Every picture tells a story: River Gambia Expedition – latest new images from Jason Florio

Rice field women

Women working in the rice fields, Kaur, The Gambia © Jason Florio

These images were taken, by Jason Florio, whilst on the ‘River Gambia Expedition – 1000km source-sea African odyssey’

From November 23rd 2012 – January 21st 2013, we travelled 1130km overland ,via motorcycles and local transport, before getting into our two canoes, onto the River Gambia – from the source of the river in the Fouta Djallon Highlands of Guinea-Conakry, on into Senegal, and then towards the the rivers end, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, Banjul, The Republic of The Gambia.

The River Gambia is one of Africa’s last major free-flowing undammed rivers…communities along its length rely on it for their very existence. With plans afoot to dam the river, we wanted to create a modern day account of the people who live and work along its banks – before construction of the dam begins and their lives are irreversibly changed.

To check out more thought-provoking images from Jason Florio, from the expedition, please visit his website

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Two hunters bath after shooting a monkey for its meat – Njeun, Senegal © Jason Florio

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Man shows off chicken he has bought, Perias Tenda, The Gambia © Jason Florio

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Men swim their horses across the River Gambia, Karantaba, The Gambia © Jason Florio

Bone-juddering Fouta Djallon Highland roads and the stoned biker! Eight dust-covered hours from Mali Ville–Kedougou, Senegal

The River Gambia Expedition story continues…

Saturday 8th December, 2012 – Mali Ville, Guinea-Conakry, Fouta Djallon Highlands, West Africa

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The Land Cruiser which should have taken us from Mali Ville to Kedougou! – Downtown Mali Ville, Guinea-Conakry © Helen Jones-Florio

Yesterday morning we were up at 6am, waiting for the driver of a Land Cruiser. The previous day, we had arranged for local transport, at the gare routièrebus station – to take us down the mountains, from the Fouta Djallon Highlands, and back to Kedougou, Senegal. Once there, we would pick up ‘The Twins’ – our two 811 Ally canoeswhere we had left them a week or so ago, at a friends compound. The driver had assured us that he already had ‘4-6 passengers…no problem, the vehicle will be full by 8pm tonight’. Visions of Kedougou and waiting three days for a vehicle to fill up, before it could leave the bus station, instantly sprang to mind. However, the driver was adamant that he would be at our guest house in Mali Ville, the Auberge Indigo, to pick us and have us on the road back to Kedougou by 8am, latest.

So, it was with no real surprise, when the driver turned up – sans vehicle – to tell us that he now had ‘no passengers booked’, apart from us. S&*$! We really didn’t have the luxury of time on our side to hang around Mali Ville, let alone the budget to pay for more nights at the guest house. We needed to move forwards, on with the next, very important, stage of the River Gambia Expedition: getting ‘The Twins’ into the River Gambia.

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Ebu – ‘Moto taxi’ rider – Mali Ville, Guinea-Conakry. Image © Jason Florio

‘Moto-taxis’ – as passenger motorcycles are known in Guinea – was suggested by Saif, our Guinea guide from Galissa Voyage Trekking. “NO, NO, NO!!”, was my immediate response, much to Saif and the rest of the teams bemusement. And if they didn’t hear that clearly enough: “NO BLOODY WAY!!”. Also,it was ok for Saif to suggest the dodgy looking motorcycles, because he was leaving us to go back home to Labé – in a car!

After having suffered a particularly bad accident in Thailand, It had taken me ten years to get back on a motorcycle! And that was only due to Florio‘s lengthy cajoling and promises to ‘go slow’, on his motorcycle back in New York. I’d had the accident whilst travelling on a motorcycle at 40km per hour, when me and the person I was with were pushed off the side of the road by a lorry. My friend went hurtling over the handlebars and I was thrown off the side of the motorcycle – my right knee connecting with a concrete post in the process. The result was a puncture wound and a patella – kneecap – shattered into 13 pieces. I also suffered a badly busted eye and broken teeth where, on impact, my face had connected with the back of my friend’s head – a tooth broke clean in half, the other half embedded in my friend’s head! Of course, we weren’t wearing helmets. I will never. Ever. Think that I am invincible just because I’m travelling in a foreign country, the hot sun shining brightly…erm…at least not until Guinea-Conakry, that is.

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Ebu & Helen “do I look convinced enough?” – outside Auberge Indigo hotel, Mali Ville, Guinea-Conakry. Image © Jason Florio

As you can see, I was eventually ‘convinced’ – made to feel guilty is more like it. The rest of the team cajoling me and conniving together – i.e. I would be holding the next stage of the expedition up if I didn’t agree. No pressure then! ‘The roads are so bad here, that the motorcycles can’t go that fast anyway’; ‘you can pick which bike you think looks in the best condition’ (gee, thanks); ‘we take it small, small’ – where just a few of the wheedling words, used by the boys, whilst trying to convince me. Finally, ‘It will be cheaper than taking the vehicle!’ said Florio – pulling at my expedition budget purse-strings – that clinched the deal!

