Afrika Expeditionary Force trip to Central African Republic

29 November 2010

REM Sleep; it is a bitch when you cannot have it.  Flew out of Cape Town International last night on the 21h30 bird, to buzz into Joburg just after midnight.  Then you have to still run the Jozi gauntlet to get to your hotel, plus be ready to rock and roll by 03h15 …. you go do the maths.

A convoy of bedraggled Force members roll into the Waterkloof Air Force Base just after 04h00 with no sign of daybreak in the east.  It all seems pretty different to the Bush War years with full-on passenger terminal amenities, but that feeling of forsaking “the states” hits home as soon as I lay eyes on the transport up to Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic.

Our mission is a touch hazy (or maybe I just did not read the blizzard of emails doing the rounds pre-trip), but what I do know is that we’re heading into deepest, darkest Africa on a chimp rescue mission.  Apparently there are around half a dozen or so of the primates in zoos or private captivity and due to ongoing rebel activity it has become increasingly difficult to feed them and look after them.  Or so it seems.

En route to Bangui, the Hercules will refuel in the DRC.  Apparently we will be allowed to disembark, but need to stick close together and, God forbid, not take any cameras off the airplane. I saunter out to where the hulking B-Series squats low and heavy on the tarmac, looking for all intents and purposes like an evil, flightless bumblebee.  In the pre-dawn light I step into a “Flossie” for the first time in nearly three decades.  The webbing seats, air sickness bags, terse, military warning signs, and brushed aluminium and steel construction … nothing has really changed.

My timing is perfect.  The new Land Rover Discovery 4 rolls up the ramp just as the horizon thaws from midnight blue into magenta and orange.  The vehicle is soon anchored in place and half an hour later the human cargo follows suit. These gargantuan prop planes may not rate as the most comfortable form of aerial transport, but at least the staff is friendly and you are free to move around.  Plus, Nando’s packed the sandwiches, and that alone scores way above the SAA on a bad day.

After five and a half hours in the air the pitch and tone of the aircraft changes as we dive-bomb across the turbulent, muddy swathe of the sluggish Congo River where it surges through the centre of Kinshasa.  We shudder and bang down onto the airstrip and exit into the oozing tropical heat, humid as hell, clinging, intense.  It is true military timeframes we’re dealing with here, so obviously there is a lot of standing around and shrugging of shoulders while we wait for a forklift stuck somewhere in the tangle of traffic snarling through this city of a million people.

It is Africa at its most infuriating, just when we think we can take off, we all get brusquely hustled off the airstrip into a paint peeled building by a high-ranked military dickhead.  Apparently the president is flying in, and in a country that has been so weird for such a long time, we’re a security risk with our khaki shirts and Movember moustaches, especially as his Lear Jet is landing a km away.

WTF.  We eventually are allowed out of the building and back on the plane, and I have to admit I’m not sorry to fly out of the DRC.  Another 2 hours of cloud-cruising and we finally skew in across the turbid Bangui River.  This is a huge river and it is damn difficult to believe that this is a mere tributary of the Congo.  One cannot help but think that South Africa does not have any real rivers, as even the Orange would rate as a pissy stream compared to this.

The eponymous city sprawls along the multiple channels of the great river, with typically French colonial, low-rise buildings dissipating within the verdant crush of tropical jungle.  It is not an enticing city at first glance, and one gets the sense that it is populated by characters who could have escaped from a Joseph Conrad novel.  We eventually manage to extricate ourselves from the rather haphazard VIP welcome (it sort of stutters into non-life) and set off for our air-conditioned hotel, a pool and a G & T.

Or we would have, if this was a happy story  Instead we find out – to the absolute horror of the Expedition Force members – that dear old President Bozizé has requisitioned our rooms for the political retinue arriving for the 50th Independence Celebrations of the glorious Central African Republic. This turns out to be a rather tricky curveball, as the only other hotel with space during the influx being limited to a handful of rooms with hot and cold running rats.

