Back in 2009 we followed (from the comfort of our air-conditioned office, you understand) Jason and Helen Florio on their epic 700 mile walk around The Gambia. Not content with completing that great journey and returning with some extraordinary photographs and a soon-to-be-published book, the couple are soon to embark on an even more arduous and trailblazing voyage: a 1000km odyssey from the source of the River Gambia in Guinea to where the river flows into the sea on the Gambian coast. In their own words, the project ‘will attempt to create a modern-day account of the people, societies, and life along the length of one of Africa’s last, free-flowing, major rivers – the River Gambia… Traveling by canoe and foot through the homelands of over seven different tribes, their journey will begin at the source of the river, where it trickles out of the Fouta Djallon highlands of Guinea, on into hippo-abundant Niokolo Koba National Park, Senegal, and finally into The Republic of the Gambia – following the same course as the early gold and slave traders had done century’s ago – to the 10km wide mouth of the river, where it opens into the Atlantic Ocean after over a 1000km journey’. Wow, basically.
Jason and Helen were kind enough to answer some of our questions about this fascinating project. Keep up to date with their preparations on their expedition blog, check out the blog from the 2009 expedition, and do take the time to study some of Jason’s photography – something in his Gambian photos captures the spirit of the country, its elemental purity and indefatigability.
The Gambia Blog (hereafter TGB): Before we hear about the River Gambia Expedition 2012 – 1000km source-sea African odyssey, could you tell us a bit about your relationship with West Africa and how your last expedition came about?
Jason Florio: We have both been travelling independently to The Gambia since 1996 – I was initially invited down by my friends Lawrence Williams and James English the founders of Makasutu Culture Forest and Mandina River Lodge; and from then on started a long term portrait project at Makasutu which has brought me back yearly. Helen had been also coming to The Gambia every year to escape London life, and although we met at Makasutu in 1997, we did not get together until 2008 (obviously we were working on Gambia time, not New York time) when we first travelled to Gambia as a couple, and it was then that Helen started working with me on the portraits.
Our mutual love for The Gambia fueled the idea of our our last expedition – ‘A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush – a 930km African odyssey’. It was born out of a need to escape from the daily grind of New York for a while. We wanted an adventure! We were at a Brooklyn party, when a friend told us about how he’d walked 500 miles on the El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, through Northern Spain. “How far do you think it is to walk around The Gambia, then?” Helen said. Three beers in, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable question to ask. Despite us both having travelled to The Gambia, independently, for many years, neither of us had fully explored that much of the up-country region. The Gambia also has a relatively flat terrain – which was definitely something to take into consideration when one wants to walk the entire way around a country. It seemed the obvious choice. Six months later and there we were at Makasutu’s main gate starting our walk with 3 Gambian friends and two donkeys, Neil and Paddy from The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust.
TGB: How did you come up with the idea for this new expedition – did the idea stem from the previous one?
Helen Florio-Jones: We were about 10 days into our ‘Short Walk…’ – I remember it very clearly. It was early morning, during the dawn hours (we’d be on the road by 5am each morning – to make the most of the cooler hours) when Florio and I were walking ahead of the others and the donkey cart. It was the only time of day that we truly had to ourselves, our quiet time, to reflect on the journey so far, and ponder on what was to come. We both agreed that where we were , on a sandy pathway in the bush, in West Africa, during those dawn hours, felt like the most natural place in the world to be – its hard to describe, but it was as if the rest of the world did not exist at that moment in time. “I feel like this is going to lead to something bigger” Florio said “this walk is just a practice run”. I knew instantly what he meant. We went onto talk about the possibilities for our next expedition, and we hadn’t even reached the halfway point on our first!
TGB: Have either of you been to Senegal, Guinea or the Fouta Djallon before?
Helen: Not to Guinea. However, we’ve both been to Senegal in the past– north and south – which forms one of the three countries we’ll be traversing. In fact, we travelled to Senegal not long after we first got together four years ago. We flew to Dakar, the capital, and then hopped from here to there in local taxis – called ‘sept place’ – whereby you share with other people, sometimes 8-10 people or more in one car and the luggage!
