Back to Trip Reports  


Title:  Gambia 2010

Trip Type:   Another ‘family holiday’, this time more of a relax in the sun for a week, booked through The Gambia Experience.  As with all family holidays photography was not a primary goal but we did specifically choose the accommodation as it looked to offer comfortable & relaxing surroundings set in a private forest reserve so that I could go for an explore and maybe do a little photography whilst my wife unwound by the pool.

Outline Itinerary:  A single centre stay at Mandina Lodge set amongst the mangroves in the Makasutu Forest Reserve.  Just a short drive from Banjul (the capital of Gambia).  1 week.

When:  November / December

Equipment:  Nikon D200/MD-200, D300/MD-10, Nikkors 70-200/2.8, 200-400/4, 17-55/2.8, TC-14E, Arca Swiss Z1 B&S head, Gitzo GT3540XLS, SB-800

Photographic Highs and Lows: 


From a wildlife and photography point of view this holiday totally exceeded any hopes or aspirations I may have had before the trip. I knew that The Gambia is a birding hotspot and so was hopeful of getting a few shots, there are a few nature reserves close by too, but our choice of lodging really did pay dividends. The description in the brochure mentioned that the lodge was situated in a private sanctuary and that we would have use of one of the lodges wildlife guides during our stay for walks or canoe trips, but what was not clear was the fact that we would have virtually exclusive use of his time and this was included in the price we had paid (it was one of the most expensive hotels in the region but this was a huge bonus).



These were the three 'standard' floating lodges, ours was the centre one.  you can just see the guides canoe tied against the third chalet in the background.


Our accommodation was a square floating chalet actually on the river (a tributary into the River Gambia). Each morning I would be woken by our waiter (each chalet had its own waiter!) with a pot of tea which I would drink whilst watching the sun come up, finishing just in time for the arrival of Lami, my guide, in his canoe. I would then spend the next couple of hours or so out exploring the mangroves before returning to have breakfast with my wife around 09:00. We would then have a restful day around the lodge pool until Lami would pick me up with the canoe again around 4-4:30 for another couple of hours in the mangroves through towards sunset. And this was my typical daily cycle except for one lazy morning when Lami was not available and another when he and I ventured out to one of the nearby nature reserves (at a small additional cost). My wife and I also did a sunset cruise one afternoon / evening which meant skipping a canoe trip.


Egrets at dawn, shot whist sipping tea


Before the trip I had identified several local reserves which I hoped to visit a selection of in order to try and get pictures of some of the local wildlife not found around the lodge.  Top of my list were red colobus monkeys, these I saw on the first venture out (to Abuko Nature Reserve) and as the canoe trips were so enjoyable, relaxing and productive I did not feel the urge to venture further afield again and so spent most of my photography time in the tranquil mangroves around the lodge.

Shooting from a small dugout canoe was somewhat challenging but the VR system on the 200-400mm Nikkor (my primary lens) seemed to have it covered and the majority of shots were impressively sharp.


The pace of life is was very tranquil.  This canoe was similar to the one which I shot most of my bird images from.

 Much of the bird life was quite skittish and a slow gently coasting approach was found to be the most successful but rarely did anything hang around for too long, even at 400mm lens range. I therefore adopted the approach of taking shots as we approach from before we were really close enough of a successful shot. This gave the birds the opportunity to get a little accustomed to the sound of the camera and also meant I always had something ‘in the can’ should they fly away. Combined with the lovely early / late light this was a reasonably successful strategy but the tangle of roots and branches usually made clean backgrounds impossible. The mangrove roots did make for a nice environmental perspective on occasion however, adding to the picture impact. 


The mangrove background was irritating at times but was a positive addition to some shots



The forest around the lodge was also home to a troop of baboons which would occasionally run riot through the lodge, usually when I was not around to photograph them. I did however walk into the forest with my guide after one raid to find the culprits which gave some good opportunities, and produced my favorite shot of the whole trip – a sunlit baboon against a dark shadowy background. I saw several opportunities for this type of shot but the troop was constantly moving and often difficult to get any reasonable images of in the dense vegetation which made this shot that little bit more special.





