In 1818, the young French explorer Gaspard Mollien ducked into a thicket of trees in the remote Fouta Djallon highlands of Guinea, praying that no local Fula tribesmen would see him and kill him for entering their sacred wood. For just a few moments, he stared down into a small pool of water cupped in the ferruginous rocks as it was gently filled from an underground cistern.
After nearly a year of impossibly difficult travel, Mollien had finally found the source of one of Africa’s mightiest rivers – the Gambia. Almost 200 years later, using Mollien’s notes to guide us, my wife and expedition co-leader Helen and I knelt and filled a plastic bottle from that same small pool. Finally, our attempt to follow the course of the River Gambia from source to mouth through Guinea, Senegal and The Gambia had properly begun.
For our travelling companions – Gambian fishermen Abdou and Ebou – this was more than just the expedition’s starting point. They were mesmerised by the idea that this puddle would – more than 1,000 kilometres away – become the vast expanse into which they slung their fishing nets each day, just as their Serer forebears had done for hundreds of years.
The River Gambia is one of the major arteries into West Africa from the Atlantic Ocean. First penetrated in 1455 by Portuguese explorers, it was fought over by the French and British, and traversed by Scottish explorer Mungo Park in 1795 and 1805 during his attempts to follow the course of the River Niger.
During the 18th century, slave traders sailed their human cargo down the river to the estuary at Banjul and adventurers pushed into the interior of what is now Senegal in search of gold. It was the British who, in 1889, ultimately took control of 338 kilometres of the river, from the Atlantic coast eastwards, thereby creating the smallest country on the African continent – what is now The Gambia.
Today, huge barges continue to ply the navigable reaches to the old Gambian colonial-era towns to collect hauls of peanuts. Fishermen still throw nets from precarious, narrow pirogues throughout much of its course in The Gambia and Senegal, and refugees from Guinea-Bissau scour the mangroves for oysters in the brackish tributaries.
Having walked around The Gambia in 2009 and crossed the River Gambia at both the most easterly and westerly ends of the country, Helen and I were intrigued to see the river beyond the boundary of its namesake. Once we started to plan our expedition, we discovered that plans were afoot to create a hydroelectric dam at Sambangalou on the Guinea–Senegal border.
Seven long-established villages will be displaced by the dam, and the repercussions of choking the natural flow will potentially be devastating to communities that rely on the river for fishing, irrigation and consumption. For Fula tribesmen, for example, whose ancient pastoral lifestyle relies on watering their cattle along the Gambia’s banks, it would mean uprooting long-established villages and moving farther upstream.
In The Gambia, the reduction of the downstream flow could see rising salinity, which could prove devastating for farmers reliant on the river for rice cultivation. And in Senegal, the fragile ecosystems of the World Heritage-listed Niokolo Koba National Park could be damaged by a reduction in the natural seasonal rise and fall of the river.
Thus the idea of making the journey from the river’s source in the remote Fouta Djallon Highlands of Guinea, through Senegal and The Gambia – while creating a modern-day account of the communities and tribes that live along one of Africa’s last major free-flowing rivers – took on an element of urgency.
After a year of research and fundraising, we arrived in Africa, only to discover that the ship carrying some of our essential gear had gone off the radar. We waited five weeks for it to appear before deciding to go ahead without the missing supplies.
The dry season was now approaching, at which time sections of the river run almost dry, and Africa’s biggest killer, the hippo, gathers in greater numbers in the shallows. So, we decided to put our two five-metre folding canoes into the water not in Guinea, but at Kedougou in Senegal – 185 kilometres downstream from the source.
Before we embarked, at the behest of Abdou and Ebou, we hired a Malian fisherman, Yousef. He would guide us on the first 100 kilometres of the river, and importantly, knew where the hippos were. These massive river dwellers were our biggest fear, despite lengthy Skype conversations during the preceding months with our Gambian fishermen – who insisted that hippos weren’t a significant problem (and being fisherman plying the river, surely they would know).
Although the river’s level was dropping rapidly under the onslaught of the dry season, it was still flowing strongly. Yousef nimbly directed our soft-sided craft around jutting rocks and the javelin-like limbs of mangled trees, dragged downstream during the rainy season, when the river’s level can rise by more than 20 metres.
Our first 100 kilometres took us deep into the heart of Senegal’s gold-mining country. Mined for centuries by hand, the gold was first sought after by Arabs from East Africa, then by Europeans, including 17th-century British adventurer Richard Jobson, whose The Discovery of River Gambra, 1623 had reinforced my desire to see the river for myself before the dam destroyed its natural flow.
Temporary communities of economic migrants from The Gambia, Guinea, Mali and Senegal come and go from camps near the river, which themselves shift as new veins of gold are found. The surrounding landscape is devastated by thousands of shafts, each a metre or so in diameter and some up to 20 metres deep.
We watched men descend into the red earth with dim headlamps and chip away at the quartz, sending chunks back to the surface, where it’s crushed, washed and the tiny fragments of gold gathered by unprotected hands in a mercury amalgam. Gold dealers were waiting in the ever-present dust of the makeshift villages amid the stalls selling mining tools. Girls were waiting in the slit light of grass huts for miners to come in and spend their hard-won money.
As we made our way through ‘gold country’, Helen was constantly on the lookout for hippos. The innumerable tracks that cratered the river’s low-slung mud banks filled us with silent foreboding, and on our penultimate day with Yousef, it finally happened.
We were navigating through a slot of rocks when a huge bull hippo lunged from beneath the shallow water a few metres in front of our fast-moving canoes. We quickly pulled to the rock-lined shore and the hippo reappeared midstream, ears flicking out water, holding steadfast in his territory.
