After periods of such intensity, day after day handling such high levels of adrenaline, the arrival of easier stretches is not only welcome but becomes a necessity. By the time I got to Etoumbi, I had spent some of the most extreme weeks in my entire life traveling the world. I was happy but exhausted, so I it was with great joy that met the sealed road again. During those easy days that followed "the war", looking back over the past few weeks, it was hard to imagine the possibility of even more exciting stretches than the ones I had just passed. But my journey through the jungle was far from over. In any case, It had just begun, and the adventure that was lying ahead of me in the weeks to come would lead me to go through experiences that would test once again, each and every one of my abilities (and limitations)
The N2 route, which serves as the backbone of the Republic of Congo, has finally been sealed completely by the Chinese in 2015. It is practically a ghost road where there is neither traffic nor much populations along it in the northern half of the country. It fits me right, but even though it crosses the beautiful equatorial forest, the feeling of being in it is lost along the road, especially after the last few weeks.
I am clear that I need to take advantage of these easy days to recover, but with the adrenaline levels dropping, boredom comes quickly and I find it inevitable not to accelerate the pace to re-enter the jungle. There are many aspects that alter our notion of time. If intense experiences "shorten" the days, boredom "extends" them. That's why we like to say "short days" and "long days" to define a feeling, but nothing really changes around us in life, only our perception.
These are long, long days, impregnated by dense and humid tropical air, in this capricious tropic where at times I find myself compressed by a heat that suffocates me, and at others, I drown under torrential tropical downpours. First, it makes my darkest odours emerge and then, without mercy, makes me undergo strong purifying showers. On the one hand, it dehydrates me, but on the other, it throws me buckets of water to hydrate me and experience the beautiful sensation of drinking from the sky.
In the meantime, the sounds of the jungle continue to sweeten my days. There are no people for several hours at a time, but I'm never alone, it's always meeting time in the jungle. The encounters follow each other. The colorful birds, the butterflies, the poisonous vipers, the scorpions, the colonies of monkeys shaking the tops of the trees as they jumped, and now someone new in my path: the families of chimpanzees, who resting on top of the trees, they watch me pass by with the same small-town curiosity with which I look at them.
It takes me 4 days to reach Ouesso, a small border town on the shores of the Sangha River. I arrive there with great ambitions and a renewed thirst for adventure. I want to give in again to the caresses and scratches of the thick jungle. I intend to cycle across it in search of the possibility of reaching the Central African Republic (C.A.R). I have no assurances whatsoever. There is no official transport from Congo to there, there are no roads either and I have no visa. The only means is to sail the Sangha by renting a private boat that costs about 700 dollars, which clearly is not an option for me, or to find some alternative that I still do not know of but that I am willing to discover. It's time to call Brazzaville.
I had met Marcel, the former head of the forest guard of Likoualá province, at his daughter's wedding two months ago in Brazzaville. There, after telling him my plans, I asked him for guidance on the situation in this remote region, the possibilities of reaching the C.A.R from there and maybe if he could help me find a raft. Marcel, a kind man of great sensitivity, immediately gave me his telephone number and told me to give him a call when I arrived at Ouesso, and told me that I could count on him to help me through his local contacts.
Said and done, after contacting him, in less than 24 hours he had found me an alternative. My heart was bursting with emotion! Now I had to head to the WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) base in a small remote village, 2 or 3 days across the rainforest upstream. There, Andrea Turkalo, an American biologist on her way back to her base in the C.A.R would be waiting for me to take me on a speedboat with her. I had no idea what to expect, but there was no time to think about it, I had to leave as soon as possible to make sure I did not miss a chance that was probably unique and unrepeatable. The very next day, I was on a dugout canoe crossing the Sangha River at Ouesso on the way to the unexpected.
As I descend from the canoe, a new unknown land full of adrenaline lies before me. I can feel my heart once more throbbing as though trying to get out of my chest. Excitement overtakes me. It is euphoria that occupies my body, a combination of curiosity, thirst for adventure and fear. I'm heading into the unknown, marching alone along a long, hilly, deep red dirt road wrapped around the dense jungle. I breathe it, I listen to it, I absorb it and I sweat it through the hours without seeing anybody, moving slowly because it's so hard, but also because I'm trying not to miss anything. There are too many stimuli at the same time and I do not want to lose any of them.
The solitary hours are arduous and hard but pass without being perceived. Once again my notion of time has been altered. Exciting days are short when you absorb the presence of every minute of the experience of life. I am happy when I am alone and I get even happier when I start getting to know the ancestral inhabitants of this thick jungle. They are the Baka pygmies, who have been here since the beginning of time. These are meetings that are worth all efforts.
Every time I run into pygmies I stop to talk using the most refined sign language, through which we do not only communicate but have a lot of fun trying to do so. With my modest average height of 178 cm, I feel like a Dutchman standing next to them, who ever rarely reach 145 cm. They are sweet, they are kind, they are also suffering and clearly do not understand what the hell a white man on a bicycle does in their land. But regardless of the bewilderment, they do not hesitate to receive me with affection.
