Shell Collecting in Gambia by Carl and Craig Ruscoe

Gambia map. Courtesy of  Visit Gambia

My brother Craig and I have been collecting shells for 20 years, but really seriously for the last 10 years. We have amassed a very nice, diverse collection of shells, mostly marine, with species from almost 200 different families. Having been interested in visiting West Africa for some time we booked a fortnight in Gambia in February 2000. We attended our first annual convention of the British Shell Collectors club in the Napier Hall on April the 24th 1999, although we were overwhelmed by the choice and quality of species for sale we could not help but notice the shortage of West African shells being offered for the more "low budget" collectors like ourselves, This year we can take great pleasure in putting that right. This article is an account of our collecting holiday in Gambia which is designed to give a good idea of what is available to the beachcomber who visits the country. Should you be planning a trip to Gambia yourself, my brother and I will be delighted to hear from you to give you whatever help we can from our experience.

Beach Gambia Courtesy of Gambia Tourism

Craig and I flew out of Manchester on the morning of Friday February 18th filled with optimism and excitement at the prospect of doing some proper shell collecting in a province which was completely new to us. We arrived in Yum Dum airport in the middle of the afternoon and it was very hot. Our coach journey to the hotel was more like being on a boat on the rough sea but some things have to be endured and that is what makes the pleasure so sweet. Ironically, our hotel, The Palm Grove was featured in March on the holiday programme 'Wish you were here' and being only recently re-opened after renovation it is, as should be expected, a lovely hotel and the food and service is first class. As soon as we had unpacked we ventured down to the beach. The moment we appeared on the beach, local people just came out of the woodwork!

Everybody in Gambia is poor and the local opportunists pounce on every tourist trying to offer their services as guides in order that you repay them with clothes and money etc. Fortunately my first contact was with a very decent and sincere individual called Lamin, along with his friend Bamba Sarr, he was to guide us for the fortnight. These two locals were a godsend to us. Their English was very good and they spoke several tribal languages, they were invaluable when communicating with some of the fishermen and villagers in South Gambia, particularly immigrant Senegalese who can not usually speak English. Unfortunately not all Gambian people are good people, despite what it says in the brochures, some of the local bumsters will go to any lengths to get money from tourists and they wont think twice about leaving you stranded with no money.

Terebra senegalensis Lamarck Picture courtesy of Lowtide Shells(Copyright)

We were taken straight to the sea by our guides and we had to walk for almost a mile to reach the shoreline through inter-tidal Mangrove swamps. Only 3 species of Molluscs could tolerate that inter-tidal mud which would seldom be washed over by the high tide. For a better variety of Molluscs you have to make that bit more effort. We spent the first two days of our holiday at Palm Grove and attended the shoreline at the low tides. Most of the material we collected here was dead and the Gastropods were, more often than not, inhabited by Hermit Crabs . The most prized species we found was Terebra senegalensis, Lamarck, 30 good specimens, with beautiful axial streaking and we are indebted to the hermit crabs for their efforts in bringing these lovely shells to us from deeper water.

Sinum concavum, Lamarck JPA de 1822 Picture courtesy of Lowtide Shells(Copyright)

The next day, Sunday, was when the serious collecting commenced. A horrendous taxi ride over 10 miles of desolate, 'corrugated" roads proved to be most rewarding. Our destination was the fishing village of Sanyang. Straight away, I could see the potential in this place as I picked a beautiful Sinum shell with reddish body whorl which I later identified as Sinum concavum, Lamarck. When we reached the village on the beach we took the initiative to search through all the discarded fishing catches.

Perrona nifat, Brugiere 1789 Picture courtesy of Lowtide Shells(Copyright)

This did not go down very well, many of the villagers who had probably never even seen a white man in their village before, were becoming very distressed and probably unimpressed with the way we nonchalantly moved between their boats, as if we owned the place. Our guides had to speak with the chief and assured him that we would be returning with clothes before he would allow us to continue our collecting.The shells that could be found included that of many Circumlittoral species which can not be obtained without the help of fisherman. Thousands of shells were scattered over a large area around some 30 fishing boats many on the surface and many more below the surface of the sand. Four beautiful species of Natica could be found here in very healthy numbers and the exquisite Turrid; Clavatula nifat Bruguiere was abundant. Many larger shells of so-called edible Molluscs were discarded all over this area of the beach. For example I had no idea that Cymbium were edible, but I suppose if your desperate you will eat anything, won't you! When we left the village the chief had 3 of the local children carry all our bags to the taxi.

We were confined to our quarters the next day, just cleaning Gastropods. Tuesday arrived and as arranged we took the taxi to Sanyang. We gave the chief the clothes as promised, all Preston North End football shirts for the local boys, he distributed the shirts and the elated children assembled with us for a group photograph for the club's match day programme.

We were then swarmed with villagers trying to sell us shell; we were in the driving seat, 100 villagers and just two of us! We knocked them down, e.g. a mere 10 delasis (60p) for a 30cm Elephant's snout! The chief then opened the second bag of clothes; tee shirts for adults and it all kicked off! I even got my glasses knocked off in all the mayhem. I managed to do some more collecting amongst the fishing catches before we were advised to leave because everything was getting out of hand. As our taxi pulled away several people were clinging on to the roof and we lost them somewhere a long the way on the bumpy roads to Gunjur

Collecting in Gunjur was not as fruitful as Sanyang but it was here where we obtained many nice Bivalves from Senegalese fisherman, including a couple of excellent Ribbed Cockles; Cardium costatum, L. and several lovely frilled Venus clams; Circumphalus foliaceolamellosus, Schroter 1788. We arranged to return to Gunjur in one week and we began the long journey back to Palm Grove. It takes great skill to get a bag full of fragile shells back to your hotel in one piece in a taxi which is bouncing along like a Kangaroo, the trick is too grasp the bag firmly in your mid-riff and absorb all the shock.

