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  Field Notes From
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From Author

David Quammen





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From Photographer

Nick Nichols



Unfiltered for authenticity, these accounts have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Across Africa on Foot

Field Notes From Author
David Quammen
After being hot, sweaty, bitten by insects, covered with mud, and tired from cutting and walking through the jungle, I experienced minor moments of joy at the end of each day when we reached a campsite. We always camped beside a little stretch of water. Sometimes it was a trickle of a stream no more than three or four inches (eight or ten cm) deep that, ideally, flowed across white sand. After setting up the tent, I would take a bath. I would go in with my bottle of Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap, strip down, peel the duct tape off my feet, wash my shorts and shirt, take an entire bath, put on my wet clothes again, and walk back up to the campfire. I was soggy and chilly, but refreshed. Those were blessed moments. We were tormented in one forest by a thorny, branching vine called Haumania dankelmaniana. It clogs the understory of the forest in a lot of different places, so as you walk down an elephant trail or bushwhack through the forest, you’re constantly watching where you place your feet. This plant can trip you or snag you across a bare ankle. It’s maddening! Each night I doctored the new scratches across my shins and ankles with iodine. But no matter how much I tried, Haumania dankelmaniana always found a way to sneak up on me, get me at a careless moment when I wasn’t expecting it, and rip a new cut across the front of my legs. We routinely ate a food called foofoo, a kind of manioc that is a staple of West Africa. It is processed into flour and eaten as trail food by Pygmy and Bantu people. The cooks poured cupfuls into a big pot, added boiling water, and turned it into something like a cross between instant mashed potatoes and wallpaper paste. We ate it like rice, as a base for smoked fish sauce or peanut sauce. It’s quirky enough that we started to like the stuff, once we got hungry enough. But I noticed that, instead of stirring it with a big spoon, the cooks cut a fresh branch from a sapling, stripped off the bark, and whittled it into a great, flat, stirring stick. And they did that at every camp! It struck me as a nice, but peculiar, practice. And I never got an explanation of why they did it.


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