A Travellerspoint blog

Along with the river monster. Part 2

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I am trying to cling the bottom of the river with my hands, they are completely sinking in the sand. It helps, but just for a few seconds. The stream is so strong that we are being rapidly carried down the river. Again and again Amos is trying to stick the monopod into the sand. We are struggling from last strength in order to keep ourselves in a place. The depth is about 8.5 meters and a black abyss teeming with giant crocodiles is behind us. I am trying to dodge my face from the rushing debris that fell into the water upstream. The visibility is only few meters. I can only see pieces of dirt, twigs, leaves, dead stems of papyrus, and here in this mass we lose Walter. He went up to check our boat and then got out of our sight. I can see Amos is nervous. He is trying to listen to the noise of the engine, but all that we can hear is only the roar of the river. He looks up, hoping to see the bottom of the boat, then looks into my eyes very gently and fatherly, trying to calm me down. Having seen his support, I try my best to hook to the bottom and to him. I can`t determine my feelings - I don`t feel bodily fear anymore, though I should. This is only my third dive here and we have already got into a trap... And how fine our journey this began!!!
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20 hours ago.

We met Lisa in Namibia, Lisa, who has been organizing all my trips to Africa for many years. I always feel myself in a complete safety when I know she leads me from town to town day by day under a strict control, I am sure nothing wrong will happen to me as she is always keeps the track of events. This fragile woman simply does everything at the highest level. And it is a great relief for me to know that she decided to accompany me personally in this dangerous trip. By the way I can`t stop amazing the number of her friends, acquaintances and communications!

It took us an hour and a half to get to Botswana. Coming closer to the airport we see a small runway on the edge of the world, and I am very surprised to see a customs officer in the midth of the field! We go through the passport control right there. This fact confirms me one more time that Lisa can do anything. And even now I am smiling remembering it. We are met by Greg, the organizer of our spontaneous camp. We get in his car and head towards our temporary house. Сows, donkeys, goats are constantly jump out on the road like a disaster. Greg has to show the skill of driving, avoiding collisions. According to him, this is the place where the majority of accidents occur with the participation of livestock. And as a convincing proof of his words we meet a lame man with crutches. Tio is a black strongly build man, his car unfortunately bumped into a large bull on his way home two days ago. The car splashed into pieces and as a result - a fractured leg. Even two days later the wounds look scary, but despite this injury he behaves like a regular trump! Tio will be a part of our team these day and our lives will depend on him. This black man is our skipper and an expert in crocodile`s behavior. His duty is to watch for bubbles in the water when we are at the bottom, he must always know the exact place where we rise up on the surface, because after it we have only a few seconds until the crocodile detects us... this is so called a Dead zone. This monster attacks only on the surface, as a man, crocs don`t like water getting into the mouth. And one more thing, the crocodile`s vision is much more weaker under the water. So the safest place in the river is to stay at the bottom.
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Camp. Our tent camp is based on the island. We are surrounded by water, you can get here only by boat and it takes us at least 50 minutes. Only water, crocodiles and hippos are around the camp. Yet we sometimes hear the elephants, but never see them. On the island we meet Walter and Francois. Walter is a very nice man about 65 years old, well-built with a huge hook around the neck. His kind and charming smile immediately finds favours in my eyes. He is constantly joking and behaves himself like a kid, and only once having noticed his laid-back look I can realise that he had a long and difficult way of life. Walter is an important member of our team. Three of us: me, Amos and Walter are going to dive together. Now I can tell that Walter is one of the courageous and bravest divers I have ever met. He has swum without any special armour or shelter with the largest predators such as sharks, whales and crocodiles. And the hook which he wears around his neck, he pulled out by himself from the shark`s lower jaw and thereby saved this sea monster from a terrible discomfort. The most documentaries about the dangerous underwater animals in the coastal waters of South Africa were filmed with the participation and assistance of Walter. And now it is my honour to meet him.
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Francois. Yeah, our Franco is undoubtedly the most fun licensed paramedic in the world! He has made a three-day journey from South Africa to Botswana to bring all the medication that may be necessary on occasion. He is a cheerful young man 33 years old. He is always in a good mood and constantly jokes. With smiles and merry songs we are going to the most dangerous adventure I have ever had...and will hardly ever have in my life! Our routine is very simple. We get up early. Have breakfast at 7. a.m. Then at 8. 30 we quickly pull our suits for scuba diving on, check the equipment and leave the camp to start our searches for 5-dollar Bob and Fat Albert. In this kind way our guys call these giant monsters. The length from the top of the nose to the end of the tail the length varies from 4 to 6 metres. Without any doubt they are real monsters!

Soon after our arrival to the island we sey off to explore the territory and at the same time I have to observe how our team will dive. Today the test dive will be made by Amos, Walter and Francois. What a surprise it was for me when I knew that our doctor is also a diving instructor and for more than 7 years he has been working with Walter in Dublin, showing the tiger sharks to the brave tourists. And to confirm this fact Francois shows me his scars. I am really impressed and feel even more respect to him.
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Amos. I can talk about him endlessly. I can`t find the words to express the respect to his courage and bravery. He has already become a legend and beyond any doubt the hero of our days. To know him personally and have the opportunity to learn and work with him is a great luck and honor for me. Throughout his life this man is very passionate about everything he does, whether he is observing animals or simply takes a documentary photographs from the battlefield. I can`t even imagine where the limit of his courage is. He served in the Special Forces, it was there where he began to make photographs thereby entertaining his friends. Then he worked as a war correspondent at Assoshieted press, and even in a studio where he shot the US celebrities,... but found his true vocation interacting with nature, especially with the large predators. More than 20 years he spent travelling around the world. You can`t find any free week in his busy schedule. And a geography of the places where he has been, impresses you even more. He shot polar bears, whales, crocodiles, great white sharks, leopard seals... The story of his life proves that animals are no more dangerous than the people are, and when you converse with them you should know exactly everything about their habits and strictly follow the rules of conduct. It is impossible to dictate the rules of conduct in a strange house, so when you interact with the nature you should know that sometimes a single error and neglect can cost you a life.

