In whichever cities I visited, there were ex-pat communities. The small town of Bangui, the sleepy capital of Central African Republic, was no exception. It was just north of the Equator in the heart of Africa. There were about 200,000 people there at the time – now it numbers nearly a million.
It was formerly just an outpost on the fringe of the massive French West Africa in an area known as Ubangi-Chari. Now, a little larger, it was the capital city of a relatively new country. Few buildings were more than two storeys high, but the jungle trees next to them were much higher providing a canopy over the city leaving a feeling of a town nestled in the jungle on any given street. Sunlight came in streaks from above where the sky poked through the leaves and fronds. There were stretches of intense sunlight, but the shade was much more welcoming.
Many French citizens were still there providing administrative infrastructure or operating businesses left over from colonial days. The city was named for the river: Oubangui.
I was staying in a wonderful hostel which included a great outdoor tropical shower out back in the midst of lush jungle. Imagine, showering under the bright tropical sun, with jungle acting as walls on three sides. I was happy to have a break from the road. In Bangui, I could get Visas for Zaire and Uganda as I planned my travels eastward to the Indian Ocean. I could also check out offers and fun things to do on the Bulletin Board.
Bangui was a great place to relax. Very laid back and tropical along north side of the wide, slow-moving Ubangi River. Bangui was as far north as one could travel by steamer up the Ubangi from the Congo River and the ocean. Upstream there were impassable rapids, but the river slowed and pooled at Bangui before turning south.
As a foreigner, I was allowed into the French Yacht club, situated on the banks of the Ubangi. I was able to gain entry and hang out there by the pool. I was also able to waterski with some local French members of the club.
There were never any crocodiles or anything like them in the lakes of Massachusetts (where I had learned to waterski), but there were here in the Ubangui River. It added some incentive for me not to end up in the river. I saw no rising heads watching me as I skimmed along the river’s surface, escaping the tropical heat thanks to the wind and the cool of the water.
My hosts appreciated that I was always ready to launch my waterski rides from the end of the dock. They were impressed that I was happy to end my rides with a landing on the slightly submerged end of the “landing” dock. Truth was, I was motivated trying not to splash about in the river with who knows what.
My French friends were less concerned; I guess they were immune to the risks of the river.
One day, during my week in Bangui, I was trying to go across town when my path was interrupted by a military parade for President Jean-Bedel Bokassa. His delusion of grandeur culminated a few years later when he declared himself Emperor. This military parade down a broad boulevard was just one of his early symptoms, but I had to deal with it since it blocked the main street I had to get across. One man’s glory is another’s inconvenience.
My idle time was interrupted checking travel plans on ways to get to the east coast while avoiding conflict zones like South Sudan. One option was to take advantage of the Ubangi River traffic which was greater than road traffic. The river I waterskied on was also the main commercial route south, by barge. I could catch a ride on a cargo barge from the small port in Libenge. Libenge was on the other side of the river, in Zaire, and a hundred or so kilometers south.
It would take some planning because one had to get to the Zaire side of the river to get to the road to Libenge. This meant arranging a small boat to get across the wide river to the road.
On the hostel bulletin board, I found a note and a phone number from a Dutch anthropologist who was looking for a translator, fluent in French and English, to help on a brief research trip to visit a remote pygmy group deep in the thick forest to the southwest of Bangui, between Cameroon and the Republic of Congo.
Republic of Congo is not to be confused with Zaire which became the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Republic of Congo’s capital was Brazzaville and it was on the western side of the Ubangi/Congo rivers. Zaire was on the eastern and southern sides of the rivers and its capital, Kinshasa, is directly across the Congo River from Brazzaville. Easy to get them confused.
I called the Dutch anthropologist who had put up the ad and was hired right away for the research-study trip. The Dutchman’s French was weak, but his English was good. His pygmy guide for the excursion only spoke French and his native language.
I don’t think I had “explore a pygmy village” on my To Do list for rest and relaxation or even on my wish list for travel in Africa… but I should have. These kinds of opportunities come along maybe once in a lifetime. We have to grab them or regret them forever. But that’s another story.