Expedition Improv: Traveling the Length of the Gambia River

Jason Florio and Helen Jones Florio spent more than six months planning a 700-mile source-to-sea hike and paddle of the Gambia River, but from the moment they arrived, they were forced to riff

Young Senegalese boys with faces painted like skulls.     Photo: Jason Florio

The mototaxi down the mountain.

Jason Florio, Helen Jones-Florio, Abdou Ndong, Ebou Jarju, and Yousef Keita prepare to leave Kedougou, Senegal, on the first day of their River Gambia expedition.

Migrant workers at an artisanal gold mine in Senegal take a break next to their respective mine shafts, some of which can be up to 60 feet deep.

The fifth surprise of the expedition was the most enjoyable. A few days after putting into the Gambia River for the first time, Jason Florio and Helen Jones-Florio realized the third and final guide they had hired to lead them was “slightly insane.” They came to this epiphany rather suddenly. They were paddling a foldable rubber and aluminum canoe in a fast section of the third-world river with the guide standing in back, when they came within a few feet of a hippo. They were scared. The guide laughed, grunted like a baboon, and reached for his homemade slingshot so that he could fire small rocks at the angry 1,000-plus-pound mammal from the foldable canoe. To understand why the couple took so much pleasure in this absurd moment, it helps to know a bit more about their first four surprises.

The first surprise of the trip led the couple to wait. After more than a half a year of planning to hike and paddle 700 miles down the Gambia River, the couple arrived in Banjul, The Gambia, on October 16. They were ready to start. Unfortunately, the container stocked with their gear—sleeping bags, Thermarests, Power Bars—had accidentally been shipped to Lagos, Nigeria. Day after day, they asked the shipper when their container would arrive. Day after day, he said it would arrive on a boat any day—probably the next day. After four weeks of waiting, Jason’s father sent the couple sleeping bags and yoga pads. The couple received them and said, “Screw it.” They drove to the river’s source in Guinea. They didn’t need Thermarests and Power Bars. They would sleep on the thin yoga pads and buy local food supplies.

Several bruises and more than 120 cans of sardines later, they arrived in Banjul. The date was January 21. Five days earlier, on January 16, their container had arrived. They had responded wisely to the first surprise of their trip.

The second surprise of the trip led the couple to hurry. After waiting a month, they learned that some sections of the river were only running a few feet high, and soon would be running at a few inches. Initially, the couple had plans to do the entire trip under their own power by hiking and canoeing. “The idea is to go slow and soak in the environment and cultures, taking in the nuances of the micro view you get when walking and paddling,” they told Outside in a July interview.

They decided to throttle past nuance. Rather than hike the first 50 miles, from the source of the river in the Fouta Djallon highlands of Guinea to their Senegal put in, they decided to stuff all of their supplies in a taxi Land Cruiser already packed with 20 other people, and charter some locals with mototaxis to drive them. A gang showed up on Chinese 150s. One of them was wearing a pot for a helmet. Helen had been in a bad motorcycle accident 12 years earlier, but she was game. Two hours into the ride, after her rider tipped the bike as they crossed a mountain river, she realized he was stoned. “The idea of getting on a bike with a guy who had been smoking dope most of the day didn’t seem like the best idea,” says Jason. “But we didn’t have any other choice to get down the mountain.”

The third surprise led the couple to make a deal. Before they left Guinea, they found out the Senegalese government still hadn’t approved their request to row through the heart of Niokolo Koba National Park, Senegal, a roughly 60-mile section of river filled with hippos, exotic wildlife, and, possibly, poachers. They decided to break their human-powered pact again, by chartering a local taxi to pick up their canoes and gear after a 57-mile paddle to the edge of the park. They would drive around the heart of the park, meet with a ranger so they could “negotiate” a permit and paddle through the last 45 miles.

The fourth surprise caused the biggest scare. It came just after the couple and their three guides put their Norwegian Ally811 foldable canoes into a fast-moving section of the river filled with hippos. The first two guides, fishermen from Gambia, had spoken knowledgeably about hippos during their job interview in Gambia. The couple believed this meant they were expert paddlers, and familiar with the river. “We found out that the two Gambian fishermen we took with us had never paddled through fast-moving water before,” says Jason. “Luckily enough, we found a fantastic Malian fisherman who knew that section of the river really well and had actually been attacked by hippos himself a couple of times. He agreed to come with us.”

That Malian fisherman was the fifth surprise. We pick up the conversation about the expedition just before they found him.