And here is the time "X" at last - I have been preparing for it for so many months.
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Day 2.

Early rise. The day is breaking. Terrible cold, about +5C. And it is in Africa, in the month of July! My thin silk pajamas does not give me any warmth. Only the hotter keeps it, carefully put under the duvet. Every morning I am grateful to Lisa for a real bed, specially delivered for me on the island. I didn`t ask for any special conditions and was ready to sleep in a sleeping bag, but was pleasantly surprised to see the bed in my tent. And now every cold morning I can`t help but admiring Lisa`s care and resourcefulness.
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7.00 am. The Breakfast time. Sitting by the fire with a plate in my hand I am looking towards the river with fear and anxiety. Over the river there is a cloud of steam. At this time of a year the water temperature is much higher than the air temperature. I look there and think that the huge monsters are hiding somewhere in this fog and today I am going to meet them and close enough... if I am lucky... It makes my skin creep when I think about it. Amos as if sensed my mood, encouragingly claps me on the shoulder.

The red sun is rising slowly. Warm rays try to awaken the fighting spirit in me. No way back,as this was only my idea... Time to pull the suit for scuba diving on and and prepare the equipment. We should start at 8.30.

Well, everything is ready: snorkeling and photographic equipment, personal belongings. So we go. The plan is to find a shallow, quiet channel and check out my abilities. Only then, if I pass the exam with honours, I will be admitted to the serious depth, where everyone will be responsible for their lives. Here is the moment "X" to which I had prepared for so many months.
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I passed the diving test successfully as well I passed the test on cold. My mentors congratulated me. And it was not clear which of us was happier: me or my friends...Later on the men avouched me that they thought I would be a burden on them under the water as I didn`t have enough experience. Dressed in wet suits and not putting off the fins, we head towards the main channel. What a cold! Besides, my suit is full of ice water, so I put on my jacket for alpine skiing and a cap. But all in vein: I am shivering and shaking like an aspen leaf in the wind. I must say that this feeling of terrible cold will accompany me until the last dive on the Okavango.
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On our way we come across small crocodiles- 2-3 meters, but we need some larger ones. Our goal is a big fat "Bob". We know the place where one of them likes to relax. Lucky we are! Here it is! Having seen us the crocodile quickly slips into the water.We don`t loose time, pull the equipment and masks on, count "1,2,3" and fall down into the water.These seconds are the scariest for me... We have to get to the bottom as fast as possible and it can reach a depth of 10-13 meters. I have a terrible earache, the heart is pounding as if it wants to jump out off my chest and come back on the boat, to the warmth and safety.

Having reached the bottom we press to it. Amos is the first who goes down the river, then me and Walter. The visibility is very poor, sometimes it is no more than a meter. I can see only lots of garbage that the flow carries straight in the face. The bottom is mostly covered with clay. It is impossible to see a crocodile even if he has a giant size in such conditions. Each hill of dirt that sticks out of the dark muddy waters reminds me a reptile. I constantly look back. I can`t help feeling that when we are looking for it, the river monster has already found and follows us. And here is our good luck! We have found the monster from the first time! It is lying on the sandy island in the midst of the clay. We`ve swum close enough and I am one meter away from it. I start clinging to the bottom, trying to slow down the motion - I wouldn`t like to bump into the crocodile least of all in the world. But Walter pushes me forwards it. The croc feeling the fuss, takes off and goes into the darkness. I am so disappointed! According to the rules, we can not pursue the fugitives, and immediately start moving to the surface, and it is even more scary than the plunging. By the agreement between us, Walter is the first who pop up. He checks the boat, beeps, and then returns to the bottom. Then the men help me unbutton the BAN (vest), so that it remains to hang on one shoulder, than check if there any air in it. And in this state I am getting up to the surface. That is the moment of horror when your life depends on the speed of exit out of water and a strong control of emotions. How many times after that I surfaced and saw that the boat had already claimed over. And in these moments, according to the instructions it is necessary to return to the bottom immediately. And what a temptation: to swim towards the boat or to the shore like stink ... but it could be my last swim then, because the predator was still in the water - 98 per cent there... These reptiles are very attached to their seats. And afterwards, it was proved for many times.
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I don't have even time to recover from the terror and to warm my frozen body, but we have to start our searches again. It doesn't take us 10 minutes as we find a large "fortune" basking in the sun 5 metres apart us. And the same thing occurs: a crocodile,having seen us, reluctantly slips into the water. We pull the equipment on and jump into the water with the Olympic speed. Oh, damn, I flew my mask off and at once my nose begin gulping water. Again the feeling of horror, but I take myself in hands. No time to panic, it is necessary to fall down to the bottom, because Amos and Walter are there already and the boat drifted out. This time the flow is much stronger and the water more turbid. I can hardly notice the men. Finally I am next to them, can relax a little, but because of the terror I am greedily gasping for the air, it seems to me I am suffocating... again I have to fight against my fears... Amos noticed that something wrong with me, takes my hand and makes me look him in the eyes. I see his soft, kind eyes, and calmness like a wave spreads through my body. I calm down. The strong stream dashingly carries us down the river. We decided to emerge, but the depth is 12 meters. I have no time to equalize my ears. The situation is very dangerous, Walter has already disappeared from sight, and we don't see the bottom of the boat in these conditions. Again and again Amos sticks the monopod GoPro in the sand, but the current is too strong. After 10 minutes we decided to emerge to the surface.

