For the Bayaka in the Central African Republic, the sweet taste of honey is a treat worth risking their lives for, even if that mean climbing 40-meter trees.
It’s 1am and I am standing in complete darkness. I wait for my eyes to adjust but I can still see nothing. At times like this I have learnt that it is best not to move. Many years of backpacking have trained me well in dealing with power cuts but this time I have been caught out. My head torch is sitting in my bag, motionless with those of all my fellow passengers on the airport conveyor belt.
This is the baggage reclaim area of Doula International Airport in Cameroon, a transit stop on my way to the Central African Republic. Due to C.A.R.’s unrest, visitors are advised to stay off the roads outside major cities. This means the easiest way in for the film crew I am with is to find a charter plane here and fly over the border.
A chorus of cheers accompanies the lights as they spring back into action, and I am soon whisked off to my overnight hotel. Bright and early the next morning, I arrive at a small airfield where a twin-engined Dornier 228 plane awaits. Two and a half hours later, we fly low over the Sangha River before touching down at the small C.A.R. town of Bayanga. From here, a jeep takes me into the forest along roads which start as two-lane dusty tracks and end in undulating quagmires that bring my vehicle to a complete top several times.
Where the road runs out completely, my new friend Louis Sarno slips off into the foliage. Louis is a quiet-spoken New Jersey native (see mini feature), who has not lost his accent despite more than 30 years living here with the “pygmy” Bayaka tribe. An hour later, he returns with a group of excited young Bayaka men and women. They crowd towards our gear, which is quickly lifted onto heads and carried off into the forest. I join onto the end of the line with my own backpack and follow down a narrow path.
Under the towering jungle canopy, it instantly feels like I have entered a new world. From the front of our line unusual sounds begin to echo through the trees. The women are chanting intertwining songs, a magical cacophony of hoots and yelps unlike anything I have ever heard before. This is the hypnotic singing that first drew Louis here, as he explains later at our jungle camp.
It feels like I have entered a new world
“Bayaka music is distinct from a lot of other African music because it’s polyphonic,” he says. “If you ask a Bayaka woman to sing a song she’ll sing a melody with changes between chest and throat voice. Then if you ask a second to sing with her, she won’t sing the same melody; it will be completely different. Each performance is a kind of improvization.”
Louis knows the Bayaka like no other outsider after beginning his study of their music after his first backpacking trip to the Congo Basin in the 1980s. Today he is married to a Bayaka woman and his fascinating life story has even been made into a feature film.
“If you trace the origin of a song, someone will probably have had it in a dream... especially the women,” he says. “They are very creative.”
Indeed they are. The camp we are now sitting in did not exist a couple of hours ago. I watched in awe as the women constructed it around us. Now I sit encircled by ten or so shelters made entirely from harvested forest products amidst a hive of activity as the men materialize from the forest with a bewildering array of captured animals for the pot. As night falls, a smell that I will come to hate over the next two weeks begins to permeate the camp.
Following my nose, I discover that a few families are cooking tortoise for their dinners. In the jungles of C.A.R. this means roasting them alive in their shells on top of a fire. It is a harsh reminder not to get overly sentimental about the practicalities of survival in a place like this.
My first sunrise in the jungle is a spectacular one. As light begins breaking through the canopy above my tent, the smoke from the breakfast campfire is lit up by a striking burst of crepuscular rays. As it turns out, smoke will become hugely important in the next few days.
I have come here to document the Bayaka honey gatherers, men who use simple skills to scale giant trees in order to harvest the sweetness of the jungle. The pacifying properties of smoke are well known to them and they encourage everyone to keep their fires burning during the day in order to dissuade any annoyed bees from relocating anywhere near our camp.
My first sunrise in the jungle is a spectacular one
After breakfast Louis introduces me to Teté and Mongongé, two men well known in the local community for their climbing skills. They have already found a hive close-by but Louis says the tree is at least 40 meters tall. Tim Fogg, a quiet man of relatively few words, is the rope access expert who has flown in with me. He considers the spreading branches high overhead before saying “Yep. It’s do-able” and returning to camp for his equipment.
His first task is to get a rope up into the canopy. Tim secures a rubber sling to the end of a three-meter branch cut from a nearby tree to fashion a huge catapult. He then attaches a palm-sized sand bag to the end of a 100-meter line and places the weight into the sling shot. Pulling down hard, he aims at the tree’s distant crown and lets go. With a loud crack, the bag flies high, trailing the line behind it, but falls short. On the second attempt, the sling’s rubber snaps on one side. The third and fourth attempts go wide of the mark, as does the fifth.
But shot number six sails directly over the tree’s apex, falling to the ground on the other side. A group of children rushes off, elbowing one another as they wrestle to be the first to retrieve the line. Tim then attaches a climbing rope to it, slowly hoisting the thicker line up, up into the heights. By the time the tree is rigged and ready to climb, dusk is approaching fast so the honey hunt is postponed until first light.
Back at camp, there is a tangible buzz in the atmosphere and everyone is gathered in the center of the clearing murmuring excitedly. Louis says that tonight the forest sprits will be coming to pay a visit. As I take a seat on the forest floor in the fading light, a group of the men begin pounding out a rhythm on their drums and an assortment of pots and tubs from the kitchen tent. Darkness closes in until the only lights visible are two small fires to one side. The potent smell of marijuana starts to permeate the smoke that still hangs over the clearing, joined by the now familiar chorus of song.
