at Hotel La Perroquet, in Ziguinchor, Senegal. Dusk was closing in, as Florio and I sat drinking a blissfully trés chaud Flag, overlooking the Casamance River. After a week of shooting out in the field, in a hot-as-Hades climate, around northern Senegal and then in the Casamance region, down in the south, it was well-deserved!
We’ll be posting more images from our current West Africa travels soon.
On a recent photo assignment, with Jason Florio, we spent a day on a pirogue meandering through the network of bolongs – tributaries – of the River Gambia, following a group of oyster women as they harvested the mangroves for oysters (more on that assignment – and Jason’s photos – once the story has been published). It’s extremely labour-intensive work for such a meager return on sales. We paid 35Dalasi (about 56p / 70¢) for a small cupful at the market, today, where there is prolific competition from other oyster-vendors.
Being on the water, here in the Gambia, always reminds of our River Gambia Expedition – a 1044km source-sea journey, spanning over three countries. We came across a group of oyster women, who were harvesting, smoking, and shucking the oysters near to our campsite – readying them to sell at the local market.
During our time canoeing the length of the River Gambia, on our exploration of the people whose livelihoods depend on the river, we spent each night wild camping on the river bank – whether it be camping on a sandbank in the middle of the river (burning a fire all night long to deter the hippos!), on rocky outcrops miles from the nearest village and, at other times, on the edge of a village, if it was near enough to the river.
On this particular day, we arrived mid-afternoon into the village of Kuntaur, situated on the banks of the river. We had stayed in the village before, whilst on our 2009 ‘A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush‘. We set up our campsite in the grounds of a small riverbank lodge and, as had become the norm, our arrival instantly attracted hordes of local kids – shouting and screaming, all vying for our attention, fascinated with our tents and equipment – before the caretaker of the lodge shooed them away, “atchayah! atchayah!” (go away, get lost! A Mandinka word Gambians use to scatter mischievous kids and the scores of scavenging bush dogs alike!).
As we were about to settle down for a well-deserved cup of tea, having paddled almost 33km that day – a tough, exhausting 10km of it against the tide – we noticed a young boy, out on the river, in a local pirogue that looked far too big for him to handle on his own. We called him over and he paddled towards us with such ease and dexterity, as if he was steering a small rubber dinghy and not a heavy wooden dugout canoe, carved from a tree trunk.
Sunday 12th October, 2014 – 9.30am, Jinack Island-Banjul, The Gambia
We clambered aboard what resembled a huge Canadian style canoe – which we were about to go way out into the Atlantic Ocean in, to our next destination, Banjul Port, as part of our walk along the Gambia coastline; “it is only perhaps 45 minutes“, our captain assures me, as he takes in my ashen pallor and white knuckles, as I grip the narrow wooden plank I’m sitting on, whilst trying to balance myself in the middle of the rocking boat. He hands out bright orange life jackets, which look suspiciously like the kind you get on an airplane. It may only be a few miles, across to Banjul, but it’s still the bloody ocean, and, for someone who was born, and spent the first six years of her life, across the road from the North Sea, I have an irrational fear of wide open water. That, coupled with the fact that I nearly drowned in the Atlantic, whilst swimming, on one of my very early trips to The Gambia! However, that’s another story… .
Don’t get me wrong, I have a deep respect and fondness for the ocean and there are times when nothing is more satisfying then sitting, looking out at an infinite, vast body of water, contemplating life, love, the universe… . I just don’t want to be bobbing around on what I class, in my mind, as the high seas, in relatively small, seemingly flimsy, wooden boat!
We didn’t exactly get off to a great start either, as the motor died a couple of times, due to lack of fuel, before we even reached the tip of Jinack Island, which would take us into the Atlantic proper. The plan was to stop and get fuel from one the three small villages, situated at the tip of the island, and which are officially in Senegalese waters – the island being bisected by the Senegal border.
