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Authors: Annette Henderson

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The company employed fifty-seven men from three different tribal groups – the Bakota and Bakwélé formed the majority, and there were a small group of Fang and two Pygmies. They all spoke French, but it was a distinctively African form of French, with sounds and speech rhythms unfamiliar to me.

The names of mountains in the SOMIFER exploration area had been officially recorded when the first geological surveys were carried out. The peaks surrounding the camp were called Bakota North, Bakota South, Mombo and Bakwélé. The whaleback ridge we had seen while travelling up the river was Babiel, which was the Bakota word for eagle. Babiel North and South contained the main body of iron ore.

Some of the old survey points had names, too. The crest of a steep rock escarpment close behind camp was Grand Crête Un or Belvédère (Great Crest 1 or Viewpoint), so called because it afforded a view right out over the forest into the Congo. I decided that one day, when the old tracks had been cleared, Win and I would drive up there so we could see that view for ourselves. Everywhere the forest had been cleared for roads or buildings, the red laterite soil was exposed. The texture varied from gravel in some areas to fine red dust in others, the product of countless aeons of weathering of the underlying ironstone rock.

Work at the camp was based on a six-day week, Monday to Saturday, and workdays began with
appel
– rollcall. The men assembled outside the guesthouse to have their hours
of work for the previous day recorded, and to be allocated tasks for the new day. Work began at seven. The workforce consisted mostly of labourers, with a small number of carpenters, plumbers, electricians and masons – more men would be recruited as soon as sufficient houses had been built. Jacques Poussain, a French mechanic, was due to arrive in several weeks' time with a team of Gabonese mechanics. The conditions of employment were regulated by the government, under an agreement which bound all mining companies, specifying classifications of workers and their pay levels. Labourers earned the equivalent of US$140 a month for a forty-hour week; specialists received more than double that. Mario calculated the wages, and the men were paid monthly in cash by Mbunda Fidèle, a small, serious man employed as bookkeeper and payroll clerk who also managed the
économat
.

A basic clinic, known as the
infirmerie
, occupied a rough plywood hut opposite the surveyors' quarters. There a male Gabonese nurse attended to a constant stream of women and children, and dispensed medications sent up by the French doctor in Makokou.

Every second Friday was ration day, when each family received an allocation of dried salt fish, processed manioc, block soap, salt, paraffin and palm oil, according to government regulations. Preparing for ration day was a complex exercise that took all morning. Bulk supplies of all the items were issued from the warehouse early in the morning and delivered to the ration shed, a long concrete-floored pavilion with a tin roof. The 200-litre drum of palm oil had to be heated over a fire to melt it, the block soap had to be chopped into portions with machetes, and the drum of paraffin had to be fitted with a hand pump.

The manioc came in cylindrical portions about thirty centimetres long called
bâtons
, encased in banana leaves and bound with vines – each weighed a kilogram. Mario travelled up the river every Wednesday to buy the manioc from the local villages. It was prepared from the roots of the cassava plant, which were pounded to a powder then soaked in water for a week to leach out the cyanide.

The company aimed to provide every man with twenty
bâtons
of manioc a week, but this depended on the availability of supplies: when local stocks were short, rations were supplemented with rice.

On ration days, there was a fixed routine. The women walked in a long line up the hill from the village to the shed, balancing large enamel dishes on their heads. They sat on the floor in a semicircle, with their dishes, empty bottles and flagons in front of them, facing fifty-seven identical piles of rations set out along the floor. Mbunda Fidèle presided. When he called out each worker's name, the man's wife came forward to collect her pile of salt fish, soap, manioc and salt, then took her empty bottles to be filled with paraffin and palm oil. As each woman completed her round, Mbunda marked off her husband's name in an exercise book. The first time I witnessed this fortnightly ritual, I realised just how difficult it was for families to leave their home villages and come to an unfamiliar place where they had no direct access to their normal means of survival.

