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Heart of Africa Expedition: Pirogue 2.0

So of course what happened this morning is the bike guy wanted way too much money. I told him go take a leap. I already gave him 10,000, which is more than a fair wage, especially since it was just a make-work job. Then also the bigger deal was that my boys wanted to take...

So of course what happened this morning is the bike guy wanted way too much money. I told him go take a leap. I already gave him 10,000, which is more than a fair wage, especially since it was just a make-work job.

Then also the bigger deal was that my boys wanted to take the hunter along. Now I am thinking not only am I weighing the pirogue down, but we are talking 80,000 CFA for a few guinea fowl that we are going to eat, probably work out to $30-$40 a bird, that’s pretty pricey chicken. But Nanga really wanted him to stay ,so what the heck. Same old thing, they needed somebody to be the guy they can boss around.

The pirogue was at that creek that I found the swamp on. They had stashed it there. Took us about 30 minutes to get there. Not much sign of wildlife, but nice to get a bit of walking in before sitting in the pirogue all day.

When we had all the baggage plus four people in the pirogue, we were up to about 2 cm left on the sides, but that is pretty typical for Africa, everyone always overloads everything. We all knew pirogues, so it was steady right from the get go.


First wildlife observation of the day was 5 knob-billed geese; these guys used to be abundant to the north of us. Then we saw a Lady Ross’s turaco with a bright mix of green, purple and red.

Pretty much immediately we hit the spot where I got stumped. I was asked to walk around with the hunter so they could pull the boat across the rock and do the rapid. This happened about five more times in the next couple of kilometers. I thought back at how impossible my task had been to do this river solo in this dugout that now has four people in it. Even my guys were now laughing, basically saying, white man you are one crazy dude.

It was interesting doing the little walk-arounds; we saw a few hippo tracks and a flock of guinea fowl, but that was about it. We only passed one camp with three people from Bria; they had a couple of nicely made flat-bottomed pirogues.


We had our first mishap in a spot where we needed force in the bow: boom, the rotten half paddle that our friends had given us as a bow paddle busted. No problem, but with the meanders, rapids and stops, we were about even with travel on foot in tall grass, in a straight line that is.

But it was necessary to see the river, what life was left there, who was traveling it. Unlike in Cherry’s time, people were not shooting arrows at us as we went by. You never know about exaggeration, because I have heard 1,000 times how buffalo are ornery animals that are prone to attack. However, after being with buffalo over 1,000 times, I have never even so much as suspected aggression. Yet I believe all that Cherry wrote, even though sometimes it seemed extreme.

I have seen extreme things happen in this country in the past year, like French soldiers shooting people and then them carrying them off dead. The explanation was that this crowd, or those individuals, were committing violence against Seleka near the airport in Bangui. It was several days into when the French came in and the attacks by the anti-balaka had happened, and they either realized or had calculated that once Seleka were knocked off their feet that they would need protection. That is when there was the unfettered rush of Muslims toward the north, including many Seleka, and the coordinated airlift from the airport. They had declared the northern Islamic Republic of the CAR. In the moment is just seems natural because you are there, but on CNN now, and in the Chicago Tribune in Cherry’s time, it seems extreme.

Nanga cut a trunk from a tree on the bank called Trichilia retusa, a tree that grows on every big river in the Congo, Chari and Sanaga Basins it seems. The wood is very light, but pretty strong, so good for a quick-fix temporary paddle. The same tree is in Chad; Nanga knew it well.

The guys were already getting a little paranoid. They said that there were Seleka at the big rapids that control the flow of diamonds and other lucrative enterprises. We were back in the pirogue and a 2.5 m croc splashed into the water. We also saw several baby pythons curled on branches as we went by, and monitor lizards that plop in the water dropping from branches.

We hit the confluence of the Mbi and the Ndjé River. Sim spoke up, saying that he was doing diamonds down here and the Ugandans showed up on the south bank, crossed the river and went north saying that they were after the Tongo Tongo.   I didn’t realize that the UPDF ventured that far off; they probably got dropped in by helicopter. Must be interesting for them to try to identify Tongo Tongo camps, vs. Mbororo, or Sudanese or Central African poachers. Like the camp we were in this morning, not sure how they would classify that from the air.

In that way that imparts “I can’t believe what I am seeing”, Sim then calls out “tagba”. Tagba is Banda for Buffon’s kob. I looked up, thinking holy crap if there are kob here, the sitting ducks of all sitting ducks, then there will be other wildlife. Then the hunter said “lekpa”; now I understood, bushbuck, right where I would expect it. Then I saw it, she was a female, just like the one I had seen two days ago upriver. Even that one the guys said they were tracking her, so she was living dead. Damn, almost had a very unusual wildlife observation … oh well.

Rarely are you truly surprised when you are looking at populations of wildlife. The only place I have ever been where that was not true was south Sudan, in 2007. There I saw a miracle to my eyes, kob by the hundreds of thousands all bunched up on migration when many said there was nothing left. And only some hundreds of kilometers to our east. The plains in the north even when I was there in the 1980s still had a few hundred thousand antelope, primarily kob. When I flew up there in St. Floris in 2005, I saw only 4 ostrich and no antelope — but tens of thousands of refugees coming from the north where people from Dar Fur were pushing local Runga south. Here, now, I would consider it a miracle to see one kob along the Ndjé.

Not far downstream, again Sim spotted guinea fowl along the river, on the north side. We played like nothing was going on and let the hunter out downstream. Same drill — he took off his shirt and shoes and disappeared. Five minutes later, boom. A few after that, he comes back with not 2 but 3 guinea fowl. Another feast.