Yousef proceeded to speak in Bambara to the hippo as he launched pebbles at it from a homemade catapult, much to Helen’s alarm – not in fear of him hurting the one-and-a-half-tonne mammal, but of provoking him further. Abdou and Ebou, our ‘Gambian hippo experts’, pulled ashore behind us, and almost in tandem, said ‘Wow, that was amazing, that’s the first hippo we have ever seen, they are so large!’ Helen and I looked at each other in panicked disbelief – we still had more than 600 kilometres to go without Yousef, half of which would be home to ‘killer’ hippos.
For almost an hour, we inched along the jungled river bank, until finally, safely out of the hippo’s way, Yousef ceremoniously flung pieces of stale baguette into the river behind us, shouting, ‘Malo silafando!’ (‘Hippo present’) in thanks for letting us pass.
With Yousef back in Kedougou with his wife, the four of us pressed on through Senegal, towered over by the walls of yellow-red sandstone canyons and screamed at by troops of baboons from the safety of their rim-top haunts.
As daylight dimmed on Christmas Day, the only available campsite was a small patch of rocks. We pulled up and settled down for what turned out to be a very uncomfortable night.
In the firelight, a young boy from the Bassari tribe appeared from the jungle with a large bowl of food. He had heard from a hunter that there were strangers by the river and, it being Christmas Day, he took it upon himself to gather food from the village feast and bring it to us.
Thankfully, our hippo encounters over the remainder of the journey were limited to the odd distant sighting. As we crossed the border into The Gambia, the sandstone canyons gave way to low banks, thick with vegetation and village gardens. Small teams of bee-eaters flitted from branch to branch; monitor lizards scrambled up the banks as we passed; and snakes hung nonchalantly in exposed tree roots.
We often paddled for hours without seeing another person. Then we would float by a village beach filled with women and children bashing laundry on rocks or bathing, all waving and smiling at the oddity of our floating charabanc. If it was lunchtime, they would call in their local language, ‘Come and eat with us!’. If they were Mandinka, we would reply ‘Kono fatta, abaraka’ (‘Belly already full, thank you’).
Each day, the banks of the river got farther apart. Abdou became worried that after Kemoto Point in The Gambia, the wind and waves would be too much for our little canoes, despite the fact that we had lashed them together with bamboo poles to make them more stable.
Our Gambian friends may have lacked hippo knowledge, but here they were masters of the river. They said that we must push out far from the seeming safety of the shore to roll over the big waves and not be sunk by the breakers in the muddy shallows. The river was now a staggering 14 kilometres wide, and our little boat was lost in the shadows of giant barges hauling 100-tonne loads of peanuts from upcountry farms for processing in the Gambian capital, Banjul.
Each night, we were welcomed by locals, or by migrant Malians and Toucouleur fishermen from Senegal at their riverside camps. When the Toucouleur discovered that Abdou was a Serer, they would mockingly sneer, saying, ‘Ha! You are my slave. Yes, you are my slave!’
This cut deep into Helen’s and my Western sensibilities, but Abdou explained that the Serer are cousins of the Toucouleur and their joking relationship allows one tribe to playfully insult the other, while at the same time obliging them to be mutually respectful and aid each other.
The Mandinka captains of the peanut barges were less ‘insulting’ to our companions when we found ourselves moored in the same spot for the evening. They, too, happily shared their dinners with us, often ‘domoda stew’ – conveniently made of peanuts. The village chiefs, known as alkalos, some of whom had sheltered us when we walked around The Gambia in 2009, welcomed us back. Often, their first question was ‘What happened to your two donkeys?’ to which we would reply, ‘We swapped them for canoes.’
On our penultimate night, 18 kilometres from the river’s mouth, we docked in Bonto village, near the rusting hulk of a barge that slanted into the water, its guts filled with silt. Once ashore, we were told by a watchman that we must report to the army.
We were taken to a nearby riverside warehouse, which had been turned into an army base. There a shirtless soldier in fingerless gloves inspected our documents, including a letter from the Gambian president’s office giving us permission for the expedition – which he immediately dismissed as a fake.
After silently rifling through our bags and canoes, he agreed that we could camp in Bonto for the night, and apologised for the initial cool reception. Bonto, he told us, ‘is a very sensitive area. In 2009, we found two tonnes of cocaine in the warehouse – street value US$1billion [almost twice the Gambian GDP for that year]. So we must keep a close watch for more drug dealers coming this way.’ The irony of the fact that we had paddled in undetected less then 100 metres from their base wasn’t lost on us.
As we paddled off the next morning, the sun was just cresting the mangroves. Banjul looked resplendent across the smooth expanse of the vast river. The whitewashed ‘July 22nd’ arch, commemorating the rise to power of the current president, Yahya Jammeh, in a 1994 coup, could be seen above the colonial-era government buildings.
Two huge ferries ply the waters between Banjul on the south bank and Barra on the north bank, and we decided that it would be a great shame to be crushed by one of these Titans on our final day. So, we opted to take one of the creeks, or bolons, that run into and out of the river close to its mouth. By noon, we crossed under Denton Bridge, which spans the bolon, and is a marker for where the River Gambia meets the Atlantic Ocean.
Our expedition finished, we beached our canoes on the hot white sand. We retrieved our carefully stowed bottle of fresh water from the Guinean source more than 1,000 kilometres away, and reverentially tipped half into the salty waters of the Atlantic – a direct deposit, a token of sorts perhaps, to help the natural flow in advance of humanity’s impending tampering.