Here's another typically surreal "trip report" from the unfathomable depths of the mind of Tropical Thomason - this time about his recent second trip to Gambia.
While Mrs Trops sensibly sunned herself on the coast, the redoubtable Mr T headed off up-country with his usual professional attitude, ruminating on the evils of slavery, problems with 4x4 gear-boxes and scenes from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," as he went.
He even mentions some of the lovely birds he photographed for us.
It could prove useful to brush up on "Finnegan's Wake" before continuing with his magnum opus (as it may make more sense).
Read on as he heads up-river...if you dare.
After 4 days of loafing around the hotel grounds and local gardens and fields and not seeing any new birds on my second trip to the Gambia with my good lady wife, and knowing that my mate Bazzo had seen nearly 300 species of which 55 were lifers, including Egyptian Plover, the week before I arrived, I finally broke.
I had been birding and chatting with a local guide "English Gerry" around the hotel all week, him trying to sell me a full tour of the country for £500 and me trying to get him to agree a day twitch for the Plover for £50.
Black Necked Weaver
Broad billed Roller
We finally came to an agreement, over a mint tea under a shady tree, on 2 days and 1 night up country, the target birds being the Flufftail, the Finfoot and the Plover.
While all this was going on Musa the bike hirer and Abdul the towel seller were making various offers to Lynette for their wares. These beach sellers and bird guides were a friendly bunch and met every midday under the tree to chat and drink tea, and probably swap stories about the fat white people who lay out in the sun all day and go various shades of red. Our balcony overlooked their little camp, and daily we would be greeted with "hi Paul, you need a bike today?" or some other offer of service.
Anyway, back to the birding, I was duly picked up at the prearranged time of 5:30am we set off in a long wheel base Nissan that had seen many a better day.
The driver, Bojang was a cheery soul, and laughed when I said I'm gonna have to call you Mr Bojangles, even though he must have heard it a 1,000 times, previous customers had sent him a cd of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's hit of the same name from back in the 70s.
We arrived at our first site after driving down dirt roads that became tracks that became paths, a local guide then took us for 1k through various trails in excellent gallery forest till we where close to the river.
We could hear White-spotted Flufftail calling, but these rails are tiny and have the ability to walk through vegetation without moving it. After 2 hours of zilch views but birds now calling all around us and me trying to string some kinda brown squirrel as a Flufftail's tail we gave up.
Not a good start to the day, frustrated 'cos I knew they where there, Gerry took us to Pirang shrimp ponds nearby and I got me my first tick of the day, Brown-necked Parrot, he knew how to calm an unhappy birder, just show him a new bird and bingo the blues have gone.
On we went, forever eastwards, stopping at suitable sites and seeing many goodies, after 200 klicks we reached Soma, now here Bazzo had texted me that there were 3 Gyppo's the week before, but we didn't stop. The metalled road now became a red dirt road and by the time we reached Georgetown/Janjanbure/McCarthys Island (so good they named it thrice, ha) me and everything in the car was red (no a/c, so windows had to stay open).
It was like in that film where the confederate troops (grey) think they have meet some more confederate troops and hail them over only to discover that they are union (blue) troops as they knock the grey dust of their blue uniforms. My red dust brushed off to reveal the Paramo green uniform of the universal birder, Lynette's gonna have some hard dobbin' to do back 'ome.
Fork tailed Bee-eater
We're now driving through Janjan in the gloom and Gerry's pointing out the colonial houses and slave quarters. It's funny that the Gambians seem to have a pride(?) in their slave history, it made me feel uncomfortable being shown the dungeons of James Isle and how they where fed through a hole in the cell wall while still manacled, so they had to eat their food off the ground like a dog.
This all happened only a few hundred years ago. Maybe they feel proud that it was their descendants that made and shaped the U.S of A, the most powerful country in the world and that they came from one of the poorest countries of the modern world.
I though we'd be stopping here in Janjan, but no, we drove on out of the town and down a very bumpy track, I could see in the headlights what looked like gravestones in the fields to the side.
This got me to thinking, here I am with 2 men I've just met, one of them looking covertlingly at me swaro's, in the middle of the jungle, my wife has no idea where I am or who I am with, I could be naked hyena food by morning and no one would know, just two gambians a little richer and better equipped.
Just as I was contemplating opening the car door and making a run for it, we pulled up at a dimly lit building in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. I was quickly shown my tent and given some food and a beer, feigning tiredness I retired to my tent and locked myself in, accompanied by half the insect life of middle Gambia.
After deeting my companions, I was soon tucked up and actually quite cosy, and soon dreaming the colourful and realistic dreams that you only get with Malarone, this one consisted of a 10 foot moth trap hovering above my tent drawing in 5 foot moths the colour of rainbows, wow, I didn't want to wake up.
I woke early as I was curious to explore my surroundings.
Just down from my tent I came to the wooden structure that I'd passed the night before, and no it wasn't a dais to execute the sons of slavers as my over fertile imagination had earlier thought. It was a landing stage for their river boats, we where on a slow bend of the river, about a kilometer wide, the sun was rising, monkeys were cavorting, birds were calling, chef was cooking, I was in paradise, I just wish I could have shared it with someone.
Grey headed Kingfisher
Enough of the sentimentality, back to reality and the reason I'm here, Finfoot. This bird is a bit of an enigma, and poorly understood. There are 3 species, Sungrebe (American Finfoot), Masked Finfoot (Asian Finfoot) and African Finfoot and I was desparate to see one of this strange group.
We chugged a few miles down stream, birding as we went, and cut engines as we glided into a side creek, Gerry and me lying flat out so we could look under the tangle of trees and roots where Finfeet hide. The boys at the back paddling quietly with their home made oars, amazing what you can make with an old oildrum and a hammer. As the creek got narrower and their oars got tangled in vegetation, they said we must turn back. I said I'd seen "The African Queen" many times and knew how to push a boat through a jungley river, but they would have none of it.
