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Category Archives: The Gambia
It’s been a few days now that we’re back on good old Widdershins. It’s great to be back – the slow rocking of the boat whenever there’s a slight breeze, the wind in the rigging, the quiet mornings between the mangroves … and not least the food! Admittedly it has been quite nice to be served every meal up at the chimp project, but daily doses of rice with either red or green sauce (we disdainfully called it red or green monkey poo) just gets old really quickly. Hamburgers, steak or even porridge on the other hand … as I said, it’s good to be back.
However, it’s a lot of work, too. Since we’ve come back we’ve done a major clean up trying to streamline our belongings (any read books or watched DVDs must go, any cloths for less than 20°C were put in storage, and any food that didn’t look like it’s up for an Atlantic crossing was chucked out). Of course a few things have also broken in the time we were gone – the stove keeps playing up (then again that thing must have been carried over from medieval times), the alternator that charges the batteries from the engine has broken, and the solar panel never actually worked … so, we scraped our leftover dalasis together, and purchased a new generator, a new solar panel and a new alternator. However, however … this is still The Gambia. Of course the new generator broke after half an hour of use. So, back into town, to get an upgrade. The screws of the regulator of the solar panel broke off during installation, rendering the whole thing useless and making a furious Patrick ride once again back into town to get yet another upgrade. We haven’t gotten a chance to install the new alternator yet, but knowing our luck … ah well, T.I.A., this is Africa.
During a job interview I once answered the question about where I would see myself in three years time quite truthfully (but of course also very naively) with “oh, I have no idea. I stopped making plans that far ahead, cause they never turn out as planned anyway.” Surprisingly, I didn’t get that job … but I still believe that there’s something to my answer. We had so many plans for this journey, hell, Patrick spent the better time of two years trying to find the best route for a two years journey from pole to pole. But then the autumn gales hit early in Iceland, our engine broke down, and after fixing Widdershins up it would have been close to suicide to battle the countless low-pressure systems roaring mercilessly over from Greenland. So, what to do? Of course a change of plan was the answer. Forget Canada, forget the USA, Europe, here we come! Oh, and Africa, too.
After another few unexpected twists and turns we found ourselves managing over one hundred chimpanzees in the middle of the River Gambia, having signed a contract that would potentially keep us in the green jungle for one and a half years. However, however … well. To cut a long story short: we had a fantastic time, learned a lot, made many new friends and will never forget this time in The Gambia. But in the end our views of the project differed significantly from the views of our director, and under the scenario she envisaged we were simply not prepared to stay on.
So … what to do? After carefully considering our options we decided to hop onto our tiny Chinese motorbike, pack our few belongings and the dog in the backpack, and slowly make our way back to the coast. Camping along steep river cliffs, crossing the River Gambia on dodgy little ferries, marvelling at the iron age stone circles at Wassu that are mirroring their cousins from further north, admiring the wildlife and of course enjoying a not-so-fast ride past dubious trucks, donkey carts and TOUBAB screaming kids was a really good way to slowly say good bye to this country that was our home for more than half a year. Finally, after three days on the road, we got back to Lamin Lodge, where a very, very faithful Widdershins had battled all the rain, wind and thunderstorms of the past months by herself and was still happily afloat. Now we need to fix up a few things on the boat, and then we’ll be sailing once more into the blue! Next stop: Cape Verde Islands.
First of all: apologies to anyone who was worried that the jungle or the sea may have swallowed us … we’re still very much alive, although usually pretty much off the grid.
Our lives have yet again taken an unexpected turn, and these days Patrick and I call ourselves “managers” (it’s even written on our Gambian ID cards, so hah, there you go, must be true!). If you wonder what we might manage, well, it’s a long story.
After our propeller broke down in Morocco we found ourselves stranded for an undefined amount of time, realizing that we probably wouldn’t be able to cross the Atlantic before the next hurricane season would hit the caribbean. To counter our frustration we applied for a variety of jobs, and a few months later we found ourselves in the Gambian bush, looking after chimpanzees and other primates (i.e. mostly humans).
The Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project is the oldest project of it’s kind: in the late 1970ies the first chimpanzees were re-introduced in the Gambia – more precisely on the baboon islands, a group of islands in the middle of the river Gambia. These islands were (and still are) home to the the last patches of undisturbed gallery forest in The Gambia, and ideal to become a new chimp home: whilst they provided a natural habitat and (at least some) food for the chimps they also provided a natural enclosure for the chimps, who cannot swim and are thus stuck on the islands. Furthermore the islands were un-inhabited and thus no conflict between humans and chimps could arise. The originally released chimps were mainly orphaned west-african chimpanzees, with an additional few ones originating from laboratories of the United States. Well, and those chimps have been on these islands ever since, happily multiplying. These days three generations of wild-born chimpanzees live on the island – including the last three babies born just a couple of weeks ago there are now 109 chimps to look after!
This “looking after” is probably quite different to what most people would expect. The chimps are being left undisturbed and no human has set foot on these islands for decades (unless an emergency arose), so there’s no cuddling of cute chimp babies involved in our work. Unfortunately the islands don’t provide enough food for the chimps though, so their diet has to be supplemented. And as we can’t do that from the land, we have to do it from the river, by driving boats close enough so the food can be thrown onto the islands. This way the chimps can also be medicated if any need should arise, and as our staff knows every single chimp they can be monitored on a daily basis.
But this feeding and monitoring is just one aspect of our work. We’re also patrolling the national park so no visitors from outside get too close to the chimps (which is to protect both the chimps and the people – chimps can be quite dangerous if they feel threatened), we have a huge education program where kids of all ages are being taught about nature, and of course we have tourists staying at the camp four days a week. All in all over twenty local people work for the project, which in itself can sometimes become quite challenging. On the other hand, there’s definitely never a dull day.
But more about our daily adventures some other time! For now we just wanted to let you know that we’re still alive …
These days I spend almost every waking hour in front of my laptop, which is a bit bizarre, since I’m in such a beautiful country with birds and monkeys and crocodiles all around me … well, the crocodiles not so much, luckily they’re quite shy, but still. Bridging the somewhat surreal world of science (“Is the up- or down-regulation of certain genes dependent on altitude of origin of a Swiss collection of weeds?”) and the very real world of tropical Africa surrounding me is not always easy.
But luckily weekends also exist in The Gambia. Curiously, one Saturday per month is official clean up day: in the whole country no traffic is allowed, no shops are open, you’re not even supposed to walk around. Rather, you should stay at home and clean your house and compound. It’s surprisingly strictly enforced – between 8 am and 1 pm there’s not a single car on the road, no shop open and only a few daring people out for a stroll …
As I’m a good citizen/tourist, I followed the government-imposed rules today and … well, I didn’t clean up the boat, although it’s in dire need of a good scrub. But I did stitch together a new cover for Brad, our inflatable. The old one – made of old “Mama Africa” rice bags – unfortunately only withstood the merciless UV-light for one month and simply started to disintegrate. I’m quite proud of the result and really hope the new tarp is going to last a little longer!
Now I’m back at my rented room, and a little bit nervous, as there’s a chance of rain today. And here rain always comes with strong winds – I just hope that Widdershins won’t be blown away while I’m gone!
