Press: Sidetracked Magazine feature ‘River Gambia Expedition’

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 9.07.05 AMScreen Shot 2014-06-18 at 8.54.20 AM‘In 1818, Gaspard Mollien, a young French explorer, knelt and drank from a tiny pool of water enveloped by a dense thicket in the remote Fouta Djallon highlands of Guinea. His discovery by locals at this sacred spot would have surely meant his death. This seemingly inconsequential puddle, filled from giant underground cisterns in the belly of the ferruginous Fouta plateau, was the end to his epic quest – the source of River Gambia. Almost two hundred years later, entering the same woods, I felt deep reverence, something approaching religious and spiritual. I had spent almost a year tracing maps to determine this actual spot, and only when Helen, my wife and expedition partner, found Mollien’s diary at the Royal Geographical Society…’ Jason Florio - read more in Sidetracked Magazine, June 2014

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Other relevant links that you may like to check out, from the Florios West Africa travels:

River Gambia’ – Jason Florio’s portraits of people who live and work along the river (the blog carries on after this post)

A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush - 930km African odyssey‘ the blog

Silafando – a gift to you on behalf of my journey‘ – Jason Florio’s award-winning portraits of the alkalo’s (village chiefs) and elders taken whilst on the walk

Makasutu – mecca in the forest‘ Jason Florio’s large format B&W portraits of the people who live and work around a sacred forest

Photos Tell Stories: teaching photography – a visual language‘ Jason & Helen Florio’s most recent project in The Gambia

Meet the Press – news and awards

 

Youtube: ‘River Gambia’ footage from a 1044km African odyssey – and other African journeys by Jason Florio & Helen Jones-Florio

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Youtube: River Gambia © Jason Florio & Helen Jones-Florio

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‘Boys with Painted Faces‘ River Gambia © Jason Florio

River Gambia Expedition – 1044km source-sea African odyssey‘ with photographer/writer, Jason Florio, and, producer/writer, Helen Jones-Florio. A journey, spanning three West African countries, to find the source of the River Gambia and to document the lives of those people who live, work, and rely on this mighty African river.

Interview with Outside Magazine – ‘Expedition Improv‘  HelenWe actually offered him (Yousef, our Malian fisherman/guide/hippo expert) more money to come further along the river with us but he had a family to get back to in Kédougou. We were sad to see him go. In that short week, he became a member of our little team, albeit a slightly bonkers one

Jason: “At one point, he was guiding us through these sections of rock and fast-moving water, and about 20 feet in front of us, a hippo just comes rearing out of the water. It had been submerged. We had startled it. We could have gone over the back of this thing, but instead we scrambled very quickly over onto the bank and climbed up on some rocks. For the next hour, he spent time shooting rocks at it from a homemade catapult. The thing wouldn’t move. We were back there clinging to the bushes and the rocks for an hour and a half. The hippo just didn’t want to let us get by—watching us, watching it, watching us. Eventually, we just kind of clung to the undergrowth and just pulled the canoe through really slowly. Finally, we got past him. That was a serious crash course in hippo etiquette” Read full interview here

To read about our first West African journey – ‘A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush – 930km African odyssey – please click here. Images of the village chiefs (Alkalos) and elders, ‘Silafando’, which were taken along the way, by Jason Florio.

Florio – interview with FlakPhoto – Making Pictures of People  “I had been working yearly in The Gambia since 1996 making portraits of people who live around a sacred forest. My wife Helen came up with the idea of making the first recorded circumnavigation of The Gambia by foot. So with three Gambians and two donkeys we headed off around the country in November 2009. I decided to work in the same style as with the forest portraits, using a 70-year old cloth to formalize the setting.” full interview and images here

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Youtube – Florio makes a portrait of Alkalo Landing Jammeh, Kalaji, The Gambia – footage by Helen Jones-Florio

We’ll be updating soon about our next African journey…please stay with us

The Florios

 

Photo of the Day: Kids walking to school in the Fouta Djallon Highlands, Gunea

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© Jason Florio - Fouta Djallon Highlands, Guinea-Conakry, West Africa

Random shot of the day: Kids on their walk to school, Fouta Djallon Highlands, Guinea-Conakry. Taken whilst on our way to Labé and, eventually, to the source of the River Gambia – the true start of the ‘River Gambia Expedition

For an update on what’s happening – as of July 2013 – whilst we are back here in New York, please check out this post

Looking back: The weight of waiting…Kedougou, Senegal, West Africa

Wednesday November 28th 2012

Internet Cafe, Kedougou, Senegal, West Africa © Jason Florio 2012

Hurry up and wait…this should be the title of our book about the River Gambia Expedition so far.

