The Gambia: There’s Always an Alan

“The most fascinating habitat is sediment.”

I love tits.

Listen, if you didn’t expect me to start a piece that’s broadly about birdwatching with that line…have we met? Years of peering at garden birds in a place called Finchley have turned me into someone who willingly pays a subscription to the RSPB once a year for a little badge with a puffin on it. Oh shut up, it’s that or golf.

The chief reason to go to this part of West Africa is the abundance of airborne wildlife. We arranged the trip through a birding-focused company, and let me say right away that I have done a very poor job of scrutinising the fine print here. If someone had told me I was going to be getting up at 6.30am every morning of my ‘holiday’ I’d have told them to stick a hornbill up their arse. This, you see, was a trip with an itinerary.

Before any of that, though, we pitched up at Banjul airport and into a minibus with the other people on the trip because, oh yes, we were not alone. This at least I knew in advance; we’d been sent the list of people who we’d be joining on the trip, and their names were Mike, Caroline, Nielsen, Catherine, Peter, Janice, Leanne, Ian and Alan. There’s always an Alan on a trip like this. These, it soon transpired, are the English, middle class, early retirement crowd – former bankers or ex of the pharmaceutical or insurance industries. Alan was an accountant. Of course he was.

I will get to the birds eventually, but we have other matters to deal with first. Behold, the gang.

What that cursed small print had hidden from me was that we’d have to share not only each birding excursion with these people, but every single meal around a big long table. The initial conversations at these meals were among the most terrifying I’ve ever experienced; I might enjoy looking at them but I know little about birds, and showing you know a bulbul from a babbler is key to your survival. Be the birding alpha, or scream silently as Peter leans forward and powerfully says the words “The most fascinating habitat is sediment”.

When the bird talk dried up to be replaced by small talk, of which I have as much hope competing as at pole vault, I saw the week stretch out ahead of me like jury duty in a fraud case. I could do little but sit mutely and attempt to divine the character of these people, and one soon stood out: Caroline.

Here’s the trouble with a group trip like this – you get jammed in with a right arsehole and you have to just grin and bear it. Someone mentioned that in The Gambia people in prison aren’t fed by the state and can only eat if their family provides for them. This seems implausible; if those without families simply died in their cells within days it might have been mentioned at the UN. Nonetheless Caroline muttered that it would do Britain well to implement the same policy, which had my left-wing ears pricking up, and throughout the trip she muttered, muttered, muttered various spiteful comments that outed her as utterly unlikable.

Grin. Bear it. What the rest of them thought of me, the wide-eyed mute who’s gone on holiday by mistake, doesn’t bear thinking about. I mean listen, I know I can be a grumpy bastard, but come on. This was the first trip I’ve been on where I realised I had to hold my tongue or doom myself, as arguing with a Tory I’m forced into a canoe with at 7am is a sure-fire way to get myself drowned by the wife.

The birding trips involved a mixture of boat trips and walks in the vicinity of the lodge and the odd minibus to further afield. To veer unexpectedly into positivity for a moment, the birds are obviously amazing – brightly coloured or weird looking things, tiny iridescent ones like hummingbirds and big squawking things like purple turkeys.

Indulge me while I reel off a few remarkable species we saw. The Senegal thick-knee was not in Senegal but it did have thick knees to be fair. Hamerkops and hoopoes look like someone got drunk during the design phase. Birds of prey circled constantly – vultures of course, but ospreys too, hawks, kites and the occasional eagle. Rollers are a lovely set of creatures, especially blue-bellied ones. And though I never need to hear someone yell out the words long-tailed glossy starling! ever again, they are beautiful things.

Some birds I only caught the family of rather than the specific species, thanks to the frenzy to be birding master among the rest of the group, yelling out words at random. There were barbets, woodpeckers, kingfishers, shrikes, flycatchers, waxbills and weavers, a handful of owls and a veritable mass of sunbirds.

My favourite was perhaps a huge stork, who twice tried to fly off with a run-up like an aeroplane, but both times decided he couldn’t be arsed. Even Gambian pigeons are excellent – and, in some cases, camouflaged.

It’s handy that I loved seeing the wildlife (and I promise I really did), because it’s all that stood between me and the massacre of a group of English holidaymakers and a hungry spell in Banjul Prison. A sensible person will see a wonderful bird, flip up the binoculars and stare at it for a few minutes, maybe take a few pictures, then move on. Not this lot. It rapidly became clear that the bulk of a holiday I was being forced to share with strangers would be spent waiting for them to stare at the same brown bird for 15 minutes because it’s rare, then a further 15 minutes to get the perfect photograph of it.

My views of photography will be documented elsewhere but in the main it can fuck off. Take a photo or two, sure. Must you bring a two-foot lens to take 50 shots from 50 angles to get the contrast exactly right? Nielsen must, yes, and pull a face like a spanked child when eventually dragged away from his potential Pulitzer. While I’m walking through the mangrove trying to listen out for birds who probably don’t have ‘meet humans’ at the top of their to-do lists, do I need a soundtrack of Mike talking about how the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM compares with the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM? If I ever do a trip like this again, which I won’t, I’ll add weapons to the packing list and take my chances at the airport. The moment Catherine called out she’d seen a lizard on a termite mound and everyone swarmed round pointing equipment at it was the moment this trip jumped the fucking shark.