After another day of sink-blocking we visited the capital, Banjul. I work as an Optical lab technician and had accumulated masses of unwanted spectacles from patients. We visited the main hospital called the 'Royal Victoria'. We were shown around the eye clinic where I donated the much needed specs. Banjul with a population of only 40,000 has enormous problems, while Serrekunda, with a population of 200,000 seems to have more of a working infrastructure; I do not know why this is. The river Gambia tends to wash everything out to sea and the only shells that could be found at the mouth of the river at Banjul were Cymbium shells which had been discarded by the local fisherman. The morning's collecting was very disappointing.

beach, Gambia Courtesy of Gambia tourism

In attempt to sample as many beaches as possible, while my brother retired to our hotel room, I took the bush taxi to Senegambia. The miles of unspoilt beach here along the busiest stretch of coast in the country yielded thousands of single valves of burrowing species of Bivalves but whole shells were very few and far between. Our next stop was a small fishing village just up the road called Bakau, here there were many rocks and I collected a small attractive species of Littorina but that was about it and to top it all I left my bag in the Bush taxi! This is easily done when 15 people are crammed into a tiny van.

Friday was the day of our longest trip of the holiday to the village of Kartung which is a stones throwaway from the Senegalese border. Our taxi ride here was simply unforgettable, we never dreamt that we would be travelling through jungle. But sure enough we did. The roads were almost un-drivable and I do not mind admitting I was scared as the thick bush was full of stray cows with horns a metre in length. Kartung was fairly rewarding, the local villagers offered us many smaller shells for sale including the Scallop; Pseudammusium hybridum, Gmelin 1791. Everyone was getting in on the act of selling us shells as soon as they knew we were collecting. However, by this time we had really wised up, we were only paying for shells which we really wanted. For example we had some 50 specimens of Clavatula nifat, Bruguiere, and we were not about to pay for more specimens, however, with the April convention in mind, a few shells were a welcome addition to our surplus stock. On our way back to the taxi we were lucky enough to see some Vultures; I was delighted to see these creatures in the wild for the first time, I even managed to take some photos!

Siphonaria pectinata, L 1758 Picture courtesy of Lowtide Shells(Copyright)

After another hard day's work cleaning shells in the bathroom, we made our second visit to Bakau, climbing over hundreds of treacherous rocks was a real test of stamina which I passed with flying colours, our destination was a small bay where we collected lovely smooth black Nerites called Nerita senegalensis, Gmelin, also I replaced those interesting little Littorinas which I so stupidly left in the taxi two days previous. The only other species to be found here was Siphonaria pectinata, L.1758 abundant on inter-tidal rocks. A short walk to find the road then turned into a round trip of 10 kilometres. Our guides, who were otherwise very reliable took us round a so called lagoon which turned out to be a tributary of the river Gambia's estuary, therefore we had to go back the way we came as neither of us can swim

Hexaplex duplex, Roding 1798

As planned, two days later we made our second visit to Gunjur. Everybody was expecting us and from the moment we hit the beach we were swarmed with villagers eager to sell us the shells they had collected. With the help of Lamin and Bamba, we knocked them down, beautiful Ribbed Cockles for about 30 pence each which would cost no less than $10 on a dealer's list. We also purchased many Pen shells and Circomphalus clams. I even managed to get a lovely specimen of Murex duplex, Roding, for about 7 pence each, yes, I drive a hard bargain indeed! Our journey back to base saw a little detour to the small village of Tanje further up to coast. Tanje proved to be most disappointing and apart from many tiny Scaphopod shells we failed to collect anything worthwhile. However, it was most exciting when on the way in to the village we were assailed by a strange man covered in red feathers, fortunately, Bamba spotted him just in time and promptly locked all the doors!

Our journeys to the more remote parts of South Gambia never went smoothly amongst our problems were a puncture, distributor trouble and the taxi getting completely stuck in sand, but it is a miracle to drive on these roads at all and we were most grateful for the driver's efforts

With only 3 more days left in the Tropics, Tuesday was our last day of collecting as we had much cleaning and packing to do. On Wednesday it came as no surprise to get a special visit from the hotel manager, he had had bitter complaints from the maid about the state of our bathroom. After a severe grilling from the top man, he took a smiling plumber into our bathroom

Our coach came on time to take us to the airport and the fiasco of our return began. The organisation at Yum-Dum is somewhat lacking and our luggage was whisked away by a hyperactive little man to the wrong check- in-point. With 15 minutes to take off, I spotted the mistake, our bags were on the plane to Gatwick! Both planes were subsequently delayed as the staff frantically rectified the fault.At least our bags had made it back.... so all is well that ends well!

We would like to thank LowTide Shells the specialists in West African shells for the use of their pictures(Copyright).

This web page was last updated on 31 August 2003
Copyright of all images remains with the originator and the British Shell Collectors Club and may not be copied without their expressed permission
Copyrightę 2003 British Shell Collectors' Club All rights reserved.

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