One of the reasons you did this trip was to chronicle life on the Gambia River before a large hydroelectric dam goes in near the Guinea/Senegal border. What did people think about the dam?
Jason: Before we put in the river, we left the canoes and got motorcycles and went up to where they are intending to build the dam. I visited three villages where people will be displaced. People there were just kind of resigned to the fact that they didn’t have any power against the government to start a petition or anything. They just thought, OK, once we get the news, then we are going to have to move. These villages have been there for 150 years or so. The villages I had been able to visit, the land there won’t be flooded, but the government wanted to move them because one intention is to create big agricultural areas. On the north side of where the dam will be built, there are five villages that will be drowned by the lake created. Everyone we spoke to—I talked to the village chiefs—said, “Look, they’ve been talking about this for a while.” They said people told them last year that they would receive compensation when they were moved. Also, they said, the government didn’t want to move them straight away. They wanted to use the villages as a staging ground, so people in the villages could prepare meals for the workers, and maybe give them accommodation. Once the dam is done, they would move them off their land. They had no idea where they would be moved. They were concerned because their livelihood is based on access to the river—irrigation, water for their cattle, and basic household needs.

Who was your favorite person you met along the way?
Jason: I think for both of us it’s going to be the Malian guy that came on the first section of the river with us.

Why was that?
Jason: He was someone that we were really lucky to find. We had another guy that we were going to take, and he was trying to rip us off on some stuff. When I went off on the motorcycles to see where the dam would be built, we saw three guys walking through the bush with a bike and some fishing equipment. The guy that was guiding me on the bike said: “That guy could go with you. He knows the river.” So, the next day this young guy shows up. He’s from Mali, because a lot of Malian fishermen come to Senegal to work. He’d been there for about 15 years and he knew the river inside out. He was a real quirky guy, I’m not sure he wasn’t, um....

Helen: He was slightly insane.

Jason: Yes, slightly insane. We almost hit this hippo and he just started, um....

Helen: Laughing.

Jason: Laughing his head off.

Helen: And he pulled his catapult [slingshot] out and shouted at it.

Jason: Yeah, and he was making, like, um....

Helen: Baboon noises.

Jason: Yeah.

Helen: He was hilarious.

Jason: But he was really confident about being on the river. If he would have been in the States, he would have been a surf champion or something like that. He was just so stylish the way he would paddle the canoe.

Helen: He would stand up on the back of the canoe and just glide it along. He would show us how to navigate around the rocks in the river. He didn’t speak English and he didn’t speak very much French. Yeah, he was quite a character. He was hilarious. Our communication with him was in a hybrid of pigeon French and Mandinka. I’m sure he wondered what the hell we were saying to him most of the time.

Jason: He had seen a pair of my shoes in a bag, and the whole time he just kept pestering me about the shoes. We had this running joke that he was going to steal my shoes—that he might take my only pair of hiking boots. He was a big guy and would just joke. I would say, “Look at how much bigger you are than I.” And he would say: “No, They’re going to work. They’re going to work.”

He gave a lot of confidence to our other two guys, because, as we very rapidly found out, our other guys had absolutely no idea about working in fast water and hippos. So he was great. He just instilled a sense of fun into the first part of the trip, considering how dangerous it was. I just think he kept us a lot more loose, and gave us a lot more confidence about being on the river.

Helen: We actually offered him 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.

How long was he with you for in total?
Jason: I think it was about 92 kilometers, so about 60 miles, and just along that section. It’s a very interesting section, because most of the villages along the river are involved in gold mining.

Jason: So there is a lot of gold mining, and it’s almost like being in Wild West towns along the river. People come from Mali. They come from Guinea. They come from Gambia—all to do this local digging for gold. He knew a lot of people along the way, so we could just sort of pull in and we had a safe place to camp.

So that’s an industry that draws a lot of people away from their countries to make money for their families back home?
Jason: Definitely. There are thousands of people coming into the area. It’s just getting flooded with people coming in and trying to make something. A lot people try to go to Europe, or at least out of Africa, but in this case, it was an absolute draw. You see all these little makeshift towns. And then, the hills are just littered with hundreds of holes. And the holes are just, I don’t know, maybe four feet across. One guy will go down these 30-, 40-, 50-foot holes.

Jason: Yeah, so people will work as these little teams. And we were warned these places could be really dangerous because people were scraping to make a living there, but we actually found the opposite. They were super friendly. They just don’t get too many white people up there, so they were pretty open to us staying there and taking pictures and doing our thing.

Helen: It’s a hard life. They’ve got the kids. The babies are crawling around in dust, and eating and sleeping there. They may be there for six months to a year trying to make something, and they don’t want to go home empty-handed, so they stay to see what they can find to take back to their family.

