba National Park, returning via Janjanbureh and travelling back along the north road, staying ‘up country’ for five nights.
The final three nights were back in Kotu.
Day 1 Wednesday 15th February 2017 Kotu Creek. Morning walk around Kotu Creek, Badala Park and Palm Beach Hotel grounds, across the tyre path to see local specialities like the Painted Snipe. Afternoon walk across the local golf course, the settling pools and rice fields. We had more than 85 species of birds on our first day.
Star birds (for us as newly-arrived birders) included Pearl-spotted Owlet, Giant Kingfisher, Blue- bellied and Broad-billed Rollers, Lesser Honeyguide, White-crowned Robin-chat, Northern Puffback, Painted Snipe, Little Bittern, Black Egret, Red-necked Falcon, Yellow-billed Shrike.
Day 2 Thursday 16th February 2017 Walk through Brufut Woods to the Woodland Cafe. Drive to the Vulture feeding session at The Senegambia Hotel Grounds. Afternoon drive to Bund Road, to the port for wader watching.
Notable birds for the day included Yellow-crowned Gonolek, Fanti Saw-wing, Yellow- throated Leaflove, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Copper Sunbird, Long-tailed Nightjar, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Yellow White-eye.
Day 3 Friday 17th February 2017 Drive to Abuko Woods, walk through the woodlands to the Darwin Field School, a woodland photographic hide and the animal orphanage. Afternoon at local Kotu habitats.
Star birds included Western Bluebill, Green and Purple Turacos, Common Whattle-eye, Collared Sunbird, African Pigmy Kingfisher, Little Greenbul, Lizard Buzzard, Oriole Warbler, Golden-tailed Woodpecker.
Day 4 Saturday 18th February 2017 Drive to the Mandihaba area, Kuloro village and Farasuto Woodlands. On the walk through the vegetable gardens we met women and children tending and watering their garden plots. The crops of onions, capsicums and aubergines were amazing. Mature mango and orange trees marked the places were settlements had been three generations ago, before families moved the settlement down towards the road. Lunch with Ebou and his family. The nicest Gambian Beef Curry that you are ever going to taste. Afternoon visit to Farasuto Woods to the area with bird drinking bowls and then a drive to the south banks of The Gambia River.
Today was Gambian Independence Day and the inauguration of the newly elected President Adama Barrow. The morning sky was full of aeroplanes and helicopters bringing in dignitaries for the ceremony. The traffic along the main roads was manic as everyone converged on Banjul. Cars pulled over, waving people lined the route and cheered to the motorcades and the police motorbike escorts. Everywhere the people of Gambia were joyful and full of hope. The ceremony was on the airwaves all day. It was broadcast from radios and streamed into probably every mobile phone in the land. The words were inspiring everyone. The music and celebrations continued well into the night. It was a privilege to feel part of this.
Star birds included Lanner Falcon, Wahlberg’s Eagle, Bearded Barbet, Mottled Spinetail, Norther White-faced Owl, Spotted Honeyguide, Orange-cheeked Waxbill, African Golden Oriole, Booted Eagle.
Day 5 Sunday 19th February 2017 Drive to Tujering; a chance, not only to see the birds but to see and understand how village settlements develop; corner posts to mark the area are put in on the sale of individual plots, block walls are built to mark the perimeter of the compound, then there is the digging of the well, the placing of the buildings and the adding of the gates, all as funds allow. If you can see this it helps to understand the landscape along the road where there seems to be piles and random heaps of building blocks. Gambia is entering a building phase; cement shops and groups of contractors manufacturing the blocks are much in evidence along the roads.
No visit to the west coast would be complete without visiting the very active fishing village of Tanji. You can see the fish being landed, distributed for sale or taken for drying and smoking. It all happens on the shore here and is well worth a look.
Afternoon drive to Marakissa River Camp.
Best birds today included Senegal Batis, Rufous-crowned Roller, Temminck’s Corser, Vieilot’s Barbet, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-weaver.
