A River Sings
of yesteryear • Adventure Sport • Africa: The Good News • Book Reviews •
"Step it up!"
Keith’s voice echoed from somewhere amongst the dense green foliage in front of me. We’re losing the lead party."
Step it up?
I’m sweating like an overweight wrestler in 40-degree heat, carrying a pack that weighs half of what I do, and climbing through twisted masses of tree, vine, and root with a semi-automatic rifle following dangerously close to my rear.
At what point did our expedition turn into a military death march?
We wanted to get lost. Central Africa and the Congo Basin are names that conjure up visions of dark green jungles and impenetrable forest. On the westernmost edge of this belt of bursting biodiversity, nestled along the Atlantic Ocean, lays Gabon, conservationist Mike Fay’s "Last Eden".
Inspired by Fay’s 15-month mega-transect, charting the ecosystems across equatorial Africa, we tried to find a place as remote, pristine, and wild, and stumbled upon an elusive waterway, the Sing River. In the heart of Gabon’s Minkébé National Park, the Sing’s only visitors are the forest elephants, crocodiles, buffaloes, a host of insects, and -as we were to discover, an alarming number of poachers.
Of Gabon’s population, estimated at 1.5 million, over 75% live in urban areas, leaving the country’s remaining wilderness virtually untouched. Over 80% of Gabon is covered in rainforest, a large proportion of which was designated as parkland by President Omar Bongo in 2002. In a single year, Gabon went from zero to 13 National Parks, due in large part to the ecosystem surveys of Mike Fay and Lee White, who at the time were working for the Wildlife Conservation Society. This network of National Parks covers ecosystems, ranging from coastal beaches, swampland and savannah, to tropical rainforest.
In the northeastern corner of the country, bordering on the Republic of the Congo, Minkébé National Park is one of the least-visited and most remote of Gabon’s protected areas. Its enigmatic reputation as a place of thick, brilliant jungles teaming with the grey, looming shadows of over 20,000 forest elephants made us giddy with visions of untapped possibilities for adventure. However, its remote location and disconnection from the expensive and almost inexistent tourist industry, meant information was nearly impossible to find.
What we had in mind was a river expedition, something no one had done before. Just the two of us, our inflatable, lightweight pack rafts, and enough food on our backs to get us through 3 weeks of jungle travel without having to turn to poaching to supplement our diets.
Minkébé Park requires special entry permission from Gabon’s National Park Agency, Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux, or the ANPN. After endless research and many failed attempts at emails and expensive over-seas calls to Africa, our planning took a positive turn when we made contact with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Minkébé Programme in Libreville, Gabon.
WWF’s Minkébé Programme , established in 1998, works with the Gabonese government, local communities and the private sector, to manage over 40,000 kilometres 2 of some of the most biologically diverse and intact forest in Africa. The forest, which includes within its boundaries the 7560 km2 Minkébé National Park, is increasingly threatened by logging, mining, and poaching activities as well as the Ebola virus, which is believed to have been the cause of a 90% decline in Minkébé’s western lowland Gorilla population between 1994 and 1996. Since its inception, the program has made huge headway in mapping the ecological diversity of the vast area, training and educating park staff, and reducing poaching activities.
After multiple online conversations, pouring over Russian topographic maps and many late nights staring at Gabon’s twisting waterways glowing on our computer screens, we found our Sisyphus’ stone, a challenge worthy of our efforts, the Sing River. The Sing flows from its source in northern Gabon near the Cameroon border, through the Minkébé forest, until it meets the larger, fast-flowing Ivindo River. The WWF, having surveyed a large part of the region, had little information on the upper reaches of the Sing due to its remoteness, shallow waters, and the density of its foliage making it impassable even in paddled boats for half of the year.
For Keith, a biologist, and myself, a geologist who spends most of our year organizing and conducting research in Canada’s frigid Arctic, the evolution of our equatorial vacation into research project, was a tantalizing prospect. We could potentially provide the WWF and ANPN with new information on poaching activities, hunting and fishing camps, and wildlife inhabiting the Sing waterway. And so it happened, that somewhere between our home in Québec and Minkébé National Park, our 2-man jungle expedition turned into a joint conservation effort involving the WWF, ANPN and eventually, the Gabonese Military.