I silently prayed to St Bogart, who must have seen yards of Finfeet on his African journeys, but to no avail.
We gloomly chugged back to the camp, Gerry trying to lighten the mood with, look an Oriel Warbler singing from the top of that bush and a pretty Gonalek beneath it.
Pass me a rock.
Gambia 2 Trops 0.
The day couldn't get any worse, or could it?
We silently drove out of the camp, I'd seen a few more lifers that morning but still felt a bit down, we were driving away from one of the prize birds of The Gambia.
Long tailed Nightjar
Senegal Thick knee
Verreaux's Eagle Owl
Yellow billed Shrike
Oh well, still got the top bird to go, can't miss out on that one, can I?
As we bumped down last night's track, I could see the "gravestones" in the fields that I'd seen the night before in the headlights.
"What are those stones in the fields?" I asked.
"They're the gravestones of white colonists who sucummed to malaria," I was told.
Thank god for Malarone.
We'd driven over their tombs, Gerry and Bojangles didn't seem to mind, and I wasn't that fussed, just thinkin' that they may have been slavers made me smile.
Safely across the river and now on the north bank we refuelled the car, the "petrol station" was a table besides the road with various cans and drums on it.
The owner stubs out his fag and comes over while instructing his very young son to get the jugs, a deisel mixture is made up besides the road and poured into the tank through a funnel, large stains of previously slopped fuel marked the road, so I retire a safe distance and grill a large kettle of spiraling vultures that I'd noticed from the ferry boat. One day this seemingly tranquil scene will gain a few coloum inches in The Gambian Gazette when it all goes "Kaboom"!
Onwards and westwards we now venture, but what's this, Bojangles is having difficulty getting the car into 5th gear. He succedes after a struggle, and we plough on.
Now at the centre of every town in upcountry Gambia there is a police or army checkpoint at which you must stop, while some young buck armed to the teeth saunters over from his plastic chair in the shade and looks you over, satisfied you're not Senaglese smugglers.
And with slight movement of his index finger waves you on, god, these guys are cool. You can see the young kids of the village looking on in awe, thinking, I wanna do that job when I grow up.
After the first checkpoint Bo couldn't get it into 4th and after the next couldn't get it into 3rd.
We only made progress by putting the car into 3rd and starting the engine and very slowly pulling off, now travelling at 20kph, I looked at the map, over 200 k to go, oh s...! We've still got the plover to see and a ferry to meet at Barra and a car that won't change gear.
After half an hour of being overtaken by bikes and donkey carts we all agreed that a change of tactics was needed.
"Why not try and start off in 4th?" I suggested.
"It won't take it," Bo replied.
We told him he must try, after 2 failed attempts he managed, and with deft footwork he coaxed the car up to 70/80 kph from a standing start.
After much back slapping and cheering, Bo had a smile as wide as the river, he was so proud of his achievement.
Now, I can hear you thinking, what happens at the village road blocks when you have to stop, Bo must have thought of this too, as we approached the first checkpoint, he depressed the clutch and slowly braked the car down to a quick walking pace, now when copper or soldier came out of the shadows he had to keep up a brisk trot while he did his checks, while all the time Bo and Gerry are explaining to him our predicament.
My Mandinka is a little rusty (fnarr fnarr) but I think the gist on the exchange went something like this:
Copper: "Hay man, why don't you stop?"
"Can't, clutch and gear problems"
"Oh, you got any Senegalese ganja in there?"
"You want some?"
"Nah, we're cool man"
"Who's the white dude in the back?"
"Oh, he's a Brit birder, but go easy on him, he's had two major dips, the flufftail and the finfoot"
"wow, no s...!,"
"Yea he looks like he's lost a dalasie and found a butut".
Lots of laughter at my expense.
The copper would now be out of breath as well, as well as being well out of the village (lots of wells in that village) by the time all was done, the kids of these villages now had second thoughts about being a lazy copper.
I could take the stress and tension 'cos, I was picking up lifers as we tootled along, roughly 1 every 25 klicks, and with all this stopping and starting Bo was becoming an expert at the clutch controlled 4th gear start.
I was beginging to have a Dragons Den moment about inventing the one gear car and doin' away with the gear stick, when the road became a causeway over a wide wetland. The air was full of pratincoles, 1,000s of them, the car was slowed to a stop.
I looked down at 50 odd prats and there amongst them was 2 Egyptian Plovers.
Egyptian Plover and Collared Pratincole
Don't open the door, too late, the prats all took off, but when I looked back down the plovers where still there.
Birders will happily debate for hours which is the most beautiful bird in the world and I'm not going to say that this is, but it is in my top 3, it definately has got the most beautiful legs of any bird in the world, it is a shade of blue that you only get in a perfect summers day or a tropical sea lagoon or a kid's cheap plastic toy.
The 2 major dips of the previous 2 days were now forgotten, and after an hour at the Kuar wetlands watching 11 of these gems, we moved off.
Still a way to go and still picking up new birds, we reached Barra opposite Banjul on the Gambian river at dusk.
After a long and eventful wait for the ferry that included a 2 lorry crash, numerous heated arguments with a break for evening prayers and an incident with a diplomat, I finally got "home" to my hotel at 10:30.
All the food had been cleared and the bar was shut.
As I crossed the lobby an old dear who we had previously shared a breakfast table with, asked me if I'd seen the Kitchen Plover (I'd mentioned to her about my planned trip),
"Yes," I said, "I saw the Kitchen Plover."
"Good she replied. "And good night".
James Joyce eat yer heart out.
Eyes to the skies everyone, eyes to the skies...