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Shocking encounter with an electric catfish in the Heart of Africa

Day 18 — We decided to walk on the north side of the river to avoid some mountains, but also to check out this big flooded plain I can see in the satellite imagery. We took off at 04h40; the boys are motivated because we are close and food is running very low, so packs are relatively light. At our departure from headquarters, the packs were super heavy: 42 kg for Félix, 38 kg for Yaya, and 32 kg for Herve, so they have probably lost 20 kg in each by now.

We have spotted people in the dry lake bed. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
We have spotted people in the dry lake bed. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

We saw some warthogs just after sunrise, and around 05h30 we could hear cows in the distance. We went in their direction and about 30 minutes later they came into view. There was about an 8-year-old boy tending them, but he didn’t see us. The cows were both brown and white. When they were real close, Yaya called out asallamo-a-leekum. The kid glanced up and got one look at me, and was off like a flash. He didn’t say a word; his cows left behind to deal with these strangers themselves. They didn’t take long to follow suit. Yaya said he was an Arab. They were grazing in a nice lando that has grass now that there have been a couple of mango rains.

Fur campfire. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Fur campfire. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Fur trash. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Fur trash. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
One hundred percent of the trash seen so far is from Sudan. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
One hundred percent of the trash seen so far is from Sudan. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

We went through some rocks with a bit of forest, saw the forest guinea fowl and green monkeys as well as fresh human tracks. We followed a bit of a trail to the west.

Fresh track of bushbuck. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Fresh track of bushbuck. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

20170328_082308 Lake grass below Mount Rudolphe once primo safari hunting ground-001

As we approached the flooded plain, we could see six people in the last of the drying water. They were about 500 m off; they didn’t see us. We watched for a while, and then exposed ourselves in the plain and Yaya waved a green-leafed branch kind of like a white flag. They were kind of caught out there, anyway. If we wanted to do them harm, it would have already been done.

As we approached, I could see these guys were different. They were speaking with Yaya in Sudanese Arabic. They were fishing with a trot line with hundreds of hooks, about size 6. They had caught about 40 1-kg catfish in this tiny puddle. They also had a fish trap made from fiber.

We discover Fur tribesmen several hundred kilometers from home to fish for catfish. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
We discover Fur tribesmen several hundred kilometers from home to fish for catfish. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

Same old drill; these guys were clearly petrified that troops were going to sweep in any second and kill them, or worse. But they loosened up. They offered us fish, of which we gladly partook. We gave them cigarettes and they asked for malaria medicine for a sick guy they left in camp. I gave them a pack of Coartem.

The Fur camp water source. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
The Fur camp water source. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

These guys were neither Arabs nor Peul, but black Africans. They said they were Fur. They had come to collect honey and fish, which is code for killing anything of value. There was one guy with grey hair in his beard; the rest looked like they were in their twenties. These are the guys who have been fighting in Dar Fur for years. There is nothing left there, so they have little choice but to go elsewhere to find sustenance.

Departing friends, having exchanged cigarettes and malaria medicine for catfish. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Departing friends, having exchanged cigarettes and malaria medicine for catfish. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

We took photos with our new friends and bid them farewell. We followed a cattle path out of the dry lake and hit the Chinko about 5 km on. We decided to cross and continue south another 8 kms. We reached some nice landos and there was an old road track on the east side. It was one of the old safari hunting tracks. Hard to imagine how many antelope these guys used to see on these plains, herds of 500 buffalo, elephants galore. All that is here now is cattle and signs of lots of pigs.

We reached the river again after climbing one last hill. We saw both warthogs and giant forest hogs along the river. Also big news, very old tracks of a very large male hippo. He passed several months ago.

We can hear burros and people cutting a honey tree across the river; we will try to find them tomorrow morning.

Chilling with cup of tea and first meal of the day. Photograph courtesy of J. Michael Fay.
Chilling with cup of tea and first meal of the day. Photograph courtesy of J. Michael Fay.
Camp in action: Food preparation. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Camp in action: Food preparation. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

Herve killed three tilapia and three polypteris fish with his machete. He also made the mistake of hitting an electric catfish. He said the shock that went right through the handle almost knocked him out.

Tilapia and Heterotis fish caught with machete. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Tilapia and Heterotis fish caught with machete. 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.

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