The first order of business was to meet the guys that David had found who would accompany me on my voyage. Both were known elephant poachers, their names: Raymond and Hervé. David said that they didn’t quite trust him yet, nor he they, but that they would probably loosen up over the days and keep me safe. I greeted my future team, “Barao, a la yeke da”. The tension eased, “He speaks Sangho” they thought. That means to them that not only do I speak the lingua franca, but I understand Central Africans, I know the tribes, the culture; our communication could be smooth, meaningful.
Quickly, I found out that Raymond was actually an Azandé from south of the Uelé River in what these guys were still calling Zaire. He poached elephants there too, but fled to CAR when Desiré Kabila made his blitzkrieg across the Congo in 1997 to take Kinshasa by force. He said their was too much instability and wanton killing in Zaire. Guess everything is relative. He settled in Rafai and Bangassou and continued to poach elephants north of the border.
Hervé on the other hand, was Nzakara from Rafai on the Mbomou River, that forms the border between Zaire and the CAR. He was born and raised and has never in his entire life been 20 miles east, west or south of where he was born, except to poach elephants. His hunting always takes him on foot to the north, in the very zone we found ourselves today. He said that he has shot tens of elephants in the past but the elephants were more or less gone now, just single individuals or very small groups that spend their lives being chased by roving bands of poachers like him.
They both said that the average hunt after you have seen a track these days is several days long and is often fruitless. Of course they blame the destruction on the “braconniers” (code for Sudanese poachers); it is always the other guy. Neither knew how old they were, saying that they didn’t know how to read or write, but Raymond was in his fifties and Hervé in his fourties. Both seemed in good physical condition and bush-worthy. They asked if they could bring a third. I assumed it was a young buck who would wash, cook and carry the heaviest load, so I said yes.
I asked them about Ratto, the village from where Cherry often went hunting and used to set off on his push to the Kotto from on the east side of the Mbari. They had never heard of it. They did say though that the old footpath from before the colony passed further from the forest than the current Rafai-Fode road.
We would attempt to find Ratto tomorrow, but it seemed unlikely given the scarcity of information we had about the longitude and latitude of the place. David said that the safari hunters had opened the road into that area and that one of his Toyotas would drop us off there in the morning.
I asked if they were ready to go further than they had ever been, into Banda country where the Seleka Rebels were thick in the diamond camps. They were quiet and hesitant, but because they would be getting paid handsomely compared to a normal day’s wage, they would have said yes to any path I might propose.
We set off for the storeroom to prep for the trip. They had both spent the past day making rattan backpacks they use for everything out here, including carrying elephant meat. We entered the dark hut made of grass and placed all that I brought from Bangui on the ground: smoked fish, sardines, hooks, dried beef, spaghetti, couscous, coffee, tea, sugar, dried milk, salt, oil, red pepper, peanut butter, tomato paste, standard bush fare, anti-malarials. I also brought a healthy supply of pain killers because I think I have a filaria worm in my sciatic nerve which is killing me.
We would add rice and manioc flour from local stock and go with a 12 ga shotgun and a couple dozen shells.
I bought way over what I thought we would need, but they decided to take everything including enough hooks for a year-long fishing expedition. The total was probably 75 kg with the personal gear that they would bring. The third guy was in his twenties and looked strong, so I figured if they were willing to haul the stuff it was OK with me. I was going to be going light.
I then distributed the three matchettes that I bought along with a file, which brought big smiles. Matchettes are like spears, used out here by the Bantu for self defense. We went to the guy with the grinder and put a sharp edge on them because they come in a pretty raw state.
Now my men were packed and ready, the young guy with over 30 kg and Raymond, the senior African with my backpack, with less then 25 kg, and of course me with 10 kg.
The camp was loud: generator, grinders, welding, pounding, construction and mechanics. These Chinko Project guys have been here for some years hunting, but now they are creating a conservation zone, the last stand for wildlife out here.
Logistics is everything. It is costing them over $10,000 to rent a single truck that is taking over a month from Bangui at present. There are road blocks by every imaginable entity, both legitimate and not, and they all want something. If you’re lucky it is a pack of smokes or a loaf of bread; or if not lucky, your life. It is a miracle that anything gets through. Most of the roads in this country hardly exist anymore, all the secondary roads have reverted to foot or bicycle paths.
I spent the rest of the day charging batteries, looking over my route and reading Cherry’s journal from his voyage.
Follow Mike Fay as he retraces William Cherry’s footsteps, sharing the experience in words, photos, video, maps, and social media: Expedition Through the Heart of Africa.