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Finding no ‘Hunter’s Paradise’, Heart of Africa Expedition heads home

Fresh burn. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Fresh burn. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

Up at 04h00 as usual, and we still didn’t break camp until 05h10. Félix drank some water he had in his bottle for three days, so already he had the runs.  It is cold at night, perhaps 16 deg C, and we brought only the thinnest of sheets.  You get cold in these damp river beds, so we both had bad sleep.

Flying dual with Felix. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Flying dual with Felix. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

On the trail walking, you have a lot of time to think. That is one reason why I love to walk; just cruise along, keep focused on the visuals and sounds, but also let your mind explore. Today is a sad day, but also always a bit of relief, because we are on our homeward leg. Sad, because we are not penetrating into the unknown any more, but relieved because we are alive, in good shape and every day we will be closer to the Chinko Project HQ.

Uapaca forest. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Uapaca forest. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Burned savanna. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Burned savanna. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Microtermes termite mound. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Microtermes termite mound. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Macrotermes termite mound. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Macrotermes termite mound. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

“We have accomplished our objective out here — get as far as you can from human settlement and see if there are any remnants of Cherry’s world that he saw.”

We have accomplished our objective out here — get as far as you can from human settlement and see if there are any remnants of Cherry’s world that he saw. This place is still one of the greatest wild places on Earth. There is no state here, no government, no rules, no ownership, no justice. It is a dog-eat-dog world out here. If you don’t have it with you on your back or a burro’s back, you make, kill, steal — or do without.

There are no consequences for slaughtering wildlife, or attacking other people. There are no police, no security systems. This is what attracted Cherry the most, being the only white man in a vast territory, alone with the Africans, surviving by your own wits. It is the same exact thing that attracts me here. In a lot of ways this place is more stateless now than it was in Cherry’s time, the 1890s.  Even though there were slave raiders everywhere ravaging villages, there were still villages back then. Out here now, there is none of that.

Hunter’s Paradise Lost

On the other hand, since Cherry, and especially since I first came to this country not long after the demise of Emperor Bokassa, what Cherry called a hunter’s paradise has been lost. He believed there were millions of elephants in this vast land; today there are none. In fact, seeing an elephant track here seems as remote a possibility as seeing a grizzly bear in California.

We have yet to see a savanna antelope in 250 km of walking.  We have seen exactly what I expected to see: baboons, warthogs, red river hogs, giant forest hogs and colobus monkeys. In fact, Yaya was telling me today that the carcass of the warthog we saw was probably killed and pumped up with poison to kill any stray leopard that might still exist out here.

We have determined that these Arab and Fulani herders and poachers are ubiquitous on this landscape. They have scoured this land for years first for rhino horn and ivory, then for meat, skins, honey — and finally every blade of grass. They are merciless and will keep taking until some other human force stops them.

The trouble is, when these people are done with most other things, they turn to banditry, or even Jihad if someone will foot the bill. This is how Janjaweed were so easily found and recruited. Make no mistake, these people are fearless, skilled warriors, and there is no one who knows living in the bush like these guys do.

The Last Stand

So why do I come here? It is because I love the wild, even in a world fast losing its biodiversity.  Yes, it is what I have worked to preserve for my whole life, but 7.3 billion people on Earth is a voracious and insatiable mass. A Chinko Project, however, has a chance of creating an island here that will save the last of the last. It is without a doubt the Last Stand, one worth fighting for. The world needs more warriors who defend the planet.

Those are my daydreams while I am navigating from Point A to Point B.

We ran into a few more warthogs, a few more troops of baboons, and herder’s camps abandoned for a month or so. We also saw another pair of ground hornbills. We found Yaya and Herve right where we left them, so the team is reunited.

I taught Herve a bit of GPS navigation this evening. We saw a fresh bushbuck track. He said he has been trying to get a glimpse of him for the past two days; no joy. We also heard de Brazza monkeys vocalize along with greater white-nosed and colobus monkeys.

Chinko has become a little creek. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Chinko has become a little creek. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Waterbuck dung. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Waterbuck dung. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

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.

Day 12