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Heart of Africa Expedition: Pirogue Abandoned

I started off at 07h15. My friends were not optimistic, not because I was a white man, but because they said you needed to two people to get through the rapids, simple as that. I knew they were right, but I was going to keep going. It wasn’t long before I hit my first rapids....

I started off at 07h15. My friends were not optimistic, not because I was a white man, but because they said you needed to two people to get through the rapids, simple as that. I knew they were right, but I was going to keep going.


It wasn’t long before I hit my first rapids. I got firmly planted on a rock. Took me about 30 minutes to get unhooked, then another rapid, then I could hear the big kahuna coming up downstream. I reached it. There was an island. On one side, the habitual passage, a big tree had come down so that was out. I got out and on the other side of the island was a big flat rock plate with only about 2 inches of water roaring over it. I could try but I knew I would get hung up. Then I thought how I could lose 2 hours at every passage, and even yesterday with the meanders I realized that I was doing about 3-4 km on the river for every one I gained in advance.

It was foolish to continue; if anything I needed manpower to push my log over these rocks, probably every 500 meters along the river. So executive decision, abandon the pirogue. I was still only 2 km in a straight line to the camp and decided I would walk out to the village and decide on my next move.

I paddled back upstream a ways, secured the pirogue, cached the stuff that I would abandon and put the rest in my backpack. I started making the track back to the camp on the south side of the river. The floodplain grasses are huge, so I headed up the slope to the wooded savanna. There I found the grass to be burned in patches, but the going was fairly slow.

There were fresh red river hog digs along the edge of the floodplain and I hit a black cotton soil patch they call lando in Banda. They are good for wildlife. Sure enough, I saw fresh bushbuck dung — and then I saw her, a female bushbuck, my first semi-large mammal of the walk so far.

She didn’t look too bothered by my presence as she scampered off. About 1 km from the camp there was a gallery forest that was not riveresque but more like a tributary. I walked along it for a while; I could see the tops of Mitragyna trees in the middle, which meant swamp. The swamp kept going so I decided to try and cross.

The forest was dense with rattan and other hostile plants. My matchette was sharp, but the swamp looked endless. It could take me all day to get to the other side. Last thing I expected before I got back to the camp. I headed back out to see if I could get out of the swamp. Soon I was 2 km from the camp again, and heading south. I needed to get back to the camp to tell the guys I had left the pirogue there. Then I hit a 2+ human trail coming out of the gallery, it was the camp trail surely.

I headed into the woods and man was I glad I found that trail. It would have taken me forever to whack my way through this vegetation. On the trail it was like I was on a highway, watching all that thick vegetation just go by as I walked at a brisk pace.

Back in camp I found the old man, who was working on a basket. He wasn’t surprised to see me. They all had said that there was no way I was going to be able to do the trip by myself. He said I needed helpers. I asked about the trail to the village. He said it was a straight shot. If they take off at 06h00 they arrive around 13h00 in the village. So I still had time to get there before nightfall.

I told him that I had left a lot of stuff with the pirogue, sardines, oil, sugar, a big knife, a treasure trove. I told him that they could take it all. He said that they would go fetch the pirogue tomorrow. I asked his name just in case somebody asked; Etienne Masa. I headed off down the trail.

This trail was just as worn as the one that was only about 10 to the east. There were old aardvark and warthog holes, and lots of yam pits. The Mbororo had been through but weren’t around right now. I hit this patch that looked like a gallery forest that had been burned down; it was a patch full of bokassa. It was like Armageddon for me here, not because of the burn, but because there was no order in the vegetation, just a patchwork of weeds that was no longer tended to by a diversity of mammals.

I hit an old danga, or waterhole. The mud was baked, there were no large mammal tracks embedded, a sure sign that even in the wet season there are no large mammals, because if there were there, would be tracks here.

