Sunday, 30 January 2011

Memories of Week One

It’s now 12 days since I returned from Gambia having been part of the first group of volunteers to travel to West Africa in search of wintering Ospreys. Just reading the updates, watching the videos and looking at the photographs from the second week together with Tim’s first report from Northern Senegal only serves to remind me what a special place Africa is.

After two hours of the flight over to Banjul we had already cleared the Southern coast of Spain, the pilot even dipped his wing to give us a clear view of the Rock of Gibraltar. It struck me at this point just what a mammoth journey our young Ospreys have to undertake given we still had four more hours to travel and we saw nothing but sand for most of the remainder of the flight. Its little wonder that only a fraction of the birds that fledge make it back to the UK to breed.

This was my first travel experience outside of Europe and I have to admit I wasn’t really prepared for what would greet us in Gambia, the sights, the sounds and even the smells (particularly when driving past the fish gutting and smoking huts) were overwhelming. We got a taste of what the trip would be like however when within twenty minutes of leaving the airport on our journey to Tanji we had seen our first Osprey. The sky was full of Hooded Vultures and Black Kites and all around us we were beginning to see the real Africa. On reaching our accommodation again it was a shock to me driving down rough dirt roads through Tanji village to reach the Paradise Inn Lodge. On that drive though all the children were screaming and waving at us expecting nothing more in return than a wave back.

The second day saw us taking a boat trip to Bijoli Island, the boat was late and JJ, our brilliant guide, was not happy, eventually the boat turned up complete with a huge fishing net stored in the middle of it. The realisation then set in that we would be wading out to meet it, all part of the fun and charm of the place though. On the way over to the island I got talking to the boat owner and he was keen to turn the conversation to football, it turns out he was a huge Manchester United fan and the boat was named Michael Carrick, his previous one was called Wes Brown apparently, as a lifelong Liverpool fan I did consider swimming back to the shore but felt that was possibly a little over the top.

The island was a very special place, we saw at least two Ospreys catching fish and several others perched or flying past, it was here though that I got my first ever views of Caspian Terns, a real treat with their huge Orange bills. After a couple of hours we headed back, everywhere you go the locals will come and great you and take an interest in you, one of them however took more interest than the others. A local character, ironically called “Happy Happy”, turned out not to be too happy and entered into a heated discussion with JJ over our rights to visit the island.

The third day saw us visit Gunjur Beach in the morning, a beautiful spot, then onto Kartong for lunch and a boat trip through the Mangroves. During lunch at Kartong we got an idea what difference tourism makes to these villages when the manager explained to us how the place operated and how the profits were invested back into the local community. The boat trip was fantastic, Ospreys were everywhere and we got sight of a couple with coloured rings. A Goliath heron, numerous kingfishers, bee-eaters, a palm vulture and a fish eagle were among the numerous other species we saw.

Day four saw us head to Senegal, we got a real taste of Africa in seeing the operation of the Banjul to Barra ferry, heaven knows what would have happened if we hadn’t had JJ and Eladji to get us on the ferry, my abiding memory here was being stood on the top deck of the ferry with Tim waiting to depart when the doors opened in the terminal and what can only be described as a Tidal Wave of foot passengers boarded the ferry. We got to the other side and after a stop at the border we headed into Senegal. Having left the apprehension well behind and become accustomed to the Paradise Inn and the wonderful people who worked there it felt like we were almost being cheated of the African experience at the Keur Saloum hotel in Senegal as it is quite luxurious.

Day five was the highlight for me, a five hour boat trip into the mouth of the Sine Saloum delta, none of us knew what to expect but seeing 35+ Ospreys including at one time eleven perched within a 200m stretch of sand bar was incredible. We even found one with a coloured ring and Tim knee deep in water was able to read the ring number, it will be interesting when the guys get back from Senegal to find out exactly where all the colour ringed Ospreys found during the four weeks emanate from.

Day six saw us venture further into Senegal up to Kaolack, new species were added to the list and it was on the way back we had a real treat, having stopped at a small wetland area we were preparing to leave when Eladji, our driver for the week, heard an owl, JJ was on to it and before too long we were looking at a pair of Verreaux’s Eagle Owls perched high up in a large tree, what a treat! There’s even a video of a scruffy fella talking about it on our YouTube channel.

Day Seven dawned and we prepared to leave Senegal and head back to the Paradise Inn for our last night, it was dawning on me that our time in Gambia and Senegal was drawing to a close and that a week just isn’t long enough to do it justice. We got back to the Paradise Inn to be greeted like long lost relatives by the guys there, Mohammed, Yaro, Abdouli and Ibrahim were all there waiting for us.

The evening saw us venture out a short distance from the lodge to find another wetland area where we saw six ospreys perched, another ring was able to be read, we headed back as it was getting dark only to see a Crested Eagle on the way.

A trip to Tanji beach early on the last morning gave us a final chance to watch Ospreys fishing in the sea. Attached below is what is admittedly a very poor photo of an Osprey we observed catching the biggest fish I have seen an Osprey carry. A nice open air lunch under a Mango tree at the Paradise Inn was our final taste of Gambia, shortly after we headed off to the airport to catch our flight home.

The Ospreys will stick long in the memory but what will also stick are the warmth of the people we met, the smiles on the faces of the children we saw, not forgetting JJ, our fantastic guide who I cannot recommend highly enough. Just sitting with new friends during the heat of the day drinking Coke from glass bottles was a real treat as well. If you’ve never been to Africa and you get the chance then go, you won’t regret it; I for one cannot wait to go back next year.

Chris Ditchburn
Osprey Volunteer