After three days' birdwatching with ace guide Malick Suso in The Gambia, I crossed the Gambia River heading for neighbouring Senegal.
As soon as we docked, my driver efficiently negotiated his way through the crowded streets of the bustling port community of Barra. Before long we were out in the countryside. The border crossing, south of Karang, was heaving with people - some negotiating their way across the frontier and some just plying their trade. My driver took my passport and disappeared into a nondescript building. Shortly after he appeared at the doorway and beckoned me to follow him. Had I done something wrong? Was there a problem with my paperwork? No, I simply had to be there in person while the formalities were conducted. Finally, we were on our way.
After what must have been an hour or so, I arrived at my destination: Hotel Keur Saloum in Toubakouta within the 180,000- hectare Sine Saloum Delta. Later that day I met my birdwatching guide, Carlos, who admitted his English wasn't as good as his French and Spanish.
Senegal is primarily a French-speaking country, and as I don't speak more than a few words of this language, I was always struggling to make myself understood with the catering and bar staff in the hotel (a point to remember if you are planning a trip there yourself).
Keen not to waste any time (I had less than three days in Senegal), I immediately jumped at the chance of a late afternoon boat trip along the local bolongs (creeks). Hotel Keur Saloum is beautifully situated on the edge of one such bolong and has its own jetty. For the next two and a half hours, we powered along, stopping whenever Carlos spotted something interesting.
Among the many birds we spotted on the wing or lurking in waterside vegetation were ospreys, black kites (these are very common in the area), western reef herons, pied and blue-breasted kingfishers, Senegal parrots and yellow-crowned gonolek. The highlight of the boat trip was witnessing hundreds of mainly cattle egrets and western reef herons flying in to roost on a tiny island. Among the birds were also a few long-tailed cormorants and pink-backed pelicans. The noise was overwhelming and a fishy smell pervaded the air, but I wouldn't have missed the experience for anything.
During the next couple of days, Carlos took me to a variety of places off the beaten track - not reserves or recognised birdwatching areas but localities he knew from experience would turn up the avian goodies. And he wasn't wrong. I was blown away by the number and variety of different birds I saw - many of them new to me. ‘Lifers' included Bruce's green pigeon (I never did find out who Bruce was), northern anteater chat, Abyssinian and rufous-crowned rollers, lesser blue-eared glossy starling, cardinal woodpecker, a variety of delightful sunbirds, little swift, grey kestrel, mosque swallow, grasshopper buzzard and brown snake eagle.
My favourite moment was late one afternoon when we drove across a vast, golden brown savannah landscape that was actually farmland. As the sun slipped down the western sky, all manner of birds of prey took to the wing: martial eagle, marsh, montagus and pallid harriers and black-shouldered kites. It was difficult deciding which birds to look at first. Almost overlooked in the raptor rapture was what Carlos was pretty sure was a white-bellied bustard.
During my six full days in The Gambia and Senegal, I saw around 180 bird species. If you like big birds, colourful birds, exotic birds, Senegal and The Gambia certainly take some beating.
I travelled with specialist tour operator The Senegal Experience whose seven-night holidays at Keur Saloum Hotel in the Sine Saloum Delta start from £699 per person*. This price is based on half-board accommodation and includes return flights between London Gatwick and Banjul in The Gambia and transfers. Excursions, including birdwatching trips, can be booked once at the resort hotel.
The Senegal Experience offers a selection of hotels in the Sine Saloum Delta and Saly regions of Senegal, as well as well as ‘tours'. Dakar flights from the UK can also be booked.
For more information, call The Senegal Experience reservations department on +44 (0) 845 338 8706 or go to www.senegal.co.uk