Day 6 Monday 20th February 2017 With a 6am start and a packed breakfast we began our journey ‘up country’. Ebou had engaged the support of a driver, Abdullah, and a 4x4 vehicle. This was a superb trip heading east along the South Bank Road of the River Gambia, stopping off at Tendaba and Janjanbureh (Georgetown), heading south east and crossing the border into Senegal at Sabi (after Basse Santa Su) continuing south to Valingara and then north on the Route Nationale 6 to Tambacouda until we met the Route Nationale 7, where we turned south again, headed for Niokolo Koba National Park. This is not a trip for the faint-hearted. You need a sense of adventure, some flexibility and a sense of humour. Travelling inland, through towns and villages, shopping for the journey on the roadside, stopping off at birding sites, and crossing the border into Senegal, the road is long, dusty and hot. But, the surface is good, at least to Wassadou. Regular check points on the roads slowed progress but we fully appreciated that the official presence had been stepped up for the time being following the election. We encountered no trouble whatsoever.
We got as far as Tendaba Camp today. They made us very welcome. We headed the advice already posted on line about not opening up a tab here. The dining area looks out onto the Gambia River. A new conference centre is being built.
During the afternoon we looked for Bronze-winged Coursers on a burned savanna hillside, and visited Kiang West National Park looking unsuccessfully for Ground Hornbills. It was very very hot. During the dusk drive back to base, the savanna burning was visible through the trees and local people were taking advantage of the cool of the evening to continue their day’s work.
The accommodation at Tendaba is African; things like light bulbs, waste pipe washers and sink plugs are hard to replace. The generator (and therefore the fan) was intermittent throughout the evening but our room, bed and washing facilities were adequate. The beds had mosquito nets. Outside the night air was perfumed with Jasmine. The plentiful communal dinner was of local tomato soup, chicken, a vegetarian dish, rice, couscous and bananas.
A selection of good birds seen during the day included Brown-necked Parrot, Dark-chanting Goshawk, Senegal Eremomela, White-shouldered Black-tit, Black-faced Firefinch, Rupell’s Vulture, Bush Petronia, Bruce’s Green Pigeon, Pigmy Sunbird.
Day 7 Tuesday 21st February 2017 An early start with a boat trip on The Gambia River but not before a buffet breakfast where you could choose from sardine noodles, omelette, cheese triangles, bread, jam, chilli sauce and chocolate spread, Or you could eat all of it (not recommended).
We climbed down a ladder into a light boat in the darkness. The sun rose as we crossed over the river and headed for a side creek through tall mangroves, in search of African Finfoot. The boat was quiet and there was just us, Ebou and the boatman: silence, a smooth river and dawn light for photographs.
Just over three hours later we left Tendeba Camp for Janjanbureh arriving at Boabolong Hotel/Camp about 2pm. After a brief rest, we were out on the Gambia River again for another three hours. This boat had a shade-roof enabling us to have the whole afternoon out searching the mangroves and the trees on the banks. The experienced boatman steered the craft deftly, allowing us to get very close indeed to our target birds. Perfect.
In the cooler evening we walked in local farmland looking successfully for Four-barred Sandgrouse.
The communal dinner of a chicken dish, a vegetarian dish, potatoes, rice, couscous, bean salad and bananas satisfied everyone. And there was lots of it.
Our room, on this occasion was something else. We did get a better room on the way back a few days later, but suffice to say that tonight’s facility was worn-out and barely serviceable. We did have electricity, a working fan and bed nets, but the bed was dish-shaped and although there was a flushing loo the drain flooded if you tried to have a (cold) shower: a large orange bucket was provided.
The birds continued to be excellent: White-backed Night Heron, Mosque Swallow, Brown Sunbird, Malachite Kingfisher, White-helmet Shrike, Grasshopper Buzzard, Verreaux Eagle Owl, Woodland Kingfisher, Western Banded Snake Eagle, Swamp Flycatcher.
Day 8 Wednesday 22nd February 2017 The landscape changed as we went out of savanna woodland and into more open savanna grassland. We arrived at Basse Santa Su after about an hour on the road. It was 8am. The business of the town was in full swing. It was colourful and dusty with donkey carts, motorbikes, cars, lorries and hundreds of people all milling about in the streets. The stalls and shop fronts were all piled high selling vegetables, rucksacks, shoes, plastic bowls and heaps and heaps of clothes. After Ebou and Abdullah had provisioned up we were soon heading for the border and a new stamp in our passports. The landscape changed again. There were speed bumps or police checkpoints before and after every village. Farming activity was more obvious along the road, there were fewer concrete blocks and corrugated iron roofs and more use of round mud-block walls and grass thatch. There were more motorbikes,too: Senegal is a more prosperous country.