Soon after leaving them behind, I find myself again alone and away from everything. Aware that something is changing around me, I look up at the sky and realise that storm clouds have tainted it in black. You have to be there, to feel the tension in your body when everything darkens and the whole jungle stifles, entering in a state of silence in the moments that precede a tropical storm. In a few seconds, nature unfolds with fury all her power by throwing me waterfalls that do not let me see. The thunders shake the ground and the bolts of lightning flash white blinding light to this dark corner of the planet. The canopy shakes untamed with the force of the wind, and on the intense vermillion red soil spring up the arteries through which the orange blood of this land flows. Away from all possible refuge, I have to continue pedalling, subdued to the whims of mother earth, who makes me jump quickly from the humid heat of a sauna, to the intense cold of this ice water shower.
In moments like these, I can feel that nature has come to demonstrate who is in charge here, and only, just only when it has made it very clear, it ends its lesson having achieved its task of making us humbler and more prudent in our actions. When the lesson in respect ends, the rays of the sunset sun filter through the canopy, now turning to the world into a glittering scene of ochers and golden hues. Billions of bugs come back to the singing, now drunken after this carnival and I, drenched and smiling, look around me enjoying in awe this incredible magic.
Soon, the day comes to an end and few things intimidate as much as spending the night alone in the jungle in absolute darkness. A new collection of night sounds adds to that of the day, buzzing around incessantly, and the threat of the arrival of the great nocturnal animals becomes real. Since Gabon, for several weeks now, I have been seeing the huge footprints of the elephants printed in the mud. By nightfall, everything can happen. I need to find a place to camp, and soon, but the density of the vegetation makes it impossible. That is why I intend to keep going ahead in search of a post of forest guards that someone had been talking to me about in a village. I have no idea if it will be true or if I had understood correctly, but rather than camping in the middle of the road, I decide to keep moving a little longer already into the night.
My nerves increase with the passing of the minutes and the intense sound of the jungle that does not stop vibrating, but after an hour, there, in the distance ahead of me, I see a small spot of light. It looks like a star in the center of space and the distance that separates me from it, an insurmountable abyss. Minutes later I see that it is a flashlight and shortly after I reach a barrier next to a precarious log cabin raised from the floor. I feel a great relief when three men of the forest guard point their flashlights at me astonished by my arrival.
I have seen only two small groups of pygmies in two days of solitude and communication has been very limited. Now, finally, with these three guards, I can speak French and know where I am and what will happen to me the next day. They understand the difficulty of what I am doing so with great kindness do not hesitate to share their food, their water and give me a portion of floor outside the cabin under the eaves, where I can hang my mosquito net and sleep without having to camp. They tell me that there are too many very poisonous snakes, dangerous ants and without a doubt the riskiest being the passing of the elephants during the night.
While I try to eat slowly trying to conceal with a certain degree of education the voracious appetite that I bring, we talk about life in the jungle, loneliness, animals. The also explain the reason for their presence there to try to curb illegal deforestation and the poachers of gorillas and elephants. These men spend months isolated, away from their families, earning miserable salaries for a single cause: protecting their forest and animals. A daunting task for so few staff.
-Gorilas!? !! - I exclaim with great curiosity. "Is it true then that there are gorillas around here?" I repeat. "Of course it is, they abound in this whole region," one responds as if it were obvious. I ask them if by any chance, there are any of them in the direction where I am going and they all tell me reassuringly that I will certainly see, not one, but several of them the next day. I go to sleep full of illusion, with my eyes shining and my heart pounding with emotion, but at the same time, I try to hold myself to avoid a potentially great disappointment. After all, it has happened to me before that I expected to see animals that never showed up in the end.
The next day I wake up at 6 am with the first clarity of the day. The first rays of light filter through my mosquito net in the damp morning mist, while I rub my eyes trying to generate the necessary motivation to get up. I have slept like a baby with the usual sweet nocturnal jungle melody but because I have been eating badly for weeks now and I abused the use of my energies, it is inevitable not to feel tired. I feel I could sleep for several days in a row, but today more than ever I need to start early. I have a long day ahead of me.
While I have breakfast with them, instant coffee with some cold rice from the night before, a two-headed snake slithers in front of us. They tell me it's very dangerous but it seems totally harmless to me. Whatever the case was, I begged them not to kill it and thanks to that, they only hit her with a broom to throw it back to the bushes where it had come from. I am convinced though, that internally, they probably laughed at my naivety.
Shortly after, I picked up my things and with a tight hug, I said farewell. As I was leaving, they kept assuring me that I would see many gorillas that day. I'm excited.
I have progressed much slower than I had estimated for the last few days and now I am facing a great challenge ahead. I am still 162 km away from the base of WCS where Andrea Turkalo, the American biologist would be waiting for me, to leave for the C.A.R the following morning. I have no choice but to arrive tonight if I do not want to lose the only chance I have to achieve what I have planned. Doing 160 km in a day is already an arduous task in the most optimal road conditions, like those of perfect asphalt without many climbs, mild wind and temperate climate. Replicating that same distance, but crossing the heart of the equatorial rainforest requires at the very least pushing beyond one's own limitations. However, in this adrenaline vortex that I had got myself into, it was a task that I was willing to face without a doubt.
