Safety What to take When and where to go Health Travel Accommodation
Just outside each hotel is a small army of local youths known as bumsters who are desperate to make money. They will offer to 'guide' you, change money or simply just beg. A firm refusal puts most of them off but the odd one or two are more persistent. However there are a number of Tourist Police who carry big wooden clubs and the sight of these causes the pack to scatter. There are also a group of Tourist Guides (ex bumsters) who will also offer to guide you for a fixed fee. We soon found that you can simply ignore the lot of them, get a taxi and the driver will willingly help you, take you round the market etc. etc. If you want to use a local bird guide I would strongly recommend either arranging someone beforehand or asking around first, as there are some useless ones out there. The better ones seem to have laminated ID cards, business cards and letters of recommendation from other bird watchers.
See my other 'what to take' advice pages but the same goes for Gambia.
We both have Opticron 10 x 42 binoculars - the 'High Resolution' and Sequoiah models. On this trip I also took my Opticron Piccolo Telescope with 30x WA eyepiece and a Cullmann Video tripod. This proved very useful for getting close views of birds and was essential at the Bund Rd for checking out gulls and distant waders.
A Field Guide to the Birds of The Gambia and Senegal - C. Barlow, T. Wacher and T. Disley is all you need. Local bird guides even know the plate numbers of birds you are looking at.
Our aim was to have a complete rest and a bit of winter sunshine after a very stressful year, so the first week was mainly spent lounging round the pool. February is just into the dry season and it was very hot mid-day. Most birds were active just after sunrise until about 10:30, then they rest up until about 15:00 when they become active again, through to sunset. This time of year the European migrants are getting ready to depart and it was odd to see Redstarts and Willow Warblers in Palm trees. However resident birds like Bishops are in drab non-breeding plumage and are difficult to ID.
We booked through The Gambia Experience on a Bed & Breakfast basis and also booked their Plover Week which is four and a half days of birdwatching trips. The flight from Manchester stopped at Bristol although I believe next year it will be direct. Overall the trips were very good covering all the local 'hotspots' and it is nice to birdwatch and travel in a small group of like-minded people. However the guide wasn't brilliant and if we were to do it again, we would arrange a reputable guide in advance and plan it ourselves.
Reading other trip reports, we decided this was an ideal place to stay with a pool and extensive gardens. This way we could combine sunbathing and resting with a little birding. Some people complained the birding had deteriorated here and a tree where Senegal Parrot had nested in earlier years had been chopped down, and areas of undergrowth which Oriole Warblers favour were being 'tidied up'. However in a week I managed to see over 100 species here including fairly elusive ones such as Snowy-crowned Robin Chat. There is a resident bird man called Maas Cham who organises trips out - simply put your name in his book We went on his Nightjarring trip and an early morning walk round the hotel grounds where he pointed out several species I had missed. He is a bit of an odd character and rather mumbles but is very good at spotting things. The hotel puts out a load of scraps each day at 11:30 and around 20 or so Hooded Vultures and a few Cattle Egrets swoop down to squabble over them. Black Kites circle round but never land. It also pays to keep an eye to the skies late afternoon, as I saw Palm-nut Vulture, Grey Kestrel and Shikra most days. As the sun sets, Wattled Lapwing come in to roost above the Tennis Court, Harrier-Hawk roost in the Palms and various Sunbirds skitter about catching the last few rays of sun. After dark Barn Owls can be seen although we missed them, and African Scops-Owl whistle away hidden in the treetops.
Bijilo Forest Reserve
From the Senegambia Hotel about 10 minutes walk down the beach or round on the roads is Bijilo Forest Reserve. Just ignore any offers of 'guides' or peanut sellers on the walk down. You can hire an official guide inside the reserve if you want and you should never feed wild monkeys as it teaches them bad habits. We walked round the forest one morning and it seems to hold similar birds to the Senegambia but also a good variety of Bee-Eaters and Green Vervet and Red Colobus Monkeys.
