Dispatches for November 2004:
Click on a date (below) to read expedition reports.
November 5, 2004: Somali Border
|1. November 5, 2004
2. November 6, 2004
3. November 12, 2004
4. November 18, 2004
|5. November 21, 2004
6. November 22, 2004
7. November 23, 2004
|8. November 27, 2004|
9. November 28, 2004
10. November 29, 2004
I am sitting a top a dune over the Indian Ocean. The air is cool and extremely humid. There is silence except for the sound of a slow surf, crickets, and the occasional hee-haa of a donkey in the village below. It is Ramadan here on this little island nestled right up on the Somali border.
The only light in view is that of the kerosene lamp by my side and bright stars. The only people that we saw today were living close to the Earth. I don't think I saw a single motor vehicle in four hours of flying, but we passed over hundreds of thousands of people cultivating, herding, and fishing. Life is simple here, and worthy of living no doubt.
November 6, 2004: We're All Just People Here
Today we landed in Kiwayuu Island, just three days after the Bush re-election and a day after Arafat was declared brain dead. We asked around to see if there was somewhere we could camp out. One guy, named Mohammed, showed us to a little bungalow on the beach made just of mangrove wood, coconut mats, and thatch. He was born on the island and used to be a fisherman. Now it seems he is a facilitator for the tourists who come here in ever-increasing numbers. For dinner he asked, "Is lobster and rice OK for you?" . We accepted and he said it might be a bit late because the evening prayer and meal would take some time. We're in the middle of Ramadan.
If there were no national boundaries, passports, or cash money, I could just stay on this island. I don't think anyone would ask more than a few questions. We're all just people here. There is no Arab, Jew, white, black, Muslim, or Christian. Just people. How is it that we've come to a point where there is this cloud hanging over humanity? The different sides should just come here to Kiwayuu and let their hatred wither on landing. It's a funny world.
TopNovember 12, 2004: Headed for Bangui
For days Peter and Mario have been preparing the planes for our great traverse from the east to the west of the continent. We were at the Entebbe Airport at 6 a.m., and shoved off an hour or so later. Our goal was to get to Bangui, Central African Republic, in one day, with only six pistons pushing us across, and then we'd go onto Chad.
We had some green points that we needed to hit on the way that would take us about as deep as you can go into the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the country of Mobutu Sese Seko and significant turmoil since his death a few years ago. I really didn't know what to expect, but stories of gold, coltan (Colombo-tantalite ore, used in cell phones), and wood exploitation abound.
As we edged farther to the north the savannas started coming in. What is interesting here is that it is obvious that much of these savannas were once inhabited by people and now they are empty of people other than a few settlements here and there. The forest is starting to regrow. The human species has for once receded. The forest that once covered this land is coming back.
TopNovember 18, 2004: Zakouma
Back in the early 1980s when I worked in the north of the Central African Republic—in the Manovo Gounda St. Floris—poaching was out of control. There were wars raging in Sudan and Chad, and millions of AK-47s and other automatic weapons circulating. The poachers from these countries were mostly experienced soldiers who had killed before and whose concept of the value of human life was seriously degraded.
At the same time the price of ivory was extremely high, the war on elephants was on, and our park was one of the poaching hot beds. We had hundreds if not thousands of Chadian and Sudanese poachers operating at any one time in our park. We were finding hundreds of elephant carcasses every season in the park. It was also a free for all on antelope and fish. There was a general slaughter of all life for export to the markets of the world.
During these years it was impossible for me to imagine that there were any wild animals left in Chad. Today, 20 years later, we were landing in Zakouma National Park. There was a huge airstrip perfectly graded and a large camp of guards, all in turbans. Apparently these guys had stayed in the park all through the war years, without pay, and had protected a small core of the park around their camp. This was enough to keep the home fires lit. Since then there have been almost 15 years of protection, and they have seen their elephant populations go up to about 5,500. All other species of large mammals are also increasing.
