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Mike Fay discusses his Expedition Through the Heart of Africa, and his plan to keep on walking … for ten years

Your latest trek through the deeply troubled Heart of Africa, a part of the Central African Republic that would be inaccessible for all but a very few people, was quite an adventure. Over the course of hundreds of miles’ footslogging across roadless lands often devoid of humans and wildlife, you ran into some sketchy situations, including being swarmed in the middle of the night by ferocious ants looking for a fleshy meal. How does this expedition fit in with — and add to — your previous explorations and experience in Africa?

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My passion in life is walking the Earth. Moving, seeing, going as far as I can cross-country without crossing a road or fence line, or any human infrastructure. I also always end up trying to secure the natural world in these places; humans have taken enough. So this trip was tailor-made for me.

Why this specific expedition, with what objectives in mind?

William Stamps Cherry, the first American to explore what is today the Central African Republic, more than a century ago.
William Stamps Cherry, the first American to explore what is today the Central African Republic, more than a century ago.

This is a walk that I have wanted to do for decades. Then, after the Redwood transect [Learn about Mike Fay’s Redwood Transect through California’s redwood forests and get more information from National Geographic], I received a letter (a year after it was mailed) from the documentarian of a man called William Stamps Cherry. He had read this story we published in the Magazine of Zakouma National Park in Chad, where I talked about the demise of wildlife in Central Africa, the history of slavery, the penetration of Islam, and trade from this area that was based on ivory and slaves, and that the process continues, despite 60 years of colonization by Europe. [Read Fay’s March 2007 National Geographic article, Last Stand in Zakouma.]

Dr. Cherry proceeded to tell the story of his grandfather, William Stamps Cherry, who was a forgotten explorer of the eastern reaches of the Oubangui Chari, the first white man ever to visit this territory. He sent me his grandfather’s unpublished autobiography that told a forgotten first-hand story of slavery and wildlife that was never recorded in history. (From the Heart of Africa: An Introduction to William Stamps Cherry)

Once I started reading this story, I could not put it down. Knowing the country, I knew everything Cherry said, no matter how crazy or dangerous, sounded true. He described unthinkable human suffering, and an abundance of wildlife that could only be dreamed of today. I knew that I had to take this walk, to bring Cherry’s story to life, and to satisfy my urge to go to the wildest end of the Earth.

In your dispatches, you regularly compared and contrasted your Expedition Through the Heart of Africa with William Stamps Cherry’s Heart of Africa exploration of more than a century ago. What’s changed and what’s the same, as far you could tell from your walk through some of the same places he saw?

So this walk, unlike our aerial surveys of South Sudan in 2007, [Read the November 2010 National Geographic article: The Lost Herds of Southern Sudan], wasn’t about finding that last refuge for wildlife, because we know that the wildlife of Cherry’s hunters’ paradise has been reduced by over 99 percent since his time, even almost 99 percent since I first came to this region in 1980.

This exploration was rather about walking out and beyond, assessing what the state of it is, and talking to the Chinko Project about how I might be able to help their effort to create a protected area here. [Watching this 10-minute video, The Central African Republic: The Chinko Projectprovides context for Fay’s walk through eastern Central African Republic.]

How then did the expedition deliver on your expectations and aspirations? What was affirmative,  and what was different, to what you were expecting to see?

I never set out to make discoveries or describe new species or lost tribes; I set out to explore one more wild place. The test is that you wake up well before dawn and you are raring to get out of your tent, because there were unresolved stories that were unfolding the day before. Only going further will solve the riddle, answer your questions. Considering we were up before 04h00 every day means this was a great trip.

Was it hard, hot, complicated with sick team mates, tiring? Did it hurt? Yes.  But we got as far as the water went and penetrated further than any white man in decades, other than green-beret soldiers who fly in on helicopters, looking for Joseph Kony.  Did we find what we expected, wildlife- and human-wise? It was exactly as we expected, but now it is documented, now it is sure.

Back on track. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Back on track. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

You made some profound observations along the way, especially about the long arc of history of the struggle of the people to survive in ever-changing and challenging circumstances. Would you recap some of your thoughts on the people you encountered, the disappearance of wildlife, and the prospects for a better future for the environment in the Heart of Africa after centuries of exploitation.

We add more than 10 million humans to the Earth every month. Think of the ressources it takes to feed, house, and satisfy a person of the middle class in the 21st Century.  So adding 10 million people is probably, resource-wise, the equivalent to adding 100 million humans of a century ago to the planet every month, or 500,000 million humans of 2,000 years ago.  So the fact that there is less and less room, exponentially, for the rest of nature to survive and flourish on Earth is not surprising.

In fact, for me, it is kind of surprising that there is anything left at all. For me, it is the ultimate luxury that I am still able to wander places where people are still living as they did during the time of Jesus Christ, herding with locally grown foodstuffs and living off the land.

The trouble is, the Earth is running out of room, not only for wild animals but for free-ranging nomadic herders.  They find their way of life disappearing and their own needs increasing as their habitats are degrading and occupied by sendantary  humans every day.  I feel for them, but I also feel for the millions of wild animals that were slaughtered for profit by these same people coming from the north.

