Weekends as Tarzan in My Place of Escape (2000-2002)
Being Business Facilitator for a little mission in West Africa at first sounded easy or possibly boring. The number of missionaries I served averaged around 24 with the children, and it was mostly their business matters I took care of: the budget, bills, home school materials, legal and government paperwork, visas, driver licenses, housing rentals, vehicle purchases, overflowing septic tanks, broken generators, orienting new missionaries, managing three+ compounds and 12 employees, adjusting to the no-privacy culture, hosting guests and mission trip groups, prayer walking, frequent area and regional planning meetings (usually in Dakar or Abidjan), traveling the length of Gambia and Southern Senegal to facilitate property and missionaries, getting my truck stuck in mud and repairing flat tires, working with three local pastors, coordinating with other missions, surviving two coup attempts, constant flow of emails and phone calls, and well . . . you get the idea! It was a much bigger/demanding job than I had foreseen and I just needed to get away occasionally.
To get away from the people, the computer, and the phone. I tried spending a couple of nights in a tourist hotel on the beach and visiting another denomination’s mission, but the simplest place of all became my favorite escape, my outdoor hideout from the rest of the world: Bird Safari Camp on an island 300 kilometers up the River Gambia, near the small town of Janjanbureh. It was isolated in jungle on the river with much wildlife, few people, and no emails or phone calls.
The British owner/operator Steve Jones became a special friend for most of three years. He, like me, had fantasized as a child about living in the jungle as Tarzan. And there – we both almost did. I escaped to sleep in a tent surrounded by cobras and monitor lizards or in a mice-filled little hut. I ate African food, mostly cooked by a young man who loved to take me to his tiny village for visits where I came to love his people living in small mud huts. I thrilled at a chance to photograph a rare yellow-winged bat, to float down the river in their pirogue named “Safari Queen,” (top photo) to watch and photograph the monkeys, hippos and hundreds of tropical birds. This is where and when nature photography became an avocation. As Henry David Thoreau put it, “My profession is to always find God in nature,” and I was feeling I did exactly that in this little river-island Shangri la.
I spent one Thanksgiving at Bird Safari Camp, taking one of our student missionary guys. Later we spent Christmas there with three more college students who kept me feeling young. On that trip we walked and boated with the cook to his village and brought back a goat that he cooked at the camp for our African Christmas dinner. We read the Christmas Story from Luke at our Christmas Eve campfire and a young couple from Holland staying there said it was the first time they had heard that story since they were small children. I was sometimes there alone but took a few others including my son during his only visit to Gambia. Then lastly I helped with the sad job of taking Steve’s body, extinguished by cerebral malaria, back to the camp where I conducted his graveside service and burial in the middle of my little Eden. Six years after leaving Gambia, I returned with two different mission trips, again experiencing Bird Safari Camp with friends and nature, but this time the special sense of escape was only in my memories.
I will always remember it as a place simple, special, and totally immersed in nature; hosting big conversations about God, life, Tarzan, animals, and future hopes. There I danced to African music, ate strange foods, formed deep friendships, tried to be a Christian witness, and brought back photos from an African rainforest that still bring me joy today. It was a road less traveled, a place less visited, a place of escape, which I’m certain Tarzan would have loved! Unfortunately it is now closed.
That was almost as sad as the death of my “Tarzan friend” Steve Jones, whose funeral I conducted. And as anyone who followed Tarzan knows, life in the jungle is hard and full of death and difficulties, but so much more joyous than life “back in civilization.” In some ways the weekends or other times I spent at Bird Safari Camp are the highlights of my 3 years of living in The Gambia.
It is a long, complicated African story, how the original camp finally ended, but for several years after Steve’s death it was operated by his brother from England with a Gambian manager who with crooked government workers managed to claim it as his and he took possession and I don’t know if it still operates under the same name or at all. I did take two groups of people there in 2009, In June from FBC and again in November from another church. That was it! I will never see it again now.
My special “Tarzan Effect” memories from The Gambia, West Africa!