Last night, before we bedded down, there were driver ants [also know as army ants] down near the river. I had Felix burn leaves to chase them from our camp. All good…until 01h00, when I was driven from my sleep, halfway, when I half-dreamt half-felt things biting my head. Then two seconds later, I knew what I was dealing with. Let’s just say, been there before. My tent, my body, my head, my hair was full of driver ants that were treating me like one giant piece of prey. (Watch a National Geographic video: World’s Deadliest: Army Ants Eat Everything)
The big ones draw blood with their scissor-jaws and the small ones just hurt, and I now had, in the 20 seconds of frantically looking for my headlamp, a hundred or so ants biting me.
I got to my phone, found the headlamp, and ran, stark naked into the night. If you run before you find your light your dead meat because you have no idea where to run, so you go zen and find the lamp before you bolt. I yelled to the guys, they said their tents were enveloped in ants, but somehow they had entered only mine. It took about 5 minutes to pick all the ants off, with always a few residuals.
“Stark naked in the middle of the savanna with just a headlamp, what to do?”
Then the next reality hits, you are stark naked in the middle of the savanna with just a headlamp, what to do? First you sit and smile, ’cause you are ant-free. Then you hear the first of the mosquitoes.
Every Man for Himself
I am communicating with the guys, who still don’t have ants inside and will not open their tents. Every man for himself. After 25 minutes I approach and say to myself, ok, just get a sheet out and maybe you can sleep. I run into my tent, stamping my feet, and grab a sheet, clear out, find a nice spot on the ground and call it a night.
This morning the bags, manioc, peanut butter, everything, still covered in ants. We had to scorch them off our stuff as the guys danced around for 30 minutes. I could see the ants had chewed about four holes in the tent mesh to get access.
So we left camp a bit late again.
Red River Hogs
Not too from from camp in the savanna, we saw movement. Red river hogs. They got a whiff of us and they were off. I counted about 20. Soon it became evident why there were cattle about: along several of the creek-heads there were landos, black cotton soils with good grass cover. They were heavily grazed. These are the spots that should have at least one lek of kob, or herds of waterbuck or hartebeest; instead there are just cows.
Next crazy observation was a line of laterite stones that covered at least 100 yards. Only one line. Usually this means an old colonial road bed. Who knows, maybe they had a track up along the Chinko. On the old colonial map there is a marker about 25 km to the south. A ways on there was a pile of rocks, maybe from the same era.
We walked through landos for about an hour and found a few cattle camps. Same stuff — cattle drugs, and this time Paracetamol for the humans, a syringe, and Chinese batteries.
The going was rough afterwards; lots of rocks, real hot, and dense and unburned vegetation, so the going was slow. We were low on water and still had about 8 kms to cover when we found a stagnant pool. Most people would say forget it; Felix said “beautiful water”. They drank a few liters, and we were visited by some warthogs and baboons. Yaya signaled he had found something interesting. I went over; it was a monitor lizard. The guys said there are two species here.
Around 12h30 we were ready for the river. We hit a cattle trail about 500 m out that I followed, and sure enough, like yesterday, it led us to an old elephant river crossing. This thing was huge, a testament to the thousands of elephants that used to come here for water not that long ago. This was one of the places in Africa known for abundance and size of the ivory.
We got down into the bed of the Chinko and it was bone dry. Shock. Now what? Then I thought maybe there was an island. I went up the opposite bank, walked about 50 m, and voila, water; not much, but water. We ended up doing 18.6 km in a straight line today, so we probably walked about 30 km.
Tomorrow we hit the Douyou, the tributary that goes to the Sudan border. It will be do-or-die for water. I need to do food inventory tomorrow to see how many days we have left left and how much we have to reduce rations again.
There is a storm to the south.
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 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.