The jungle becomes even thicker now. I am absolutely alone and I have not seen a single vehicle for days. The thick bushes of the jungle decorate the walls that frame the perspective of my path. Luckily, it has not rained in this area and the ground is firm enough so that I can pedal at a reasonable speed. I can not avoid the anxiety, I want to see gorillas and I am obsessed with it. With the pressure of the distance that I intend to do today, I do not have much time to stop though, but I do not want to rush because I do not want to miss any possible encounter with them. I know this requires patience, but more than two or three hours go by and I hear nothing but the usual everyday sounds. Meanwhile, the jungle throws me new encounters that serve as entertainment when a fearsome snake slithers in front of me and forces me to stop completely. These ones are extremely venomous and I am terrified just by looking at them.
As I move forward, I also notice that a daily buzz that I have been feeling above my head since several days ago becomes even more intense today. I have no more doubts, they are bees, whole swarms of bees that do not stop buzzing and today it feels particularly stronger than before. When I stop for a short break to have a look at a group of butterflies, the bees begin to descend on my sweaty skin but also, for some reason that I cannot understand, they come to my feet and begin to enter through the interstices of my shattered sandals. I do not understand what is happening, one stings me, and another one and they keep coming. I have no choice but to take off my sandals in pain. After a few minutes, I do not know what to do so I come back shaking my t-shirt to ward them off. As soon as they start leaving, I quickly put on my sandals and run. One was left inside and does not hesitate in stinging me, but I still jump on the bike anyway, trying to contain the pain and get away from there as fast as possible
The bees are driving me crazy, the snakes intimidate me and I still see no gorillas, until suddenly, a guttural sound resounds in the jungle around me above all others, followed by a loud beating, almost as if they were drums. It is hair-raising. '- Motherfucking shit !!!!'- I exclaim to myself when my heart accelerates in a mixture of fear and excitement. That has to be a gorilla! it can not be anything else, I think. I do not know whether to stop or to continue. I go slow and I hear "voices" until I see a giant black spot fleeting across the road ahead of me. My skin bristles as much as that night that I had lions around the tent in the desert in Namibia. I stop dead, I pull my camera out of the bag and wait there.
I wait for several minutes until finally, a few tens of meters ahead of me, a giant black furry monster sticks out of the bush, and crouches. It is impossible to describe what I feel, my heart is pounding as if trying to come out of my chest. We both stand perfectly still, in silence. I can define this as a moment of mutual evaluation and scrutiny. She/he looks at me suspiciously as if not trusting me at all. I look at him petrified with a fascination that I really have no words to describe. I think she/he stays there trying to read the situation and understand what I do there or what to expect from me.
Several minutes pass, 10-15, I do not know, but we do not stop looking at each other and scrutinizing ourselves. Everything around me ceases to exist for me at that time except for this visual tie between she/he and I. Time does not exist anymore, this is one of the most fascinating encounters I have ever had in my life. Finally, as if he/she had gained the necessary confidence, she/he continues on his/her way. And I, I stand there, literally blown-away. I have just been face to face with a gorilla and as if it had not been enough, within the next 20 to 30 km I would see no less than 6 or 7 more and I would listen to many others.
Dazzled, stunned, unable to believe what I am living I continue my journey knowing that I have this magnificent company, and I am so absorbed in the joy of what I am living that I forget everything that is potentially lurking around me. Suddenly, a creepy loud growl resounds right next to me in the bush. At such moments, instinct reaction marked by fear stands before reason. At the very second my blood freezes I step on the pedals without looking towards the side, but it is a reaction so uncontrollable that I lose balance and I fall to the ground. As I look behind, an immense Silverback comes out onto the road, looking furiously at me as if he has been bothered at home, and as if he was a woman in a Latin American soap opera, mad at her boyfriend for having just been offended he turns around shaking shoulders in disgust, giving his silverback to me, and plunging back into the jungle disappearing quickly.
Dumbfounded, I stay on the floor for several minutes, surely with my eyes wide open and trying to rationalise what has just happened to me. Never in my life will I forget that guttural growl that echoed around me, and the angry image of that magnificent King Kong that materialised before me. It was as fascinating as it was scary and it took me several minutes to get my posture up and move on.
After several hours more, I continue cycling as I reflect deeply on how intense this life I have chosen is. While there are tourists who pay up to 800 euros for being guided to see gorillas for only an hour, I have spent much of my day today seeing several of them, face to face, having paid $ 0. Immersed in my thoughts, when I least expect it, by the end of the afternoon, I arrive at the last village before the WCS base. I've done 132 km, there's still a bit of clarity left and I'm motivated. Now I have to get my passport stamped quickly, but first I have to find the immigration office before I can set off to cycle the last 32 km. It has been a fantastic day full of excitement and if everything continues like this, I will arrive on time as I planned. But this last formality, which is usually so simple, would become something completely unexpected, causing a radical change in the course of my day.