At a certain point, there is conflict and something has to break, transhumance [nomadic pastoralism] of over 2,000 km in a season is going to become impossible.  The only hope is for humans to manage resources, recognize the limits, and provide the greatest good for the greatest number, including wildlife.

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You found that much of the wilderness remains intact, sans the largest wildlife. You have seen successful rewilding in other parts of Africa, notably South Africa. What would it take to do that in the Heart of Africa? What are the obstacles?

This place for a South African game rancher would be a dream come true. The creeks still flow, the grass cover is still intact, the soils hardly degraded by livestock, and just about every species of wildlife that was here 40 years ago is still here. For him, he would establish a perimeter, either breed or import the wildlife, and presto chango, in ten years you would hardly know that the wildlife got wiped out.

But there is no rule of law, no state in eastern CAR.  Only projects like the Chinko Project, that work with a central government and provide security and employment, and deny bandits from being bandits, will provide the methods and means to get the job done.

If I were not optimisitic that it can happen, I would not say so.  I believe it can be done, but we are going to have to invest about U.S. $2 an acre for a decade or so before it can be accomplished.

It seemed to be clear from your journal that many of the people you encountered were really frightened on seeing you. Is that because of the many violent groups that seem to wander around the region? In a part of the world you described many times as being stateless, were you not also perpetually worried about the security of your group? What precautions did you take to move around without being harmed by bad people, or by people who might attack you pre-emptively?

I don’t worry about security.  In a small band of people, if you speak the language, understand the people, have something they need, then usually negotiation is possible.

You have to be a good bluff; you have to create an illusion of strength; you have to make yourself seem bigger and scarier than they are, just like you do with a big elephant. So far it has worked for me. Most of the people we met on this trip were armed with AK-47s.

You also need to be stealthy; you need to see everyone before they see you. We used our brains and, like you say, they were a lot more scared of us than we were of them.

From your conversations with your own team, and the people you met, the villagers who fed you, gave you a place to sleep, what could you glean about their fears, hopes and aspirations for themselves and their children? Or is it really just a matter of getting through one day to the next?

In these parts of the world, especially if you are sedentary and defenseless, you live from day to day, just like in Cherry’s time. You are happy if you can grow food and if you don’t get killed by one of about 20 different forces out here that will kill you without a thought.

One solution people use is to leave the hinterland to go to the city or to Europe or a neighboring country — to seek refuge. Otherwise, you have to use your wits, just like everyone else, and survive.  Often, those who stay here like to play the game, but it is a dog-eat-dog world out here, that is for sure.

Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

What was the highlight and lowlight of your expedition?

Highlight: getting everyone back safe and sound. I have never lost anyone, but there is always big potential for it, and this trip was definitely no different.  Giant catfish in the river was fantastic to see.

Herve collapsing and coming close to death was the lowlight, for sure.

If you had to go again, what would you do differently?

Not a thing. I don’t believe in adventure, just exploration. This trip was planned and done by three Africans and myself who all knew we could do it.  We followed rivers for water, we carried a lot of food, we had good maps. What could go wrong?

Reached the Chinko. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Reached the Chinko. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

It is striking to see, in your photos, how the local people who walked with you cover themselves from head to foot, in gumboots, long trousers, fully sleeved tops. You seemed to hike in open sandals, running shorts, and a tee-shirt. It strikes me that your choice is the better one. Why did you choose to dress like that for a long hike through wilderness?

Well, my legs and arms got scratched, my feet got cut. I did carry pants, just in case we encountered patches with razor grass or spiny vegetation. You learn to tread lightly, watch your steps, and yes, I stayed cool, with dry feet.  Most people just don’t like the knicks and bruises. Funny, before I look, I always know if I am bleeding or not. On this trip, I bled about 30 times or so. So it is a choice: pay now or pay later.

Split my toe. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Split my toe. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

You walked for weeks carrying everything on your backs. What equipment did you take? What do you put in your own backpack? How much of a pharmacy dd you take with you? How much weight were you lugging around all day?

I had the luxury of being the team leader, navigator, chief negotiator, banker, doctor, priest, coach …  so my bag was much lighter than those carried by the guys. They started out with 42, 38 and 32 kg, with weight going down every day by about 2 kg in the food eaten. They carried tents, mats, pots, cups, machete and all the food.  I carried a mere 19 kg, but I carried the cash, electronics, batteries, medicine, extra water, and my own personal gear, that is, a sheet and a toothbrush.

The medicine I bring is simple, duct tape for cuts and scrapes, antibiotics of three types (Cipro for stomach and internal problems, Amoxicillin for external infection, and Bactrim for any really nasty infection), anti-malarials, anti-pain, and the secret weapon on this trip: salt, salt and more salt.

Felix taking a break. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Felix taking a break. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

It didn’t look as if there was always enough water to drink, let alone for bathing or washing clothing. How do you manage these basics?

Water quantity got less and less every day, but the quality was also progressively worse. But bathing consisted of arriving in the heat of the day and submerging myself in whatever water I found, to cool off and get the sweat out of my tshirt and shorts.  I didn’t use soap in 20 days.