He helps me to unbutton BSD, verifies the absence of air, and for a moment our eyes meet, he takes and squeezes my hand. I feel how he worries about me, the situation is really dangerous, but this time I'm not afraid. May be I am tired of fear, or I was covered with the feeling of hopelessness over my head or maybe a sense of self-preservation took over. I go upstairs quickly and rapidly, knowing that I have no chance to return there. In case of failure, I'll be at the bottom...alone...

To be continued ...

Posted by Olga Michi 11:52 Archived in Botswana Tagged diving africa crocodiles botswana okavango Comments (0)

Along with the river monster. Part 1

The background. One frosty evening last December I was hiding from Moscow bustle and hustle at home... I do adore big cities but at the same time I nearly hate them...giving us great opportunities they require too much in return.
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Cities are teeming with life: people who are always running somewhere, rumbling roads like a giant beehive inside your head and a whole system of endless tunnels beneath your feet encircle eternally glittering city. And even the sky lined with fancy patterns of planes takes away the last hope for a little piece of space and silence. How do I miss the peace and silence among this urban bustle, how difficult it is to return to life with all these phones and appliances, producing so many noise and interference! I do wish to open the window and fill the air...exciting fresh air...and listen to twittering birds...and look up the sky so blue and endless and know that it belongs only to you. I would like to get to the place where there is no TV, showing us an unreal pretended life and engaging in the intricacies of someone's mind. I'm longing to get to such place where you are alone with your own thoughts and desires in search of inner peace and harmony. More and more often I escape from the city to my dearest garden, planted by myself, to the fragrant roses and to the bench with a book on it, filled with the new adventures either in the bosom of Africa or in the wilds of the Amazon.
During the cold season of the year when roses peacefully sleep under the snow drift carefully wrapped in spruce branches as in feather duvet, I find my comfort watching Animal Planet programs.
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It is just amazing how far and close Africa may be to us.Years ago when I wasn`t familiar with the Black continent, it seemed that it is a completely different world - strange, wild and dangerous. But now, having made more than a dozen flights, visited a lot of countries and become acquainted with lots of famous photographers and scientists working on the African land, I begin to feel myself as a part of this unique world.
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Here on the screen i can see one of brave guys who is teaching you to survive in a Tanzanian savanna.Quite funny... I wonder how long he will survive there without the whole team of helpers behind the scenes? Believe me, it is not so cool to wander alone in savannas, filled with African ticks whose bites cause high temperature. Besides, the army of insects can send the famous tse-tse fly, the bite of which is at least very painful. And if it isn`t enough for you, there is a great opportunity to get acquainted with the malaria mosquitoes, not mention other parasites living in the water and the meat of wild animals. Don`t forget about the danger of meeting with the predators, cattle, elephants, snakes and even poaches.
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And now I am watching the Shamvari reserve, this film is about a unique place and a hard daily work to preserve the fragile ecosystem of this reserve. In general, there are a lot of programs for the protection of animals in Africa. One of the largest is the preservation and restoration of the Rino population. Recently the poachers have almost destroyed these animals in several countries in Central Africa. Many of my friends are involved in various projects designed to preserve and restore the number of these powerful and beautiful animals.
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Then comes another storyline. A group of scientists investigates and monitors the movements of great white sharks in the place called Gansbaai on the island Dyer. By the way do you know that almost any shark in this area has its own name and experts can easily distinguish each of them. And here is my famous skipper Hennie Otto. How many times we have spent in this waters photo hunting this beautiful predator and its prey — a seal.
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But that night I saw something completely new and daring, that caught my attention at once: the brave scientist challenged the predator- "The Queen of the seas and oceans".He was one-on-one with the great white shark without any protection and a cell! Nose to nose, eye to eye! He even dared to ride the predator as a tamed dolphin! My delight, surprise and admiration of this man was boundless! And the name of this not very young hero was Amus Nahum.
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It took me some time to find this scientist, and in the end I received the long-awaited answer from him:"You are in my team". As it turned out Amos was a legendary and rare wildlife photographer and flora and fauna expert both the under and above the water world. More than once he has been asked to lead the expeditions of National Geographical society. He has produced documentaries for such channels as Discovery, BBC, CNN. He was the team leader for National Geographic. Amos`s photos and essays are published in hundreds of publications around the world. He is the winner of numerous competitions and moreover, he is the head of the jury at various photography contests. Besides huge sharks the scientist is working with polar bears, killer whales, sea lions, leopard seals, anacondas and the Nile crocodiles. But for these "intimate" acquaintances is given its special time of the year and location.
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You can't even imagine my joy when Amos sent me a special program-plan of my travels with him for the next year! I decided not to postpone and immediately started my preparations for the adventure. The scientist agreed to take me to this exciting journey under condition that I would have professional scuba skills and feel myself under the water like a fish. Ooops... There you are! To tell the truth I am not a good swimmer on the surface as I can`t stand getting water into my ears... but underwater..it must be even worse....But if he needs PADI - I am going to get it. Just in time- in two weeks I leave for Fiji.

Honestly speaking, I didn't even realize that to accomplish this task would be so difficult. To start with, the instructor having put a multi-kg equipment on me ordered to jump into the water. Is he crazy? Jump? I could hardly move! Above all, at a depth of 7 meters he took my air regulator and not explaining anything asked to insert it again. I drank too much water, while trying to get to the surface...
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During the following days I had to overcome my fears, some injuries from sharp corals and drink more than one liter of water before I learned to feel confident among the colourful fish. Now when there are a lot of records in my dive log (a dive log book is used by a scuba divers to record the details of their dives- approx.) I smile, remembering those painful days of mine. And now I can say for sure that every overcoming yourself and your fears makes you stronger, strenthens your willpower and trains the character.

