Thursday 31st January 2013
‘Once upon a time, two ‘toubabs’ (european/white person) and two Gambian fishermen took two canoes and began an adventure: the River Gambia Expedition. Starting in the Fouta Djallon Highlands of Guinea, to pay homage to the source of the River Gambia, on into Senegal and finally into The Gambia itself. They paddled 700km on the River Gambia and travelled 400km overland.
However –let’s start where they left off in their last post (how they got up the mountain) –in Labé, the capital of the Fouta Djallon Highlands of Guinea-Conakry, West Africa…’
Sunday 2nd December – Labé-Horé Dimma, Fouta Djallon Highlands
The Fouta Djallon Highlands has to be one of the most visually stunning places we have ever been to, so far. The only real downside is that the ‘roads’ are utterly shocking!! They are truly horrendous to travel on. In fact, calling them roads is a real stretch. As mentioned in our last post, it’s like riding over the rockiest of riverbeds – the whole team suffered bruised tail-bones to prove it!
Today is a seminal day for us all. We are, at long last, going to the village of Horé Dimma, to pay homage to ‘le source de fleuve Gambie’ – the source of the River Gambia. This marks the true start of the River Gambia Expedition. Yayah Baldeh, the director of Galissa Voyage Trekking, a new company of local Guinean guides – one of whom, Saifoulaye (Saif, for short), we are taking with us through the Fouta – has arranged a sept place to take us and all our gear to Horé Dimma.
It’s a cool misty morning up in the Fouta as we load our camera and camping gear onto the battered old Peugot estate. We were anxious to get going, to get to the place that the whole expedition team been waiting to see. Thankfully, Horé Dimma is only about twelve miles away from Labé – regardless of the short distance, we still had to pay around $35 for the journey. Again, extortionate fuel prices in Guinea of course dictate transport costs. That, and us being ‘portos’ – as white people are called in Guinea, as opposed to ‘toubabs‘ in Senegal and The Gambia. However, once we got closer to the village, we could understand why the fare cost so much. After we had left the relatively smooth main road from Labé – there are actually a couple of miles of flat road, here and there, in the Fouta. Unfortunately, we didn’t encountered that much of it on our travels! – the road up to Horé Dimma took yet another 45 minutes as the old car rattled and bumped over deep ruts and big rocks. During our travels throughout the Fouta Djallon, how cars, or motor cycles, ever survive it past a couple of months of these roads will never cease to amaze us.
We reached what looked like the gate to a tiny hamlet…we could just make out a couple of traditional Fula tribe, conical-shaped, thatched huts and a few brightly-coloured, modern, concrete houses. As we began to unpack the car we were immediately surrounded, by four or five kids who would be our constant companions, from dawn until dusk, during our stay in the village.
When we met the Chief de Village, Mr Djallow, he sadly informed us that a young mother had lost one of her twin babies that morning. Immaculately dressed villagers, imams and elders were heading in droves towards the grieving woman’s compound. Later that night, lying in our tent, Florio and I could hear the distressed wailing of the villagers as they grieved with the young mother.
Despite the mass mourning, as we walked around the village, we were made to feel very welcome by everyone we met, . What, on first impressions, we took to be a tiny hamlet, turned out to be a warren of pathways to many traditional huts and concrete houses. Horé Dimma started with just one family: the Djallow’s. Now, 400 years later, everyone in the village is a Djallow – hundreds of them – all related in one way or another.
We made our camp in a pasture, which was part of the chief’s compound. And once the word was out, we were surrounded by the usual spectators: kids, the chief, elders, passersby, banana vendors – just in case we were hungry after our journey. Everyone came to stand and watch – and watch some more – fascinated by the tent, the hammocks, the solar panels for our gear and lights, which we laid out, facing the sun. When Abdou started to spark up the Kelly Kettle,that really peaked their interested! We LOVE our Kelly Kettle. Unfortunately, so did everyone else. “When you go, you leave that with us” we were to hear all throughout our journey – over and over again. Patrick Kelly and Seamus, his brother, could make a killing in West Africa with their ingenious kettle. Water boils in about 7 minutes and you don’t have to use ‘kembo’ – charcoal – so it’s environmentally friendly too. Just forage around for a few dry sticks, grass and/or leaves, will get it blazing nicely.