The journey began on our departure from Gatwick Airport, UK on the 16th October. However, since we arrived in West Africa, all we seem to have done is wait, wait, and wait some more – whether it be for a box of expedition gear to arrive by boat in The Gambia (which we still don’t have a definite date for it’s arrival into Banjul Port), or waiting for the public transport that we need to take to get us to Labé, high up in the Fouta Djallon Highlands, Guinea, to fill up with enough passengers to depart Kedougou, Senegal. The next Land Cruiser in line to leave the bus station needs seventeen people before the driver will leave and head towards the capital of the Fouta Djallon. At the moment, ten people have paid to join the vehicle (including our team of four). So far, it has taken three days to fill those ten seats.

Helen – Breakfast in Kedougou, Senegal © Jason Florio 2012

After much debate amongst the team, and our time to complete the expedition running extremely short – we haven’t actually even started it yet (we don’t truly start it until we reach the source of the River Gambia, located somewhere in the Fouta Djallon Highlands)! So, we have decided to swallow the expense and buy up the extra seats in the Land Cruiser so that we can get moving. It will make a big dent in our already very tight budget – travel in West Africa can be extraordinarily expensive, often due to extortionately high gas prices in certain parts of the continent (this ride will cost us a staggering $250) – but we are now almost eight weeks behind schedule…due to…waiting.

Waiting…for the ferry to cross the River Gambia, Kedougou, Senegal © Jason Florio

Despite the waiting game, we’ve really enjoyed our time in Kedougou. With great gratitude and respect, we’ve been staying in the peaceful, spacious, compound of Peter Stirling – a Canadian we met on line whilst researching our trip – run by the trés belle Bébé (who also happens to be a great cook!) and her husband, Kali (who, unfortunately, we won’t get to meet this time around, as he is working out in the bush on a chimpanzee rehabilitation project). Visited by scavenging chickens and cockerels in the morning, thirsty donkeys mid-afternoon (to drink water from the well  in the compound), goats chomping the sparse grass late afternoon, and the odd dog cocking it’s leg around the place – the compound is alive. At night, we have lizards and god know what else scuttling around in the eves of our hut. We’ve also been discovering the sprawling, vibrant, dusty town of Kedougou and the nearby River Gambia – from whose banks we’ll be setting off from, once we return from paying homage to the source of the river, in the Fouta Djallon.

Farmers – the banks of the River Gambia, kedougou, Senegal © Jason Florio 2012

“Insh’Allah’ – It is in the hands of God” Ebu tells us, as he hangs up from the umpteenth phone call to the driver at the bus station, to see how many seats have been sold so far. How far is Labé, we ask? “A day and a night” – in local terms, is the answer…and the roads are ‘very bad’. I have a suspicion that might be a slight understatement. But, I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

We hope to be in Labé by Friday morning…’Insh’Allah’.

More updates whenever possible so please stick with us.

The Florios (H & Flo), Abdou and Ebu

The River Gambia Expedition Team

Follow our trail on YellowBrick Tracking

To find out how we eventually got the Labé, please check out ‘The long and winding road…Kedougou, Senegal-Labé, Guinea-Conarkry-and back again

‘Silafanda – a gift to you on behalf of my journey’ Labé, Fouta Djallon Highlands, Guinea

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Kola nut vendor, Labé market © Jason Florio - Fouta Djallon Highlands, Guinea-Conakry

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Kola nut vendor, Labé market © Jason Florio - Fouta Djallon Highlands, Guinea-Conakry

Random post of the day:

Silafando: is the traditional way to greet village chiefs in The Gambia and Senegal. In Guinea-Conakry, on our most recent expedition, we found out that the tradition was exactly the same there but they used the word ‘Silafanda’.

During both the ‘A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush – 930km African odyssey’ and the ‘River Gambia Expedition – 1000km source-sea African odyssey‘, despite turning up unannounced, each village chief (the ‘Alkalo‘) that we met would kindly permit our raggle-taggle, road or river-weary, team to pitch our small camp every evening.

