For those wanting an easy to arrange trip with over 200 mainly exotic species in a week, The Gambia should be high on the wanted list. We stayed in a package booked hotel, with birding on the doorstep and within easy reach of the resort. The Kotu Stream area seems to hold most of the hotels, and one of these (Badala Park, Bungalow Beach, Kombo Beach or Bakotu) is probably the ideal base, since the surrounding land offers a good mix of habitats - including coastal scrub, woodland, river, marsh, and open farmland - giving a high number and variety within walking distance. Areas covered later such as the Kotu Stream, Fajara golf course, Casino cycle track, and sewage farm are all within minutes of the hotels mentioned.
The people in The Gambia proved without exception to be very friendly, and I believe violent crime is almost unheard of. The down side is that there is constant hassle from almost all - for genuine curiosity to begging and offers for paid guiding (both birding and otherwise). We got used to this and didn't find it a problem, but it may put some off (you can always cop out and spend a week by the pool!). A general rule seems to be polite but firm, and don't give in to the begging, since the feeling of other Gambians is that this would just compound the problem.
For convenience, we booked a half board package at The Badala Park, where the accommodation was basic yet adequate, and the food quite tasty. We were careful to drink only bottled water and only once ate out of the hotel (giant prawns at a beach bar - highly recommended), and had no major stomach upsets. The array of jabs pre-holiday included tetanus, typhoid, Hepatitis A, yellow fever and polio on a spoon. Anti-malarial prophylaxis is also a must - mosquitoes were few and far between but we did get the odd bite, so better safe than sorry. For those taking mosquito plugs for the rooms (the odd bug found its way in) be prepared with a British 3 pin adapter, which our rooms had as standard.
The currency is the Dalasis, with the exchange rate 17 to the pound during our stay. This was at the hotel, and not quite as good as the exchange booths (there is one opposite the Bakotu), but much better than the airport and back home. Sterling is regularly taken (and preferred by some), but it is generally better to have a sum of Dalasis on you.
Our trip was during the Early Dry Season. The wet season is mainly during August and September, with some rains still during October. Because of this and the loss of breeding plumage by many birds shortly after, November is generally considered to be the best time to visit (with December second best). However, we still had a combined trip list of over 230, which is probably a total similar to that for the "better" months, and the drabber plumage of some (mainly Finch types) is balanced by the better views, since crops have been harvested and a lot of the vegetation has died back leaving more open land.
The weather during the whole week was hot and sunny (apart from a slight mist on the first full day), but a North to Easterly moderate wind in most areas near the coast kept the 90+ degrees more palatable. Sun cream or sun block is a must, as are decent walking shoes. Shorts are also ideal for the temperature, but we sometimes put up with the discomfort of trousers to fend off the many spiked plants that occur.
Dawn was just before 8am, and dusk around 7:30pm.
One of the most common things we heard was "hey birdwatchers", particularly in the Kotu Stream and Golf Course areas. This is because many of the locals have gathered that a guide is more or less a must for we "twobobs", and so they are legion. From our perspective, a guide is essential for the sites away from the Kotu Creek, not just to find the birds, but also to find your way to and around the sites, and to fend off the usually persistent locals. The problem is finding the right one, since they vary from good to useless. In reality there are probably less than 10 experienced birders worth their salt, so we were lucky to find Barry (Modou W Barri, c/o 30A Grant Street, Banjul, Tel: 461201 after 8pm; mobile: 00220 7031 278; email: email@example.com web: www.gambiabirdwatching.com) who was generally very good and we would very much recommend. We also came across Seedy, who also seemed to know his stuff. Barry's strengths were that he knew the sites and had a good spotting eye, but we found it best to always double check identification. A full day with him cost 10 each, and he organised the taxi himself (another 600 Dalasis).
For those wanting to arrange their own transport, which is only a good idea for some of the local sites and Abuko, the green tourist taxis are present outside all the hotels, and they are used to ferrying birders around. The yellow taxis are for locals, since they are allowed to pick up from the roadside, and are probably less well controlled and maintained than the greens. The latter also have boards displaying standard ferrying and waiting fees near them.
Rob Wards "Birdwatchers' Guide to The Gambia" is excellent for site maps and general birding information. A road map isn't needed.
For identification, the new guide by Barlow is all that is necessary, although a copy of the Birds of West Africa is useful to look up the birds and names used by the guides - most use a battered copy of this as standard.