TopNovember 21, 2004: Saharan Gazelles in Endless Yellow Plains — Watch Video
We left Zakouma and headed north and east toward Biltine. It was just a name on the map that I picked with an airstrip conveniently located on the east side of a huge wadi complex. It covers an area about the size of Nevada, about 970 square miles (2,500 square kilometers), in eastern-central Chad. It was here that I expected to find some of the last remnants of the great Saharan antelope populations that once inhabited this enormous desert.
We graded slowly into a complete carpet of bright yellow grass. This was a world that I didn't expect to see. As we went north I thought we would be seeing sandy landscape with a sparse cover of shrubs, but this looked more like what the short grass prairies of North America probably looked like before they were converted into wheat. We passed by a wadi area and then Dolmia started tapping frantically on my back, I looked around and he was freaking out, pointing to the ground. He yelled in my ear, "Gazelles!" We circled and I could see three or four of these dainty little antelope scattering in all directions, trying to escape our plane. They were Dorcas gazelles. As we proceeded north another surprise: four male ostriches. Again I couldn't believe my eyes. I have always thought of the Sahara as being hunted out long ago.
You could feel Biltine coming long before we got there. The grass cover went to basically zero and the number of cows, goats, and sheep started to climb pretty precipitously. This was one of crossroads in this dry place for people coming from hundreds of miles away. We could finally see the town, which had a large mosque with two minarets about four stories high. The rest of the town was built out of mud brick. We were greeted at the airport by two guys and escorted to the governor's office. There we were again greeted warmly and told how important our work was. We then headed for our lodging, a walled villa.
TopNovember 22, 2004: Central Sahara
Up at 5 a.m., off to the airplane at 6, and airborne by 6:35. We were going to make a pretty bold transect far to the west about 300 kilometers and then swing north and come back on a parallel track. This was going to take us into the center of the Wadi Rime Wadi Achim Reserve, which is an enormous "paper" reserve created in 1969 by President Tombalbay to protect the last of the oryx and addax in the region. The idea was good, the execution has been, well, nonexistent.
Soon we transitioned off the wadi, and the grass cover came back. I was hypnotized by the landscape—bright yellow texture with no start and no stop. Then the vegetation started to become a bit more scarce and mammal tracks become visible in the sand. There was a direct correlation between these animals and a plant that we had noticed in other areas where we started to see antelope and camels. We had found what we had come here for—pockets where there are still large numbers of wildlife in the central Sahara Desert.
TopNovember 23, 2004: Passing Time
We are still waiting for our fuel to arrive today from Biltine. It's coming by road from about eight hours away. I decided to take a little stroll in town, and ended up climbing a small butte at the edge of town. The rock was well worn on the climb to the top, and I wondered if maybe it has served as a lookout post for generations of sentinels for the centuries. The wind picked up and in the distance I could see dust starting to get kicked into the air. I headed back to the confines of the oasis, where we were staying. Two hours later the mountains had completely disappeared behind a veil of dust. The wind was howling through the town. It was as if the Earth had been taken by a volcanic eruption or nuclear war. The suns rays were diminished. For me life kind of went into suspended animation, but I could still hear the kids in the school yard playing and women showing up at the local market. These Saharan people are tough. They just block their faces and go on with life. They really don't have a choice.
TopNovember 27, 2004: Mission Aborted
We took off for Faya Largeau this morning. It has been a long time since an expedition like ours has made it to Faya and I was really looking forward to it. But Jean Marc seemed a bit worried about military guys shooting at us even if we were going to radio in. Funny, but I don't worry about getting shot at. To me it is just part of the game of life. You get shot at once in a while, which can makes things interesting.
The wind was starting to pick up and I could see a bit of haze starting to appear on the horizon to the east, a wind storm was brewing. I tried to ignore the strong wind. I figured if we could just get airborne we would be out of here and the rest would be history. We continued north and I thought we were going to make it to our destination, the northernmost point in Chad, after all. About five minutes later Peter spotted a dark black haze you get with a generalized sandstorm. It was big and it was north and west of us. It didn't take us long to decide to return to Fada. When we got back to Fada, the wind was already howling there. It wasn't a white out, but visibility was down to maybe eight kilometers.