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Alternative transport? Mali Ville, Guinea Conakry, Fouta Djallon Highlands © Jason Florio

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Florio checks out other possibilities to get the team down the mountain and to Senegal © Helen Jones-Florio

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Moto – motto – Mali Ville, Guinea-Conakry © Helen Jones-Florio

After the usual to-ing and fro-ing about the price, with the main moto rider, called Ebu, for hiring four motorcycles, we assumed a reasonable price had been reached. Meanwhile, I muttered a mantra to myself: ‘ok, I’m terrified but I will overcome this fear’ , ‘ok, I’m terrified but I will overcome this fear’… - Ebu (who, to me, had the ‘best bike’. Guess who I’m going with then) went off to get the bikes fueled up. However, when he returned, with all four moto riders revving to go, he announced the words we had heard already, and would continue to hear throughout the entire expedition wherever taking local transport was concerned: ‘the price is too small’. WHAT?!! We have a deal – which had already taken over two hours to negotiate! We then spent until 2pm – four hours in total – re-negotiating with Ebu. We even checked around town to see what other moto-taxis were charging. They all confirmed that the amount charged was to cover expensive fuel costs and the price of laissez passé – a permit to allow them to take their motos over the border from Guinea into Senegal. Ironically though, despite thinking we would be saving money by taking the moto’s, it turned out more expensive per person than taking the vehicle option. It seemed like an extortionate amount to us for what would be a ‘two-three hour motorcycle ride’. According our main moto main, Ebu, when we were trying to make the initial, lengthy, deal with him: “Come, we go now, now! We will get to Kedougou in two hours” he assured us – compared to 6-7 hours in the vehicle. In the end, we haggled a deal for roughly $28 per person – down from $35 per person. Hey, when on an expedition, every single dollar saved counts.

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The money shot – Guinean Francs – Mali Ville, Guinea Conakry © Jason Florio

The next step was getting all of our luggage onto the back of the four bikes – and we had a fair bit of it. Four 60 litre Overboard bags, Florio’s camera backpack and my rucksack. And, just one of the many things that I love about traveling in West Africa – everything is ‘no problem!’. Therefore, within 20 minutes, our bags were tied onto the four motorcycles, with pieces of string and strips of old rubber inner tubing – an ingenious bit of recycling, used for strapping all manner of things onto vehicles, motos, donkey carts, bicycles etc. in West Africa. At long last, almost five hours later, we were ready to hit the road, Ebu, was still adamant we would make Kedougou by dark. So much so, he very convincingly stated: “and I will also return tonight, to Mali, with a passenger from Kedougou too!”. In actual fact, we would not reach Kedougou until 10pm that evening!

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Florio, Abdou and Ebou – downtown Mali Ville, Guinea Conakry © Helen Jones-Florio

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Overboard backpack tubes – Mali Ville, Guinea-Conakry © Helen Jones-Florio

If we had had even a hint that we would be on the back of those motorcycles for almost nine spine-juddering hours, not one of us would have been smiling, and joking, half as much as we did when we set off!

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River Gambia team member, Abdou, and his ‘moto’ rider – Mali Ville, Guinea-Conakry © Jason Florio

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H & ‘moto’ rider, Ebu and River Gambia Expedition team member, Ebou with his rider – leaving Mali Ville, Guinea-Conakry © Jason Florio

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Youtube: Florio – On the road – Mali Ville – Kedougou. Filmed by Helen Jones-Florio © Jason Florio & Helen Jones-Florio. Click image or here to view footage

We rattled and bounced out of Mali Ville over the rocky, riverbed-like, roads. And, it continued that way for 99% of the journey. At times, the ‘roads’ were so bad, and/or too steep, that we – the passengers – had to dismount the bikes and walk up or down a hill, as the riders negotiated the roughest of terrain. “This is a new road that I do not know it” Ebu tells me, as he asks me to dismount the bike for the third or fourth time. I looked at him to see if he was joking with me. The ‘new road’ was a steep incline, made up of various-sized boulders – not a smooth spot or patch of tarmac to be seen. When I eventually got back on, Ebu told me – would turn out be his mantra throughout the ride – whilst I desperately hung onto the metal luggage rack for dear life, as he expertly maneuvered the moto over and around the rocks: “the roads are too bad, here in Guinea”. No shit Sherlock! “The government…they do nothing for the people of Guinea” he adds. I tell him that it is such a shame that the roads are so very bad. “More tourists would come to Guinea-Conakry, if it was easier to get from one place to another” I say. “the Fouta Djallon is breathtakingly beautiful”.

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Moto taxis Guinean style – Mali Ville, Guinea-Conakry © Helen Jones-Florio

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On the road: Mali Ville – Keodougou © Jason Florio

Regardless of the bone-juddering, jaw-clenching ride – and before we realized that we would not be making it to Kedougou before dusk – from the back of the motorcycles, we enjoyed the magnificent scenery of the mountainous region. Its tropical lushness reminded me of parts of Costa Rica. However, it wasn’t too long before the tension in my arms, from gripping the luggage rack, and squeezing my thighs, to avoid being thrown off the back of the moto, the constant bouncing of my coccyx on the hard seat, and my clenched jaw, began to manifest as extremely uncomfortable aches and pains. And…lets not forget the ever-present red road dust – we were all coated in the bloody stuff!

