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.

Madagascar, the Aye Aye and other wildlife

Madagascar is one of the most fascinating places on the earth for nature lovers as 80% of the wildlife there is indigenous, therefore totally unique to the island and seen nowhere else on Earth. The reason for this is that millions of years ago in the Jurassic era Madagascar broke away from the main part of Africa due to a shift in the earth and drifted out to the Indian Ocean; it is twice the size of the UK and listed as the fourth largest island in the World.

20 years ago I read a book called Last chance to see by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine about travelling to places in search of critically endangered wildlife, one of the places they visited was the unique small island of Nosy Mangabe in the North of Madagascar to look for the elusive Aye Aye.

The Aye Aye is a very strange-looking lemur that has long teeth, shaggy fur, huge ears and an extended forefinger that it uses to tap tree branches for termites to eat. Due to its rather ugly appearance the Malagasy people have persecuted the Aye Aye believing that if it points the finger in your direction that you will die, whole villages have been known to move 5 miles further away should an Aye Aye wander into their village. These poor lemurs were consequently killed on sight and are now not only extremely shy, but also very rare.

Whilst living in Bristol 4 years ago I volunteered at the Bristol Zoo looking after the Aquatic section and one day while having my lunch break a tiny, odd-looking ball of fur with huge ears came into the area where I was sitting and did a forward roll. I was mesmerised by this little creature and was told it was a baby Aye Aye, known in the Zoo as ‘Ras’. It was love at first sight for me and I spent most of my breaks at the nocturnal Aye Aye enclosure.

The book of Last Chance to See was followed up in 2009 with Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry replacing the late Douglas Adams going with him in search of the wildlife once more to all the former locations. I watched this series waiting for the part on Aye Ayes in Madagascar and being caught up in the magic of it decided that I must go to Nosy Mangabe one day.

In November 2011 I flew from Heathrow airport to Paris to make a connecting flight to Madagascar where I would be joining a small group to explore the Northern regions and look for an Aye Aye and other wildlife, one of the places we would be visiting being Nosy Mangabe.

Once in Paris I met up with the group and we waited in a holding area ready to board the plane, we were just queueing up to get on it when we were told that Air France had gone on strike that all the staff apart from the Pilot had all just walked off the plane.

Kenya – Elsemere and the Masai Mara

 Kenya – Elsemere and the Masai Mara

I have always had a love for Lions not only are they my favourite mammal but the story of Joy and George Adamson adopting Elsa the lion cub, raising her and releasing her back into the wild captivated me long ago and that fascination never really left.

In the 1950’s George Adamson was a game warden in Kenya and one day a lioness charged at him and his fellow warden and sadly he had little choice but to shoot and kill her.

It was only afterwards that he realised that she had been protecting her three cubs and as they were so vulnerable and rather than leaving them there, he took the cubs back to camp where he and his wife Joy named them and looked after them.

The cubs were named Big One, Lustica and Elsa and over several months were cared for and raised by the Adamsons, though over time the three cubs became difficult to manage and so Big One and Lustica were eventually sent to a Zoo in Rotterdam, Elsa though they decided to continue raising as an experiment in order to see if it was possible to ‘set her free’ back into the wild.

After months of training Elsa to hunt and survive they finally set her free and although at first she kept returning to them, she eventually settled and had three cubs of her own. Elsa became famous in her own right, as did the Adamsons and their story ‘Born Free’ later became a book and a film.

Sadly Elsa died in 1961 from a disease associated by a tick bite and the Adamsons also came to a tragic end as in 1980 Joy Adamson was stabbed and murdered by a disgruntled labourer who she had sacked. Then 9 years later George Adamson was shot while trying to protect a tourist who was being attacked by poachers, he got in their line of fire and was killed.

It was an awful end for all three characters, however their legend lives on and I really wanted to go to their old home, now known as Elsemere and also to get out to the Masai Mara itself and photograph the wildlife on a safari and in particular lions.

I had always steered clear of safaris before as they seemed a little too staged and touristy in just driving to where the animals are and photographing them, however in wanting to get to Elsemere and look round, it seemed madness to go all that way and not experience a safari.

I booked it up for November 2009, here is a little bit about that trip with some images:

The British Airways flight out to Kenya was 7 hours and 45 minutes and I passed the time chatting to a Pakistani woman and a Kenyan gentleman, both of whom delighted in recommending places for me to travel to; Mombasa, Pakistan, New Zealand and Alaska. I will try my best to visit at least one of those places.