12 Nov 92 - Brazzaville, Congo
It is late. I am sitting in a hangar trying to kill and smash as many mosquitoes as I can. Outside, light flashes all around from distant storms. All day, Portuguese C-130s have been evacuating refugees from Angola; a thousand people were just killed in the capital. DC-3s are ferrying people across the river to Kinshasa. None of the airliners dare go back there after the "pillage". This is the deep dark part of Africa where things can go wrong and no one ever hears about it.
I have just cut open two boils on the bottom of my foot and scrapped out eggs of some horrid creature. This is not the first time I've done this, so it doesn't make me as sick as it used to. Instead, I take pleasure in pouring avgas in the open holes and on all the eggs. Avgas has proven a valuable disinfectant in this wet green dripping part of the world.
I am tired and I am nervous. My head is full of so many thoughts I can't sleep. Tomorrow is the day I had requested to overfly Angola. The plane is full of fuel donated by Aero-service at 6$ a gallon. I requested the clearance two weeks ago, before the fighting began. I still don't have a reply. The closest friendly place is Grootfontein, Namibia - 10 hours away. I was going to go by day, high, through clouds. The defense attaché in the American embassy had shown me lists of figures on Grail missiles, Stingers, and some Russian 20mm thing that reaches up to 10,000 feet. I wanted so much for everything to be all right. I even had the names of wildlife people and a pilot friend from Iceland who were working in Luanda. One of the Portuguese military pilots has given me coordinates of Unita held "hot" areas. He has asked me to destroy it as soon as I am through. I find it is so easy to get scared and scream "what is going on," but instead, tomorrow is Friday the 13th, I will try to leave two hours after sunset, turn off all the lights and drift slowly south - maybe there won't be any storms.
Vivid images flash through my mind. A monument in Benin of sculpted Africans with machetes - white mercenaries landed on the beach to overthrow the government and were killed. A village on a lake suspended entirely on stilts. A hundred canoes rafted together with large women sitting amidst piles of fish and bright colored vegetables. a child doing a hand stand on the bow. a boat full of wires, batteries and precarious speakers making loud distorted sounds as politicians disappear around a corner; there is democracy here now too.
There is a Frenchman who captures live animals to sell to collectors around the world. His black assistant holds a bowl of 30 thick springy black scorpions before him, then grabs a handful and places them on the top of his head. I watch with excited horror as they then begin to crawl down across his face towards the ground; he has no fear. Nor does the man who twirls a deadly boomslang between his hands. He is the voodoo chief. He has created an alter of animal skulls, carvings and massive wooden penises coated with yellow substance and blood. He is employed by the Frenchman to keep people away.
Big Ben is an American who stands 6'7". I took an instant dislike to him in a bar called Three Musketeers. He asked me if I wanted to fly his citation jet. He told the artist he wanted to buy some of his expensive paintings. He told a nervous young English visitor that he had a job for him. He is doing AIDS research with an Arab named Farouk. He reminds me of the fat American from Abidjan who was "looking after the security interests of the United States" and whose name I wasn't allowed to write down. The young Englishman is invited back to his very large house for an interview at 10 P.M. The job is offering 600$ a week. They have a beer and take a swim. His clothes disappear; the door is locked. Big Ben sits before him and asks if he knows what phellatio is. The Englishman begins to shiver. "Why don't you take off your towel?" Ben says. The mood changes. "Drop the towel," Ben says. Three times he repeats this. Then he stops. This is all part of the interview; Big Ben wants to know how the Englishman acts under pressure. "The job we are offering involves taking blood samples to the USA." The Englishman is near tears and can barely speak. The interview is over and the Englishman comes to our house in hysterics. He was told that he was not suitable for the job.
