VOICES Ideas and Insight From Explorers
I heard rustling in the leaves around 01h30. Thought maybe it was red river hogs, so got my headlamp ready to spot them. Then I heard the clang of a pot. Somebody is up? Then I heard murmurs, and by 02h00 the campfire was alive with chatter. It was like Christmas morning; the boys were up in anticipation of the return walk. I resisted until they brought me coffee at 03h00, so I got up. What the heck, I thought, I would take advantage of the excitement and get us out of camp before dawn. Everyone was in good spirits, had eaten well the night before, and Felix, even though still acting strange, looked fine. I told them, dudes, it is 60 km further going back than coming, so don’t burst any seams.
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.
We have accomplished our objective out here, get as far as you can from human settlement and see if there any remnants of William Stamps Cherry’s world that he saw.
We hit the destination creek, having left the Douyou on its northward path. Well, it was bone dry. Like the soil had no indication of moisture. We walked about a kilometer of river bed, no joy. We knew we would run out of water at some point. In fact, some water we used this morning had a real high suspended-solution of gunk and mud. Anyway, no sense in moving forward with no water, so we crossed the river and headed east toward the Douyou.
We pitched up on the Douyou after about 17 km in a straight line. I had told the guys earlier that I was going to go ahead, real light, with just Felix, to see how far up the Douyou we can get before we run out of water. I want to get as close to the Sudan border as possible. So Felix is going to carry minimal food and I barebones comms.
We will shoot for two and a half days up, and the same coming down. We will leave Herve and Yaya behind. Yaya is looking very frail, and Herve is still not 100 percent, so this will give them four days to rest up and fish. So I will not be sending journal updates for four days.
For at least 4 km up from the confluence with the Chinko there is water in the Douyou. The bed is quite small and the pools are punctuated by dry river bed for about half of the way, so if it keeps up this way, we are golden.
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 was full of driver ants that were treating me like one giant piece of prey.
Made 16 km in straight line today, Day 7. Lots of cattle and herders about. No bad encounters yet, but people very fearful and prudent.
We were cruising along through the bush and suddenly I thought I heard voices to the west. We stopped and could see two guys walking along at a rather fast clip with 4 burros with small loads and a single very skinny cow. They didn’t see us and we waited untill they got real close to greet them: “Assalama ou aleekum,” Yaya said. “Aleekum salum”, I think they didn’t realize yet we were not fellow herders. Then they saw us and veered off.
Today was short because I didn’t want to take any chances with Herve. I have been pumping him full of salt and sugar for the past 36 hours and he has gone from looking like death warmed over to just about his old self. It is amazing how dehydration can kill you real fast if you don’t get the electrolytes back in the system.
We took a rest at a spot where we were next to the Chinko, and when we getting up I could see Herve was walking real slow. I said, you are walking like an old man. He said “stomach worms are bothering me, I have been throwing up”. He looked like hell.
Seems like we have been on the trail for a long time now. That is a good thing. It means we are in the rhythm of the walk. What has been left behind is left behind and when you get up in the morning you can’t wait to go because you are going ever deeper into the unknown.
The guys were not super happy to get out of bed this morning after the first-day walk blues from yesterday. It is not the distance, it is the weight. We crossed the Chinko right away to avoid a creek on our side. Turns out it was a mistake, the grass hadn’t been burned on the opposite side, which makes going ten times slower.
We camped out with the Chinko Project Team. They left us at the confluence of the Chinko and the Mboutou. This is as far as the dirt track leads, from there to the South Sudan border it is foot only.
Africa explorer-conservationist J. Michael Fay is in the Central African Republic for the next six weeks, 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 remote wildernesses (Megatransect and Meglaflyover) rank among the most significant in the history of exploration of the continent.
I arrived in the far east of the Central African Republic for what may be my last trip to follow in the footsteps of William Stamps Cherry. The war has settled down here, but there are large parts of the country, in particular about the entire eastern half, that are still in the hands of the Seleka. They are calling Ndele, their former capital, by the name that Cherry would have known it: Dar al Kouti. For these Seleka, the colonial era was just that, a short period in history when their raiding over large parts of central Africa were curtailed. In Cherry’s time it was primarily for slaves and ivory. Today, because slaves are hard to sell and elephants have become so rare in this country, Muslims coming from the north poach wildlife and graze cattle.