We hit more spots that these guys knew; they had done diamonds in a haphazard way all up and down this river. Like what they called Yangourou Creek that enters from the south. There were still posts from houses here, mango trees, it had been a happening place for a while when there were some diamonds being found.

We passed by the Nda coming from the north and could hear Mbororo donkeys on the north side and see some big burns. There was a huge descent on the bank to the north. Today it is where the cattle came to drink. The tracks were reminisicent of the passage of large herds of buffalo and elephants that came here drink. I can imagine that this river was a favorite spot for elephants, especially at the end of the dry season when many of the creeks are dry and this river would still be flowing with nice clear water.  Of all the rivers Cherry saw this was for him the most fantastic for wildlife.

We then came to a spot where they had actually hunted hippos with the Sudanese poachers. They said that the Sudanese had the guns, they had the pirogues, they got the meat and the Sudanese got the skin. It is prized for making long lengths of cord by cutting like you would unroll the peel of an orange. They have killed thousands of hippos for this unique purpose. I asked them why they would collaborate with the Sudanese who they blame for the extermination of the wildlife. They chorused the reply, ”kobe to yanga”, food for the mouth. In fact for Sim, it is money for drink.

We saw two guys in a pirogue late in the day. They said their camp was downstream. My guys didn’t trust these dudes. Then we could hear an engine. The guys started saying it was a manioc machine. It was just getting dark, like that scene out of Apocalypse Now, my guys went silent. They wanted to get through this place as quietly as we could. I could see little camps along the river as we passed, for 300 or so meters of riverfront, but no people. For me it was a diamond camp, but for the guys it was better not to find out; maybe Seleka there, maybe Tongo Tongo.

We slipped by unseen and headed yet further downstream. Strange thing was there was no pirogues. I thought it must have access via downstream but overland. What we heard was probably a moto or maybe a motopump. They must have a large human footpath on the north side of the river.

We continued downsteam and something unexpected happened. We all heard the unmistakable swish of a hippo exhaling. We rounded a small bend and there was this male hippo about 200 meters downstream. The hippo looked at us. I expected it to plunge and take off downstream.   Instead he grunted and came toward us, albeit still from far away. My guys still freaked out from the human encounter of the third kind; they said let’s camp here. It was still fairly close to the chantier and we parked on the north side, but I didn’t really care.

This was my first night with these guys outside “civilization”. Nanga went walking up the slope. I think he might have had the same idea as me. He said there is a major human trail that follows the river. Sim and co. set to making a nice camp, I checked out the trail. Sure enough, plenty of motorcycle tracks back and forth and lots of bike traffic. Just like the rest of the world, as soon as there is a terrestrial track water travel starts to die out, except for very heavy loads. Then I set to cutting firewood. I came back to camp to find a huge pile of feathers and two birds in the pot. These guys work fast.

It was well past dark when the hunter heard a muffled voice. My guys immediately started – “Baramo” “ála yeke da”. They responded in Sangho, native Sangho, like – you are OK Sangho. Credentials were exchanged, common names were found, the talking got easier. Seven rough looking dudes piled into the camp, the ring leader was a big dude. Nanga immediately started speaking in Sara to him. He could just tell he was Sara. They didn’t know each other but they knew of each other, both old time diamond prospectors on the Ndjé. Soon they were having coffee with us.

White Man With a Machete

They told the story that made us all laugh. The big guy says in Sara, “we hear somebody cutting firewood, kind of loudly, and it is almost dark and we see this white man chopping with a machete. We were scared to death, we didn’t know if he was Sangaris or the Americans or some other. So here we are now all sitting together laughing about it when they still have no idea really who I am or why I am there. It is all about how you insert yourself. These guys can see that I am savvy to the local scene, I know stuff they need to know that I am for real, whatever the reason. As long as I respect the local scene and sympathise and pay my way, then you get the help you need. They couldn’t have known if this white man Cherry had ever come this way, or that he had seen 1,000 hippos at the confluence of the Kotto and the Ndjé, that this was actually such an important destination for me for so many reasons. I knew what I was going to find, but I needed to go.

So these guys told us that this was the new diamond play, that there were all men so far, but it was growing. They didn’t say, but gave the impression that they had found diamonds. They said the trail went to Aza, it crossed the Ndjé quite a bit further downstream. So this was again a Sara, and maybe Runga, involved here, but financed by who? These guys started to tell Nanga that they should be very careful bringing a white man downstream. They said the Seleka had their last kind of outpost in Karandja, and that they would make almost daily trips to Aza. They said to my guys that they should not be seen with me or there would be consequences.

After some more small talk they went off to hunt. It left my guys chattering away about Seleka. I said we would see in the morning. Our friends also said that they would come the next morning to explain how to avoid the Seleka, dropping us off at little trails that avoided Aza all together and worked around Karandja. Below there was a guy named Kondje; he had a pirogue down there that could take us to the confluence. We would discuss it in detail in the morning and we would give them manioc that we had left over, since we had decided to walk from here out after we saw this foot path.

The seven dudes who went off to hunt came back about 3 hours later with just a porcupine to show. Maybe they were also on kind of a scout, who knows. They have assets to protect from the likes of Tongo Tongo and other robbers they have been dealing with for decades, if not a few centuries in one form or another. We are just one more element to deal with in the puzzle.

Heat is something nobody wants, both for good and bad reasons, it doesn’t matter. We had two fires tonight: person, fire, person, person, fire, person. Four people warming at two fires. It stayed cool and calm, no more visitors human or otherwise. These guys also said that there would be a moto leaving in the morning for Karandja. This meant word of us appearing way out this way would be traveling a couple of ranks up on the various information chains, none of which really know I am out here.

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.