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Chris's diary  /  Gambia - February 2009

I have been visiting the Gambia in west Africa for a week each February for the last four years leading a low key ‘mini-bird-tour’ with The Gambia Experience and taking a few pictures in between chasing Turacos and Long-tailed Nightjars. This is always going to heavily compromise the photographic integrity of the jaunt as most clients don’t want to wait around whilst the ‘never satisfied perfectionist’ attempts to sate his pictorial misery and the best light is synchronous with the best birding time. So that just leaves the blazing hot, horribly lit mid afternoons to get something done. Well, sticking to my mantra that ‘success comes more easily to those who avoid competition’ I conceded that for most of the time the plentiful and relatively tame selection of exotic feathered things were ‘off the menu’. Oh, they were there – but they looked less than lovely in that overhead light - and besides everyone does birds. So last year I was mulling over a Julbrew Export when I came up with the idea of shooting . . . crabs. Not stereotypically sexy, not pin-up or t-shirt material, but definitely under exploited by photographers and when the tides out they are everywhere on the mud directly behind the excellent Bakotu Hotel.

Thus I put on my oldest old shirt and trousers, wrapped my camera and 70-200mm lens in a poly bag and went out and lay down flat on the sticky wet ground. And the first thing I saw was a local lad taking a dump in the river! Yeah, better remember to wash my hands then. The surrounding ‘fiddlers’ all scarpered of course so I just cooked in the searing sun until they gradually re-appeared and got busy doing crabby things like making balls of sand, mincing their mouthparts, blowing the occasional bubble and chasing each other about, normally when they had just got into the best place for me to push the button on them.


I got some boring portraits of the colourful little chappies but I couldn’t really get my camera low enough, I wanted to shoot right along the ground so that everything was out of focus but the crustacean, and ideally I wanted just its eyes peeping out of its burrow. Slightly sunburned and sweaty but undeterred I returned to the hotel looking a bit like I’d had an accident, collected a few scowls from the other guests and a spade from the ever hospitable management, and then went back to my mud-pit.

The sun was going down now so just to make things difficult, and just because most photographers wouldn’t, I lay down facing directly into the light. And I dug a small hole for my camera and for my upper chest. Despite this it was hellishly uncomfortable trying to see through the viewfinder and my neck was soon giving me grief. Then just as the army of articulated invertebrate robots began to mass again they suddenly all dived for cover. Great, just what I needed to prolong the pain! Actually it was because a Whimbrel had just strolled up in search of a snack and before it realised that I wasn’t yet a corpse I got a couple of low level shots. They’re not pin-sharp tho’ as I was on crab-speed (125 sec) and not running wader-speed (500 sec) and to have changed it would have meant flying-away-wader at top speed. I persevered with the crabs, spun around to use the warmth of the sunset, but didn’t really get what I’d wanted and I left knowing that, as ever, I could do better.

Thus this year I planned ahead and bought an angled viewfinder attachment before I left. This £140 gadget wasn’t cheap but as I’m always going low I was sure it would be a long term asset in the kitbag. Sadly a drawn out ‘estuarine blockage’ had effected a crab genocide behind the Bakotu so I was pretty miffed for the first week and even started wasting my time shooting some birds in really crap light. Thankfully when I later arrived at the sumptuous Mandina Lodges it was crabtastic and before I had even been shown to my wonderful room I was getting down-and-dirty. The viewfinder worked ‘wellish’, I was still kneeling and crouching over in very hot sun for a couple of hours at a time, the camera laying on a bag right on the waters edge, so it still defined a degree of agony. Worse the crabs were really skitty and every time any of the staff passed by they all fled. Still, that evening the laptop revealed that I was in the right place trying to do the right thing and so the next day I negotiated a ‘holiday zone’ from the staff and also pinched some bacon from another guest's breakfast plate. I diced this up and scattered it in the prime crab spot and bent down to do battle. I had chosen to back light them against the shadow of a small bridge and wanted water in the fore and background so I could transform all its sparkles into out of focus highlights. Then I remembered that I had forgotten one thing . . . the sun cream. I got pretty much ‘third degree-ed’ on my lower right forearm but I got some pictures too. I’m still not entirely satisfied and I have a couple more ideas so unless I’m struck by another brainwave you’ll find me doing dirty things in Gambia next February!

Chris travelled to the Gambia courtesy of the Gambia Experience    


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