Continued from the previous blog post, I’m endeavouring to answer some of the more “day-to-day” questions that arise from our new lives here in Central Africa.
Is it dangerous?
This is a difficult question to answer as it necessitates a quantifying of risk, which is very hard to do. What I mean by this is that, for example, driving 50 miles every day in my car while commuting to my old job in the UK, was arguably fairly “dangerous”. So by moving out here some risks have reduced, others have increased.
Perhaps it is best to answer this question by having a look at the “irritants” which this new life presents. You can draw your own conclusions about how dangerous it all is!
Ok, so there are an endless list of insects that bite you and an even longer list of ones that don’t. You are constantly dealing either with the itchiness of insect bites, or at least having insects crawling all over you. Mosquitos are the least of our worries, there are some nasty bugs out here. I’m particularly keen to avoid the “jiggers”, who are rather bothersome little critters. They are fleas that burrow under your toenails, before nesting down, laying eggs and generally making themselves irritating and painful until you have to cut half your toe open to get them out.
The ants, pictured below, and known locally as Jaku (and I think in English as Driver Ants) are bothersome too. They come in huge swarms, eating everything in their path (I saw a snake get eaten alive by them two weeks ago). If you stand in a line of these guys their jaws clamp into your flesh and don’t let go, even after you’ve pulled off their bodies!
If you can avoid the insects then you have to dodge the snakes, scorpions and weird diseases (ticks that carry Crimean-Congo Haemorrhagic Fever, mosquitos with Malaria, carcasses with Anthrax, primates with Ebola etc.). You need to stay out of the way of poachers and leopards too, both of whom you want to avoid running into on a remote forest trail. Then you’ve got the really common occurrences, which include avoiding falling trees (this feels like a daily event), dodging the forest elephants (probably the most dangerous animal in the forest) and of course not getting too close to the 200kg Silverback Gorilla that you are following all day. If you manage to dodge all of this stuff, then you just have to hope that the political situation in the Central African Republic holds together and it does not descend into civil war / genocide again. It does not have a good track record and there are elections coming up in December. Reassuringly though, despite all of this, in the 20 years that this project has been going, they’ve never had a death or really serious incident!
What are the conditions like in camp?
Basic and remote. A bit like camping, but with a few extra challenges / facilities.
There is no electricity (apart from that provided by solar panels for a few hours a day), no running water (but we do have a waterfall that we shower under), no mobile phone reception, no internet and no modern appliances (so no kettle, no fridge, no cooker, no washing machine etc.). We all live in little wooden huts with grass roofs. Our hut is shared by four people, though we each have separate rooms. We each have a basic bed and foam matress and a mosquito net. We cook on an open fire. We have a “long drop” toilet. There are a few additional buildings, an office, a “pantry” and an open-sided, but covered “kitchen” where washing up and cooking gets done.
Our only connections to the outside world are the delivery truck that comes in on Tuesday (to take people out) and on Thursday (to bring people and supplies in). There is also a two-way radio for communication to the Project HQ in Bayanga.
All this basic living and isolation does feel a little bit like a “cultural detox”. There is no popping down the pub for a pint, no going over to see friends or family, no 24 news cycle (no news at all in fact), no looking something up on Google to settle an argument, no checking your email, no texting, no phone calls, no grabbing a quick cappuccino, no getting take-out because you can’t be bothered to cook.
You have to entertain yourself through the things and people around you. Subsequently you spend most of your time reading, writing, cooking, doing or making something (I’m whittling/carving us a wooden chess set for example) and conversations with the people around you.
While the list of things that you can’t do is at first pretty obvious (i.e. the above) after a while, other revelations about forest life start to occur, some of which are more surprising. Three quick revelations I’ve had this month:
- Apart from the supply vehicle that brings in food once a week, there are no motorised vehicles here, so you can’t go anywhere other than by walking (or running). You have only the power of your own two feet. This takes you by surprise when you are so used to jumping in a car to get anywhere. It is surprisingly liberating.
- We will not experience silence for a whole year. The forest is alive with the sounds of birds, monkeys and elephants. Then there is a constant, day and night, background buzz of insects, crickets and cicadas. The only respite from this is rain, but then that brings its own noise! So there is never a moments silence. We live our entire lives here with a natural hum of background noise.
- We will not see a horizon for a whole year. Our entire existence is filled with trees. 99% of the day we can only see a maximum of about 50m ahead of us. If we are in a forest clearing we might be able to see about 200m, but that is the maximum. If we want to see the sky we have to look straight up. Aside from being rather weird, I think that this has the potential to be a tad claustrophobic. Fascinating though.
What are the positives?
Reeling off a list of dangers and restrictions gets a bit negative. There are some amazing positives of this lifestyle and while the list might be a bit shorter in length, in my humble opinion they each count for more.
The first lesson that is being reaffirmed is that, through scarcity experiences become all the more intense. If you can’t have something for a long time, then when you finally can have it, it is even better than if it is freely available. For example, we had lugged a bag of crisps here from Paris airport. We are regular crisp consumers back home, but haven’t had any since we got out here (they are not available). The other night, washed down with a rare beer (the first in 3 weeks) we savoured that packet of crisps and I can’t tell you how amazing they tasted. It is true of the food too. While it is more simple, the food we cook tastes better here. It hits the sweet spot of having been cooked on an open fire, is eaten outside and always follows a day of hard physical exertion.
Without all of the distractions of the modern Western lifestyle, we have time. This sounds all new age and that, but it is such a revelation. I lay for an hour the other day in my hammock and just thought. About nothing in particular, just letting my mind wander. I cannot remember ever having done this before. It feels that there is somehow more mental “space”, time for the mind to breathe.
I guess one of the biggest positives is that we spend all day, every day in the presence of incredible animals. I remember occasionally that people spend a fortune on a “once in a lifetime” trip to come and see these Gorillas for a single hour.
We spend all day outside. Even our wooden hut is open to the air on three sides.
We have a beautiful, awe-inspiring place in which to live. There is not a day that has gone by in this first month that I have not looked at the forest and had by breath taken away by its sheer beauty. It is endlessly interesting in its complexity and diversity.
So while in many ways, while we can do less and we have lots of potential dangers and irritants, what we can do and what we gain on balance makes the “living conditions” here feel like an incredible privilege. There are plenty of positives.
Post continued in Part 3…