The upshot of it all is that we end up sleeping with the pilots on the floor at a South African military training base.  Pretty weird set-up, with a lot of farting, drinking, shouting and that sort of thing going down.  The soldiers do a pretty sterling job of being welcoming, super friendly, helpful and utterly professional, we at least get mattresses and floral sheets, plus as much luke-warm beer as you can drink.

Steve and I manage to lay claim to one of the offices, offering a modicum of escape from the snorers, but it is damn hot and muggy.  A fan at least moves the sluggish air and I manage a solid sleep.

30 November 2010

Jesus … this day started full tilt at 04h00 SA time, and has so far shown no inclination of slowing down.  We managed to secure the services of Alan, the 2IC (or second-in-command) at Vimbezela HQ.  He’s from Alabama in Klerksdorp, and is very much built like the proverbial brick shithouse.  We’re talking dyed-in-the-wool and old school here; no bullshit professional soldier, a guy who knows how to do his job, and who will do it regardless of the circumstances.

We chug off to the river in the army Land Cruiser, getting there well in time to watch dawn leaking across the Congo lowlands.  Tendrils of mist slither along the oily surface of the Bangui and across the wide roil, a green fog veils up from the grey-green hills of the DRC.  For all the world it could be a place of monsters and dinosaurs, of undiscovered tribes of short-assed pygmies, of warlord rebel class ruthlessly ruling over child soldier brigands, and of countless species of fauna and flora as yet undiscovered by man.  And in fact, it is.

From the river, we bump and grind along something resembling a 4×4 track into the low hills overlooking Bangui, ducking under a fallen rainforest giant and partly crushing the canopy of the Cruiser.  A sign “a la” Hollywood in big neon-lit letters garishly proclaims “Bangui : La Coquette”.  “Ja,” says Steve, “it probably means ‘Bangui : The Little Slut’.”

We thump into the Main Market around 07h00, just in time for the breakfast rush.  It is a veritable cacophony of colour with hawkers selling everything from fish heads and mounds of hash-black coffee, to handsful of live grasshoppers.  Our arrival is greeted by equal amounts of amazement, amusement, ridicule and opportunism, but the overall attitude is one of amiable consumerism.

Despite the occasional “You photo, you pay!” threat, the Centrafricans seem predominantly friendly and open to us, but that probably is because they aren’t yet harassed by hordes of Nikon-bearing Japanese.  I’m keen to get some images of the bush meat trade, and our interpreter leads us along an alley stinking of piss and intestines into a large, dimly lit hall.  Concrete tables are covered in a selection of wares which would not look out of place in hell’s cafeteria.

Blackened fish, oily and with flies crawling from their eyeless sockets, slump alongside a giant barbell.  The catfish is still alive, and its five-inch tentacles slowly move as it suffocates within an ever-spreading puddle of slime.  Tiny guinea fowl, their legs trussed together, hyperventilate where they lie amidst the chaos of feet and movement.

Tiny suni antelope, their faces forever frozen in fear, lay charred next to the grimacing heads of samango monkey, teeth snarled in the rictus of death.  Saddest of all is a perfectly preserved armadillo, it’s scaly body carelessly tossed between dozens of other dead animals.  “If you want to buy a dead chimpanzee, I can take you to the market outside Bangui”, says the interpreter.  We decline, not only because of the overload of macabre imagery, but also because we have a very important boat race to attend.

Bangui is very much a city of subsistence farmers, hunters and fishermen.  The latter bunch has a strong tradition, having navigated the treacherous currents of the massive river since time immemorial in their wooden pirogues.  These dugouts, shaped from towering hardwood giants, are the longest river boats I have seen anywhere in the world.  Similar in shape and width to the pirogues of Borneo or Madagascar, these are more than double the length, easily accommodating up to a dozen or more paddlers at a time.

And once every year, on the eve of Independence Day, the oarsmen of Bangui take each other on in an aquatic event that makes the Oxford vs Cambridge meet seem rather tame.  I did not count the boats, but there must have been around at least 80 of them on the water, with the largest of them seating up to 60 paddlers.  These guys are naturally ripped, and together they power the boats through the water using single wooden oars with short handles, and blades shaped very much like a broad Zulu stabbing spear.