This was because we showed due respect, as strangers, when approaching the alkalo, by using the age-old tradition and protocol called ‘silafando’ – which roughly translates as ‘a gift to you on behalf of my journey’. This gift is often a handful of the bitter kola nuts. These walnut-sized nuts play an important role in West African culture and traditional social life. Once accepted, the chief would then share the nuts with his most important village elders. They break open and chew the nuts – valued for their pharmacological properties – which act as a natural stimulant and, apparently, an aphrodisiac.

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© Jason Florio – The Gambia, West Africa. ‘A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush’

We were then warmly welcomed into the village and, from that point on, everyone knows that you are there as guests of the alkalo -  ensuring that you are treated with respect, as strangers, for the duration of your stay in the village. And, if any of the villagers dare to disrespect his guests, they would have the chief to answer to – along with the shame it would bring to their family.

Helen presents the ‘Silafanda’ to the village chief in the Fouta Djallon Highlands of Guinea-Conakry. As you will see, it is often a lengthy process – particularly in this case, because we had to explain to the chief (and get permission) why we wanted to visit the source of the River Gambia – a sacred site, very near to his village:

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Youtube: Helen presents kola nuts to the village chief, Fouta Djallon Highlands. Film © Jason Florio & Helen Jones-Florio. Click here or on above image to view footage

 

Photography – Jason Florio: Village Imam, Hore Dimma, Fouta Djallon Highlands, Guinea-Conakry

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© Jason Florio

Random photo of the day: The imam of Horé Dimma village, Fouta Djallon Highlands of Guinea-Conakry © Jason Florio

Excerpt from an earlier post: ‘The next day, we were woken at 5.00am, by the ‘call to prayer’ as the muezzin’s voice echoed loudly over the crackling PA system. The ensuing prayers went on, loudly, for a very long time. One night, during our stay in the village, the muezzin started at 2am?! Was there was some kind of emergency in the village? Did we need to get up and rush to the mosque or something? During our travels in Muslim countries, neither of us had ever heard the call to prayer at 2am. The next day, when we asked what it was all about, Saif (our Guinea guide from Galissa Voyage Trekking) said, in his strong French accent, “they (the muezzin) did not check their watch”. Ebou added “they were fooled by the full moon” ?!River Gambia Expedition – 1000km source-sea African odyssey

To see Jason Florio’s new series of images, taken whilst on the journey, please visit his website: floriophoto.com  ‘River Gambia’

Fashion and the gold mines of Senegal, West Africa

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Those gold miners have got that ‘sagging’ jeans look goin’ on © Jason Florio

Whilst we were on the River Gambia Expedition, it became apparent, that the ‘sagging’ jeans/hip hop culture has taken off big time in Senegal – and actually in The Gambia and the Fouta Djallon Highlands of Guinea-Conakry too. Check out the ‘moto-taxi’ guys from Labé, in a previous post.

Coming next…more from River Gambia and the gold mines of Southeast Senegal.

Thanks for stopping by

The Florios (H & ‘Flo’)

UPDATE: ‘An Exchange’ and Kickstarter donors – Jason Florio’s fine art photography prints

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Farmer, Karen State, Burma © Jason Florio

Update – March 7, 2013: ‘An Exchange’ and Kickstarter donors

We are currently working on a pdf of Jason Florio’s images from the River Gambia Expedition – for those of you who donated $100+ – for you to make your print choices from. We got back to NYC about 3 weeks ago and hit the ground running – an interview with Outside Mag, which you can check out here.; and interview with Boyd Matson for National Geographic Weekend radio – which will run this weekend (we’ll post the podcast on the blog when we get it); and, most importantly, we’ve been reliving the journey – now that we can get online again, we can update the blog – and trawling through three months worth of images. Suffice to say, it all takes time

Lastly, we’ll also be sending a postcard – with one of Floro’s images, taken whilst our West Africa exploration – to absolutely everyone of you who helped us make the journey happen. We know it sounds clichéd, but we really could not have done it without your support. For that, we are truly thankful.

We’ll be right back at you shortly, with the pdf!

