The Gambia 2: Going up river

James & Amelia Gould
Thu 15 Nov 2007 10:28

071020 - 071023 The Gambia 2: Going up river


We woke at dawn on our third day in The Gambia at Lamin Creek to the sound of birdsong all around.  We had breakfast out in the cockpit and marvelled at all the beautiful birds flying past.  Neither of us are normally bird spotters, but the variety and beauty of the species on offer in the Gambia was hard to ignore.  Luckily for us the Rough Guide to the Gambia includes a basic guide to birds of The Gambia, which meant we played a form of “Bird Bingo”, ticking off each species as it was sighted.  At the end of 3 weeks in the country we nearly collected a full set, only missing out on some of the smaller or rarer species.  Unfortunately our photographs are probably not worthy of a bird collectors album…  (The names are from the Rough Guide, so if the birds are wrongly identified, I am sorry!)


Pink Backed Pelicans

African Fish Eagle

Pied Kingfisher

Northern Red Bishop

Little Bee Eater

African Jakana

Some Gambian Birds from our Bingo Card


We motored out of Lamin creek later that morning and finally ventured into The Gambia river proper.  We had decided to make the most of the flood tides and push as far up river as we could each day, then take it easy on the way back down river and stopping more often to explore places.  (This works out quite well as you carry the tide with you for longer when it is flooding –coming in- than you do when it is ebbing.  Amelia considered this a bit of navigator’s black magic but it worked well for us!  J).  This gave us some really long days motoring up the river as the little wind that blew was always against us.  As the tide turned, or it started getting dark (whichever was sooner) we’d look at the chart and pick a spot to anchor for the night, preferring sheltered creeks and villages with tourist lodges (as this provided a safe place to leave the dinghy, and a source of cold beer!). 


On our first night in the river we ventured into Bintang Creek, which is the River Gambia’s longest tributary, snaking all the way from Senegal to the Gambia.  We anchored near the village and took in the magical peaceful surroundings of mangroves, birds and fishermen in their dug out canoes.  We then headed for the Bintang Bolon Lodge in search of a cold beer and some dinner.  Unfortunately as there were no guests staying at the lodge the restaurant was shut, but we managed to get some beer and chat to staff who manned the place despite the fact that it was empty.  This lodge was one of our favourites as it was peaceful and quaint with the rooms housed in huts built on stilts over the creek, each with a little terrace overlooking the water.  The village of Bintang was a stark contrast to Lamin and seemed much poorer.  The village did not have a surfaced road, the houses were mostly made of mud and tin rather than concrete, and there was livestock freely roaming through the streets.  There was a huge mosque right in the centre of the village, completely out of proportion to its surroundings.


Bintang Bolon Lodge

Bintang Village


The following day we motored another 40 odd miles up the river and anchored opposite Tendaba Camp for the night.  This is the longest established up country tourist destination (most of The Gambia’s tourism is centred on the coast), and is right on the riverbank next to a village of the same name.  It is an old hunting lodge, and we stopped to sample their famous Bush Pig.  Despite all the hype we were distinctly unimpressed with the camp.  The accommodation is in traditional Gambian round huts, but they are so tightly squeezed together there is little chance of any privacy or of a view of the river.  The camp has a swimming pool and a huge staff who cater for the tourists’ every need.  It had a slightly false Disney-does-Africa feel, obviously designed to make the grungy middle aged residents feel as through they are really roughing it in the bush.  The fact that they have running water and electricity while the villagers next door live in mud huts and fetch water from a central standpipe obviously passes them by.  Even the Bush Pig was distinctly average and overpriced!  On the plus side the staff were really friendly, and we were treated to a “spontaneous” African drumming session, where the women sang rhythmically and danced widely with arms flailing.


As we neared the upper reaches of the river the scenery started to change and the dense mangroves grew taller then eventually gave way to grass lands and tall Baobab and Silk Cotton trees.  We even passed a hill or two (believe me this is an event worthy of note in upper reaches of The Gambia!  J), with the bright red sand clearly visible through the undergrowth.  The river became narrower, which meant we could easily see each bank and made wildlife spotting much easier.  We passed very few signs of human habitation as most of the villages are built away from the riverbank to keep away from the mosquitoes in the rainy season.  The few villages we did pass became more basic with thatched mud huts becoming the main form of habitation, rather than the corrugated concrete houses of the richer down river provinces.  Once we were east of Elephant island the water became almost fresh, and we were constantly on the lookout for hippos.  The Gambian hippo population has been depleted by persecution because of the danger they pose to crops and people, but we still held out hope of spotting one.


Tall Mangroves

River Bank

Up Country Villages


We ventured off the chart a few times, seeking a peaceful place to anchor for the night.  One spot was between two Deer islands, where we crept inside a creek watching the echo-sounder carefully.  We found plenty of water, and anchored in time to watch a beautiful sunset over the mangroves with a gin in hand.  All was so calm and still, with the peace broken by the chorus of birds all around.  We then spotted a small dugout canoe paddling towards us and met Ifrakim, the son of the nearby village’s chief.  He warmly welcomed us to his father’s land, and told us there were hippos in the creek around the corner.  In return we handed him some charts for the village school.  As darkness fell hundreds of bugs became attracted by our lantern, so reluctantly we had to retire inside and await the morning to explore this magical creek (and find the hippos!).


Early the next morning we inflated our Kayak and ventured out behind Deer Island.  Immediately as we turned into the creek where we expected to see hippos we heard lots of rustling in the reeds on the riverbank as if something heavy was walking through.  We paddled to the opposite bank (hippos can be dangerous if approached too closely!) and waited to see if a hippo would emerge.  Ten minutes later all we saw were lots of monkeys, so we gave up and paddled on (we both agree that we lack enough patience for this whole nature thing…J).  The creek was full of birds and had several smaller creeks feeding into it.  We ventured into one of these, pushing aside the tentacle like mangrove roots and contemplating what we would find around the next corner.  A large splash on the muddy bank had us paddling back out very quickly; there are also crocodiles in The Gambia, and we didn’t fancy coming across one of those at close quarters in an inflatable boat!


Searching for hippos in the kayak


We sailed with the tide the that afternoon, and motored through the River Gambia National Park.  We slowed down as we passed the islands which make up the park so that the noise of the engine would not scare the animals and in the hope of spotting something unusual.  Finally our patience was rewarded, and we found some hippos!  We saw a family group of 2 large hippos and one very small one, their heads barely poking out of the water.  Their eyes and ears were clearly discernable and it was very strange watching them watching us.  Unfortunately our wildlife photography was again not up to much, but the excitement onboard Rahula called for a few blurry snaps…


Hippo Head! (honest)


We arrived at Janjanbureh, that day’s planned destination, just as the sun was setting.  As we approached the ferry crossing beyond which our chosen anchorage spot lay we noticed some power lines stretched across the river.  Our pilot book stated that power cables had been built across the south side of the island, but we were in the north channel, and expected our passage to be unhindered.  There followed 10 minutes of speculation of just how low the power cables hung above the river.  Our mast is 16m tall, and it was difficult to assess the exact height of the cables in the failing light.  James performed some black magic Specialist Navigator calculations and decided they were too low, so we ended up anchoring just short of the town.  We found out later that the cables were installed 6 months previously with a pylon supporting them on each riverbank.  The cables were tightened by hand, and they seemed to have stopped winching once the cables were high enough for the ferry to pass under, blocking the way for any yachts.  160 miles into the African continent, we had officially reached as far up the river as we could go.  (Apparently there are some narrow creeks that can be used to get around the cables but they are probably too narrow for Rahula and detour virtually to  Senegal…J)