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Heart of Africa Expedition: Downstream Solo

Donatian and crew started packing at 07h00. The two kids were freezing, none of them had a blanket; Honore not even a sheet, just his coat. It took them over an hour to get the three huge piles of meat placed just right on the back of the bikes. They estimated about 125 kg per...

Donatian and crew started packing at 07h00. The two kids were freezing, none of them had a blanket; Honore not even a sheet, just his coat. It took them over an hour to get the three huge piles of meat placed just right on the back of the bikes. They estimated about 125 kg per bike, so if you are peddling that is over 200kg packed on that little bike. It couldn’t be too far back or the weight balance was off. They had the best tires on the back where all the weight is.

They all had Phoenix brand bikes that come in on trucks from the Khartoum merchants. They sell them in the dry season where there is good supply for 70,000 CFA, and in the wet season for as much as 110,000. They said these are the real bush bikes and Atex tires are the ones you want on the back.

Honore said he was suffering from flat tires the whole way. I asked them if they wanted to sell a leg from a pig, they declined, but gave me a smoked guinea fowl, plus two excellent meals I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I do love guinea fowl, even smoked. I gave them manioc, sugar and coffee for their trip to the village.

It seemed like they had been commissioned for this trip by a woman, that is she bankrolled the trip. They said that they would get 130,000 for the whole lot. That is $250. Including transport, we are talking about three weeks for four guys doing very hard labor, eating poorly, and getting cold. The investment was probably 50,000 between the food and cartridges. Donatian would probably get 40,000, Honore 30,000 and the two kids maybe 10,000 apiece, if they were lucky. I noticed they also had a small pangolin.

The young deformed kid was getting good instruction from Donatian, he was kind to him, but he was probably all of 15 and he would be pushing Donatian’s bike all the way to Bria. He was skinny and frail, but pushed that bike out of camp with all his might. About 75 feet later it had gone bass ackwards and Donatian helped him quietly, no yelling. You only have to spend 24 hours with guys like that to realize what suffering is and what stoicism is.

I also realized that these guys are going to take every last mammal out of this place; there are too many groups of people out here hunting still. Took me right back to 1960 when I collected snakes and lizards with my brothers. I was the punk who had to put his hand down the snake holes and was happy to get enough money to buy some Cokes and French fries. Like these guys, my food I didn’t buy.

Humans will only take care of what they perceive of as theirs, like the Mbororo and their cattle, which have more than 1 to 1 replaced the wildlife here in 40 years. What allows that is modern medicine, anti-sleeping sickness drugs the guys pump into their cattle every day.

Funny I had that same deep sinking feeling in my stomach as these guys left, same feeling I got when I was left alone on Millennium Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. These guys always ask about family. I am somewhat at a loss to tell them I have no wife, no children, no parents and only one brother left. I love my solitude, but human contact is still important for some reason. Guess if you are going to procreate you need to interact with other humans; if you pass on your fitness you need to tend a family. Funny how almost immediately when no one is around I start talking to myself out loud.

My leg is seriously messed up, it is almost impossible for me to turn in the night. I have to push with my hand and get on my knees to flip. I am still convinced it is a filaria worm; trouble is you can’t buy the damn drugs for filaria because they decided to give them away for free — end result is you can’t buy them for love or money. I sat in the bleak camp looking out over the flood plain reflecting on the tens of thousands of ducks, geese, pelicans and other life that was on these rivers, the vultures that came by the hundreds to every carcass, the song birds the filled the air with calls, all just about absent here.

I packed everything, got the pirogue ready with some sticks in the bottom to keep the bag dry, and come 12h07, nobody showed, so I headed out. Shortly out on the river I met a single fisherman in a pirogue. His eyes were real big when he saw me. He said he was out of Bria; it took him three weeks to paddle and pole this far upstream. The water was low, the banks shrouded in Irvingia trees. The water was cold and murky, but clear on the hand and plenty drinkable. Soon his buddy passed too. A bit further down, a small Nile crocodile careened into the water from a sand bank; he was less than 2 m long. At 13h00 I spied fresh hippo tracks on a sand bar.

Then I could hear it… my first rapid; my honeymoon on the river didn’t last long. I reached it, and in a kayak we are talking child’s play, but with a hollowed out log with one person, with a draft of maybe 4 inches, any rapid is a threat. I made it through, somewhat under control but quickly realized that if they got much more rapid I would be in a bind.

As I paddled downstream there were glossy ibises that kept the air alive, along with a Pels fishing owl, fish eagle and another spot with hippo tracks. There were also monkeys: I saw five groups of guereza colobus and agile mangabeys. In one spot they were diving off a branch into the water and swimming about 4 strokes to a snag, guess that is why they call them agile. I also saw a very nice flock of crested guinea fowl below the Irvingia trees. Depressions in the banks where elephants would have once crossed were now abandoned or used by Mbororo for cattle in a few spots. Been a long time since a herd of buffalo of 500 pushed down one of those spots and crossed the river.

At 15h00 I passed two old guys who were true physical specimens. The guy in the back stuttered a “barao,” when I said hello. They were dumbfounded but kept their cool. They said that they were from the village west of Ngoulia, Noungou. In a pirogue you just kind of drift by and 5 minutes later you could have been an apparition. I am sure that only a few white men ever have paddled this river solo, if any.

At 16h30 I met another old guy in a pirogue. I asked him where his camp was. He said just downstream. I asked if I could camp there. He said fine. These guys are all Banda here. Every village has its Ndjé camp to hunt and fish. He said he was done fishing and accompanied me. He guided me through some of the rougher spots where the current can take you up against trees broadside. The whole time I was thinking this is not going to work.

At 17h05 we reached the camp. There were two boys in the camp, a 6-year-old and a 15-year-old. Then another middle-aged guy showed up. They had 2 shotguns as far as I could tell. There were the remains of a waterbuck in the woodpile. They said that they had shot it two days before on the north side of the river. They said it was a rare animal at this point. The meat had already been smoked and transported out to Noungou, and probably on to Bria. They didn’t quite know what to give me to eat. The old guy asked me if I ate fish. I said yes. He went down and got fish from the river that he was saving as bait. He told the kid to boil them up, and I gave them manioc for me to eat.

These guys were bush. The middle-aged guy was making baskets for small smoked fish, made out of rattan. As always I asked about other wildlife. They said that giant eland and roan had never been in this area, at least in their memory. They did confirm a good population of bongo and a few lions left. They said there are hippos here and there along the river, but that they hide all day. The Sudanese came and hunted the hippos in collaboration with the villagers. The Sudanese get the skin for rope, cutting in a single strip like an orange peel. The villagers get the meat since it is harum for the Muslims.

They also said there were a few elephants left;  but same story, they hold up in the bakos in the dry season and are not to be found. They only walk around when the grass is tall and people find it hard to track them. I would say that we are dealing with a few tens of elephants left in this territory, but they are apparently not extinct.

The middle-aged guy enumerated the rapids for me, counting several in his minds’ eye before you get to the big ones at Aza, the big diamond chantier way downstream near the confluence. I hoped I hadn’t made a strategic error buying this pirogue. The best would be to find someone to go along with me. I can also always walk north until I find a big Mbororo trail that would lead me west.

I ate my food, had a nice cup of tea. They reserved a bed for me with a mattress of Aframomum leaves and put a fire right next to the bed. I put the tent under me, no greater luxury in Africa than sleeping without a mosquito net next to a nice fire with cold on your face.

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.