Seven hours after starting we arrived at Wassadou Camp, near to Niokolo Koba National Park. Here the accommodation was first rate. The lunch was our first dish of Jollof Rice. Over lunch we spoke in English to each other and to Ebou and Abdullah, who spoke Mandinka between themselves, and we spoke French to the camp staff. There were a group of Dutch people and a group of Germans, each with guides and drivers having the same multilingual conversations.
Another group of 12 birders were complaining about the number of people in the boat and how difficult it was to manoeuvre so that everyone could get a photograph. On our boat trip that afternoon there was just us, alongside the birds and the hippos.
Star birds (and most of them really were international stars) included Carmine Bee-eater, Red-throated Bee-eater, African Finfoot, Egyptian Plover, Adamama Turtle Dove, White-headed lapwing, Greater Honeyeater, Grey-backed Camaroptera.
Day 9 Thursday 23rd February 2017 The Route Nationale 7 that runs from Wassadou, Senegal, through Mali to Nigeria is full of container lorries, carrying fish inland from the Atlantic Coast. And potholes. This road cost us our morning in the Niokolo Koba wetlands. The road is being resurfaced and all traffic, including container lorries, has to go into a chokingly dusty gutter on the side of the road. It was difficult to see enormous lorries coming towards us in the dust clouds. The two entrances to Niokolo Koba are now accessed from this temporary road. Without warning the far entrance is barred if you have no warden/guide/permit. (Access interdit sans permis). After leaving our camp at dawn, by 9.30am we had reached the Niokolo Koba River, only to have to turn around and go back along the same road. It was 11.30am by the time we got back to the first entrance and 12.30pm by the time we had picked up the guide and driven to Simenti, the place where the park centre and accommodation, now derelict, had been. It was 39 degrees. We had lost the morning and therefore the active part of the day.
After a picnic lunch there was briefly time to see the water bodies at Simenti, Campe du Lion, Dalaf de la Fortunte and Gou de la Boufoulade.
Bright moments today included seeing Black Crowned Crane, Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, African Blue Flycatcher, Klaas’ Cuckoo, Roan Antelope, Sitatunga, Kob Antelope and Waterbuck.
From the last stop it took 40 minutes to drive back to the gate. This is a huge area of 913,000 hectares, crossed by the Gambia, Sereno, Niokolo Koba and Koulountou waterways, with miles and miles of very hot and rough dirt track between the stops. It is a great pity that the residential infrastructure is in ruins. Not being able to stay on site makes early morning access really difficult.
A cool dusk boat trip at Wassadou was most welcome, as was the dinner of beef and carrots, rice and pasta.
Day 10 Friday 24th February 2017 A Dawn boat ride at Wassadou, watching the dark sky, finding the Southern Cross and then journeying downstream for a couple of hours. We met a hippo creche but didn’t try to get too close, and saw a glorious shining-blue kingfisher.
A French breakfast of freshly cooked baguette, jam and coffee before starting the return journey to Janjanbureh. It all seemed remarkably familiar and we had come some way to understanding the farming landscape, the need for caution as cattle or goats crossed the empty highway, and the need for speed bumps and police road checks. We arrived in time for lunch and a guided tour of the town from local character Fordy. The ruins of the Slave House still stand. The ‘Freedom Tree’ has become something of a monument. The Methodist School still operates. The classrooms were empty in the heat of the afternoon but the blackboards in every classroom groaned with the weight of the morning’s mathematics lessons. A local Silversmith explained how he made silver bracelets for new born babies. We bought a couple for an expected arrival in our own family in May. Star birds included Shining-blue Kingfisher, White-headed Lapwing, Cinnamon-breasted Rock Bunting, Exclamatory Paradise Whydah.
Bansang Quarry was a hot afternoon trip. Abdullah went off to get the vehicle brakes checked and we walked through the sandy banks full of Red-throated Bee-eater burrows. It was getting towards dusk and from somewhere there was the sound of a prayer meeting drifting through the still air.