The Plover Week
Day 1 - Abuko
This is a reserve about 30 minutes from the hotel area. Our trip got us there about 9:00 and an earlier start would be more preferable. There are trails through thick forest and hides overlooking some pools. We saw a good variety of birds here during the morning but then with some odd planning we had a long walk back in the hot sun to go for lunch at Lamin Lodge, then returned mid afternoon to see not much more. About 55 species seen during the day and Monkeys and a Bushbuck Antelope.
Day 2 - Birds & Breakfast (half day)
An earlier start got us to Lamin Lodge just after sunrise. We had a few hours out in a small boat on the river in the mangroves and saw a fair selection of waders and herons. Then a buffet breakfast with a very nasty Oyster Omelette, followed by a few hours walk through the fields behind the lodge. This walk could have been very productive but our group seemed to merge with another load of noisy tourists so we missed quite a few birds. However this area is well worth coming back to. We did manage to see Senegal Parrot and Long-crested Eagle here as well as an insight into the local agriculture with Chillies and Peanuts being grown here.
Day 3 - Boat Trip & Bund Rd
Another late start saw us setting off in a larger boat from Denton Bridge. Again the usual waders plus Goliath Heron, Yellow-billed Stork and Pink-backed Pelican, also a few Osprey about. Coming through a load of derelict ships we saw Peregrine and various terns. We then moored up and walked down the Bund Rd in the mid-day heat. Not ideal, but the keener eyed members of the group managed to pick out Kelp and Audouins Gull among the commoner species and we were lucky to see a Flamingo fly overhead. A fairly slow cruise back revealed a really well hidden Purple Heron. At a brief stop at Camalou Corner on the way back we saw our only Giant Kingfisher of the trip.
Day 4 - Kotu area
A trip to the sewage works didn't sound too appealing to Gina, but this consisted of a series of lily covered ponds and far less smelly than the one near the Trafford Centre in Manchester ! A number of White-faced Whistling Duck here and some new waders like Ruff. We then walked a while and saw a large number of birds but not many new ones. Lunch at a beach restaurant and the odd Pomarine Skua offshore. Then a hot walk round Fajara Golf Course. About 80 species for the day.
Day 5 - Bush trip
This was a bit of a mystery tour as we were expecting a trip to Brufut and Tanji but instead headed out to Pirang. After a farce with a puncture, we arrived at the disused Shrimp farm around mid-day. Those of us on Doxycycline anti-malaria tablets soon started to resemble boiled shrimps in the baking sun ! Quite a few new birds though, with Red-throated Pipit confusing our guide. Lunch was at a new lodge called Sitajoyeh which was on an island on the river. This seemed quite a promising area with Redstart and Yellow-fronted Canary. However we then drove off to some parched arable land and stared at distant raptors through the glare. A plain-coloured Eagle was a mystery to our guide but I think it was Tawny. To round the day off we drove up a dried up river bed and the minibus got stuck as we were minus a wheel at the back - due to the earlier puncture. As the sun slowly set, we hung around and were rewarded with 3 Black-crowned Cranes coming in to roost. Rescue came well after dark and a hair-raising (literally) ride back in the open back of a LandRover saw us home at 22:00.
After bad experiences with Larium - Tony opted for Doxycycline as an anti-malaria drug. The unfortunate side effect though, is a reaction with sunlight so you end up bright red and have a slightly queasy feeling - still it's better than nightmares. Gina stuck with Larium. However we got very few bites and overall there was a distinct scarcity of creepy-crawlies. Food in the hotel was bland but buffet style so you could always find something. Two weeks of it would have been boring though, so we ate out most nights. There was a good Pizza place just over the road and an excellent Lebanese just up near the supermarkets. We also splashed out with a posh meal at the Coconut Village - very nice but European prices.
We flew Manchester - Bristol - Banjul flying with Air2000 arranged through The Gambia Experience. About 7 hours in the air.
Banjul airport is a bit chaotic to say the least and allow plenty of time to check in. The road to the hotel area and on to Banjul is tarmac but otherwise is red dust and potholes. A Tourist Taxi has a published list of fares to fixed destinations and you get the car to yourself. Local taxis you have to haggle for the fare and may end up sharing as more people and goats pile in. Buses looked too scary but were probably very cheap.
I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the Senegambia Hotel which is clean and safe. There are a number of bars, shops and restaurants just up the road.
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