The Hottest Place on Earth

In mid-afternoon, four hours later than I’d expected, we came at last to In Salah: a short stretch of unbroken pavement, a gas station crowded with trucks and smelling of diesel, a bitter dust rising in great clouds of yellow as the winds started up. A sand dune rose over the town as majestic as a cathedral and a few men were ascending it, laboring like lonely pilgrims, climbing to the old ksour on the other side, where the waters of a foggarra fed a tiny oasis. It was Friday, the Algerian Sabbath, and all the shops were closed. Only a few brown-burnoosed Arabs were shuffling through the streets.

In Salah was very dry and very dirty. It wasn’t the place I would have chosen to rest in after a miserable day of driving that awful road. It really was a horrible town; the only town, until I got into the Central African Republic where the white man’s brutality had destroyed most of human decency, in which I found almost nothing to admire. It had been for centuries a place where the Tuareg—the Blue People, the People of the Veil—and the Arab had traded and plundered and fought, but now the Tuareg and their camels were gone, and all that remained was that which could not leave, that which the winds had not swept away. 

Just inside the town we found a filthy campground surrounded by a high walled enclosure, and inside there was a little pump-well which with effort could be made to dribble salty water. We filled our buckets, rinsed off the dust, and walked into town. It was a town of mud-clay houses and sandy streets and awful pit toilets, nothing green, nothing but the sirocco wind and covered faces and everything parched and dry. Later I wrote in my diary, ‘The smell of the pit toilets is pervasive and awful beyond description. Impossible to relieve myself in them or even near them without retching. Everything is filthy, dirt is everywhere, the wind kicks up the sand and the dust gets in my throat.’

There was no hope here at all: I think I have never seen a place of greater despair. The men don’t smile—their shriveled faces are frozen in a gesture of toil and distrust, and the women are perpetually veiled so that you see only a single eye. Even the children—walk down the streets and they squat in the alleys, hunched over with dark suspicious eyes, obliquely staring at you, then later they wait outside the bakery and beg you for bits of bread. There has always been this desperation in the desert, where everything exists on the very edge of life—years ago Gordon Laing wrote of the beggars and the roving bands of thieves at In Salah. People, I believe, are not meant to live in the desert, and when they do they are trapped—no one, I am certain, would remain in In Salah if given the choice—and humanity withers in the sand like a dried flower.

We walked ankle-deep in sand to the square and went around the market—a few tired peddlers were squatting in the dust. Everywhere we walked there was the smell of unwashed bodies. You couldn’t blame anyone, it wasn’t anyone’s fault; water was too precious to waste on more than the occasional bath—soon enough my odor would be no better. The old wrinkled carrots, the purple onions, and the few pitiful oranges had attracted great swarms of flies (how to explain the great numbers of flies in the desert?) and the peddlers held them off with slow, lazy waves. A thin Arab in Western clothes stooped behind a few cotton shirts, a half dozen cigarette lighters, and a string of plastic belts; another stared blankly from behind a blanket of a few dark socks and random pieces of hardware—a few nuts and bolts, a small metal clamp, a single screwdriver. We walked round—you could smell the toilets even from here—and then the wind kicked up again and the dust burned my throat. I swallowed and swallowed but I couldn’t forget where the dust had been, in the filth and in the dung and in those horrible pit toilets.

Photo by Fred Abramowitz

It was winter in the Sahara and not especially hot—it took Niamey and Lomé for me to learn how hot the world can be—but a little Arab man, dirty and seedy-looking like everyone else, walked with us through town and told us that in summer, In Salah is the hottest place on earth. Last July, he said, it had been very hot. Temperatures had reached sixty-five degrees centigrade, and I thought: One hundred fifty degrees Fahrenheit. Many, many had died, he said. Many, many old people. He spoke with a calm, simple brutality; he took a certain pride in the deaths his town had suffered. He walked with us to the campground where I put on my cap. The sun was high and blinding my eyes. It was no more than eighty degrees Fahrenheit but I could feel the sun on my face, and I worried for the first time in Africa about sunburn.

Among the Gorillas

Two young men in army olive drab carrying rifles and machetes came to wake us the next morning. They were the guide and his assistant, and they said they would take us up the volcano and track the gorillas. It was very sunny and through the wisp of clouds we could see the peak of Rumengabo rising to nearly fourteen thousand feet, and to the east we could see the Virungas, the great chain of volcanoes that ranged all the way to Uganda.