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H – quite enjoying herself by this point! Image taken from film footage by Jason Florio

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The beautiful Fouta Djallon Highlands and rocky roads (from the back of the moto!) © Helen Jones-Florio

At one point, when we stopped for a break, our man-of-few-words, teammate Abdou, said: “Helen, you are a man!” I looked at him…huh?! “Florio, you marry a strong woman!” he said admiringly. “My Hawa (his wife) would never be on a moto”. More to the point, after his comments on how dangerous speeding motorcycles, with female passengers, in both Guinea and Senegal, were he would probably never allow Hawa on a moto in the first place! Abdou is endearingly old-fashioned – and very, very sensible!

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Jason ‘have I got dust up my nose?’ Florio © Jason Florio

Helen 'dust? What dust?' Jones-Florio

Helen ‘dust? What dust?’ Jones-Florio © Jason Florio

Ebou 'do I look good in this colour?' Jarju

Ebou ‘do I look good in this colour?’ Jarju © Jason Florio

Abdou 'you talkin' to me?' Ndong

Abdou ‘you talkin’ to me?’ Ndong © Jason Florio

Further into the journey, we were speeding down a relatively ‘smooth’ section of road – small rocks as opposed the large ones. In reality, we weren’t actually doing much more than 20km an hour, but it felt as if we were hurtling down the hill – even more so because, to my left, we were about a foot from the precipice. Instinctively, I leaned over to the right. “Do not be scared” Ebu said, as he felt me shift in the opposite direction – i.e. away from the sheer drop. “These are my roads…I come here every day”. Well, that’s easy for you to say, I thought. “I hear you, Ebu, but I would rather prefer not to look directly into the valley below. Thank you very much!”. But, credit to those moto guys, they do seem to know each and every rock, as they adeptly negotiated the motorcycles over and around, up and down, the Fouta’s dire roads; almost as if they had walked the route every single day of their lives. Gradually, as the journey went on, their adroitness began to give me more confidence – to relax my iron grip…somewhat. And, for a while there, from the back of the moto, I felt almost joyful to be able to take in the wondrous surroundings of the Fouta Djallon Highlands. Plus, I felt immensely proud of myself for having overcome my initial abject fear of getting on the back of the motorcycle with a complete stranger. And, despite the pervasive red dust, it was such a freeing feeling – to see the Fouta that way – and a huge contrast from being crammed into a vehicle with 15-20 sweating, smelly, bodies – mine included. That was until, at a river crossing point later on, Ebu, the moto, and I, took a ‘dip’ in said river; when Ebu got a wee bit too cocky – or stoned, is more like it! However, we’ll get to that bit in a minute.

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Youtube: Ebu – moto rider – on the ‘new road’ Mali Ville-Kedougou. Filmed by Helen Jones-Florio. © Jason Florio and Helen Jones-Florio. Click here or on image to view footage

After we had just crossed a shallow ford, one at a time, on the motos, Florio demanded “is someone smoking a joint?”.Yes, that will be my rider” I answered. I’d spotted Ebu lighting up whilst we waited for the other riders to blow any excess water out of their exhaust pipes and wipe dry the spark plugs, on their bikes. “Please DO NOT do that” Flo said, angrily, to Ebu “you have my wife on the back of your bike!”. “No, it is no problem…I feel good and strong now” Ebu said. “DON’T! It is a problem for you, if anything happens to her” Flo said, pointing at me. “Sorry, sorry. It is all gone now…look” Ebu said as he took the remainder of the joint – which wasn’t much by then – and threw it into the bush. We all re-mounted the bikes and sped off. By this point, we were riding through the bush and the sandy pathways, which meant that Ebu could speed up – way ahead of the others. I began to wish that I hadn’t gotten back onto the back of his bike, after the joint debacle. We reached another ford, which to me, looked much deeper than the last one. Ebu revved the engine of the moto and announced “we go, now!”.Are you sure?” It looks deep to me”, I said. “No no…we go”. Oh, what the hell, I thought. It’s all part of the adventure – in for a penny, in for a pound. Holding on tight to Ebu this time, as opposed to the luggage rack, we plunged into the river and promptly got stuck in the mud! The moto toppled sideways and we were both, rather unceremoniously, dumped into the river. As I had suspected, it was much, much deeper than the last ford.

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Total gridlock! Mali Ville – Kedougou © Helen Jones-Florio

As I squelched out of the river, onto the opposite bank, I heard the other motorcycles approaching. “That’s what you get for smoking weed, you %&*#!!” Florio shouted across the water. Once they all reached our side, he shouted at Ebu “I told you not to smoke, you %$*#&#* stoner!”. After things calmed down, and the motos were once again cleared of water, Flo stated that he would ride with Ebu and I would hop on the back with his rider. I can’t say that I wasn’t relieved…but now I had Flo to worry about, on the back of a motorcycle with the stoned biker!