Our river voyage seemed to evolve, summoning a sinuous life of its own as we bounced from meeting to meeting with the WWF and ANPN in the nation’s seaside capital, Libreville. A minor hitch in our plans arose, when we learned that the ANPN was reluctant to allow us entry into the park alone. Previous disappearances in Gabon’s deep jungles, and the potential for conflict stemming from contact with both other humans and the environment were of significant concern. Following ANPN protocol, we were appointed two Eco-Guards, park rangers trained in conservation and mandated to enforce the park’s laws, who would accompany us on our expedition and support the data collection effort. The addition of two new team members presented a logistical issue for river travel, both Keith and I had one-man inflatable rafts, our Eco-Guards had none. However, the WWF’s rigid, plastic-hulled watercraft, affectionately dubbed "The Fat One" although not as light as our rafts, served to rectify our potentially voyage-altering transportation issue.
After a week of planning, organizing logistics and buying supplies, our small party left the commotion and clatter of the sprawling urban centre by Land Cruiser. We passed, travelling in the opposite direction, the presidential convoy, a kilometre-long train of green-speckled military vehicles, police, gendarmerie, and glossy sedans stirring up the red dust, sirens wailing and strobe lights flashing. The only thing missing was the president himself, who had opted for a flight from his meetings in Oyem back to Libreville. After spending 11 spine-jarring, ass-numbing hours in the back of the Land Cruiser, it was evident who had made the wiser choice of transportation methods.
We arrived in Makokou, gateway to Gabon’s north-eastern parks, in the pitch black of the African night, jolted out of our attempts at sleep by the unexpected crooning of Québec pop artists, Celine Dion and Roch Voisine blaring over the radio. Our home for the Christmas holidays lay before us, the Belinga Palace, its name inspiring visions of Las Vegas-style glitzy excess, neon lights and sequined women. The dull green sprawling structure that greeted us with its fluorescent lighting and sterile décor was reminiscent of an ancient hospital more than Makokou’s "top-end" hotel.
Our days in Makokou seemed to follow the same pattern as in Libreville, as we found ourselves conducting meetings and appointments, presenting our expedition plan to rooms packed with park officials and logisticians, eager to provide us with a wealth of local knowledge on the park and the obstacles we may encounter. We solidified our plan to motor up the Ivindo then Nouna Rivers for two days by motorized pirogue (the French term for dug-out canoe) to our drop-off location at the northern end of the park. The enthusiasm was infectious, and we celebrated the Christmas holidays swilling sweaty brown bottles of Regab, the local beer, and discussing the trip with our recently appointed Eco-Guards, Hiver and Yenzo. The following day, our team of 6 (including a boat driver and his navigator) departed Makokou, a crowd of screaming children with plastic machine guns waving us off from the muddy shoreline.
Barely10 minutes into our two-day boat trip, we were stopped by a military checkpoint. Ominous looking soldiers in tight green camouflage, eyes hidden behind black shades greeted us on the riverbank, their semi-automatics held like badges at their sides. Keith and I stayed in the pirogue while the others presented the military with our park permits and expedition plan, explaining our research interests with the WWF and ANPN. Identity cards and passports were demanded, Keith struggling to extract his from the hidden pocket, now not-so-ideally-placed, in the crotch of his pants.
The arrival of a superior officer, the Adjutant, heralded an untimely end to our expedition, merely 2 kilometres from its starting point. Words were exchanged, fragile papers passed hand-to-hand, checked and rechecked. The crowd on the shoreline continued to grow as we waited anxiously to be ordered back along the path we had come. Then astonishingly, breaking into an ear-to-ear grin, the Adjutant marched up to us, took our hands in his and said, "Good luck my Canadian friends! Please come back alive!"
The Ivindo’s waters were at times flowing fiercely and others, glassy calm. Tiny birds basked on protruding rock islands, as clouds of butterflies flit across the water in the gleaming sunshine, like handfuls of floating confetti. The river narrowed and grew shallower as we turned off onto the Nouna, our boat drivers keeping constant vigil for sunken logs looming in the brown waters. For two days we progressed northwards, nearing the northern limit of Minkébé Park, and our planned drop-off location, the Minkébé Gold Camp, an ulcer in the heart of the mystic jungle.
