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Heart of Africa Expedition: Desolation in the Long Grass

We are still traveling north on the Yalinga trail, should hit the Bria-Yalinga road today with a little luck. My leg just seems to be getting worse, I can’t even reach my sandal to put it on without sharp nerve pain through my leg. I am sure it is just a filarial worm in there...

We are still traveling north on the Yalinga trail, should hit the Bria-Yalinga road today with a little luck. My leg just seems to be getting worse, I can’t even reach my sandal to put it on without sharp nerve pain through my leg. I am sure it is just a filarial worm in there that will pass without a trace.

We saw a couple of groups of baboons, a duiker and a flock of crested guinea fowl, more game than we have seen in days. We have come into savanna with more Daniellia trees here; these guys are like the sentinels of the savanna. There are some majestic trees in this bush, someday somebody is going to get the idea that there are billions of dollars worth of wood to extract here. At least that has not happened yet, but it will.

As we get closer to Yalinga it is obvious that we are not going to find a short-cut to get to the main Yalinga Brea road. I took the executive decision to go cross-country here, even though the road to Yalinga is large from here, it also takes us way out of our way to the Ndjé River. The boys were not happy because a lot of the grass is not yet burned and it could end up taking us longer to go 12 km cross country than 40 km on the route. They were a bit freaked out in this country; they are now in Banda, Yakpwa, and Togbo territory and they are not comfortable with that.

There was a second agenda on the deviation too. I wanted to avoid arriving at the Togbo capital on New Year’s Day. There will be a significant number of people who have gotten extremely drunk on manioc white lightening, and that stuff seems to not just intoxicate but renders people crazy. It brings out the meanness — maybe the real them without the patina, but they yell and scream and get into inane arguments.

The Togbo have a reputation for being a bit belligerent, anyway, and with a heavy dose of alcohol and a crowd mentality, there would be no more fun than to start accusing this group of four strangers of all kinds of stuff and mess with us.

The Chinko Project white guys spent several months in prison when they were accused of killing people in a gold camp, which was a complete fabrication, but it was a crowd-pleaser, and worked to their advantage for hunting. I didn’t want to have to ask for help on this trip, no need to if you use your brain. I ate my biltong, drank water and followed suit and went to bed.

We took off on a small Mbororo cattle trail. There was a snare hole dug probably by someone from Yalinga, some warthog holes and aardvark digs; but this trail quickly turned to the south and almost brought us back to the road. This was basically opposite our desired path, with the bow swung around and headed into the wind, as it were. Quickly we were in grass up to our necks, stepping over it like we were in deep snow, reducing our forward speed from about 5 km an hour to about 1.

That hurts if you have 30 kg on your back. At least the backpacks are a bit lighter now. We carried on for hours more, through to 16h00 and still were falling short of the road. I would have continued, we had about 3 km left, but the team wanted to check out a gallery for water and sleep for the night; we would get to the road in the morning first thing.

I had my doubts about water, we are pretty upland, but I conceded. I still had a 1.5 liter bottle of water in my backpack and it was already cool, so while we would not be eating a big meal we would not be dehydrated. I directed us to the gallery that I thought had the best chance of water. Raymond stayed behind and Hervé and Felix went off on a water quest.

There were lots of honey bees and my leg was still giving electric shock waves every time I moved, but I walked around to avoid them. Raymond made a camp, but with little energy; he also knew we were going to have a dry camp. To the Africans this means that they are not going to eat, which seriously bums them out. I could just eat some beef jerky, drink a cup of tea and be done with it. People are so fragile.

It was already getting dark. I asked Raymond if Hervé and Felix had brought their flashlights. Just then they came back, empty-handed. It was official now, no water. The team just kind of crumpled onto their mats, not pouting, but dejected. I just had water and biltong in the cool and quiet air and smiled thinking about Yalinga and the raucous behavior there tonight.


The west side of the Mbari was not as Cherry described, full of elephants and huge fish. The fishing is now only mediocre and the game, by my guys’ account, has been eliminated. Only baboons and warthogs remain, and even at that we saw only one warthog the entire way. There are no villages either, only Fode and Yalinga, with a total of less than a thousand people. Whereas Cherry probably crossed 10, we crossed none. The road has been abandoned for decades.

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.

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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.