The competitive nature of the birding was tiring to say the least. Alan was, of course, a walking Birdopedia, though his shots sometimes went wide, to comedic effect. He’d confidently yell out something like “A skibbet!”, only for one of the guides to burst his bubble with some common alternative, leaving poor Alan crestfallen. Once he spotted something dark bobbing in the sea and declared it a dolphin, and then “Definitely a cetacean of some kind”. After ten minutes of head scratching, the consensus was…a log. I became increasingly tempted to gasp and cry out “Is that…wait…is that…my God…is that…an emu?” Silence, bar a lone gunshot in the distance.

After the first day’s birding, we all met at the lodge’s bar for a relaxing glass of lager and oh sweet Jesus they’re going to tick their birds off a list. Yes, everyone has the same pre-printed checklist provided by the tour company, and each of around 150 species is read out and discussed as to whether it was spotted today. And on day two, the whole list is read through again – no skipping the ones we saw yesterday, with no logical explanation. I hope my exit to sit at the bar to read a book was well noted, and that it got a bloody good mutter from Caroline.

But there was no getting away from the interminable mealtimes, which occasionally lit up with talk of 80s kids’ TV but invariably fell apart into whether that weaver was speckle-fronted, red-headed, olive-naped or chestnut-and-black…or a hybrid, a handy get-out clause whenever the experts had no bloody idea. These long hours were only briefly interrupted by the occasional jolly interlude, such as Caroline’s tantrum when Peter was mistakenly served her chips, as she stared uncomprehendingly at the fried potatoes on her plate, next to some gammon probably. Naturally she was the type of Brit who goes abroad expecting British food, despite Gambian food involving a very enjoyable selection of sauces and spices, aka ‘foreign muck’.

The urgency of seeing rare species caused minor calamity on one bus trip. Having spent almost an hour standing on a muddy bank waiting for the tide to shift so we could get 13 yards closer to some gulls we’d been watching for bloody ages already, we had an unexpected hour to kill before lunch. This was solved by someone yelling they’d seen something rare in a tree behind an abandoned school, and in we drove to find it. Having successfully ticked off ‘medium sized brown one’, the bus got stuck in the sand. Cue farce. If one image sums up the whole trip for me, it is this.

The Gambia itself is a dusty place, or at least is in April before the rainy season tips three Atlantics worth of water on top of it. There a general air of unhurriedness about it, epitomised by its timezone: GMT, or Gambian Maybe Time.

Unfortunately the abiding memory of what we saw of this thin nation was that it’s an absolute dump. Literally; there was no hint of a bin anywhere and as a result every street and patch of land is plastered with discarded plastic, clothing, old tyres, even whole cars just ditched as wrecks wherever they finally give up the ghost. Prize for the most optimistic street sign I saw goes to “Do not dump garbage here”. Presumably there’s no notion of the cash-strapped government collecting rubbish, but in its place surely some collective idea of not just living surrounded by refuse might take hold. Even the river was coated with a grim film of slime.

But there were positives too. Smiling is not weird here, even at strangers. We all know ladies in some African countries have developed this mad ability to carry baskets on their heads, but here those baskets were massive, overflowing, carried even by children with not so much as a mango lost. And their clothing is fantastic, the most colourful outfits imaginable, aquas and oranges even for a funeral we happened upon on a bus journey.

A visit to Tanji, the country’s main beach-based fish market, was a crazy cacophony of sight and sound, with hundreds of sea birds swirling and swooping for Alan and co to misidentify. The variety of life was on full display on this beach, though of course we had to stand for an hour surrounded by plastic trying to spot every single minor variation of seagull and tern. There are many, many types of tern.

One lunchtime the tour leader, Dave, said “We’ll be mostly taking photos from the bus this afternoon”. Like fuck. Ground down by the relentlessness of the birding – up to seven hours a day – I eventually started to skip the afternoon sessions, allowing for a bit more actual holiday to creep in. The lodge itself was visited by countless birds, monkeys and baboons. A highlight was bobbing in the pool while a flock of white-throated bee-eaters took turns to throw themselves into the water around us to cool down. A gregarious pair of pied kingfishers would often sit by the pool and loads of other species flitted around the estate. Being able to see birds without a load of bellends in safari gear rabbiting on about them behind their binoculars made skipping a 35 degree afternoon walk to some mud flats entirely the right decision, muttering be damned.

As I started to unwind a bit I was reminded that, as much as I might like wildlife, it bloody hates me. The bug bites were a given; I’m forever fated to be machine gunned by mosquitoes on arse cheeks through thick layers of ‘insect repellent’ fabric. But, one evening, I was enjoying the simple joy of a sky full of stars, thinking that it would be lovely the next night to sit outside for a while with a beer and just take in the universe. Moments later I was hitching up my skirts and wailing like a horrified debutante, skipping screaming for indoors and swearing never to go outside again, thanks to a cockroach the size of a caravan that had landed on my neck.

The trip thankfully ended with three days of proper relaxation over the border in Senegal, which allowed me to push my ire to one side and remember that the birds of west Africa are quite superb. Had we gone as a couple without the group (as one pair were doing at the lodge) it probably would have been amazing. We ended up meeting two of the group couples at the airport heading home, including Caroline, who managed to declare that the Duty Free shop was ‘gay’, to her husband’s dismay (quote: “You’ve managed to go 10 days without saying things like that, please don’t start now”).

A fitting reminder of the lower points of this trip; I’ll struggle to accept the idea of group travel again unless I can be guaranteed considerable time without berks. My abiding memory will be of sharing a full-price holiday with a load of people who you’d normally only expect to encounter at council meetings moaning about parking restrictions, and again let me stress the feeling was doubtless mutual.

So thank God for the birds, because if there’s one thing I can say with some certainty it’s that there’s always an Alan.

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