We headed out of camp at 06h27 on our large human footpath that followed the river. We crossed paths with a guy on a bike with two diamond sieves. There were sounding holes for diamond prospects here and there along the trail. My toes were cold and I could hear a large waterfall downstream. We started seeing the odd Kolongo tree, the same ones that Cherry had seen in this area. We crossed paths with five more guys with no baggage, then a girl and her mother with a load on her head. Hi’s and byes were quick and a bit stilted.
The Kolongo trees got thicker as we progressed downstream. It was a beautiful savanna with some big Kapok, Danielia, Combretum and Piliostigma trees. Much of the grass had already been burned. We crossed a creek; it was lined with big granite boulders and the water was crystal clear.
Soon we hit a fork in the trail; we took the smaller one that peeled off to the north toward the Ndjé. As we walked, I thought about the deep elephant trails that used to line this river when Cherry walked the banks; they had been replaced by human paths that were used first to shoot out the wildlife and then were turned to mining diamonds as a way to make cash.
The diamond holes became thick as we neared the Ndjé, and we saw people on the boulders. We asked about the confluence; they said that there was no trail down to it. We had left the main trail already, like we were lost. We said, our destination was the confluence; they said, no problem, how much. A price of 5,000 CFA per pirogue was negotiated.
The water was fast, we navigated rapid after rapid, but what was striking about this part of the river was these enormous barrages made out of tree trunks and mud where obviously large groups of people, requiring giant feats of human labor, they shut off entire stretches of the river to drain the bed for diamond exploitation. Our new guides confirmed a lot of work is required, and often the hole is empty; thousands of man hours for no return.
At 09h55 we hit the destination that I had been dreaming about for days, for years, a “hunter’s paradise,” in the words of Cherry, the confluence of the Kotto and the Ndjé. I had read his account a hundred times.
On the opposite bank there was a large cut in the bank that was the last vestige of the giant elephant trails that converged on this point, just like the ones I had seen in full vigor in Chad only a few years ago. If you didn’t know what it was, you couldn’t imagine that it was made by millions of elephants pounding the soil.
We started to pole up the Kotto, just like Cherry had done in 1890. The Kolongo are still here, masses of them, probably the same sort of individual trees that Cherry saw. It was as if he had been here yesterday.
From Cherry’s Journal, January 28, 1900
I am camped at the mouth of the N’Gee River. I have killed three elephants and two hippo. The hippo tried to get in my canoe, and I killed them. The elephants had tusks. All three males. I knocked them over quite masterly, two of them with a single ball and one of them I shot at five times, as he had got off to far. Then all at once he seemed to discover he was not being followed by his two comrades and turned back on his trail and (Ed. – came) to where one of them was laying, looked at him, then went to the other, looked at him, and then he looked at me, started to come towards me. He was not coming fast and I let him make some ten steps and then hit him square between the eyes. And he dropped dead and never knew he was hurt.
As we progressed upstream, there were barrages that were megastructures compared to those we saw on the Ddjé. These things are made of logs sometimes 12 inches in diameter and 15 feet long; they weigh easily a ton apiece and there are hundreds of them stuck into the base of this huge river, diverting millions of gallons of water, just to pull a few stones out of the ground.
The human footprint starts as a hunters’ path and ends in the cataclysmic destruction of the entire ecosystem. The guys said that there only a few straggler hippos still survived in these parts, three to be exact. They said that four had been killed recently; they knew the exact location and details of each one of them. The remaining three hippos were on their hit list. Cherry had seen thousands of hippos here. The closest elephants, they said, were in Sam, another huge diamond area near the Sudanese border. Yeah right, wishful thinking always lingers in these shell-shocked peoples left behind after the peaking of trade in ivory, or slaves, or diamonds, just like the native tribes Cherry found here, devastated by slaving.
We disembarked the pirogue about 2 miles upstream, in the heart of where Cherry thought maybe the elephants numbered in the millions. I tried to see what I knew no longer existed, make out the vestiges of ancient elephant trail ruts that he said lined both banks of the river six inches deep, but there were none. The floods over the years have erased the last signs of their existence. The banks were completely covered in Bokassa, the weed from central America brought here by the cattle. There was none in 1890, just thousands of antelope.
The only life was a lone brown hornbill that bobbed over the savanna. There were deep piles of Kolongo fruits under each tree. These are like the juiciest mango a human could ever imagine to an elephant; they would have traveled hundreds of kilometers to get to them. In Chad the Kolongo stands are still the meeting places for the last large herd of elephants left in this entire area of central Africa.
Hunter’s Paradise No More
Nothing left to see, it was confirmed, hunter’s paradise was no more. Millions of animals eliminated from the planet.
Our paddlers, Jesse Mandou Gisgard and Rammadou Moussa Chetou, were from the northeast, Sara. They had come for riches but were now working for us for six dollars; they were among those billions of humans born on this Earth who then have to survive using whatever means that they can find. Most live lives of misery.
They didn’t even know what diamonds were used for; they said they were ground up and used in machines. This is how out there these guys are. All they know is people pay you good money for the stones that allows you to live for some more months. They said that the Seleka had cleared out, having been called to Bria to fight the French, and now the Americans there. Why not turn it into jihad right, more fun that way. These Sara could just as easily sign up, what else do they have to do, they hardly even understand who Mohammad was.
I had Giscard and Moussa take us downstream. The river was over 100 m wide here. Giscard said “meme susu oko ake da ape,” not even any fish in the river, let alone wildlife. No baboons, warthogs, not even any guinea fowl.
They said lots of people were dying of AIDS up here; they talked about it like it was a plague. More wisdom from Giscard: He said that if you greet a woman and she goes behind you that is how you get AIDS. So when there are diseases like that out here, living life day-to-day is all you can do.