Just down the road is Nigeria. There is a big sign at the border post: "Support Nigeria's war against drugs." Perhaps, Big Ben and Farouk are doing more than research. I have left the plane in Benin. This is an entirely different part of Africa; 90 million people and a currency that has dropped to 1/40th of it's previous value. They feel cheated. Already, our taxi has been rammed from behind. The border post is a war of it's own. All I have to loose is 200$, a spare camera and a passport - out of Benin and into the fire. I am grabbed by a man who pulls out a spurious plastic-coated badge. He is a drug enforcement officer; he is undercover. I am grabbed by another. his card is less convincing. Their eyes are cruel and hungry. I am taken into an office of sticky old concrete and mold. there is a small wooden booth. I guess we are going in there. It is dark. I know the game. I smile and move slowly. "Why are you coming into Nigeria? You know we have to inspect for drugs." It is all a game. I'm not even sure they are real - Intimidation, then the bribe. Only there is no bribe. I pull out every thing and show them. Others watch and spread the word of what is in the bag. There are people everywhere. I happily entertain them with questions. Smiles are important and makes it more difficult for them to plant their own drugs in my bag. Now come the health card inspectors. I walk straight past them, feigning ignorance, to the immigration guy. The health guy is yelling at me, but there is so much noise I can pretend I don't hear him. His friends laugh at him, and I know I have won. I watch the Immigration guy handle the passport through a small dark hole in the wall. People pushing everywhere. It eventually comes back. He has forgotten to stamp over the visa, so we try again. Down the road, The police arrest you if your visa hasn't been properly canceled - Illegal entry, of course. Into the customs room, there was the fat man; now it's his turn, "show me your currency." Regardless of the confidence one has when they begin this process, it is gradually ripped away. The border post verges on utter lawlessness. Vultures hovering around a kill about to be. Thousands of people in a place with no other building than a crumbling concrete shack. The value of an airplane is intensely present.
The jungle begins. Thick rain and wild opaqueness follow the plane. Satellite photographs in the weather office have become my most reliable way to predict weather, but the machine is broken. After four hours the mountains of Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea are near. Douala is between, an armpit, as Africa bends. miserable wetness is piled upon the rising ground. The jungles and swamps are not visible, but like a sponge inhaling and exhaling wetness to the air, their presence is felt.
A high-school friend spent two years in Cameroon. When we did meet again, he was not the same. The enthusiasm, wit and sparkle - where had they gone? Was it this place? The bad flows down. The night is darker, maybe it is the mold and black that clings to everything. The soldiers come out at night like cockroaches in the street sewers. They have guns; they are drunk. One calls to me. What do I have for him? I better watch my step. He lets me go. No one smiles in the shops. What do I have to do to get a stranger to smile? They are educated. I feel like we are all being watched. Elections are coming soon. The president certainly can't win again - nobody likes him - but he does. The military is paid; they are happy. Fear is rampant. I fly to the forestry camp of Campo with a young Cameroonian pilot. His dad is the head of state security. The rain comes hard. We can't see the strip at the most critical phase. We ply on. suddenly, out of the rain, we are high and fast, but the trees rise above us and we drop down anyway. Sliding through an alley of forest, we stop. The young pilot is talking very fast. "Out here, you gotta know what you're doing," he says. "If you don't, well, you're gonna mess up." He is shaking very hard. Perhaps, he thinks I won't notice; we are stopped two wing lengths from the end of the strip and a wall of trees. Dark muddy lines extend back into the rain. The foresters are there waiting for us. We unload $100,000 worth of Cameroonian francs and some food. Cameroon is about to buy two 767's, I'm told, to go with their 747. "And when they do, I'm gonna fly 'em." A smile would be appropriate, but I can't.
There is a brand new multi-million dollar international airstrip in Yaounde - The second one. To pay for it, landing fees are a fortune, so very few international flights land there. Local flights will only go there by day, because of bandit attacks along the road back to town. In Douala, a beautiful old relic of a plane sits on a taxi ramp off one of the main runways. There are things growing out of the wings. One engine has been removed. You just taxi around it or use a different taxiway. Women cultivate cassava crops in the grass along the tarmac while their children play soccer on the runway. What I find hard to explain, is that all these things are normal.
In Bata, Equatorial Guinea, a Russian crew invites me to see their Antonov 24. They are all wearing jeans and designer T-shirts. Everyone speaks Spanish except for the Russians. When it's time to go, someone pantomimes the route to Malabo. The previous president murdered his enemies and threw their bodies to the sea from the cliffs of Malabo. The Antonov trails heavy black smoke from one of its engines. We stop by to visit the president's Paraguayan mistress. She tells my French friend that the Russians stole the plane from Russia just after the Soviet Union broke up. We wander to the beach. The architecture is beautiful. The crumbling black concrete walls framed by palm trees and wrecked ships in the sand are also beautiful. A deserted restaurant juts out to the sea on a crumbling pier. It reminds me of an old pirate ship. Someone appears and we are served lunch. Rain pounds the sea. I walk out under a roof and find an infant chimpanzee shivering, tied to a chair. His shirt is stained with diarrhea. He looks at me with wide sad eyes, and I sit beside him. He crawls into my lap and cuddles under my arm; together we look out into the rain.
