National Geographic Society Newsroom

William Stamps Cherry Expedition: Slowly North

We got out of camp at 06h58 with the old roadbed more or less discernable. My left leg was still killing me in the night, that filarial worm gnawing away at my sciatic nerve. If it is like last time, it will just pass by and it will get better. Meanwhile, I just kept plying myself...

We got out of camp at 06h58 with the old roadbed more or less discernable. My left leg was still killing me in the night, that filarial worm gnawing away at my sciatic nerve. If it is like last time, it will just pass by and it will get better. Meanwhile, I just kept plying myself with heavy doses of Paracetamol. We passed from savanna to bako and back again. The bakos had a dense weedy understory and few big trees, typical of these dry forests of eastern CAR.

image001There were no signs of large mammals, except for the occasional dig of an aardvark — but a smell filled the air that brought me back to walking old logging roads back in the 1980s. It was coming from a plant we were hacking our way through the local people call para-Bokassa, since it appeared here during Emperor Bokassa’s time. It is a horrible invasive weed that is poisonous to cattle, that according to observations from overflights, has spread in the east like wildfire just in the past five years.

image003The problem for us today is that the weed forms a dense understory that slows you to a snail’s pace. In the longer term it poses a serious threat to the intact nature of the savannas in the east. Already in overgrazed areas in the Bambari area this plant is almost monodominant over hundreds of thousands of hectares. In Cherry’s time this plant didn’t exist.

image005The other plant that brought back memories along our route was the grass called Streptogyna crinita. It’s seed heads attached to my leg hairs en masse,  since I was in shorts. I was ending up with huge balls of them that I had to yank off, making ripping tape off your skin feel like child’s play.

Mango Trees Indicate no Elephants for Decades

After completely losing the road shortly after our departure around 08h00, we ran into two old mango trees, a sure sign we were close to the road. If you know anything about elephants it is that they cannot resist mangos; they will lay down all of their defenses to eat one. They also bark isolated trees like these, which is a good indicator of their presence. I could see that these two trees had been heavily barked until maybe 40 years ago or so. Now there is no sign of any barking at all, not one single little mark.

image009There were also lots of old seeds on the ground, which meant that not even monkeys or duikers were picking them up. My guys said that it was the Vobandji people who inhabitited these villages where the mangos were. Further upstream they would have been replaced by the Togbo and then beyond that the Honda. Everyone here still speaks their tribal language, and Sangho.

We hit our first creek and I knew we were back on the colonial road, there was a dike and a rock crossing construction, otherwise we wouldn’t have known we were on a trail. One look at that rock crossing, and my guys said “R-boeuf”, which is what they call the colonial forced labor. I am sure that this was the footpath that Cherry had walked that the colonials would have just followed and fashioned into a road with an extraordinary amount of manual labor.

Around 09h00 we hit a Mbororo camp that was relatively recent, and cattle tracks started to become common. A large trail came in from the SW.  Most of the grass had yet to burn. It made it confusing, because the cattle trails were leading us off the road, but seemed to come back to it.

Finally on the Cherry Trail

We broke the five-kilometer mark and my mind started wondering because of the slow going. I was thoroughly enjoying being out in the woods. I thought “after these years of dreaming about Cherry’s walk I am finally on the Cherry trail”. I could easily imagine what he had seen because I have seen forest and savanna in the CAR, like he saw, full of wildlife. Yet I was not obsessing about the lack of wildlife. I was walking in the woods, that is what makes me happy, one foot in front of the other, a new place, every minute. A place you will probably never come back to. Therefore it only has import at the very moment you pass by. Its history is interesting, but you don’t need to lament the past, or defend the future, simply pass it by, observe it and let your body get fit, breath fresh air, have your feet on the bare Earth. Even getting scratched and bruised felt good; I knew that in days my body would be tough.

I thought that this part of Africa is one of the last places on the planet that still has no state. That is what has not changed since Cherry’s feet walked on this same soil.

I thought that this part of Africa is one of the last places on the planet that still has no state. That is what has not changed since Cherry’s feet walked on this same soil. It is a crossroads and people, most coming just to exploit resources, walking, so making no claim to it, but also not caring about its future, a blessing for those in the moment, but a disaster for those who desire to build a nation.