Sprung up from the slow trickle of gold out of massive hand-dug pits, the camp, a place of lawlessness, corruption, and chaos, was home to over 3000 people, many illegal immigrants, toiling 24 hours a day in the red earth for wages that seldom arrive. As we had travelled northwards up the Nouna River, pirogues packed with people had passed us in the opposite direction, a consequence of the camp’s booming business opportunities and high prices which lured ambitious entrepreneurs selling everything from high-end electronics to crates of beer. The lack of roads and border control made the flow of illegal immigrants, or les clandestins and in there their wake poachers, a constant and up until recently, disregarded, problem.
Les clandestins, entered from Gabon’s neighbouring countries of Cameroon and the Republic of the Congo, and even farther afield from Africa’s north, following dreams of wealth and a better life within Gabon’s boundaries. Entering from the northern route through Cameroon, most immigrants made the 100 kilometre trek non-stop, going several days without food or sleep through swampy jungle to reach the gold camp. There were no checkpoints and forged international ID cards are easily obtained and only occasionally checked by the irregular park patrols.
The Minkébé Gold Camp took a heavy toll on the surrounding environment. Hunting for personal subsistence was originally permitted (unofficially) within a 5-kilometre radius of the camp when it was small, a couple hundred people at most. By the time we arrived, the area more closely resembled a sprawling town of stick scaffolding and tin roofs, and official regulations didn’t exist, except for within the national park boundaries, where hunting was prohibited. However, this didn’t seem to deter the practice. In our two days at the camp, we listened to tales of self-tilted "great hunters" and were approached by poachers looking for new export markets for their ivory and skins. Conducted by illegal immigrants, many using illicit methods within the park or the buffer zone surrounding the park, most of the hunting was overtly illegal.
The government’s steps toward regulating the influx of illegals and the pressure on the Minkébé ecosystem began just weeks before our arrival with the installation of a military outpost of 32 men at Minkébé Gold Camp. Since our travels, the camp and mine have been evacuated by the Gabonese military. The government, with the Park, is working towards implementing sustainable, artisanal gold mining using legitimate Gabonese miners and strictly controlling immigration. However, the ivory crisis is more critical than ever. Military and park patrols in the area have increased, but the territory is vast and the poachers and traffickers are unwavering.
We toured the mine’s largest pit, a gaping cavern made still larger by the bending forms shovelling and hauling muddy wet earth, like busy insects in a multi-tiered hive. Each descending layer of the pit was supported by a wooden slab step, reinforcing the easily eroded earth. Men were digging on each neat terrace, and others, were pushing wheelbarrows and hefting sacs of ore up to the washing stations on level ground. The entire community of the pit suddenly erupted in cheers; a shining nugget unearthed? But no, merely the cajoling of the crowd as someone unzipped his fly and pissed into the centre of the watery hole.
The mine was operated using artisanal methods, with pumps furnishing the washing stations with water and keeping the ground temporarily dry in new digging areas. The dull background whirr of the generators was heard both night and day. The workers smiled eagerly, beaconing us over to pose for photos between panning, shovelling, carrying, and washing. Bodies, painted orange with mud, pressed around us, demanding "Les Blancs, Les Blancs! Come take a photo with me!" We were quickly promoted to celebrity status in this unnamed border town. Our arrival, was not however, welcomed by all.
Escaping the throngs of the pit and heading back along dirt paths to the centre of the village we were accosted by a swaggering posse of thugs. ‘Representatives of the Mine Owner’ they gave as their credentials. Glimmering yellow chains, rings, and watches sparkled from head to foot as in low, smooth voices they questioned. Who had given us authority to visit? For what purpose? Why were we taking photos and writing things in a tiny notebook? Was our government interested in exploiting their gold? Voices grew thicker, testosterone levels kicked up a notch, as our representatives (our Eco-Guards and a couple of off-duty military men) met the mine’s representatives head to head.
After some smooth negotiating and a minor marking of territory, we escaped with a dull warning echoing from the direction of the pit, ‘Watch yourself. Just watch yourself."
Two nights in this frontier town, plagued by the stench of open sewers and human exhaustion, and tormented by the steady rain of cockroaches from the roof of our shack was enough. Our discussions with Captain Periny at the Minkébé military outpost and his growing interest in our expedition must have inspired in him a sentiment of adventure, for he announced, just before our departure for the Sing River, that he would be sending a squad of armed troops with us upon leaving Minkébé Camp, in the name of "exploration" and the discovery of new territory.
