Sudan Border Walk: Magic Amulets and Wandering Cattle Herds

Day started at 05h30. Program changed again. I decided the midday stop was too disruptive, so we are going back to a continuous day. I figure from 05h00 to noon we can wear ourselves out sufficiently and make between 15 and 20 km in a straight line.

Made 16 km in straight line today, lDAY 7. Lots of cattle and herders about. No bad encounters yet, but people very fearful and prudent.
Made 16 km in straight line today, Day 7. Lots of cattle and herders about. No bad encounters yet, but people very fearful and prudent.

Pretty much right out the gates today we were either following fresh cattle tracks or fresh herder tracks, or inspecting abandoned herders’ camps. This place is crawling with cattle and their keepers. I thought, as we went further north, we would be losing the cows since it is so hot and dry, but…

They seem to be concentrating on what they call landos here, which are meadows with black soils and grass with a bit better growth before the rains. It threatened to pour yesterday, but the storm stayed to the south of us.

The first series of camps had the typical trash that gets left behind: tea and medicine cellophane wrappers, chunks of mesh bags, the odd bit of plastic shoe.

Black Magic Amulets

My eye caught site of this small vial covered in leather. I picked it up and shook it. It rattled like beads inside. It had a little round cap, like the eraser cover on a mechanical pencil. I pulled the cap off and the guys noticed and freaked out. They said, close it, close, black magic! It was what they call a warga here, or amulet that the Muslims all carry, sometimes by the hundreds.

The amulets can render your body impervious to bullets, provide protection from snakes, sickness, and other people’s black magic — and tons of other things. There are folks who are called marabout who make them, or individuals make them. Most are filled with hand-scripted verses from the Koran. When I looked inside there was a metal rod, like something to fix a gun, but who knows. I am afraid to pour out the contents. I put it in my bag; the guys didn’t resist.

One other interesting thing was they had cut down what Yaya called a gustanta tree. It has beautiful heartwood. They cut the sap wood from the trunk to produce a spindle to make a stock for an AK47. Across the way there were piliostigma trees that they barked for padding for the burrows, and an abandoned sheep skin.

A bit later we heard cows coming toward us. We stayed silent and three cows appeared, and then a guy sporting an AK. He saw us, made an about-face and high-tailed it, leaving his cows behind. They just kind of stood there.

Later on again, we ran into two guys who were scouts for grass. They are light, walk fast and search for grass. This explains the lone groups of guys we see the tracks of, with burros or not. They also recover lost cows.They were fairly friendly, but still kept their distance. They were Arabs from the village of Am Dukun near Am Dafook. The young one had a bow and arrows as well as what they call a sahourou, a stick to prod cattle.

The rest of the morning was more cattle tracks and people following them. The entire landscape has been burned. These guys cover every inch of the landscape. They search for grass and water, and prepare the land for the start of the rains, when they will get three months or so of good grazing.  All they need now is those mango rains to kick off the growth spurt. Where we are now, it hasn’t rained since November. Several spots today we saw where they are climbing trees up to 8 meters to cut the branches off for fodder. Also trees they cut down for the sweat bee honey for a small sweet treat.

What amazes me is I have my phone with maps and satellite imagery with GPS, and even I have to be smart about how I navigate on several scales to keep us traveling nicely forward. I can see the hills and outcrops and creeks, exactly where we will hit the river again. But these guys have none of that, and they are in a foreign land covering hundreds of kilometers. Little kids run all over with cattle and always find their way. And they carry their staples and cow medicine for a five-month trip every year. An impressive lot, I must say.

We made 16 km in a straight line by 11h00 and called it a day. We found a real nice cattle crossing with a sandy bottom. Two groups of cows came to cross, one in each direction.

One was accompanied by a kid. He came right up to the river with his 30 cows, nice looking ones, and then saw me. He didn’t panic. He turned his cattle around and fled. But then about an hour later he showed up again, probably because he had to get back to camp and this was the only crossing. He was courageous leading his cattle across. He didn’t say a word, but passed about 30 feet from us and was gone in a flash. The others never did cross.

Bush prudence is king out here. You never know who the bad guys are. I am sure our presence is starting to spread amongst the various herders now. I am definitely the first white man in these parts for a long time, except for U.S. miitary flying over in helicopters looking for Kony. We only saw signs of of two roan antelope today, and saw a group of three warthogs.

Africa explorer-conservationist J. Michael Fay is in the Central African Republic, completing an expedition he started in 2014, retracing as best he can the footsteps of the 19th Century American Game Hunter-Explorer William Stamps Cherry. Fay, a former National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and recipient of numerous National Geographic Society grants, has also worked for decades for the Wildlife Conservation Society. His transects through some of Africa’s most remote and inaccessible wildernesses (among them the National Geographic-sponsored Megatransect and Meglaflyover) rank among the most significant in the history of exploration of the continent. You can read all his dispatches at Expedition Through the Heart of Africa.