The Calabash & the Wonjo

(page 3)

The landscape overall was determined by the vast number of Oil Palms. Many of them had bottles at the top of the trunks to collect 'jungle juice' (Yes, the authentic African colloquialism and not a monstrous Eurocentric aberration!). An inflorescence is cleanly cut off and a spout made from the woven leaves of the palm frond is jammed on to the cut end. This then serves as a conduit into the neck of the bottle. We were informed that the productivity of the trees was determined by age, the older trees obviously yielding more and bearing more bottles. After several years the tree is rested for a period before collection is resumed. On several occasions we watched men nimbly 'caterpillar' up the trees utilising rope slings, leaning out precariously in order to achieve purchase, gaining their footing from notches chopped out of the trunk with hefty knives. At the crown they pirouetted from one bottle to another emptying the contents of each into a container strapped to their waist, and having completed their task, effortlessly 'absailed' down in a spiral to the ground.

Further on by the stream at Fajara, we watched every conceivable variety of heron that you're likely to see in The Gambia stalk the banks of the rice paddies, oblivious to the women planting the crop. At the Kotu Bridge, Rough-legged swallows and Spine-tailed swifts winged their way across the Mangroves, and Pied Kingfishers took fiddler crabs from the mudflat shaded by Senegal Date Palms (Phoenix reclinata) which lined the riverbank. The date palms were clustered by streams or in soggy ground. There were many handsome specimens. None was more than a few metres tall. Many sported inflorescences, but we only saw one seed. Stupidly I tried to get it. It was just out of reach. Gill was trying to hand me the Swiss Army knife when I over-balanced to be impaled on the palm's razor-sharp armature and hypodermic leaf tips. Bleeding from multiple stigmata, I just wished we'd packed a chainsaw. Lacking resolve, I left the seed for whatever species that had eaten the rest.

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