Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Lazy Day on the River Gambia

A view of a small area of the excellent mangrove forest along the backwaters of the River Gambia

At least once a week in the dry season, several tour operators in The Gambia offer the “Lazy Day” boat trip through the mangrove wetlands of the River Gambia near Banjul.  The marketing for this trip states:  “Hop aboard the African piroque and begin your day with a nice cup of tea or coffee laced with brandy or as you wish. Cruising along the tributaries of the River Gambia, Spot exotic birds along the mangroves, enjoy a buffet lunch with a bucks fizz, stop for a swim and some fishing before leisurely heading back to Denton Bridge.”  I chose to spend one day on the Lazy Day trip and it was one of the best days of my time in The Gambia.  Although the price of £50 Pounds Sterling (about $80 US) was a tad steep by Gambian standards the trip was worth every penny (or pence) spent. 

Myself and a British couple from Brighton who were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary were met at our hotel by representatives of West Africa Tours and transported by bus to the boat dock at Denton Bridge. Enroute we stopped at the Kololi Beach Club near Kotu Creek where we picked up three 20-something Brits who completed the party for the day.  A few minutes later we were at the African Angler Sportfishing office from which we took off in a pirogue for a day in the backwaters of the River Gambia.

The offices of the African Angler - ground zero for our trip into the mangroves (No, I did not try the toilets)

In all we spent 7 hours cruising the mangrove forest in a comfortable double-deck pirogue.  The upper deck was a series of sunbathing mats and down below on the first deck were comfortable seats, a table for our meal, a well-stocked bar and the most important accoutrement in The Gambia – a flush toilet (that would be “the loo” in British).  The mangrove forest is reported to be about 60,000 hectares (132,000 acres) but the accompanying satellite image suggests that may be an overstatement of the area.  Regardless it was untouched mangrove forest that teemed with birds. 

The lower deck of our very comfortable pirogue

Not long after casting off we were served coffee with “just a splash” of brandy.  Having my own brother-in-law who is British I know well what a “splash” looks like and I had a pleasant buzz after a second cup of coffee.  Birds showed up regularly and commonly and without doubt Whimbrel and Western Reef-Heron were the two most numerous species seen. A Pied Kingfisher put in an occasional appearance and Green Sandpipers freshly arrived from the Palearctic tundra scurried around on the mud flats.  Malachite Kingfishers zipped around among the branches and Fanti Saw wing Swallows snatched insects from the air overhead.

The six of us spent most of our time on the upper deck where I got to double as bird identifier and ecology explainer.  It was almost like being back in Nebraska teaching that Beginning Birdwatching class I used to teach at a community college in Grand Island.

The mangroves we spent the day in are shown in dark green on this satellite image. 

The conversation the six of us had was wide ranging from what the Queen should do with Prince Charles to the ramifications of Lord Cornwallis getting his ass kicked in modern-day South Carolina during the American Revolutionary War (I took pleasure in reminding the Brits who lost that conflict in the end).  As the conversation continued and bounced all over the map the 23 year old woman (I won’t use her name because this is going on the internet and I don’t have permission to use it) paid me a high compliment when she said “You are the most interesting American I ever met.”  Asking for an explanation she said “You are so aware of the world.  Most Americans only know reality tv and the Kardashians.”  What a pleasant compliment.  I’ve been told almost the same words in Europe (Ireland), Asia (Thailand), Australia, and now Africa.    

Just before lunch the First Mate came through with a seemingly bottomless bottle of champagne after which we had a superb lunch of curried rice, shrimp, beans, and salad.  All the while the bartender was busy selling ice cold JulBrew at the equivalent of $1.00 US per bottle.  We each had several – imagine that.

JulBrew (with a Woodland Kingfisher as its logo) is an excellent adult libation brewed in The Gambia.

In early afternoon with the sun absolutely baking us, we pulled into a secluded cove where the water was 7 meters deep and several of us went over the rail for a swim.  (I later learned that the high temperature today was 98 degrees F and the humidity hit 78 percent - it was like a broiler out there).  Although we were assured that there were no crocodiles in these waters I was not going to take the chance.  I saw enough Nile Crocodiles in South Africa to convince me I didn’t want one anywhere near any of my body parts and I was not going to take that chance in The Gambia.  We were also told that West African Manatees live in these waters but unfortunately we weren’t lucky enough to see one.  Maybe next trip.

From swimming we found an area of swift current where we anchored and tried our hand at fishing.  I caught one fish that looked almost exactly like a piranha from South America (without the nasty teeth) and that fish was about 6 inches long.  Needless to say I had something else for dinner that night.  One of the British brothers caught 4 fish but the rest of us had to settle for one or less.  Of course after tea and biscuits (the tea coming with another “splash” of brandy) nobody really cared if they caught any fish.

Other (smaller) pirogues at anchor below the Denton Bridge

About 4:00 p.m. we pulled up the fishing lines and headed back to port.  All of us agreed that it was a perfect way to spend the day doing nothing.  The Lazy Day trip on the backwaters of the River Gambia is a perfect training exercise for retirement!

On the day of my departure from The Gambia I met the British couple and the 23-year old British woman in the Banjul airport.  The four of us agreed that the Lazy Day was the highlight of the trip for each of us.  It certainly will be for me if I ever return to The Gambia and thinking about that day makes me want to put a little “splash” of brandy in my Starbucks right now so I don’t forget the ambiance of my day in the African mangroves.

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