When I first met Florio through mutual friends down at Makasutu Culture Forest in 1997, over dinner with our friends he casually announced that in the early morning he was ‘off to meet a rebel commander, over the border in The Casamance’ in Southern Senegal. He said that he had a local fixer who had promised to get him over the border – “under the radar” (i.e. illegally. He would have been in big trouble with the authorities, if they ever found out he had met with the rebels). He told us that that he didn’t know how long he would be away – “a couple of days…maybe more…”.
We’re really excited and intrigued about the Fouta Djallon highlands in Guinea, though. We plan to trek this section – until we can get into the River Gambia proper, on the Guinea/Senegal border – and to explore the villages and tribes who live there. It’s part of the journey that we don’t know a whole heap about. We’ll definitely need to get our walking boots on though, by the looks of things! What we have researched so far, the landscape looks stunning – rolling grasslands, valleys and waterfalls.
TGB: Could you tell us a bit about the mechanics – where you’ll start, how you’ll get to the starting point, how you’ll get around, where you’ll stay etc?
Jason: We will be using The Gambia as our staging ground as we’ll be flying in from London with Gambia Experience (thanks, you guys!!). There we will meet our two Gambian expedition team members, fisherman Abdou Ndong and Ebou Jarju who have been working on the River Gambia all their lives. We’ll pile into a to be determined mode of transport with all the gear and head across to Senegal, where we will drop our two 17ft folding canoes at a river side village on the border of Guinea. Smile at the border guards and head south about 150km to the source of the River Gambia in the Fouta Djallon highlands of Guinea. First thing there, kettle on… and pay homage to where one of Africa’s last major free flowing rivers trickles out of the earth. For the first section of the river, from the source back to where we dropped the canoes in Senegal, we plan to hike – about 200 meandering kilometers. We will trek from village to village following the course of the river as closely as possible. The journey is about meeting, learning from and interacting with the communities along the river, so although there will be sections where we will have to wild camp, the essence of the expedition is more in search of cultures rather than just beating through uninhabited wildernesses. Once we make it back to where we long termed parked the canoes, assuming I did not lose the ticket… the paddle to Banjul begins. Approx 120km from where we get into water will be the entrance to the Niokolo Koba national park. No villages remain in the park, but there is small lodge where we will stop. But most of the 200km through the park it is a pure wilderness – so bush camping will be the name of the game. Once we cross back onto our home turf of The Gambia, we’ll plan on revisiting some of the village chiefs who live along the 450km of river, who we stayed with on our 2009 walk. It will be nice to see some old friends.
TGB: Not that I want to jinx it, but do you build in contingency plans for, say, illness, not being able to find somewhere to stay? Were there any issues with this on Short Walk expedition?
Jason: We’ll be carrying tents, which means even if we are at a village we wont be imposing on them, as far as finding us a hut to sleep – so, as when we have to wild camp we’ll be prepared. Sickness, injury – we are working on a meds kit with a VSO nurse who has lots of Africa experience, so if it’s nothing major or life threatening we hopefully will be able to treat it in the field. As part of the mapping preparation we will be plotting the villages, clinics, airstrips and lodges, so if something does go awry then we will at least know where our nearest contact with civilization is. We will also be carry a YellowBrick™ device – which plots our position via satellite on an online map, sends text messages and is also connected to the International Rescue network – who we can alert of our situation and location… although in reality I doubt a helicopter will be available to rescue us.
TGB: Is there any chance that you can find Neil and (p)Hadley to help you along the way?!
Helen: We’re not sure if we will be using donkeys on this expedition but, when we are on The Gambia stretch of the river, we will actually pass by the village of Sambel Kunda. This is where we got Neil and (p)Hadley from – on loan from Heather Armstrong at The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust . Heather sends us updates every now and then as to how our diminutive team-mates are progressing. Neil just became a father – again! He’s a prolific breeder, it seems.