Big Love and thanks for your patience,

Helen & Florio

P.S. There is one image though, taken on the expedition, that we can guarantee will be in that PDF:

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‘Hawa’ rice field worker – Kaur, 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)

River Gambia Expedition: Mali Ville – ‘we’re on top of the world, ma!’ – Guinea Conakry, West Africa

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H & Florio – on top of the world – Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon Highlands, Guinea-Conakry, West Africa

The River Gambia Expedition story, continued…

Thursday 6th December 2012 – Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon Highlands, Guinea-Conakry

And that is exactly what it felt like – Mali Ville being the highest town, elevation-wise, in the Fouta Djallon Highlands. It looked as if you could take a running jump off the edge of the town, right into thin air. And, the air is definitely thinner up there – we were panting for breath as we walked up the steep, rocky, pathway, back to our lodgings.

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The Auberge Indigo hotel, Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon Highlands, Guinea-Conakry. Image © Jason Florio

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Florio finds a copy of the New Yorker (random!) and reads up about the big blackout which we missed in NY at the end of last year – Auberge Indigo Hotel, Maii Ville, Fouta Djallon © Helen Jones-Florio

Back in the Fouta village – where we paid homage to the source of the River Gambia and the true start of the River Gambia Expeditionwe had piled our gear back on top of the very same battered old Peugeot Estate which we had used to get to there. We then made the 3 ½ hour journey to Mali Ville. As we made our way up and around the staggeringly beautiful and verdant mountains of the Fouta, we drove inches away from sheer drops – enough to make you gasp for air, which had little to do with the altitude. I kept thinking to myself: ‘I can’t wait to get into the canoes ‘– i.e. no more hair-raising, heart-in-your-mouth, spine crunching, car rides! Little did we know then that we were to face a much more grueling journey – riding pillion on taxi motorcycles, no less. More on that later…

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Cozy! All aboard – again! The River Gambia Expedition team and Saif (Galissa Voyage Trekking - centre) pile into yet another Peugeot estate head out for Mali Ville. Image © Jason Florio

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View from a Peugeot – Fouta Djallon Highlands, Guinea-Conakry. Image © Helen Jones-Florio

We arrived in Mali Ville, covered in a thick layer of red road dust – it was in our hair, up our noses, in our ears, coating our clothes. As seems to be par for the course, the car windows would not close, without the use of an itinerant ‘manivelle’ – the window winder. Before we set out from the village of the source of the River Gambia, the driver had made a cursory attempt to find it – scrambling around on the already cluttered floor of his vehicle – before eventually shrugging and giving up.

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View from the coffee shop, Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon Highlands, Guinea-Conakry Image © Jason Florio

First impressions of Mali Ville – Florio and I looked at each other: ‘What a bloody dump!’ – We had entered the town smack bang into the middle of the gare routière – bus station – and mechanics workshops area. If you travel to West Africa, then you will know that these sections of a town are not always indicative of the rest of the place. Disused, defunct, rusty vehicles scattered around the dusty streets; greased up boys, in tatty, filthy clothing – that looked as if they could walk away of their own accord – gathered around motorcycles and heads under hoods of cars. Trash was omnipresent – from the ubiquitous plastic bags; bits of greasy newspaper (used by all the street vendors to wrap sandwiches in); old clothing, embedded into the dirt; rusty car parts; piles of refurbished tires…

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The team take a stroll – Abdou, Ebou & H – Downtown Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon Highlands, Guinea-Conakry © Jason Florio

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The bread is great in the Fouta Djallon Highlands! Saif and Helen © Jason Florio

After dodgy directions, from a group of local boys, to the guest house, the driver had the unenviable task of having to reverse down an impossibly steep rocky ‘road’ – to find the straighter road we should have taken in the first place, which turned out to be only very slightly less rocky and less steep! We eventually arrived at the gates of the Auberge Indigo hotel, overlooking the downtown area of Mali Ville. We were greeted by Souleyman, the very helpful and informative patron (tel: 62.47.08.68 for reservations) and the first ‘porto’ (as Europeans/white people are called in the Fouta) we had seen in a while – Heidi from Finland. She was in Mali for six months, working for an NGO, and doing her thesis for her Masters degree on the cultural and political history (sic) of Guinea-Conakry. At last, I thought, much needed female company.

