Butterflies fill the air like snowflakes

THE first night in this tropical land of The Gambia in West Africa we ate in the company of hundreds of white butterflies.

I noticed that one had alighted on our candlelit table and settled there. Admiring its beauty and lack of fear, I pointed it out to the waitress.

Instantly, she brushed it away with a sweep of her hand. “I love butterflies”, she said, smiling the sunniest of African smiles.

Butterflies had filled the air like oversize white snowflakes all day and they continued all night, flying around the streetlights and in the hotel corridors. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were witnessing an annual butterfly migration in which hundreds of millions of copper whites – about the size of our small whites – move south from the Sahara edge to cross the great Senegal, Gambia and Casamanche rivers into Guinea Bissau and then onward down the Bight of Benin and the Gulf of Guinea.

They move south out of Morocco in December, just as ‘our’ Painted Ladys moved north out of Morocco in June – this year, exceptional numbers crossed the Atlas Mountains and the Straits of Gibraltar to reach northern Europe, Britain and Ireland and, even, Iceland. What feats of flight these seeming scraps of gossamer can achieve! But they are not gossamer, of course – they are tough, resilient insects, evolved to cope with almost anything the elements can level at them, capable of riding cyclones and surviving rainstorms, capable, by their sheer numbers, of surviving despite decimation by the gorgeous birds – the African bee-eaters and paradise flycatchers – that snap them out of the air, the hotels cats that catch them and play with them, and the slipstream of cars that sweep them onto the roads to die in their hundreds beneath the wheels.

They looked to me to be white, like the dark-veined whites we have at home, but when I photographed two of them roosting on the wall of an upstairs corridor in the hotel I saw in the pictures why they are called copper whites. They are indeed copper, the lower wing almost rust red. They are only one of the many beautiful butterfly species that range along the Atlantic coast, along the river banks and in the mangrove swamps and jungle trails in this part of Africa.

Here in The Gambia, the native people are universally almost purple-black and outside of the tourist areas, one rarely sees a white, Arab or Oriental face. The skins are black but the costumes are a kaleidoscope of colour. Many of the women are slim, tall and statuesque, often very pretty, dressed in African ankle-length dresses and robes. Some wear headscarves – The Gambia is 70% Muslim but extremely relaxed, it seems– but most do not. All are impeccably and gorgeously attired to an extreme, the men no less so (except when in working gear), sharp, with highly-polished shoes, creased trousers, well- cut shirts. Yet, I’m told that the per capita income is only $1,700, perhaps €1,300, and that up-country, conditions will be quite different – “It will bring tears to your eyes,” one Mandinka man told me. Well, we shall see. Our travels will shortly take us inland and away from the coast and the bargain hotel that came with the bargain package holiday.

We will use it only as an occasional base, henceforth.

On the resort coast, the hustlers were, at first, almost as numerous as the butterflies, trying to sell us tours and excursions of all sorts – but we’ve quickly got used to them and they to us. Like the butterflies, they’ve migrated to fresher pastures.

Meanwhile, we’ve been bitten by mosquitoes only eight times between us, and by nothing else.

The colour, the wildlife and the traditional drumming and dancing we’ve seen all make the heart race and the temperature soar. Vultures and black kites wheel high above our breakfast table in the hotel garden, and electric blue starlings hop on the grass. Our plans are as new as tomorrow, but we are sure there is a new world of impressions and experiences in store.

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