A Dangerous Detour In Central African Republic
by Fred Williams
I should have known that it was going to be a bad trip by what happened in Paris. I met Ken Barr 18 years ago when we were assigned as Yurt mates for a Chinese blue sheep hunt in Tibet. We became good friends, and when he booked a bongo hunt in Central African Republic (CAR), he bugged the hell out of me to go along. He knew I had not been successful on three prior trips to CAR in my quest for giant forest hog and yellow back duiker. My wife did not want me to go to CAR again since I nearly drowned in the Bodinge River there during trip number three, The Safari From Hell! Sweet talker that I am, she finally agreed.
I got to Paris before Ken, who was flying in from San Francisco. I came in from Miami. Unfortunately, none of his checked luggage arrived, and the airline folks could not determine exactly where the bags had gone. The next few hours were filled with dozens of phone calls with no results. The prospect of Ken flying about 900 miles by charter into deep wilderness with no gear was really bothering him, but, in the end, he boarded the plane to Bangui with me. I figured between the outfitter, Alain Lefol, and me Ken could borrow enough to get through the safari.
On arrival in Bangui, we wound up standing around on the tarmac for a while listening as the charter pilot pleaded with the locals to sell him some av-gas. We finally we took off. I used to own a small airplane, but haven't had a current pilot's license for a couple of decades. I still fly occasionally with friends, though. This means that I almost always sit in the co-pilot seat on charters, "...just in case!"
This background probably explains why I became very attentive when the pilot started descending about 2and a half hours into our four-hour flight. We had been flying above heavy clouds, which we then entered and were greeted by moderate to severe turbulence. The pilot refused to answer my calls, in French, over the intercom, which greatly concerned me. We broke through the clouds at about 500 feet, but it was pouring rain so hard it was very difficult to see anything, at least it was for me. He flew down along the side of a typical African dirt road loaded with mud puddles, made a 180, dropped the landing gear and extended the flaps. I was screaming at the idiot but was afraid to intervene on the controls.
Within a hundred meters of point where we touched down, there was a low dip in the road. When we hit it, red water flew up and over the plane. There were three or four seconds there when I could see nothing through the windscreen. Meanwhile, we were going about 80 miles per hour on a narrow and very wet dirt road. The pilot finally drove the plane into a field about 100 meters square, where a man stood in the pouring rain. He turned the plane back toward the road and shut down the engines. He then politely asked me to open the door and step onto the wing so he could deplane – "What the f...!" As he approached the man, a soldier in uniform drove out the woods on a motor bike, followed by 20 to 30 more soldiers, all armed with AK 47s. They formed a perimeter around the airplane. This was some serious shit, I told Ken.
I opened the door a bit and tried to understand what they were saying, but it was more like them yelling at each other, and I could understand only a part of what was being said. This went on for some time, and then the man who had been waiting handed the officer a satellite phone he had been making calls on from the time the soldiers arrived. One thing I did hear was the officer ordering the pilot to get the passengers off the plane as he was "taking us to headquarters". Whoever was on the sat. phone changed the course of the conversation, however, as the pilot, after another 20 minutes or so, came back to the plane, ran through the check list and started the engines. The soldiers had their rifles on their shoulders, just standing there watching us.
The pilot did the engine run-ups while still in the field, which I thought was quite unusual. Then he did a very odd thing – he revved up the left engine, pulled into the road and, using brakes, made a quick left turn. Before I could say anything, he screamed repeatedly through the intercom – "Ouvrez la port" (open the door), which I did. The sat. phone guy busted out of the bush, jumped on the wing and thrust a small package into my hand. Within a second, the pilot had the right engine roaring and the plane quickly gained rotation speed as I fought to get the door properly closed and locked as we lifted off. While he lifted the landing gear, retracted the flaps and then engaged the auto pilot, I had ample opportunity to massage the "tube" of brown paper. Whatever was in it was about five inches long and had a diameter of a 50-cent piece. I will now mention that a hobby of mine is gemology and jewelry design, and over the years I have held many rough (un-cut) stones in my hands.
Having possession of uncut diamonds is a very serious offense in CAR – the government even sends undercover agents into the streets trying to sell un-cuts to unsuspecting foreigners. We had just been part of a Blood Diamond transaction which could have put all of us in prison. I don't know if Global Rescue could have gotten us out of that "headquarters" place (we both had sat. phones), but thankfully we did not have to test their capability! While flying onward to camp, I made a mental note to upgrade my family plan with Global Rescue to include the security option!
During the course of 86 international big game hunts, I have been charged nine times by various dangerous game, plus I spent 13 months in Vietnam while in the Marine Corps. I have to admit that the feeling of utter helplessness and concern during this incident almost rivals being in combat. I will not go into the details about what took place later, but I will say that the charter pilot is now in prison.