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Authors: Annette Henderson

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At midday, the whole family returned. ‘You slept well?' Gina's graciousness carried no hint of what had happened the night before.

‘Look, I want to apologise,' Win said. ‘I'm absolutely mortified. It was just a case of too little sleep and too much alcohol on an empty stomach.'

They both made deprecatory gestures. ‘Don't give it another thought. It didn't worry us at all. In fact, we'd like you to join us for dinner tonight.'

‘What dish have you missed most on your trip?' Gina asked.

‘Well, we have felt a steak deficiency,' Win said.

‘Then steak it will be.'

Our Australian addiction to steak had suffered two years of neglect while we lived in London, where only the rich could afford it. I tried not to look overeager. ‘That sounds terrific!'

‘Getting down to practicalities again, though,' Win said, ‘we still don't have anywhere to camp. Is there somewhere you can suggest?'

‘Actually, there is,' Doug said. ‘Our new house site at Tahiti adjoins some land occupied by the French Aviation Tennis Club. In between, there's a strip of land you can use. It's out of the way and no-one will bother you.'

‘Great – how do we find it?'

‘Look, why don't you come back late this afternoon and I'll take you there?' Gina offered. ‘Let's say five-fifteen?'

We spent the afternoon relaxing at the beach and driving around the city to get the feeling of it. At sunset Gina took us down to the camping place. The white, deserted beach was fringed with the ubiquitous coconut palms.
Apart from the tennis courts and clubhouse, there were only a couple of bungalows visible through a stand of trees: the spot was out of sight of officialdom and away from the haunts of Sunday picnickers and would-be burglars.

 

That night, over a dinner of juicy Rhodesian steaks and cauliflower with cheese, Doug was expansive. ‘Well, I've had a telex back from the States, Win, and they're happy for me to put you on staff on the basis we discussed. But I don't expect you both to accept sight unseen. The company will fly you up to Makokou next week and take you up to the camp to have a look, on a no-obligation basis. If you change your minds once you've seen it, there'll be no hard feelings. How does that sound?'

Win was still incredulous at the whole offer. ‘It sounds fine, but I'm a bit concerned that I can't provide you with any evidence of my credentials. Normally people want references or proof of some sort. How do you know that I am what I say I am?'

Doug's quick wit produced an instant retort: ‘Oh, look, anyone who can hold their liquor as well as you can must be good!' We both erupted in laughter. It was the best one-liner I'd ever heard. I decided that working for Doug was going to be a riot.

‘I've booked you on Monday's flight to Makokou,' he said. ‘You'll have two nights in the camp and fly back on Friday. You can park the van in the company's compound in town. It'll be safe there.'

Despite myself, I felt mounting excitement. In less than a week we would be transported to the absolute heart of Africa, to an area we could never have reached by ourselves.
Slowly I began to accept that what lay ahead just might be something rare and wonderful.

 

For the next five days we camped at Tahiti Beach, and relaxed more fully than we had since leaving London. We had made it through every trial from Morocco to the equator – half the length of Africa – and now we were poised for another colossal leap of faith. I wrote letters and postcards home, washed clothes and sat for long periods under the coconut palms staring out at the grey-green Atlantic. In the afternoons, Gina brought the girls down for visits. We swam, built sandcastles, laughed and played.

It seemed to me that life could not get any better, but one day it did. We were sitting drinking tea and looking out on the ocean when a Frenchman with steel-grey hair and a whimsical smile appeared from behind the tennis club and introduced himself. ‘
Bonjour! Roger Bonnet.
'

‘
Bonjour, monsieur!
' I shook his hand and introduced us both. ‘Won't you join us?'

‘
Vous parlez français?
'

‘
Un très petit peu!
' I said, feigning modesty – a very little bit. He pointed at the map on the side of the Kombi. ‘
Vous avez fait ces voyages-là?
' I nodded and told him we had recently crossed the Sahara.

‘
Mais vous parlez très bien!
' he insisted. The van, our travels, and my French seemed to intrigue everyone we met. ‘What are you doing in Libreville?' he asked.

‘It's a long story,' I said. ‘Would you like some tea?' He fetched a chair from the tennis club and settled in to listen to the saga of our desert crossing. Like everyone who heard, he was spellbound.

‘We're moving up to Belinga soon,' I said. ‘Win will be in charge of designing and building the camp for SOMIFER.'

His eyes widened. ‘
Ah bon?
' It was the French way of expressing surprise. I guessed he was thinking something like, ‘These Australians don't waste time – down and out one day, off to the jungle to work the next!'

Roger and I chatted for two hours. He was Win's age and height, looked fit and was excellent company. He had lived in Gabon many years and worked as a communications engineer with ASECNA, the organisation responsible for the installation and maintenance of aviation beacons throughout the country. I also discovered that he shared two of Win's passions – aircraft and gourmet cooking. Despite Win's lack of French, as soon as I relayed this to him his friendship with Roger was sealed.

