Nature-watching in South Sudan

By J.L.

AT NIGHT in a slum room by the Nile I am woken by mosquitoes, then by thunder. When I wake again, before dawn, there is the sound of rain on the tin roof. The phone rings; the driver is waiting. The rain turns to drizzle. I drive down to the airstrip in a Toyota Land Cruiser that belongs to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The heavy car pitches like a ship on the dirt roads of Juba, the capital of the soon-to-be-independent country of South Sudan.

I have two goals this morning: to be one of the few people ever to see the second-largest animal migration in the world and not to puke up the “prosciutto” pizza I had for dinner last night. On the airstrip I meet up with Paul Elkan, an intrepid, dogged, and all-round all-star conservationist who heads up WCS’s activities in South Sudan. The charity is advising the government of South Sudan on the establishment of national parks and has taken a lead in properly documenting the animal migrations in South Sudan. The plane is a Cessna 182. It stands squeezed in between a couple of helicopters, a Twin Otter from the World Food Programme and another plane of the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service. Paul shows how the Cessna has been kitted out for aerial surveys of the animals—extra fuel tanks, more glass in the cockpit, more electronics, different landing gear and so on. It was gifted to the WCS by an American family and named for their daughter Annie, who died of cancer. The plane is expertly prepped by two South Sudanese employees of WCS. The wings have been chained to concrete bollards to prevent the plane being blown away in windstorms; there are no hangars in Juba.

Annie has flown 1675 hours so far, many of them with Paul at the controls. I am nervous. Despite the amount of flying I do in sticky and remote bits of Africa, I do not enjoy being in the air. Flying in Africa, even commercially, often means being buffeted by thermals rising up off broken pieces of land like bonfires. The sea feels more my element, but the sea is far away. Moreover, the last time I went animal-spotting in a small plane, in Kenya, I lost a heavy lunch into a thin plastic bag.

This morning is overcast however and less than 30º Celsius—cool by Juba standards. I clamber into the co-pilot’s seat. We take off and push through the blue mists hanging over the Nile and get out into the wild country to the east of Juba. A storm monitor shows activity to the north. Paul uploads the co-ordinates of the animals he has collared from Google Earth. He flies the Annie very low, with the windows open. The vultures in the tops of the dispersed savannah trees are distinct. For an hour we continue into a wild land the size of Denmark, which South Sudan hopes will be the Bandingalo National Park. There is a track cut from the black cotton soil. It turns to mud in the rains and is impassable for much of the year. But there is nothing else human in Bandingalo; no paths, no cattle, no fires, nothing humanly planted, no habitation of any kind. For this day I am a Gulliver, passing into a magical place which has never been touched.  Raed More about this story:

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