It's been a while since I updated the blog and you'll soon discover why but in the meantime let me take you back to the last two days I spent with Alan on our trip.
After five days constantly on the go "up river" we decided we needed to slow the pace down a little and spend one of our days at least just chilling out and perhaps wandering locally from our hotel. As much as anything as a favour to our guide we decided to take one more trip, a full days guided birding somewhere local to the coast. We decided on Brufut Woods and Tanji Beach. Neither Alan nor myself had any firm preferences so it was easy to come to a decision.
Our guide quoted us a price of £55 when we said we should get a special price for the business he had already received and we thought that fair. He then told us he was already booked with a tour but also happened to be going to Brufut and would see us there. Our driver would pick us up at 7.30am on the Tuesday if he and the hired Pajero was available otherwise not to worry, someone else would be there.
I stressed at the time it would be no problem not to bother. We would love to see our driver again but we could travel by taxi and organise another guide down at the bridge or even when we arrived at Brufut. A taxi to Brufut is quoted at £14 approximately plus waiting time which is £2 per hour tops ( at the then lower exchange rate).
We could have arranged the trip ourselves for considerably less than the agreed fee but we were happy with the terms.
After a day of wandering locally we became aware that there wasn't too much about in the Kotu area so were pleased to be heading out again on the last full day.
Sure enough we were picked up at 7.30, same vehicle, different driver, different guide.
Off to Brufut we went. We never did see our original guide there.
Even there seemed a little quiet compared to previous visits, fewer Sunbirds frequenting the bushes as you walk from the drop off point. Tricky little blighters to photograph as they are constantly on the move it seems I was pleased to find this one having a rest!
A dark bird with a bright background is always a challenge but I think this effort is better than previous ones. Just!
A walk along a deeply wooded path revealed rowdy Senegal Parrots feeding at the top of the trees and once again that contrast challenge.
Down at ground level we were in deep shade so an opportunity to catch a Red-bellied Flycatcher actually sitting still and singing was a huge bonus.
Hand holding my 500mm with a 2x TC needs a reasonable shutter speed, I chose 1/400th, the minimum f stop is f8 at this combination so the auto Iso bumped to 8000. Far from ideal but better to capture something rather than nothing.
Next stop was out in the open. A Black Scimitarbill spotted by our guide.
I tried to get a bit closer edging through the well established tall undergrowth.
It was grooming so I had to bump the shutter speed, this time I ended with ISO 6400, the limit I am usually happy with.
My view was still obscured but it decided to move to another tree. My approach perhaps?
More out in the open, more photographic challenges with light and obstacles, I had to settle for what I had. Far from ideal but much better than last time we had seen the same bird in the same place.
It was getting hotter and we decided it was time to have a break at the juice bar which also happens to be the drinking pool station.
I was hoping for a visit from the Turacos, especially the Violet. In the past I hadn't failed.
There was little to see and I was amazed to see the latest benefit for visiting birders.
Yes, the trees have been numbered just incase you can't tell left from right I guess.
It's difficult enough trying to get a decent shot when the drinking vessels are so ugly, blue paint just adds to the eyesore.
Opportunities abound. Opportunities are missed.
Next stop was to see one of the most photographed birds in The Gambia if not Africa.
They are incredibly hard to spot even from a few feet so the knowledge of the local Brufut guide was essential in showing us today's roost spot which is always in a very small area of undergrowth.
To speed up the process of the constant procession of birders coming to see the bird, the guide has added technology to help them spot it.
It's only when I got home I realised half my shots... I didn't stay very long as the bird is constantly disturbed.... had red laser dots in them!
At least this one didn't!
The Nightjar left to the next group of visiting birders, a dozen on tour, you do wonder if the disturbance is fair but the bird has roosted here for years and is well accustomed to the comings and goings I guess.
Our Brufut guide had one more target to find us.
Again, in deep shade with the bright sky behind the tree making photography difficult, still, another tick to our trip list.
For his troubles I noticed the local guide received 100 dalasai, £2 from our guide for his help in finding the target birds. Considerably less than I assume our trip guide would expect.
Next stop was the Tanji bird reserve where for a few hours we sat and watched the drinking pools. Nice to sit in the shade, have a cold drink and see what turned up.
Once again, conditions where really difficult as the pools were in pretty dark conditions.
We saw a few birds though!
