Authors: Annette Henderson
Behind the clearing, a dirt track led away from the river, and a four-wheel drive utility and a truck stood nearby. A seventeen-kilometre drive up into the mountains lay ahead of us before we reached the camp. The men unloaded everything quickly â the iceboxes and our luggage into the utility, the timber into the truck. Win and I squeezed in beside Doug in the cabin of the ute; the s
and the union representative would travel in the truck. Doug took the wheel and we moved off into the darkness.
For a time the ascent was gradual, and we moved quickly through the tunnel between the forest walls. Then, abruptly, the track began to climb steeply and snaked into a series of tight hairpin bends.
Suddenly an animal ran across the track. It was about the size of a fox, with cream-coloured fur and stripes. It paused briefly in the glare of the lights. Doug didn't recognise it, but I cast my mind back to our wildlife atlas and picked it for a genet, a low-slung cat-like mammal. It ran off towards the undergrowth and disappeared.
The utility was so heavily loaded and the climb so steep that it was slow going, and the engine stalled on one of the bends, but eventually we reached the crest of a ridge
where the route levelled out. Rock outcrops and fern-covered banks jutted out on to the narrow track; branches brushed at the sides of the vehicle. Part-way along the ridge, Doug parked, climbed out and walked over to a gap in the line of trees.
âCome and have a look!' Win and I jumped out and stood beside him for our first sight of the camp. Off to the east, in a sea of blackness, a tiny cluster of white lights twinkled.
âThat's where we're headed.' Belinga camp, perched in the vastness of the forest, looked like a spaceship adrift in the cosmos. The site was even more remote than I had imagined. My heart thumped. I could hardly wait to get there.
Twenty minutes later, we turned the final bend in the track and climbed the approach road into camp. Lights blazed out of a row of louvre windows on the hillside, and the silhouettes of human figures appeared framed against the light. We swerved up a steep incline and turned in a circle before a long, rough-stone building with a tin roof.
The first sound I heard was the throb of a generator on the hillside above us. In the stillness of the night, it seemed unnaturally loud. As we climbed out of the vehicle, an immaculately groomed olive-skinned Italian man speaking impeccable French, and accompanied by a German Shepherd dog, strode towards us with his hand outstretched.
As I grasped his hand and greeted him, conflicting emotions jostled within me. On the one hand, I was intoxicated with the romance of being there. On the other, the practicalities of the situation pressed in on me. How would I handle the isolation? How would Win cope building a camp with French-speaking workers when he
spoke only English? What would our daily life be like? They were imponderables: I would find out soon enough. Behind me, Win stood in silence, scanning the scene to take in every detail. I squared my shoulders and walked towards the lighted doorway.
Mario Zanetti's Sicilian smile enfolded us in a burst of Mediterranean bonhomie. â
Bienvenue Ã Belinga, Madame Henderson!
' He reached out and shook Win's hand vigorously. âCome on in!' Mario looked around forty. Behind his glasses, his dark eyes projected a mischievous sense of humour. His brown hair had been neatly cut, and the smell of aftershave came from his face. The dog, Lupo, stood calmly at his side. Mario looked at Win apologetically and explained with a wry grin, âMe, no English!'
âThat's okay,' Win laughed. âMe, no French!' They both shrugged while Doug and I looked on grinning. I knew instantly what my initial role in the camp was likely to be â translator/interpreter.
Inside the low-set stone building, two Gabonese men in aprons waited to be introduced. I found it difficult to guess their ages, but they could have been in their late thirties. âThis is Nganga Ãtienne,' Mario said, indicating the taller, slimmer one, âand this is Samba Bernard.' We shook hands. âÃtienne and Bernard take care of the cooking and housekeeping.'
From its appearance, the building might have been a hunting lodge. A glowing log smouldered in a four-sided stone fireplace in the middle of the large central room. Geologists' picks, yellow rain jackets and hard hats hung from the stone chimney. A worn sofa, some shabby armchairs and a timber coffee table occupied one corner, while at the far end, a long wooden dining table with twelve chairs had been set for dinner. Above a wooden sideboard against the end wall, an official portrait of President Bongo in full regalia hung in a fancy frame. On either side, the louvre windows were bare of curtains. Large black-and-white aerial photographs of the camp hung around the walls, and two wooden desks were strewn with files and maps. One held a bulky army field radio painted khaki, with a receiver on a hook and an array of dials. A posy of flowers in a glass vase at the centre of the table was the only feminine touch.
Over pre-dinner drinks by the fire, Mario explained that the building was known as the guesthouse, and formed the hub of the camp. He slept in a bedroom at one end. At the other, a large kitchen gave onto a bathroom and toilet.
