Gambia River Gallery
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.