SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
September 05, 1983
Heroic efforts to create one of Africa's newest game parks, Boma in Sudan, a land replete with kob and zebras (below), are beset by hellish difficulties
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September 05, 1983

Land Of Hope And Travail

Heroic efforts to create one of Africa's newest game parks, Boma in Sudan, a land replete with kob and zebras (below), are beset by hellish difficulties

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At first Snyder hesitated at Faust's offer. "I already had paradise on Mount Kenya," he says. "But I couldn't overlook the most fantastic challenge I could ever have in my life."

Challenge, indeed. Southern Sudan suffers from an economic narcolepsy as stupefying as anything injected by the tsetse fly. Everything from kitchen matches to giant earthmovers had to be imported to Boma from the outside. For eight months of the year, from late April to early December, the Indian Ocean monsoon swirls over Boma, dumping nearly five feet of rain on the high country and turning the "black cotton" soil into a greasy, seemingly bottomless quagmire. During the other four months, the land bakes rock-hard, the elephant grasses wither to tinder and, in a time-honored tradition among African hunters and drovers, the tribesmen burn it at every opportunity. Burning encourages the growth of new grass, which feeds both cattle and wildlife, and over the centuries the trees—mainly acacia and Combretum (a genus of climbing or trailing shrubs that includes the leadwood tree, whose trunks, even dead, seem never to decay)—have adapted to the practice.

But the fires make flying doubly hazardous. The smoke from hundreds of square miles of burning grasslands swirls up and mixes with the haboob, the hot, sand-laden wind of northeast Africa that has been the bane of travelers for eons. Samuel Baker was appalled by his first taste of the haboob: "I saw, approaching from the S.W. apparently, a solid range of immense brown mountains, high in the air. So rapid was the approach of this extraordinary phenomenon, that in a few minutes we were in actual pitchy darkness.... We tried to distinguish our hands placed close before our eyes—not even an outline could be seen."

Until recently, when Snyder rigged a rain-collection system, water had to be trucked into camp from a water hole shared with the game some 25 miles away. That water, scummy and dark green with algae and antelope droppings, must be boiled, strained into jerricans and treated with alum before it is potable. Just getting the park's trucks to the camp required a safari worthy of a mechanized Livingstone. Last December at Kenya's main seaport of Mombasa, a freighter off-loaded a 100-ton cargo including two ex-German army road graders, a four-axle leviathan (called anomalously by its trade name, Faun), which is used to carry other vehicles, a 16-wheel trailer and extensive supplies and spare parts. Leaving the two road graders behind for another shipment, Faust, Conrad Aveling, a British wildlife biologist, and Alois Pscheidt, a German mechanic, headed into the "back of beyond."

It was Christmas, and the first Boma Olympics—organized by a 36-year-old Presbyterian missionary from Kansas, John Haspels—was in full swing: footraces on the dusty airstrip, hectic games of chiefs-catch-the-chicken and, for the women, 100-meter dashes with bottles on their heads.

In January Aveling and Pscheidt returned to Mombasa to get the two graders. Braving dust storms, 100° temperatures, severe diesel fuel shortages and the maniacal driving styles of Kenyan truck and bus drivers, they moved at 15 mph up through the sweltering Rift Valley and arid Turkanaland on into Sudan. When they reached Boma in March, they were greeted by naked Toposa hunters, each carrying a sheaf of spears in one hand and the traditional one-legged stool in the other. At the beginning of the journey, the English biologist could speak no German, the mechanic no English. "By the time we got there," said Aveling, "we were fluent—in one another's cusswords."

When the equipment arrived, Snyder and his assistant, 23-year-old Tim Tear of Acton, Mass., could get to work on one of their primary jobs: laying out a network of roads and airstrips through the park. Simultaneously, Snyder had had to develop a core area around the headquarters, establish an administrative system amenable to the tribes, hire game scouts from among the local tribesmen and set up outposts on park boundaries where the scouts, he hoped, would keep a sharp eye out for professional poachers and provide assistance to visitors. "Even if they're only grass huts with radios, that'll be good enough for a start," Snyder said. "This isn't Yosemite, after all."

Almost from the moment he first landed on the overgrown airstrip left over from World War II, when the British built forts on the Boma escarpment to forestall an invasion from Italian-held Ethiopia to the east, Snyder ran into "human-relations problems." A native he had hired as an assistant mechanic was found dead one night, stabbed through the heart. Two men were arrested. "I think he was killed because the others were jealous of his status," Aveling said.

Another employee, who had beaten another park worker and was locked in the corrugated iron hut that serves as the park's main office, narrowly escaped with his life when his irate co-workers thrust their spears through the hut's walls, hoping to skewer him. They tried to chop off the door with an ax.

During his first two months at Boma, Snyder paid the locals in foodstuffs and salt—a traditional medium of exchange in Africa's remote interior. It could be traded at the nearest towns, Pibor Post, 115 miles to the northwest, and Kapoeta, 80 miles to the southwest, for bullets, cooking oil, machete-like pangas or the razor blades tribesmen use to carve the elaborate cicatrices that adorn their bodies.

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