Shortly afterward, Ãtienne announced that dinner was ready. â
C'est prÃªt, patron.
'? It was the first time I had heard the term, meaning âboss' or âmaster'. I hoped my slight flinch had gone unnoticed.
Mario insisted that I, as the only woman present, should sit at the head of the table. The food and wine could have placed us in any good Italian restaurant, and Ãtienne served the three courses with a grave gentleness of manner that I warmed to instantly. Mario was in high spirits throughout, laughing and joking. He seemed delighted to have some company during a meal. I tried to picture
what his life over the previous five months in camp had been like, as the only expatriate, trying to do the job of several men. I began to understand why he had brought his dog, Lupo, with him.
After dinner I walked out to the porch and stood in silence, trying to imagine what our life up here would be like. The chill air carried the earthy fragrance of the forest. The insect chorus and the throb of the generator played off each other in a syncopated rhythm, and the faint smell of smoke from the fireplace hung lazily about the building. All my senses told me I was going to love it.
We woke to a cold morning and the voice of Mario outside, giving instructions to a group of labourers. Dry-season cloud blanketed the sky. Bernard had stoked the fire and the table was set for breakfast.
My first view of the camp in daylight was through the louvre windows on the back wall. Abandoned banana and manioc plantations covered the hillside; beyond them, the forest canopy formed a patchwork of undulating green. Here and there, giant emergent trees spread their crowns against the sky. The mountains in the distance, grey-green in the pale morning light, were cloaked in unbroken forest. The sound of African voices reached me: men leaving on foot for work, and women setting off to tend their food gardens.
Doug had the day planned out for us. He would take us on a tour of the camp during the morning, and after lunch would brief Win in detail about the construction program. Over breakfast, he gave us a history lesson.
âBethlehem Steel established this camp in 1960. The exploration phase ran for about seven years before the
camp was shut down. This building dates from that era. In those days, there were French biologists based here as well, studying gorillas, birds and bats. We're at 670 metres altitude here. That's why it gets so cold.'
âHow does the supply system for the camp work?' I asked.
âWe bring everything up river either in the pirogues or on the company's barge. The fresh food is flown in to Makokou in iceboxes twice a week and the mail with it, in a locked canvas pouch. Fuel comes up in 200-litre drums. Most of our timber and cement comes from Makokou. We coordinate everything by radio.'
âWhat's the situation with the power supply?' Win asked.
âAt the moment, we have a 110-volt Perkins diesel generator that we start up at six in the morning and shut off at ten at night. But once our mechanic is on board he'll be installing the new one, which will give us 240-volt power.'
I finished my toast and jam and drank a second cup of coffee, laced with thick tinned milk, and then we were ready for the grand tour.
Doug led the way to a padlocked corrugated-iron shed. Inside, rows of shelves were stacked with cans of vegetables and fruit, tins of coffee and evaporated milk, bags of sugar and flour, sacks of potatoes, rice and onions, and stocks of light bulbs, plastic dishes, cleaning materials and mousetraps. Just outside, a triangular flat-iron water tank was positioned over a fireplace to provide hot water for showers at night. Beside the guesthouse was a long open shed with a concrete floor and a tin roof on bush poles, empty and deserted.
âThat was the old sample shed,' Doug explained. âWe're going to convert it into accommodation and offices.'
A short drive up a dirt road brought us to three corrugated-iron sheds with concrete floors which served as a carpentry workshop, vehicle service bay and a warehouse. The carpentry workshop lay empty except for a few timber saw stools. The two carpenters currently in camp worked with the most basic tools â claw hammers, chainsaws and hacksaws. âThat's where we want the wood machine shop to be, Win!' Doug said. âState-of-the-art machinery to produce prefabricated housing and offices.'
Win took it all in without comment. I could imagine what he was thinking, âWhere do you start from a base as low as this?' Later he told me in private, âI feel for the carpenters, trying to do good work with chainsaws. The first thing I'll do is get them some decent tools.' The large warehouse next door had chain-wire walls, and housed vehicle spares, lubricants, hard hats, building materials, fuel supplies, tools, and rations for the Gabonese workforce and their families.
At the next stop, further down the hill, we came to another shed with a tin roof on bush poles and a concrete floor.
âThis is going to be our single men's living quarters, and the first occupants will be our four surveyors, due in ten days' time,' Doug said. âCome and meet Bruno and Joseph.'
Mehendje Bruno and Andang Joseph, the two carpenters, were wielding chainsaws on panels of plywood and bush poles when we arrived. When they saw us they straightened up, switched off the motors and wiped the sweat from their foreheads. Doug introduced us and explained that Win would be their new boss, in charge of the whole construction program. They each shook his
' There it was again, that word. I knew Win would want them to be on first-name terms with him. He couldn't stand formality.
