Inspired by the journals of Gaspard Mollien, an obscure French explorer who ventured to the source of the River Gambia in 1818, husband and wife team, Jason Florio and Helen Jones-Florio attempt the first recorded source-to-sea journey since. Wings follows their 1044km route along one of Africa’s last major free-flowing rivers.
Photography Jason Florio Words Jason Florio with Helen Jones-Florio
In 2009 my wife Helen and I escaped our New York home and took off on a 930km circumnavigation of The Republic of The Gambia by foot, along with three Gambian friends and two donkeys.
Seven days into our 42 day walk, we both decided that this journey would be a warm-up for something bigger. We had no idea at that exact moment what the ‘something bigger’ might be, but as Picasso once said: ‘“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” Well, in this case, it was to find us walking.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2012, when Helen and I found ourselves paddling a five meter rubberised Norwegian canoe up and down the bucolic Wey navigation canal in Surrey, England past shaggy cows and snobbish swans, making the most of as many waterside pubs as possible. This was all part of the training for the ‘something bigger.’
The ‘something bigger’ was to attempt to make the first recorded source-to-sea journey down the River Gambia, from its humble beginnings in the Fouta Djallon Highlands of Guinea, through Senegal and along the length of The Republic of The Gambia to the Atlantic Ocean. The fermentation of the inspiration had actually come from a conversation I had ten years prior with two old friends, Lawrence and James who founded the Makasutu Culture Forest on the banks of the River Gambia. During one late night chat, with the sound of fishermen calling to each other through the darkness, I off-handedly said to them, “I’d like to canoe down this river one day.”
They said, “Well, if you do, you should to start from the source about 1000km away, in Guinea.”
“What, it doesn’t start in The Gambia?” I had in mind a gentle jaunt with a packed lunch. I immediately put the thought low down the bucket list.
Modern Day Oar-cle
Just as Helen and I had never walked around a small West African country before our Gambia expedition, we were even less au fait with paddling canoes through hippo-infested waters, or dealing with rapids and rabid wildlife. But during our Gambia walk, the re-kindling of the conversation with my old friends bust into a wildfire inside my head. We started researching feverishly how to make a journey that seemed only to be feasible for the likes of hardy 19th century explorers like Captain Sir Richard Burton, or my personal West African explorer hero, Mungo Park, and seemed off-limits to mere mortals such as us.
The urgency to make the journey was not just fuelled by our mutual wanderlust and desire to get back to West Africa. During our research we found plans were afoot to build a dam on the mighty River Gambia near the Senegal-Guinea border. Such a hydro-electric dam would bring much-needed electricity to the developing region, but it would, according to studies, choke the flow of the river, affecting the lives of tens of thousands of people who rely on it for their survival. The damming, as well, would potentially cause irreparable damage to the already fragile eco system in the World Heritage Niokolo Koba National park in Senegal, threatening further the hippos and crocodiles that live there. We knew then we had to paddle the river before its natural flow was irrevocably changed.
Using the journal of Gaspard Mollien, a French explorer who clandestinely visited the river’s source in 1818 (he would have been killed if locals had found him at the sacred spot), and the help of the Guinea-based Fouta trekking company, we locate the source of River Gambia in a copse of trees on the edge of a small, Fula village an hour’s drive in a ‘sept-place’ Peugeot from the Fouta Djallon’s commercial center of Labé.
194 years later, the current chef-de-village, who keeps watch over the source, was more than welcoming and guided to us to the sacred spot. After months of research poring over Google Earth maps and riffling through the archives of The Royal Geographical Society, we could not believe we would actually get to drink from the source of one of Africa’s most epic rivers.
To reach the source from our staging ground at our friend’s lodge, the Sandele Eco Retreat in Kartong, The Gambia, we travelled some of the most unforgiving roads in West Africa. The final haul up into the Fouta Djallon highlands from Kédougou, Senegal was a 24-hour 220km meat-grinder of a trip up a boulder-strewn mountain path with 20 villagers perched on a Land Cruiser. But as we knelt and cupped the water from where it first gathers in the sunlight from giant natural cisterns beneath us, we felt that our journey had really begun.
For the two Gambian fishermen Abdou and Ebou who were our travelling companions, it was more than just the starting point, but a deeply moving moment. This trickle becomes the deep water that mixes with the Atlantic’s penetrating salty tide 1,000km away, from which they, as their forebearers had done for hundreds of years, drop their nets and pull fish to survive.
The 100km descent down from the mountaintop source to Kédougou, where we had stashed our canoes and supplies, was even more brutal than the ride up the Fouta. The only available way down was by motorcycle taxi. A promised three-hour journey turned into ten, as the ‘road’ was actually a 60-degree dry riverbed. ‘Hard Travel to Sacred Places’ was the book that came to mind as I clenched my abs and gripped my shoulder-slung cameras for dear life as cliff edges loomed in and out of focus.
In Kédougou, at the insistence of Abdou and Ebou, we hired a Malian guide called Youssef, a fisherman who knew the first section of the river like the back of his huge hand, and crucially, where the hippos were; Our biggest fear being Africa’s ‘biggest killer.’
