The last three weeks have been very busy as the end of my placement approaches and I try not only to see parts of the Gambia I have not yet visited, but also to finish the project I am involved with at the Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, the electricity supply in Bakau seems to have been off more than on in the evenings, and as the battery on my laptop has given up the ghost and will no longer hold charge for more than five minutes, it seems an age since I last wrote.
Two weeks ago I went up country with a couple of colleagues for a couple of days hoping to see a hippopotamus. We drove east along the south bank of the river to Janjanbureh where we crossed on the ferry and then drove back west a few kilometres to the small town of Kuntaur where we stayed overnight at the Department of Agriculture camp. One of my companions was stationed there for a time and as a result our entry to the town was punctuated by much stopping and starting as everyone seemed to know her and want to greet her on arrival! Our triumphal progress continued right through the town to the police checkpoint (where again we were greeted with much handshaking and cries of “Longtime”) and after what seemed like an unbelieveably long journey through such a small town we arrived at “Agriculture”, on the river bank right on the furthest outskirts of Kuntaur. Here more old friends and colleagues were there to be greeted/introduced and to show us round the compound before we were presented with the inevitable generous Gambian meal and then adjourned to a local riverside bar with Deborah, another VSO volunteer who is stationed locally before retiring for the night.
The town was an oasis of peace compared to Bakau – not a sound broke our rest (apart from a large mouse who woke me as he sat chewing something next to my bed, and was quite unperturbed when I switched on my torch to see what the noise was – it sounded a much larger animal) – no drumming, no loud music, and no mosques competing at 5am with the call to prayer.
The following morning I was up before my fellows and enjoyed an early morning walk by the river watching the birds in the rice stubbles along the water’s edge and a solitary canoe paddling slowly down river as the sun rose. When I arrived back at the compound breakfast was being prepared for us, followed by a tour of yet more friends in the neighbouring village of Wassu.
About midday we met up again with Deborah and adjourned to the riverside where we played counting games in English and Wollof with a group of local boys while we waited for our boatman. He had told us the best time to go hippo spotting was early afternoon so in due course about 1pm we set off upriver towards Baboon Island National Park. We cruised slowly along close to the bank while he pointed out various birds on the bank or overhead, baboons in the palm trees, raffia palms, and told us a little more about the Park.
After about twenty minutes we put ashore to pick up the Park Ranger who was to accompany us inside the reserve and then back out into midstream as we approached the first of three large islands where we hoped to see chimpanzees. The population was established there in the 1970’s when a project began to release and rehabilitate animals which had been rescued elsewhere (chimpanzees were once common in The Gambia but were hunted out of existence by about 1900) and the numbers have gradually risen over the last forty years until there are now about 100 spread over the three islands. Visitors are not allowed to land (another reason for the presence of the Park Ranger) but the boats are allowed to go fairly close to the shore and we were fortunate enough to see several animals, including a large male which the Ranger told us was the second in rank on that island, and a mother nursing a tiny baby who peeped out from under her arm.
The boat continued round the other side of the island where there had been reports of a large crocodile on a mudbank but nothing was to be seen there so we turned back and had a number of brief sightings of hippopotamus ears, eyes, and once a whole head. The guide told us that we were seeing two different animals, although we never saw both at once, and most of the time the creatures stayed out of sight underwater. I was not fast enough with my camera to catch a proper shot, so had to edit a photo of one of our group for the benefit of one of my VSO colleagues who at the last minute was unable to come on the trip and wanted to see pictorial evidence of our sightings, including one of the party as well as the hippo. So here you are Joe!
We left Kuntaur about 4pm and I promptly took the wrong road so we spent nearly an hour driving through empty featureless bush where from time to time the road looked in danger of becoming impassable and I wondered if at some point we would have to admit defeat and turn round or reverse for miles and if so whether we would be able to get the car back over the large bumps we had crossed coming in the opposite direction. We saw very few people on our travels until at last we arrived in a small village where we were mobbed by crowds of children flocking round the car as if we were royalty. I guess they weren’t used to seeing motor vehicles in their village very often, particularly appearing out of the bush in a cloud of dust with some crazy toubabs. Helen was delighted that I was living up to her stereotypical image of a macho Yorkshire male, but I must point out that I did eventually get us safely back to the tarmac road, even if it was about 15 kilometres from where I had originally intended!
The rest of the journey was fairly uneventful – simply a matter of keeping on the road in the dark when vehicles with badly aligned headlights (most of them) approached us from the opposite direction, until we reached one of the various checkpoints. Here we were surrounded by police and immigration officials who made a big point of inspecting our documents and looking round the car while talking amongst themselves in Mandinka about how they thought they were going to take some money from a rich European. Fortunately however we had picked up another passenger heading in our direction at a previous checkpoint in Soma and it turned out he was also a police officer who produced his identity card and had a few words so our documents were returned and we were waved on our way! The next twenty minutes he hardly stopped for breath, indignantly complaining that his fellow officials should not treat foreign visitors like that or they would stop coming and bringing money into the economy. I fully agree though I also sympathise with the low paid public sector workers here in the Gambia who see it as a way of supplementing their meagre wages.
We parted company at Brikama and after dropping the others I arrived home about eleven o’clock.