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
An excruciating day's journey upcountry comes to an end when you get to Tendaba's airport. Flying would clearly be a much quicker and more comfortable way to get to the bushcamp from the Kombos, but the faded wooden sign and shaded bench reveal that the airport doesn't get much use. In fact, no-one but the President uses it as an airstrip. It's a great place for other aviators, though, and as we sped along the featherbed road harriers swooped low over the steam to our right. We were almost there - bird paradise.
That's what they tell you, anyway. It's true to say that you'll see birds in Tendaba that you won't see elsewhere, but forget the idea that you're going to see more species there than you will on the coast. The fact is that you're more likely to see rarer birds there, and there are certainly birds there that you won't find elsewhere in the country, but if you want to see lots of birds you're actually better off staying in Abuko.
The final stretch of the road takes you through scruffy Tendaba village and into the camp. It's a sensational place. All the huts, including the huge circular bar-restaurant, have thatched roofs1, and the guest rooms are sparklingly whitewashed. The setting, on a bend of the river Gambia looking over to Bao Bolon Wetland reserve a few kilometres away, is sensational, and cool breezes coming off the river just take the edge off the heat of the day. Purple glossy starlings chatter and shake their long, elegant tails in the trees all around. Somehow, it managed to feel rough-and-ready yet utterly relaxing at the same time.
Well, usually, anyway. On our second night, a cruise boat arrived for an overnight stop, and suddenly the bantaba was full of people. Local villagers came to dance for their pleasure, and for a couple of surreal hours it was like being in a stripped-down version of the Kombos. They all went to bed early and we didn't see them the next day, but it was a reminder of how lucky we were to share the place with only a dozen or so people for most of the time.
Our guide, Ebrima, worked very hard to give us the best possible chance of spotting birds. Just a couple of hours after we arrived, we were out walking the hillside behind the village; the following day we were up at dawn and stayed out until well into the afternoon and again in the evening, and we spent the whole of the third morning out as well.
The walk on the first evening was a wonderful leg-stretcher after we'd spent most of the day cooped up in a bush-taxi. We saw a number of interesting and attractive birds, but few that we hadn't seen elsewhere. We did see a few swallow-tailed bee-eaters, and the sight of this one bird made the whole walk worthwhile. It was interesting to reflect afterwards that neither of us would have gone to The Gambia expecting to get excited about the appearance of one single bird species. Clearly we were becoming rather more obsessive birders. The other highlight was that we were perhaps 50 metres above sea level, and enjoyed a rare elevated view of the countryside. Coming from a hilly county, it gets a little disconcerting to be on the level all the time.
Dawn found us in the bush-taxi once again, this time on a single-minded mission to see the standard-winged nightjar. The name doesn't mean that the wings are pretty normal, but rather that one feather in the male becomes elongated until it trails about a foot behind the rest of the wing, giving the impression of a fluttering standard. They are extremely difficult to see, blending in perfectly with their background and staying absolutely still until potential predators are virtually on top of them, and we were unlucky. Even so, stalking the bush at dawn was an exciting experience.
We headed back to the bush-taxi and headed into Kiang West National Park, where we walked around a wide and dry watering hole for a couple of hours. Baboons hooted at our presence, huge birds of prey peered at us from distant trees, and the horizon shimmered in the heat. It was an unfamiliar, hostile and utterly inspiring environment. Now the birds we'd considered to be rarities began to become commonplace. A harrier-hawk? Yeah, seen a dozen. Abyssinian roller? Nice, but we had a better view last time. And so on.
With the time approaching 1pm, we headed back to the bush-taxi and drove through a nearby village to try to catch a glimpse of a singularly ugly bird. The Abyssinian ground hornbill is a huge, hideous bird that loves hanging around peanut fields in the hope of a feed, but apparently not today. We did see a large flock of vultures - a group of local children who desperately wanted to swoop on us to ask for pens and sweets. Our guides did a pretty good job of keeping them at bay.
The afternoon was taken up with a couple of cold beers and relaxing in the shade, away from the hottest part of the day, and we took another evening walk, sharpening our skills with a couple of rare treats such as the tiny Senegal batis. We took a beer onto the jetty back at camp and watched a blood-red sun dip sensationally below the tree-line. As the village dancers began their act, Lainey and I sat under an empty sky and watched the stars begin their own show. It was a wonderful way to spend our last evening upcountry.
Dawn roused us once again, and this time we joined with another group to head into the mangroves of Bao Bolon. Most of the national park is inaccessible except by boat, and wildlife - birdlife in particular - has a totally free rein. Crocodile patrol the waters, a fact that was not lost on us occasionally as we lurched into mangroves as our skipper tried to navigate shallow waters. When you're in a tilting dug-out canoe in crocodile-infested waters with sharp mangrove roots sticking in your head, it's hard to avoid feeling just a little nervous.
These moments were, fortunately, rare. We found our way through narrow channels and often swung round a bend to find we'd surprised a stork or other wading bird, and we spent most of the trip in a state of excited anticipation. Luckily, we had four guides between us, and their ability to spot birds was astonishing. None of us saw the African scops owl, blending in perfectly with the bark of a tree, until we were a matter of feet away; the guides had spotted it from about 30 metres. Even in the photograph I took, it is not obvious even when you know exactly what you're looking for. We saw one of my favourite birds, an osprey, perching a few metres above us, kingfishers of all sorts, and saw enough rare herons through the mangrove roots for me to begin to see the appeal of large wading birds. Three hours fairly flew by, and, utterly remote from the world we knew, it was one of the most intense experiences I have ever enjoyed.
A cold beer later, there was just the return journey to endure. We had a lot of excited news to share with our friends in the Kombos.