We set off from the gold camp, into the electric green jungle in the slow warmth of the morning, trailed by our two Eco-Guards, two porters carrying "The Fat One", and an armed convey of 10 camouflaged military personnel tripping on our heels. The seven-hour march had us weaving up, then down across the hummocky jungled terrain of Minkébé Mountain. For our 4-man expedition team, our packs were painfully heavy with almost 3 weeks of food, hammocks, tents, cooking gear, first aid supplies, our rafts and a single change of clothes. The military, off on a day’s sojourn and carrying little more than their weapons, charged through the forest, forcing us into a neck breaking pace. Through my head ran a constant mantra, "If only I can stay ahead of the porters carrying 50 pounds of plastic pirogue on their head." As I am sure they were thinking, "if only we can stay ahead of that out-of-shape white woman…".
Seven hours later we said goodbye to the military, porters, and our tracker guide. Hiver, Yenzo, Keith and I set up our tents and hammocks on the brown banks of the Manima River, tributary to the Sing, amidst a pulsing world of wet green, and contemplated our perfect solitude. For the next two days we dragged, more than paddled our boats along the meandering brown stream, thick with suspended sediment and riddled with seemingly impassable walls of vegetation. Fording muddy shallows and climbing over and under fallen trees blocking our passage, the river’s inaccessibility was brought screaming, to our attention.
But for a river so isolated, the presence of humans was everywhere to be seen. Crocodile traps, resembling tiny stick houses lined the riverbanks to either side, their wire snares dangling like the hangman’s noose. Some days we counted more than 15 along the river’s edge. Though cut-off from boat traffic, the northern part of the river was clearly reachable by foot from Minkébé camp and another smaller mine in the area.
Poaching, though illegal in Minkébé Park, is for many a means of survival. The two species of crocodile that live along the rivers in Minkébé, the slender-nosed and dwarf, are not hunted for their skin, but for their meat. And it isn’t only the reptiles. On several occasions, we observed elephant bones protruding from the sticky shoreline. The bush meat and ivory trade are alive and booming.
Minkébé’s forest elephant population is estimated at over 20,000, a number which emerged from the 2003-2004 elephant survey conducted by the WWF and ANPN in Minkébé Park, however the impact that poaching has had on this number is unknown. Different than their savannah brethren, forest elephants (Loxodonta Africana cyclotis) are smaller in stature with shorter tusks and a coating of tiny hairs protecting their hide from the grasping tendrils of the jungle’s flora. They have evolved to be wary of predators, particularly of humans, now that they are illegally hunted. Seeing them can be next to impossible, and if you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse, you may be met with hostility and aggression.
Floating along the river in our tiny rafts, we heard the heavy steps and snapping of large branches as elephants passed near us beyond the green forest walls. But these great grey beasts remained as elusive to us as the winding river we paddled, mud piled thick upon its banks and riddled with the deep imprints of the hidden giants.
After several days fording the stagnant stream our skin was splashed vibrant red with a weeping, pustulant rash that itched until it burned. A spider web network of cuts and bruises tattooed our shins and calves. Exhausted, bodies smeared with the smashed carcasses of dead flies, sweat, and mud we made camp on New Year’s Eve, far from the celebrations and festivities occupying the rest of the world. The smoking fire sent shadows dancing across the trees, as our damp clothing smouldered limply over the flames. We were awakened just before midnight by the loud bellows of Yenzo. A parade of hundreds of ants marching over his body had jolted him from sleep just before midnight. The tiny insects had entered his tent through several holes in the floor and walls just in time to ring in the New Year. His screams of "Happy New Year!!" as he danced around camp swatting at the aggravating beasts, had the rest of us in fits of laughter as we joined in with the happy New Year celebrations.
It seemed we weren’t to have any respite over the holidays. New Year’s day brought with it another arthropod invasion in the form of the black African wasp. A careless thwack with the machete on a branch overhanging the river as we paddled by had let loose a mad, hostile swarm. The winged devils drove their pumping abdomens into our flesh again and again, immune to the slap of hand and spray of water. Our only hope was to out-paddle or out-run them, but this didn’t occur until we had received at least 15 vicious stings apiece, which rapidly turned to burning, swollen lumps of flesh that ached for 12 hours. Yenzo came stumbling out of the trees where he’d fled to escape the attack, looking morose and broken. Keith seized the opportunity to lighten the mood, calling out to him across the river, "First the ants, now the wasps. Happy New Year Yenzo, Happy New Year!"
