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Through Scary Forest in Search of William Cherry’s Ancient African Path

We left camp in a Toyota Land Cruiser. After I started talking to the chauffeur I realized that he was of Peul origin, so a Muslim. He said he grew up in the west of the country, around Salo, a town I know well. It is one of a group of towns where the Peul had settled  in the 1970s. They are from Cameroon, and have lived at a crossroads raising cattle, and doing commerce, mostly diamonds and ivory. Actually his father was Fulata and his mother Hausa. He said that his entire family had to flee CAR since the troubles; they lost everything, including their cows.

He hadn’t been out of Chinko for two years and hadn’t seen his family.  In fact, he has taken a new Banda wife out here and is resigned to a new life in this part of the country. What is interesting is here we are out in the bush, he is Muslim, driving the truck. Everyone in the back is Bantu, non-Muslim, and things are fine. The bush operates under a different politic than the cities, that is for sure. No anti-Balaka out here.

Funny, I spoke to a Fulani guy in the Salo area in 1985, he had just been elected as a local deputy and he told me then that they would take the money first then the country. His prophecy came true, but only 30 years later.

The Toyota was bouncing around the road which is little more than a track cut with matchettes in the savanna. It seemed to follow the rocky laterite outcrops. The air was still cool and the smell of fresh burned grass was pleasing, engrained in my brain as a signal of the beginning of the dry season. It meant that soon most of the grass would be burned and savannas open.

People from the outside often ask me “why do they burn the grass, the Africans”. Obviously, they have never bush-wacked through the savanna just after the wet season. It is no joke when we say the grass is three meters tall and more or less impenetrable. They burn it so they can walk, hunt, camp. The cattlemen burn it because it causes a flush of green grass.

We passed about 50 cattle on the road. My chauffeur said it was northern Sudanese. We didn’t see the people, but the cows were mostly white compared to the brown Mbororo cattle from the west. His observation was that these guys all have AK-47s and that they are the major hunters of meat here.

We ran across two groups of baboons and two groups of warthogs and some solitary males, two red-flanked duikers, a pair of ground hornbills and a Denham’s bustard on the way. These are the last of the large animals to survive, other than some of the forest fauna. When all you see is baboons and warthogs it means that it is mostly Muslims doing the poaching because those species are harum.

image001We came to the crossroad south, except I didn’t see a road. The driver turned in and started driving through the bush.

We didn’t hit anything so that meant we were on the track, but the grass had not been burned. By my calculation Ratto lay almost 25 km to the south of our current position. but I thought we would give it a go. Five km later we were plowing our way through a sea of grass, it was well over 3 meters tall and not even the Toyota could push its way forward.

I looked at the temperature gauge and it was off the charts. About the same time the chauffeur stopped the vehicle and we pulled the 2 feet of grass plastered on the radiator off and drenched it in water and the engine temp came back down below the red. I have blown several head gaskets out here and I didn’t really want it to happen today.

We tried on foot and were going about 1 m in five or ten seconds. Then it dawned on me, here I was in this incredibly dense grass, the humidity at 100 percent and there wasn’t a single tse tse fly biting me. This is a place that I hiked to in 1989 ,and even then the elephant population was low — but tse-tse were thick.

Even then I had camped with Goula elephant hunters from Ndele. They had come south hoping to do better than they were up north; they said there were more elephants and in particular bigger tusks. They were camped with locals and were running elephant meat to Bangassou. These hunters had served me local coffee with elephant foot lard, which was actually quite nice.

image002There only some tens of elephants left in this area now. Hervé said that you could walk for weeks and not come across a single sign of them. He said that in the dry season like this the elephants had adopted a strategy where they went into a deep forest and stayed there to avoid detection. He said that they have connected the fact that humans can follow their tracks, so they are very careful not to reveal their location by adopting a strategy of not moving.

I could see on foot that our search for Ratto was futile, it would take us a couple days just to get to the vague point I had on the map. There were no cattle tracks here and certainly no elephant trails. Even if we were on top of Ratto we would not see the tell tale signs of pottery or a sharpening stone that are left behind in abandoned villages from the time.

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In Cherry’s time, Bangassou was slave-raiding in this area, but there were still villages, like Ratto, and footpaths linking these villages; there was cultivation, some form of civilization. Today that is all gone. This would have been well within striking distance of Bangassou’s slave raiding army during Cherry’s time. While he was under the protection of the French and the Belgians, like Sultans to the north, he freely raided and traded slaves and sold massive quantities of ivory.

We made an about face and decided to start the walk at the Mbari River. Cherry would have crossed the river just about where the Chinko Project ferry was, so this would be a great cast off location for our walk. We had to re-cool the engine two or three times on the way, but finally made it to the river. The ferry was make-shift, made of metal floats and local harvested lumber, but it was more than sufficient to get the Toyota across the river.