And here I am packing suits to overcome one more of my fears in a company of a deeply respected scientist, photographer and the bravest man whom I have ever met and knew - Amos Nachum. We are going to look into the eyes of the most dangerous predator in the world - the Nile crocodile! You may believe me, just few people have ever done it...We are going to immerse into the natural habitat of the predator, into the cold waters of the African Okavango river, somewhere very far in Botswana.
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The rules attached to the letter-instruction said that I should swim next to Amos at a distance of no more than two metres. There should be a complete buoyancy control and a strict adherence to rules and regulations of diving. The tactile contact with the river monster is permitted under no circumstances. It is nessesary to have all the equipment that allow you to stay in the water long enough and feel yourself safe and protected. I wonder if I meet a giant reaching six meters in length and 900 kg in weight how it is possible in general "to feel yourself safe and protected"?! And don`t worry I don`t think I`ll have any idea of touching it at this moment! The next paragraph:"Stroboscopic light sources and illumination for video are recommended to use during the dive.You will be so close to the predator that will see the reflection of the light from crocodiles`s shining eyes, its white teeth and so on." It would sound rather amusing if I were not so scary... And what do they mean by "so on"? What else can reflect the light? That one who had been recently eaten?...

Nile crocodiles are called "cannibals" because they live close to human settlements and kill hundreds and sometimes thousand of people per year. According to recent research work the monsters attack from 275 to 745 times a year, and 63% of them became fatal to humans. Thus, the Nile crocodile may be considered as the most dangerous predator for a human being.
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The method of work.
Amos works with crocodiles only during winter months. They are June and July in Africa. The water temperature at this time is only 14 degrees Celsius, and the crocodiles prefer to bask in the sun. During this period the river monsters not so active and it helps us to detect them.
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We will begin the search for crocodiles at 9 a.m. And as soon as we reach the goal we immediately have to immerse into the water. It is forbidden to be more than some seconds on the surface as it is a very dangerous zone. We quickly get down to the bottom of the river and start our search of the most aggressive and the most adapted predator in the world, who is capable to kill all living things in its environment and having a unique gasp among all the animals and even sharks!

It is nessesary to mention that we are going to live on a tiny island having lost somewhere in the river, in a tent camp specially made for us. And even this fact by itself is a real adventure as the waters surrounding us are teeming not only with crocodiles but hippos as well! And it also well-known that they pose a serious danger to humans .
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We are going to survive on this island for at least eight days and during this time we`ll dive more than 30 times into cold and unfriendly waters of the Okavango.
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Well...the expedition in search of the largest African river monster begins...Soon you`ll know everything...

And do you remember how all this started?..just with the lack of silence and fresh air and a small book forgotten on a bench among beautiful roses...

Posted by Olga Michi 11:19 Archived in Botswana Tagged diving africa crocodiles botswana okavango Comments (0)

To see the Kongo and not die. Part 3

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Ba'aka Pygmies are known for their music and songs that are as old as the world. Four and a half thousand years ago, the Egyptians discovered this diminutive people in the upper reaches of the Nile and just as we are now had been fascinated by the beauty of the voices this ethnic group. Pygmies express their feelings and emotions in their great melodies. No wonder that Ba'aka were proclaimed one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Enchanted by the beautiful voices which sound like bird twittering or the wood elves`cooing, we're going to hunt.

Pygmies are known as hunters who succeed in capturing large animals. Not long ago they hunted forest elephants and lowland gorillas using a home-made bows, wooden arrows and woven grass network. Weaving a network is rather a time-consuming work, so that every member of the ethnic group goes hunting exclusively with his own net.

In the forest, all the hunters clearly and properly perform their duties, they work all together and very quickly. Soon, a large part of the forest is wrapped with nets like cobwebs. Now, creating a loud noise, Pygmies are driving animals to the snare, and we are patiently waiting on the edge of the forest. It does not take fifteen minutes, as little duiker antelope (blue duiker) got into a trap. With the height of 35 cm, it is barely four pounds in weight. Obviously it is hardly enough to feed even few people, but these days all the Pygmies rarely hunted for food. The poor animal was cut into small pieces and after that meat wrapped in "eco-packaging" (large plant leaves) and finally divided among the members of the tribe.
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After the hunt, we're going to visit the tribe and their forest camp. The older generation ba'aka still often goes into the woods, but when the food, tobacco and marijuana are running out they have to return to the village. Forest Camp consists of several low huts woven from hard tree branches and covered with foliage. Houses are built in the same way as in other ethnic groups. The low entry that you can only crawl inside, protects the inhabitants of the hut from annoying insects and also prevents it from the loss of heat. Forest dwellers sleep on mattresses made of leaves. During the day women gather different products from the forest. Pygmies are true experts of forest resources. The forest isn’t only their home that gives a shelter and protection but a storage of medicinal herbs as well.
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I can’t help but amaze Louis Sarno: he loves and treats ba'aka`s children with such awe! Having arrived to the village the scientist immediately picks up on his hands half-naked, barefoot, emaciated bab on his hands. Then gently kisses him and hugs. He says that the child's mother was drinking alcohol during pregnancy and the boy was born sick and weak. Day by day the baby is getting better and better and Louis is very happy.

Meeting with lowland gorillas

Today we are going to the national park Dzanga-Sangha to meet the family of lowland gorillas. The staffs of the park are permanently watching these large primates and monitoring their movements. Gorillas need a lot of time to adapt to the presence of human. Gorillas have to get used not only to the smell of the human but also to his neighborhood. Thanks to the priceless works of Diane Fossey who has developed the rules of adaptation gorillas to the human presence. So we have the opportunity to watch these powerful and very dangerous animals too close to them. The meaning of this rule is that a person should spend more time among the primates, until finally you won`t be accepted by them. Animals must trust this person and do not take him as a rival for the leadership in the family. Furthermore they need to be sure that people do not encroach on the delicious and juicy leaves and fruits that make up the main diet of gorillas.
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Lowland gorillas, as well as the mountain ones live in small groups-families. Most of the time they spend on the ground. The leadership belongs to the male in the family. It is called Silverback for its grayish color of the fur. It is he who determines the route of the group as well as stops for resting and feeding.

