Simon describes a challenging conservation project trip to the remote corners of Senegal as part of #teampeanut. Watch our talk on this project at the African Bird Club 2016
I don’t know how many hours I had been waiting but it seemed like an eternity, although the coffee with condensed milk and half a ton of sugar had perked me up no end! Niki had just largely downed her cup and I’m pretty sure she was buzzing, perhaps due to the caffeine / sugar high combo or perhaps because she had just seen her first Hammerkops. Turning to me to confirm she randomly stated; “Hammerkops are wicked”
We had been waiting by the river to cross to the North bank of the Gambia before our onward journey. George meanwhile was busily saluting officials and be generally lovely to everyone….for pure advantage you understand, as we had to somehow hop the huge queue of traffic that was snaking down the approach road to the ferry. Having already had to move to a different ferry crossing because at the original point of crossing the ferry had broken down! We had to cross at this point if we were to have any chance of making the Senegalese border. Hours passed slowly, it got hotter and Niki and I kept ourselves occupied by finding an African Fish Eagle on the riverside. Turning to Sam I noticed his normally smart attire had become rather dishevelled and covered in a thin layer of sand, whilst his face looked as though it was melting off his head! Sam turned to me in response to my enquiry as to his health and confessed…..“I don’t do heat” so a Gambian condensed milk caffeine hit was ordered!
Finally after a little queue jumping and obligatory saluting for advantage we embarked the ferry and despite the mad crush and overloading we crossed rather uneventfully. We loaded back into what would be referred to as the Peanut mobile and in some what rejuvenated spirits we headed through the village of Farafenni just to the south of Senegal.
As we approached the border I was filled with some trepidation regarding Visas as whilst we had organised everything we had agreed to cross at another point. The Gambian border official was debating whether he could get Ornithologist into the entry book let alone spell it but we exchanged pleasantries and heard in turn from each of the officials which football teams they all liked and the players, and other leagues (they’ve never heard of Plymouth Argyle!)….and which places they’d like to visit. This was all very pleasant and whilst we were about to cross over and visit their Senegalese counterparts the friendly Gambian official warned us to be very careful as there are “many bad people that side”. I couldn’t help but think this was a sense of nationalism but I was soon going to find out either way. Entering the Senegal border house was a completely different experience no talking or very little apart from the perfunctory responses to the interrogation I was receiving. Niki and Eddie meanwhile were oblivious and now relaxing in the peanut mobile, whilst Sam and I put on our most charming British charm possible! I’m not sure if this made any difference but we were soon on the road again. Now it’s amazing how much you can long for a piece of tarmac but about two hours over the border on what was referred to as a road but resembled a mountain biking course with the resulting lumps, bumps, holes and dust I was praying for tarmac! Soon Sam’s once pristine white shirt was now an off-orange colour as it became covered in sand, but then everything and everyone was, not just Sam.
Driving the length of Senegal was going to take a lot of time especially on these roads and whilst George was an exemplar it wasn’t long before fatigue would have been setting in. Random patches of tarmac had some pretty nasty concealed speed bumps…SMACK! hitting one at full speed resulted in a haze of dust and cracked spines! Niki laughed (and swore!) and simply observed the amount of dust that was now floating in the cab! It was amazing no apparent structural damage had been done to the Peanut-mobile!
Quite a few hours of spine tingling road bashing passed and by now both Sam and Eddie didn’t look at all happy, suddenly hitting a sizeable pot-hole on a seemingly good bit of road the window I was sat next to burst…I say burst because that’s what it felt like! George rightfully didn’t stop and continued as I picked shards of glass out of my neck and chest!
Despite this rather dramatic and so far torturous journey I was in high spirits especially as I just had drive-by Spotted Thicknee and Long-tailed Nightjar. Offering to rejuvenate both Sam and Eddie’s spirits (as they weren’t blessed with the same excitement for species additions!) I enquired “so…..whose up for a bit of i-spy?” After some bemused looks and no takers Niki offered to join in. “I-spy with my little eye something beginning with G” Even Sam joined in briefly but guessed wrongly, as did Niki, but the answer was straightforward, it was of course…Glass! which was now everywhere!!
It’s not good driving at night in this remote area of Africa and I had hoped to avoid it, but now it was an absolute necessity, we didn’t stop and we were still over three hours from our destination. Stop however we had to, and not in a good place, at a police check point. Although we did miss it initially we were ordered back. The official approached George and my side of the vehicle and in doing so demanded to immediately see all of George’s papers and then proceeded to order George out of the vehicle to his office. I quickly asked everybody to hide any valuables, especially Eddie and Sam who were using iPads and iPhones without a thought. George, Niki and I were of course concerned that this guy wanted a bribe and upon seeing valuables may of course wish to confiscate them or worse. After around a 30 minute debate George returned and informed us he did indeed want some money but George cleverly told him he only had Gambian money and so did we…smart thinking. So we were reluctantly allowed to continue.
I think about two hours went by and then an alto familiar crash resonated through the cab as we hit yet another large pot-hole. Something rattled down through the vehicle and we had either hit something or we were missing something. It was clear when we began losing power that indeed the poor peanut mobile had shed something important. Sam went back-up the road and found the fan! Niki and I looked around and thought the Sahel was beautiful at 2am! but we might be sleeping out ! The fan had sheared off and other damage to the engine was clearly apparent, yet Sam after 10 minutes under the bonnet had patched it so we could gingerly continue! This was not great as the lights had all but gone and this vehicle was now completely war beaten and could rapidly overheat. By now everybody was praying the peanut mobile would hold together for just a bit longer and as we approached the village just before our final destination we were all moderately relieved. Another road block! not another corrupt official? This guy really wasn’t going to allow us to continue, stating our vehicle was unfit to continue! Well in truth it wasn’t! A call to the farm we were due to be at many hours before was the only thing for it. Sam handed the phone onto the policeman who looked somewhat bewildered and whatever our hosts said had an instantaneous effect and we were allowed to continue and finally arrived at our destination and a very welcomed bed!! …..yes!