VOICES Ideas and Insight From Explorers
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.
I was only about 70 km from Zacco and against my better judgement had negotiated another bush motorcycle ride the night before. The bike, they told me, was not working, but it would be by morning. Sure enough our 6 am departure was not a bit delayed, so when 09h00 rolled around I had to play scary monster, yelling at the guys who were now jacking me around and not being serious. I said that if we were not out of there in 30 minutes I was pulling the plug on the operation. Of course that was a totally impossible threat to execute because there was only two bikes in this whole area.
I like war zones, not only are they exciting, but the way I do it, without a gun or aggression, is like I am walking on a deadly chess board and every move I make could be fatal. But what I find is once you get good at the game, it is easy to win. Yes you have to have a strategy, knowledge, language and know how to ally yourself as you pass from one group to the other, scare them with words when necessary, and outthink them. This is exactly what Cherry mastered so long ago.
At 09h55 we hit the destination that I had been dreaming about for days, for years, the confluence of the Kotto and the Ndjé — the place so thick with wildlife that it was described as a hunter’s paradise by William Stamps Cherry just over a century ago. I have read his account a hundred times. Nothing has been left to see, the hunters paradise is no more. Millions of animals have been eliminated from the planet.
We wait around for the guys who said they would come, but never did. What the heck, let’s just go downstream and see where the path takes us. I decided to let the guys go out front today; I felt like a slow concentrated pace.
So of course what happened this morning is the bike guy wanted way too much money. I told him go take a leap. I already gave him 10,000, which is more than a fair wage, especially since it was just a make-work job. Then also the bigger deal was that my boys wanted to take…
I was up at 06h00 with the whole village. Fires were already lit, water was already hot to wash my eyes, as they say — and the coffee was on. What more could a guy want. I sent a kid out to buy some fritters, but there were none.
Pretty quick the drunk dude from last night showed up. I gathered his name was Sim. He made the same proposition as the day before. They would take me downstream all the way to the confluence.
It was foolish to continue; if anything I needed manpower to push my log over the rocks, probably every 500 meters along the river. So executive decision, abandon the pirogue. I was still only 2 km in a straight line to the camp and decided I would walk out to the village and decide on my next move.
I packed everything, got the pirogue ready with some sticks in the bottom to keep the bag dry, and come 12h07, nobody showed, so I headed out. Shortly out on the river I met a single fisherman in a pirogue. His eyes were real big when he saw me.
It was cold in the night. We left camp at 07h10; nice Terminalia savanna, burned. There were two groups of crested mangabeys vocalizing from the gallery where we slept. My leg seemed to be improving a bit, a bit less of the sharp pain when I go from walking to standing or in bed. Maybe. Hoping, anyway.
We were going to walk to the Ndjé River on the village trail today. We chatted with the chief’s son-in-law who had just come back from the river. He was big bones and had that northern look about him. His name was Hissain Ndobe, he said he was Sara-Ndele, and had come here for the diamonds and had settled in the village. He was married to the 13-year-old; he must have been 35.
We walked on to the village of Ngoulia, past the xment to Zako, and went directly to the Chef’s house. I introduced myself and said we wanted to spend the night. He was old and seemed not too coherent, but he said it was fine. He then introduced me to a more modern looking chap. The Chief said, “lo inga kwa ti mbeti”, he knows how to write, therefore he would be sophisticated enough to deal with us.
This place is more abandoned now than in William Stamps Cherry’s time. We haven’t hit a single village in 100 km of walking, whereas the 19th Century explorer would have seen 10 in this part of central Africa. In Cherry;s time, slavery and ivory were the engines of the local economy, in the 21st Century it is diamonds, gold, and what’s left of the wildlife.
The west side of the Mbari was not as Cherry described, full of elephants and huge goliath tigerfish. The fishing is now only mediocre and the game, by my guys’ account, has been eliminated. Only baboons and warthogs remain, and even at that we saw only one warthog the entire way. There are no villages either, only Fode and Yalinga, with a total of less than a thousand people. Whereas Cherry probably crossed 10, we crossed none. The road has been abandoned for decades.