TGB: Has the River Gambia been explored in this way before? Are there any records of past journeys?
Jason: The River Gambia has been accessed from the Atlantic since early Portuguese traders went in search trade on the west coast of Africa in the 1500s. In 1623 British captain Richard Jobson penetrated 400 miles up the river to look for gold. In 1818 French explorer Gaspard Molllien crossed from Senegal by foot and reached the source of the River Gambia. Mollien and snuck into the thicket where the source of the river is for to peek at it for a few minutes – knowing full well if he was caught by locals he would be killed, as back then they considered the source sacred and off limits to foreigners. But as far as a source to sea, we have not found a record of anyone making the journey – but, we are a little reticent to say categorically our attempt will the first, as no doubt some grizzled Aussie will appear post expedition and say “Mate, I did that river on a stand-up paddle board back in ‘65”
TGB: What do you expect to find along the way in terms of the makeup of the population? Is there a vast contrast between the peoples of Guinea, The Gambia and Senegal? Is ethnography one of the main factors for the trip?
Jason: From our research I think we will be finding a lot of similarities – for example the Futa Djallon’s main population are the Fula people, they are also one of the five main tribes in The Gambia, and have a big presence in parts of Senegal. When we spoke to the Guinean ambassador in New York, we said we used an old protocol of giving a gift to a chief we stayed with when we made our Gambia walk – this is called ‘ silafando’… he laughed and said we use almost the same word in Guinea ‘silafanda’… we are sure we will be finding a lot of cultural things that will be familiar to us between the countries…but we are intrigued to find all the differences as well and what makes communities unique.
Ethnography always fascinates us, but at the end of the day it is having that very personal interaction with individuals who live a very different lifestyle than us, and hearing their stories that are the main driving factors in making and documenting the journey.
TGB: What role will photography play on this trip – will Jason be using the same methods that produced such fantastic images on the last walk?
Jason: A big reason for the journey is to share what we find on the way, so photography will be an essential tool in telling the stories of the people and cultures we meet along the river. The black cloth I used for the background of portraits on the last expedition may make another appearance – although the cloth is over 60 years old (it was my grandmother’s black out curtain during WWII in London) it’s getting a little fragile!
TGB: What else do you hope to capture along the way?
Jason: As well as still images, Helen will be capturing the world around us in words and we’ll both be shooting video of the proceedings. We’ll also be capturing mapping data that we will share on the online map for others travelling in the region at a later date… where the best coffee is, which villages have free wifi etc
Helen: For me, as I’m the keeper of the River Gambia Expedition 2012 blog , and as Florio says, I’ll be keeping a daily journal of events which I’ll upload, with images, as and when we can get a connection. On the last expedition, we only managed to get online about half a dozen times. Also, I hope, the blog will lead to a second book. I’ve just completed the first, from our last expedition ‘A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush – minty abanta!’ (working title!) – a combination of blog posts and (very) personal journal entries. Now I just need to get it published!
Also, relating to the blog, I’ll be recording, through photographs and video, Florio working on his portraits and photography – a behind-the-scenes angle to the journey. Watching him work is a great learning curve for me too – as an avid learner of photography – his attention to detail is phenomenal and it’s inspiring to witness how he communicates with his subjects. He has a certain knack to making people feel immediately relaxed, by finding a common ground with almost everyone he meets. A rare gift, indeed.
TGB: And lastly, what do you intend to do about all those hippos?!
Helen: ‘Slap the canoe paddles – as rapidly and as hard as possible – on the surface of the water, whenever we you see a hippo fully submerging!’ paraphrasing Richard Grant, adventurer and author of ‘Crazy River’, who I went to hear his reading of said book in New York a couple of months back. Apparently, the vibrations scare them away. Who knew. I keep (half) joking with Florio “can’t we just attach mechanical paddles to the canoes which, at the flick of a switch, beat the bloody water hard and fast?!! Either that, or have an outboard engine attached for a quick smart getaway!”