THE LAND OF THE PYGMIES
The Dornier aircraft was flying over an endless green ocean, when a tiny luminous stark contoured rectangle appeared: the air strip, in the middle of nowhere.
We brush the last tree-tops and land on a soft vegetation cover. Charles Dugas de la Boissonny, PH assistant to Pierre Guerrini, welcomes us heartily.
crowd of pygmies gesticulate, fussing like ants around the plane to draw our luggage and the fresh supplies we brought from Douala out. An hour’s ride later, the camp and its friendly staff open the doors to a lounge and four air-conditioned rooms. Throughout our stay, Cécile, our feline cook, will not cease to amaze us with her mastery of Cordon Bleu cooking in addition to her natural charm. A very pleasant Mexican couple (Eduardo & Alice) share the same adventure. They will be hunting with Charles. My friend Alain, is hunting Cameroon for his 8thtime. He dreams of taking a bongo and an elephant. However, his experience of Africa makes him reasonably opportunist.
On the first morning, we spot a bongo footprint (not that large), then an elephant’s from the day before and finally, shiny dwarf buffalo dung. We decide to follow them. The pygmies count 4 of them, one of which has a big foot and let speculate on a nice trophy. After two hours of hide and seek in this very dense plant life, a loud bawling advises us about their proximity. We drop the tracks and cut through the green shield. No visibility beyond 5 yards at all! We need to keep on progressing, as slowly as possible. Luckily, the night dew had moistened the dead leaf litter covering the ground. All the sudden, a forest aisle, a movement, the extension of a shape: the buffaloes are there in a grassy clearing, plunged into a muddy water bath. The sun shines on the setting, as a divine spotlight. A cow, halfway-up immersed, is facing us, her two wide ears alert. Her body covers the motionless bull behind.
Impossible to get a clear shot. A gust of wind: the muzzles shine, nostrils expand to catch the bouquets which will soon spook them. Another cow with a protruding eye locates us and sounds the alarm. Panic and confusion: the animals lift out of the mud with a suction noise. We will keep the fleeting memories of four double-muscled bovines, vanishing into the lush vegetation. On our way back, we will also remember the brutal and invisible simulation charge of a gorilla, as surprised by our intrusion as we were of his.
The next morning at dawn we leave camp, the canopy in silhouette, bathed in a blueish mist. A fresh bongo track had marked the red dirt road. The pygmies jump out of the truck, holding their dogs on a leash.
This was followed by a 3-hour tracking, without seeing anything. In forest, the sharpest sensory organ must be the hearing.
We can perceive the loud wing flapping, characteristic of the hornbills, above the tree-tops, the screeching of African grey parrots and great blue turacos, the muffled echo of the sounding board of a male dominant chimpanzee, demonstrating his supremacy within the group. A plethora of invisible and frightened monkeys shakes branches and makes thousands of raindrops fall. Our bongo had crossed an old skid trail and stopped to graze on broadleaved odorous plants. We get across a small tea-coloured water stream, climb the steep and slippery shore, and eventually find the place where he sleeps, which is still warm. The pygmies confirm that he is very close now. They free the lead dog who quickly disappears in complete silence. A short time later, we could hear him barking away. The other dogs are unleashed. They head for their fellow creature, so do we. Excitement goes crescendo. The machetes and the shears we have used before no longer serve our interests. We need to slip, such as pygmies do, into this element that grips, slows us down, restrains each of our movements. The dogs bark now in unison, meaning they have circled the bongo. We hustle, stumble, get back up, lose our oxygen. A liana traps my shoulder when a thorn rips off Alain’s shirt. So many obstacles to tackle. Endless seconds. Will our prey wait for us? We were very close to reaching our goal when the yelping travelled right back at us. The bongo somehow managed to escape and hit our passageway, the dogs shortly behind, still chasing him. We need to leap off the way to avoid him. His silhouette finally looms and passed us by two meters away. Young and immature! We let him run and call the dogs off. His course would have etched our memories with a magical moment.
Our way home will be embellished by the fantastic vision of a fearsome silverback gorilla, crossing the road in a powerful and dismissive gait.
Fortunately, these primates are not of a very belligerent nature.
A few days later, just when we had been driving for almost three hours on the red dirt trails recently opened by forestry workers, we crossed the attractive footprint of another bongo.
After only three quarters of an hour of tracking, we had spot three different places where our prey had slept, a sign of long resting periods. Same ceremony as our former hunt: dogs are unleashed one by one. We initiate our military run through lianas, flora, thorny bushes, overcoming a dead trunk, rounding a much bigger one and ducking tentacular branches. We reach the spot from where the snarling aflame pack was barking.
Still gasping for breath, we come nearer, hidden by the immense trunk of a towering iroko tree. We can now discern our animal, a stocky reddish body accented by white stripes, the back arched, salient horns, his head down on the ground to better shield from assailants. I give the green light to Alain who tries his best to perceive the animal. The gun cracks. The bongo takes the bullet and disappears in the foliage, now stained with blood. The pack takes immediately off on his heels. We keep up after them and eventually find the dying bongo. The bullet had perforated his neck. Warm congratulations from the pygmies. Photo session. Our eyes pause on the tips of the ivory white horns. What a beauty. Nature offers a so wide variety of combinations.