The male defends a group in case of any danger, so when observing the gorillas you should strictly follow the definite rules. You are not allowed to come closer than seven meters and look straight at the gorillas` eyes. If the animal suspects that you are a threat to it, the gorilla starts to show its strength - to make loud noises, hit itself on the chest or break tree branches with a crash. In this case it is necessary sit down quickly and bow your head to show that you are much smaller animal and absolutely harmless. Before visiting the park every tourist passes the test as following these basic rules without any exaggeration can save your life. A similar incident happened to me in Uganda, but I'll tell you about it in one of my following articles later.
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There is one very important rule - in no case visit the animals if you have any symptoms of the flu or other viral infections. The scientific research during the recent years has shown that gorillas are very susceptible to human viruses. Moreover these beautiful animals are absolutely defenseless against the malaria and even Ebola virus. According to statistics the number of lowland gorillas has declined by 56% and more than 90% of the animals were killed by he deadly Ebola virus in recent years. Actually the similarity of gorillas and humans` DNA is about 98%. And unfortunately, gorillas are vulnerable to all human diseases.
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Accompanied by a few unarmed employees of the Park we start searching for the gorillas. As a rule, the Rangers carefully monitor the movement of animals and almost exactly know the location of the great apes. Time for searching the gorillas is not limited, but from the moment we find a group, we will have only an hour to watch it. One hour and not a minute more, no matter if gorilla is sleeping or spending the time on the tree. These are the rules established by the national park. This hour flies very quickly. Gorillas are in the motion all the time and we could hardly keep up with them.
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Once again I go to seek the primates with the next group of tourists. This time we go to the marshes, and fortune favors us: a young male is resting in the sun. In general, watching gorillas is very funny. Despite the frightening size these animals are quite peaceful by nature, very kind to the kids and spend a lot of time in games.
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Satisfied, we return to the lodge and in the evening sitting by the fire and drinking some wine we are sharing our impressions with Rod. I am very surprised that gorillas suffer from malaria and the mortality among them is very high. The scientists from the American Birmingham studied the stool samples of western gorillas and came to the conclusion that people have contracted malaria from these primates not from chimpanzees, as previously scientists thought. Rod says that a number of specialists study disease in gorillas in Dzanga-Sangha.
I must say that in this part of Africa the risk of contracting malaria is very high, so I can not advise the Central African Republic for a family traveling with children. Moreover, if you go here I highly recommend you to take the medicine that protects you from the terrible disease throughout the journey.

Meeting with forest elephants

In the Dzanga-Sangha and the Dzanga-Ndoki the scientists study not only primates. National Park Dzanga-Sangha is considered the best place in the world to observe the forest elephants. No wonder this park was inscribed on the World Heritage list of UNESCO. Forest elephant is an amazing animal that looks like his brother - Savanna elephant. The role of the forest elephant in the reserve is unique: it is not only the most important link in the distribution of seeds, but damaging the branches of the trees it promotes the penetration of light to the plants and bushes of the "second tier." And of course, these cute inhabitants of the rain forest are involved in the replenishment trace elements in the soil. On the sixth day of our stay we decided to visit the forest elephants. This event was both very dangerous and also incredibly fun, at least, I can`t remember when I laughed so much.
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Our goal is the observation deck on the large meadow, built by scientists to monitor mammals. The soil of this place abounds in minerals so necessary for the elephants. Usually after eating the soil, forest dwellers go to the river. Rod Cassidy advised us to wear light shoes like rubber sandals as we had to cross the river and maybe walk on muddy places. The fact is to meet the forest elephants by the water is more than likely and in this case we will have to bypass them in the swamps.
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We have been instructed for 10 minutes on how to behave after meeting with large mammals. Practically it all comes down to one thing: When you see an elephant - run! Run as fast as possible! In any direction - up hill and down dale. And here we start our journey. The first is the ranger, one of the pygmies ba'aka, then Rod, after him goes our guide, an expert on Africa and my great friend Andy Alt, then me and Svetlana (my best friend), and the last one is my uncle Alexander, 64-year-old traveler.

