Looking back – Sunday 2nd December, 2013
Expedition Stories: Reaching the source of the River Gambia, Fouta Djallon Highlands, Guinea. The Highlands of Guinea-Conakry is one of the most stunningly visual places I have ever traveled in. The only real downside is that the ‘roads’ are utterly shocking. Calling them roads is a stretch. Rocky riverbeds would be a far better description – as in truly arduous.
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 our River Gambia Expedition. We have hired the services of a couple of local Guinean guides – one of whom, Saifoulaye (‘Saif’), to take us to the source.
It’s a cool misty morning up in the Fouta as we load our camera and camping gear onto a battered old Peugeot estate – ‘sept places’ (shared taxis), are one of the most commonly used forms of public transport in West Africa. We were anxious to get going, to get to the place that we have all been waiting to see. The village of Horé Dimma is about twelve miles away from the main city of Labé – regardless of the short distance, we had to pay around $35 for the journey. Extortionate fuel prices in Guinea of course dictate transport costs. That, and us being ‘portos’ – as white people/foreigners 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. Once we had left the relatively smooth main road from Labé – there are a couple of miles of flat road, here and there, in the Fouta. Unfortunately, for us, we didn’t encounter that many of those flat roads 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 protruded rocks. During our travels throughout the Fouta Djallon, we often wondered how cars, or motorcycles, managed to survive past a couple of months of traversing these roads.
Eventually, we reached what looked like the gate to a tiny hamlet. We could just make out a couple of traditional Fula conical-shaped, thatched huts, and a few brightly-colored, 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 Chef de Village, Mr. Djallow, he informed us that sadly 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 whilst lying in our tent we could hear the collective poignant wailing of the villagers, grieving 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, fascinated by the tent, the hammocks, the solar panels that we used to charge our gear and lights – laid out, facing the sun. When Abdou started to spark up the Kelly Kettle for our ritual setting-up-camp cup of tea, this particularly piqued the spectators’ interest. We love our Kelly Kettle. Unfortunately, so did everyone else! “When you go, you leave that with us” we were to hear throughout our journey – repeatedly. Water boils in around 3-5 minutes and you don’t have to use ‘kembo’ (charcoal) so it’s also environmentally friendly. All that’s needed is to forage around for a few dry sticks, grass, and/or leaves, and a box of matches.
That evening, one of the local villagers came by our campsite with a very much alive cockerel dangling from his hand, its legs tied together with a piece of string. And, after much passing around, and prodding, poking, squeezing of limbs – with indignant clucking from the wide-eyed bird – by Abdou and our Guinea guides, it was considered good enough for us to purchase for dinner the next evening.
The next morning, we were woken at 5 am by the ‘call to prayer, as the muezzin’s voice echoed loudly over the crackling PA system. Once we’d all breakfasted, with the source of the River Gambia tantalizingly close by, first we set off to visit the source of another nearby river – the River Komba. During our research for previous expeditions, relating to the River Gambia, in the archival library of the Royal Geographical Society (Florio being a ‘Fellow’ and all, we make the most of the prodigious library when we are in London, UK) we came across a 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 too wanted to see both.
Once we’d seen the source of the Komba, we made the short walk, across the fields and down the blustery, rock-strewn, hillside (reminiscent of the Yorkshire Moors), to the source of the River Gambia. Protected by a low, red stone, we entered through a tiny gap in the wall, into a copse of trees. Taking our time – we needed time to savour this momentous occasion. We had, after all, been planning this very occasion together for many months. The all-consuming laborious expedition pre-production made it hard to believe that we would actually reach this point. Yet, here we were, on a gloriously tropical West African morning, about to see what it was that had drawn us to this place.
“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”.
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 lot further into our journey, once we got our canoes onto the River Gambia, to paddle from the borders of the Fouta Djallon Highlands, into Senegal, and on towards Banjul, The Gambia where the river gradually widens to over 10km wide, and finally into the Atlantic Ocean – 1120km’s away from the source. A source of life and income for thousands of people through all three West African countries – including our Gambian teammates: fisherman, Abdou, and Ebou. For them, seeing the source, had a much deeper meaning, perhaps, than our romantic notion of 19th Century explorers. With incredulity and wonderment, “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.It was an emotional moment for each of us.
We all drank from the tiny pool. The water was sublime in its coolness and freshness. We filled our bottles. Souvenirs to take home with us. Abdou and Ebou said that they will give a capful of the water to their family and friends. Florio and I decide that we will make tea for our friends with ours when we returned to New York next year.
On our last night in the village, standing outside our tent, the full moon lighting up the pasture, I looked up the zero-light-pollution star-crammed sky and it was difficult to imagine being anywhere else. When on the road, it’s times such as this that remind me of how much we take for granted – by taking a moment to stop, absorb, and allow the pleasure of the simple beauty of what surrounds us to sink in.
It’s been a long journey to reach the source of one of Africa’s last free-flowing mighty rivers, but worth every bone-juddering mile. However, in retrospect, it’s easy to gloss over the arduous journey up the mountains. Next, we have to get back down those very mountains…which would turn out to be nine coccyx-shaking hours on the back of moto-taxis! To be continued…