19th December 2021
Bombali, Gambia – Baboon Island, Gambia via Deer Island, Bird Island & Kuntaur, Gambia
As Wildebeest graze an unending and harsh savannah landscape David Attenborough’s calming tones lull the viewer into a state of calm and then calamity ensues as Lions descend upon the hapless creatures. Similar things happen at the waterholes where, whilst egrets dance on the backs of Hippo’s while they bathe in glorious mud, David Attenborough once again pops up, and the fate of the hippo is sealed as an alligator emerges from the deep. We had all the ingredients for a great David Attenborough programme, but thankfully without the drama that David brings.
Before we could start gathering the components for a David Attenborough programme we had to get to the scene and so along the river we drifted. An ancient life unfolded around us as we passed grass huts giving shelter to local fishermen and washer women beat the dirt out of clothes in the murky water before setting them to dry in the trees. Occasionally we’d be given a glimpse of the modern world as ferries loaded to unfathomable capacities moved people, motorbikes and livestock across the river.
Those fishermen who lived a simple life ashore also lived a simple life on the river, but this simple life wasn’t making our life easy. In a bid to catch every critter alive they cast their nets across the width of the river and let them drift down, often unattended, with the tide. Only when the nets found a bend would they be hauled in with their meagre catch.
We attached binoculars almost permanently to our eyes as Ruffian drove her very own invisible slalom into the hinterland of Gambia, around the nets, around the boats and around danger. We scooted from one side of the river to the other and picked our way through the labyrinth of nets knowing that disaster lay just one bad decision away. With the end in sight, the sun setting and the fishermen starting to head home we feared we’d done wrong as one of them really wanted our attention.
Approaching the little boat, it quickly became apparent that we could do a good deed. Instead of having a long painful paddle against the tide we could attach them to the back of Ruffian and ease their burden. Accelerating up to walking pace broad smiles erupted onboard and they got on with enjoying the ride by lighting a fire, brewing some tea and watching the world go by. Simple pleasures.
Anchoring far from the sounds of man the and with darkness enveloping us, the night was erupting into a crescendo of noise. Tree frogs crowed and monkeys screamed, but they were silenced by other goings on. Huge splashes and a tidal wave of water was being pushed along the shoreline and as this noise receded Ruffian vibrated as the low call of a hippo carried right through us. Just meters away was a hippo, showing us who was in who’s domain and, as we listened, we knew all that was between us and the most dangerous mammal in Africa, was a thin layer of fibreglass.
The next day as we pushed further upriver the sounds of the hippos gave way to sights of them. Without a care in the world, they sat on the riverbank, wallowing in the glorious mud, splashing in the cooling waters while monkeys frolicked around them and exotic birds circled waiting to pick grubs off their skin. As cruising experiences went this was off the scale.
This far up the river not only does the national park protect the wildlife it also protects ancient monuments and we were about to experience the African version of Stonehenge. Walking through villages full of smiling children we quickly moved from the lush green river to the classic African savannah. All colour had been drained from the plants and everywhere we looked all we could see was tinder dry beige.
Approaching the monument, a series of stone circles stretched off into the distance. They’d been lovingly created over 1000’s of years in homage to long deceased kings, warriors and tribesmen whose names and deeds have been forgotten, but their legacy was living on.
Arriving at our final destination on the Gambia, behind the aptly named Baboon Island, we listened to hippos thrashing int the water, monkeys jumping in the trees and the atmosphere was alive with all things jungle. We’d experienced everything the Gambia had to offer and all without a single David Attenborough sighting.
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