All the sudden, elements start raging with terrifying speed. Giant green trees curve. Some of them would bend so much they would break. We put on our waterproof ponchos and head back to the truck. A couple of trunks temporarily paralyze our progression. The furious chainsaws will free the lateritic way, after a few sweating washed away with the rain. We arrive in camp where we are welcomed by a jubilant public. Our Mexican friends will succeed in taking a superb bongo on the very next day, under the aegis of Charles, which sets the record of the season with 31 inches.
We now dedicate ourselves to chasing a good elephant. So far, we have observed a high density of small but very aggressive herds. Only a few solitary bulls though and even fewer “big feet”.
On a morning, while the sun rays were peeking through the tree-tops and dancing with chlorophyll to form a prism of shades of green, we spotted the interesting footprints of a lone bull. They dated back from late-night. We have been following them for the entire day. The droppings were disseminated here and there, emitting a pungent and pugnacious smell, deeply embedded within our olfactory cells. It lingered many hours before vanishing biologically, then psychologically. Red ochre colours caught on our clothes, hair, skin, as if we had lost a paintball game. The elephant would have bathed in mud and marked the vegetation life, which had stained us when crossing through. We impregnate ourselves with his scent and adopt his tint by compelled mimicry.
The overpowering vegetation submerges us all. She invites you to slither, dodge, crawl, step over in order to keep progressing. You have to pass through it in the way she allows you to, otherwise, Heaven help you! She does not refrain to tear, prick or congest your skin and to put your muscles to the test. She enforces harmony or pain, such as a Grand Master, whether satisfied or not she is. This hostile environment becomes mesmerizing as soon as you try to penetrate and understand it. The pygmies know how to see what is unseen, listen to the inaudible, interpret the signs which are irrational to most people. They are overadapted to their biotope. I watch them to better understand. However, we give up in the late afternoon, precluded by a herd of atrabilary females and the night which will soon come upon our world.
The next days, we did not find any fresh track of a solitary elephant. We decided to swap over for buffaloes who had brightened our trips, fostered our memories, without ever being able to come to fruition. Then, came the final day…
Thunder had been rumbling all night long, clouds releasing downpours on the forest’s roof. Around 5 o’clock in the morning, I can hear the sound of water drops falling on the broad leaves of the banana tree rubbing my bungalow. At the first streak of dawn, only 80 yards from camp, a footprint, miraculously dropped by Mother Nature. My heartbeat promptly increases: definitely a promising elephant considering the diameter of the foot. He had passed behind my hut, crossed and fed on the pygmies’ yam field. It is him who made the water drops fall when shaking the trees. We vigorously chase him, convinced it is our day. We come across an aghast chimpanzee, paralyzed at mid height of a trunk to which he fiercely grips, with a sad and powerless look.
The elephant stays the same course, without feeding no more. I turn several times to Alain for regulating our forward speed. After an hour and a half later, the pygmies whose eyes were riveted to the ground, suddenly scatter like flies and vanish into the dense vegetation. Their unexpected reaction trebles our heart rates. I can immediately see a dark shape erupting from the plants. The sleeping elephant had awakened when we approached… Now, he rises at only 5 yards of us but Alain is still rattled by our trackers’ fright and does not discern him. In the meantime, I spot his tusks: magnificent!
I try to give Alain simple guidance, in vain. He ends up perceiving a movement but could not distinguish the full body of the animal. The latter is staring at us, frightened by the noise made by the running pygmies, his ears all perked up. Hidden by a thick vegetation shield, he listens and looks. Two long minutes pass. He decides to walk away, branches breaking under his massive body, regularly stopping to ensure the cracking is all his. We pursue him swiftly. One of the pygmies, André, probably reassured by our courageous attitude, gets back to us to assist in resuming our tracking. Only 10 minutes passed when he fled once more: a second contact occurs. We can guess the silhouette of the elephant who is now facing us. Alain knows he cannot miss this new opportunity. He spots one of the tusks, looks up for the eye, aims the center of a fictitious line and presses the trigger. Death comes without the pachyderm’s knowledge. He bends his knees and collapses in slow motion. Brain shot. Perfect. For a short moment, time stops. Everything freezes as if we were outside of the setting. Then, we progressively realise. The pygmies resurface, tapping us on our backs and joyfully chanting.
One of them, Rémy, showing all his sharp teeth, shouts:
“he ate our yam field, let’s eat him!”.
Alain seems to be light as air, in the clouds of a satisfaction he does not fully grasp yet. Just like a long trip that begins and never seems to end. A firework of iridescent colours due to the sun reflection on the wings of numerous butterflies, makes the landscape enchanting. We fixed the moment lengthily, under the clicks of our digital cameras, and then departed for the way home which was memorable.
The extension of the “high”. Our forest imps begin singing their hymn of glory, celebrating the revenge of their smallness over the ubiquitous gigantism of the trees, space and pachyderms. Their vocalizations reach inside of us, as a trance transporting us to the heavenlies. We arrive in camp. The whole village is there. Their serenade meet ours. They honour us, celebrate us, touch us, envy us, thank us. They are a cheerful, harmonious, polite and authentic people, somewhat dependent on pleasures of life such as alcohol, hemp and sex. That is their greatest fault. We love them.
See you soon Mother Nature.
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