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Heart of Africa Expedition: Off to the Ndjé River

I was up by 6, just after day break; the Chief’s daughters were already making the fire and sweeping up. They were giving me flirtatious looks; the oldest was maybe 13, she already had a baby but still had the look of a young girl. I tried to ignore them and get some coffee, which...

I was up by 6, just after day break; the Chief’s daughters were already making the fire and sweeping up. They were giving me flirtatious looks; the oldest was maybe 13, she already had a baby but still had the look of a young girl. I tried to ignore them and get some coffee, which at my age is what I find more interesting in the morning. My men were up a bit after me; they started making a meal of manioc and sardines.

We were going to walk to the Ndjé River on the village trail today. We chatted with the chief’s son-in-law who had just come back from the river. He was big bones and had that northern look about him. His name was Hissain Ndobe, he said he was Sara-Ndele, and had come here for the diamonds and had settled in the village. He was married to the 13-year-old; he must have been 35. Nice enough guy, but had that northern pride which made it difficult to know if he was being friendly or not. I suspect that he is actually from Chad. He said the walk to the river was about a 6-hour walk. He had been fishing. He said that there were no big fish left on the Ndjé, showing his hand as a guage of the size that you catch.

I made a tour of the village to try and get some shots. I quickly met up with a kid who had a cell phone, a real piece of junk. They also had one of those cheap solar panels. He said it cost 15,000 CFA. It must have worked because there were a few phones attached to the charger. Turns out these guys were from Zaco, here to trade for fish and meat and bring sugar and salt, etc. He was only about 15. I asked if he wanted to take video with my camera. He jumped at the occasion and of course all of a sudden everyone in the village wanted to get their picture taken.

I played with the kids and their bicycle rim “kutu kutu” that they push with sticks. There are a few universals in African villages and that seems to be one of them. There was a guy selling medicines spread on old flour sacks on the ground. He was from Bria. Mostly pain killers, antibiotics and pills that take away fatigue. There were kids hawking clothes, “makala” fritters, “mangbere” manioc sticks, and fried sweet potatoes. I bought some fritters for the morning coffee and we made our prep for the walk.

Hissain said we would cross six creeks before we got to the big river : Ngoulia, Machi, Pea 1, 2 and 3, and Kala. He said the trail was well marked and that we would find people there at the river fishing. I didn’t really have an idea about how we would get down stream; Hissain said that there were Mbororo trails on the far side of the river that we could use.

I headed out with the boys. Of course, immediately they started talking about the girls. Felix had his eyes on the 11-year-old daughter of the chief, the others were more interested in the 13-year-old that was flirting with me, and of course Hissain’s wife. I said to Hervé there are no “misiki ti wali”, gesturing breasts pointing up with the my index fingers. He said no, they circumcise them and then as soon as they are ready they “rip” them and they immediately have their first baby. How sad to miss your adolescence that quickly; the age of innocence passes directly to motherhood.

The trail was a major 2+ human trail. The bokassa was mostly thick along the path, there were signs of Mbororo cattle. I was out in front and only about 500 m from the village I saw a red-flanked duiker. I thought that is one smart duiker to have survived a village that probably has as many shotguns as male inhabitants. As I walked, I thought no one here even knows where China is or that there is a NYSE. Even though the world news reaches here via HF radio, it is meaningless.

All that matters here is security, food and childbearing. Sickness and death are just taken in stride. The fact that there are no schools, no medical facitities, no road, no fossil fuel, really didn’t seem to make a hoot of difference to those kids rolling their bicycle rims. I have a PhD, they not the slightest notion of an education, and yet we communicated perfectly about what matters to them. Humanity is so comprehensible wherever you go on Earth; we really are all the same.

Looking at the savanna with the bokassa, I am with the Africans. I think that over time, as bokassa keeps the fires from burning, there will be an inevitable advance of the forest that they say is already happening very quickly. The rainfall is great enough here and bokassa areas can’t be grazed; it is poisonous. Then eventually the bokassa is shaded out by forest trees. I saw this in a camp I built along the Sangha River. It was an enormous patch of bokassa and within ten years it was forest.

All along the trail people had dug up wild yams. This is a practice that is common in the pygmy populations, but I have never been in an area where they Bantu systematically dig them up.