‘How are you managing for showering and washing?' Roger asked.

‘Not too well, I'm afraid,' I said. ‘We're bathing out of a bucket, and washing clothes in a plastic basin.'

‘That's no good! Come and use my place – I'm on my own at the moment. You can come and go as you please. It's just over there.'

His open-hearted offer stunned me. ‘Oh, that would be
wonderful
,' I breathed. He led us to a low-set white bungalow surrounded by the signature plants of Libreville – coconut palms, flowering hibiscus and bougainvillea. Brightly coloured birds swooped and flitted through the garden; a porch at the front of the house held a table and chairs that faced the ocean.

‘Here's the laundry and bathroom,' he said. ‘Just make yourselves at home.'

We spent long hours with Roger in the days that followed, learning about Gabon and enjoying his zany tales of life in Libreville. On Sunday, he even invited us for a celebration lunch before our trip to the camp – five courses, served alfresco. An onshore breeze rattled the palms. On the beach, a lone African boy wearing only shorts picked his way gingerly along piles of scattered okoumé logs, and slowly twirled a long thin stick in the air. Okoumé is the most famous cabinet timber of Gabon, and these logs had broken free from rafts on the Ogooué River and been washed up on the beach. Again I felt like we were characters in a film – perhaps
South Pacific
, with Roger as the planter played by Rossano Brazzi. I still could scarcely believe the colossal reversal in our fortunes. We were not just rid of all our troubles, we were riding an unprecedented wave of excitement and privilege. A beneficent fate seemed to have enfolded us. Suddenly everything was falling into place.

Over cheese, coffee and Cointreau, we discussed the details of the journey to Belinga – a flight to Makokou on Monday, then a pirogue trip upriver on Tuesday.

Roger smiled, a little indulgently. ‘Wait till you see the forest from the air. It just looks like a sea of green cauliflower.' Africa from the air – I could hardly wait.

chapter three
T
O THE MOUNTAINS

The terminal was stuffy with the mingled smells of sweat, cooking oil and oversweet toiletries. This was our first taste of a Gabonese airport. Throngs of local women and children milled around in the departure lounge, their baggage consisting mainly of rolls of bedding tied up with rope and wicker baskets full of chickens. A handful of European businessmen stood in the background, looking hot and fed up. The floor of the lounge was laid with grimy vinyl tiles, and the few rows of plastic seating looked as though they hadn't been cleaned in years.

My thoughts galloped as I stood looking out towards the tarmac. This was the beginning of our new life: we would soon be part of this pulsating, chaotic world. We had a purpose in the country, and we were bound for a wilderness that even most Gabonese would never see. My heart thumped and I felt like shouting to the crowd, ‘This is a huge moment for me!'

Beside me, Win was silently taking everything in, his eyes never still. I knew he was as excited as I was, but
his stoical Scottish genes ensured that he hid it well.

When the boarding call came over the loudspeakers the passengers surged forward in a tight mass, converging on the narrow doorway that led to the tarmac. We were jostled and propelled along by the throng towards the door, then, in a single movement of compression, squeezed through it like squashed insects. A fine chain bracelet I was wearing was ripped off my arm by the force of people pushing past, and as I bent down to retrieve it, risking being knocked over, I paused to wonder at the apparent desperation of the passengers to reach the plane. It wasn't a refugee flight. Later I would learn that the concept of queueing was foreign to most parts of Africa.

Our aircraft was a mini-jet, an F-28 that did the mail run up to Bitam in the north, then on to Makokou. As we climbed and banked, I looked out the window and saw the coastline, then the swamps behind Libreville. We were flying just under a blanket of dry-season cloud. Soon we were over the forest. Roger's description of the view had been perfect – it looked like a giant field of green cauliflower, divided by the snaking brown lines of streams. My pulse raced, and tears sprang to my eyes. I was overwhelmed by the splendour of Africa. We were bound for a dot on the map far to the north-east, close to the Congo border.

I wondered whether Mary Kingsley had felt as I did – breathless with anticipation, impatient for her encounter with the unknown. I found it difficult to sit still in my seat, with the steady vibration of the aircraft under me carrying us forward to our new life. Once again I wanted to stand up and shout that we were on a mission, going to the frontier to further a great enterprise. Nothing I had ever done felt so exciting.

We had been flying for perhaps two hours when I noticed a thin, ochre-coloured line snaking through the dark green of the forest like Ariadne's thread. It was the main road south from the border with Cameroon, the one we had battled a fortnight before – the one that had almost defeated us. ‘Road' was too good a word for it.

