Anytime a welcoming brief includes the phrase “Don’t leave your toiletries out as the baboons will steal them” it seems likely the visit will be special. Unfortunately to my cost I was soon to discover just how special The Gambia is.
The drive from Banjul airport to base at Mandina Lodges in the Makasutu Forest had apart from a few suicidal goats playing chicken with the speeding vehicles been relatively uneventful. However passing the often colourfully dressed locals working or relaxing outside the ramshackle, concrete shacks which line the road and observing possibly hundreds of goats eating from improvised troughs of large tyres it was clear this would be a memorable visit to The Gambia long before arriving at our accommodation. The culture already appeared fascinating.
On the rough track into the Makasutu cultural region the taxi required to negotiate playing children, many wearing football shirts representing almost every major club in Europe. They were often in small groups, the narrow track providing an improvised football pitch while a few filled plastic bottles with water from tapped wells.
The taxi passed colourfully painted walls surrounding first a Dutch sponsored school and later the Cultural Centre where local residents sell hand carved wooden figurines in teak or mahogany and some items of rudimentary pottery.
After passing the Cultural Centre the driver paused to allow us to take some photographs of a troop of baboons. They seemed preoccupied with eating and barely paid us any attention provided we didn’t risk getting too close. Maybe the perpetrator of the crime which was to follow was among this band of mischievous monkeys.
A few minutes later we were tumbling out of the taxi with excessively large camera bags and wheelie luggage into the reception area of Mandina. We were then met by Linda the general manager who was to utter the prophetic warning phrase mentioned earlier.
Despite lacking a number of home comforts it didn’t take long to feel completely at ease and disconnecting from the outside world was beginning to seem quite appealing. It’s amazing how a floating lodge in a mangrove swamp can make even the most ardent social media geek forget the woes of being in an internet black hole.
The rest of the day involved exploring the area, getting excited about iridescent blue winged kingfishers hurtling into the mangrove and making friends with the many cats and dogs which call Mandina home. Soon after enjoying an excellent evening meal and a few local beers three weary travellers retired to their respective beds.
It was the following morning that the baboons demonstrated that I should pay more attention to reception briefings. Having woken up early to photograph the sunrise it was disappointing to discover a hazy and nondescript dawn that day. However remaining optimistic I decided to persevere and see if a few decent images were possible.
Leaving the camera on a chair a couple of feet from the edge of the veranda I went inside to retrieve a tripod and timer. Less than 30 seconds later there seemed some commotion from outside, and possibly a splash but definitely the sound of something running away. It’s unlikely I’ve moved as fast as at that moment since being half my age, and current weight, but by the time I was back at the chair the camera was missing.
My first thought was that a baboon must have picked it up and run off with it but as I made my way along the veranda there was a flashing red light at the bottom of the mangrove. My heart immediately sank as it was obviously the camera, despite throwing on some shorts and jumping in it wasn’t retrievable. The lodge is the furthest one along and the water there is the deepest.
This wasn’t the memorable start to the trip I’d been hoping for!
Explaining the incident to the rest of my colleagues, and lodge staff was met with a mixture of sympathy, and disbelief. Some even suggesting I’d tripped and dropped the camera into the drink. It’s a good job none of them are insurance assessors! They don’t appreciate my photographic equipment preservation instincts. If I’d fallen in it would have been like the “Lady of the Lake” holding Excalibur above the surface.
The initial expressions of solidarity and regret were soon replaced with jokes. When any baboon waltzed into view, apparently it might be the Henri Cartier-Bresson of the primate world. Possibly prepared to let me use some images on this site if asked politely.
At least when later we eventually managed to fish the camera out of the water the “oh look Iain, that baboon has a camera just like yours” jokes came to an abrupt end! To be fair the team did rally to my support and allow me to use their cameras on several occasions, enabling me to produce some images.
The perpetrator’s identity remains unknown, as I didn’t see any Canon sponsored baboons at anytime during my stay. They did make their presence felt however with some raucous protesting when things seemed a little too peaceful. There are a couple of likely suspects in the shots included here, so if anybody recognises these primates please inform Crimestoppers. Do not attempt to approach them yourselves however they could be armed ……. with a camera!