Temple of Taxa
5:00am. Sitting on the entry staircase of my hotel in the pre-dawn darkness. A rickety jitney bus picks me up, along with 7 other Africans for the shuttle to Nairobi airport. For being the primary entry hub into East Africa, the Nairobi airport is a pitiful popsicle stand. There is a mad rush for the passengers of all the morning flights to line up outside on the sidewalk. You cannot enter the terminal until you put all your checked and carry-on luggage onto the belt of an x-ray machine from the 60s. It becomes very clear that none of the staff working security have any training, just a uniform and an apathetic attitude. I walked through the metal detector with a pocket knife and no one stopped me.
Inside the terminal, I approach a man who is providing Saran Wrap service. He has a large roll of plastic wrap attached to a rotating metal spool. For a small fee, he will wrap your bag like a sandwich. This has a dual purpose: first, if it rains, your bag will remain dry; second, you are less likely to have the contents of your luggage stolen. Once inside the gate area, I sit and wait for the boarding call. A light-skinned black man sits down next to me. Corn rows on his head and baggy pants on his legs. He initiates conversation:
"I'm from Georgia, on my way to Johannesburg for holiday. Where are you from?"
"Where are you headed?"
"Central African Republic."
"To work on a gorilla conservation project"
"That sounds dope. I work up in Djibouti. Logistics subcontractor to the US military base there."
"Didn't know we have a base out there."
"I met this hot stewardess on my Kenya Airways flight who lives here in Nairobi. Got nasty with her last night."
"Congratulations. A meaningful cross-cultural pollination."
"Nah, we just had dirty sex."
I chat with the dirty southern boy for an hour until his flight boards and he leaves. Soon after, my flight is announced and we walk out onto the tarmac and look for our plane, as if we were searching for our car in the mall parking lot. I take my seat next to the window and a large Cameroonian man sits down next to me. We chat. He is a French language teacher who is based in Japan. I struggle to digest the concept of an African man teaching French in Asia. His foul breath forces me to abandon the conversation and I immerse into my book.
It's a 3 hour flight from Nairobi to Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. We head northwest over Kenya and the first shimmering sight comes into view- Lake Victoria, the largest in Africa and the source of the mighty Nile. I'm struck by its immense size. Five years ago, I was on a boat on that lake and now I'm in a plane above it. An hour into the flight, we approach the soul of Africa- the vast Congo Basin. As I see it, the Sahara desert is the mind and the Masai Mara/Serengetti savannah is the body of this ancient continent. (The Okavanga Delta and the Kalahari salt pans are also equally deserving of inclusion in the holy trinity but there's only space for 3).
We begin our descent, flying low over the D.R. Congo, formerly Zaire, formerly Belgian Congo. With increasing sharpness, the treetops come into focus and this pulsing dark heart of Mother Africa comes alive.... its muscle pumping lifeblood into her veins, a network of rivers that lacerate the forest with serpentine stealth. I stare out the plane window, drooling on myself, straining and craning my neck for the best view. I'm paralyzed with awe My dormant sense of wonder is evoked at the sheer beauty, mystery, and diversity of life that lurks in this magical forest. For a few fleeting moments, I am a child again. I want to jump out of the plane, build a treehouse, and invite all my new animal friends to come over and plot how we are going to keep all the humans out of our forest. This is Nature, keeping secrets with stunning beauty and devastating savagery. Tempting you with exotic species. Daring you to enter. Knowing you don't stand a chance in hell of surviving. This is primordial Earth- undeveloped, uncivilized, dark, raw, wild.
Behind the Amazon, its the planets' second largest tropical rainforest. So many curious creatures, the vast laboratory of a deranged zoologist and his sociopathic anthropologist wife, an organic theater of evolutions finest creations. Within this perpetual experiment of biological insanity, rare beasts emerge among the thousands of plant species. There are 11,000 plant species, over 1000 of which are endemic. The northwest Congo basin has the highest species count for any vegetation in the world. Buy a ticket. Come to the carnival. You will witness evolutionary oddities, an ambrosia of carnivores, insects, amphibians, reptiles, rodents, primates, and birds. Lurking within this temple of taxa: chimps, leopards, Bongos, Okapi, gorillas, Elephant Shrews, Forest Elephants, Sitatunga, Forest Buffalo, baboons, guenons, Colobus monkeys, mangabeys, Moustached monkeys, Dwarf squirrels, pangolins, aardvarks, honey badgers, genets, civets, mongoose, otters, hyrax, duikers, giant forest hogs, Congo peafowl, herons, egrets, storks, Hammerkops, kestrels, francolins, Guinea fowl, plovers, sandpipers, doves, parrots, cuckoos, kingfishers, rollers, hornbills, woodpeckers, shrikes, flycatchers, bee-eaters, orioles, starlings, weavers, and, of course, the Black-Bellied Bustard.
Beneath me, the unbroken primeval forest stretches in vast glory, uncorrupted by homo sapien. A green ocean whose depths shelter a staggering array of flora & fauna. Our plane descends below suspended cloud islands and jagged columns of sunlight are visible as they smite the forest, reflecting glints of river. We cross the Ubangui river, which is the frontier separating northern DR Congo from southern Central African Republic. The jet touches down and the pilot slams the brakes hard. Everything not tied down goes flying forward. The runway must be short. I get off the plane and descend the rusting metal stair onto the tarmac, with camera in hand, ready to fire. Once again, my feet touch Africa. My spine responds with a shiver, despite the staggering heat and humidity. I immediately put away my camera since I am being stared down by a uniformed soldier with an automatic weapon and dark shades. It's an interesting welcome committee. I soon discover that this is a militarized airport. No one is allowed in other than passengers.
I approach the immigration official who stares at my passport, desperately looking for my visa. She motions for me to take my documents to another man, who appears to be the chief of this post. He stares even longer, perhaps looking for any sliver of a bribe opportunity. None comes. I get stamped and waved through. Go to collect my bags. Several boys are speaking to me in French, asking me which bag is mine. I pretend not to understand them. They just want a tip and I have no local currency yet. They eventually grab my bags and follow me outside. My pickup is not there. I wait. 30 minutes pass. Anxiety rises and pessimistic thoughts of my arrival into Guinea last year surface. No one ever came to pick me up at the Conakry airport and I got ragdolled by locals who preyed on a fresh arrival. A tough introduction and a very unpleasant day. The baggage boys hold up a cell phone and mutter something about calling the US embassy. I start pacing and bum a smoke. Just then, I see a local man pull up in a flash SUV and point to me from a distance. I look closer and a decal on his door reads WWF. My savior has arrived. Four of the baggage boys carry my two bags and load them into the vehicle. My driver, Nestor, passes them a 1000 franc note but they continue to ask for euro's and dollars. We drive on.
Despite the long journey, I'm bursting out of my skin with excitement and energy. Everything is green, except the red-earth roads, which must have a high clay content. Locals walk the edges of the road, carrying loads on their heads, pushing handmade wood carts, leading goats. We pull up to a gated complex that flies a white flag with a panda bear on it and honk the horn. A uniformed security guard emerges and opens the gate. It's the WWF compound which house their offices, a kitchen, a conference room, and a few sleep rooms. I am shown to my humble room. Throw my bags down. Lie down, close my eyes, and stare at the mosquito net over my bed. I'm back on the continent I adore. Inching closer to gorillas.