Perhaps because we were returning to Janjanbureh, or maybe it was just luck but we had a much better room this time. A verandah, ceiling lights, seven electric plugs, two ceiling fans, easy chairs and walls almost the colours of Carmine Bee-eaters. At dinner, chicken for the carnivores and banana and aubergine curry for the vegetarians.
A hot night followed. It had been 31 degrees at dusk and it did not cool down.
Day 11 Saturday 25th February 2017. The intention had been to go back to Tendaba Camp, via Wassu Stones. The ferry at Janjanbureh was busy from the start. A real focal point of town life. The ferry can take three cars, 24 people and one 12 tonne truck at a time. At 8am we were on the second ferry and already there was a considerable backlog. The stones at Wassu are interesting. If you’re unlucky a tour of the site comes with a ‘Stone Man’ guide who will invent stories about the megaliths and hypothesise about the mystic features of a mobile phone key pad. The stones and the museum are worth a look (but avoid the guide if you can).
We were soon on our way along the 22 July Highway (the date that Yahya Jammeh came to power in a military coup in 1994). It is the road on the north bank of the Gambia River, we were headed for the ferry at Farfenni and then Tendaba Camp. Or so we thought. In hindsight and after reading other recent reports on line since we returned home, this was a daft thing to be contemplating.
At Farafenni we had our first street food. Ebou and Abdullah chose a place for us to eat and a plate of Jollof rice. The road down to the ferry at Balingo was like Operation Stack at Felixstowe or Dover. One ferry boat in operation to cope with all the Senegal traffic coming through The Gambia from Kaolack to Ziguinchor. Three days wait. It was decided to push on to the Banjul Ferry at Barra/Essau, about 110km away. Like the problem with Nioloko Koba, this was a major disruption to the planned itinerary which, once encountered, had to be worked around.
The bigger ferry at Barra/Essau had an even bigger backlog of traffic. No amount of persuasion by our guide and driver could make any difference. Ebou purchased foot passenger tickets and taking only necessities for the night we left Abdullah with the vehicle and the chaos. A taxi from Banjul saw us back at The Bakuto hotel for dinner, cutting our ‘up country safari’ short by a day. We were reunited with our luggage the following morning.
Special birds today included Northern Anteater Chat, Cutthroat Finch, Little Green Bee-eater, Collared Pratincole, White-throated Bee-eater.
Day 12 Sunday 26th February 2017 An early start with a packed breakfast and a long morning at Farasuto Woods to see the Greyish Eagle Owl in residence and then on to the quiet spot with the drinking bowls. There was no circus of noisy photographers there today. It was peaceful. After lunch, and another beautiful African curry cooked by Ebou’s sister, it was back to the hotel for a rest. It seemed very hot and bright today.
Star birds included Buff-spotted Woodpecker, Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle, Western Bluebill, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Greyish Eagle Owl.
Day 13 Monday 27th February 2017 Our last early start with a packed breakfast. Off to Pirang Shrimp Farm/Fish Ponds. This is an odd place guarded by police but open for birders, and empty now of all but a small amount of water. But there is still a varied population of wading birds.
After a short ride we found ourselves at the very old woodland of Farasuto Woods (Bonto). An hour’s walk, with the help of the local guide, but we were both quite tired and missed some of the key birds.
Things we did see included Yellow-billed Stork, African and European Spoonbills, Red-breasted African Paradise Flycatcher, Green Turaco, Lavender Waxbill,
The last afternoon was spent in Banjul’s Albert Market. A classical African Market full of folks trying to make a living by selling anything from vegetables and fish to shoes and baseball caps. It is colourful, busy, aromatic and, in parts, very dark. Probably not a place to go without your guide. The maze of stalls is difficult to negotiate and if you show any interest in anything, very polite but persistent stallholders run after you with similar goods. The craft market was the most interesting. We bought some really old carved wooden masks. Ebou thought we were quite mad.
Day 14 Tuesday 28th February 2017 Flight home. Quick look over Kotu Creek from the platform before breakfast and a walk through the grounds of the Palm Beach Hotel and along the tyre track where 15 Painted Snipe were sitting in the mangroves and Little Bee-eaters seemed to be on every twig.
After the flight we stayed the night in the Novotel at Birmingham Airport which really is 100 metres from the arrivals hall. A food outlet in the airport supplied everything else. Next morning our car was waiting for us at Airparks.