I thought, “I need to walk the entire east of the country before it gets tamed by the United Nations and the U. S. special forces”. I love places where there is anarchy, where humans live only by their wits and primitive rules, where only the immediate counts. There are no banks, no money, only forward, not back.

I also started to think about the gun we had. It wasn’t your typical handmade or Russian Baikal 12 gauge, but an over and under European shotgun. We would be passing some villages eventually and the problem with this gun is you couldn’t take it apart so we would have been forced to just kind of stroll through town with it, probably not a good idea for a white man who didn’t have the proper paperwork, even though I was not using the gun. So I told the guys we were going to stash it while we were still close to our starting point. I was sure we could buy meat or fish along the way. The gun was just a handicap.

Raymond looked at me in amazement. For him it was like a cowboy film where you are giving up your gun in Indian territory: unthinkable. He said “y yeke gwe na ni” (we will take it). I said, on second thought, “y yeke za ni ma”. Only by executive order did they leave the gun behind. It was as if I asked them to take their clothes off.

Certainly Cherry never walked without his rifle and had his revolver on him at all times. But in his time life had less value, again everything is relative, people were being killed every day, so he probably needed protection. I have always felt that guns, no matter what the level of violence, can be a mixed blessing.

Three Species of Pigs

We passed by a spot where red river hogs (mbengue-Nzakara) had dug up a patch of roots. This is one of the few places on Earth where there are three species of pigs living in the same area. Even though it is good habitat, we didn’t see any bongo tracks. It is the mainstay of the safari industry here, but it also has delectable meat. Herve said hunting them is extremely difficult, so they will never go extinct. That is what they said about the passenger pigeon, I am sure.

We settled for the night on a creek that had just enough flow to gather water for dinner. There were black and white colobus calling and a De Brazzas monkey gave the single note call that gives him away. Sitting around the camp fire, reviewing the day I said: “a doli a ga nduru ti undzi awé”(the elephants are starting to disappear). They said “a undzi”, they’re finished. Herve said the last place where there are any elephants left is near the confluence of the Chinko and the Kotscho. Makes sense — this is where the Chinko Project and CAWA safaris are based.

They blamed the “braconniers,” poachers, saying that they themselves were incapable of finishing off the elephants. Raymond talked of the Sudanese poachers entering Zaire and the military came in and killed them except two. He said if the braconniers are not controlled, the elephant will go extinct soon here. They told me that people get into that zone, that Yaccoma in pirogues go all the way beyond the Chinko-Vovodo confluence in dugouts. They seemed to think that blocking this bottleneck would be a good idea. Here these guys were elephant poachers only a couple of weeks ago, but even they realize that it is the end now.

We had brought along two cartons of cigarettes. Herve asked me if I would be selling cigarettes tonight. Then I remembered I had asked him how much cigarettes sold for in the bush. They are used to getting ripped off by fellow man so they couldn’t imagine that I would just give them cigarettes. I told him they were free for the taking. First I blew their mind by leaving the gun behind and I did it again with the cigarettes.

I asked them about the Mbororo teaming up with the Seleka. They said they did in Bangassou, Zako and Bakouma. They said that the villagers took care of that in Bangassou and that the “Ougandais” (the UPDF, United People’s Defense Force or Ugandan Army) killed 18 Seleka in Zako and stationed men there. The UPDF came here with the American special forces to track down Kony and LRA, but since the reversal of Seleka have been assisting in securing generally the country.

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. This link contains all of Fay’s dispatches.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

J. Michael Fay
Mike Fay has spent his life as a naturalist—from the Sierra Nevadas and the Maine woods as a boy, to Alaska and Central America in college, to North Africa and the depths of the central African forest and savannas for the last 25 years. He has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx since 1991. In 1996, Fay flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997, he walked the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles, surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. Called Megatransect, this work led to a historic initiative by the Gabonese government to create a system of 13 national parks, making up some 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers). In 2004, he completed the Megaflyover, an eight-month aerial survey of the entire African continent. He logged 800 hours and took 116,000 vertical images of human impact and associated ecosystems, many of which are now visible on Google Earth. In 2008 Fay completed the Redwood Transect, a new project to learn more about the redwood forest. He walked the entire range of the redwood tree, over 700 miles. Since then he has participated in the 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro National Park, and is a regular team member of fellow NG Explorer Enric Sala's Pristine Seas Expeditions, recording the life and land above the waves.