Jason: Yeah, it’s really a place I would like to go back to and do a much more concentrated story, spending at least a month there.

Do you have a favorite portrait that you took?
Helen: I don’t know if there was a favorite person? The boy with the fur coat.

Jason: Yeah. I’m not, so.... Oh, then there’s the kids that were painted. I think the first day of paddling, Helen and I were standing at the front of the canoe so that I could photograph. Helen had the watch.

Helen: I was yelling: “Hippo, hippo. Is that a hippo? No, we’re OK. It’s a rock.” I had those binoculars glued to my eyes for weeks.

Jason: Yeah, the “hippo, hippo, hippo” watch.

Helen: It’s true.

Jason: For most of the sections, there were long stretches of wilderness, and then the villages don’t tend to be right on the river. They tend to be one kilometer away, but there’s usually a beach area where women will come wash, or where people will come and swim. And even along that section people were taking sand out of the river to try and extract gold. But as we’re paddling along, Helen was saying, “There are kids with white faces.”

Helen: They looked like they had masks on.

Jason: It was just like something out of Apocalypse Now. These little kids just came scrambling down the banks and they’ve all got little shorts on. Their faces had all been painted white, almost like skulls. But as we got closer, we saw they had numbers painted on their chests as well. So we thought there was some sort of coming of age ceremony or ritual. But once we started taking portraits of these kids—and they just looked phenomenal—we started talking. We said, “What are you guys doing?” And they said, “Oh, we’re just playing.” There was nothing behind it. They were just having a good time. They had just painted themselves, but they looked like a skeleton football team.

Who was the most interesting person you met lower down the river?
Jason: I think maybe some of the boat captains.

Helen: Yeah, they were interesting.

Jason: Because the river now, even though it’s a major river, it’s so underutilized except for local fishing. But a couple of places there are remnants of these peanut factories. Gambia’s major cash crop is peanuts, but over the years ... there are not enough people to work on the land anymore. All of the young people don’t want to work in the villages. They want to try and get to Europe, or the coastal areas, where there is a tourist industry. Because of the reduction in peanut production, in these peanut plants there are just one or two people left working. But they still have these big barges that they’ll load with tons of peanuts. These guys with tugboats will draw them all the way down the river. It takes them about a week to get from the main staging area to take the peanuts down. So we hung out with the captains and the people on those boats, and they are kind of the last of the guys that know how to navigate the river with these big boats.

There was just kind of this camaraderie. We’re anywhere paddling our little tiny rubber and aluminum canoes. And they said, “You’re sailors.” And they cooked for us, and really made us part of their lives.

Helen: And in the Gambia section nearest the coastal area you had tourists boats sometimes coming out to look at the hippos. We were paddling along, and they would wave and toot their horn.... One time, one of the boat captains came past, quite a ways from us, but he was pointing in the direction of where the hippos were: “Don’t go that way. Don’t go that way.”

They were looking out for you?
Jason: Yeah, just this camaraderie. Just because Gambia is so small, and everyone knows everyone else. We’d get down the river and say we met a boat captain earlier, and everyone knew him. We just kept hoping they would throw a cold beer to us.

Did they ever?
Jason: No.

Helen: Maybe we should have asked?

What kind of food did you eat?
Jason: Every single morning, we had sardines. We basically went through between 120 to 140 cans of sardines.

Helen: Every morning.

Jason: Yes. Every morning.

Helen: I’m not kidding.

Jason: Yes. Every morning was bread and sardines followed by a bag of minty sweets that kept us going. And then, at night, normally we would cook up some rice, and if we could buy fish from a fisherman we did that. Or we would buy this peanut sauce that the ladies would make. So, basically, it was bread, sardines, rice, sauce, and these little nasty mints.

Helen: Which tasted great when you didn’t have anything else.

For two months?
Jason: It’s interesting what you find you don’t need. We always had our tea with us, so often we’d stop and we had one of these things called a Kelly Kettle, which is an Irish kettle. First thing before we even set the camp up we’d get the kettle going and get revitalized.

You’ve been there before and knew the country well because of your previous 600-mile trek around Gambia, but what was the major lesson from going there this time?
Jason: We noticed that a lot of the youth were pouring out of the rural areas. When we came by the river, we got kind of a different perspective, and found that, yes, the Gambian youth are definitely pouring out of the villages. But there is also this migration of people coming from different regions for the fishing. They were very willing to work hard and they would come from Senegal or Guinea or Mali for fish, and make the most of the river, where the Gambians, in a lot of cases, seem to have given up on it. They seemed like they wanted to get to the city or get to Europe.

