Text: Stephen Smith
Photography: Stephen Smith and Jacques Marais
When morning arrived at Waterkloof Airforce Base, near Pretoria, the sun illuminated a group of 25 or so excited – and apprehensive – civilians gathered on the edge of the runway, watching as their gear was loaded onto a Lockheed C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft.
Apart from the normal overnight bags and camera kit, there were a few cold boxes packed with prime steaks, a Land Rover Discovery 4 full (and I do mean full, to the roof) of mosquito nets, and a steel cage big enough for, say, a chimpanzee.
The aircraft was on a routine mission, ferrying supplies to South African troops based in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CAR). That explained the military supplies and the mail. The civilians and their kit, though, were part of something else altogether.
Our humanitarian mission was piggybacking on theirs. For years Chris Thorpe has been working with Africa’s modern explorer, the man with the beard and the passion for Africa, Kingsley Holgate. Under the banner of United Against Malaria, Chris has taken it upon himself to join Kingsley in combating malaria, using his networks and his business savvy to generate funds for mosquito nets, which Kingsley distributes on his adventures.
We would be meeting up with Kingsley and his crew in Bangui, capital of the CAR, on their latest expedition.
That explains the Discovery packed with mozzie nets. But the cage? That’s a whole different kettle of apes. The centre of Africa is also the centre of the bush meat trade, where wild animals, including apes, are hunted or trapped and then sold in markets.
Another threat to Africa’s apes is the entertainment industry – hotel and bar owners use chimpanzees as drawcards for their establishments, teaching them tricks to entertain the patrons. Well, we were going to break out a few of those chimps.
With the Discovery loaded, the trip took on a whole new atmosphere. We were on a mission, in an airforce plane, surrounded by nylon webbing, warning signs, functional bits of machinery that did things we didn’t really understand, men in jumpsuits and helmets, and no toilet.
After six hours of trying to sleep, trying to read, trying to look out the windows and trying to make small talk above the din of the engines, our plane sweeps onto the Kinshasa runway in the DRC.
The cargo ramp begins to lower before we’ve even stopped, and in pours the syrupy air of the equator. We step onto the tarmac, only to be told by AK47-wielding soldiers not to venture too far from the plane. We loiter under the wing, a line of do-gooders in a stripe of shade. Then the news arrives that the President is about to land. More guns arrive, and we are ushered inside the shabby airport.
No one is allowed anywhere near the runway while the First Lear Jet lands, and to make sure of it a bakkie load of troops is dropped off to line the tarmac. Thirty minutes later the Lear Jet swoops away, and we can escape back on to our plane.
Bangui, capital city of the CAR, lazes next to a river of the same name – a river that flows out to the Congo and makes the biggest of our own rivers look like a storm water drain.
The airport is less impressive, and after taxiing to a stop we are stranded for a while. We are eventually able to retire to the VIP lounge where we are greeted by Kingsley and his wife, Mashozi, drink a cold beer and watch the air-con being worked on.
The hold-up concerns our accommodation. It seems the CAR is due to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence two days later, and President Bozizé has handed our hotel rooms over to his mates, who are dropping in for the occasion. Such is life!
So instead of a leisurely cruise around the dusk attractions of Bangui, a city where the French influence doesn’t seem to have got much past baguettes and the language, we are bustled to the SANDF military base to regroup and plan our next move.
We’re on a mission, remember. Our pilot, Major Gourlie, is in charge and has to make an executive decision. He says we should neither separate nor drive around too much after dark. We obey. After all, this is a country that’s had more coups than a dovecote.
All it means is a night or two on mattresses on the floor of the base – things could definitely be worse. Having been awake since 02:30 that morning I crash at 11pm, sneaking off to an empty office where a fan gently stirs the warm air.
Just after 4am we’re up. Photojournalist Jacques Marais and I have organised a “tour guide” – Captain Allen Souter, 22 years in the Defence Force and second in charge of the SA troops based in the CAR. A useful chap in a tight spot, then.
