Birds, bats and the beauty of nature

I WAS told there were crocs, but only after I’d been swimming.

“Over there, though, not here...” my informant added reassuringly, pointing to a spot a hundred yards away.

I saw no hippos as I was paddled up a broad creek of the Gambia river by my Senegalese boatman, Mamoud. Hippos annually account for the untimely demise of more Africans than any other creature except, of course, fellow Africans. However, The Gambia is a peaceful place and I need not have worried; hippos do not frequent the waters west of McCarthy Island, these being saline.

The great Atlantic rolls in and pulls back twice daily as it does near our house at home, but the tide runs 60 miles ‘upriver’, brown water pouring into the mangrove swamps bringing nutrients to the oysters that cling in their millions of millions to the stems, to God knows how many other creatures and to the mangroves themselves.

When the tide recedes, mud-skippers, fish with fins for front legs like the rock-pool shannies at home, scuttle and squirm across the soft silt and crabs half the size of one’s hand sidle between the mangrove stems that grow down from above and root themselves in the mud. Long-legged wading birds stalk the shadows, while ospreys and fish hawks cruise overhead or sit in imperious dignity on top of dead palm trees, silhouetted against the sky.

I have seen them all – anybody with half an eye could, for The Gambia is a bird-watcher’s Utopia. I’ve almost begun to ‘twitch’ (ie tick off birds in my book) such is the excitement of seeing feathered creatures red as flame, blue as turquoise, green as emerald flash across one’s field of vision at every turn.

And there are the bats, bats like a storm of brown, windblown handkerchiefs suddenly flying towards, past and all around us one evening as we walked a dimly lit walkway through the mangroves into the dining area of the Bintang Bolong Lodge, an isolated rest-house built on the Bintang creek. The ‘creek’ is as wide as the Shannon at Foynes and four hours upriver from the capital, Banjul. It was like a scene from Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas, or Hitchcock’s The Birds.

We were the only guests at the Bintang Bolong Lodge that night, solitary souls in our little hut standing on oyster-encrusted piles sunk into the rich mud of the Gambia River. Before going to bed, we stood on our balcony-cum-jetty, a few feet above the water, breathing the African air. The sky cleared and the stars shone with no other lights, anywhere, from horizon to horizon. Africa lay dark and close about us; one could all but hear it breathe. Then, somewhere out on the river, distant voices and the quiet splash of paddles, then women’s voices calling to the shore and a man answering. Next day, we learned that these were oyster-pickers; they went up or down river with the tide, picked until sunset, then paddled home.

Not only do the oysters provide a rich food source but the shells make lime mortar for building. They lie in small, mother-of-pearl kitchen middens along the shore.

At night, we lay in bed and listened to the sounds in the water below us. A splash, then a silence. A flop of a fish, a cry of a bird. We’d been there two days when three feisty women turned up, professors from Leeds teaching a health module at a college in Banjul, the capital.

We sat together on the jetty at the Bintang Bolong Lodge and drank our bottles of Julbrew, and between exchanges, scanned the water for passing owls.

Old Africa hands (not in their years but in their extensive travels and experience) they told us how they had worked as volunteers in Sierra Leone, Zambia, Ethiopia – fearless women, it seemed to me, ready to brave any border crossing, any challenge. Such are the people one is sometimes fortunate enough to meet when one gets away from the resorts.

* Bintang Bolong Lodge can be contacted via www.bintang-bolong.com


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