Helen: And not all of them. Just that generation from, say, 17 to 20 or 30. There was this gap. There were really young kids running around, and we were like, where are the adults? We just realized there is a whole generation of young boys and girls that have left for the tourist section of Gambia—which is only a small section—or they have gone to Europe or America. So this whole section of villages is just not there, the older brothers and sister are not there. Things are definitely changing.

Jason: In that case, the agriculture is suffering. A lot of the older people are relying now on the remittances coming from those kids.

Helen: Once they go to Europe or America they are expected to send what they make back to their families, and they do.

Do you know the backstory, because I imagine it’s fairly expensive to leave?
Jason: When we did the walk we met people who would attempt it. One morning, we were at a tender—the hut next to the riverbank where the fishermen bring their canoes in—and there was a guy there. It was about 7:00 in the morning. He started telling us how he had only recently come back to the village that he was from. He had gone up to Mauritania and he had worked in Mauritania as a welder to make enough money to get smuggled on a boat to the Canary Islands. Within a few days, the boat physically broke up, and he ended up getting washed onto the Mauritanian shore, but I think 14 others on the boat died. He was just one of the lucky people. He got taken into a village and they nursed him back to health. And at that point, you think, you just make your way to Gambia. You go home. But he said he went back to welding for another seven years to make money, not with the idea of going somewhere else again, but he felt he couldn’t return to his village in Gambia without money.

Helen: Because he was afraid of returning as a failure. You hear that all of the time.

Jason: And that’s why a lot of these people that make these illegal crossings, I think, don’t come back. They get to Europe, and there is such a struggle in Europe. They realize how hard it is, the streets aren’t paved with gold, and they know they can’t come back without having made a good amount of money. It’s really sad, but I think a lot of people can’t come back out of pride.

So what do you think the future is for that area?
Jason: What we’re seeing is some really good work being done by some NGOs. It’s probably just a finger in the dike type of thing, but they are trying to find trades for the youth and get them trained in things like welding skills. But what they’re also trying to promote is some kind of diversification in the agriculture, because people just grow the same stuff, which just keeps the prices down.

Helen: You’ve got one person selling rice on one side of the street, and you’ve got another person selling rice on another side of the street. Everyone is growing and selling the same thing, so there’s little diversification.

Jason: Yeah, so it’s a pretty grassroots effort of trying to keep the youth in the upcountry areas.

What was the most difficult thing for you on the trip? Did you have difficulties with photo and video?
Jason: Not with shooting and video. What was difficult—we were kind of producing the journey as we were going along. I was doing all of the map reading and the GPS stuff and we’re paddling. It was kind of tricky. We had paddled six or seven hours and we had to set up camp. We needed to organize stuff. We needed to organize video and all of that. That was a tricky thing, but as far as people allowing us to photograph them? It wasn’t that difficult. Most people were pretty receptive, especially as we were traveling on the river in such a traditional way. We would camp on the riverbank and spend time with people before I even got the camera out.

Was there any one shot that was tough to get?
Jason: It was the hippos. I realized I was not a wildlife photographer. I photograph people all day long, but I’m a crap wildlife photographer. I will admit that freely. It’s very difficult to take pictures from the canoe when it’s fast paddling, you’re moving, you’re using a really long lens, and you should be stable.

Helen: Oh look, there’s a python. Oh, look, there it goes.

Jason: Yeah, it was often that. The guys would have incredible eyesight and they could just see little movements ahead or in the bushes. And they were like: “Oh, there is a giant python. There.” And I was like, “Where?” And we were already past it. So I was like, I’m just going to deal with people. I can talk to them and have a relationship with them. This shooting of animal stuff is definitely not my bag.

Now that you’re done, will you go back to Gambia?
Jason: We really want to, just because we’ve taken so much from the country. I’m not sure taken is the right word. We’ve gone there and people have been really giving. We’ve been talking with the American Embassy there, and they have some funding to do things in the community. They’ve talked about doing things like photography workshops. One of the things they’ve got, it’s this massive inflatable movie screen, which they’ll drive to villages and play American movies. We might go with that and present my images, along with the Gambian kids who take part in the workshops on this big inflatable screen. That would be fun.

And then we’re thinking about what else to do in West Africa. The Senegal River comes out of the same Fouta Djallon Highlands of Guinea-Conakry, as does the Gambia River, as does the Niger River. So I’m going to do a feasibility study of following the Senegal River from the highlands on down. We’ll need some proper funding—corporate backers and media sponsors.

We’re just kind of landing here now, but as I was paddling, I was just kind of like, I really like this paddling photography gig. You get to be fit and out in the open. The river is just kind of a nice metaphorical and physical thread to make a story.

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