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Florio checks the YellowBrick Tracking Device (YB3) messages via Bluetooth and his iPad – Auberge Indigo Hotel, Mali Ville © Helen Jones-Florio

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Anyone for Attayah tea? Saif, Ebou and Abdou contemplate how much sugar they will need – Auberge Indigo Hotel, Mali Ville © Helen Jones-Florio

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Loads a money! – the Guinea Franc (GNF) Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon © Helen Jones-Florio. Shout out to NUUN hydration and the Loveyourself Project

The Auberge is basic. Consisting of two traditional conical huts – one of which was being used by Souleyman at the time – and five or six rooms in a concrete block, set in a large fenced-off compound. No running water but there was a proper bathing area/bathroom – and a big bucket of cold water. Heidi told us how much she was feeling the cold (and she comes from Finland!). To combat this – to take the edge of the icy cold water – she said that she boiled water to wash in, in the battered old kettle, on a gas canister in the communal kitchen. I have to say, I heeded her advice on that score. It’s definitely cooler up in the Fouta. And, what previously felt like a refreshing bucket wash in the lower climbs of The Gambia and Senegal, did feel as if one was bathing in a pre-central-heating, Victorian house, during the heart of winter.

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H gets some down time to type up her journal notes for the blog – Auberge Indigo hotel – Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon © Jason Florio

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Boys carrying sticks before heading to school – Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon, Guinea-Conakry © Jason Florio

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Coffee Shop – Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon © Helen Jones-Florio

People in Mali were extremely friendly and welcoming. Everyone we passed, as we walked into the downtown area to find something to eat, greeted us: ‘Bonsoir, ca va?’ , ‘Jarama’ (the Fouta Djallon is predominantly Fula, or Pule, tribe). And, for the first time since starting out, there were streetlights – hi-tech solar powered ones at that – for a section of the walk into town. However, as we got taking to local people, they didn’t seem particularly impressed. ‘The government does nothing for the people of Guinea…they need to spend money on building proper roads – not putting up street lights’. We had heard the very same sentiments in Labé too – especially, with regards to the dire state of the roads in the Fouta Djallon. ‘The government takes the aid money and we see none of it’ another local taxi driver told us. It is such a shame too – if there were proper roads, then more tourists, not just intrepid travelers, would visit the Fouta – surely? It is such a beautiful place but it takes so long to get from one place to another. And, from the ‘roads’ we experienced, it’s extremely physically demanding – bouncing along those ‘roads’ certainly takes its toll on your coccyx!

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Solar-powered street lights, Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon Highlands © Helen Jones-Florio

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What we should have gone to Kedougou in! Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon Highlands, Guinea-Conakry © Jason Florio

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‘Moto taxis’ – ‘How much will it cost us to go to Kedougou, Senegal, then?’ Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon © Jason Florio

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H and the River Gambia team – waiting…always lots of waiting around in West Africa! Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon Highlands © Jason Florio

When in Mali Ville, a visit to the ‘Dame de Mali’ has to be made. After breakfasting on fresh bread, eggs and ripe, luscious avocados – the Fouta Djallon is well-known for its avocados and its freshly baked bread – we set off in a local taxi, and yet another bone-rattling ride, for the short trip up to see the ‘Lady of Mali’

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Making breakfast – Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon Highlands © Helen Jones-Florio

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The boys head into downtown Mali Ville – L-R: Florio, Ebou, Saif, Souleyman, Abdou, Florio & Ebou © Helen Jones-Florio

And, what a beauty, she, the Dame, is. A local farmer told us that the story goes that her husband, after finding out that his wife had been cheating on him, cursed her and turned her to stone – all on a Friday too, apparently.

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Woman drying her cous cous – Dame de Mali – Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon Highlands © Jason Florio

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A day out – Florio, H, Abdou & Ebou, Dame de Mali, Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon Highlands

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Youtube: Helen & Florio talk about the journey – Dame de Mali, Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon. Click here or on above image to watch footage

As always, thanks for following our journey. More updates coming very soon. And, if you would like to see the River Gambia Expedition route map, please check it out on our YellowBrick page: here.

Until next time!

The Florios – H and Flo

P.S. What’s coming next: 8-hour, bone-rattling, taxi-bike rides up and down the Fouta Djallon Highlands; getting the Ally canoes into the River Gambia for the first time on the expedition; hippo encounters of the (very) close-up kind; hanging out with the gold miners of Senegal.

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H – catching up on more writing whilst waiting for the local transport to take us back to Kedougou, Senegal (which will never come! See next post)- Auberge Hotel, Mali Ville © Jason Florio. Shout out to Overboard bags

A glimpse of whats coming next…

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Coming soon…bone-juddering moto-taxi rides from Mali Ville, Fouta Djallon Highlands, Guinea – Kedougou, Senegal
H: ‘if my dad was around to see me on this (without a helmet too!) – he would kill me!!’