As we made our way to the safari camp where they hunt Bongo, we crossed paths with three waterbuck, one of the larger antelope in the savannas here the Banda call Beta. Like the baboons, it is often one of the last to survive because they have scent glands which can taint the meat if the animal is not properly skinned, which of course amongst the local Bantu it never is. But they are also not particularly offended by a musky taste, meat is meat. Again, it would be the herders who, like lions, would avoid killing this species if there is other game available.

We arrived at the safari camp, there were no white guys there yet for the season, they would be arriving soon. Cherry had found the Mbari crystal clear and full of fish and there were no cattle. Now there were millions of cows that had replaced the native fauna pretty much one for one, and the river was chocolate brown and hardly flowing.

These trackers said the fishing was fair to middling, with some big catfish, but no more huge fish with enormous scales described by Cherry, which must have been the goliath tigerfish, jumping in all directions as his pirogue passed. It is hard to imagine most African rivers full of fish, you just assume that they are not productive. But in the 1980s, on the Gounda River in northern CAR, I had seen more fish than I could have ever imagined. We would fish for Nile perch in the murky waters of the river just by randomly throwing spears in the water and capturing maybe a thousand pounds in a single outing. I also saw that river get completely destroyed by overfishing, poisoning and drought. If the inland fisheries of Central Africa were managed they would be 10-100 times more productive for human populations than they are today.

I discussed with the team at the camp how we might reach the Ouaka River, a tributary to the north where Cherry had turned west on a footpath to the Kotto. They said that there were no longer any pirogues that came up the river, but that there was an old road, now a footpath that went up the west side of the river. Some hunter had opened it in the early 1990s, they suggested we try that. I was hesitant. This was the same track that Cherry had walked. It was a well trodden footpath back then. If we bushwacked it might take us some weeks to walk to the the Kotto.

Even so it seemed our options were limited so I opted to begin our trek there. We bid the camp team farewell and the chauffeur pulled up to where the “road” went north. Again the only indication of the road was a scattered line of rocks that the French used in the colonial era to line tracks. There was no sign of either cattle or hunters having used the road, which said to me this is going to be a slog.

It was now past mid-day and hot. Soon the truck was gone and we were on our own with Raymond, Hervé and Felix, the young buck. We walked about 1 km north and encountered our first “bako” or forest. We probed where the road should have entered the thick wall of acacia vine that is one of the most savage plants in Africa, with enormous cat-claw thorns sharper than that of a kitten’s. If you get caught by the thorns of this plant the only way forward is back up, to unhook yourself.

We made our way along the edge of the bako and found a spot where we could go under the canopy. It was cool and dark, but the vegetation scared me; if it remained this dense our trek was going to be a nightmare. All I could think of was that Cherry would have seen an entirely different world here; with elephants the understory would have been open, tidy, kept, but now you can see that the vegetation has closed.

image003We built a camp where the old road bed would have been. Raymond did a foray to the north and came back to say that he could more or less follow the road but that we would be doing a lot of chopping. I could see that Raymond and Hervé had hardened bush skills, but lacked the deep knowledge that would have been present in Cherry’s time.

They asked me what I would eat. In this country there is still a great divide between white and black and most white people don’t eat with or what the Africans eat. I said there is only one thing I don’t eat, animals with hands. They made a fine meal of gozo, koko and smoked fish. Gozo is the national mainstay and nemisis of most Europeans. It is made from the bitter manioc root.  After fermenting the root in water for some days, it is squashed and dried and then pounded into a flour that is made into a big paste ball. Actually, because it is extremely high in carb, I think gozo, even though it has a bland, acrid flavor, is almost addictive. I thrive on the stuff, especially when you are worked, with a nice sauce of peanut butter and koko.

The koko is a forest leaf that comes from a primitive plant called gnetum. Throughout central Africa the leaves of this plant are sliced into piles of what look like grass clippings and have a taste reminiscent of the whites of eggs, but they are mostly protein and add a nice texture to any sauce. Dennis Cordell, who studied Dar al Kouti of northern CAR, said that manioc became popular during the slave-raiding era because raiders couldn’t steal root crops still in the ground, whereas grain crops were easy to steal because they were stored in granaries. I was served about five times what I could eat; my team gladly ate what I did not consume. In this part of Africa is it like an honor to eat the chief’s leftovers.

I put up my little tent, it is getting down to less than 8 degrees C in the night and I only had a light bag and didn’t have a pad. There were giant blue touracos and black-and-white colobus monkeys calling in the night. Sleep took me away.

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.