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The Gambia: Much more than just a bird watcher’s paradise

Variable but always khaki, cream and often grey capped. Frequent migrant at coast and numerous inland, especially from November to March. Often seen in large social groups, chattering nearby waterholes but can be common in all habitats.

This is the predictable bird watcher in The Gambia. As the red-faced or bronzed fleshy migrants flock to the swimming pools and British bars of the Senegambia strip, these birdwatchers are in their natural habitat standing on roadsides next to coaches, flapping frustratedly at a distant bush or clucking excitedly about some tall grass.

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Peace and tranquility on one of the River Gambia’s tributaries

Forgive me; I’m sure there are birders out there that don’t fit this mould: bird watchers who go out to The Gambia and other places on their own steam, who manage without employing the big tour operators, and who possess a more extensive shade of wardrobe. But from my experience they must be few and far between. And why?

There’s nothing to be scared of by doing it yourself and going local. And you still see as many birds as you would with big tour operators, if not more: principally because The Gambia oozes a spectacular diversity of birds at a ridiculous density; also because you’re not in a group of 20 people trying to pit their birding wits against each other; and because, of course, there is no greater knowledge than local knowledge.

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Senegal Thick-Knee on nest, complete with fag ends.

As you’d imagine, all of the local guides I employed – bird guides, cultural guides or just a local bloke with a boat – all knew their stuff. They were all ridiculously enthusiastic about their country: the wildlife, the people, the peace, and in no time at all you could see why. It soon became apparent to me that everyone here seemed to be blissfully happy, regardless of the fact that they possessed little (relative to Western standards of possessing).

In the evenings I had dinner together with my guides and their local friends (Gambians have friends all over the country, no matter where they are) and discussed all things Gambian – culture, lifestyle, politics (one subject I was warned to avoid but had some very interesting and insightful discussions on!). We shared our simple lunches with Gambian children on their way home from school; we gave lifts to women making long journeys carrying food on their heads and babies on their backs; we drank Attaya (green tea with a bucket load of sugar that Gambians seem pretty addicted to) with people we met along the way and I improved on my very basic grasp of the Mandinka language.

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Watching a Premier League match in the village ‘video club’

Would I have had these experiences if I had pre-booked with a big tour operator? Would I have had that glimpse into life in The Gambia? Quite possibly not – with big tour operators time will not likely be available to stop and interact with the locals, and in big groups there’s a tendency just to talk to each other.

Plus, by going local none of my money went to tour operators sitting behind a desk in London or Amsterdam. All of it went straight to the people of The Gambia. No one else taking a cut. No middle man.

So if you’re considering The Gambia – and please do – don’t be scared. Throw that bird tours brochure in the recycling. And just go. Get to know the locals, let them help you, and I assure you your eyes will be opened to more than the birds.

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Fishing boats off The Gambia’s coastline

 

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