We paddled about a mile south of the confluence to a point where our paddlers said we would find the human trail that leads to the Opo. We disembarked and I paid the five thousand. Our friends were sad to see us go; back to their hard lives just as quickly as we had extricated them from it for a few hours. They would have joined us if we asked; it’s so easy to assemble an army of rebels or thieves or whatever you want them to be out here, I thought.
Only a few hundred yards in, cattle trails mixed with our human trail, and then both were gone. We knew the main trail that we had left in the morning was off to the east, but how far? It could take us hours to get to it, but there was no choice. We just started trudging through the thick bush and unburned grass to get to the thoroughfare.
After an hour or so of bushwacking and a stream-crossing, we came across some banana trees and then manioc, and soon we were on a large human path. Our rate of travel increased tenfold. The fields turned into huge expanses of manioc; the trail was well maintained. Then there were chickens, goats and then people and a long line of houses. We were in Opo.
Never Seen a White Man
So now what? Silence mostly befell the place; most kids here would have never seen a white man. I kept on cruising through the village, thinking we could maybe exit on the other end and just keep on trucking down the trail. There were well over a hundred huts. I counted three gas-powered manioc mills, Muslim shops full of the normal bush fare, from Nido milk to Gunpowder tea and Bic razors.
Nanga was detained by some of his Sara compatriots, I am sure answering tons of questions about the white man. I kept cruising with Sim and Djadou. We cleared the village and I had that feeling that they know we are rushing, so we are suspect. Sure enough, less than a few hundred yards into the bush we could here somebody coming down the trail summoning us. We looked back and there was a guy in fresh clean clothes, and when he reached us we smelled a heavy dose of cologne on him. He was a bit overweight, a Muslim. At that point I knew we were heading back to the village and the scrutiny would be heavy; we had invited it.
We were brought in front of the flag pole and seated in chairs. Immediately a crowd formed around us. Nanga was in somewhat of a panic. I lost my cool, a tactic, but I was also a bit irritated to have to do the song and dance once again. I was thinking 20 villages to Bria; if we have to do it in every one it will be weeks before we reach it. But then I chilled, at worst we would lose a night here and I could ask lots of questions.
“You, white man, what are you doing here?”
The chief made his appearance. He was impressive, cautious, in Muslim garb. He spoke to Nanga in Chadian Arabic, so not a Sara, I thought, but definitely Chadian. The discussion was right to the point: You, white man, what are you doing here? Reasonable question. This is diamond country and the logical conclusion is I am a diamond prospector. Amazing a war is raging only a 100 km away, but these guys go right to diamonds, the reason why everyone is here, so why not me? And their village logically must be the center of the universe if I showed up here.
They expected me to start negociating for something they didn’t know existed, forgetting that it was they who detained me. We can’t forget we are in a place where 100 percent of women still have their clitoris cut off at puberty, where buffalo are metamorphosed into cattle, and pregnant women cannot travel in dugout canoes, which is bad juju. Anything you say will be a lie. So you may as well tell the truth if it is implausible.
Cherry Song and Dance
I started on the Cherry song and dance. There was this white man who was the first white man who ever came here. He was an elephant hunter, an explorer, I was following in his footsteps. I didn’t want to turn on my phone, smart phones were still unknown here, but I had to show them a few photos of Cherry. So I used some of my last Apollo 13 juice left in the phone; I had 50 people trying to look into the appareil.
I went through the whole story again, but people can’t really grasp history here, other than the Muslims who are taught the Arab history of conquest of these parts. The chief wasn’t convinced at first, but he finally turned to his men and said, “this man is not here for diamonds”. The pressure was off, I had passed the bush test, I had come to the camp with some Sara guys and I told a credible story. The chief told me about when he was in Ouadda in 1988 there were elephants right at the gates of the city near Pipi. He said today they are gone everywhere. When he heard me speak of places like Zakouma and Manovo, he knew I was legitimate.
The secretary then showed up, the scribe. He was an older central African who could write. He was instructed to record all of my information: Name? I showed him my passport, my visa, entry into Bangui. The tension diminished, people stopped gawking. They started asking questions about this white man who had been here so long ago. They wanted to see the pictures again.
But it was now late. The chief said we were free to go, but that we would not reach the next village before nightfall. We were welcome to stay. I excused myself for being so rude passing the village by, and said we would be happy to spend the night. In fact, they had already prepared a hangar for us to put our bed rolls down. The chief gave us a chicken, twice as big as the one we bought for 2,000. He had them bring us firewood and onions, garlic, oil, rice, like any self-respecting Muslim host would do.
I went to a local shop being kept by a young guy. He said he had only been here a short time. He said that the tribal mix was huge: Sara, Banda, Malians and a bunch of other tribes. Nanga accompanied us. He told me he had worked with the chief before; he had been a man of riches from the diamond fields, he was from Bornu and has been in CAR for a long time. I saw the chief praying with five of his compatriots later in a hangar. These would be the head men here, Muslims in charge of all the other tribes; it had been this way for some time. He had created a prosperous village providing services to the outer camps. He certainly was financing them from here with his manioc fields and other funds he was able to amass locally.
Amazing war is raging in the country; the Muslims are getting slaughtered in Bangui and across the country now that the tide has turned against them with the Christian troops that have arrived, and yet here this chief rules. There have been no Seleka here, no Tongo Tongo; he kept this place safe and people flocked here, just like they did to Senoussi and other sultans of the past. If it has been a century ago, Cherry’s time, I could have met the same man, except he would have been trading in slaves and ivory, and like this chief, keeping his lot fed with organization and firm rules. There is still no state here, but there is law and order.
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.