I thought back to the towering blue peaks and luxuriant forest of Cameroon, the patchwork of plantations, the clear, rushing streams, and our visit to the high country, where we'd sat on bleached hippopotamus skulls in front of the old sultan's ruined palace at Foumban. Cameroon had been our reward for crossing the Sahara and surviving. I had never seen such beauty anywhere – so exquisite it almost hurt. But Cameroon was special to me for another reason too, one that I could not have predicted. There I had held my first great ape – a tiny chimpanzee infant with a pink face and liquid brown eyes. We had been passing through a village on a track to the beach when a man had stepped out from behind a hut and waved us down, holding the baby in his arms. I had never seen a chimpanzee outside a zoo before. It had displayed no fear, and appeared well cared for.

‘Do you want to buy it?' the
Camerounais
asked in French. In my entrancement, I didn't stop to wonder how he had come by the infant. I shook my head. What would we do with a baby chimpanzee?

‘Would you like to hold it?' My whole body instantly turned to jelly – would I? It was like asking if I would like to win the lottery. I reached out, grasped the tiny body and cradled it in the crook of my arm. Its black hair smelt clean and sweet as it snuggled into my chest. I couldn't take my eyes off its expressive face, its alert gaze, its mobile lips. I
wanted to hold it forever. All I could think was, ‘They are so like us.' I believe that that was the moment when my encounter with wild Africa really began.

 

On the descent into Bitam, we recognised the airport buildings adjoining the immigration post that we'd passed through on our way to the coast a fortnight earlier. As the jet's tyres touched the dirt runway, a cloud of red dust hurled itself into the air and drifted back onto the two or three hundred upturned African faces pressing against the barrier fence. The stopover lasted about twenty minutes. Some passengers left, and a few boarded. Among them was an engineer from the Dutch company, Van Splunder, building a new bridge over the Ivindo River at Makokou, who chatted with us for the rest of the flight.

It was almost four o'clock when we touched down at Makokou. At the cabin door, I paused to take it in. Out behind the aircraft, a dust-brown haze hovered over the runway; overhead, the low cloud was still unbroken. A crowd waited in front of the terminal, and a cluster of parked vehicles bore the official logos of companies operating in the area: Land Rovers from SOACO and the Commissariat of Police, a Peugeot from SOMIFER, a utility from Van Splunder and an assortment of battered Citroëns.

We descended the boarding ladder and walked across towards the building. In front of the crowd, a group of Gabonese gendarmes stood looking important. Behind them clustered several Europeans including a priest and a couple of Gabonese religious sisters. Around them waited a group of local men, women and children. Some stood,
but most sat on the ground next to their battered suitcases, holding half-eaten pieces of some grey-coloured food wrapped in banana leaves.

One of the gendarmes thrust disembarkation cards into our hands, so I pulled a pen from my bag and filled them out in French – ‘SOMIFER staff, visiting Belinga camp' – and handed them back. Then a short, rotund man approached us, extended his hand and said in a gravelly voice, ‘
Bonsoir! Monsieur et Madame 'Enderson? Émile Kruger.
' Kruger was SOMIFER's man in Makokou. He looked around sixty, with steel-grey hair brushed back from his face, and wore creased shorts, a short-sleeved cotton shirt and work boots. His stocky build and florid complexion suggested a love of food and drink. Brusquely, he instructed a Gabonese chauffeur to take us to our lodgings; he would remain behind to collect our bags and the SOMIFER mail, food and freight.

The drive into town led past supply depots for companies, hardware yards and prefabricated huts, sprawling behind high wire fences on dusty, featureless land. Closer to town, we started passing decaying colonial residences set back from the road behind clumps of palms and bougainvillea, their painted shutters warped and peeling.

Makokou was the main town in the province of Ogooué-Ivindo – a vast, largely uninhabited region drained by the Ivindo River and its tributaries. The town felt like a frontier outpost, and the presence of the priest and religious sisters reminded me that missions, along with trading posts, had been the earliest white institutions to penetrate the interior.

I thought again of Mary Kingsley, who had lodged at missions on her expeditions through the country. Makokou
seemed little changed from that time one hundred years earlier, except for the aircraft and motor vehicles.

The car turned into the driveway of one of the old residences and pulled up beside the kitchen door. The house was built of concrete, painted dark maroon, with shuttered windows set in Spanish-style arches. Clumps of taro and other native plants grew wild in a long-neglected garden.

The chauffeur led the way inside, suggesting we make ourselves comfortable in some well-worn cane chairs. Within the hour, Kruger arrived with our bags, explaining that the house was known as the Roux house – SOMIFER used it as a guesthouse. In the dim interior, the flagstone floor shone with the patina of years. Kruger introduced the African domestic staff – Roger the cook and Boniface the housekeeper, then gave us a tour of the house. A massive refectory table dominated the dining room. In the bedrooms, a musty smell hung in the air, and the ancient double bed sagged deeply in the middle. The legs wobbled when we sat on the edge; strange cylindrical pillows that stretched the full width of the bed promised certain discomfort. Before he left, Kruger invited us to his home for an aperitif: the chauffeur would collect us. As I moved from room to room taking in every detail, I felt I was stepping back in time, as if traces of those who had gone before lingered in the still air. Despite its decay and neglect, the house set my imagination alight and I felt excited to be there.

