What is your worst nightmare for travel? One of mine is being caught in deepest Africa in a coup……and that is what happened on my expedition to the Central African Republic (CAR). It is time to tell this tale again with the recent unrest in CAR eerily reminiscent of my experiences several years ago.
The destination of this site visit with the executive director of National Geographic Explorer was the Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve which lies in the southwest corner of CAR bordering on Cameroon and Republic of Congo. The 500 million acres together with adjacent reserves comprises the second largest rainforest on earth. It is loaded with megafauna such as forest elephants, lowland gorillas, various antelope species, warthogs, chimpanzees, as well as multitudes of bird and insect species. This is the area that Michael Fay walked through in his famous megatransect a few years later.
The US State Department warned that a coup spurred by an army mutiny was developing just as we planned to leave. However, the World Wildlife Fund personnel on site reassured us on the day we departed that the shooting had stopped. Hmmm. We landed in Bangui, not the garden spot of the world, and tension was palpable, but the French Foreign Legion was on every street corner with AK 47s keeping the peace. We were hustled from the airport to the WWF offices and on to a small plane which flew us the 3 hours to a dirt strip near their camp.
Met by a Bantu ranger who instructed us in broken English, “If you see gorilla, look down. If you see elephant, stop. If you see buffalo…run like hell”, we chuckled. His perceived joke on us turned to reality when minutes into the trail, an elephant walked right across our path ten feet ahead. You could not see or hear it until it was right in front of you. We paid attention.
The ranger brought us to a clearing (called a bai) where an observation stand had been erected by researchers. These infrequent clearings are created by elephants and this huge one contained elephants, several species of antelope, warthogs, buffalo, birds of many types, and literally millions of butterflies. This WAS the Garden of Eden.
Our lodgings were quite comfortable though we were sure to securely tuck our mosquito nets around us to discourage the huge huntsman spiders in every room. Tasty dinners were served in a stilted open hut suspended above the Sangha River loaded with hippos and large Nile crocodiles. Days were spent reconnoitering the jungle or hunting with the indigenous pygmies with their crossbows and poison arrows for their dinner. The Bay’aka pygmies lived in small igloos but foraged constantly as true hunter-gatherers…and were very generous with their meager rations. We deferred the grilled porcupine, with the excuse that we did not want to take a portion from the tribe which someone else would go without. Delightful friendly people, frequently singing melodically, they could not have cared less about the political situation or coup.
Upon return to Bangui we went out on the town with German mercenaries who had run guns for Ugandan rebels against Idi Amin. One stop was an exotic bar right out of Star Wars with Somali waitresses, Central African bartenders, and Dutch, Italian, and African patrons flavored with Cape Verde music. My meeting with the American ambassador the next day was punctuated by her exclamation that she was glad we made it….the small plane we had flown had gone down 3 times in the past year. Hmmm. Not much of a choice between an 11 hour drive over horrible roads with political unrest or a plane with an unknown (until later) service record.
The return trip was marred by a shakedown at the airport customs where my companion had to pay $600 to get out. I was spared for unclear reasons except I had nothing valuable and most of my money in my shoe. Many more stories to tell on this road trip!
Although the unstable political situation did not boil over for several years, recent anarchy has afflicted CAR such that major organizations like IMF have evacuated employees. Sadly, the elephant researchers and other scientists also had to flee persecution. We can only hope the beautiful bais and rainforest are not too violated.