A local man came by that evening with a live rooster dangling from his hand, its legs tied together with a piece of string. And, after much passing around, prodding, poking, squeezing of limbs – and indignant clucking from the wide-eyed bird – by Abdou and the Galissa guys, it was deemed good enough for us to purchase for dinner the next evening.
The next morning, 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” ?!
Not being able to get back to sleep, Florio and I got up and made our way to the hills, just outside the village fence. We enjoyed a rare thirty minutes – completely alone – watching a glorious sunrise before the kids discovered where we were!
Once we’d all breakfasted, with the source of the River Gambia tantalizingly close-by, we first set off to visit the source of another nearby river – the River Komba. The reason being is that last year, when we had been researching previous expeditions relating to the River Gambia, in the archival library of the Royal Geographical Society – Florio being a ‘Fellow’ (FRGS)and all, we make the most of the prodigious library when we are in London, UK – we came across an 19th Century explorer called Gaspard Théodore Mollien. Mollien had written about his brief visit to the ‘source de fleuve Gambie‘ and how, from the top of a hill, he could see the sources of both the River Gambia and the Komba. Therefore, we wanted to see both too.
Once we’d seen the source of the Komba, we made the short walk, across the fields and down the blustry, rock-strewn, hillside (which reminded me of the Yorkshire Moors), to Hore Dimma – ‘head of the river’ – as the source of the River Gambia is known in the Fouta Djallon.
The source of the River Gambia is surrounded – protected – by a low, red stone, wall. We entered through a tiny gap in the wall, into a copse of trees – Flo and I going first. We needed time to savour this momentous occasion. We had, after all, been planning this together for many months. In fact, the all-consuming laborious expedition pre-production, made it hard to believe that we would ever actually reach this point. Yet, there we were, on a gloriously tropical West African morning, about to see what it was that had drawn us to this place.
And. It was but a puddle. A mere trickle. From beneath the rocks.
But that trickle leads to a wide-open river – which we would discover a little further into our journey, once we got our Ally canoes onto the River Gambia – making its way through the Fouta Djallon Highlands, on into Senegal, then towards Banjul, The Gambia, where the river reaches over 10km wide, and finally the Atlantic Ocean. A source of life and income for thousands of people through all three West African countries – including our Gambian team mates: fisherman, Abdou and Ebou. Seeing the source, for them, had a much deeper meaning, perhaps, than mine and Flo’s romantic notion of 19th Century explorers. “I have heard and read about this since I was a child…I never knew how I would see this place” Ebou said, as he sat with Abdou, on a rock near to the trickle of water, “here is the source of our livelihood”. They cupped their hands, drinking and washing their faces in the cool water. I felt very emotional – for all of us – for our own individual reasons for being there. I was glad that I had my sunglasses on – as my eyes welled up. I must be getting soft in my old age!
We all drank from the tiny pool – the water was cool and tasted fresh – and then filled our bottles (thanks to NUUN for the very useful drinking bottles!). Souvenirs to take home with us. Abdou and Ebou said that they will give a capful to each of their family and friends. Flo and I decide that we will make tea with ours, when we return to New York next year.
On our last night in the village, when I got out of the tent to go to take a pee, the full moon lighting up the pasture, I looked up a the star-filled sky – no light pollution here – and it was difficult to imagine being anywhere else. When travelling, it’s always the things that we take for granted at home that give one so much pleasure . I think it has something to do with actually taking the time to truly notice and appreciate, the simple beauty of what’s around us.
That said…we have much more to share – including: visiting Dame de Mali in the Fouta; bone-rattling, 8 hour, 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.
However, once we get back to a fast connection – we’ll be flying back home to New York, via a week in London, tomorrow (1st Feb) – we’ll be able to fully share our adventures with you. Of those, as mentioned, we have many…please stay with us.
As always, thank you for stopping by.
The Florios (H & Flo)
P.S. Please check out the expedition route on YellowBrick blog