Hippo stand-off: lessons in ‘hippo etiquette’ – on the River Gambia, Senegal, for the first time with ‘The Twins’/Ally 811 canoes

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Florio, Ebou & Abdou – building ‘The Twins’ (Ally canoes), Kedougou, Senegal © Helen Jones-Florio

15th December, 2012 – Kedougou – Sila Kunda, Senegal: 21kms

Today is the day – getting ‘The Twins’ (our two Ally 811 canoes) into the river, for the first time on the River Gambia Expedition.

Over the last couple of days we rebuilt the Ally 811 canoes so that we could see if all our gear would actually fit into them. After much trial and error – putting the gear in and then pulling it out again, we managed it. The big test will be putting them into the water and hoping they won’t sink with the weight of the gear and the five of us in them!

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Abdou – ‘will we really get everything in these two canoes?’ Kedougou, Senegal

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H, Abdou, Yousef & Ebou – Kedougou, Senegal © Jason Florio

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Thank you to the Bindia family – who took great care of us during our stay at Peter’s house, Kedougou, Senegal © Jason Florio

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Heading towards the River Gambia, Kedougou, Senegal © Jason Florio

Fortunately for us, in his absence, our gracious host – Peter – had a friend, Henk, staying at the house in Kedougou. Henk also had a 4×4 vehicle, which he very kindly offered to let us pile our two canoes on top of, pack our gear inside and then take us down to the riverbank. Thank you, Henk!

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H: ‘just you remember who has the machete!’ © Jason Florio

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Well, ‘The Twins’ are in the water and they haven’t sunk yet!’ River Gambia, Kedougou, Senegal

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And we’re ready to roll (paddle!) – Kedougou, Senegal

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Off we go! Abdou, H and Flo bringing up the rear – On the River Gambia, Kedougou, Senegal

As mentioned in a previous post, along with the four expedition team members, we would be taking Yousef – a Malian fisherman – as our guide for the first 100km of the River Gambia, to Mako. Florio and I got into one canoe with Abdou, with Ebou and Yousef getting into the other one. We assumed, as Abdou was the older – ‘most experienced’ – fisherman, that we would be in good hands.

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Yousef & H, River Gambia, Senegal © Jason Florio

We hadn’t even paddled for more than half and hour when we hit rapid water and realized immediately that Abdou hadn’t any experience in rapids! Talk about the blind leading the blind! The reason we had hired ‘experienced’ river men was for moments like this. As Abdou panicked and flayed around, Florio just managed to divert the canoe from being caught up in dense reeds, beneath the surface of the water, and possible capsizing. Fortunately, Florio has been kayaking since he was a small boy, so he has some experience on steering – as he managed to guide us safely out of the rapid water. Abdou’s style of paddling is different to the way we paddle too – he paddles fast and hard, swapping sides every two-three strokes (filling the canoe with water in the process). We tried to explain that a) not only would he wear himself out – or do himself an injury – b) our lightweight (approximately 20kg) rubber and aluminium canoes were not the same as heavy wooden pirogues which he was used to paddling. The Ally canoes can glide easily through the water, using long, deep, strokes – about 30-40 on each side (and the method minimizes the amount of water you get in the boats). However, Abdou explained that his father had taught him and his grandfather had taught his father…and so on. Therefore, it was implied – who were we, ‘toubab’ paddlers, to tell a seasoned river man, someone who had been on the river for over 40 years, how to paddle. A little later on in the journey, Abdou changed his style of paddling, due to exhaustion and injury. However, we’ll talk more about that in an upcoming post…

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Abdou – River Gambia, Kedougou-Sila Kunda © Helen Jones-Florio

It was decided that Florio and I would paddle with Yousef and Abdou and Ebou, who had fished together for years, would share the other canoe – at least they were used to each others style of paddling. And, after witnessing Yousef’s adeptness in the rapids, we felt a wee bit safer with the albeit slightly bonkers Malian fisherman (his unique way, in dealing with hippos, would soon be revealed).

A little later on, we had our first hippo encounter – despite the fact that we didn’t see it – Yousef heard it, under our canoe!

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‘Hippo watch’ – These binoculars were glued to my eyes for weeks!

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Florio at work – banks of River Gambia, Senegal © Helen Jones-Florio

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‘The Twins’ – River Gambia, Senegal © Jason Florio

We camped close to the river for the next couple of days, before we had our next, extremely much-too-close-up encounter with a hippo. We were making our way through some shallow water, and Florio was keeping an eye out for any rocks which we had to avoid hitting with our rubber canoes. Just as we were going past a big rock, close to our right hand side, a hippo lunged right out of the water, snorting loudly! Listen carefully…around the 38 second mark. It’s a wonder Yousef didn’t fall out of the boat! I just wish I’d had the video camera pointing the other way…

By the way, please excuse the expletives you are about to hear on the following clip…when you see the bulk of an animal almost as big as the 4×4 that recently transported your canoes (see above image), lurching up out of the water, not more than 20 feet from you, then you don’t really stop to think about what comes out of you mouth – “oh my, would you look at the size of that” – because you know your mum might see the footage one day! (sorry mum!)

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The moment we scared the hippo – PARENTAL WARNING: there is some bad language on here!

As mentioned, Yousef had a unique way of dealing with the hippos: a combination of firing off small rocks from his handmade catapult – his aim was pretty spot on too. You watch that hippo duck! – accompanied by loud squawking and noises that sounded like an agitated baboon!! He also used the fog horn that we had bought in Kingston, Surrey, before we left the UK…which did make the hippo submerge – for a nano-second – and probably completely pissed him off more than it already was!

Florio: “did you get it (the hippo jumping out of the water) on film, H…did you get it?!

H: “Sorry, but I was too busy trying to get out of the bloody canoe – i.e. to safety!!

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“Did you get it on film, H?!” – click on the image or here to view

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Angry hippos and crazy Malian fishermen! River Gambia, Senegal, West Africa. Click on image or here to view

Almost an hour later and the angry hippo would not let us pass – we were in it’s territory. It’s huge, sleek, head emerging and submerging – watching us, watching it, watching us – and more posturing and animal noises from Yousef…

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Yousef: face off with the hippo! River Gambia, Senegal – click on the image or here to view footage

We eventually inched away from the rocks, with the canoes – ‘donding, donding’ – along the river bank, hugging the bank as we went, making our way through the trees, the whole time. watching out for the hippo.

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H – armed with the fog horn!! Image from film footage.

The scariest thing, as we edged our way along the bank (aside from when the huge hippo initially jumped out of the water, from its resting place behind a rock), we couldn’t see the hippo, as it had submerged for quite a while. We had no idea where the bloody thing was. Then Yousef suddenly shouted ‘natah, natah!’ – this time we knew what he meant, and what to do! I looked around to see that we had actually gotten past the hippo but now it was coming towards us again! I have never paddled so fast and hard in my life! Thankfully, the hippo soon got bored – or it was just seeing us off its territory – because when I dared to look behind me again, it was way up the river. Still looking in our direction though.

Ebou: “that is the first hippo we (he and Abdou) have ever seen” ??! We’d had months of pre-planning this journey and a lot of that time included discussions with them, via email and skype, about the wildlife on the River Gambia – i.e. HIPPOS! Only to be told ‘it is no problem’. They forgot to prefix that with ‘we have never seen hippos but…’!

There were many lessons to be learned, along the way, on our River Gambia Expedition.

More soon…

Thanks for stopping by

The Florios (H & ‘Florio’)

Next up: hanging out with gold miners

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There’s gold in them there hills – Bantaco, Senegal © Jason Florio