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Moto fixing – and shaking out the river water! On the road to Kedougou © Jason Florio – taken from film footage

We had a couple of breakdowns – a flat tire here and there (not surprisingly, considering the state of the roads) – which meant that we didn’t reach the Guinea and Senegalese border until after dark. It was way past the 7pm cold beer we had been promising ourselves when we’d set off from Mali Ville hours earlier. We spent a good hour at the Senegal border post whilst our team mate, Abdou’s, rider tried to get his headlights fixed – as in, he didn’t have any in the first place! The rider had been so convinced that we would reach Kedougou before dusk, that he didn’t think he would need lights. We all watched, exhausted, hungry, filthy, and cold by now, as the bike appeared to be taken apart -– springs, screws, wires were strewn all over the sandy floor. Because we’d been assured by Ebu, back in Mali, that we would reach Kedougou in ‘two hours’, we hadn’t taken much food and our warm clothes were packed deep inside our bags, which were tied tightly onto the back of the motos. It just seemed like too much hassle to untie everything to get them out. We also knew that the Senegalese border post was only about 20km from Kedougou – food, a cold water bucket wash, and a much-needed bed. Forget the cold beers!

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When the roads get really bad, get off the moto and walk! Florio & Ebou – Fouta Djallon Highlands © Helen Jones-Florio

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Moto fixing – Senegalese border © Helen Jones-Florio

Eventually, every single part was reconnected to the moto and, miraculously, it had now had headlights and they worked! Wearily, re-mounting the bikes, we set off once more, on the final leg of a long journey. And, less than 100 yards into Senegal, Adbou’s moto’s engine spluttered, juddered, and then went silent. Although the moto now had lights that worked the engine no longer did! After some juggling of luggage, between the bikes, our convoy of four motos became three – as Abdou jumped on the back of Ebou’s moto with his rider. It’s not uncommon in Guinea-Conakry, and parts of Senegal, to see three people, or more, on one motorcycle. The roads were noticeably and instantly better in Senegal – thankfully, smoother to ride on. This made the last 20km to Kedougou much speedier – and, because we were completely knackered, I was past caring anymore that the speed picked up – zooming in the darkness through narrow sandy field tracks and along dusty roads; ducking and dodging tree branches as we sped along. We rolled into our host’s (we love you, Peter Stirling, for the sanctuary of your home!), compound at around 10pm – eight plus hours after we set off from Mali Ville. I could have kissed the ground as I dismounted the moto, but then my stiff legs wouldn’t allow me to.

Suffice to say, it was GREAT to be back in Kedougou!

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H looking at where we’ll be in a few days – on the River Gambia – Relais de Kedougou hotel, Kedougou, Senegal © Jason Florio

Coming next:…..

Getting the ‘The Twins’ into the River Gambia for the first time; close up and personal encounters with hippos…

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The Ally canoes are in the River Gambia – we are off, at last! Keodougou, Senegal, West Africa. Thanks to Henk Eshuis for the use of the photo

Stay with us! River Gambia stories coming shortly.

The Florios (H & Flo)

It’s a waiting game, down here in The Gambia…when in Rome…

‘Domanding, domanding’ – slowly, slowly – local Mandinka language.

Waiting…again. Helen & the Short Walk in the Gambian Bush team, 2009, West Africa expedition. Image © Jason Florio

Update 7th November 2012

‘Patience is the key to joy…‘ according to Sufi poet, Jalal ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi

As some of you are well aware, we have been in The Gambia, West Africa, since the 16th October, to make final preparations for the ‘River Gambia Expedition – 1000km source to sea African odyssey’. And, if things had gone to plan, we were due to pick up our shipment of gear from Banjul Port – on the 21st October – which had been shipped in a container from the UK. However, it is now 7th November and we are still waiting!

The boat, it seems, was ‘erroneously delivered to Lagos, Nigeria’ – via a drop off for a week in Antwerp, where the shipping company eventually found it and put it back on another boat, supposedly bound for The Gambia.

The update we had from the shippers this morning was that the container (which also contains many other people’s boxes/ items) has to sail from Lagos, all the way to back Antwerp – a shipping regulation (Antwerp being the main port for shipments to West Africa) – then, and only then, can it be sent back down to The Gambia. Go figure.

So. Stating the utterly obvious. We are delayed. And. We don’t really know for how long. Until we hear back from the shipping company later today. That is, once they have sussed out potential arrival dates, which, we are beginning to suspect, they pull randomly from thin air – or, better still, their backsides – based on the runaround we’ve had so far!

We will wait. We have little choice…most of the gear is for camping whilst on the expedition and/or from our sponsors who we have a commitment to fulfill – i.e. photos of their kindly donated products in use.

Little Gambian girl, dressed for Tobaski, at the prayer ground – Kartong, The Gambia, West Africa. Image © Jason Florio 2012

In the meantime, we’ll keep busy with all the wondrous and colourful sights, which are around us here in The Gambia. Such as Tobaski last weekend – one of the biggest Muslim celebrations of the year. And, this weekend, we’re hoping to head to a traditional naming ceremony in the town of Brikama. Plus, we need to practice, practice, practice, our canoeing on the river.

