Book update: River Gambia Expedition

A quick update – Wednesday 10th, July, 2013: We’re working hard on the book, about our recently completed River Gambia Expedition, sitting in the sticky humidity of New York  – alas, no ocean breeze or the coolness of the River Gambia to help makes things more bearable. Trawling through images – so many and so tough to choose  from! – and journal entries, to help tell our story. Here are just a couple of images we’ve shortlisted, for the book, which we will be telling the story behind – taken at the beginning of our journey,  in The Gambia, West Africa:


Florio preparing to get ‘The Twins’ (Ally 811 foldable canoes) into a West African river for the first time – the Alahein River – which borders The Gambia & Senegal © Helen Jones-Florio


We met many oyster collectors – predominantly women – in The Gambia and Senegal, when we were paddling over 1100km on the River Gambia. It’s a demanding job, which involves a lot of strength and determination. We’ll be talking about this in the book © Jason Florio

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A little girl gets ready for Tobaski prayers – one of the most important Islamic celebrations of the year. It also involves mass sacrificial slaughtering of rams, goats and cows – which we witnessed. More photos of that to come, in the book! © Jason Florio

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Waiting for the storm to pass. Catching the tail end of the rainy season, in The Gambia – trapped in a ‘pirates’ bar! More on that, in the book! © Helen Jones-Florio

Tales from the River Gambia – reflecting on what’s gone by and what is to come…

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The River Gambia Expedition Route Map: 1044km (649 miles) from source to sea – 23rd November, 2012-21st January 2013. Three West African countries. One river.

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On the way to a BIG adventure – The Florios, Gatwick Airport, London-Banjul, The Gambia – Oct 2012

We actually began our journey when we arrived in The Gambia, West Africa, on a hot, sticky mid-October day, 2012, in anticipation of shortly afterwards receiving our container of gear – including a emergency stockpile of packet noodles and CLIF bars!) – which was being shipped down the Atlantic Ocean. We’ll be on the road, we thought, heading towards the Fouta Djallon Highlands of Guinea-Conakry, by 21st-22nd October, at the latest, to find the source of the River Gambia. Or at least, that was the plan. One thing we should have learned by now, from past expedition experience (‘A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush-930km African odyssey‘, 2009), is that plans will always – always – change.

It wouldn’t be until nearly five weeks later that we would eventually give up on ever seeing our container again – after the shipping company finally admitted that they had no clue where it was and/or when it would turn up at the docks in Banjul, the capital of The Gambia! We had to make do with what we could scavenge together and get on our way.  Each week we were delayed could be problematic once we got into the River Gambia – as the river levels can fall very dramatically in places, resuting in us having to portage the canoes and our gear – more often than we would be paddling.

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Youtube: update from the Florios, Kartong, The Gambia, West Africa

We headed out, from The Gambia, on November 23rd, towards the Fouta Djallon Highlands of Guinea – stopping in Kedougou, Senegal, on route, to drop off our canoes at a friends place. Thanks to Concern Universal for the lift across the border! From there, we took various modes of transport – a spine-juddering 24 hour drive, in an over-crammed (suspension-free – or so it felt!) Land Cruiser, up into the Highlands – to find the source of the River Gambia – on some of the worst ‘roads‘ in Africa. Calling them roads is actually a grand overstatement  – it’s more akin to rattling over the rockiest of river beds! However, in comparison to what we came back down the mountains on – on the back of moto-taxis – the ride in Land Cruiser was like cruising in a Rolls Royce Ghost!

We’ve covered a lot of ground, and river, since then and now we are back in our ‘other reality‘ of New York City, and the contrast couldn’t be more extreme. We’ve been working hard since our return, to get our story out there. Part of that work is to make the book. So…we need to fast forward a little, from our last blog post to the end of the journey, because there just aren’t enough hours in the day, days in the week, weeks in the month, to dedicate to both the blog and the book. Everything and more will be in the book anyway. We’ll be keeping you updated on here as to when we are ready to publish.

In the meantime, we hope that you have enjoyed – and continue to do so – the journey. Following is a snap-shot, if you will, of our travels on the River Gambia Expedition – please click on any of the hot-links, which will take you to the relevant posts, for more stories and images.