Their diet wasn't all manioc and salt fish, of course: SOMIFER also employed two local hunters to provide fresh game meat for the workforce daily. There was an established routine for this as well. Early each morning, Mario issued them with shotgun shells –
cartouches –
from
a locked cupboard in the guesthouse. They hunted all day in the forest, and presented the carcasses outside the guesthouse for weighing in the late afternoon. If their kill was too heavy to carry, Mario sent the Toyota out to bring it in. Mostly they shot monkeys, and duikers – small antelopes
–
and sometimes they took wild pigs. Mario weighed the meat on a set of rusty scales and noted each man's daily total in a book. They were paid by the kilogram at the end of the month.

Because the weigh-in took place just metres from our annexe, I often watched. Most times, the sight of slaughtered animals did not distress me, as I knew that this diet replicated what people ate in villages, and generally the animals the hunters took were plentiful. But one day was different. They had shot two great apes. They'd hacked off the limbs and left the heads and bodies in the forest. I stared at the hands, the long powerful fingers curled in death, the calloused feet, the thick black hair. I wasn't sure whether they were chimpanzees or gorillas, but the same horror filled me as when I had watched the
sous-préfêt
on his shooting spree. Gorillas were protected animals. Killing them was illegal. I decided at that moment that I couldn't stand by and allow their slaughter. Somehow I would try to bring some influence to bear, though I wasn't sure how yet.

 

I often sat in the guesthouse listening in while Mario conducted the morning and afternoon radio links. It gave me an added insight into how the camp was run and what issues were current. Sometimes the static was so bad it drowned out the voice on the other end in a sea of hiss and crackle, forcing Mario to guess the bits he missed or
reschedule the session to a later time. When he saw how interested I was, he showed me how to operate it.

‘There'll be times when I can't be here,' he explained in French, ‘and it'd help enormously if you could cover for me and take any messages.'

‘I'll do my best,' I grinned, ‘but I've never done anything like this before.' As he demonstrated the steps of switching on, calling up Makokou or Libreville, and ending each burst of speech with
à vous
or ‘over to you', the remoteness and romance of our situation at Belinga bore in on me yet again. This bulky khaki metal box with the hand-held receiver on a hook at the side embodied that remoteness. I had only ever seen such devices in war films, yet here I was learning how to operate one. The wellbeing of everyone in camp depended in large measure on the communication that passed across the airwaves each day. The radio was a lifeline, and, in a strange sense, proof that a world existed outside the camp. I could not have guessed how soon my nascent radio-operating skills would prove vital.

A violent electrical storm hit the camp on the morning of 1 July. Solid black cloud hung low over the forest, blotting out the sky. Mario quickly unplugged the radio aerial to avoid the possibility of a lightning strike. Next morning, he had urgent matters to attend to down in the workers' village and asked me if I would handle the radio link. Win and I had barely been in camp a week but I was the only one able to do it, so I had no choice. At nine-thirty, I switched on the set to find Kruger already trying to raise us.

‘
BE-ling-a! BE-ling-a!
' The static was bad, but I could just hear him shouting over it. ‘
Il y a un avion tombé dans la région de Belinga! Avez-vous compris?
' What I thought I heard chilled
me: ‘There is an aircraft down in the Belinga area. Do you read me?'

‘
Répétez s'il vous plaît
,' I shouted into the receiver. ‘Please repeat.' Again, it came through, chopped up by the crackle: ‘
Avion … tombé … région de Belinga
.' Moments later, Mario walked through the door. I whirled around in my seat to face him and blurted out, ‘Kruger says there's a plane down somewhere in this area. He wants to know if we've heard anything.'

The colour drained from Mario's face. He stared at me, mute for some moments until the implications sank in. Étienne had heard Kruger's urgent call, and stood at the kitchen door, his face creased with concern. Mario started pacing up and down and fumbled for his packet of cigarettes, his eyes darting here and there as he tried to decide what to do. Meanwhile, Kruger was holding on at the other end of the line, waiting for some kind of response. Minutes later, I watched as Mario's demeanour switched in an instant to commanding decisiveness: ‘Tell him to come on air at five o'clock this afternoon and we'll let him know.' As an afterthought, he added, ‘Tell Bernard I won't be in for lunch, will you?' Grabbing a fresh packet of cigarettes, he strode out the door. I had no time to ask him what he planned to do. As I relayed his message to Kruger, I heard the tyres of the Toyota ute churning up the loose gravel as Mario gunned the accelerator and swung around the loop of road heading for the
débarcadère
.

