We first visited The Gambia in 1999, when we stayed at the Badala Park Hotel in the Kotu area, and birded the week from there, going no more than an hour inland, and venturing on to the North bank in the Barra area for one day. At that time, we used a guide who we had found around Kotu, Modu Barry, and he had suggested a trip up river to see some of the inland specialities. We didnít take him up on it at the time, since we wanted to cover the coastal habitats as best we could, but promised ourselves that we would return some day and base most of the holiday around the upriver sites, with the fabled Egyptian Plover as our prime target.
So it was that 11 years later we again arrived at the Badala Park Hotel, which didnít seem to have changed a great deal (in fact the package price for flights and B&B accommodation was almost the same at £370). This time we had pre-booked 4 days upriver ahead of the trip, with Bob Wildeís WildGambia (www.wildgambia.com) operation, who have until recently concentrated on fishing trips, but who have branched out into bird tours. This means that the guide, Lamin, is still relatively inexperienced, but the trip was a good price at £350 each for all except evening meals. For those birders who want an expansive tick list, the clamour of an experienced tour company with its crowd of participants may be better, but our tour was hugely enjoyable through seeing a mouth watering diversity of birds, and also being on a private tour just for the two of us. The only down side was the bad luck which could slice into any holiday here Ė the car breakdown. This could have resulted in losing a day upriver, but Bob did the correct thing and added the extra day on for nothing.
The Gambia must be the cheapest and easiest way to experience African birds South of the Sahara, but there are some aspects which need to be pointed out. The most obvious down side is the hassle you receive when there. For birders, this is a particular problem around Kotu, and especially at the Kotu Creek bridge. To be fair, I am sure that the ďbird guidesĒ there contain some very competent people, but if you want to enjoy the birds quietly and on your own, they can sometimes be adverse to taking no for an answer. From our experience, I would advise booking a guide ahead of arrival (Modu Barry should be contacted at 30A Grant Street, Banjul, The Gambia, firstname.lastname@example.org, or look out for him at the Kombo Beach Hotel just along from the bridge), and avoiding the hassle on the bridge. There is also generally hassle for the tourist nearer the coast, with many Gambians pleasantly enquiring your name and where you are from, and then asking for something along the way (classically some money for accompanying you, even if you didnít want it).
The other factor to be aware of is the travel infrastructure. The roads near to the resorts are very good, but the South bank road particularly away from here has deteriorated to some degree, leaving a bumpy transit which takes a little longer. The vehicles used seem to be far from new, and so (as we found out) reliability and comfort are not as back home. However, this is Africa!!!
The currency is the dalasis, and the notes passed around are either dirty or very dirty. Despite there being an ATM in the airport on arrival, it apparently only takes Gambian cards, as do the majority of the machines we passed elsewhere, so it is worth taking a combination of cash and travellers cheques. The street vendors are supposed to give the best rates, but we found the 40 dalasis to £1 at the hotel to be reasonable and convenient. Stirling is also apparently accepted, but we didnít try this, and the chance is that the exchange rate would have to be haggled. Electricity is usually UK three pin plugs, but Tendaba Camp had European two pin plugs, so these must occur regularly. The safety and working condition of the plugs canít always be guaranteed, as can the supply of electricity, although power cuts werenít too regular to be annoying. However, a torch in the suitcase is a good tip.
Badala Park Hotel (Kotu)
Having visited the Senegambia Hotel for their array of birds, it is obvious that the Badala Park hotel is fairly basic. This isnít a surprise, since it is the cheapest package to the area, but is still clean and more than adequate. A huge bonus is the location, situated as it is next to the Cycle Track, and a stoneís throw away from the Kotu Creek. We tried to organise an earlier breakfast than the allotted 7am start a couple of times without success. There is a private Chinese restaurant and hotel owned one on site. The benefit of these is that you donít have to run the gauntlet of over eager Gambians trying to prise money from you when tackling the small selection of eateries outside. Two benefits of the hotel are UK plugs, and a safety deposit box in each room (not cheap at 770 Dalasis for 7 days).
Despite the name, this does comprise brick built housing, next to a small village. It is likely that this is the only place to stay when visiting Tendaba, and the boats go from the jetty alongside for the mangrove trips, since the Camp is situated on the very wide Gambia River. The rooms are basic, with a separate shower block for when the attached ďen suiteĒ isnít up to the job. We experienced our first Gambian power cut while here (actually, thatís not quite true, since there was one at the Badala Park when we were trying to leave for Tendaba). The restaurant is attached and pleasantly located in the open air next to the river, and had a buffet when we were there. This didnít begin until 8pm, and we were starving, so we ordered a Gambian chicken dish from the menu for 7pm, which tasted like ordinary chicken and chips. Sockets in the rooms were of the European adapter type.
Baobolong Lodge area (Georgetown)
This must be the place to stay not only for Georgetown, but also for the area as a whole. As usual, the accommodation is basic, and is probably the first such hotel I have stayed in where there is no reception (although building work to rectify this is apparently ongoing, along with a new kitchen). On arrival, we collected our key from the table inside the entrance to the accommodation compound, and were in our room within minutes. There are around 50 rooms to the hotel, and each seem to contain UK style plugs Ė these do not always work, and there are of course the inevitable power cuts. The linen is wondrous Ė we were given 1 towel between two of us, and the spare we requested was of the amazing none drying kind first experienced at Tendaba. My bed also came with a covering sheet only, as well as a mosquito net which didnít hang. And I believe this is the upmarket hotel in the area. Donít misunderstand Ė this is not a complaint, merely Africa! The meals in the evening were served in the open air, and the choice was either take it or leave it Ė a usually tasty meat casserole or rice dish, and spaghetti with sauce for the vegetarians (cost of this was 200 dalasis, with a beer or soft drink 30-40 dalasis).