Final thoughts on the trip
A lot of stress came from the packing of the meagre baggage allowance. Binoculars, telescope and camera equipment more than took care of the hand luggage allowance. The tripod travelled in the checked-in luggage.
Three sets light clothing such as the Craghoppers' Nosilife range, was ample with a jumper for early mornings, late evenings and the flight. Take a factor 50+ lip salve to help prevent UV coldsores.
Two clothes hangers, eight clothes pegs, a universal sink plug, an elasticated clothes line and a bar of Coop vegetable soap took care of the daily laundry. It gravity-dripped overnight and air dried the following day. A Tilley hat, Merrell sandals and sturdy trainers were essential
A First Aid pack, a sewing kit, a few screw-in hooks, a small coil of garden wire and a ball of garden twine will fix most plumbing and kit disasters. One international multi-plug will do for charging camera batteries and the iPhone/Kindle.
A ‘fisherman’s type waistcoat’ with big pockets for identification books (500g each), notebooks and pencils, passports, tickets, the iPhone/Kindle is handy for the flight
A lightweight nylon collapsible rucksack is essential for carrying a bottle of water/sunscreen during walks. Our UK SatNav programme located our GPS position. Useful when you are ‘off the map’ in Senegal. We bought a couple of bed nets before we went but we did not need these.
Wish we had known
Euros are accepted in Senegal. These are much easier to obtain in UK than Francs CFA (Communaute financiere d’Afrique) are at the Senegalese border. Take some small denomination notes.
Also when changing your Sterling for Dalasis, ask for some ‘small money’; smaller denomination notes to use as tips. With the exchange rate around 56 Dalasis to the £1, a 200 Dalasis note is too big a tip for say, a porter. Hanging on to these huge notes just make you look mean. There are 5, 10, 50 and 100 Dalasis notes to be had.
The cost of using our mobile phone provider abroad: calls back to UK £1.55ppm, £1.25ppm to receive, texts 40p to send, free to receive, but data £6/MB. We only used it a couple of times to boost the text message signal to those back home wondering where in the world we actually were.
A map of The Gambia and Senegal would have been useful. They can be downloaded before you leave home. Ebou got us a tourist map which was better than nothing.
The birding was absolutely exceptional; really good views of birds, many very close up. Wish we had had a better camera lens………
It would have been useful to be able to look up changes to ferry operating conditions and arrangements for visiting Niokolo Koba National Park. But, even now that we are at home, there is no indication on line that anything is amiss.
This is sub-Saharan Africa. You have to remember where you are. Enjoy.
Great white pelican
Black-crowned night heron
White-backed night heron
Western reef egret
White-faced whistling duck
African fish eagle
African white-backed vulture
Ruppell’s Griffon vulture
Western marsh harrier
Short-toed snake eagle
Beaudouin’s snake eagle
Brown snake eagle
Western banded snake eagle
Dark chanting goshawk
African hawk eagle
Purple swamp hen
Black crowned crane
Common ringed plover
African wattled lapwing
Lesser black-backed gull
Blue-spotted wood dove
Black-billed wood dove
African green pigeon
Bruce’s green pigeon
African mourning dove
European turtle dove
Adamawa turtle dove
Western grey plantain-eater
African wood owl
Greyish eagle owl
Verreaux’s eagle owl
African scops owl
Northern white-faced owl
African palm swift
African pygmy kingfisher
Little green bee-eater
Northern carmine bee-eater
African grey hornbill
Abyssinian ground hornbill
African pied hornbill
Common sand martin
Common house martin
African pied wagtail
Snowy-crowned robin chat
White-crowned robin chat
Northern anteater chat
Western olivaceous warbler
Northern black flycatcher
African paradise flycatcher
Red-bellied paradise flycatcher
African blue flycatcher
White-shouldered black tit
African golden oriole
Purple glossy starling
Bronze-tailed glossy starling
Lesser blue-eared starling
Long-tailed glossy starling
Northern grey-headed sparrow
White-billed buffalo weaver
Chestnut-crowned sparrow weaver
Vitelline masked weaver
Northern red bishop
Exclamatory paradise whydah
Cinnamon-breasted rock bunting