One of the hardest aspects of life here in Gambia is maintenance. Of course, I know everyone has to keep their house maintained – my house in Devon needed roofing work and a complete new bathroom a couple of years ago. But here at Balaba, there’s something that makes it hugely difficult to keep houses, roofs and fences in good order for more than a year or two – termites.
If you’ve read this blog for a while, you might remember I wrote about the work that needed to be done on one of our accommodation blocks (The War Against the Termites). The termites had burrowed underneath, leaving quite large holes under the foundations of the block. In the rainy season these holes fill with water and the building literally shifts if the holes aren’t repaired.
So Lamin spent a long time digging out the termite-ridden soil, filling the holes with concrete, cementing holes in the wall, and putting the building back into good condition. But now it needs doing again, so that’s another job on the horizon before the rains arrive next month.
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.
Here at Balaba Nature Camp we have several bird baths around the camp to attract the beautiful birds that live around us. One of our pools is sited right next to the forest edge, especially to encourage the shy birds, and this has been a real success. We have lots of birds visiting every day. However, over the last few days, some of the bigger birds have been trying to have a bath in our rather small bird bath! These tend to be quite shy birds, such as the Violet Turaco and the Western Grey Plantain Eater.
So Lamin thought it might be a good idea to try and build a larger pool which might give them a better chance of having a bath.
So here is your step-by-step guide to building a bird pool Gambian-style. (I should explain that my camera went on strike while I was photographing, and some of the earlier ones didn’t save properly, so the photos only start some way into the instructions!)
Here at Balaba Nature Camp we get a fabulous variety of wildlife. Yesterday we were relaxing under the trees – Lamin in his hammock and me doing some cross-stitching, when Lamin suddenly grabbed his binoculars. This is usually a sign that he has seen something a bit unusual, and he always seems to spot things before I do. After a few moments, he announced that there was a chameleon in a nearby tree. Again as usual, it took me a few minutes to spot it, but at last I found it, and as I watched it flicked out an enormous tongue in a vain attempt to catch one of the swallowtail butterflies that flit here and there all day.
Yesterday evening we went to visit one of my favourite spots. The Allahein River at Berending is the most amazing landscape, with a meandering river that snakes its way through the sandy flood plain. The river is the border between Gambia and the Casamance region of Senegal, and during the dry season it is surrounded by stunning salt flats, and bordered by unspoilt forest. It’s a haven for wildlife, especially birds, and there’s a fantastic variety because there are waders and river birds, some seabirds as it’s quite close to the sea, raptors such as osprey and African harrier hawks, and woodland birds too.
I’ve written in the past about our adventures with snakes, and as snake encounters go, this one is relatively tame, but nevertheless, dealing with snakes is a fairly common part of everyday life here. A couple of days ago, a large Puff Adder got caught in the netting in one of our fences.
Puff adders are venomous snakes, and can grow quite large, but unlike other snakes, they tend to move quite slowly. Most snakes, if they hear you coming, will move away very speedily, but Puff Adders can’t do this, so they take the opposite stance i.e. they freeze. In fact, they commonly stay in one place for quite a while. The Puff Adder causes the most deaths in Africa, because they are often trodden on in the dark!
At Balaba Nature Camp we have worked hard to keep the environment as natural as possible. When Lamin first came to live here nearly 20 years ago he lived here alone, with no near neighbours, in unspoilt forest. Monkeys, deer and hyenas were regular visitors, and people thought he was ‘crazy’ for wanting to live here! He has managed the trees very carefully here, ensuring that they are felled when necessary, and planting fruit trees such as bananas, oranges and other citrus fruits, and straight malinas which are great for use as timber. But he has kept the trees, and the whole compound is a beautifully shaded haven.
The Gambia has some truly wonderful wildlife, and it seems that the end of the rainy season is a great time to see lots of different creatures. As a general rule, I fond of most wildlife that has fewer than, or more than, eight legs. If it has exactly eight logs I am less fond, although I don’t mind if it’s outside and I do think they can be very beautiful even though I don’t want them in my bedroom or on me! I thought I would share a few photos with you, so you can see some of the amazing variety we have here. Most of these photos I have taken since arriving here this time, but a couple were taken on previous visits.
Let’s get the eight-legged creatures out of the way first. There are spiders in all sizes here, ranging from jumping spiders that are generally not too big (and sometimes tiny), to large hairy monsters that look as though they could swallow a bird!
This large spider was disturbed when Lamin and the guys removed the old palm leaves form the roof of our restaurant before putting on a corrugated iron roof. He (she?) was about 15cm (6 inches) across, and although it large, was rather beautiful.
I have never been in The Gambia at this time of year before, although I have been here earlier in the rainy season. The dry season is almost here, but we are still getting the occasional rainstorm. However, I’ve found it fascinating to see the variety of insect life here at this time of year, because by the time the dry season ends in May, there is very little around.
A couple of days ago I came out of our house to see that the ground on one side of the house appeared to be moving! When I went to look more closely, I saw that thousands of ants were on the move, travelling across the ground in a huge wave. Here and there, some ants had broken away and were creating paths across our own pathways between the vegetation. The ants on the outside of the trail were largely sitting still, whilst the ants in the middle were whizzing along very quickly. It looked rather like an aerial view of a motorway!