What to do? I was for staying put for the day and seeing if we could get back in the air tomorrow. Sandstorms are just part of the landscape here. I think if Allah is with us we will be heading to the famed Faya Largeau tomorrow. I need to go to bed.
TopNovember 28, 2004: Depleting Resources
We woke up to a very nice day and there was no wind at the airport. We started cruising north and the ride was spectacular. I could hear Peter Ragg's wife get on the radio from the other plane. She reported a dune desert with a ferocious sandstorm. Their visibility was down to zero. If we kept going we were going to be putting ourselves deep into harm's way. We decide to abort again, but this time we headed to Ndjamena, the capital of Chad.
A bit further south we started to hit a few villages built out of mud, and in every walled concession there was grass that had been harvested from the surrounding lands. These were folks living on the edge, but they were doing it with dignity and a spirit of looking forward, not backward. Yet their resource is degrading fast and they have more and more mouths to feed. Like so many places we have seen, this population is using up the capital of the natural resource base. They're chewing every plant right down to its roots and extracting every bit of mineral and water from the land possible. Humans are humans and there is one way to transform this situation very quickly: start mining fossil water and using fossil fuel. In this regard Chad is still in great ecological shape compared to areas in the southwest of the United States, for example, where much of the fossil water has already been extracted to grow cotton, onions, and alfalfa. This is an age that will come to Chad if petroleum is abundant enough in this land. We have heard that there are more oil fields waiting to be put into production in Chad so the day may soon come. But now would be the time to take a serious look at the natural resource base here and start to push things in the right direction.
November 29, 2004: Alain LeFol
The morning after we returned from our trip north the phone rang. The voice greeted me: "Assalamaoualeekum," I responded "Oualeekumsallam," then the voice switched to Sangho, then English, then French. I was wracking my brain trying to figure out who this person was: male, white, probably French, but I couldn't make him out. He gave me a number, told me to call back with a time to meet and hung up. As soon as he did, I thought Damn, that was Alain LeFol. The last I had heard of Alain he was hunting Barbary sheep deep in northern Chad and in prison for executing two poachers. An arrangement for dinner was made. I wanted to see the man.
Alain appeared in front of me and just about crushed my hand with his pliers-like grip. He looked exactly the same—about five foot three inches (two meter eight centimeters), weighing maybe 200 pounds (100 kilograms), mostly bone and muscle. He has a southern French accent and immediately started giving me hell about hanging out in hotels now instead of walking in the forest. For the next seven hours I was in Alain's world.
He said he first came to Chad to reopen safari hunting in the north of the country. I remember there were accusations at the time that he was going after the last of the oryx and addax. What he was really doing, in his own words, was chasing "le secret de la decouverte." It is that sense that at any minute you are going to find something extraordinary, something that people thought had gone extinct long before. He had been in northern Chad in the French military way back when and had always wanted to return. Alain is a man who for the past decades has hunted not because he loves to hunt, which he certainly does, not because he is one of the best, which he certainly is, but because he has always had that boyish sense of exploration and that soldiers' addiction to living on the edge.
I fired up my computer and the maps. He started talking about Barbary sheep, pointing here and there up and down the Ennedi. He also talked about rebels, guys who were hiding in those hills with caches of arms. He said that one day he and his men were climbing a rise and more or less fell into the entrance to a cave where they found a blue Toyota Land Cruiser perfectly preserved with a 20 mm cannon mounted on it, mortars, sealed cases of ammunition for American M16 rifles and lets of other weapons. He said that these guys are "armee jusqu'au dents," armed up to the tooth. He described zones where the Libyan Army had seeded the area with antipersonnel mines that fly like butterflies to the ground. It is smart to have a local guide because every year people loose arms and legs and their lives from these mines. In one area he described 40 Libyan T54 and T56 tanks that were abandoned in the desert. Most of these he said were booby-trapped.
||These dispatches are edited versions of e-mail reports sent from the field. They have not been researched and represent the viewpoints of individual expedition members.