Felix ready for the end of the trek. Photograph by J.Michael Fay.
Felix ready for the end of the trek. Photograph by J.Michael Fay.

Your nocturnal encounter wth the ants invading your tent and biting you en masse while you were asleep was scary to read. Why did they do that?  Were you camping on their nest, or did they see you as food?

Driver ants travel in bands of hundreds of thousands on the prowl for any prey they can find. They bite things using the technique of a thousand cuts to overwhelm their quarry.  They smelled human flesh that was prone, and they wanted it. It is mostly about finding your light once you realize that you are covered by ants in the dark, so keeping your head is key.  Then you run away, with nothing on, and pick off the biggest ones first, ’cause they can draw blood. Once you are clean of them,  it is fine. They don’t sting, which is a big advantage. I would much rather be swarmed by ants than wasps.

Nightfall in camp. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Nightfall in camp. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

A lot of the larger wildlife that should have been present in that habitat was missing on your journey, but you saw some signs of waterbuck and other antelope, and you heard a leopard or two. There seemed to have been a fair population of colobus, warthogs, pigs, and you also reported an occasional small crocodile. So the region remains fairly wild, and there is a fair amount of smaller prey for leopards and other stealthy predators like small cats and snakes, perhaps even pythons. Did you encounter any snakes?

No snakes; we didn’t walk at night. There should be plenty of pythons in the rivers. There were actually lots of Nile crocs, mostly less than a meter, and we saw one monitor lizard.

One spectacular way your expedition differed from that of Cherry was your digital equipment to navigate and see where you are — and your ability to send texts and even daily blog posts from your camp. What equipment did you carry, how did you keep it charged, and how did you manage to write and transmit daily dispatches from the middle of nowhere?

For phone, I carry a Thuraya and an Iridium sat phone; for email an Iridium Go! For position and messaging, I had an Inreach tracker/messenger that works off the Iridium satellites.  I have a Samsung s7 active, which is a very rugged, super phone with great camera, and GPS with navigational and data collection software called Locus Pro.

I downloaded high-res satellite imagery and 1:200,000 topo maps that I uploaded into the moving map component of the Locus Pro app.  You can navigate superbly with this tool.  Without it we would have had a rough time because there were lots of mountains and thick forest we navigated through intelligently. I bring battery packs and have a 33-watt foldable solar panel, works like a charm as long as you stop early enough to cop some sun.

Fay sent daily dispatches, including his coordinates.
Fay sent daily dispatches, including his coordinates.

What’s next for you, in terms of follow-up to this expedition, as well as your work in africa (and elsewhere)?

I return to Gabon to finalize the passing of the marine protected area system i have been working on for the past four years with the government of Gabon.   Once this is done, I will be very relieved. Then I go to Ascension Island with National Geographic, to SW Alaska, northern Yukon, Costa Rica, Congo — and back to Gabon, walking, working, doing conservation.

Do you ever think of retiring, moving somewhere you can stay the rest of your days — or is your life always going to be one of exploring?

I am going to retire to Planet Earth. My dream is start walking in the next few years and just not stop for 10 years or so.

Looking back over your vast experience of Africa, having seen and experienced it from every conceivable perspective, what are your biggest hopes and fears for the continent, and what does your gut tell you is the most likely prognosis?

Africa is developing, and will continue to do so. There will be less and less room for the natural world. We need to make sure that things evolve quickly, s0 that managers of natural resources get out in front of the exploiters and thieves of natural resources, otherwise Africa will always be on the short end of the stick. This takes mostly internal work to make sure that Africans themselves are ready to manage. I would not be in Africa if there was no hope. In a lot of ways, things are much less polarized here than they are in the U.S.

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.

J. Michael Fay Biography (excerpted from U.S. State Department archive)

Born in September 1956 in Plainfield, New Jersey,  J. Michael Fay received a Bachelor of Science in 1978 from the University of Arizona and then spent six years in the Peace Corps as a botanist in national parks in Tunisia and the savannas of the Central African Republic. He then went on to work with Peter Raven in 1984 at the Missouri Botanical Garden, first to do a floristic study on a mountain range on Sudan’s western border but ended up doing his Ph.D. on the western lowland gorilla. It was at this time that he first entered the forests of central Africa. Doctoral work was curtailed several times (graduated 1997) while he surveyed large forest blocks and worked to create and manage the Dzanga-Sangha and Nouabale-Ndoki parks in the Central African Republic and Congo.

In 1996 Fay started flying a small airplane low over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized that there was a vast, intact forest corridor that spanned these two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997 he decided to walk the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles, systematically surveying trees, wildlife and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks on a project he developed called the Megatransect. This work had the objective of bringing to the world’s attention the last pristine blocks of forest in central Africa and the need for protection. Mike has worked for the past 11 years for the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx and spent two years at the National Geographic Society in Washington writing up the Megatransect and fund raising for central African forests. 

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Comments

  1. zayin
    April 11, 9:40 pm

    This was an amazing expedition.

    We need more people like Mike Fay, goddamit.

    The Chinko project looks great.