Toubab - A term used by Gambians to refer to
Europeans; believed to originate from the old colonial practice of
paying messengers two shillings, or two-bob, for their
For all my general dislike of flying, I have to admit I'm fascinated by the view from window seats. From such a vantage point, I've seen Everest from afar, dreamed at the twinkling lights of Istanbul and the gateway to the East and admired at the green valleys of Peru. When the sky is clear, there's always plenty to distract me from thoughts of Alive.
Sometimes my thoughts are fairly dull as I wonder at the straightness of French roads or try to identify Spanish towns. Occasionally things get a little prosaic, if you can call attempting to work out how many beers you can drink before you finish flying over the Amazon rainforest 'prosaic' that is.
The flight to The Gambia is astonishing, even if you think about it just for a moment. From the interminable cold of Heathrow airport early on a January morning to the heat of sub-Saharan Africa takes just six hours in a modern airliner, and the first couple of hours is fairly ordinary. It was a little cloudy to marvel at the Gallo-Roman roads, though I was quite happy to spot Bilbao, bathed in sunshine 40,000 feet below. It's when you cross the Straits of Gibraltar that things get really interesting.
As soon as you leave Europe, the landscape below changes. For a start, you can see it almost all of the time rather than peering at bleak cloud for long stretches. The colour of the land changes from green to browns and yellows. And there is a little less clarity in the air, as heat produces dust and dust obscures. The first view of any continent often begins to define it in your mind: in Europe, you hit cloud; in south America, the rainforest; in North America it is the smell of burgers and pizza. North Africa looks hot and dry and inhospitable, and for me it is the most alluring of all.
Let us continue our journey. The empty beaches of western Morocco stretch into the distance, and slowly we begin to turn inland, flying over Western Sahara and Mauritania. The world's most famous desert lies below, and it is not one purely of sand as our mind's eye imagines. There are rocky canyons and huge flat expanses of boulders and scree, dusty hills and hot plains. For a couple of hours, there is little sight of human beings at all. It is only in the last hour of the flight, as we approach Senegal, that we begin to see life in the land. First there are small patches of pale green and irrigated land, dots of villages; then we cross the Senegal river, and at long last we are not alone. Where there is food, there are people. Finally we fly over the low hills of the Gambian border, a patch of fertile land so small that, according to legend, it was defined simply by the distance the British navy could fire its guns. It's hard not to feel an awfully long way from home, cut off from the world you know by the wastelands to the north.
The astonishing part of all this is that, unassisted by powerful jet engines, and while having to stop and roost and find food all along the way, millions of birds make the same journey every year.
You may not arrive as a bird enthusiast, but be prepared to leave as one. My partner certainly did. The sheer diversity of avifauna in the region - 650 species recorded and counting - is enthralling. Even the tiny birds in your hotel garden will be astonishingly colourful, and any country in which you can get bored of seeing vultures clearly has plenty to offer. There's no getting up at 4am to go birding, either. A 7am start may be rather early for a holiday, but it's worth it, especially when you can doze on the beach all afternoon.
A good guide is essential if you're going to get the best out of it, and fortunately they're easy to find. Don't go with just anyone, though; the Official Tourist Guides are not birders, and neither are the guys who hang around Bijilo Monkey Park looking for business. Instead, head for Kotu Bridge and the Gambia Bird Watchers' Association's headquarters. This small concrete structure is where it all happens. Pictures of various species adorn the one wall, and hidden in a ceiling cavity there is even a telephone if there is a particular guide you want to contact. We were lucky enough to find Ebrima.
It was our second year with Ebrima, a very intelligent and knowledgeable guide with a cheerfully toothy grin. We'd met under distinctly odd circumstances. One evening, as we returned to our hotel, a security guard half-stopped us and said 'So... you like bats, eh?' How he knew I'll never know; it's not like I wearing a t-shirt saying 'I Love Bats' or anything. He correctly took my dumbfounded nod to mean that I did, understood that this probably meant I liked other flying creatures too, and said 'Talk to this man'. A quick chat over a coffee later, and we had our guide.
This is a country where kingfishers are ubiquitous. Read that sentence again. It really is quite amazing. If you leave The Gambia without seeing a pied kingfisher, you probably haven't left your hotel. If you stray a few hundred metres, you might see blue-bellied rollers, nectar-feeding sunbirds, and gonoleks, all of which give you a clue as to the delights around. Pay a guide a tenner for a morning walk around Kotu Stream, and you'll probably see over fifty species of birds - about forty more than you'd recognise without one. A little more will pay for a trip to Abuko Nature Reserve, where more exotic delights await; insanely beautiful turacos, giant kingfishers, harrier-hawks and shikras, the vegetarian palm-nut vulture and gregarious wood hoopoes. If you're lucky, you might even see bushbucks and fruit bats around the pool at sunset, and snakes around the paths.
In The Gambia, it's very easy to get hooked on birding.
Before you know it, you're talking seriously about going up-country. Everyone talks about going upcountry. Some even make plans and actually do so. That part of this tale will have to wait for another time.
In the meantime, here are ten birds you really must try to see while in The Gambia. All can be seen around the resorts with a little effort - and a good guide.
Violet turaco. The cream of the crop. You see one and think it's an interesting, attractive bird, but wonder why your guide is so excited about it. You wait. Then, it flies...
Abyssinian roller. The blue-bellied roller is common around the resorts, and can even be seen from Kotu Bridge. Seek out its fluorescent cyan Abyssinian cousin, and you'll never forget it. More common upcountry.
Pied kingfisher. I'm on strict instructions from Lainey to include this one. It is by far the most visible of the kingfishers, often see sitting on telephone wires or hovering above streams. Undeniably stunning, particularly when diving.
Osprey. One of my favourite memories of The Gambia from last year is that of an osprey catching a fish in a stream on Fajara Golf Course. I've never seen such a graceful predator.
Beautiful sunbird. Unmistakable, with a long, hooked beak, a stunningly green head and red and yellow underparts. It doesn't matter how often you see one, it will always stop you in your tracks.
Snowy-crowned robin-chat. I don't know why, but this is one of my favourite Gambian birds. There's something about its alert posture that I find engaging, and the patch of 'snow' on top of its head looks quite funny.
Little bee-eater. Incredibly cute little birds that you'll see fairly frequently once you've got your eye in. Seeing one actually catching an insect is a real treat.
Pearl-spotted owlet. A tiny owl, and probably the most easy to see. Its hoot, rising then falling, is the call used by bird guides to attract small birds1.
Yellow-crowned gonolek. Strikingly scarlet, with black wings and yellow crown and undertail. Always busy, and just about shy enough to make seeing one a bit of a treat.
Black kite. Absolutely unremarkable and commonplace until you watch one fishing in the surf. Then they become remarkable and extraordinary.