While Patrick is pushing his way through the frozen sea in Svalbard, I am sweating in The Gambia, both from the heat and the unfamiliar brain activity. I am working for two months again on my research, trying to tie up loose ends and publish some manuscripts. This sounds easy enough, but remember, I am in Africa. Alone. On a small sailboat. Without electricity. But with a dog … and as if this were not enough, it just gets unbearably hot during the middle of the day. Try thinking about an analysis you don’t really understand when the sweat is slowly running into your eyes …
Well, but one’s got to earn a living somehow (at least sometimes), so I’ve decided to take the bull by the horns. I bought a motorbike and rented a small room with a desk, a bed and, heavens, electricity! Sort of, anyway. Apparently, there’s just not enough electricity available for everybody in The Gambia, so every now and then, it’s just gone. Sometimes for half a day, sometimes longer, but there’s hardly a day without a power cut. Luckily there are a few restaurants nearby who run diesel generators to charge my laptop when the power is out again, but tss …
Of course I cannot leave Widdershins, our sailboat, unattended for too long. So, in the morning I try to get up real early, to avoid the worst of the heat, pack the laptop, a few other things and the dog in my backpack, row ashore and ride into work. Yup, the dog comes along. I’m not sure what the locals make of me – a toubab (white person), a woman (!), on a motorbike, with a big leather jacket on in the heat and a little dog-head peeking out of the backpack. It probably just confirms for them that most toubabs are a little bit strange, if not plain crazy.
But anyway, I ride the 20 km into work, first over sandy dirt roads (getting better at that), then through murderous Gambian traffic. I dodge around donkey carts, try to avoid temperamental taxis, do my best not to overrun unpredictable pedestrians and cyclists riding on the wrong side of the road, and by the time I get to my room I usually need a drink. Or two.
But the place I’m staying at is really nice and quiet, a big compound with lots of shady trees, dozens of old cars, three grumpy dogs (it took a while, but now Sparrow finally gets along with them) and friendly people. Heinz, the owner, runs (amongst other things) an NGO that builds schools and health centres. The whole thing is financed through car rallies from Germany to The Gambia. Check it out on: www.dbo-online.com!
So, every day I try to get my work done (progress is slow, gah), and sometimes I stay for the night, just to avoid the journey. But at least every second night I spend on the boat, making sure everything is fine there as well. All in all not too bad, but I can’t wait until Patrick comes back and life becomes a little bit easier and less lonely again!
While Leonie is sweating in the tropical heat of Africa I have winged my way to the other side of the world. In a mere three days I jetted back to the starting point for our big adventure of twelve months on the high seas and am now cruising past the jagged ice-capped coastline of Svalbard. It’s surreal to think that our yacht is moored in a tropical estuary surroundedby mangroves and cheeky monkeys while I cruise amidst icebergs, seals and polar bears in the arctic island of Svalbard on a 100m meter ship!
I’m up in the arctic for 2 months earning some cash as a naturalist on an expedition cruise ship and sharing yarns about our travels in the Arctic with passengers from all over the world. Meanwhile Leonie is getting stuck into some serious science writing research articles on the epigenetics of small alpine flowers. We are worlds apart both physically and in our day to day life at the moment but we are both dreaming of the next eighteen months that lie before us.
We have huge challenges ahead in the management of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project on the Gambia river but it is a challenge that fills us both with a sense of excitement, adventure and privilege. Here we have a chance to do some really meaningful work that has the potential to do some real good – both for the wildlife of the region and for the local people. Exciting times ahead!
Meanwhile it seems like we have both stepped into a surreal holding pattern with day to day tasks that are a far cry from the last 12 months of drifting free on the wide ocean. It certainly helps us to put our lives in perspective. It’s great here in the Arctic but I can’t wait to step aboard Widdershins and get into the swing of our new life with the chimps!
A couple of days ago we returned from our trip up to the River Gambia National Park. It has been a fantastic experience with encounters of some of the most threatened mammals on earth. The national park consists of five islands in the river Gambia, where since the 1970’s many orphaned and abandoned chimpanzees found a new, undisturbed home through the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project. In addition, the area teems with wildlife: the rare red colobus monkeys swing through the trees around the camp, baboons roam the realms, warthogs trot through the undergrowth, hippos grunt at the opposite riverbank, while pythons, cobras and crocodiles only add to the excitement. We even got the chance to witness the release of a usually nocturnal and very elusive genet that had been caught and brought to the camp by some nearby villagers. Sparrow was initially a bit disturbed by the plethora of new smells and sounds, and was rather devastated when she lost a piece of bread to a cheeky green vervet monkey. But before long she made friends with the two resident camp dogs, and went off to explore the area with them.