Depth of field severely limited by low shutter speed of 1/125sec at least I had my tripod to steady things for the likes of this shot demonstrating some of the wonderful colour variations of the Finch species.
With just one bird to concentrate on you can just about get away with ISO 5000.
The peace and quiet of our chosen place was soon to be disturbed by the arrival of the dozen (Dutch?)
birders we had seen earlier. They were booked in for lunch which was laid out on a long table behind us. They weren't anywhere near as irritating as their local tour guide who was constantly shouting when the next course was ready, what birds were at the pools etc etc.
One bird was of particular interest to everyone. The furtive Levaillant's Cuckoo
Several times it came close to making a full appearance only to disappear in to the bushes again.Too much disturbance I guess.
Fully rested we then headed of to the beach up by the fishing village. Alan wasn't too keen on wandering too far and I wasn't bothered either. We had a quick stop at the waters edge, added another 10 species to our trip list which included a new "lifer" from a photographic point of view.
With that done we headed back to Kotu, slightly earlier than we originally planned but it was a very hot day and enough was enough for the time being.
Our guide for the day told us that our original guide would collect payment from us the next day so we gave gave him and the driver a small tip ( but much larger than the Brufut guide had received) assuming they would also be paid as arranged.
When the sun had gone down a bit Alan and I headed down to the Bridge to see if anything new had turned up.
I was distracted by a feeding family of African Silverbills.
That could have been a really nice capture except for the cursed leaf!
Another brief visitor to the bushes was a Beautiful Sunbird, again most shots had have the subject obscured but i quite like this one!
Back at the hotel we had had views of Shikra
and Red-billed Hornbill
but excellent though the Bakutu Hotel is in other ways, from a birding prospective it had failed quite badly in providing many birds in the well vegetated grounds.
Our last night and another visit to the excellent Tandoori for curry and beers and that was our trip nearly over.
There was one surprise to come though.
Our guide met us the next day and we paid him the agreed fee which was counted out to him.
Alan had mentioned he had some gifts for the trainee guide from his previous visit who we had failed to meet up with this time around. Our guide said he could pass them on. Alan went to fetch them but on his return he was told that there had been a mistake, the guiding fee was £55 per person. When I returned to the scene I'm afraid I exploded in rage! There was no way I would have agreed to pay £110 for a day trip locally... and that was supposedly discounted. I refused to pay anymore embarrassing Alan in to the process no doubt. I told our guide that it was a ridiculous price, the rate used to be around £70 no matter how many people. He said the exchange rate had gone down dramatically hence the increase.
Anyway, on reflection Alan decided I was right. For the duration of our tour we had been buying the drinks, tipping the guides and boatmen along the way. Alan had spent over £100 on gifts.
In my opinion some of the guides are just too greedy. I'm not the only one to think so either. They prefer to sit all day doing nothing rather than offer their services at a sensible price.
With petrol cheaper than the UK, places like Tendaba and Baobalong available for only around £10-£15 per night the opportunity to make a big profit on a fee of £1100 for 5 nights was there to be taken. Why push it further?
But they do. An offer to change money for you means they will take a small slice off the rate, you will no doubt get requests for donations for this that and the other.
Before leaving for TG I had asked the guide to keep an eye out for a particular wooden carving I wanted to take home. Last time there I paid 700 dalasai for similar. He emailed to say he could arrange to get one made for 8000! When I was there I got one made for 1400.
Anyway, despite my moment of rage we were soon back to happy chatty and the guide didn't seem too concerned that I had challenged him or refused to cough up more.
It's the way they operate and from experience I know.
I have deliberately not mentioned who my guide was because it would be wrong to single him out. They are all the same it appears to me. In actual fact as a guide ours was excellent and in fairness he went the extra distance to find target birds for us.
On my last visit an agreed fee for a local walk of £30 was paid only to be asked "You couldn't make it £40 could you?"
A friend on an overnight trip was suddenly asked if he'd like to sponsor him.
"To do what?"
"Camouflage paint the car" came back the reply.
He was so taken by surprise by the request he handed him some cash!!
It's the way they work.
If you can live with that then you'll love The Gambia.
I still do.
I was soon to return too.
Home for 10 days then back with wife Claire for another 2 weeks in the sun.
I just hoped the local birding had improved by then as I had already decided my budget for trips had been blown already.
My 10 days with Alan had cost only slightly less than the two weeks with Claire would do. Fair's fair. We would spend on things Claire wanted to do instead.