VOICES Ideas and Insight From Explorers
We were cruising along through the bush and suddenly I thought I heard voices to the west. We stopped and could see two guys walking along at a rather fast clip with 4 burros with small loads and a single very skinny cow. They didn’t see us and we waited untill they got real close to greet them: “Assalama ou aleekum,” Yaya said. “Aleekum salum”, I think they didn’t realize yet we were not fellow herders. Then they saw us and veered off.
Today was short because I didn’t want to take any chances with Herve. I have been pumping him full of salt and sugar for the past 36 hours and he has gone from looking like death warmed over to just about his old self. It is amazing how dehydration can kill you real fast if you don’t get the electrolytes back in the system.
We took a rest at a spot where we were next to the Chinko, and when we getting up I could see Herve was walking real slow. I said, you are walking like an old man. He said “stomach worms are bothering me, I have been throwing up”. He looked like hell.
Seems like we have been on the trail for a long time now. That is a good thing. It means we are in the rhythm of the walk. What has been left behind is left behind and when you get up in the morning you can’t wait to go because you are going ever deeper into the unknown.
The guys were not super happy to get out of bed this morning after the first-day walk blues from yesterday. It is not the distance, it is the weight. We crossed the Chinko right away to avoid a creek on our side. Turns out it was a mistake, the grass hadn’t been burned on the opposite side, which makes going ten times slower.
We camped out with the Chinko Project Team. They left us at the confluence of the Chinko and the Mboutou. This is as far as the dirt track leads, from there to the South Sudan border it is foot only.
Africa explorer-conservationist J. Michael Fay is in the Central African Republic for the next six weeks, completing an expedition he started in 2014, retracing as best he can the footsteps of the 19th Century American Game Hunter-Explorer William Stamps Cherry. Fay, a former National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and recipient of numerous National Geographic Society grants, has also worked for decades for the Wildlife Conservation Society. His transects through some of Africa’s remote wildernesses (Megatransect and Meglaflyover) rank among the most significant in the history of exploration of the continent.
I arrived in the far east of the Central African Republic for what may be my last trip to follow in the footsteps of William Stamps Cherry. The war has settled down here, but there are large parts of the country, in particular about the entire eastern half, that are still in the hands of the Seleka. They are calling Ndele, their former capital, by the name that Cherry would have known it: Dar al Kouti. For these Seleka, the colonial era was just that, a short period in history when their raiding over large parts of central Africa were curtailed. In Cherry’s time it was primarily for slaves and ivory. Today, because slaves are hard to sell and elephants have become so rare in this country, Muslims coming from the north poach wildlife and graze cattle.
I was only about 70 km from Zacco and against my better judgement had negotiated another bush motorcycle ride the night before. The bike, they told me, was not working, but it would be by morning. Sure enough our 6 am departure was not a bit delayed, so when 09h00 rolled around I had to play scary monster, yelling at the guys who were now jacking me around and not being serious. I said that if we were not out of there in 30 minutes I was pulling the plug on the operation. Of course that was a totally impossible threat to execute because there was only two bikes in this whole area.
I like war zones, not only are they exciting, but the way I do it, without a gun or aggression, is like I am walking on a deadly chess board and every move I make could be fatal. But what I find is once you get good at the game, it is easy to win. Yes you have to have a strategy, knowledge, language and know how to ally yourself as you pass from one group to the other, scare them with words when necessary, and outthink them. This is exactly what Cherry mastered so long ago.
At 09h55 we hit the destination that I had been dreaming about for days, for years, the confluence of the Kotto and the Ndjé — the place so thick with wildlife that it was described as a hunter’s paradise by William Stamps Cherry just over a century ago. I have read his account a hundred times. Nothing has been left to see, the hunters paradise is no more. Millions of animals have been eliminated from the planet.
We wait around for the guys who said they would come, but never did. What the heck, let’s just go downstream and see where the path takes us. I decided to let the guys go out front today; I felt like a slow concentrated pace.
So of course what happened this morning is the bike guy wanted way too much money. I told him go take a leap. I already gave him 10,000, which is more than a fair wage, especially since it was just a make-work job. Then also the bigger deal was that my boys wanted to take…
I was up at 06h00 with the whole village. Fires were already lit, water was already hot to wash my eyes, as they say — and the coffee was on. What more could a guy want. I sent a kid out to buy some fritters, but there were none.
Pretty quick the drunk dude from last night showed up. I gathered his name was Sim. He made the same proposition as the day before. They would take me downstream all the way to the confluence.
It was foolish to continue; if anything I needed manpower to push my log over the rocks, probably every 500 meters along the river. So executive decision, abandon the pirogue. I was still only 2 km in a straight line to the camp and decided I would walk out to the village and decide on my next move.