Ranger goes forward to check the route. We are cautiously, but quickly moving behind him. The weather is such amazing! The sky is clear, that in this place is very rare, because it rains most days in the year in the rainforest. Multicolored butterflies are fluttering all around us, birds are excitedly chirping, the water in the stream is gurgling. It looks like a full peace around us!
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Suddenly, as if in a slow motion movie, we see a ba'aka-tracker with rubber slippers in his mouth rushing at a very high speed towards us. Lots of dirt are rebounding from him in all directions... This picture is still standing before my eyes. Rod, the first who came to his senses, yells, "Run!" But I am so enchanted by the sight of the pygmy, stay standing rooted to the spot. Then I feel how strong Andy`s hands grab me and turn 180 degrees and we come across the same hypnotized Svetlana, and followed her Alexander, and to top of it all I can see my uncle with a camera in a very curious pose staring in the direction of the alleged elephant. Here my highly strung nerves fade out and I burst out with laughter. Thanks God, the elephant did not pursue our guide and turned somewhere along the way. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a happy end for us.
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Generally, that day we had to sweat and run a lot from the elephants. And as for the shoes they were not clearly suitable for the races. The place that we came to was fully filled with elephants, and I had the surreal feeling of what is happening on. It seemed like I was watching it on TV and everything was happening with someone else not with me and that I wasn’t a participant of this event. Hundreds of elephants were playing in the mud, digging huge pits and fighting for them with one another, some watered themselves with water, as if out of the shower. And at that very time forest buffalos and antelopes were scurrying among them. Some groups of elephants were diverging in different directions, the other coming. This observation deck is really the best place to watch the elephants. And that adrenaline rush that we experienced on the way there was worth that sight.
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n general, despite the lurking danger in the forest and the threat to catch all sorts of terrible diseases, it was worth doing this trip. I will always remember the young, good-natured ba'aka, the sunsets on the river, great fishing, endless conversations around the campfire under the open sky, the centuries-old virgin forests and beautiful animals that inhabit these places. In addition to the incredible experiences this trip gave me a lot of precious things. It taught me to be kind and considerate towards the people, regardless of their nationality, religion or race. We are all equal in the sight of the Lord God, just someone like Louis Sarno or Rod Cassidy, could understand it earlier, and someone a little later. Our world is so fragile! Every day, every hour three species of flora and fauna disappear on the Earth. Annually more than 17 million hectares of forest are cut. Just think about these figures! We have no other habitat and our planet has no other "lungs".
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The further existence of such animals as mountain and lowland gorillas, forest elephants is a huge question. After all, they live in areas of military conflicts, in the places where there is lawlessness reign, where poachers are operating, where animals are killed not for satisfying hunger but for the bloody money. Little Pygmies- the defenders of the forest - can not resist the aggressive-minded world, and the great Louis Sarno absolutely defenseless against the rudeness and callousness of people eager only profit. And I'm personally convinced that in our days there are heroes such as these brilliant scientists who stay there and try to attract the world's attention to the problems in the CAR, and I hope that the beautiful pictures of unique animals will not illustrate the book about the extinct species.

P.S. We safely back in Bangui, and then immediately and without passport control flew home to Russia. I regret only one thing, that in the confusion I did not have time to say goodbye to my faithful friend Andy.

Eighteen months in the Central African Republic was a chaos. Louis Sarno, Rhode Cassidy with his family and several other scientists have been forced to leave the country. But fortunately, a year later the rebels "selectivity" were driven out of the area adjacent to national parks. Life gradually returned to its bed. Although tourists are still worry to go to Dzanga Bai, Rhode Cassidy was looking forward to the future and implementing various programs to save animals.

There were killed 26 elephants in the park Dzanga-Sangha . Fortunately, the gorillas were saved. The current situation remains fragile in the CAR. To restore the order in the country France sent a military contingent of 1.6 thousand people. However the battles take place mostly outside the capital, and Rhode reports that the life is quiet and peaceful in Bayangea. And yet, if you’ll make a decision to go to the Dzanga-Sangha Reserve, which is located in the prefecture Sangha-Mbaere, in the southern part of the country, I advise you to get there through the Congo or Cameroon.

Posted by Olga Michi 13:30 Archived in Central African Rep. Tagged elephants africa central african republic pygmies dzanga-sangha gorrilas Comments (0)

To see the Kongo and not die. Part 2

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The armed coup has occured in the CAR, Fights with the rebelts in the capital... and the plane with a group of desperate travelers are landing at the airport. "Isn`t that all?! Flied off... "

The crew is lowering the ramp, we are being met by a military escort on he land. The level of adrenaline in the blood is going off scale. I feel the pulsing artery under the cerebral cortex.We are being taken away for questioning. In a small stuffy room the representative of the interim government of the country begins to fulfill his duties. All the furniture in a shabby room consists of a table and two chairs. The expected questions: " Who are we? What are we doing in the CAR? What is the purpose of our visit? What are we looking for? What political interests do we pursue? Are we sponsoring any radical group?"

Making sure that we are just unlucky tourists who found themselves at the wrong time and the wrong place, the officer takes us back to the runway. It turned out that Rod Cassidy, the owner of Sangha Lodge, the place where we have to live, after having learnt about the impending coup and anticipated these events, sent his friend-pilot to us on a small Caravan Sessna. It is even difficult to imagine what riches he promised to Rod for such a dangerous mission into the capital of the blaze. Nevertheless, it has worked, and we continue our journey.
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Under the wing of our airplane a green carpet of impassable jungle are spreading... The landscape consists of low hills and lowlands covered with fog. Just remember the movie "Gorillas in the Mist." It is the environment and the home for western lowland gorillas. According to some reports a little more than three thousand individuals live in the national park Dzanga-Sangha . However there is another information that there are no more than 480 individuals there. In my opinion, this figure is greatly reduced.

In comparison with their mountain relatives lowland gorillas are smaller, have longer forelimbs, a broad face and brown-gray color of the fur. Males are much larger than females, their growth reaches up to 180 cm and weight can be up to 270 kg. Most of their time the gorillas spend on the trees where their favorite fruits grow, and at night they prefer to go down to the ground. Western lowland gorilla as well as its congener - the mountain gorilla is an endangered specie. In the CAR these primates have survived only in the south-west of the country, in the Dzanga-Ndoki and Dzanga-Sangha reserve- the very places where we are heading our way.

Finally our small but very reliable aircraft is landing on the tiny runway. It is very hot and humid outside. We were met by a smiling Rod Cassidy. This is a man of 60 years old, with a cute face, a long beard and long gray hair. Whether a kind smile or his whole appearance of a forest dweller man instantly endear to him the feeling of anxiety goes away and finally we are able to relax.

We loaded the luggage in the old land Cruiser and started our way to the temporary home. The way isn`t short and leads right through the dense virgin forests. The road is bumpy and washed away by the rains, its endpoint is a flooded area where we are forced to leave the car and stay on a handmade raft with a help of a rope slowly to reach the promised shore.
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"House"

I must say that the lodge was quite simple. The houses were knocked together from the wooden planks, the roof is made of dried palm leaves. No air conditioning. All the furniture of the room is a bed, covered with a mosquito net, a table, a chair, a toilet and a washbasin. With the help of a very primitive construction, the water is supplied to the shower directly from the river. All structures are absolutely identical except for Rod`s family house. This hut is filled with all sorts of cozy small things as our hospitable host, friendly, fragile woman Tamar, charming Tali and reliable Alon - live in Sangha Lodge all year round. Very specific business in the area, but a brave man risked everything, having exchanged a comfortable life in South Africa at a very alarming in the CAR.