He was gone for the whole day. Confined to camp, Win and I felt helpless. We had food, bedding and drugs in abundance if only we knew where the plane was and how to reach it. Was it a commercial passenger plane, a cargo
carrier, a light plane? In this wilderness of mountains and forest, what chance would any survivors have of being found and rescued? I tried to picture the scene, but my mind recoiled from the horror.

Mario arrived back in the late afternoon, and Win and I ran out to meet him. ‘Did you find out anything?' I pressed. His sombre expression could have meant he had, but he shook his head, ‘
Rien!
' He'd driven straight to Mayebut and despatched a reconnaissance pirogue downriver to ask at all the villages. Then he'd travelled upstream as far as M'Vadhi in another small pirogue to enquire there, but no-one anywhere along the river had seen or heard anything. At the radio, he conveyed this to Kruger, who signed off quickly to go and relay the news to the authorities. Mario poured drinks for the three of us and we sat in silence out on the porch in the gathering dusk, weighed down by our impotence and this brutal reminder of human vulnerability in this unforgiving terrain.

We were unaware as we sat there that a sequence of events was unfolding in Makokou with Eamon Temple at its centre. It had begun when one of his earthworks machines at the Djadié River had broken down. Work had halted while parts were sourced in Makokou. Late in the day of the electrical storm, Eamon had driven in to Makokou to collect the parts. On arrival, he'd been informed that a Cessna on private charter to Van Splunder, the Dutch company building the bridge at Makokou, had gone missing in the region earlier that day with six people on board. The French pilot had overshot the airfield at Makokou during the storm. His last radio message had indicated he was coming below the clouds to have a look. After that, all radio contact had ceased.

It was to be a week before we heard the details of what followed. Kruger had not been forthcoming about it over the radio; Eamon himself recounted the aftermath to us when he made a brief visit to camp after it was all over. I was shocked at the change in him. His eyes seemed hollow in their sockets, and his gaze appeared fixed on some far distant horrific reality. He revealed little detail, and as he spoke I thought he looked like a man newly returned from a theatre of war.

At Makokou on the night of the crash, a representative of Van Splunder had approached Eamon, convinced he knew where the plane had gone down and could lead Eamon to it if he agreed to take part in a search. There was no search and rescue service to call upon, and Eamon knew that part of the country better than anyone. It was characteristic of the man we later came to know that Eamon didn't hesitate. He was, after all, the man who had surveyed a route for the Trans-Gabonese Railway twice, on foot, years earlier, an epic feat covering more than 600 kilometres from the coast to Belinga through thick jungle, swamps and rugged mountains. Eamon was at home in the Gabonese forest, and accustomed to putting his own wellbeing last.

That night, he and the Van Splunder executive drove to the Djadié camp, and at first light next morning set out on foot to cover as much ground as they could. They walked all day in ever-widening circles, some thirty-five kilometres, but found nothing and only returned to camp at dusk. By then, almost forty-eight hours had elapsed since the plane had come down. They drove back to Makokou immediately to report in to the authorities, by which time the Gabonese army had been placed on standby to assist.

The provincial government put Eamon in charge of the search operation. Next day, he set his men at the Djadié camp to work cutting a heliport in the forest. Meanwhile, although it was the dry season, heavy rain had fallen all day, making flying conditions too dangerous, and costing a precious day. Three days had now gone by, holding out little hope of finding any survivors alive. On the fourth day, Eamon conducted an aerial reconnaissance in a military helicopter flown by an army pilot. Within an hour, he had located the wreckage, all too obvious from the air. In its fatal descent, the Cessna had cut a swathe through the trees, shearing off its wings before ploughing into a mountainside and bursting into flames.

BOOK: Wild Spirit
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