The Central African Republic, part 1

My PhD project – studying brain variation between lizard species in Australia – involved a lot of driving around Australia, gathering up lizards. As someone who loves to travel, particularly to wilderness regions, this was a very lucky gig for me. Most neuroscientists never get to work in the great outdoors, doing what biologists call “field work”. The time I spent in outback Australia I will never forget – and I am incredibly nostalgic for.

However, while I loved being “in the field”, I don’t want to be a “field biologist”, that is, someone who gathers data out in nature and uses that data to test hypotheses. The questions that interest me most are questions of brain structure and function, and these are not the kinds of things field biologists generally study. Even when I did field work I was never really a field biologist; I brought the lizards back to the lab, and only then did I collect data from them. 

As a postdoc I’m still studying the questions that interest me most, but I’m doing it in a more conventional way, and in a more conventional neuroscience lab. That means, instead of driving out to remote areas and spending months catching the animals whose brains I would like to study, I now fill out an online request form and send it to a laboratory-grade animal supplier. The animals are usually delivered within 24 hours. A much more civilized system, to be sure, but orders of magnitude less fun.

I now find myself just as intellectually satisfied as I was during my PhD, but with significantly itchier feet, to the extent that the ads showing up in my Facebook feed are almost entirely travel-related. No wonder people find Facebook depressing. In fact, I found life so depressing early on in my postdoc that I made a decision to spend a larger portion of my budget on personal travel, as a way of filling the void left by the absence of fieldwork. That is how, this past Christmas, I ended up spending by far the most money I have spent on anything, ever, on an animal-finding trip to the Central African Republic.

I saw an ad on Twitter looking for volunteers to work at a lodge in the rainforest of southwest Central African Republic (CAR for short), doing, among other things, research on wild pangolins. As far as I knew there was no place in the world where wild pangolins could be seen reliably, and yet here was Sangha Lodge, looking for people to go and hang out with them! Now I was not – and am not – in a position to uproot my life to go live in the African jungle, as tempting as that prospect may be. I did, however, immediately e-mail the lodge to inquire about visiting as a tourist. 

Arranging to visit as a tourist turned out to be quite easy; the lodge runs periodic “organized tours”, which are more organized plane-sharing than anything else. Since most independent travellers can’t afford the very expensive charter flight that is the only way to get to the lodge, Sangha Lodge organizes for people to come at the same time, making the charter affordable. One of these tours happened to fit perfectly into my schedule.

Arranging my life for a visit to CAR was another matter, though. CAR is not a safe place, by any stretch of the imagination. It is desperately poor and subject to ethnic, religious, and greed-based violence (and, if you ask me, the former two are just the latter in disguise). The travel warnings from places like Canada, the United States, Britain and Australia are the stuff of nightmares. My family read these warnings and freaked right out. My family is also relatively well connected and resourceful, and they picked up their phones. They got in contact with people like the Canadian high commissioner for CAR, the UNHCR representative for CAR, and a former Australian diplomat who had visited CAR. All very senior people, well informed and knowledgeable. They all had the same terrifying story to tell as the official travel warnings, and I came under intense pressure, up until the day I left, to abandon my trip. 

In my opinion official travel warnings tend to be exaggerated and can be hyperbolic verging on paranoid (not unlike the safety regulations dreamt up by universities). As for the officials, all the people my family talked to had two things in common: (1) they were all senior authority figures and (2) none of them were in CAR or had spent time there recently. With respect to (1), people in high places tend to be very risk averse because, for example, the Canadian high commissioner would get in a lot of trouble if he said anything that strayed from Canada’s official advice on visiting CAR, especially if something were to happen to me.

This is not to say that I was determined to visit CAR no matter what, but just that I wanted to make up my own mind. I did my research by looking up news stories (particularly those published by African outlets), reading online trip reports from people who had visited Sangha Lodge and/or travelled through CAR, and ultimately getting in touch with people living and working in CAR, where there is a large United Nations peacekeeping and development presence. The picture these sources paint is not necessarily different from the official one, as CAR is indeed poor and plagued by violence, but it is a tapestry. Parts of CAR are far too dangerous to visit, but other parts are not. For example, parts of the capital, Bangui, are controlled by the UN, and are relatively calm. The part of CAR where Sangha Lodge is located, in the far southwest corner, has never seen violence, not even during the height of the civil war in 2012. I am being honest here about the risks – visiting CAR is not like visiting Italy, or even Tanzania. I would not land at the airport without a fixer waiting for me and a meticulously pre-arranged itinerary. But with these things in hand I decided, and I remain convinced, that it is safe to visit CAR under the auspices of Sangha Lodge.

I mentioned having a “fixer” waiting at the airport. A fixer is someone who makes sure things run smoothly in places where there are “unofficial fees” for transiting through places like airports and checkpoints. In CAR you must know when and how to bribe your way along, or else you can find yourself in a lot of confusing trouble. (I feel compelled to note that the people demanding bribes in these situations are relatively low-level government employees and it is likely that they only rarely and sporadically get paid, if at all. Demanding bribes is probably their only way of keeping food on their tables). Sangha employs a fixer, William, who managed the lodge until moving to Bangui so that his kids could go to school there. The whole thing works relatively efficiently – if you know the system.

