[an error occurred while processing this directive]
From September 1999 to December 2000 conservationist J. Michael Fay hiked 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers)a not unreasonable feat, unless your terrain is the most remote swath of central Africa.
MASSIF DU CHAILLU MOUNTAINS, GABON, September 21, 2000Life is a risky business. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose bad. For the past ten days I have been playing a high-stakes game. Another series of hot elephant encounters (photo)? Nope. More marantaceae [thickets] and cutting food real close? Nope. Swamps? Nope. No this was more like a roll of the dice. Actually more like shooting myself in the foot.
We made it to the long dreamed about Station d'etudes de Gorilles et De Chimpanzees (SEGC), in the Lope block. It's nestled on a most beautiful little knoll in the savanna that overlooks a foreboding set of mountains to the southwest. This is the beginning of Le Massif Du Chaillu, a very dissected landscape that covers a gigantic no man's land in southwestern Gabon. To my knowledge no one, not even [explorer Paul] Du Chaillu, has ever traversed this range from the station some 200 kilometers [124 miles] through those blue, razor sharp ridges toward the coast.
* * *
In any case, it was not this ominous range that was risky. Rather, while I was lounging sipping Oban whiskey ...on the wooden veranda of the station, the entire [Megatransect] team was making a pilgrimage home. Yes, I gave them leave having learned one lesson from previous legs: Don't push the dudes to the breaking point.
* * *
The guys were ready for a break. They needed to become human again. Once I was safely on the other side, all I wanted to do was hold safe until they got back and I could dive back in.
The team took the train to Booue, a truck to Makoukou [Makokou], and then a dugout 150 kilometers [93 miles] north to get back home. It was either let them go and hope to get them back or lose them forever. As the days wore on I got scattered bits of news as to their whereabouts. Two had stayed in Makoukou. The rest went all the way. They all had 100,000 CFA [francs], enough to get them there and backor get them into big trouble. We made a pact before they left. All promised to be back on the 18th of September, eight days after we landed in Lope. D-day was the 20th of September, hell or high water. Of course, it was all a big bluff on my part.
Finding a new team in this part of the world has become impossible. This is an occupation that disappeared decades ago with the coming of roads and automobiles. No one walks in the forest. It has become a dirty and hostile place. Penetrating into it from the filament of civilization has become impossible. People are now prisoners of their own making.
Thony, Jean Paul (who was making a good recovery from hepatitis), and Maiombo (the poacher from Mouyabi), showed up after two days. Of course, they were out of money and looking for more. I got mad and didn't give them any at first. Then I gave in and sent them back to Lope town. I checked by telephone with Makoukou on the 17th. No one had heard from our wayfarers. Not to panic, they still had a day. ...
Miracle of miracles, they showed in Lope on the morning of the 19th, except four: Celestin, Sophiano, Maiombo (who had gone back to Mouyabi), and Jean Claude, the botanist who had gone in another direction
Seven was better than nothing, and I considered taking off with a skeleton crew. ...
Next morning, D-day, the entire team was present. The stragglers had come in at 5 a.m. We were now complete. I informed them that we would be packing immediately and heading into the forest in the evening. They informed me that I was dreaming. Not really in the mood for a fight, I told them that I would be watching buffalo. If departure was going to be tomorrow, the next day, next week just to let me know, and I left in a huff. They called me in for a "pow wow" in the p.m. They affirmed their committment to the Mega but wanted contracts, pay slips, andwhat they didn't sayone more night to sleep off the vacation. Then they hit me with the news from the village: Boba had lost a child. Kah had lost an aunt. The most serious news was that [point man] Bebe had left his father, not far from death, with a "charlatan" in Mayibout II. Now I knew what the real problem was. Bebe wanted to bow out and go home.
This is when I started to talk fast. I made a point before they left. If someone was not continuing, they were to bring a replacement. I saw no replacements. This was not at all serious. We are ready to go and the point man is going to drop out. How could this be? Thony intervened saying to Bebe and Boba (who also had the "I want to go home" look), what could they do? The kid was already dead and Bebe couldn't help his father even if he wanted to. They are Baka [pygmies] and not real bold. They seemed to almost go along with this reasoning. They then asked for one last infusion of cash, and tomorrow morning they guaranteed that we would be on our way. I agreed, making it clear that I wanted no drinking or trouble. I tried to cheer Bebe up. I took him out to see an old Mack truck abandoned near the station (photo). Still had air in the tires. He was sad and confused. He's just a kid. But he liked the truck. I told him that I would send cash to help his father. This didn't help a bit.
Next morningcatastrophe: Bebe had gotten drunk along with the rest and had a rumble with several of his Bakwele confreres. He was limping, scratched up, and sported several lumps. I finally lost my patience (photo) and announced that alcohol brawls were not my problem. "That stuff makes you crazy," I said. "It's not my problem."
We went to the station and started packing, slowly, reluctantly. Nobody wanted to carry weight. The blue mountains looming to the south had the team nervous. Bebe was still drunk, and he started to provoke the Bakwele, getting in the way and being as obnoxious as he possibly could. I asked him nicely to be quiet and chill out. He continued. I asked him again, he continued. I asked him again, he continued. I took him by the collar and escorted him like a downtown cop away from the fray and tried to put the fear of God into him. Two minutes later he had packed his bag and started down the road saying he was leaving. He disappeared. I was at the end of my rope so just went on packing.
Bebe reappeared. I told him to leave. ... We finished packing more or less and I took off, alone, down toward where the savanna ends. In the meantime, I had told [my logistic-support man] Tomo [Nishihara] that he was to give Bebe no money under any circumstances. I walked and kept looking back hoping Bebe was there, but he wasn't. I regretted giving the leave. I should have just kept them on the trail. But this was the longest and most difficult block coming up, and they were just not going to make it without that break.
* * *
The hours wore on and nobody followed. Maybe they weren't happy with the pay. Maybe Bebe was making a scene. Maybe they killed Tomo and burned the station down. Anything is possible.
I started back down the road, half going to check out some leopard dung I saw on the road, half going to look to see if I was being followed. Soon Jean Paul, Jaques, and the Fang came into view. I didn't ask if there was trouble behind. If it was real bad they would have told me. About an hour later the rest rolled in, sweating heavily in the afternoon sun. Bebe was no where to be seengone. The trail sure was going to be different without him. I really liked that kidhis smile, his childlike curiosity, his forest skills, and his strength. But we had to get going. ... Then I spied Bebe in the back looking confused and angry still. Tomo said that he wanted to talk to me. I said I had nothing to say. He will get his money when we can send it via courier to Makoukou. I walked slowly back toward camp. That leopard had eaten a red-river hog. Tomo went on ahead of me.
When I got back to camp Tomo said that Bebe wanted to apologize for his behavior and that he was going to continue with us.
* * *
We've been out in those blue mountains for four days now. It is as hard as we thought. I keep trying to cheer Bebe up but he is in another place. He told me today why he is so sad. He not only has a dying father but his sister, his uncle, and his father-in-law have all died since he started on the Megatransect. For him all these people dying means something. A sorcerer is at work somewhere.
I didn't say anything, but I am sure that the suspect is Roger, the man we fired at the Inselbergs (photo). He is known to be a sorcerer and Bebe took his position as the point man. For Bebe, I am sure it is obvious. No wonder he's not a happy camper. If I believed that Bebe was better off back home I would have let him go. But even a sad Bebe is what is going to get us through the Massif Du Chaillu.
Man, what a vacation.
For the rest of Fay's dispatches, visit Congo Trek, the interactive archive of the Megatransect >>
Photographs by Michael "Nick" Nichols