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 10, 2004
4. November 12, 2004
|5. November 18, 2004
6. November 21, 2004
7. November 22, 2004
8. November 23, 2004
|9. November 27, 2004|
10. November 28, 2004
11. 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.
November 10, 2004: Lewis, the Streaking Elephant
Imagine you were born on the northwestern slopes of Mount Kenya in about 1970. Imagine you are a male elephant, and you are known to conservationists as Lewis. In the wet season, you walked with your mother north where rains turned a parched, stunted shrubland into a verdant pasture. The soils are rich and well-watered, and food grows in abundance in the forests. The Ewaso Ng'iro River keeps this dry land habitable for month, and you have easy access to the river for drinking and swimming.
But as you reach adulthood, humans begin to crowd out the land. Hedgerows define the boundaries between properties. Paths, then roads, and then highways connect settlements. Wars break out between the Samburu people to the north and Borana and Somali tribes from the east, as growing populations compete for grazing land. As the open lands of your birth give way to an increasing human presence, how are you going to live? How are you going to get from place to place? What are your routes from sanctuary to sanctuary?
Someone who is finding answers to these questions is Iain Douglas-Hamilton, also known as Mr. Save the Elephants. When I was a youngster, I read about Douglas-Hamilton's work with elephants in the pages of National Geographic. He came to East Africa in the 1960s to study elephants, setting up a research camp on the shores of Lake Manyara in Tanzania. He married and had two daughters, Saba and Dudu. Iain entered into the world of elephants and learned that they have fun when life is good and grieve when a loved one is lost.
In the 1970s, a burgeoning demand for ivory spanned the world from department stores in New York to boutiques in Hong Kong, and the hunting of elephants reached a frenetic level. If it were a tribe of humans that was being killed, we would have called it genocide. The killing was systematic, transnational, and apparently legal. Hundreds of thousands of elephants died horrible deaths.
Iain was vehemently opposed to the trade in ivory, and for a long time he fought an uphill battle. In 1989, after years of battling for elephants, Iain and others working along the same lines were successful in banning the international trade in ivory. I think that you could say, without stretching things, that if there had been no Iain Douglas-Hamilton, there may never have been an ivory ban. Certainly, the massacres would have continued for a longer time span, probably to the point where there would have been no elephants left in Africa.
In the 1990s and on into today, elephants face another challenge. They now live in a world where humans occupy much of their native habitat. Lewis, provided he survived the slaughter of the 1970s and 1980s, would attempt to make his annual trek down to the Ewaso Ng'iro. He would find that land occupied. Lewis is a refugee in his own land. Today, Iain is battling for a homeland and connecting corridors for elephants.
November 11, 2004: Pilot's Live in One World
We took off from Samburu Airport this morning at around 1100 enroute to Entebbe, Uganda, to continue the next day over the Democratic Republic of Congo, with a fuel stop in Bangassou, Central African Republic, and then on to N'Djamena, Republic of Chad. We are flying in small aircraft across the Heart of Darkness.
We had a few points that we needed to check near the summit of Mount Kenya. We will explore Kenya more fully when we come back here in April, but right now we are here to visit wildlife scientist Iain Douglas-Hamilton and to lay the groundwork for our survey. We started climbing out of 7,000 feet (2,000 meters) for 8,000 feet (2,000 meters), and the ground was getting closer and closer to us. The scenario is that you are lifting off in low density air and rising into even less dense air. The ground rises about 200 feet (60 meters) every kilometer. You are traveling at a speed of three kilometers (two miles) a minute, and you are climbing at 150 feet (50 meters) per minute. Add it up. It's close. I could see our trajectory and couldn't help thinking about the girl who crashed around Mount Meru in Tanzania some months ago on about the same trajectory.
