Daniel Pountney

MANE ATTRACTION

Daniel Pountney
MANE ATTRACTION

“TAKE hold of it,” he says with a smile, but I’m a little reluctant.

After all, “it” is a tail. And it is attached to Tiny. Tiny the lion.
She’s a one-year-old big cat at Fathala Wildlife Reserve in Senegal and I’m taking her and her brother Tiger (and you thought there were no tigers in Africa) for a walk.
I reach out and grab hold of the swishing tail and Tiny doesn’t seem to mind.
She’s more concerned with the chunk of meat at the end of her keeper’s stick slightly ahead of us.
And after she pulls it off with one of her mighty paws and devours it, she lets me stroke her belly as she lies in the dust.

 

I had watched in awe as David Attenborough made his way around the continent, charting the incredible wildlife for his BBC series a couple of years ago.
Right then I vowed that my next winter sun break would involve more than pools and cocktails. 
I wanted to get close to some animals. Little did I know how close I would get.

The Gambia is a popular destination for winter sun-seekers and it’s no surprise.
Within six hours of taking off from the UK you can be on the beach in west Africa where in the dry season, (October to June) the temperature sits at around 32C and there’s hardly a cloud in the sky.
There’s also the convenience of travelling without a time difference and of English being the official first language.
At Kombo Beach hotel in the Kotu resort area local craft-makers are invited to sell their wares in the gardens by the pool, but most seem more interested in talking about English football.
It all adds to the friendly and relaxed atmosphere at the venue, which has a high standard pool, restaurant, bar and beach facilities. 

But when I was organising my trip, I had Attenborough on my mind and The Gambia is too tiny to be home to any really big beasts. 
Senegal, which borders it on all sides except the ocean, is not.
And that’s why I organised a twin centre break through The Gambia Experience.
So after relaxing at Kombo Beach for a while, I hopped in a car to the river between Banjul and Barra. 
You can catch a ferry across but I went by pirogue — a long and colourful wooden boat with an outdoor motor.
Standing on the shore looking at the craft, anchored chest-high in the water, I wondered how I’d get on to it without having to resort to breaststroke.
The answer came rather unexpectedly, when the back of a man’s head appeared between my thighs.
Before I could protest, I was hoisted up on to his shoulders and we were wading out towards the boat.
Only when every inch of the craft was occupied with around 150 people, their luggage and a few loose chickens did we set off for the 20-minute crossing.
Back on dry land, it was in to another car to the border with Senegal.

Watching the landscape roll by it was clear that the two nations are almost identical — same scorched grasslands, wandering goats and smiling people. 
Indeed, while the official language in Senegal is French, all of the locals converse in tribal languages like Wolof, which probably doesn’t even have a word for border.

Around 20km past the checkpoint is the village of Toubakouta in the Sine Saloum Delta. Here was my hotel, Les Paletuviers. 
Beautiful and serene, the accommodation is a series of modern huts with straw roofs overlooking a saltwater bay.
You also look out at the water from the restaurant with its fresh fish dishes, hearty salads and sumptuous puddings.
You can’t tell me Attenborough doesn’t enjoy the odd cocktail when he’s not filming. Here they cost around £5 a go.
Knowing my French was only a little better than my Wolof, the hotel staff who spoke a little English made a special effort to ask how my break was going. When I did need a proficient translator, like on a boat trip to the UNESCO-protected mangroves of the delta, the hotel provided one from the village.

While Senegal does have lions, monkeys, hyenas and antelope living in the wild, you would have to travel a long way inland to see them. Unless you visit a game reserve. 
And Fathala is just a 15-minute road trip away.
The animals roam free in 6,000 hectares of protected forest, which you drive through with a guide to spot them.
The family of lions have their own area where you can walk with Tiger, Tiny and their siblings. To do the game drive and lion walk costs around £40.

 

Exploring Toubakouta itself was a great way to spend a morning too.
Although the village has expanded due to the opening of a handful of hotels, it pre-dates the tourist trade. So as well as having a few craft stalls targeting Europeans
on the edge of it, it’s a fully functioning settlement with schools, mosques, tailors, blacksmiths and a post office.
The villagers are happy to have you stroll round taking pictures and you don’t need to be accompanied — it just makes things easier if you want to talk to people and don’t have a command of French.

Crossing into Senegal was certainly worth it to see its amazing wildlife.
That’s not to say that The Gambia isn’t a paradise for animal lovers.
It’s just that most of the animals there have wings. 
I was met at Kombo Beach by Malick Suso, the guide Springwatch presenter Chris Packham uses on his annual trips there.
Malick was trained by his uncle, the country’s first official guide, and took me on a short walk around the grasslands surrounding the hotel.
The Gambia has 565 native bird species and Malick has seen 490 of them.
After a couple of hours with him and a pair of binoculars, I was amazed to find I had ticked off about 30.
I shouldn’t have been surprised at my success though.
This corner of west Africa is incredibly rich with all creatures great and small.


This article was first published in The Sun newspaper.