Here at Balaba, we’re only a few kilometres from the border with southern Senegal. Ten minutes’ drive and we’re in the border village of Kartong, which lies next to the Allahein River which forms the border. In fact, we have to go through immigration control every time we go to buy fish at the beach!
But one of my favourite activities is to go for a dawn river trip to see the birds, followed by breakfast on the beach. It’s one of the attractions that we offer to our tourists, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been myself. So since our friend Naomi, together with her family, was staying with us for a few days, we decided to do the trip.
It meant Lamin and I were up before six, boiling water for tea and collecting plates, cups, knives etc, together to take with us. We also need mats to sit on, all kinds of spreads for our bread, and of course, I needed my camera and binoculars. The birds are always quite active in the mornings, and there are fabulous birds such as the African Fish Eagle and ospreys to see.
Once we’d collected all we needed, (and everyone was up and awake!), we loaded ourselves into two cars and set off for Kartong. We stopped briefly to get bread, then headed through the immigration point and off to the river. There’s another military checkpoint close to the river, but everyone around here knows Lamin, so it didn’t take long to get to the river.
This area is a well-used crossing point for people going to Casamance (the southern region of Senegal), so there’s a little canoe service which operates across the river. It used to be virtually deserted, apart from a lone juice bar, but recently a few stalls and restaurants have opened there, so it’s looking a little more lively now. We even saw the beginnings of some boat-building – the start of a new pirogue.
However, we discovered that Babu (who owns the boat), had stored his outboard engine in a friend’s lock-up, and this friend had gone off fishing without leaving the key. There followed a bit of a discussion, then Lamin and Babu decided to use a small outboard engine to go and see if they could borrow a larger one. So they headed off down-river, and we waited for them to return.
About 45 minutes later, the boat came back, and at the point the owner of the lock-up also appeared, so Babu went to get his engine and we started getting on the little boat. Like most river escapades in Gambia, this involved paddling in the water to get to the boat, although fortunately it wasn’t too deep!
Once loaded, we set off up river. The sun was quite well up by now, and the ferry was already in use. Everything seems to get loaded onto this little dugout, including cycles and baggage – I have even seem motorbikes on board! On the other side, there are motorbike taxis waiting to transport people down to Abene and Kafountine – it’s faster than a car, although probably less comfortable!
The sides of the river are thick with mangroves, which grow quite high at first. The tide was almost fully in, so there wasn’t much muddy river bank to be seen. There are usually wading birds around, and a couple of times we’ve even seen a crocodile! But surprisingly, the mangroves are vulnerable to damage, and there’s a project running now to re-plant mangroves to try and prevent the river banks eroding away.
As we carried on up the river, we saw some lovely birds.
Baobab trees are an iconic species in Africa, and there’s some lovely miniature examples here. You can also see banks of oyster shells. Oysters grow on the mangrove stalks, and the local women often spend all day wading in the water to harvest the oysters and then preparing them for sale in the local village. They are delicious! But now there’s a project to grow them ‘artificially’, using ropes and shells strung on frames, so perhaps that will make their lives a little easier.
Further up the river, the mangroves give way to open sandy banks – in fact, these are really salt flats that are submerged in the rainy season. Here we saw kingfishers and bee-eaters, as well as some larger birds.
All too soon, it was time to turn around and come back. As we landed, Lamin managed to buy some fish from one of the boats which had just landed.
Once we’d landed, we headed a short distance away to the beach, where we spread our mats and had a wonderful breakfast.
The beach at Kartong is a working fishing beach, so there were boats coming in, women getting ready to process the catch, and also some government inspectors to check on how things were being run. We were lucky enough to meet a woman selling local fruit drinks that she’d made herself – wanjo (made from hibiscus flowers), and ginger juice.
The children went off to try and catch crabs (with limited success!), and Philip, Naomi’s brother-in-law, showed us how he made woven bracelets using thread. He used to do this to support himself on the tourist beaches, before managing to buy a taxi.
We spent the whole morning on the beach, enjoying the sun and chatting to the locals. It really is one of the best ways to start the day!