On our first day we saw the lowland gorillas - they came very close to the lodge. In general the nature together with the Sangha Lodge exist almost in symbiosis. The Forest hotel is located near the river in the impenetrable thicket far from large cities. People here just can not be found! Large and small primates, forest elephants, various artiodactyls, armadillos, porcupines, all kinds of reptiles, bats and rodents. I immediately found the small ones in the house. The first morning when I went to brush my teeth a tiny mouse hung directly on the neck of an open bottle of water. But unfortunately not only mice were my neighbors. The walls of the hut were full of huge spiders in the evenings. Despite of the fact that these spiders are completely harmless to a man they look far from the harmless ones.
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Ba'aka

Also that day we went to get acquainted with the Pygmies ba'aka. I must say that the pygmies - the most undersized people on the Earth, their average height is only 140 cm. Pigmaios, in Greek it means "the size of a fist." The absolute majority of pygmies live in sub-Saharan Africa.
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"Pygmies" is a general term for all "forest people" in the region although they are divided into several ethnic groups and each tribe has its own rituals, beliefs, culture and even its own language. In the Central African Republic you can meet Pygmies akoola, akova, babongo, ba'aka, bakoya and bakuyn. I arrived here to meet ba'aka. These small "forest people" are unique because of their folklore - songs and dances in which they talk about their daily life, hunting, the world around them. Unlike other related groups ba'aka preserved their native language.

Small "forest people" live by hunting and gathering. But some of them who live in the vicinity of Bayangi even have small vegetable gardens where they grow cassava. Cassava is a shrub, also known as yucca - is one of the most important crops in Africa. Only roots are used in food which look like our potatoes. Moreover, in its raw form, they are highly toxic and are used only after the heat treatment. They cook porridge, bake bread and cakes out of cassava flour.

People Ba'aka - very good hunters and we by the way were soon convinced in it. For many centuries they lived in the woods and near the settlements of Bantu tribes. There was always a trade exchange between them. Pygmies hunted meat of wild animals and other forest products and in return they received the necessary goods. However over the past 50 years the situation has changed dramatically. Since the roads appeared in this area and the logging companies began their work many Bantu people rushed to work in the forest. Now they hunt for the forest bushmeat, thereby forcing ba'aka cultivate their own vegetable gardens and earn money to buy cassava, tobacco and other things necessary for their needs.
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Pygmies have to spend out of the forest more and more time. Despite the fact that the older generation still returns to the green forest area, young people prefer to live in towns and villages, because every person aspires to a better life and very often wealth displace spiritual values. Thus there is an integration of the tribe in a civilized society. Moreover it is not too long to wait when the last ba'aka gone out of the woods forever. Unfortunately, this is a problem and the fate of all existing tribes.

Recently the relations between ba'aka and Bantu have significantly deteriorated but the "forest people" hope for a peaceful outcome to the conflict. Ba'aka would be completely exposed to the future and the neighbors, if Louis Sarno wasn`t interested in them - brilliant American scholar and author of several books, since mid 80s living among the Pygmies in the Central African Republic. He recorded a huge amount of records with the voices of the people of this nation and was honored to be one of the ba'aka having the opportunity to marry a local woman and adopt some children. In an official interview Louis talked about what led him to a mysterious and frightening Africa: "One winter night I turned on the radio station of the Netherlands and heard a song that literally hypnotized me. I've never heard anything like it! Melody that catches, leads somewhere and will not be returned ... This exotic music was pure magic. It led me to follow it, in the heart of Africa. I wanted to record these sounds by myself. "Louis said that from his childhood his dream was to live in the rain forest, he was always interested in insects and reptiles. He is very happy among people ba'aka. By calling attention to the music and the ba'aka`s problems, Louis Sarno helps to preserve the material and spiritual culture of the tribe, and his long-term work is an invaluable contribution to the ethnography.
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Louis Sarno lives a very simple life without any frills, wears shabby clothes, eats the same food as the members of the tribe. Initially I was shocked by the life of Louis, I was wondering how a white American, highly educated and well-read person can exist in the same conditions as illiterate black men in the tribe. During my travels I often meet scientists from all over the world, working with different ethnic groups but as a rule they do not live in the tribe and wear clean clothes and enjoy the benefits of civilization. All this is radically different from the way of the life of Louis Sarno. But the more time I spent in his company, the better I could understand him. Louis is a man of great heart, he is sincere in his love for the BA aka. The study of the BA aka tribe is not only the business of his life, this is his very life. All the money that he earns on the distribution of books, records, attraction of tourists, Louis spends on the needs of the tribe. That is why he lives very simply realizing that all the most valuable and necessary things for his happiness he has already had, and all the rest is completely unnecessary product of modern civilized society, which depends on many completely stupid things, clogging consciousness and leading away from the true human values.

Louis invited us to take part in the hunt along with the BA aka and we were very happy . Speaking all day and all night with such a brilliant scientist we apparently got his light energy, and now also sincerely wanted to feel ourselves as a part of this ethnic group.
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And here we are loading in three jeeps cheering by songs of the members of the tribe. Five of us as the most important guests, take two cars, and about 35-40 BA aka start to get into the pickup Toyota Land Cruiser. Wow! Almost all fit in one car! During my student days despite of all our efforts only seven people could fit in the car "Volga". And here's a funny compactness and complete violation of the laws of physics!
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Posted by Olga Michi 13:11 Archived in Central African Rep. Tagged africa central african republic pygmies Comments (0)

To see the Kongo and not die. Part 1

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Today I`d like to tell you about my journey to the Central African Republic.