Enough to keep us busy until our boat comes in.

Updates as and when…

The Florios (H & Flo)

Mantra for the coming days: Patience is the key to joy…patience is the key to joy…patience is the key to joy…

#trunkmag ‘How sexy is this! @floriophotoNYC Jason Florio’s Gambian portraits layout coming off press for Trunk F/W ’12 issue’

November/December Press – 2012

Talk about serendipity. Here we are back in The Gambia, about to embark on the ‘River Gambia Expedition – 1000km source to sea African odyssey’, and Trunk Magazine are featuring Florio’s portraits of Gambian chiefs and elders in their next edition, which he took whilst we were on our last West Africa expedition – ‘A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush – a 930km African odyssey’

We’ll be posting an update shortly about our delayed leaving date for Guinea – and the start of the River Gambia Expedition. Right now, we are being held up by the freight company’s, shipping our gear down here, boat being delayed – by over 2 weeks so far! Anyway…more on that once we have spoken to the shipping company again today.
On a great note, and one word: OBAMA!!

Thanks for stopping by

The Florios (H & Flo)


The Ally 811 folding canoes – inaugural voyage on the Alahein River, Gambia, and lunch in Senegal, West Africa

‘The Twins’ – Ally 811 canoes – ready to go to the Alahein River, The Gambia, West Africa. Image © Helen Jones-Florio

Sunday 4th November 2012 – Lunch in Senegal

As the song goes, ‘only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun…’ Noel Coward couldn’t have gotten it more spot on. As we tied the Ally 811 canoes to the roof of the car, found the car keys (eventually), and gathered the troops up, it was already nearing 12.30pm – the hottest part of the day, reaching almost 100 degrees.

We had decided that we would take ‘The Twins’ (as we fondly call our two canoes – until we have an official naming ceremony with our two Gambian teammates, Abdou and Ebu) out for the day and on their inaugural voyage on a West African river – the Alahein - which borders The Gambia and the Casamance, Senegal.

Total gridlock! Driving to the Hallahine riverside in Kartong, The Gambia, West Africa © Helen Jones-Florio

H & Florio (and ‘The Twins’) arrive at the Hallahine river, in the village of Kartong.

After being stopped by a bemused immigration officer in Kartong – intrigued by the two ‘toubab’ (European/white person) canoes on the roof of the car – we reached the small fishing port. And, with the help of several of the local guys, we got ‘The Twins’ ready to roll – or to paddle, as the case may be – into the Halahine river, which cuts through Kartong and borders the Casamance, Senegal.

Florio directs – Fixin’ to take the Ally 811 canoes out on the Hallahine river, Kartong fishing village, The Gambia, West Africa

Helen directs – The Ally 811 canoes are in the Hallahine River, Kartong village, The Gambia, West Africa. Image © Jason Florio

Florio and Tony (a volunteer worker) – with Geri (who runs Sandele Eco Retreat) in the middle – took one canoe and I took the other, with the help of Pa Samba, one of the local guys, to help paddle, with Jesse (another volunteer) in the canoe with us.

Lunch in the Casamance, Senegal – Le Tilibo Horizon

Paddling with Pa Samba was quite an experience. Gambians paddle very differently from the way Florio and I have been taught. Whereas we coordinate – paddling 30-40 deep strokes on alternate sides of the canoe, whilst whoever sits at the stern (back) steers – Pa’s strokes were rapid, shallow (mind you, the river was so shallow in points, we could have gotten out and dragged the canoes!), 3 strokes max on each side, with very little steering technique as such. After half an hour of trying to keep up with Pa’s fast and furious pace, I gave up and paddled the way that I know how to. And, it kind of worked…albeit frustrating not to have the coordination.

We did a little ad-hock fishing on route too, as I spotted a dead fish floating on the surface of the water. Pa deftly scooped it out, hardly missing a stroke of the paddle. “Is it ok to eat?” I asked of the fat, bloated looking fish. “Yes, yes…of course, it is good!” he answers, whilst looking at me like I’m some kind of half-wit. Apparently, it’s only if the fish is not hard to the touch (or obviously rotten looking), it’s all good to eat. Who knew.

After abut 4km of paddling up the river, with Pa (in between plucking the odd dead fish out of the water) pointing out birds and monkeys on route, we docked in Senegal… illegally, I guess – there is no immigration border crossing post out on the river. Switching from Mandinka to French, we ordered ice cold Flag, local beers, and plate de pomme frites from the very affable Oussman, the owner of the small campement – ‘Le Tilibo Horizons’ (the sun on the horizon).

Pa Samba at Le Tilibo Horizons, Casamance, Senegal (and Overboard product placement) © Helen Jones-Florio

Image © Helen Jones-Florio

The above reminded of what some of our friends in New York – with the recent hurricane Sandy – having to charge their cell phones, iPads, iPhones, from car batteries out on the street. Everyday life here in West Africa…just not so much the i-gadget thingys though.