Jinack (or ‘Ginack’ – ‘in front of the water’), is an exquisite narrow spit of land, the furthest point North of The Gambia, ‘self-policed’, we were told, by the local villagers, all related in one way or another. Which is why, apparently, the island is so ‘peaceful’ – everyone knows everyone, thereby making it difficult to get away with anything remotely nefarious. On one side, the balong and mangroves, and the other side, white sandy beaches and the wide open waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
After picking up the fuel, knowing that we were about to head out to sea, leaving the gloriously calming waters of the balong behind, I hastily donned my life jacket, hoping it would make me feel somewhat secure. It didn’t. My shoulders, already stiff from the tension of gripping the plank I was sitting on, I keep my eyes dead ahead, on the horizon – hoping that it wasn’t just a myth – and that, in doing so, it would prevent me from the projectile disgorging of my recently ingested breakfast! I willed the shores of distant Banjul to come nearer. I comforted myself with the fact that It didn’t really look that far… did it? .
‘Hang on… aren’t we going in the wrong direction?’, as the captain steered the pirogue out to sea – my words immediately carried away by the wind and, or, lost in the sound of the boat engine. Surely it would be quicker to head diagonally across, towards Banjul?! In my horizon view is the elderly steersman, standing up at the helm of the boat, in his bright orange life jacket, making a series of signals – pointing, or moving either arm up or down, whilst shaking his head, as if to say ‘no, keep straight ahead‘ – guiding the captain through the choppy waters. “There are many sandbanks, out here in the ocean“, Amadou, the manager from Jinack Lodge, tells me “see, where the water breaks?“. He didn’t need to expand on what would happen should we accidentally run aground on one.
We had, on our previous River Gambia Expedition, experienced getting lodged on a sand bank in the middle of the river. Fortunately, the tide was low and we had been able to get out and drag our relatively light, rubberized, canoes to deeper water. Something we most certainly wouldn’t be able to do, with this huge hulk of solid wood, in the middle of the ocean!
They make this crossing two or three times a week – sometimes, daily, in the high season, to pick up guests and supplies – instantly becomes my mantra; as I continue to stare straight ahead, whilst trying hard to distract myself by thinking of other, more enjoyable, persuit’s. Meanwhile, the pirogue rears up and down, undulating over the waves, freezing salt water splashing my face and soaking my clothes . Hey, look on the bright side, I think, if we are tipped overboard, I could always swim back to New York! So much for distracting myself.
“So, Amadou, in the worst case scenario, such as running out of fuel...” No! Jason voices exactly what my mind is trying hard not to focus on, as if by doing so, it would be somehow karmic once the words were out there in the universe. But, I do want, need, to know. “We call for another boat” Amadou casually replies . “We can almost always get a phone signal out here“, looking pointedly at me, he reassures. “Or, we sit and wait for another boat to pass by“. Fortunately, the waters are fished twice daily, so passing pirogues aren’t that few and far between, in the morning and late afternoon, at least. However, I’m not sure how long it would take for help to reach us if we were to be toppled overboard. Cellphones and (salt) water aren’t particularly well-matched.
Jason checks his phone credit, and battery charge, before dropping his cellphone into a waterproof bag (courtesy of Overboard, who supported the River Gambia journey), and attaching it to his belt with a carabiner. Ever the master of a contingency plan, is Mr Florio – thankfully.
There was a moment, midway into the crossing, when I realised I could perhaps relax somewhat, as the steersman – who I had been scrutinizing, just as closely as I did flight attendants (watching for any tiny muscle twitch, in their outwardly perfect composure, when the plane suddenly hits a pocket of turbulence, which might indicate the need to grab the life jacket beneath my seat!), ceased gesticulating and proceeded to sprawl across the helm, before seemingly falling asleep!
Clearly, we reached Banjul without any high seas drama (aside from the one that was going on in my head during the entire crossing!), in just under and hour; which felt more like four to me, as I uncurled each stiff finger from the plank I’d been clenching.
That day, I conquered a fear. However, that’s not to say that I would be in any great hurry to do that particular journey again!