Back in Douala, they are loading chainsaw blades and whiskey into the planes. They are bound for logging camps in the far east of the Cameroon. It's illegal to fly single-engine planes over the jungle. You must also have a military observer onboard at all times - ever since the attempted coup in '84 - and you have to pay him. No one has told me these things. No one has even looked at my passport. I seem to exist naively in between - observing, learning and avoiding. A man tries to sell us diamonds. Around the corner his military friend is lurking. This is also highly illegal. There are so many little traps. We politely decline. I am offered a job to fly for WCI (Wildlife Conservation International) filming the rain forest canopy in Korup park. The going rate is $500 an hour. The anti-poaching unit in Korup is equipped with bicycles and machetes. It may be a lost cause. People were there first. Trying to get them to leave has not been successful and has left very bad feelings. The best hope seems to be where there are no people - to put money and parks there - then keep them that way.
Gabon is 90% jungle, and I'm in the capital. It happens to be one of the most expensive cities in the world - a great place for an African conference. It is a contest to see who has the largest and most expensive jet. Thirty five African heads of state are coming to town. The Ugandan crew is camped under theirs; they don't even speak French. Helicopters are whizzing overhead. Armed men in all black uniforms stand silhouetted upon the roof. rubber boats bounce up and down along the shore. There are machine guns on the beach. More all black uniforms sprint, brandishing various exotic forms of machine guns, to a van. The red Rolls-Royce is pulling out, followed by a green one. President Bongo has received his first guest. Tanks roll across the main road. men with rocket launchers step out and aim at oncoming traffic. The tank turrets turn. The helicopters come in low and slow. The Rolls-Royce turns onto the main road and slithers away.
There are no more people. Dark water spills from the forest. Waves crash upon the beach, and the jungle towers overhead. The plane sits above the sand in a clearing five miles from the equator. The sun is intense and burns the skin off the end of my nose. I can't believe I have found this peaceful, empty, wonderful place. No one knows where I am; it isn't on any map. There are no soldiers or police. There are no people. There are only footprints on the beach. The trail leads up the bank into a wall of Lianas and darkness. I can barely fit and after hours have seen nothing. I can smell more than I can see and my ears are my eyes, straining to grasp what lurks ahead. This is not my world, and I am exhilarated by it. I return to the beach and stand by the footprints. The forest elephant lives here. The footprints lead to the sea, and I begin to see something I had not seen before. The elephants do not need to come here; there is not food or drink. They come here to play, to see the sun, and to look upon the ocean. How similar we are, and yet, we both need so much space; I wonder who will win?
It's raining hard again. I try to stay beneath the clouds, and the trees are racing past. Tendrils of hot jungle steam rise out of the forest. Water is dripping on my map. I'm looking for a place called "Wonge-wongue". The forest opens to fields of golf course green, rolling and bending around fingers of tall darkness. The French hunter Pradel lives here, or at least he used to. This is the president's "reserve de chasse" and the King of Spain has hunted here. There is one zebra from Zimbabwe; the others have died. There are two Siberian tigers, but they are in a cage. Fog consumes the green and darkness follows. There is mystery here too. Madame Pradel thrusts an 8 year old photograph before me. It is an elephant. Her young son has captured it by the tail. The elephant is smaller than he, and it is 70 years old. The world laughs. There are two species of African elephants - Savannah and forest - but there are no "pygmy" elephants. Norbert Pradel smiles gently as one with a secret. He is 25, and he has lived in this park for twenty-five years. The elephant now stands rigid in the president's palace, but there are others. The smile returns; no one else needs to know. I am told Wonge-wongue means, "you may take, but only one." Already, I have seen chimpanzee, gorilla, sitatunga, forest buffalo and others. I am on my hands and knees with the artist. Pradel has a gun. We have tracked across a field through the rain to the edge of the forest. There are forest elephants before us. Their tusks are straighter, thinner, darker. their ears are smaller; they are meaner. We approach closer, although I'm not sure why. The mother and her calf already fill my lens. My body pulses with my heart. I try to breath quietly. If I stop, I will begin to think and flush with fear. There are no trees behind us; there is absolutely nowhere to run. The choice is theirs - the forest or us at 35 miles an hour. They are not looking, and Pradel stands up. When they look back, he is standing but still. They do not see us - we are seventy feet from them - but they hear. With each click of the lens, their bodies freeze; we all listen and wait.