Our trip upriver was not entirely for our own pleasure though. A few months ago we applied for the newly vacant position of project manager for the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project, and got invited by Janis Carter, the director of the programme, to get a first hand impression of the project. As it turned out … she offered the position to us! Provided the Gambian government has no objections, we will be spending at least another year here in The Gambia, managing staff, tourists and chimpanzees! Well, first Patrick is flying to Spitzbergen for some Arctic adventure in two days time, while I will be working on publishing the last work of my PhD thesis. To facilitate my stay here, we also just purchased a new motorbike, my first (on land) motorized vehicle ever! Let’s hope that I’ll soon get better at driving on soft sandy back roads (I already dropped the bike once, oops). All in all we are very excited about the admittedly unexpected turn of events, and hope the two in the blue adventure will continue to excite despite the newly green environment!
It is morning here in the Gambia and the breeze is still cool despite the glowering sun rising over the canopy of trees that cling to the river. The trees themselves form a dense tangle of a million shades of green broken by the occasional flash of colour as birds dart amongst the foliage. Also moving through the canopy are dark shapes that screech and chitter as they crash through the leaves – monkeys for certain but which species? It’s hard to catch a glimpse in the mysterious gloom behind the bright green, and besides, the hippos in the river are snorting and grunting and it is hard to pay attention …
Leonie and I are sitting on the deck of the Waterhouse at the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project camp on the River Gambia. For once we have left our yacht behind and hitched a ride up-river in more conventional transportation – a four hour trip passing through rutted roads, small villages populated by circular mud huts and smiling children, and of course through an endless vista of arid grassland populated by towering termite mounds and grinning baboons (the smiles of the children were genuinely friendly while the baboon grins were clearly intended to show us the pointy nature of their dentition). When the journey was finally over and we stepped into the shady haven of the River Gambia National Park we both felt we had stepped into a dream.
We have been privileged over the last 12 months to pass through some amazing wilderness and to meet some amazing characters, but the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Projects stands out as something special. Starting with the ambition of re-introducing captive and orphaned chimps into the wild, the project encompasses some of the most pristine wilderness remaining in the Gambia and protects a whole host of species including the endangered red colobus monkey, green monkeys, patas monkeys, olive baboons, genets, hippopotamus, hyena … well the wildlife here is far too diverse to start a list. And let’s not forget the chimps. Observing wild chimpanzees amidst the dense foliage of the river bank is a thrilling experience, and one that leaves a lasting sense of wonder.
But for now there is no time to wonder too much as there is so much more to see in this amazing reserve.
These days we wake at dawn as the sun rises in a golden glow over the mangroves that surround our anchorage. In this quite cool before the sun grows angry the world is filled with the twitter of brightly coloured birds, the erratic splish and splash of fish flitting on the surface, and the occasional chatter and crash of monkeys moving through the mangroves. Later, the sun burns with an intensity that turns the sandy trails through the scrub to a temperature sufficient to burn bare feet. The local women work topless in the fields and seem unbothered by the barrage of UV rays but there are times at the hottest part of the day where we seek shelter and, as they say in these parts, have a relax.