I finally had to say, "Mario, it is time to do a 180." Then we saw a power line, and I figured we had about four seconds before we hit it. Mario dipped the nose of the plane. The ground was getting closer. The stall horn was buzzing. Mario started a 30 degree bank to avoid the power line. The ground was now about 75 feet (25 meters) below the airplane. It had taken only took a few minutes to get into a life or death situation. I was imagining what it was going to be like as that high wing hit that power line and we did a nose over into the landscape with about 350 liters (90 gallons) of gasoline on board, including about 35 gallons (130 liters) right with us in the cockpit. Mario did a good job negotiating the turn. Now we were climbing. My hands were shaking. So were his. But we had cleared the power line and were headed back up that mountain.
A couple hours later we were in Eldoret, Kenya, in the middle of an immense agricultural zone on the slopes of Mount Elgon. We walked into the airport. An official stopped me and asked me for our manifest. I said the other pilot had it and was in the tower, and I just wanted a Coke. We were actually a day early for our clearance into Uganda, but nobody really seemed to want to know or really care what our business was there. Soon we were airborne again and, after picking our way through some storms, made it to Lake Victoria and cruised on into Uganda.
You don't talk to anyone, and there is no border post in the air. If we were passing through we could just cruise right on through and nobody would be the wiser really. Pretty soon Mario reached Entebbe: "Entebbe, this is G-OWCS, we are a Charlie 182, two crew, four hours of endurance currently, 7,000 feet, 25 miles to the east." Entebbe responded: "Roger G-OWCS call right base runway 08, QNH is 1312 and wind 20 knots at 100 degrees." He didn't ask for a clearance. We were cleared to land. On the approach there was an old 707 with grass growing out its windows. We landed on an enormous strip. Two MiG-21 jets were fueling up. The guys we met on the airstrip said they were just training. Nobody official came to see us. We fueled up, using our Shell Aviation cards, got our baggage, and headed for the exit.
We got to the immigration police. They were sitting around having a conversation. We said aircrew, and they said, with smiles, "Welcome." We haven't needed a visa or health card or any authorization that we have painstakingly gotten together for this trip yet. We had exited Kenya without a stamp or any passport check, and we had entered Uganda without a stamp or a passport check. It is a wonderful world for pilots and those who may not want to be scrutinized by those charged with security.
November 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 on to 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 24, 2004: Looking for a Needle in a Haystack
Miracle of miracles, today the air was clear. The dust that had shaded the sun and enclosed us into a gray world was completely gone from the air by the time I opened my eyes. Now we had another problem—where was our gas?
Supposedly, six barrels had been transported here for us by our friends from N'Djamena, but despite our best efforts to locate them we came up dry. Jean Marc Froment and I went out on another expeditionary force early. Yesterday, our logistics guy told us that the barrels were not at the house of the Minister of Public Works and Transport, Adoum Younousmi, but at his father's house, which was somewhere behind the old mosque. Off we went. We met Jimmy, the guide of Alain Lefol, a French safari hunter that we know, on the way. We had met him yesterday when he greeted us from inside his concession and just said, "When is Alain coming back?" Guess he figured that all white people must know one another.
Jimmy had, of course, invited us to stop in. The hospitality around here is overwhelming and typical of Muslim society. You can't get away without at least having a cup of tea. He served us tea, some kind of peanut crunch with dates and jujube fruits. It was delicious. This was accompanied by homemade cookies, crushed dates and more tea. We had explained our problem, and today he accompanied us. He said he knew the minister's father's house but that he was in N'Djamena. We thought the house guard might be able to help us. Jimmy strapped his dagger to his arm and off we went. He is a big man, over six feet (two meters), with a white beard, flowing gown, and a large white turban.
We got to the guard's house. He was a slightly built, old man who invited us into his house. There were rugs on the floor and a rod with some hangers on which there were a few dresses. Those seemed to be his only possessions. He invited us to sit. We took off our shoes and sat. We started to talk about our problem, and he listened attentively. There were no barrels in his possession, he said. Soon a young girl brought in a pan with a ladle and some glasses. The old man started to dish out some kind of milky porridge. Jean Marc refused, but I knew it would be good manners to accept. It was a mix of yogurt with something like tapioca and sugar. It was good but way too rich for someone on his breakfast. At least we didn't get tea.