I have two wonderful friends, with whom with a glass of wine I can spend hours discussing books and articles having read recently. One cold Moscow evening we were talking about the most famous politician- dictator and the cannibal in the history of Africa .Thus I first learned about the sadist, murderer, tyrant and the most famous high-ranker cannibal Jean-Bodele the Bokassa.

Jean-Bedel the Bokassa ruled the Central African Republic for almost 13 years. It is interesting to know that his specific gastronomic habits revealed themselves when he was 19 years old when the future ruler served in the French Army. Once during one of the raids, it was a Vietnamese military company at that time, Bokassa was lost deep in the jungle. Bocassa`s сolleagues had been searching for him during the whole week, and what a surprise was for the soldiers, when the smoke from the fire brought them to a clearing in the wood, where they saw the pieces of human meat roasting in the fire and the future President of the CARS with a huge knife butchering the Vietnamese guerrilla`s( partisan`s) body.
In those days Bokassa managed not only to avoid Tribunal, but on the contrary he even got a promotion as the rank of Colonel and a new position of Сhief of General Staff.

All this was only possible due to Jean-Bedale`s family ties with the President and his nephew David Dacian. Later on Bokassa "thanked" Dacian having staged a military coup in 1966 and taken the presidential chair.The Bokassa was very suspicious and madly afraid he might be killed like Dacian. They rumored that the Governor never parted with his famous ebony and ivory stick, so that in case of danger without any hesitation put it straight into the opponent`s eye. A very curious historical fact : Jean-Bedel so much distrusted the Communists and at the same time he so hard tried to be closer to them. He even managed to go to the USSR and pay a visit to the children in "Artek", the pioneer camp. By the way only official number of Bokassa`s descendants were 77. Jean-Bedel had special feelings to the children. He was very fond of them... fond of eating them ...

There is a Museum dedicated to the memory of the former President in Bangui, his cutting tables and the Imperial kitchen ... After the ruler`s overthrow the court chef Philippe Lengis talked about "special canned food," which Jean-Bedel used to take in his trips. And one more peculiar thing, as Bokassa admitted himself , he felt a strong attraction to the Soviet General Secretary Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev."I would have gladly eaten him, he was so well-fed "-Jean-Bedel often joked, and out from the African ruler`s mouth it sounded like a terrible sentence.. in this way all the officials disagreeable to Bocassa got to his festive tables. He even walked a long time with them, extremely well-fattened and treated them surprisingly gently. But finally all ended on the same scenario in the infamous Imperial kitchen...
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Jean-Bedel Bokassa

They say that Bokassa had been experimenting with his taste preferences by collecting the sensation from eating people of different professions. So the winner of the first country beauty contest perished tragically , the only scientist-mathematician in the CAR and a dentist.

Time passed and in the early 80-ies of the last century Europe was shocked with one more chilling story.The Son of the famous cannibal - Antoine Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a student at the Sorbonne, was arrested on suspicion of murder and cannibalism. During a search of his apartment there was found a fridge filled with parts of women's bodies. During the interrogation Antoine confessed to the murder of six young women. In general, as the English proverb says: "As the old cock crows, so does the young."

But most of all I am struck by the fact that Jean-Bedel Bokassa lived the rest of his days quietly in the Central African Republic and in the 90's even tried to run for President, though unsuccessfully. He was not under any court or under investigation. Moreover, more than 30,000 people came last fareway at his funeral. This phenomenon is inexplicable to me.

Somehow, it seemed to me that it would be possible to understand the etiology of this strange case, only by going to the place of terrible events. However, I had had more reasons than enough to visit the CAR in addition to a black president-cannibal.. So I hastily started to organise the expedition to the shores of the River Congo (Zaire).
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There is an opinion that two of the most dangerous places in the world are the delta of the Amazon and the Congo River swamps. I have been to the Amazon river already so it is right time to visit the Congo. What danger is there to expect? Very different ones starting with poisonous snakes that live in these areas, and ending with tropical viruses that cause deadly dangerous disease. We can also add tsetse fly and heavy, humid climate there.

I have to think carefully all the details of the trip, thoroughly check all the information about the country. The plan is to spend a couple of days in Bangui, the capital city sightseeing and and visiting the different museums there, and then go into the dense jungle on the border of the Central African Republic and Congo. Here is the only lodge, ready to receive tourists. The owner of the lodge is South African Caucasian Rod Cassidy, a former scientist-ornithologist. And the most interesting thing is that the unique Pygmies Baak live in this aria, and the only white among them no less unique is Louis Sarno. Here is a reserve Dzanga Bai, widely known for its forest elephants and lowland gorillas.
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The plan has made, the organizational work completed,the vaccinations double checked and the bags have packed -we can set off!

It will take a long time to flight to the Congo, but none of my team is sleeping. The heart is so restless. Agitation, anxiety, confusion, doubt, a sense of adventure, excitement and even fear - a hurricane of emotions is raging in the soul! The country is completely non-tourist, the political situation is completely unclear: everything seems to be stable, but is it really possible to use this word in this part of Africa?

Our plane is landing. The alarmed flight attendant runs into the salon and says that the armed coup has just occurred in the CAR.The power in the country belongs to the military forces. Our plans are changing. It is imposible to stay in Bangui now because of the fighting with the rebels. Nonetheless, the plane is landing. It becomes immediately evident that the airport is empty. I was seized with a terrible fear, "Isn`t that all? Flied off... "...
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Posted by Olga Michi 13:04 Archived in Central African Rep. Tagged africa central african war republic pygmies Comments (0)

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