Traders. downtown Labe market, Guinea © Jason Florio

Traders. downtown Labé market, Guinea © Jason Florio

'Moto' boys - Labe, Guinea © Jason Florio

‘Moto’ boys – Labé, Guinea © Jason Florio

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Youtube: The Florios – update from the Fouta Djallon Highlands, Guinea-Conakry © Jason Florio & Helen Jones-Florio. Blog entry


The source of the River Gambia, Fouta Djallon Highlands of Guinea © Jason Florio


The River Gambia Expedition team-Fouta Djallon Highlands

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On top of the world, ‘Dame de Mali, Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon Highlands © Jason Florio

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‘Ebu’ – Moto taxis, Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon © Jason Florio

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The expedition team’s transport down the mountain – Moto taxis – Fouta Djallon © Jason Florio

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One of the villages that will be displaced if the proposed dam is built on the River Gambia – Runda Barra, Senegal/Guinea border © Jason Florio


The site of the proposed dam on the River Gambia at Runda Barra, Senegal/Guinea border © Jason Florio

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Team mate, Abdou, at the stern – early morning on River Gambia, Senegal © Jason Florio

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Youtube: Too close encounter with a hippo © Jason Florio & Helen Jones-Florio – Blog post

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Vignette: life on the River Gambia Expedition

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Dead monkeys and Christmas night sleeping on a rock – River Gambia, Senegal © Jason Florio

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‘The Twins’ become ‘The Ally Cat’ - Gouloumbou, Senegal © Jason Florio

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People we met along the way: The boy in the ‘fur coat’ © Jason Florio

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Time for a swim – Helen hangs out with the kids of Karantaba, River Gambia © Jason Florio

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People we met along the way: Malian fisher woman, River Gambia © Jason Florio

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Bonto, River Gambia, The Gambia © Jason Florio

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People we met along the way: the photographer and the journalist, Bansang, The Gambia © Jason Florio

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Night hawkers, Gouloumbou, Senegal © Jason Florio


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People we met along the way: The boy with his pet monkey, River Gambia © Jason Florio

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People we met along the way: ‘Hawa’ rice field worker © Jason Florio

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People we met along the way: ‘Oyster collectors, The Gambia © Jason Florio

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Horses swimming across the River Gambia, Karantaba, The Gambia © Jason Florio


People we met along the way: “The man on the pier’ at Bonto, River Gambia’ © Jason Florio

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The day before last – Helen, Ebou and Abdou, Bonto, The Gambia © Jason Florio

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The day before last – Jason Florio, Bonto, The Gambia © Helen Jones-Florio


The last image of the River Gambia Expedition: ‘The boy in the mask’ Mandinari, The Gambia © Jason Florio

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Mission Accomplished! Denton Bridge, at the Atlantic Ocean, The Gambia, West Africa

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JFK via London Gatwick – The Florios, post River Gambia Expedition – don’t we look happy to be back?! And we have our Peli UK case!

Thank you for coming on the ‘River Gambia Expedition – 1000km source-sea African odyssey‘. Its been quite a journey and we have more to come…please stay with us and we’ll keep you updated on the ‘River Gambia’ book – which will fill in all the blanks.

The Florios (Helen & Flo)

‘The Twins’ (Ally 811 canoes) become ‘The Ally Cat’ – River Gambia, Senegal, West Africa

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‘The Twins’ are in the River Gambia!. Image by Henk Eshuis L-R: Florio, helen, Abdou, Ebou and Yousef – The day we got the canoes into the water in Kedougou, Senegal

‘The Twins’ become ‘The Ally Cat’

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‘The Ally Cat’, River Gambia at Gulumbu, Senegal, West Africa © Jason Florio

December 27th, 2012 – Njuen-Gulumbu-Genoto, Senegal – Distance paddled to-date: 245.41km

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Florio at work: People we meet along the river bank – fisherman repairing his nets, River Gambia, Senegal © Helen Jones-Florio

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The cattle come to water and a fisherman repairs his nets on the banks of the River Gambia, Senegal © Jason Florio

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Helen, Ebou & Abdou – passing a potential hippo beach © Jason Florio

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Watching me, watching you, watching me…curious baboons, Senegal © Jason Florio

The conversion of ‘The Twins’ begins – Gulumbu, Senegal

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Florio: “is this going to work?” converting the Ally 811 canoes, Gouloumbou, Senegal © Helen Jones-Florio

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Ebou fixes the fame work for the sail – Gouloumbou, Senegal © Helen Jones-Florio

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Test run for ‘The Ally Cat’ – River Gambia, West Africa © Helen Jones-Florio

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Night hawkers – Gouloumbou bus depot, Trans Gambia Highway, Senegal © Jason Florio

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Night hawkers – Gouloumbou bus depot, Trans Gambia Highway,  Senegal © Jason Florio

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Woman silhouetted by the fire, Gouloumbou, Senegal © Jason Florio

And we’re off! Helen films the inaugural voyage of ‘The Ally Cat’

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So far so good! Helen films ‘The Ally Cat’s’ inaugural voyage © Jason Florio

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Pit stop – River Gambia, Senegal, West Africa © Jason Florio

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Florio records the sights and sounds along the River Gambia, Senegal © Helen Jones-Florio

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Meeting more people along the way – local ferry man, River Gambia, Senegal © Jason Florio

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Camping in Genoto, Senegal © Helen Jones-Florio

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The watchman brings us a gift (Silfando) of groundnuts,  Genoto, Senegal © Helen Jones-Florio

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Next morning – back on the river, Genoto, Senegal © Jason Florio

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The watchman comes to bid us ‘au revoir’ , Genoto, Senegal © Jason Florio

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Florio at work: Ferry boy, River Gambia © Helen Jones-Florio

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Ferry boy on the River Gambia, West Africa © Jason Florio

More river photo stories to come soon…as our River Gambia Expedition continues into 2013

Thanks as always for stopping by

The Florios

Next up: crossing the ‘border’ into The Gambia – without even realising it!