No one knows the precise number of mountain gorillas in the wild but it is generally thought there are less than five hundred. It was Dian Fossey along with the naturalist George Schaller who forever altered the public image of the gorilla—he was no longer King Kong the wild beast, but now a gentle vegetarian giant, imperiled and tortured by poachers—and it was Fossey who discovered that gorillas could be habituated to the presence of humans. If you’ve seen her movie or read her book—Gorillas in the Mist—you know Fossey began working with the gorillas in Zaire, not far from where we were, before war drove her to Rwanda. The eco-business of leading travelers to visit the mountain gorillas was now established in Rwanda but it was new to Zaire and these gorillas we were to see living beneath Rumengabo, at an altitude of ten thousand feet, were among the most recently habituated and the least accustomed to humans. We were in fact to be among the first travelers to visit them.

It didn’t take long to get there. Almost at once we came to an open grassy meadow, and then we turned to walk vertiginously up a thick steep wall of mountain forest, and our guide and his assistant led the way, clearing the path with their sabers. Our guide said he’d begun habituating this family of gorillas less than six months before, usually he’d been alone or with his assistant; for months he’d spent nearly every day with them and knew where they’d spent the night. He led us over fallen trees and we scrambled up steep slopes, we pulled ourselves up by vines and pushed our way through thickets of bamboo. There was never any path; the man in front was slashing and cutting all the time. It was hot and humid, tiny flies bit us and the prickly bramble stung our arms, and of course there were the ants, always the ants. If you stopped and weren’t careful they were quickly up your pants.

Then the man in front stopped. I noticed a queer smell, something sharp and very musky and unmistakable, an animal-like excrescence, sweet and somewhat sour and very, very wild. Our guide pointed with his saber to a matted area in the bush. This was the nest where they had slept last night, he said. He said they had a newborn infant, only ten days old, and they would not be very far.

So for half hour we walked, slowly, creeping along in silence except for the slashing of the machete, in what seemed to be a great arc on the side of the mountain. Our guides were bending over and looking for signs, for clues, but I didn’t know what those might be. There was an anticipatory air, a sense of high suspense, and I found myself practically holding my breath. The sun pierced the jungle in oblique patches of an unsettling and shimmering bright white light. Though the jungle was thick, there were occasional views down the steep slope to the valley thousands of feet below. The guide said we were at about thirty-five hundred meters—over eleven thousand feet. 

Suddenly our guide stopped and lowered a hand for silence. He began a chant, a deep, throaty rhythmic drone; it was a soothing sound, like a man softly clearing his throat—HMMM-hmmm, HMMM-hmmm. It is called a double belch vocalization and to gorillas it is the sound of reassurance, like a greeting of peace, and in the thick mountain and bamboo forests guides and gorillas use it to announce their presence and movements to each other. Then our guide beat gently on his breast. I thought it was just a humorous caricature, done only for our amusement, but then I realized it wasn’t. I was aware that the forest, a bramble so thick and tall we could see nothing but our immediate surroundings which moments before had buzzed with the sounds of insects, was suddenly very still. Even the flies had vanished. The silent air was charged with expectation.

Our guide motioned us to be still. With the tip of his saber he cut a piece of thicket as one would slice a piece of paper and leaning over and spreading the bush like a magician parting a curtain he revealed a gorilla who was squatting and munching on a leaf. The gorilla was scarcely five feet away. He could have reached out and touched me. I stifled a recoil of fear; for though he was only a juvenile male he was still quite large, certainly large enough to finish me off with one casual swat. But he merely looked up at me, eyeing me curiously and benignly. 

I quickly gathered myself and then we regarded each other for a moment, and as I looked down into his soft, gold-brown eyes under his great ridged brows, I could suddenly see in them every human emotion, and looking at his face as he chewed on his leaf, I could imagine it capable of expressing human pleasure and human pain; it was a face capable of the full range of human expression. He seemed far closer to me, and not just in distance, than I ever would have imagined. Then he frowned, shifting his eyes so as not to stare, as if trying to be polite, and he scratched his chin and yawned, revealing his great canines, and we all gasped with astonishment.