Hanging out at Le Tilibo Horizons, Casamance, Senegal © Helen Jones-Florio

Helen at the bow, Geri ‘the queen of Sheba’ in the middle and Pa Samba at the stern – Hallahine River, Casamance, Senegal © Jason Florio

And so it was time to leave Senegal and make our way back, against the tide (damned hard work!), to Kartong, and legal once again, in The Gambia. At one point, mid-paddle, Pa, announced: “I catch the fish” and promptly hopped out of the canoe! We watched as Pa flayed around the shallow water, trying in vain to catch a live one this time.

When we got back to Kartong, the local guys were waiting for us ‘welcome back…nimbara, nimbara (how is the work)’. Without even having to lift a finger (or being allowed to is more like it…at times, these Gambian men can be very chivalrous), the guys took hold of the canoes and hoisted them out of the river. What ensued, Florio and I like to think, was akin to a blessing of sorts – for ‘The Twins’ – as the guys and women played instruments, sang, and danced around the canoes.

Then, it was time to leave. With ‘abaraka baci’s’ and ‘fonyato domandings’ (many thanks and see you later) all around, we all piled into Geri’s old Audi and headed back to a much needed and well-earned dinner at Sandele

Florio and the guys get ‘The Twins’ back on the roof of the car, ready to head back to Sandele, Kartong, The Gambia © Helen Jones-Florio

On the way back, we were stopped at the same immigration post. This time by a different officer, to ask us where we have been – ‘ekatah munto?’ – and, of course, what do we have strapped to the hood of the car? Pretty obvious, one would think, no? Then he ‘suggested’ that we leave one canoe with him so that he can take it on the river. A little nervous laughter from us, inside the car – a straight face from him – until eventually he waved us on, with a smart salute. Sometimes, you just can’t tell whether the officers at the immigration, police or military check points are being serious or not – however, I suspect that there are times when they mean what they say and then just wait, watching whilst you squirm and think hard about how to respond. It makes you wonder how much they get away with, with less seasoned (or less-informed) travellers.

‘Kartonker’ kids hanging with the Ally 811 canoes, Kartong, The Gambia © Jason Florio

So, ‘The Twins’ have had there first experience on a West African river and now, Florio and I are eager to get them on the River Gambia next for the River Gambia Expedition…once our shipment of camping gear makes it to Banjul Port, that is. It’s running almost two weeks late at the moment. However, we are assured that the ship should be in by the 11th November – insh’Allah.

More updates on our ETD for Guinea coming as and when. But, for now, we remain on GMT – ‘Gambia Meantime’…alas, also known as ‘Gambia Maybe Time’.

Watch this space…

The Florios

‘The Twins’ are out! The ’811 Ally’ canoes are going on the Alahein river this morning, Kartong, The Gambia/Senegal

Florio re-assembling one of ‘The Twins’ – Sandele Eco Retreat, Kartong, The Gambia. Image © Helen Jones-Florio

We broke our own world-record yesterday – Florio and I put together the Ally 811 canoe in 28 minutes!! Considering it took us almost 5 hours (with tea-breaks) the first time, we ain’t doing too badly.

Today, we are taking ‘The Twins’ (yet to have their naming ceremony – Gambia style) out on their maiden voyage on the Alahein River, up in the village of Kartong, which borders Senegal. In fact, passports in hand, we may well pop over the watery border and have lunch in Senegal.

In training for the ‘River Gambia Expedition – 1000km source to sea African odyssey’

More later on how we get on.

Thanks for stopping by

Helen & Florio


Delay tactics and the birth of the UN – by Jason Florio (update on the River Gambia Expedition)

Tobaski girl – Kartong – The Gambia, West Africa – Jason Florio©

The journey becomes it’s own once you have bought the ticket. Chucked through a portal into the dripping West African flora and crawling fauna from *”Our Safe European Home” one must give one’s self to the inevitable slings and arrows of delays. There are the known delays, the known unknown delays, and my favorite, the unknown, unknown delays. And so we wait, our jump off date from Gambia to Guinea planned for November 1st will be but a speck in the well fingered re-view mirror of a Peugeot ‘sept place’ as we hurtled towards the source of River Gambia in two weeks time… inch’Allah. Er yes, two weeks. Merde! So our beloved Peli case stuffed with tents, Kelly kettles, hiking boots, assorted cables, power bars etc was last seen chatting up a Banjul bar bound, scantily bubble wrapped fridge-freezer on the dock at Antwerp last week – it seems the container with our gear had been taken off the ship a few thousand km early. Thus the delay, as the Peli case and his trusty companion, our OverBoard Ninja bag stuffed with 11p Morrison’s pot-noodles, once lost but now found, are re-directed around Spain, down the coast of Western Sahara, passed the desolate Mauritanian coast with a loan Tuareg sipping a sweet tea on a dune waiting to ambush a lost Paris-Dakar driver, passed a gang of Talibé children on the sea wall at Dakar begging for money while their pimp/marabout gets fat on the prayer mat, and finally to the port at Banjul, where, in 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt stopped on route to meet Churchill in Casablanca. F.D.R was so disgusted at the state of colonial British Banjul and it’s citizenry, it was said that it **“helped crystallize Roosevelt’s thinking about the role of the organization he was envisioning to help guide the post-Empire world: the United Nations”.