Around 16h00 I started hitting areas that had been cultivated in the past; there were the telltale signs of an old village with burned uprights and mango trees. Not long after, I could see an old man with a cane making his way down the trail. I didn’t want to give him a heart attack, so as I caught up I made myself heard. He turned and gave a double take, yep, a white man, he probably thought. This guy was old, in his 70s for sure. I was already tuckered out, my pack was pretty heavy, so didn’t feel much like conversation. He said he didn’t go to school so didn’t know how old he was. I confirmed though that he was an adult when the French left. His name was Massongo Thomas, and was born in Ngoulia.

I told him I was following the path of the first white man in these parts. I asked about his knowledge of the old chief of Bria, Heassayama. He didn’t know, but he did know Issa Mazingue, a Togbo from Balangba, who used to be the Chef de Canton; this was the most notable person he had ever met. He said that the elephants were now north of the Ndjé River. I asked him if he walked all the way out there. He said, “mbi gi kobe to yanga”, obliged if he was going to eat. But I could tell this guy just liked tooling around the woods.

Soon a kid showed up, bare chested and with a fabrication shotgun. He was empty-handed and headed back to the village. I asked the old man about the mango trees. He said that there was a satellite village there for cultivation but that the Tongo Tongo had burned it down a few years back.

I made my entrance into the village at 17h00. There was no alarm, everyone had already heard from Ngoulia of my presence, it was just down the road. I asked for the chief’s house. When I arrived, as you do, you introduce yourself, state your business, where you have come from and that I would like to spend the night. He was a dignified old gentleman, still had the spark in his eye. By the looks of his first wife he must have been at least 70, but was aging well. She was in front of her fire.

First they put water on for coffee; the chief had to send out to buy some sugar. Many people came to gock, and one fellow who was drunk, and it was now dark, offered to take me down stream with the pirogue. He said he was Bogangui from Ouango and knew the river well. I said I would think about it and talk to him in the morning. The chief said he was a good piroguier.

About 20 minutes later they asked if I wanted lots of hot water for a bath or a little water to wash my face. I kind of hesitated, not wanting to impose but said “mingui”, laughing. They complied and soon I was doucing my dirty body with streams of hot water and they even gave me a piece of soap. Seems like there is always a way to take a hot bath and it doesn’t cost much.

I went through the Cherry story with the Chief; he had no knowledge, but lined up the same creek names as in Ngoulia. His name was Yaloukoudou Maurice. He too said no more elephants, but still a few hippos around. I had pretty much statistically determined by interview that indeed there are virtually no elephants left. He also said the same thing, never did have eland here. I asked if they could find a chicken for sale and cook it; he said gladly. He also had no liking of the Mbororo. He said they ruin crops, and transform the wildlife into cows.

He said that they first heard of the Mbororo in 1958; in the early 60s they got fairly close. It wasn’t until 1974 that he saw the first cattle next to the village. This was the first time in human history that cattle had reached this land other than for delivery to distant Sultanates. He described it like a Crow Indian might have with the coming of the cattle to the Great Plains. He always knew that this was bad for the Banda.

Later we heard one of the Mbororo donkeys, and he said “see, they are taking over our villages, to buy manioc to supply their camps. They trade baboon meat in return for manioc”. I thought: these people have no ability to organize, to defend themselves, no ability to enter the modern world. You have an entire population out here who have never had an education. They remain hunters and gatherers for the most part. Between the Tongo Tongo, Seleka and the Mbororo, they have been reduced to what they were when Cherry was here, almost as if not a day had passed since he sat in this same chair as I.

They are totally naïve of the world beyond this village and a few adjacent. The girls don’t know that female circumcision is seen as perverse in most of the world, something they can’t imagine not doing, never questioning it. An hour later I had my chicken with manioc, a cup of tea and this time the chief prepared a bed inside his house. I asked about mosquitos, they said there were none, so sure I would sleep in the bed, it would be warmer in the house.

Tomorrow I would figure out my next move. The chief said that they had heard of my adventure and were feeling for me, they said, because they knew that it was foolish for me to even try to go downstream by myself.

The chicken was made with an enormous pool of burned palm oil, not very good I must say.

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.