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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 a part of central Africa that would be inaccessible for all but a very few people — hundreds of miles’ footslogging across roadless lands often devoid of people and large wildlife — was quite an adventure. You ran into some sketchy situations, including being attacked in the middle of the night by a swarm of hungry ants looking for a fleshy meal. How does this expedition fit in with — and add to — your previous explorations and experience in Africa?

Expedition Epilogue: Indelible ancient reality at the Heart of Africa

At the conclusion of his 290-mile transect through the Central African Republic, National Geographic Explorer J. Michael Fay shares his big-picture observation of what he’s seen, heard and understood: The regression from colonial occupation and post-colonial nation states is making way for the ancient fault lines in the region’s geography and population dynamics. If the world at large hopes to salvage nation states in this region of Africa, the solution lies in knowing the history, the land, the people and a state presence that applies land-use management as its primary tool. It can be done; law and order can exist. Programs like the Chinko Project that work at that fundamental level, helping to manage the wildlife, vegetation, soil, water, creating organization, employment, law and order, are absolutely necessary.

Heart of Africa Expedition ends abruptly

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 coming looking for us in the night thinking we poisoned him.

Among the wandering cattle herders in the Heart of Africa

We got going just before dawn. We could still hear the cows and donkeys across the river and got a good bearing on them, so this is the first objective of the day.

Shocking encounter with an electric catfish in the Heart of Africa

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.

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.

Pottery shards suggest ancient Bantu settlements deep in the Heart of Africa

The slave-raiding here continued well into the beginning of the 20th Century. Cherry saw first-hand, just before the turn of the century, the devastation of villages, and slavers on raids. He witnessed cannibalism on a large scale, of the people who were not considered to be fit to be slaves. So these bits of pottery here are the remnants of one of those villages that may have gotten raided. It was nestled deep in the hills. Further to the north here I have seen entire alternate villages built into the rocky hills for protection from the raiders.

First Day on Heart of Africa Expedition without someone being sick

We reached the river at our target around noon. The water has also come up here. Took an afternoon stroll and saw fresh waterbuck tracks. In the evening, when the sun is going down and it starts to cool off, I am struck by four things: the beauty, the enormity, the thought of all this habitat that is intact (yet empty), and a mixed feeling of desperation and sadness that not more has been done to protect this gem on Earth.

Found: A landscape ready for rewilding in the Heart of Africa

As we cross the landscape, I am snapping pictures of the various vegetation types, and thinking about restoring this place. Compared to endless places around the world, I thought this place is like a city for animals that is completely equipped: the water and lights work, the buildings are in place, it just lacks the wildlife. I think about old sheep farms in South Africa, where they remove the sheep, restore the vegetation and watersheds, and bring back every species of large mammal that existed there before. Here, compared to the millions of hectares already restored in South Africa, this place is a piece of cake. The savanna, its forest, grass cover, creeks and rivers, and the remnants of fauna are all here.

Camping on a beach at the Chinko River in the middle of nowhere

The team walked well. We reached the Chinko at 11h30 of marching. The water levels seem to be quite a bit lower now than when we passed by earlier. We found a beautiful spot to camp, with rocks and sandy beaches and good water and shade.

I took a stroll at 16h00. I love walking slowly in the late afternoon, kind of still hunting and enjoying this beautiful place. I saw guinea fowl and quite a few francolin, then a warthog. When I got a look at this guy, he had the biggest tusks I have ever seen on a warthog. They covered his eyes, they were so long.

Heart of Africa Expedition: Eagerness to go home prompts very early start to the day

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.

Finding no ‘Hunter’s Paradise’, Heart of Africa Expedition heads home

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.

Heart of Africa Expedition diverts southward because of lack of water

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.

Heart of Africa Expedition: Ready to push to the limit without water

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.

Trekking from one pool of water to the next through the Heart of Africa

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.

Fleeing naked into the night to escape predation by biting ants

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.