As always the local baboon troop were were relatively frequent visitors to the lodge





I enjoyed the trip to Abuko Nature Reserve one morning, though after being used to the quiet solitude of the mangroves it was a little disconcerting having quite a few other people around. As mentioned above my hope here was to see and photograph red colobus monkeys and I got my first opportunity shortly after entering the reserve. It was a youngster on a branch under a heavy canopy of vegetation. It was also still very early and so the light levels were low and lead to painfully slow shutter speeds. But, one or two came out ok and it was only whilst reviewing these later that I realized that the youngster had a very deformed face, presumably through some sort of disease.   




It was only when reviewing my pictures that I noticed that this colobus was disfigured, the light levels were very low (ISO400, f/4, 1/6s, 400mm) - click on the image to see a larger version




Hooded Vulture watching the world go by at  Abuko Nature Reserve

 As the sun rose I got another couple of opportunities with the colobus and ended up with some reasonable images (though nothing spectacular). The reserve also had a relatively tolerant colony of wild hooded vultures which were hanging around some large pens in a central area where some captive animals were kept. I was not particularly impressed with this area (I am not against zoos if the animals are well kept and there is a strong conservation ethic but this area looked run down and left a lot to be desired) and so took a few snaps of the vultures and moved on. Interestingly though, there was also a remarkably confiding wild bushbuck in this area, clearly accustomed to being around people. Unfortunately it was stood next to an isolated piece of old fence and was calm when I tried to photograph it from just a foot or two away through the fence. I edged closer with a wide angle lens (17-55mm) in the hope it would move away from the fence a little but not bolt off. I was disappointed by its response………it bolted!

 Red Colobus in the early morning sun.....

I would return to The Gambia at the drop of a hat for a restful family holiday mixed with a little photography (I find it very hard to sit and just do nothing for a week, or even a few days), and there are still a number of reserves in the main tourist region around Banjul (the capital) which I have still to visit.  The predominance of birds and the general tourist feel of the area would probably rule it out however for a serious dedicated photography trip though for someone specialising more on birds it would potentially be a very good option. 


Striated Heron


Purple Heron


Long-tailed or Reed Cormorant

That said there is the option for the more adventurous to travel up river where there are hippo and a chimpanzee rehabilitation centre.  I am not sure if the chimps are indigenous to the Gambia but this was something that I did consider for a return trip as the vegetation would clearly look very natural, however they are on an island in the river and you are not permitted to land.  They can only be seen and photographed from a boat and the probability of success is therefore likely to be low.  This combined with the lack of other non-avian subject matter made me put that idea on to a very distant back burner for now (but I never say “never”….).

There were no photographic down sides other than I would have liked to have stayed a little longer.

Other Comments: 

The lodge I stayed in is advertised as an up market eco lodge, indeed my guide book singled it out and referred to it as one of the top 3 hotels of any type in the whole of Gambia. It is also quite exclusive with accommodation for only a couple of dozen guests or so at any one time, there were never more than a dozen there during our stay and often far less. Certainly the floating lodge accommodation was wonderfully spacious and comfortable, there are land based lodgings too (apparently larger still, more classy and more expensive of course) should you not want to be on the river. There was also a single huge floating lodge with a roof terrace which looked very impressive. I have to say I do not particularly like boats, even the gentle motion on calm waters (such as Borneo!!!!), but I had no issues with this style of accommodation and would not have a problem with doing something similar again.


The super-sized floating lodge with upper sun-deck and bedroom, behind it a 'standard' version in need of some repair for scale


The general lodge area around the pool and bar was very typical of a safari lodge which you might stay in when visiting east or southern Africa and all of the staff were incredibly friendly.  The only downside we found was the food (my wife would argue the bugs too but I thought that there were fewer than I had expected considering that we were literally in the mangroves).  For the first couple of days or so the food was excellent and then it got bland and ‘samey’.  I suspect that they had a rota change in the kitchen, something clearly changed.  Don’t get me wrong the food was pleasant and caused no health issues, it was just latterly not up to the standard of the accommodation or the position in the market at which the establishment was pitched IMHO. 

Would I recommend the lodge?  Yes with a small qualifier about the food, especially for a wildlife lover, photographer or bird watcher.  Would I go back?  Probably not, it was a great spot especially with the use of the guide but I personally think it was a little too expensive for the overall package (mainly let down by the food) and I would prefer to be closer to some of the nature reserves and explore them for a change.  I certainly had no regrets about choosing Mandina at the end of our stay.



Back to Trip Reports or General Ramblings