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Heart of Africa Expedition ends abruptly

Sudan Border Walk Day 20 (March 30, 2017)

I heard Yaya stirring and looked at my watch: 02h20.  I said, Yaya it is two AM.  He said: “I am ready”. Then I heard Herve and Felix. No use, time to get up.

Yaya said he heard the cattle come down to the river and he couldn’t sleep.  Maybe he was a little apprehensive about our friends camping close by. Even I was getting paranoid thinking I gave this guy Cipro; if he is allergic or gets suddenly worse they will come looking for us in the night thinking we poisoned him.

We headed out of camp at 03h00 and soon were far away from thoughts that come to you deep in the night.  It is pleasant walking at night; cool, no thirst and you see illuminated eyes every once in a while. Unfortunately, nothing bigger than a civet came into view; mostly nightjars, until all of the sudden there was this sound of grunting and panic and Yaya almost bowled me over.  I turned around and saw this huge warthog barreling right toward us at about 5 meters away. Pigs don’t attack, they just run, and if you are in the way, well you are in the way. She veered at the last second when she saw our fleeing movement, and a second later all was quiet.  Panic quickly fades to laughter.

Beautiful open savanna coming down to the Mboutou. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Beautiful open savanna coming down to the Mboutou. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Bee tree cut just north of Mboutou. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Bee tree cut just north of Mboutou. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

It was real easy going in the savanna: open, no trees, amazing. We passed through a herder camp that had been abandoned about a month ago, and observed less and less movement of cattle as we progressed south. About 3 km north of the Mboutou, the sun peeked over the horizon and we happened to be at the crest of a hill that overlooks the Chinko-Mboutou confluence surrounded by hills in a pure short grassy plain. What a beautiful sight it was; as far as the eye could see, you know there is nothing but bush. You have walked it and flown it and looked at the satellite imagery; just darkness in the night, amazing.

We were taking photos as we went down the hill. Once we reached the bottom and walked a ways, I noticed that Herve and Felix were not in view. We waited, as we do when people lag, then ten minutes later we called. No response. We progressed on a ways and called some more. Nothing.  Again, we came to a big laterite plain and called, and in the distant east we heard a response.  We waited ten minutes; they didn’t show.  We called and called; no response. So Yaya and I carried on to the Mboutou.  Another problem: it was completely flooded, like a different world from 20 days previously. It looked like a big formidable river now, and none of my three guys knows how to swim.

We reach the Mboutou. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
We reach the Mboutou. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Mboutou has flooded now. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Mboutou has flooded now. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

So, of course, now I am worried that our lost partners will make an attempt to cross where they shouldn’t, thinking that we have already crossed.  The paranoia of the bush.  We proceeded downstream for a kilometer, thinking maybe the Chinko would be lower, but the confluence was at least 5 km downstream.  About 2 km down now, just for the heck of it, we called, and we got a response.  We called again, and they seemed to be further.  Finally, we caught up to them, and they were just sitting on these rocks.  I lit into Herve, imploring him to tell me what the heck was his problem.  What would drive him to confuse us and oblige us to worry and lose time.  After all, this hadn’t happened once in 20 days.

I just started walking downstream in a huff and found myself following in Herve’s footsteps.  They were coming our way without their packs when we encountered them.  We found their packs, and just there was a cattle crossing that was still passable that they had already found.  I crossed along with Felix, and Yaya and Herve took off their boots to follow.  I was up over the bank and took the single cattle path to the savanna through the forest.  Yaya and Felix followed soon after.

Crossing the Mboutou. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Crossing the Mboutou. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Herve goes a bit bonkers and dissapears mysteriously. I thought he drowned. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Herve goes a bit bonkers and dissapears mysteriously. I thought he drowned. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

We waited 5 minutes, then 10, then I went down the path, only 100 meters through the forest, and Herve was not there.  I walked back to the guys — it took all of a minute or so — told them Herve was nowhere to be seen.  We all went back down to the river, calling and calling.  I ran downstream, looking for a body in the water.  There was no way he could have taken another path through the forest.  My assumption was he drowned.  We spent ten minutes calling, searching.

I went back to the packs to get my sat phone to call headquarters, because their plane could be over us in 30 minutes or so.  And there was Herve sitting there, with the packs.  He was listening to us yelling for him and he sat there; tricked us.  I asked again, what the heck is going on? No response.

Walk Over

Then I thought, in a very radical way, he is telling me that if he has to go on to Radier, two days away, he is going to go bonkers.  There and then, I said: OK, we are done, walk over.  The last thing I wanted to do is push and herd Herve, thinking that at any moment he was going to run off into the bush. I made the calls, and the HQ said that they actually had a car headed our way to pick up a sick guard, so they could pick us up later in the day. Good news, because we were almost a day’s ride away from HQ.

Once it was known we were done, Herve seemed to calm down.  We found a spot along the river and chilled, ate, drank tea, all the while a watchful eye on Herve.

Back on track. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Back on track. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
I call off the trip to Radier. Herve is not in a good mental state. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
I call off the trip to Radier. Herve is not in a good mental state. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Split my toe. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Split my toe. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Done with the walk. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Done with the walk. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

The car came at 16h30, Herve was beaming; we hopped on and that was the end of the walk, just like that. We would now transition back to base camp with cars and generators and food; civilization.  Twenty days is not long enough to forget what is behind you.  And with the teams I take with me on long walks, it seems that even months is not long enough.

Henry David Thoreau said of taking a walk : “We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return–prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again–if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man–then you are ready for a walk.”  This is my mantra.  Herve didn’t get the memo.

With guard who escorted us back to base. Herve smiling now. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
With guard who escorted us back to base. Herve smiling now. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Last picture before we got on the truck. Photograph courtesy of J. Michael Fay.
Last picture before we got on the truck. Photograph courtesy of 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.