âMonsieur Henderson doesn't speak much French yet,' Doug told them, âbut he'll learn pretty quickly.' Bruno and Joseph smiled and nodded genially. Like most Gabonese, they knew no English. Another job for me, I thought.
The final stop on the tour was the terraced workers' village, set on a steep slope surrounded by forest. A line of rectangular mud huts with corrugated-aluminium roofs stood on the topmost terrace, facing down the hill. At the far end of the row, a lockable tin shed with a hinged panel at the front served as the village shop, known as the
, where people could buy clothing, toiletries, batteries, soap powder and other items.
The sound of women's voices laughing and joking reached us from a lower terrace, where a line of new huts was being built. The women worked in teams of two, applying a slurry of ochre-coloured clay to latticework sapling frames with their bare hands. We drove down and got out to watch. They seemed to treat the work as a game, giggling and teasing each other. As one applied the mud, the other kept up the supply by stomping in a large mound of it with her bare feet. Several had babies strapped to their backs. From time to time, they swung the infants around to the front and breastfed them, barely pausing in the rhythm of slapping on the clay. Each team of women earned the equivalent of US$21 per hut, which kept them in pipe tobacco, machetes to till their food gardens, and
, the lengths of printed cotton cloth which they wrapped around themselves like sarongs. Doug had a joking relationship with them, throwing out comments to which
they responded with great hilarity. He turned to us. âWe've drawn our workforce from a wide area. They've all had to leave their home villages, so they have to establish themselves here from scratch. That's why we provide them with food and other rations.'
Back at the guesthouse, tantalising aromas were emanating from the kitchen. Lunch consisted of pasta with herbs, onion and tomato, and a large loaf of hot crusty French bread.
âWhere did the bread come from?' I asked, astounded. Mario smiled indulgently and patted his stomach. âIt's Bernard â he bakes it every day in the old bush oven.' I called out my approval to Bernard, who put his head around the kitchen door to acknowledge me, embarrassed and coy.
The conversation between Mario and Doug over lunch focused on work issues. I tried to follow Mario's rapid-fire French sentences, but they were littered with words I had never heard. Each time one cropped up, I cut in and asked what it meant.
was plywood, the
was the generator,
was concrete, and a
was a labourer. Doug spoke in a quaint amalgam of French and English, but somehow managed to communicate the essentials.
At the end of the meal, I realised I hadn't had a single insect bite since we arrived.
âWhy aren't there any
here?' I quizzed Mario.
He smiled mysteriously. âAh, that's because I've been fogging.'
âI fumigate the area around the guesthouse three times a week with a machine called a
. It pumps out
insecticidal fog that keeps the insects at bay and makes life a bit more comfortable.' I'd never heard of a fogging machine. That took care of my chief concern about moving to the camp.
In the late afternoon, Ãtienne lit the fire under the water tank for our showers.
âDrinks on the porch in half an hour,' Mario announced. The covered porch ran the full length of the guesthouse. Clusters of armchairs along its length faced up the hill and towards the forest. Once showered and dressed, we sat out there with cold beers and watched the light fade. The insect chorus began, chill air settled around us, and cooking aromas filtered through the windows.
As if on cue, a flock of iridescent blue birds the size of pheasants, with bright yellow beaks and red markings on the head, landed on the exposed branches of a fruiting umbrella tree nearby and began calling âCoo coo coo coo crooooh!' as they cavorted in a spectacular ritual.
Mario saw the delight on my face. âThe Gabonese call them
, blue pheasants,' he said. âThey come every evening. It's the mating season â that's why they're behaving like that.' We watched them, entranced. It was as if Belinga was turning on a final glorious burst of wildness in case we hadn't already made up our minds to move there. I couldn't imagine anywhere on earth being more beautiful.
The correct name of the birds was giant blue touracos. I would learn in time that they were the most exquisite species in the forest.
Win and I didn't need to discuss how we felt about the place. From the moment we arrived, we felt we had been moving through a dreamscape. Everything about the camp and the great forest resonated with us so powerfully that
at that moment I believe we would have agreed to work there just for food and lodgings. After dinner, we gave Doug our decision, and told him we could hardly wait to start.
We left early next morning for the river trip back and Doug came with us in a six-metre pirogue. The level in the river had dropped further and the journey took most of the day. I found being on the river exhilarating. It was like entering another world, and this time we didn't have the trigger-happy
for company. We hadn't seen the
or the union representative since we arrived; they had stayed in the workers' village, presumably pursuing some official business.