Our first stop is the banks of the Bangui River, as the sun’s alchemy turns the brown waters gold. Life revolves around the river and the pirogues (log canoes), and even now the waters are busy with fisherman and ferries, while the shores are beginning to stir with food vendors and nets being pulled in. We drift along, trying to blend into the background, but tourists are a rarity in the CAR and everyone wants their picture taken.
Alan takes us up to a viewpoint overlooking the city, at the foot of a Hollywood-style sign – “Bangui la Coquette”. Calling this place a flirt is a little optimistic, while the road up here is probably a grade 2 4×4 track. A muzzy cityscape unfolds beneath us, more trees and earth than tar and concrete. Thousands of giant bats are returning to their roost at the old Catholic church as the sun strengthens.
We ask Alan if he can take us to a market – that’s where the colour of any African city can be found. We’re greeted with the normal chaos, and smiles, only the language and the long loaves really setting it apart from the type of market one encounters in Mozambique, for instance.
We wander around for ages, chatting to the friendly, tourist-starved locals. But we want to see bush meat. Is it really a way of life? Five minutes later we’ve walked past piles of smoked fish, a huge barbel slowly suffocating on a table, and are staring at the grimacing faces of monkeys and forest antelope. A lone, baby pangolin is perched on top of a mound of dead animals, its armoured scales and praying claws somehow far worse than the rest.
We ask about chimps, and are told to go to a different market to buy one of them, but we don’t really have the stomach for it.
Instead, we trade the cacophony of the market for the even greater cacophony of the river, where an immense boat race is taking place. The pirogue race is an annual event, made even bigger by the 50th anniversary celebrations. We are told that teams from Chad, Cameroon and Angola have made the trip.
Jacque and I join the rest of our team here, as well as Papa King and his crew. President Bozizé makes an appearance too, warmly greeting a few of us, but not to apologise for taking our rooms, it seems.
The president’s entourage is menacing – soldiers from Chad manning machineguns mounted on bakkies, Raybans poking out of green turbans. There’s a sense of violence in the air.
The president takes a 9mm pistol from a bodyguard, raises it, and sends a bullet whistling into the Congo. The race is on!
We don’t know who’s who, or who’s winning, but the fervour is catching. I jump into a pirogue and follow the action for a while. Fifty or 60 paddlers are thrusting each boat forward, doing a huge circular lap. A local team wins, and the chaos intensifies.
Smiles dominate the proceedings, while the athletes trade good-natured insults.
But we can’t stick around to see the medals handed over. We’ve got a date with the First Lady, a school and 300 mozzie nets.
Kingsley is continuing his good work, repeating the message and actions he has made thousands of times before. The fact that the president’s wife is accompanied by four government ministers shows the high level of support for Kingsley and this whole mission.
Meanwhile, a few of our group have gone to fetch Claude, a young chimpanzee that had been rescued from its existence as a novelty attraction in a local bar. We had hoped to rescue up to four chimps, but one had died before we got there, and the owner of the other two refused to release her money-spinners.
Still, rescuing even one animal is a start, and the seven-year-old Claude will be taken to the Jane Goodall Chimp Eden outside Nelspruit to be rehabilitated before hopefully being released into the wild in the future.
Our two objectives are now complete, and we make our way back to the military base before dark. Jacques and I requisition our own transport again, this time to get a closer look at the old church we had spotted from the hillside.
Styled on the Notre Dame in Paris, it is beautiful in the late afternoon. A service is being held under a tree to the side of the building. Hymns float in the air as we take pictures in the fading light – an incongruous end to such a frenetic day, and ultimately of our mission in Bangui.
Want to know more?
For more information on our expedition, and the goals of the Afrika Expeditionary Force, see www.afrikaforce.org.za. To get a better understanding of Claude’s new home and future, go to www.chimpeden.com.