A three hour drive through narrow winding jungle roads at very high speed leaves me numb. We are on the beach, but Pradel the hunter is not there. He has flown to France to have his foot amputated; the infection got into the bone. There is a picture on the wall of his 23 year old French girlfriend with Michael Jackson and a baby chimpanzee. Michael took the chimpanzee back to America, but customs wouldn't allow it. Two weeks later, It returned to Gabon and died. Pradel's bald assistant shows me a beautiful 22 caliber revolver. He has made it himself from used engine parts. We talk of "pygmy" elephants. The fires of offshore oil platforms burn through the night.
There is an old photograph of four Africans with testicles the size of basketballs. Another has his in a wheelbarrow. Albert Schweitzer's godson is describing to me the red flies which carry filaria. The same red fly has been biting my ankles and neck for the past month. dugouts with outboards are not as "far side" as Gary Larson thinks. The Ogooue river foams from all the rain, and the motorized logs drive up to a floating BP station. A barge drifts by with thousands of empty beer bottle crates. I have finally decided an ax is useless in this part of the world. Everything in the store is imported; The machete comes from Brazil. At the hospital, there are two young American medical students. One is near tears. He gave the parents malaria medicine and told them to come back in a few days. When their child didn't seem better, they took him to the traditional doctor. After days of turpentine enemas, the parents return to the young American. The child died in his arms. He can't understand, but his three months will soon be up. We are so far up this brown winding river. The sand bars gently sway from side to side. How could anyone have found such a place, then decided to stay. The rain is furious, but it comes at night. A huge Catholic church stands above the island. The women sing; I record in my notebook that I have never heard such beautiful music. The plane is wet inside. The radios are suffering badly with all the heat and humidity. The air controller comes out to get our flight plan. He is drunk. The beer barge is about to hit a sandbar, and Lambarene disappears behind us.
The sound is unbearable. Boiling radiator water is splashing on me. This is the only place not covered with grease. There is no cab nor engine cover. There are also no brakes. I wish I could cover my ears. The bridge is huge logs with wide cracks; Philippe lines up the wheels and looks back as 40 tons follows him across. A big smile sweeps across his face. In the forest, a 150 foot tree crashes down. Lianas the size of my thigh fall like cables from above. Leaves rain through the silence. A skidder crawls like an animal. An African wields the chainsaw with one hand. It is exciting. The power of the trees and machinery is overwhelming. Philippe jumps into his supercub and takes off to find more trees. He also notes the contours for building roads to the new location. He pulls the plane up to his one room house. Three little girls run out to greet him. He is strong and square; few words are ever spoken. Through the heat of a massive fire, I watch his form approach the saw mill. There are many foresters in Gabon, but there is only one Mad Max.
Just down the road, 5 acres has been cleared by ax. Two men are busy planting cassava. Their camp is smoking. I am greeted and invited inside. The shotgun is held together by wire and hoseclamps. There is a duiker head freshly severed. Smoking slowly above the fire, there is a chimpanzee shoulder, buffalo meat, porcupine, monkey, the rest of the duiker, and other things. Work is hard to find these days in Port Gentil, but two weeks of gathering bush meat in the forest will yield them $900. Laborers in Zimbabwe make $30 a month. With only a million people in Gabon, confined mostly to the towns, The pressure is not so great. It may only be a matter of time.
