Seven-year-old Claude the chimp
Picture: JACQUES MARAIS
"HOW would you like to fly to the Central African Republic in a Hercules aircraft, rescue chimpanzees, distribute mozzie nets with Kingsley Holgate and rub shoulders with Jonty Rhodes?"
That was the question put to me by Lesley Sutton, Land Rover's media manager, two weeks earlier, and was why I was spending this particular dawn shaking and rattling down the runway at Waterkloof Air Force Base, en route to Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, via Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
It was a nervous group of adventurers that clung to their nylon webbing seats that morning, apprehensive of everything, from the destination to the flight, to the lack of toilets on the flight and the lack of information we'd been given.
But the rattles soon changed from alarming to comforting and in no time at all people were strolling around, sharing snacks and getting to know one another. Jonty, spotting a gap, climbed into the driver's seat of the Land Rover Discovery4 that we were flying up for Kingsley, and promptly fell asleep in surreal comfort, surrounded by mosquito nets.
The Lockheed C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft was on a routine mission to ferry supplies from South Africa to troops based in the DRC and the Central African Republic (CAR). That explained the military supplies and the mail. The civilians and their kit, though, were part of a different plot.
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, the capital of the CAR, on their latest expedition.
That explains the Discovery packed with mozzie nets. But the cage?
The centre of Africa is also the centre of the bushmeat 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.
After six hours of trying to sleep, trying to read, trying to look out of the windows and trying to make small talk above the clamour of the engines, our plane stoops onto the Kinshasa runway in the DRC. The cargo ramp begins to lower before we're even stopped, and in pours the syrupy air of the equator.
We step onto the tarmac, only to be told by soldiers with AK-47 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 Presidential Jet lands, and, to make sure of it, a bakkie load of troops is dropped off to line the tarmac. Thirty minutes later the jet swoops past, and we can escape back to our plane.
Bangui, the capital city of the CAR, lazes next to the Ubangi River which stretches out to the Congo and makes the biggest of our own rivers look like a storm-water drain. And the Bangui is just a tributary of the Congo River.
The airport is less impressive and, after taxiing to a stop, we are stuck there for a while. Luckily we are able to retire to the VIP lounge, where we are greeted by Kingsley and his wife Gill, drink a cold beer and watch the air-con being worked on.
The hold-up is our accommodation - it transpires that the CAR is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence two days later, and President François Bozizé has handed our hotel rooms over to his mates who will be 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 bus over to the South African National Defence Force base to regroup and plan our next move.
Our pilot, Major Gareth Gourlie, is in charge and makes an executive decision, which is that we should neither separate, nor drive around too much after dark. We submit - 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.
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 to have around 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, 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.
Having done that, Alan takes us up to a viewpoint overlooking the city, at the foot of a Hollywood-style sign - "Bangui la Coquette". A muzzy cityscape unfolds beneath us, more trees and dirt than tar and concrete. Thousands of giant bats are returning to their roost at the old Catholic church as the sun strengthens. Calling this place a "flirt" is a little optimistic, while the road up here is probably a grade 2 4x4 track.
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 set it apart from any market in Mozambique. We wander around, chatting to the friendly, tourist-starved people. But we want to see bushmeat. 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 - we need 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.
Jacques and I join the rest of our team here. Bozizé makes an appearance, warmly greeting a few of us, but not to apologise for taking our rooms, it seems. His entourage is menacing - soldiers from Chad manning machine guns mounted on bakkies, Raybans poking out of green turbans and 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. About 60 paddlers are driving 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.
We can't stick around to see the medals handed out, though. We've got a date with the First Lady, a school and 300 mozzie nets. There, Kingsley is continuing his good work, repeating the message - as he has thousands of times before. The fact that the President's wife is accompanied by four government ministers shows the high level of support Kingsley and this whole mission has.
At the same time a few of our group had gone to fetch Claude, the young chimpanzee that had been rescued from being an attraction at a bar. We had originally planned to rescue up to four chimps, but one had died before we arrived and the other two were being kept by the owner, who was not content to release her money-spinners. Still, rescuing even one animal is a start, and the seven-year-old Claude would be transferred to the Jane Goodall Institute Chimpanzee Eden outside Nelspruit.
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's beautiful in the afternoon light, and a service is being held under a tree to the side of the building.
Hymns float over to us as we take pictures in the fading light, an incongruous end to such a frenetic day, and ultimately of our mission in Bangui. © Stephen Smith
For more information on our expedition, and the goals of the Afrika Expeditionary Force, see www.afrikaforce.org.za. For a better understanding of Claude's new home and future, go to http://www.chimpeden.com/.
Story and photo credit here