While we are able to temporarily withdraw our bodies from the attack of midday, we have had to devise some alternate strategies to protect some of our gear from the perils of this climate. Leonie has been busy stitching a sun cover to protect our dinghy from the direct glare of the sun and I have already patched one hole caused by the sharp oysters that line the roots of the mangroves. To protect ourselves from the mosquitoes and other buzzing bugs that abound in these parts we have set up a net fortress over our bed and regularly apply liberal doses of mossie repellent and burn mosquito coils. Meanwhile we have been dosing the dog with various solutions to keep down the attack of the ticks, fleas and mites that cover the local population of monkeys, dogs and cats at Lamin Lodge. More worrying are the mango flies, which crawl onto dogs when they sit in sandy soils. The larvae of these horrible little beasts burrow into the dogs skin and grow to the size of a peanut – we have removed two already but think we are now mango fly-free.
Our war on parasites has benefited by the advise of the local vet in Kololi, Micha Meyer, who has helped us set up our defences from the onslaught. In providing tips he also helped us diagnose the increasingly sulky behaviour displayed by our dog. It turns out that after her first heat she has developed a false pregnancy! Her mammary glands have been developing in preparation for lactation and she had been developing a “nesting” behaviour ready to look after her phantom puppies. This is all perfectly naturally in a wild dog pack were non-breeding females enter false pregnancy in order to be able to assist breeding females in the raising of their puppies – but apparently our Sparrow would have faces a crushing depression when no puppies were eventually forthcoming. As we had been considering getting Sparrow spayed already this was the final push we needed to book the operation. We hate the idea of playing with her biology but it really is the best thing… right now she is recovering from a successful surgery and back to her normal energetic self.
So for now the midday heat has dissolved into the more pleasant temperature of the afternoon and the vista of African scrub is starting to stir as birds again flit amidst the branches after having their own siesta. Time for us to get back out there and explore.
We had a very tranquil journey from Senegal to the Gambia. Well … as tranquil as it gets in this part of the world. We did have a couple of moments of excitement including the realisation that the surges of phosphorescence criss-crossing the wake of the yacht were, in fact, caused by rather large sharks that followed us throughout the night. I was also rather concerned by a big trawler that suddenly materialised in front of me in the early hours oft he morning. I had gotten used to dodging the small canoes bearing torch-waving fishermen, but when a huge fishing ship with no lights, with trawl arms extended, and seemingly with the intension of reversing directly into us appeared in the starlit night I must admit I was rather nervous. In the end we pulled in the sails and motored full steam in the opposite direction, but he continued his dogged reverse pursuit for some time … weird.
The chaos continued upon arrival at Half Die in Banjul (named literally because half the population died of a cholera outbreak). The name is not exactly encouraging and as a first introduction to the Gambia it leaves a lot to be desired. To be fair we arrived on Friday (Prayer day), which was probably a mistake – but we definitely got the feeling that the immigration and customs officers saw us as nuisance. There were a few friendly people at the immigration office, but generally we were dragged around, interrogated, told that our boat was anchored too far away, told that our boat was too hot, told that our immigration officer was very hungry, told that our food wasn’t good … and then we worked the game out. It took a rather blatant message from the uniformed officer: “I am a very unhappy man, usually you should give me a present”… oh … the whole performance was an exercise to extract bribes! We gave them small change in Senegalise Franks and they were on our way.
After this hot (over 35 degrees) and bothered start our visit to the Gambia took a dramatically better turn. After the tide turned we nosed our way into the small complex of mangrove lined creeks behind Banjul. Abruptly the clamour of the docks was left behind and we were surrounded by wildlife. Cranes, pelicans, egrets and kingfishers darted around the waters edge and fish flitted and jumped over the turbid water. We worked deeper and deeper into the maze of twisted passages, past the derelict wrecks lining the shallows, past the locals collect oysters in the mud and past the fisherman in their battered wooden canoes until we took the final turn and Lamin Lodge was revealed before us.
The Lodge is now abandoned and falling into a state of rickety disrepair, but we will tell more of it’s history in a later blog. Right now it is a pocket of tranquillity with cheeky green monkeys vying with the local fisherman for our attention. The water is a balmy 30 degrees which makes it perfect for a morning swim to wake up. Life here is a few paces slower than anywhere else we have visited but we are loving it!