And then at once we were aware that the forest all around us was rustling with gorillas. They move slowly, the gorillas, and in every direction through the luminescent green forest and through the bamboo we could see large black objects of glistening fur creeping along on all fours, moving with a regal authority. I straightened and looked around; not fifteen yards away a female gorilla crouched in a tree and nursed a newborn infant and she appraised us with a steady protective gaze, while nearby two small juveniles, child-like with their big ears and broad grinning faces, spun playfully on a liana, stripping leaves off the vine and stuffing them in their mouths. Drowsy gorillas lay together in dark furry heaps, warming themselves in the sun; adult gorillas cradled babies maternally in their armpits and on their bellies; a young male did a slow backwards somersault off a tree—whether intentionally or not, I couldn’t tell—and when he straightened up he looked about open-mouthed with a simple surprised joy.

I don’t know whether I’d expected to be afraid; I don’t think I’d considered the matter at all, but whatever fear I’d felt of these great creatures had vanished. I watched an infant clamber up to be with a larger male in the crook of an enormous tree and pull playfully on his goatee and the male, his arm dangling nonchalantly, began to yawn and chuckle lazily. I knew it was easy to feel anthropomorphic, to ascribe to these animals human attributes when perhaps they weren’t there, and you can get a bit sentimental and mawkish about it, but crouching there in the luxurious vegetation, in that bright moment of bamboo and trees and oblique sunshine, surrounded by this family of placid and playful gorillas, I felt I was watching one of the most peaceful and beautiful scenes on earth, and I didn’t want it to end. I couldn’t help but think back to some ancient idyllic time, to the Dawn of Man or maybe the Garden of Eden, but the serenity of the scene was, I knew, largely illusory. As Gorillas in the Mist made clear, the rifle our guide carried was not for the gorillas but for poachers, who value the animal’s head and hands as ashtrays and skeletal trinkets, and who try to capture the infants for zoos and private collections. And the gorillas, though gentle creatures, are animals of great courage. Entire families must be exterminated to capture a single youngster.

There were twenty-two gorillas in this group, unusual in that there were two great silverbacks, the dominant males so named because of the saddle of gray hair on their backs. George Schaller had shown years ago that a mountain gorilla would not attack a man who held his ground, and we had been warned that if charged we were not to turn and run, but that’s easier said than done. So when the old silver-back, a Kong-like creature with a formidable domed head who weighed nearly five-hundred pounds, rushed through the forest and exploded towards us unexpectedly with the quickness of a cat, screaming and roaring and exposing his massive teeth, we all dumbly did the proscribed and turned our backs on him to flee. The silver-back stopped and veered off at the last possible moment as our guide playfully waved him away with his saber, after which he turned to us and smiled: Tres bon, oui? Tres, tres bon, oui? For a few minutes we were all too shaken to say much; but at that moment I was certain of one reassuring thing: our guide would fight to the death to save his friends the gorillas.

The other silver-back was nearly as large and nearly as sour, rearing up and thumping his chest when we approached, half-heartedly pounding the ground three or four times, then finally just grunting at us in mild accepting annoyance, but he seemed a bit more tolerant—at least he didn’t charge us. Our guide, who had named them all, said this one was Rafiki (friend, in Swahili) and that he was the first gorilla he’d come to know. Rafiki’s head and upper body were massive, and we followed him for some time as he walked through the forest with his great gorilla majesty, moving regally, almost in slow motion. Occasionally he would stop and, munching on a leaf, stare at us over his shoulder with an impenetrable expression, but one that somehow to me suggested a deep wisdom. When at last he grew weary of our presence he jettisoned us by tucking into a great ball and rolling some ways down the mountain. It was a curious but efficient way to travel. The bushes flattened like twigs beneath his enormous weight and the ground trembled.

We spent several hours among the gorillas, and by then I felt I’d got to know them a little, at least enough to understand the special attachment that Dian Fossey and others who’d spent time with them felt, and I left feeling I’d just spent some of the most extraordinary few hours of my life. 

It was three and one-half hours back down the mountains to the park headquarters, but all the way down we spoke of the gorillas. Even Eugene, somber and morose these past days, seemed cheerfully affected, happier than he’d been since when we’d first left Kisangani: when he got to wherever he was going he would have stories to tell. We all sat in a schoolroom near the headquarters and drank beer and water and in late afternoon we loaded the car for the drive back to Rutshuru. At the time the visit to the gorillas cost about $30 for one of the great experiences of my life. And all the way to Rutshuru I couldn’t take my thoughts from Rafiki and the rest of the gorillas.

Photo by Fred Abramowitz