And so we turn the delay, for our River Gambia Expedition, into another Julbrew, more research and GPS fiddling, and give thanks to Geri and Maurice of Sandele Eco Retreat who have given us a bed and vitals so good to make even our dear hero, Mungo Park rise from his watery grave in the Niger River.

ETD to Guinea coming… once the boat comes in.

Florio & Helen

Kartong, The Gambia, Nov 1st 2012


* Joe Strummer /Mick Jones – The Clash

**Donald Wright is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at the State University of New York College – His books include Oral Traditions from the Gambia and African Americans in the Colonial Era: From African Origins Through the American Revolution.

Tobaski – Islamic celebrations in The Gambia – a day of sacrificial feasting, West Africa

Last time we were here, in The Gambia, in 2009, we spent the lead up to Tobaski in a tiny village, called Tuba Dabbo, whilst we were on ‘A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush’. We were guests of the rather wonderful Mr Bah and his wife, Penda and made to feel extremely welcome.

‘The public holiday is also known as Tabaski or Eid Al Adha when families throughout the Gambia ritually slaughter mostly sheep in ritual sacrifice. The occasion of Tabaski is in commemoration of Abrahams willingness to sacrifice his own son, Ismail, in the name of Allah. It coincides with the end of the annual Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca.Access Gambia

The Bah family – the village of Tuba Dabbo, The Gambia, West Africa, 2009. Image © Jason Florio

And this year, Friday 26th October, we were equally welcomed as guests of Abby and her family, here in the village of Kartong.

Tobaski hosts: Abby (2nd right, in green) and her family, Kartong, The Gambia, West Africa, 2012. Image © Jason Florio

L-R: Helen, Geri (sitting behind), Mr Badji (with Fatou on his lap), Abby’s sister (with Binta on her lap), Alpha Sanney (with ‘Shadow’ the dog), Abby, Tony (check shirt-volunteer at Sandele Eco Retreat), and ‘Pa’

The prayer ground was situated on the outer edges of the village of Kartong – not in the mosque, where prayers are usually held – due of the volume of villagers who participate in the ritual prayers. An estimated 500 people attended this years Tobaski prayers, held by the village Imam. Traditionally, in Kartong, the Imam, elders and other men from the village parade through the main street, in all their colourful finery, towards the prayer ground.

The Imam and village elders arriving for Tobaski prayers, Kartong village, The Gambia, West Africa. Image © Jason Florio, 2012

Village elder, Mr Jarju (in green), prepares for Tobaski prayers, Kartong village, The Gambia, West Africa. Image © Jason Florio

Fatou Geri and Binta, dressed for Tobaski prayers, Kartong village, The Gambia, West Africa. Image © Jason Florio 2012

Mr Badji and Fatou, waiting to go to Tobaski prayers, Kartong village, The Gambia, West Africa. Image © Jason Florio

Islam dictates that all females have to cover their head with a scarf, during prayers, and they also have to sit at the back of the prayer ground, behind the men.

Helen, Geri, Fartou & Binta, ready for Tobaski prayers, Kartong village, The Gambia, West Africa. Image © Jason Florio, 2012

Everyone comes out in their finest new clothes…the girls, in particular, all trying to out-do each other. This years colour was most definitely a vibrant cerise.

Kartong village girls covering their heads, ready for Tobaski prayers, The Gambia, West Africa. Image © Jason Florio, 2012

Kartong village menfolk at Tobaski prayer ground, The Gambia, West Africa. Image © Jason Florio

After Tobaski prayers, the loud speaker used by the Iman is wheeled away from the prayer ground, to be stored for the next village gathering. Kartong, The Gambia, West Africa. Image © Jason Florio 2012

Aside from the ritual prayers, Tobaski is all about eating – and plenty of it. Therefore a huge volume of rams and goats are ritually sacrificed, after the mass prayers – in the halal way: throats cut with a sharp knife and the blood left to drain from the incision, until the twitching body stills.

“Lunch and dinner…” Sarjo, our friend tells us. He is, of course, referring to the ram. Make the most of that last meal! Kartong Village, The Gambia, West Africa. Image © Jason Florio

Sarjo, as head of his household, leads the non-too-happy-ram to it’s Tobaski ritual slaughter, Kartong village, The Gambia, West Africa. Image © Jason Florio 2012

And so, the ritual slaughter of ram (#1 – there were 3 in this particular compound) – Sarjo, his father and brothers get to work, Kartong, The Gambia, West Africa. Image © Jason Florio 2012

I filmed the above scene until I could watch no more – because I was crying by that point – and Florio had to take over. Even though I understand the nuances of the Tobaski tradition of ritual sacrifice, and I am a meat eater (though, not an avid consumer), watching the ram’s pathetic bleating and struggling – and knowing that no one was going to come along and save it at the 11th hour – was just a little too much for my Westernised sensibilities. I decide then and there that I’ll stick to my meat coming neatly packaged, from the deli counter at our local store!