Bangui M’Poko International Airport is not very well connected. There are no daily flights anywhere, but there are several flights a week to Casablanca, Paris, and Nairobi. Sangha’s tours are timed to the Nairobi flights, so if you fly into Bangui via Nairobi you wouldn’t have to leave the airport. However, my trip took me to Bangui via Paris, so I ended up having time in Bangui on either end of the tour. This was perfect for me as I was quite keen to see the area, and through Sangha I arranged to hire William as a guide for my days in Bangui.

Hotel accommodation in Bangui is neither plentiful nor cheap. A friend of mine in Montreal put me in contact with his friends in Bangui, and when I asked them for accommodation advice they promptly invited me to stay in their guest bedroom. This was extraordinarily kind of them as they had never met me, and in return I brought them as much maple syrup as I could carry. They lived in the Skaiky Building, the tallest building in Bangui (at, if I remember correctly, 13 floors), and I had amazing views of Bangui, the Obangu River, and across the river to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The view over Bangui from my host's balcony in the Skaiky Building. I spotted a peregrine falcon perched on the cell tower to the center-right.

The view from the Skaiky Building over the Bangui River. The opposite bank is a different country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The haze visible in this picture (and, really, all the pictures) is not pollution but a dust cloud that seasonally blows off the Sahara Desert and is important for fertilizing the rainforest.

On my way to Sangha I had a spare day in Bangui, and I arranged with William to see the one Bangui-area tourist attraction I had been able to find on the internet – Boali Falls. The falls, about an hour north of the city, are impressive in the sense that they are big and loud. Unfortunately they are surrounded by the ruins of a resort complex, which in turn is surrounded by hydroelectric projects (both completed and under construction), so the whole thing together is rather underwhelming. The abandoned buildings of the resort are rather interesting, if you find postwar relics interesting. I was particularly fascinated by the ruins of the resort’s Cyber Café, a thing I think of as thoroughly modern but which has now existed long enough to be established, destroyed in a rebellion, and partially reclaimed by nature. 

Boali Falls is the only tourist attraction I could find in the Bangui area before my arrival.

A picture of the Cyber Café entrance, taken through the slats of a boarded up window in the abandoned luxury hotel at Boali Falls.

A gas station on the main road near Boali Falls. Gasoline is purchased in Bangui, driven up the highway in gas canisters, and partitioned into minuscule amounts in water bottles for sale to those unlucky enough to run out of fuel before reaching Bangui. The entrance to the restaurant where we had lunch is visible on the left.

The highlight of my daytrip to Boali was actually the side-trip we took. While driving to Boali I saw I sign at a turn-off advertising “Lac des Crocodiles, 10km” and I was very pleased we were able to visit the lake on our way back. At the turn-off, our driver Nestor pulled the car over and William negotiated the purchase of a live chicken, which was then bound and placed under the glovebox. When we arrived at the lake, we were greeted by a small visitor’s center painted with beautiful murals, and a young man eager to feed our chicken to the crocodiles. He stood on a platform over the edge of the lake and dangled the chicken by its feet, luring a small sacred crocodile (Crocodilus suchus) out of the water. Fortunately for the chicken, before we could get to the “crocodile lunch” part of the tour, we were attacked by bees. Yes, bees. At first all I noticed were bugs landing and crawling through my hair. Then I started to get stung, on the head, face, hands, camera (that last one didn’t hurt quite as much), and we took off running through along a path through the forest. The path led to a little campsite, where I noticed an odd contraption on the firepit. I asked William about it and he started explaining how the contraption is used to distill a local liquor, until the bees found us again and we had to flee. It was a short tour but I was immensely pleased to have seen the wild crocodile, and secretly also pleased the chicken got to keep its head. 

The sign indicating the turn-off to Lac des Crocodiles.

The Lac des Crocodiles...

...and one of its namesake residents.

This odd contraption on top of a fire pit turned out to be for distilling liquor.

The ten kilometres between the main road and Lac des Crocodiles are spectacular in their own right. The road is one of the few places where a habitat known as Forest-Savannah Mosaic is relatively accessible in central Africa. I took the opportunity to look for birds along this road for a couple of hours after visiting the lake, and returned just to bird here, without visiting the lake or Boali Falls, after my time at Sangha. The bird diversity here is quite different from that further south and west in CAR, and my hosts at Sangha Lodge said that other birders had reported that this location is an excellent place to find bird species unique to drier central African habitats. I would highly recommend a trip out here for any birders lucky enough to visit Bangui.

A recently burnt part of the Forest-Savanna Mosaic on the way to Lac des Crocodiles. Not all of it was burnt, but the grass was too high in the unburnt parts for me to get a decent picture.

When I returned to Bangui that evening, my hosts – employees of the UN peacekeeping mission – asked how my trip was, and I thoroughly enjoyed telling them that we were attacked… by bees.