P.S. if you are in NYC next Tuesday 14th May, we are presenting a slideshow of our River Gambia journey at Foto Care. Please click on this link for all the details

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Camping on the roof of the village chief’s compound, Sila Kounda, Senegal, West Africa

Sunday December 16th – Sila Kounda, Senegal – 21.45km

I’m going to skip back a day or two, from our first major hippo encounter, to when we arrived at the village of Sila Kounda, paddling the canoes from our initial jump off point for the river section, in Kedougou – on our River Gambia Expedition - with a little stopping and getting out along the way.

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Young boys pose for a portrait on the banks of River Gambia in Senegal. They said they had painted their faces like skulls for their own amusement © Jason Florio

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Florio with his new friends, on the banks of the River Gambia, Senegal © Helen Jones-Florio (screen grab from film footage)

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“Pass me the tapalapa, Ebou” our paddles doubled nicely as bread boards, River Gambia, Senegal © Helen Jones-Florio

Sila Kounda village, as with most villages we would paddle to on the journey, was situated about 1km from the riverbank. At first, we talked about camping on the bank and then walking up to the village to get supplies. However, a group of small boys playing by the river, said that they would go and fetch a donkey and cart so that we could haul our gear, including the canoes to the village.

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First up, the baggage – Sila Kounda, Senegal © Helen Jones-Florio

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Next up, the Ally canoes, Sila Kounda, Senegal © Helen Jones-Florio

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The donkeys must had a day off! Yousef and Ebou take the strain – Sila Kounda, Senegal © Jason Florio

When we got up to the village, and introded ourselves to the chief, it was a choice between pitching our tents on the outskirts of the compound, on the village rubbish dump, or on the roof of the chief’s very large house. Where the hell do we put the tent pegs in a concrete floor? However, as you can see, we managed, with the help of a couple of Peli cases to weight down the tent.

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H: “Flo, do you think Apple might sponsor are next expedition?” Sila Kounda, Senegal © Jason Florio

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Drying cous cous, sweetcorn, rice, and groundnuts on the roof – Sila Kounda, Senegal © Jason Florio

Our view from the roof was the halal slaughtering of a huge cow. Apparently, someone from the village had just returned from The Hajj and a big celebration was underway. We watched as the cow’s throat was cut and its blood let to bleed into the ground around it. It fought hard, that cow. It took over 30 minutes to die – the whole time, moaning loudly, kicking out, and writhing around on the ground. It’s expansive chest heaving up and down. When it stilled, the man who’d cut its throat, approached the animal cautiously and yanked it’s tail – hard – I thought at first he was trying to pull it off! However, he was checking to see if it was dead. The big animal bucked out its hind legs, one more time, as the man almost fell over backwards, scrambling to get out of its way. Then, the cow went still – and stayed that way.

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Preparing the cow – and the ground – Sila Kounda © Jason Florio

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Halal’d – Sila Kounda, Senegal © Helen Jones-Florio

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Every single bit of the cow will be used – Sila Kounda, Senegal © Helen Jones-Florio

I knew then what would be in the family bowl that night for dinner…

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The food shot© Jason Florio

After we’d made camp, we went back to see the old chief. Ninety nine years old with an active mind – and a roguish twinkle in his eyes – of that of a much younger man. He had been village chief for over 30 years – as had his grandfather before him – and, as cow-hide trader, he had travelled all over West Africa. Florio presented him with a handful of kola nuts – the traditional greeting to chiefs in West Africa: ‘Silafando’ – a gift to you on behalf of my journey – which we had used on our Short Walk in the Gambian Bush’, in 2009.

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Florio gives ‘Sialfando’ to the chief – Sila Kounda, Senegal © Helen Jones-Florio (screen grab from film footage)

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Chef de village, Sila Kounda, Senegal © Jason Florio

We decided to spend a couple of days in the village because there was a gold mine, ’about 1km’ walk away, that we wanted to go and see. We set off, with the chief’s 12-year old grandson, Ibrahima, leading the way. Four kilometers and a tiny, barely-floating, dug-out canoe ride across the River Gambia later, we reached the mine…

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Ibrahima leads the way © Helen Jones-Florio

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H gets into the dug out with Yousef, River Gambia, Senegal – click here or on image to view footage

Next up: hanging out with the gold miners of Senegal.

See you soon!

The Florios

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A gold mine worker relaxes after a shift at an artisanal mine in Senegal on the banks of the River Gambia.© Jason Florio

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