The deed is done…ram #1 is almost ready for the cooking pot. Yum, yum…Kartong, The Gambia, West Africa. Image © Jason Florio, 2012

Once the ritual is completed, and the carcass is stripped of everything – not an inch of it goes to waste – portions of meat have to be shared with those in the community who are unable to afford to buy a ram or goat. This means that no one misses out on the mass feasting and celebrations which ensue. Within a very short time, after the ritual slaughter, the aroma of barbequed ram and goats (and cows, for those who can afford it and/or who club together in a compound to be able to buy one) permeates the air – and will carry on doing so for the next couple of days.

As guests of honor at Abby’s compound, we were given the freshest of fried liver and kidneys (served with onions and warm tapalapa – local bread) from her very recently slaughtered goat – which we also witnessed – and, I have to say, it was deliciously tasty and tender. Perhaps, I need to rethink the neatly packaged deli theory…

H & Geri – Abby’s house for Tobaski lunch, Kartong, The Gambia, West Africa. Image © Jason Florio

We felt very honoured to have been included in this very traditional Muslim celebration – and accepted without question – and thankful for everyone we came across being open to having their photographs taken.

The day after Tobaski, our good friend Geri tells us that they nicknamed the day ‘the silence of the rams’…and there was not a bleat to be heard as we made our way through the village of Kartong on Saturday.

More updates coming soon on our departure date for Guinea – to begin the ‘River Gambia Expedition – 1000km source to sea African odyssey’

As always, thanks for stopping by.

Helen & Florio

For more of Jason Florio’s work, please visit his website: floriophoto.com

Blimey…we woke up in West Africa!!

Departed 16/10/12: Gatwick Airport, UK – on a very cold October early morn

H & Florio – Departures, Gatwick Airport – Oct 16th 2012 (thanks to Dad/Rodger & mum/Wendy Florio for getting us there!)


Arrived 16/10/12: Yundum International Airport, The Gambia, West Africa – on a bi candita baci (very hot!) October mid-afternoon

Florio, Yundum Airport, The Gambia (is that the President’s plane in the background?).

We were dreading our arrival into The Gambia – only in the respect of going through customs with all our luggage + two canoes…we were a custom officers dream – and our nightmare. So, imagine our complete delight to see a pretty young Gambian woman, holding a card up with our names written on it, on the luggage pick-up side of the customs barrier! Fotou, from the Gambia Tourist Board had come, permission letter in hand, to guide us seamlessly through customs – bypassing masses of bemused (and some, I swear, looking downright hostile), hot and sweaty tourists waiting in line, as we swanned through the barrier, on the coat tails of the GTB; with not even a peek in our ‘heavy weight’ bags. Thank you to the Director General, Benjamin Roberts, Lazar and Fatou, of the GTB, for facilitating our extremely easy entry into The Gambia. ‘Welcome to the smiling coast’ – it was indeed.

‘The Twins’ – 2 x Ally Canoes – and the Overboard bags are on board, African style. Image © Helen Jones-Florio (‘Tijan the Birdman’ to the far left

We were met in arrivals by ‘Tajin the Birdman’. Not only is the ‘Birdman’ an extremely knowledgeable ornithologist (he has even presented on the subject at schools in Norfolk, UK), but he also has a mini-bus to transport all our gear – and, not only that, he is an amazing source of information, having travelled to some of the areas we are about to , in Senegal (thanks to our friend, Owen, for the intro)

So, here we are, ensconced at Sandele Eco Retreat – with big thanks to old friends, Geri and Maurice – enjoying a few short days of luxury: electricity, running water – hot water too! and the Atlantic Ocean, within spitting distance. It doesn’t get much better than this. Actually, we hope it will (no disrespect to Sandele)…once we start the River Gambia Expedition proper.

An update and a few words of thanks, from us two (and, introducing the Sandele cat) to everyone who made this happen.

A message from Helen & Florio (and introducing the Sandele cat) – Sandele Eco Retreat, The Gambia, West Africa – Oct 17th 2012

More updates coming as soon as – such as meeting up with our old friends, and Gambian team mates, Abdou & Ibu, on Friday. So, please keep checking in.
The Florios (H & Flo)

P.S. And, if you want to see where we are on the map, right now, check out our Yellowbrick Tracking webpage here

Yellowbrick 'YB3' Tracking Device - follow our (almost) every move on the expedition

Please click on the logo to go to our River Gambia Expedition map

Thank you! Our River Gambia Kickstarter campaign is a big success!!


Florio & H – ‘A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush – a 930km African odyssey’ 2009 The Gambia, West Africa

Crikey…we did it! You did it!! Kickstarter success!

We can’t thank everyone enough for all the support and encouragement over these last months, including ‘An Exchange’ for Jason Florio’s fine art photo prints (still running on the blog by the way, so it’s not too late) and on Kickstarter.

It’s our last day before we fly down to West Africa and lots of running around (nothing new there, then), to begin the River Gambia Expedition proper. We’ll post more updates later…soon…once we can breathe again ;)

BIG LOVE and gratitude to everyone…we are truly humbled.
Jason & Helen Florio x