There are not many visitors to big banana. Our passports are taken, and we are forbidden to leave. For once, I had all my clearances and authorizations, but it doesn't matter. Mike Fay is arrested once a week in Ouesso for smuggling red mercury. He says he would be happy to smuggle it if he knew what it was. The north of Congo lives in a world apart. They refuse to believe I have come to see a dinosaur named "Mokele-mbembe". An evil-looking man from across the river exchanges 5 US$ for 8 million Zaires; he tells me he is a friend of President Mobutu and can get me diamonds. I sleep beneath the plane each night with a guard waiting for bandits from Zaire. Commandant Ndja has now told Hydrocongo not to give me fuel; I wonder if he gets commission from the bandits. The French lady has the only store in town; she sells mobilette parts, chainsaws and pornographic videos. A Swedish volunteer arrived in a village south of here; she had to leave because everyone thought she was the girl in the video. After four hours of rain, fog and lightning - following rivers with funny names - I have arrived in this place. West of here lies Lake Telle and many unanswered questions. I throw a party for 20 Aka pygmies out by the plane. I buy the "hydromiel" (honeybeer), and they spend the night; the Bantus in Zaire are scared of their magic. Edouard comes from the village of "Minganga" where they killed a "Mokele-mbembe." He describes what sounds like a brontosaurus to a missionary in Lingala. It was his great, great grandparents who saw half the village die from the meat. Several expeditions have tried to find this monster or its remains. Few have ever reached the lake. There are hostile Boa villagers to the south. A Japanese film crew was recently held for ransom; 12,000$ was flown up from Brazzaville. Big banana is really called Impfondo - its mbonzo equivalent. Conrad said in his Heart of Darkness that "going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world." I smiled when I read that.
Now the commandant from Ouesso has sent gendarmes down the Sangha river to arrest us. We are in the Ndoki swamp three hours away. I am standing in Time Magazine's untouched Eden with two pygmies and the forest elephant they shot two days ago. They have been waiting for a forestry vehicle to pass this way, so they can bring the meat back. 3,500 Africans live at the forestry station in Pokola; maybe 500 work for the camp. The foresters take one tree per acre, but the roads become high speed highways for hunters into a plentiful forest. The major export from Ouesso is bushmeat, flown out by aircraft; the forest is their supermarket.
This is such a strange world. Two television crews have come to find out how I was seduced by the taste of Ngok' beer. They don't like the shirt I'm wearing; the producer gives me his. There are riots in town. They are unhappy with the new president. Trees are being felled across the streets. A rock cracks my taxi window. Ngok' has given me 2,000 US$. My taxi can't go any further. I walk towards a road block; six angry youths approach me with sharpened sticks and wild expressions. I smile and speak English. They let me pass. Another one starts screaming at me. My smile doesn't work. I finally understand that he doesn't want me to call the police. His friend shows me the blood dripping from his shoulder as if this might happen to me. There is chaos at Ngok'. Mr. Bour is about to leave. He hands me a chit. I receive half a million CFA - two fistfuls. In the bathroom, I jam it down inside my pants. I feel like a tremendous battle is about to begin. I can't believe my taxi is sitting outside. The police are charging the road block with a forklift. We slip past. This all happened today.
There is a DC-3 on a plateau north of here; it ran out of gas. There is a MIG not far off, so did he. Nearby, in tall grass is another DC-3. It crushed one man in its wheel well, then took the arm off someone else. The military decided it was haunted. The Hercules "Lady Kinshasa" has American registration and a naked woman painted on the side. No one knows anything about it, except that it came from Zaire. Maybe, it was also in Angola. In September 1991, 4,000 expatriates were evacuated from Zaire. Most had only the clothes on their back. Some little girls had watched their parents be killed before they were raped. The French, Belgian and American military went in together. I don't remember hearing anything. This is such a dark place.
I would like to thank: Walter Foulke, Dippy Bartow, Stockton Strawbridge,
Walter Forbes, Dee Slater, Nan Rees, Rick Edie, Air compak, Corrosion Block,
Cindy Hipps (AOPA), Mike Ross (Stormscope), Ulfar Henningsson, Ronnie Grieco
(Leica) & Rod Walker (Davtron) for their recent generous assistance. I am
extremely grateful to Chris Weber at National Geographic and Judy Katz at N.G.
"Explorer Journal", for the fantastic new Hi-8 camera I received in Libreville,
Gabon. My other camera had finally died. "Explorer Journal" is a 3-5 minute
video diary "from the field" which premiers in 1993 after the weekly "Explorer".
I have shot 12 hours since Gabon, and I am hoping I have become coordinated
enough so that I can share some of this world with others. I am also grateful
for all the letters I have received, each of which I will respond to when I am