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No Man’s Land Chess in the Heart of Africa

We were up early. I got David Simpson on the Thuraya. He said that the U.S. Special Forces and the Sangaris were in a fight with the Seleka in Bria. The Seleka were told to disband, and rather they assembled and then they made the mistake apparently of throwing a hand grenade at the Western...

We were up early. I got David Simpson on the Thuraya. He said that the U.S. Special Forces and the Sangaris were in a fight with the Seleka in Bria. The Seleka were told to disband, and rather they assembled and then they made the mistake apparently of throwing a hand grenade at the Western troops at the airport. And apparently the hand grenade got thrown back to the Seleka and killed one of them. This, logically, made the Seleka mad, so they attacked, which was probably not the smart thing to do.

I spoke to the chief, who was also going to leave for Bria today to fly to Bornu, but he said that it was too hot, people dying there; he highly recommended that we not go there. My problem was that I had to get back to Chinko after having walked 250 km. The closest place to go was ironicall the place I walked way around on our way, in thinking that we would stir up way to much suspicion, namely Zacco.

The chief said that between Bria or Zacco, Zacco was the place. I thought how ironic it was. Here I am having been received, after proper out-there bush vetting, like a king by Chadian moslems who are peacefully running a large village in the middle of the bush that is the gateway to the diamond fields, and 100 km away the U.S. and French troops are in a pitched battle basically with the same folks. Sometimes expensive military solutions, to me are not only an insane drain on resources but they also don’t get the job done. It was the exact same in the SW of the CAR two years previously when we went in to Bayanga to negotiate with the big bad Chadians who were the big threat, and they also received us extremely well and not a single elephant was killed after our meeting until Christian rule came back into play.

The Game of No Man’s Land Chess

I like war zones, not only are they exciting, but the way I do it, without a gun or aggression, is like I am walking on a deadly chess board and every move I make could be fatal. But what I find is once you get good at the game, it is easy to win. Yes you have to have a strategy, knowledge, language and know how to ally yourself as you pass from one group to the other, scare them with words when necessary, and outthink them. This is exactly what Cherry mastered so long ago. He would have died 10 times a day had he not been extremely good at the game of no man’s land chess.


The chief told me that I was going to go through some hostile territory and that it would be better if I was escorted by two of his guys with 100cc motorbikes. These guys would take us to the cross road and there we could make our way back up the road to Zacco, for a price of course. The deal was struck and then the ride of terror began. Imagine you are in shorts, there are three people and two huge back packs with a sword-toting Chadian driver who lives on power tea, on a 100cc motorcycle, and you are cruising a tiny, gravelly, hilly footpath at 30 miles an hour. Pure insanity. I couldn’t even look, but I had to to move my legs each time we rounded a tree.

Finally about 30 minutes in, I could sense the bottom of the bike coming out from under us and we careened right into the trees. I could feel the gravel digging into the side of my leg and arm, but my backpack kept my head off the ground. Nobody was hurt, nothing was said, we just remounted, but this time I was in the back, not the middle for the next time I had to bail.

Miraculously, by nightfall we were back in one of the villages that we had stayed in on the way. Our sword-toting friend greeted us farewell and was gone. The chief’s wife could see that I was in a state; she said, “You want to take a bath”. I said yes. Within 20 minutes I was pouring hot water from a cup over my head with a bar of soap. We had a nice cup of coffee and I was off to bed. Here we were on the other side again, only Christians 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.