As the Manima finally spilled into the slightly wider expanses of the Sing, the proportion of our days spent paddling our boats, instead of dragging them, increased significantly. We passed through old-growth forests woven with lianas, then into the swampy labyrinth of les marécages, the wetlands. Semi-permanent campsites appeared along the shores, some strung with scraps of discarded clothes and broken plastic chairs. Others hosted entire families of fisher-folk milling about smoking racks piled high with fish. Fishing is tolerated along the Sing, as part of the traditional practices of local communities. Many people paddle for several days upriver from their villages in the south, to the crude campsites to catch and smoke fish. They return south, pirogues packed with their preserved cache, to sell at the village markets.
One day blended into the next, as we paddled downriver, noting all signs of human and animal life with our hand-held GPSs, while trying to achieve enough kilometres before finding a suitable patch of mud to camp on for the night. Looking for glimpses of monkeys and elephants hiding amongst the trees, we were often startled by the splash of snakes and lizards dropping into the river from overhanging branches. We simultaneously tried to avoid the threat of reptiles falling from the skies, while the river presented us with a minefield of submerged sticks protruding within inches of the surface. Sharp fingers waiting to snag and puncture our inflatable rafts.
We conducted wildlife reconnaissance surveys starting from the banks of the Sing and proceeding through the forest.
Trying to follow a general compass bearing within the overgrown mass of vegetation was only mildly facilitated by the use of our machetes. Through muddy streams and ant-infested trees we documented signs of animal presence. The rounded imprints of elephants stamped into the stream-banks, the numerous pathways beaten through the undergrowth by passing feet, straw-like dung piled along the way. These elephant paths are used by the poachers. Striped naked to erase their musky human scent, they follow the trails for days, led to their prey by the naively trodden tracks.
Nine days later the Sing ended abruptly, and we drifted onto the wide stretches of the Ivindo River under a vibrant sun. A duiker, a deer-like creature, stared out at us from the underbrush. We stared back, and as the mouth of the Sing disappeared behind us, he quickly turned and fled back into the green vastness. We eventually reached the village of Mayibout along the Ivindo, home of the 1996 Ebola outbreak, for an uneventful end to an expedition that ended far too quickly. We were greeted by the blank, perplexed stares of villagers and boat drivers loitering on the beach, wondering where these white apparitions in tiny blue boats had come from.
Disembarking and deflating our rafts, the crowds soon lost interest. Sitting on the beach in our damp clothes we reflected that this trip, traversing nearly 400 kilometres through jungled terrain and upon isolated rivers, was suddenly over. People and boats, coming and going. A women washing her bucket of laundry next to a man cleaning his shiny new motorcycle, out of place on this rustic shoreline. The hot sun finally drying out our packs and clothes after weeks of sodden wetness. Within hours our Land Cruiser had arrived. We said goodbye to the river as we embarked once again for a rocky ride over bush road back to Makokou, passing along the way logging trucks, axles sagging with the weight of freshly cut trees.
It is said that forest spirits live there in Minkébé. People have disappeared, sacrificed to phantoms living amongst tangled tree and vine. There are areas in the south where the locals refuse to go. They look at you wide-eyed and solemn and tell you that the jungle is a very dangerous place. A
long the Sing, the only danger we found came in the shape of man. A place of beauty, diversity and magic, Minkébé will only endure as long as the equilibrium of give and take between human and nature remains in balance.
Special thanks to our enthusiastic and indefatigable Eco-Guards Hiver Ntsame and Yenzo Ulrich, and to Pauwel De Wachter with the WWF Minkébé Programme for believing in our ambitious plan, and for his wealth of knowledge and logistical support.
Many thanks to Anne-Marie Ndong-Obiang and Hervé Ndong Allogho at the ANPN in Gabon; Bas Huijbregts, Gustave Mabaza, Bas Verhage, Guillaume Duboscq, and Bede Moussavou at the WWF in Gabon; and Captain Periny with the Gabonese Military. Without their support, knowledge and permission, our expedition would not have been possible.
For more information on travelling off the beaten path in Gabon visit:http://www.mamatembotours.com
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