Two hours later, the chauffeur pulled up outside the kitchen door in a dusty Peugeot. A few minutes later, we swung into a driveway beside a large sign that read, ‘Concession SOMIFER'. Kruger's house lay in the middle of the company's spacious compound, set high on a hill
overlooking a bend in the Ivindo River, and surrounded by a high chain-wire fence. Kruger met us at the door and led us to his living room, motioning to two large armchairs.

The room resembled a museum. On tomato-red walls hung a startling collection of masks, statuettes, bronze castings and well-worn traditional African drums. I turned slowly in a full circle, taking in every detail. Back in London, I had spent many lunch hours poring over artefacts from Central America, the South Pacific and Africa at the Museum of Mankind in Old Burlington Street, just three blocks from where I worked. But this was different. Kruger's collection proclaimed a long life spent in remote Africa, an expatriate world of meaning that was now all he knew.

My eye was drawn to a tall, elegant wooden mask with faces on all four sides, exquisitely carved, and painted black and white. ‘What's that, Monsieur Kruger?'

Kruger's face registered no change of expression. ‘That? That's a Bakota dance mask from a village out on the road to Okondja.'

‘And that walking stick?'

‘Ebony.' His laconic answers somehow matched the surroundings perfectly. I dropped into one of the roomy armchairs and Win settled into another, while Kruger poured three glasses of Ricard, the cloudy white drink the French often sip at sundown.

I wondered if he would be more forthcoming about the Roux house. ‘Who were the Roux?'

Kruger raised tired-looking eyes from his glass and focused on some point beyond the ceiling. As he spoke little English, he answered in French.

‘Old Roux was a prospector. Came in after the gold. He was a young man then. Came to Africa to seek his fortune.'

‘Was there much gold around here?'

‘Not here. Up the river.' He inclined his head towards the Ivindo. ‘He struck it rich – alluvial gold. Went panning for it up on the Nouna River near the Congo border, and around Camp Six. Made a fortune, they did.'

‘Who are “they”?'

‘He and Carmen.'

‘Carmen?'

‘His wife.'

‘Where did she fit in?' His brief responses gave little away, but I sensed a good tale.

‘Carmen? Well, there's a story! What a woman! Beautiful! Still is.'

‘Go on.' Getting him to elaborate was like pulling teeth.

‘Roux had been here a few years on his own. She was back in France. It was all arranged that she would come out and marry him. But he got leprosy. So he wrote to her, breaking the news and telling her not to come, that he was dying.'

‘And still she did?'

‘Couldn't stop her. Said she'd agreed to marry him and marry him she would. Came out here, a young girl. They got married, and in the end he was cured by Albert Schweitzer. She worked with him in the business – remarkable woman. Learnt all the dialects, knew the Gabonese by name, handled the money. Old Roux died a millionaire. She's back in France, but she comes here sometimes for a visit. It's her house you'll be sleeping in tonight. We rent it from her, but it's old now …'

Before we'd planned our African trip I had never heard of Gabon, but I had heard of its most famous historical figure, Albert Schweitzer, at primary school. Schweitzer's mythological status in western civilisation, as a musician, doctor, theologian and philosopher who had sacrificed his comfortable European life for a struggle with tropical diseases in the swamps of Lambarene, had been unassailable for decades. He had won the Nobel Prize in 1952. In later life, he had had his critics as colonialism met its demise, but the fact that his leprosy hospital at Lambarene still operated impressed me as a heroic achievement. Listening to Kruger, I had the sense, just as I'd had at the Roux house, that we were being drawn into a time warp where little had changed in decades. Kruger lived alone. ‘How long have you been in Africa, Monsieur Kruger?'

‘Thirty-four years. I'm one of the old hands.' He spoke in a monotone, barely moving a muscle of his heavily veined face.

‘What did you do in the beginning, before you came up here to SOMIFER?'

‘I was in the timber camps. There was only timber in those days – Gaboon wood, okoumé – it was big business, till the bottom fell out of it.'

‘And after that?'

‘Oh, I knocked around.' He must have been getting fed up with my questions.

‘How long have you been in Makokou?'

‘Six years now. Too long.' There it was – his confession of boredom and frustration. This was the man who would be our link with the outside world once we moved to Belinga. I wondered how that would go.

Win was only following snatches of the conversation. I
tried translating, but it proved clumsy and ruined the flow of the stories. He told me not to worry, he'd try and get the gist his own way.

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