Crocodiles and trouble in the Gambia

Crocodiles and trouble in the Gambia

I embarked on a trip to Gambia in 1997 to see the Crocodiles at the sacred Kachikally pool and other wildlife and took my best friend Hazel along with me.

I did not have a digital camera back then, but a regular 35mm film camera with no zoom, however the one image I had kept is below, its a photo of a photo:

Me stroking a crocodile

On arrival, the plane landed in a field and we were driven to the hotel which I noticed was surrounded by barbed wire with two armed guards standing alongside the fencing.

We dumped our things in the room and went for a walk on the beach, the sand banks were steep and the sea was rough making a terrific crashing sound and there were palm trees fringed all the way down the beach as far as the eye could see. I was really enjoying the walk, yet about 10 minutes into it we saw a gang of six tall guys paying off the armed guards at the barbed wire fence, the guards hastily took the money and walked off.

The gang then approached us and asked us for money, I thought that odd as they had just given out money to pay off the guards, I explained that we had none as had just arrived, the leader said he knew we had arrived and what room we were in; I goaded him into telling me what number room it was as I could not believe he would know, room 6011 he said; he had it right.

We turned and left almost running back through the wire fence to the room, we were plagued by silent calls from that moment on day and night for the duration that we were there.

The grounds of the hotel had beautiful tropical gardens, spiny palm leaves sprang up and there were exotic colourful birds in the grounds including the African Palm Swift (Sypsiurus parvus), African Jacana (Actophilornis africana) and Little Bee Eater (Merops pusillus). 

The flowers were beautiful there were orchids, palm flowers, heliconia and hisbiscus dotted about the grounds which were rich in green ferns and palms.

We met an American couple who had been mugged out on the street just up the road, they were very shaken up about it and it made us both reluctant to go out anywhere.

Each day I longed to go out onto the beach, yet as soon as we attempted it the gangs would appear and we would end up going straight back through the fence and the silent calls would continue at regular intervals throughout the night at all hours in our room, there was something chilling about it.

In order to cheer myself up I decided to have my hair braided, there were two local girls braiding hair for people on the beach right by our fence-sitting under a shaded palm tree, I decided to go for it. I sat there having my hair done, Hazel opted out of it, and chatted away to the locals feeling secure in their presence; unfortunately this did not last.

A tall, man in his 30s walked up to us and asked me where I was from, he then started questioning me on how much I earned and I began to feel uncomfortable, I explained in all honesty that it had taken me over a year and two jobs to pay for the trip and that I was by no means rich, it made no difference. He became angry and asked me for money, I told him I only had enough on me to pay the girls for my hair.

He then asked me for the necklace I was wearing, I refused to give it to him, however he responded by holding his cigarette lighter to my hair and started to flick it on and off risking setting me on fire, the girls backed off and left him to it. I had no choice but to give him the necklace. He walked away and the girls continued braiding my hair, I hoped they would hurry up and finish, as soon as they did I paid them what was owed and hurried back through the hole in the fence, to safety, to the sanctuary of the hotel grounds.

We booked two trips as it seemed the only way to get out but by being escorted we assumed safety.

The first trip was to go by boat down a local river and look for birds as dawn approached, this trip was fantastic, we were picked up from the hotel and taken to the riverside where we were introduced to a lovely, gentle man called ‘Moonlight’ and he rowed us down the river to look for birds as it was getting light. I looked up to see that the moon was still at large as the sky changed from dark to red, orange, gold, purple and blue, the birds chattered on into the dawn and I thought how beautiful this hidden paradise was.

The other trip that we took was to see the crocodiles at Kachikally, I have always been rather fascinated by these ancient prehistoric reptiles, they are incredible creatures and have stood the test of time, their greatest threat now being man.

As we set out in the taxi we reach a busy street, suddenly a ball of fire appeared from out of nowhere a little way ahead in front of the vehicle as if it was being rolled across the road, then another.

“They are fire bombing” the driver said “not good, we drive through…” we both sat up bolt upright at this statement and remained rigid as he put his foot down and drove us through the area of danger. We got through fine, however I often look back and think that it could just have as easily gone the other way.

On arrival at Bakau small village the driver dropped us off and we were told to walk straight through it and the crocodiles could be seen further up. Children came running at us from all directions as we walked and were warm and friendly, they followed us singing songs and holding our hands, it was a lovely welcome and a nice change from what we had so far seen.

We finally got to the area where the crocodiles were, namely Kachikally crocodile pool, a large pit area with a lake with approximately 80 crocodiles, this pool was found by the Bojang clan over 500 years ago. It was a bit of a climb down, but down I went as I did not have a zoom lens on my very basic point and shoot camera, therefore needed to get close to the crocs in order to photograph them, Hazel remained sensibly at the top of the view-point, the local species is the Nile crocodile (Crocodylus nilosus chamses).

‘Old Croc’ as he was known was warming himself in the midday sun and was allegedly so old that he was no threat to anyone who approached him, that was comforting and so I walked straight up to him and bent down to stroke his rough, scaly back. He laid in the sun quite content and did not move.

However, I heard a splash from the water and quickly realised that a much younger and more agile crocodile was coming out of the water and heading straight for me and I did what was possibly a normal human reaction and froze.

I literally shook with fear and could not move, my legs turned to jelly and I just stood there as this thing approached me, suddenly a pair of strong arms grabbed me as an Australian man had bravely run down to grab me out of the way and he pulled me back up the bank to the top. The crocs are apparently used to a diet of fish and unlikely to attack a human, however with wild animals it is always unpredictable and rarely worth the risk as it can go horribly wrong, I got my pictures of the crocs though.

Later, back at the hotel we decided to go and look at the observatory to see the stars and planets, unfortunately on the walk across I was violently sick, so I went back to the room to rest up as had picked up a bug. Hazel went alone and said it was fantastic, she got talking to some American guys who worked for NASA and the next day at a dinner we saw them.

They were a friendly bunch and gave us lots of advice and stories about the area, they asked when we were flying back, we told them the next morning and they said that they would show up at the airstrip field to ensure we got away safely. I remember thinking that it seemed a little over the top, how wrong I was.

The next day we were packed and ready to go, both feeling a little relieved to be leaving of truth be told, this seemed such a shame as we had waited so long for the trip and then to be wishing it away out of fear seemed just a plain waste.

We got a taxi to the field airstrip and waited in line to get onto the plane, just as the NASA group  had predicted though we were picked out and taken to a table at the side where all our bags were to be searched. It was fair enough to be searched, however this was so meticulous that the officials even squeezed the toothpaste out of its tube and emptied out my shampoo, etc. It all seemed very over the top and we had been kept there for some time, I asked to move forward onto the plane as all the passengers were now all on it and it looked like we were holding them up. I was sternly told to step back and they continued the search of our things, I began to panic and Hazel looked anxious about being held up in this way.

Suddenly we heard a shout and the NASA team came running up to us, bless them they had come to see us off and make sure that we got away okay, just like they said they would. One of them had a word with the officials and we were instantly released to get on the plane, I am convinced that had they not showed up then we would not have got on that plane and would have been delayed until the next one at least.

We were very grateful to the guys making an effort to show up, hugging them goodbye we got onto the plane and looked back at what had been an interesting trip and a valuable learning curve in perhaps doing more research on an area before a visitation.

The Gambia is a beautiful country and I think we were in the minority in having that experience, I know a few people who have travelled there who had no trouble whatsoever, it was just one of those things that added, looking back, to the adventure.