Somebody taps me on my arm and I reach for my head torch, illuminating a hand presenting me a smoldering joint. Almost instantly I am reprimanded by a chorus of exasperated gasps from the crowd around me and I quickly shut off the lamp plunging my vision into a pitch darkness. I take a large drag on the reefer and as my eyes try to acclimatize, I realize that all the fire light has now gone completely. Around my feet however, a dusting of faint green flecks has materialized, faintly sparkling in the blackness.
Louis says that forest spirits will be coming to pay a visit
Blinking a couple of times, I rub my eyes and shake my head briskly, causing the luminous dots to trace green light trails as they bound around in my vision. Pulling back, I realize that the ground around us is completely covered in these twinkling hallucinations, as if the stars themselves had fallen from the heavens. Suddenly in the distance to my left fluorescent shapes start appearing from the haze, undulating rhythmically as the pulse of their gyrations intertwine, merging then splitting as they begin to surround us on all sides.
As a crescendo of drumming and singing begins to build, the unfolding scene ignites an electrifying rush of energy which surges through my body and stands my hairs on end. All around us, the luminous shapes are now swirling up and down, bouncing and bobbing. A will-o'-the-wisp ball is darting back and forth and then suddenly rises into the sky and hovers above our crowd, darting back to the periphery after a few seconds. I am mesmerized.
I do not know how long I stayed seated in that clearing. The next morning I awake in my tent to the continued sound of singing and laughing. As I walk back into the village I feel exhilarated by last night’s experience which was as magical as it was beautiful.
We are all well aware that the Bayaka’s luminescent forest beings closely resemble a bioluminescent fungus found on the bark of local trees but it does not detract from the enchanting euphoria we all experienced. I am comforted too by the knowledge that all our attempts to film the spectacle produced absolutely nothing. For once, the magic will live on as our memories will be our only testimony.
My euphoria is short-lived, however. Shortly after breakfast it has morphed into pure dread. “When climbing a big tree you have to empty your mind of fear,” says Teté, with Louis translating. “If you have fear, you will fall. Many friends have died doing this.”
Standing at the bottom of the 40-meter tree, Teté is beside me holding a bundle of green leaves. His friend Mongongé is in the forest searching for a climbing harness. Mine is brightly colored and covered in brand logos. When Mongongé returns I am shocked to see that his is a dull brown length of dead liana. The contrast could not be more extreme.
I feel exhilarated by last night's experience
With a nod of acknowledgement, he wraps the liana around himself and the base of the huge tree trunk and incises his first foothold with a primitive axe, pulling himself up to the freshly cut step. I clip on to my ropes and take my own first upward steps, belaying up a single line. A quick glance above reveals that Mongongé has already climbed three or more meters ahead of me.
When you are as out of shape as I am, belaying up a rope can feel a bit like walking up a mountain in deep snow. For such large lunging steps, it can seem a rather unfair pay-off in terms of upward movement. My clothes are already soaked with sweat, flecked with wood chippings cascading from Mongongé’s footholds above me. Bees are a constant bother. Around my face, thousands of tiny sweat bees are making opportunist dives at my eyes and mouth.
In my pocket I have a redundant mesh mask, rendered unusable by the intense humidity. I have thick gaffer tape wrapped tightly around my neck, wrists and ankles to prevent the larger stinging bees from getting inside my clothes. It is a brave attempt to prevent what is unfortunately inevitable.
Below, clouds of thick white smoke bellow upwards from where Teté is holding a bunch of burning damp leaves. It is helping to pacify the swarms but causes my eyes to water profusely. After more than an hour of climbing, Mongongé is now well ahead of me – almost at the crown. I shout up for him to wait and he sits back in his harness, feet wedged into the trunk.
By the time I arrive next to my Bayaka colleague I am completely spent. A light head from over exertion has coupled with the dizziness of our height to produce an exceptionally uncomfortable sensation in my whole body. Next to me, Mongongé looks calm, sporting a wry smile. Close up, I notice a crude knot in his liana is the only thing stopping it from unslipping and releasing him to certain death below. The thought makes my stomach turn. Then I notice another part of the liana has begun to fray where it has rubbed up against the tree trunk during ascent.
The thought makes my stomach turn
I hurriedly begin to start working, snapping photos in quick succession to take my mind off the panic rising from the pit of my stomach. Focusing on my work has a transcendental effect and I begin to build up the confidence to start pushing myself away from the trunk in order to get a better perspective on our situation, abseiling into thin air and taking photos from the furthest point away from the tree as Mongongé starts to climb the final few metres to the crown. This time I don’t follow him. The fear and insects are getting the better of me and I decide to descend to observe from the base of the tree.
What happens next takes my breath away. As Mongongé reaches the hive, Tete attaches his burning bundle of leaves to the end of his partner’s liana and he begins to hoist it up the tree. A crowd has gathered around us. Among them is Mongongé’s wife. “The children aren’t afraid for him – just proud!" she says. “They say: ‘Wow! Look at dad!'”
Wow indeed. If it was not enough to be hanging 40 meters up a tree attached by only a vulnerable piece of liana and surrounded by stinging bees... now you have a bundle of burning leaves in your hand too.
The lengths some people will go to get a sugar fix.