The boats operate like composite organisms, with the paddlers working together in sixes or eights on opposite sides of the pirogue to maximise speed and power without forfeiting balance.  Thus, when looking at one of the boats powering along the water, one gets the feeling that it is a giant multi segmented water caterpillar using its various segments to propel it along the surface in continuous repetitive bursts.

Before the race, the pirogues seem to shape a single giant platform consisting of thousands of paddlers, and they migrate towards the start in a sinuous mass of colourful humanity.  Shouts, drumming, changes and ululations ring out across the great river as the cacophony reaches an uproarious crescendo.  This is Africa, raw, vibrant and overwhelming.

The president of the country, Mr Bozizé, steps forward onto a small island, requisitions a 9mm pistol from one of his security guards, cocks the side arm and fires a live round over the heads of the massed paddlers to start proceedings (causing a few nervous Expedition Force members to hit the deck, I may add.)

The mêlée which ensues cannot be adequately explained in words or pictures.  Thousands of oars churn and stab at the water, while all round a rapid roar rises up from the crowds lining the river banks.  The coxswains, perched precariously on the narrow bowsprits, wearing anything from bearskin caps to ridiculous summer bonnets, exhort their teams on to greater effort, causing a frenzy of late bets in the sweltering crowds.

I manage to shoulder my way through the crush of humanity to a military vehicle and, after a sharp and short disagreement with a drunk policeman, manage to hoist myself onto the back to where I have a commanding view of the river from amidst a half-dozen soldiers.  It is utter pandemonium, of the sort that borders on bloodletting, but I feel relatively safe.

I meet up with Stephen again and we force our way through the crowds to where a tribal dancer spins and gyrates and lunges in an out-of-body trance, his eyes wild, his actions even wilder.  He thrust manically at my camera with his staff, shouts and leers and rolls his eyes, literally inches from my face, while I shoot non-stop, hoping he is not going to physically assault me while lost in this altered state.

Stephen and I run the gauntlet of crowds, soldiers and bodyguards back past the Bangui Rock Club, apparently a favourite ex-pat hangout.  Soldiers (the rumour is they’re from Chad) prowl the street with heavy machine guns and rocket launchers, with desert scarves wrapped like turbans around their heads, and scowling from behind mirrored Aviator sunglasses.  It is a dead ringer for a scene from Blood Diamond and I would love to capture it on camera, but to be honest, I am way too scared.  There is an air of extreme menace emanating from these mercenaries and I’m not keen to experience first-hand knowledge of prison conditions in Central African Republic.

Instead we go and meet up with Pappa King and the rest of the crew as they ready the Land Rovers to go and pick up Claude the chimpanzee.  The sad reality of our rescue operation is that we have been reduced to taking only one chimp back to SA.  At least one has died in captivity since planning began, while two of the babies are no long to be released by their captor, a hotel owner who uses them as a way to attract customers.

Claude is seriously stressed out in his cage, and all efforts to entice him into the transport cage is to no avail.  Eventually a decision is made to just keep him in the present cage, and we load him up to return to the base in order to avoid having to dart him.  My last little adventure in Bangui is a quick walk around the old Cathedral.  Based on the architectural style of the original building in Paris, its brownstone façade perfectly mimics that of Notre Dame.  An outdoor service is in progress under the trees next to the twin-towered old church and the sweet lilt of hymns creates a sense of peace and tranquility in total antithesis  to the market, the boat race, the soldiers and political power play of megalomaniac politicians.  This is how I would like to remember Bangui.

1 December 2010

Another 04h00 wakeup call – check.  Dodge road blocks on the way to the airport – check.  Load chimp and Disco 4 onto the Hercules 0 check.  Guys with RGP rocket launchers on top of the airport building – check.  Get the fuck out of Central African Republic before all hell breaks out – check!

Click here to view the pics.