On sand dollars and dead fish

So here I am in the Gambia. It’s a country I hadn’t thought a great deal about until a few months ago. I didn’t know it takes the shape of a sliver running along the River Gambia, poking a meandering finger into Senegal. I didn’t know how small it is – just over 4000 square miles – around a third the size of Belgium and half the size of Wales. I didn’t know that European sun seekers & bird watchers flock here each winter. I was, however, vaguely aware that it had once been a part of the British Empire and that compared to many other countries in this part of the world, it is a calm and peaceful place.

But none of these things are going through my mind as I walk for the first time along the coast that forms the western head of this serpent of a country. This isn’t quite the westernmost point on the African mainland. I’ll need to head a few hours north to Dakar and the Cap Vert for that. But it’s certainly the furthest west I’ve been on the continent and my first time in Sub Saharan Africa. And for all the sizzling heat those three words conjure, I’m thrilled that so far it’s not been too hot; just nice, in fact, thanks to the ocean breeze.

Atlantic waves crash and suck at my feet, demonstrating the lack of coral reefs along this particular coast. Without a fringe of biogenic ramparts, the West African coast is a wild one. I don’t expect to be free diving or scuba diving on this trip instead I plan to explore the edges of the sea and along the river, meeting men who go out to fish and women who gather shellfish from mangrove roots. I will walk the beaches and swim in the waves and perhaps, if I get the chance, surf them too.

The beach at Fajara is sandy and dotted with shells, some whole and waiting to be picked up, others pounded into fragments and swept into piles. I find a strange looking sea urchin, flat and round with a wiggly fringe like a cartoon jellyfish. Later I learn that it belongs to a group of sand dollars that inhabit Africa’s Atlantic coast. My first local species.

A little way along the beach I encounter my second local species. Flung up on the shoreline lie solitary, headless fish. I’ve no idea where these decapitated creatures have come from, what species they are and who or what left them here but I watch on as a group of vultures get busy cleaning them up.

These are hooded vultures, an endangered species say the World Conservation Union, on account of accidental poisoning, the demise of their habitat and the cleaning up of abattoirs and refuse dumps across the continent. Perhaps that’s why these carrion-eaters have taken to a beach-based diet.

It’s the first time I’ve seen a wild vulture. Their size and bulk are exciting and unexpected as they soar through the air, swoop down and stalk across the sand, hunched forwards like old men with hands in their pockets, their heads bald and sunburnt pink.

We leave the vultures behind and carry on down the beach, passing dusty resorts and half-finished developments. The tourist season will soon be replaced by the rainy season and the place feels uncrowded, empty even (in a few weeks one of the two carriers that fly out here will stop coming). So all attention now falls on the few white people lounging on sunbeds and strolling, like us, through the shallow surf. Juice sellers stride towards us from their blue-painted stalls, shouting the names of tropical fruit. Batik sellers hold up their wares at us in the breeze. Much more besides is on offer along the coast, as we notice pale ladies hand-in-hand with young black men. Muscles are flexed as other local men do one-handed push ups in the sand, training for the wrestling arena (a hugely popular sport in West Africa) and showing off at the same time.

I’ll be in the Gambia for the next 2 months, with a trip into Senegal squeezed in there somewhere too, and I can’t wait to learn more about this tiny country. I will wait impatiently for the laden mango trees to drop their fruit, try my hand at bird watching – I don’t consider myself a bird watcher but it’s hard not to here, with vultures soaring across the skies and beautiful sunbirds flitting past – and I’m really hoping I might get a chance to meet a hippopotamus.

Perhaps even a manatee.

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