We had had lengthy conversations over Skype in the preceding months with our Gambian fishermen, and they insisted that hippos were not a problem. We assumed that as fishermen plying the river they would know. The river in December is still fast moving in the early stages and Youssef, with California surfer-like panache, guided our fragile craft between rocks and debris as I half paddled and photographed and Helen paddled and kept a binocular-covered eye out for hippo heads. The riverbanks were deeply pitted with hippo footprints, so we knew they were there, but where though? On day five of paddling, our last day with Youssef, just as we were coming through a set of rapids, our hippo fears were realised in full technicolor. It happened in a nanosecond. A bull hippo sprung from beneath the surface, about six metres immediately in front of us. As we careened towards him, he submerged again. We pulled in disbelief towards the rocky shoreline. We were all laughing out of fear as we scrambled onto the rocks, except for Youssef who was laughing at us. Once we calmed down and grew quiet, Abdou and Ebou, almost in tandem, said, “Wow that was amazing, that’s the first hippo we have ever seen.” Helen and I looked at each other in disbelief – we still had over 600km to go, half of which would be home to ‘killer’ hippos. That night, Helen and I consulted a book on hippo behavior, that we thought unnecessary to read before, as we assumed we had Gambian hippo experts at hand.
Youssef had not only advised us on hippos but had taken us to artisanal gold-mining camps along the river, where we saw men descend into narrow shafts some 20 metres deep to extract gold-bearing rocks. We camped on the sandy shores and heard stories from Malians, Gambians and Guineans who had come to seek their fortunes in the hard-scramble hunt for the golden ore. We would miss Youssef, but despite offers of a good wage to continue to the Atlantic, he wanted to get back to his family.
The four of us pressed through Senegal. We were towered over by the yellow-red sandstone canyons carved by the river during rainy season, and screamed at by troops of baboons from the safety of their rim top haunts. On Christmas Day, we could see nowhere to land and camp as the daylight dimmed except a for small patch of rocks. We pulled a few supplies up and settled down for a very uncomfortable night. In the firelight, a young Basari boy appeared from the jungle with a large bowl of food. He had heard from a hunter that there were strangers by the river, and with it being Christmas Day he took it upon himself to gather food from their feast and bring it to us.
This would not be the last time that we would arrive shattered after ten hours of paddling and be shown such generous hospitality. During our travels in West Africa we have often found the people who have the least will offer you the most — the Fula, Wolof, Bassari, Mandinka, Serer, and Jola people who live along the river’s course are no exception.
The hippos remained thankfully elusive for the rest of the journey except for the odd distant sighting. The sandstone canyons gave way to low-slung banks thick with vegetation as we crossed the border into The Gambia. Small teams of bee-eater birds flitted from branch to branch flanking our progress from one riverside camp to the next; monitor lizards would scramble up the banks, but the snakes hung nonchalantly in exposed tree roots, giving no mind to our passing. We would often paddle for hours without seeing another person, then we would float by a village beach filled with women and children bashing laundry on rocks or bathing, all waving and smiling at the oddity of our floating char a banc. If it was lunchtime, they would call in their local language: “Come and eat with us!” We would wave and smile. If they were Mandinka, we’d reply: “Kono fatta abaraka” – “Belly already full, thank you!”
Banking On The River
Each day, the banks of the river got further apart. Abdou was worried that after Kemoto Point the wind and waves would be too much for our little canoes, despite having lashed them together with bamboo poles to make them more stable. Our fear was no longer death by hippo, but being torn apart by the breaking waves. Although our Gambian friends lacked hippo knowledge, they were masters of the river. They said we must push out far from the seeming safety of the shore to roll over the big waves and not be sunk by the breaking waves in the shallows. The river had grown to a massive 14kms wide, and our little boat was lost in the shadows of the giant barges hauling 100-tonne loads of peanuts from upcountry farms for processing in Banjul. But each night we were welcomed by local as well as migrant fishermen from Senegal and Mali, camped with their families on the river’s edge. Captains of peanut barges shared their dinners with us if we found ourselves moored in the same spot for the evening, and village chiefs, some who had sheltered us when we walked around the Gambia, welcomed us back.
Dreams Of The Atlantic
After covering 1,044km, the ‘July 22nd’ arch of Banjul at the mouth of River Gambia was visible on the horizon. We decided the finish point would be Denton Bridge, the point where the River Gambia and the Atlantic Ocean meet. We were rather hoping for banners, fireworks, waving crowds, TV crews and President Jammeh throwing his trademark biscuits to us to welcome us back. As we slowly paddled under the bridge savouring the end of our odyssey, despite the lack of fanfare, we counted down 5, 4, 3, 2… With the Atlantic Ocean and victory a metre before us, our bamboo masts lodged un-epically (almost bursting the balloons Helen had festooned on them for my birthday) to a rusted pipe, stalling our cool glide into history and chastening our egos in the process. Once freed and ashore on the Atlantic side, we moored at ‘Denton Watersports’, a waterside eatery. The British owner, Gary, sauntered down the beach to get a closer look at the bedraggled flotsam that had washed up on his pristine beach. “Blimey, I thought you were some kind of bizarre wedding party coming down the river, but on closer look it’s just bloody Robinson Crusoe and company.” The old 19th Century explorers could have only wished for such a welcome.
For beginners’ access to the River Gambia and serene Atlantic beachside, visit Makasutu.com and Sandele.com. Arik Air operate regular flights to Banjul, The Gambia Arikair.com