It was clear we were getting nowhere, so we made our departure. On the way back, Jimmy said, "Let's ask here." The significance of "here" I was never able to figure out. There was a 15-year-old kid with a baby on a rug. I had no idea why we were there. Somewhere, those barrels exist. Somehow, we'll find them—at this rate, by stumbling over them at random. We decided to speak to our logistics guy again.
TopNovember 25, 2004: Ghosts of Ennedi
Right behind the town of Fada is an enormous cliff face, a red sandstone monument 600 feet tall (200 meters) with sculpted pockmarks, striations, columns, and hallows. Locally, this particular butte is called Ennedi, and this is the very rock from which this entire range gets its name.
There is not a stitch of vegetation to speak of. The hard red rock contrasts with the clear blue sky. From the town, the rock draws the eye. It looks impossible to climb, but I just had to be near it, to touch it. Jean Marc Froment and I headed up there, joined by our friend Jimmy. Nomads with their camels made their way slowly past the rock as we approached over the dune. These guys are hard as nails, walking for their entire lives from one place with graze to another with water. The prefect here told us that in some places right now they are walking two days between the graze and the water, which only gives these guys about four days of grazing before they have to turn around again.
We approached the rock, and the first thing we noticed in the sand was a land mine. We called Jimmy. He confirmed that it was a mine but said it was dead. I could see how this butte would provide refuge from invaders, especially if the base were mined. Jimmy didn't seem to be bothered, so we followed in his footsteps, a bit more precisely now.
We got closer to the cliff face and there were old mud brick walls standing in a sand dune. Jimmy explained that this was the house of a Frenchman who had lived here some time in the past. That was about all the information we could get. The flooring in the house was of well-laid flat rock. Judging by the number of weathered bottles behind the house, I figured this man had stayed a while.
Jean Marc and Jimmy sat talking while I investigated the cliff face to the east. There was a spot where it looked like people had quarried out a big chunk of stone. Seemed a strange place for people to come looking for stone. Then I saw large green chunks of steel that looked half melted and crushed and ripped apart by extreme force. The walls of this metal were about a quarter-inch (just over half a centimeter) thick. It dawned on me—cannon fire. This was shrapnel, and the excavation was done by a shell flying faster than the speed of sound. I started to get a feel for what happened to those guys in Afghanistan. Between fighting with the Libyans and amongst themselves, there has been plenty of metal been flying around this country for the past 20 years. I can't imagine the horror of getting pounded where there is just rock and metal.
I ventured farther to the east and found a passageway higher up on to the cliff. It seemed like the rock was worn. I followed my instincts and pretty soon, after a couple of semi-technical moves, I found myself on a ledge about 250 feet (80 meters) up the cliff. It was about 30 feet (10 meters) wide and just about perfectly level in the sediments of the butte. I got myself situated, and there before me were rock structures—the same kind that we had been seeing on our overflight of this entire Ennedi plateau. The same kind that I have seen in the hills in northern Central African Republic. These were houses built with flat rocks stacked about two meters (seven feet) high. There must have been thirty of them. They went on down the ledge for about 300 feet (90 meters). Who were these people, when were they here, and why did they make their houses way up in these cliffs?
Twenty-five years ago, people in the Central African Republic told me stories from their oral history of Arab slavers who would come with great caravans from the northeast. The Africans said they had their homes in the bottomlands and they would post sentinels on the hills. When they saw the dust from a caravan, they would take their food and retreat to their alternate village up on the cliffs. Here they had houses and water cisterns. From here, they could defend themselves because the Arabs could not get their horses up the hills. When the invaders tried to climb the cliffs, the defenders would rain stones down on them. The people I spoke to were descendants of those who had survived those slaving raids. Certainly, these ancient people in Ennedi would have been much closer to these raiders. I could imagine even a thousand years ago, during the great push of Islam to the south, the tribes here leaving their homes in the oasis below and making haste onto the cliff face just before the raiders arrived. Same thing that the guys getting pummeled by shrapnel were doing up here.
It was getting late and I had to negotiate my way back down, but I would be back here.
November 26, 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.
November 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 N'djamena, 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.