There were beautiful Daniellia trees and campfires at the creeks where people stop for a bit to eat, probably yams. There were also lots of Draceana and Euphorbia trees; it reminded me of the dry forests in northern CAR that I knew.

Every kilometer there was a fresh, spent 12 ga. shell or two, and the odd feather of a guinea fowl, of the forest variety, or the great blue touraco.

The trail was deep and well traveled, with plenty of bicycle tracks. This was a thoroughfare to the happy hunting grounds. Normally in Gabon today, the human trails give way to animal trails after about 5 km from a village, and then to massive elephant trails 10-15 km in. Here there are no more large mammal trails, just the human variety, and they go many tens of kilometers into the bush and are good enough to ride a bike or even a 125 motorcycle in a lot of places.

The creeks were clear and cool, with lots of times Mytragyna swamps, just like Cherry described, except that now there are not sandy bottoms for the most part but mud bottoms from the cattle and diamond prospecting.

After a few hours we took a rest. The boys were still carrying heavy loads, but we added some sugar and a few manbere from the village. I brought up the extinction of the elephant. Felix said that there was a small area in the Chinko Safari Zone that still had elephants. He had seen their tracks last year when the grass started getting tall. Then Herve gave a more sanguine assessment. He said that there were virtually no more elephants and that at least in his world they were teetering on sure extinction. He said that the elephants have modified their behavior so that in the dry season they virtually don’t move at all; they find a spot and they stay there, eat everything they can, and then go to another zone only when they have to. He said “ala inga a zo a yeke gi ala la kwe,” they know people are looking for them.

Then he described exactly what had observed in Chad with Annie the collared elephant. He said that they know where the roads are. He said they wait until nightfall and them run across the road, “a la kpe la use ota avant ti tene ala luti”, they put two or three days of running between them and the road once they cross.

He said he had followed elephants like this for up to 10 days, only to track them down and to shoot them. This is exactly what we saw in the Gounda with the last of the central African black rhinos in the mid 1980s. First there were very few, then in 1985 in our area they were extinct. The Sudanese horsemen had run them down and killed every last one. Virtually everyone you see beyond the village boundary is armed. Even if you have a “fabrication” 12 ga., homemade that is, you always have an elephant slug or two just in case. They make them themselves, but used lead is rare out here so they melt the 00 from fresh shells into slugs.

I thought about this bokassa. I spent four years studying the vegetation of much of CAR. I spent a whole year collecting plants and learning its uses for over 250 species from a Banda Linda in 1980.   This was in Bambari, the epicenter of western Mbororo, and also an enormous blight of bokassa that from the air turns the countryside into a strange lavender. I have no recollection of this plant until I got to the forests of the SW of CAR, where it grew in sunnier areas on old logging roads. Strange to see it invading areas where I have said more than once in my life that well, if the large mammals are gone it least the habitat will be there.

When human use reaches a certain point, especially when it is grazing with too many cattle, the soil erodes, gets impoverished and leaves it exposed to invasion from Central American weeds. But humanity is far from over in the CAR. Most of this country is green and has rich soils, the vast areas of savanna forests have yet to be emptied of their noble woods, and cultivation has not even really begun. This is no place for cows really; the highest and best use for humans would be agriculture, and thus it will be so. One only has to fly in an small airplane a short way to the SE to find humans in densities thought to be impossible, where there is no native vegetation at all over enormous areas. It is human landscape.

We reached what we thought was Kala creek and we weren’t sure how far the river was, and mostly my team was tired. They didn’t do any drinking or carousing in the village, which shows their ill ease being outside their tribal zone. They had that kind of quiet, disquieted look about them. This was as far from home as Herve had ever been and we were in the thick of Sudanese Mbororo, Tongo Tongo, Seleka zone, not to mention that they have had a mixed history with the Banda of all kinds.

There had been no large mammal sign on the trail it. It stayed huge and well worn, unmistakable, the whole 27 kilometers of it so far. We heard a group of pogoniaS monkeys and that duiker in the beginning. But these guys are willing to go a very long way for a little bit if meat protein, esp. when they have to flee into the forest. We saw a kid with a 12 ga the other day headed to Bria, more than 200 km away, to sell maybe 10 kg of meat, a few dried monkeys.

We slept early.

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.