30-Nov-2008 -- Assault of the Army of Death – The conquest of Confluence 6N 3W
Ghepetto's howls of pain tore through the midday heat in the cocoa grove like a band saw ripping through a tin sheet. He was ahead of us by some 50 metres on the winding jungle trail when suddenly he veered into the bush and fell to the ground.
Moments earlier only the buzz of insects, and the thumping of boots on the jungle floor had broken the silence, as the Boys of Borneo marched towards confluence point 6N 3W. It was "situation normal". The location was some eight kilometres east of the Ivory Coast border and they were making good time. But all of that was about to end with the permanent finality of a thing entering an atom smashed, for "The Boys" were not the alone in this remote jungle. An inevitable rendezvous with a formidable force was fated. And Ghepetto would bear the full brunt of their assault...
The usual suspects: The Bull-necked Prussian, Ghepetto, the Toe-Cutter, Lieutenant Dan, Joseph the Mercedes Driver, and the Convict had left Kenyasi in the Brong-Ahafo province before sunrise in what had become a routine. It was a leisurely departure for we had travelled the route before. Two weeks earlier the sauna-like heat and steep lateritic terrain had thwarted attempts to reach our destination. But the group agreed that time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted, they licked their wounds and learnt from their mistakes, and were now determined to finish the job.
The rainy season had ended some weeks earlier and the countryside was turning a reddish shade of brown, as Harmattan – the season when fine dust blows south to from the Sahara – was taking hold. The Boys welcomed the change of seasons, at least while chasing confluence points.
"At least we won't be up to our arses in mud today," the Bull-necked Prussian barked, reminiscing about the conquest of 8N 1W five months earlier. On that adventure, deep mud and fast flowing water led to failure on our first attempt to reach the Confluence. By comparison, breathing gritty air for the next three months seemed like a small price to pay for the added mobility.
Atmospheric dust exaggerated the orange sunrise. As on any Sunday small communities were waking up as our Toyota cruised the bitumen ribbon towards the south-west. Women tended boiling cauldrons on smoky fires while children huddled nearby to for warmth against the early-morning chill. Livestock wandered seemingly aimlessly along the road, while churchgoers clad in their Sunday best, walked purposefully towards places of worship. Road signs bearing names like Nkasiem, Goaso, Nobekaw, and Boako flashed by.
Somewhere near the village of Sankore a patrol comprising a police officer and a soldier stopped us to search our vehicles for weapons. There had recently been instances of highway robbery in the district; the authorities were taking no chances. Asked for our identity documents, we produced them. The officers studied them intently.
"Welcome to Africa, Convict," Lieutenant Dan joked to the American neophyte in what proved to be a poor choice of words. No sooner had the word "Convict" left the Lieutenant's lips than the smile on the police officer's face disappeared, and he reached for his sidearm. "So why do they call you 'Convict', Sir?" the officer asked, moving menacingly closer to the hapless youth, motioning him to place his hands on the hood of the car. The joke was no longer funny. Just then our Mercedes-driving colleague, Joseph, stepped closer to the officer, and in a calm and quite voice explained in Twi language that the reference to the convict had been a joke – and a bad one at that. The officer nodded, returned our papers, and after wishing us a safe journey, waved us on our way. For a long time a sheepish Lieutenant Dan said nothing from the front seat...
At the village of Kunuma the excellent bitumen road ran due west for several kilometres before petering out to a rough clay track at Nkwanta. The Toyota limped slowly all the way to Dadieso more than 40 km to the southwest. From there a good gravel road took us directly south through patches of dense forest, to Dadiasam 16 km due south.
The village of Dadiesam is a small collection of wattle and daub buildings functioning as shops and dwellings occupied mainly by cocoa farmers. "It's in the bag now," said the Toe-Cutter stretching as he disembarked the Toyota after the long drive. We all felt confident about reaching our objective this time. We were welcomed back in Dadiesam like old friends. Emerging from the small crowd that gathered around our vehicle was our guide, Kwame, from two weeks earlier.
Kwame eagerly joined us for the hike that lay ahead. The small band of adventurers set off along a path winding through agricultural land, cocoa groves and into the forest on a thin trail that snaked before us. We set a brisk, yet conservative, pace for we knew that the forested hills ahead of us were a formidable obstacle. Under the tree canopy the humidity soared. Our collective pace deliberately slowed.
Having done our homework paid off: less than 45 minutes later we stood on the coveted confluence point 6N 3W. The Boys jubilated briefly, took photos, then turned back onto the main track and headed back towards the waiting vehicles. "Back to the truck, lads," Ghepetto chirped. "The champagne is chilling."
Ghepetto's impatience was palpable as he broke ranks and surged ahead of the main troop, almost at a double-time pace. Gradually he outpaced us, leaving an increasingly larger gap between him and us.
"Jesus, what the hell just happened to Ghepetto?" the Bull-necked Prussian barked suddenly. Ahead of us Ghepetto suddenly rolled down a small embankment adjacent to the track. But instead of getting up and continuing the march, he appeared to roll around flailing his limbs. A sound resembling that of a wounded animal bleated towards us from Ghepetto's direction.
The Toe-Cutter was the first to reach Ghepetto who by now was writhing on the ground, growling as if possessed by demons.
"Ants!" the Toe-Cutter exclaimed. "Ghepetto's covered in ants."
Clearly Ghepetto had tripped over the buttress root of a large Dipterocarpus tree next to the trail, and had fallen directly into the path of an army of ants on the march. The ants had swept mercilessly over him locking their bodies together to cover poor Ghepetto, biting him on exposed skin and under his clothes. By now Ghepetto's growls degenerated into a gurgle as anaphylactic shock took hold. The bludgeoning column of Army Ants was biting Ghepetto to death.
"My god, I do believe that's Aenictus aratus," Lieutenant Dan exclaimed, barely containing his excitement. "They are one of only two genera of army ants found in the Old World."
"Put a sock in it, Lieutenant," the Toe-Cutter barked. "We are about to lose Ghepetto."
"I wish the Sergeant Major was here," the Bull-necked Prussian mused. "She'd know what to do."
"But she's on a mission again," the Lieutenant replied. "Heaven only knows when she'll be back this time." The Boys had expected her to join them on this adventure, but when she failed to show at the rendezvous that morning, a check of her barracks had revealed a hastily scribbled note explaining that she had been called away. Her camouflage fatigues, jump-boots, and khukuri, her 18-inch Gurkha knife, were gone.
"Well, we can't just stand here," The Convict said. From his backpack he produced a can of insect repellant and leapt down the embankment, where he emptied the spray-can onto Ghepetto's twitching body. "Military strength," he winked.
As if on command the ants fled. The Convict, almost casually, picked up the convulsing Ghepetto and carried him up the embankment.
"We have to get him to a doctor or he will die," the Toe-Cutter said. "But we're a hundred miles from any hospital," the Bull-necked Prussian muttered. "I'm afraid Ghepetto is a goner..."
"There is a way," Kwame, our Ghanaian guide volunteered. "Please, Mr. Convict, get Mr. Ghepetto back to Dadiesam. Hurry!" The return pace was frantic. Ghepetto's body bounced like a rag doll on the Convict's broad shoulders as he jogged through the jungle sauna.
Once back at the village, Kwame ducked into a small wattle and daub hut. A moment later he motioned the Convict and Ghepetto into the hut. "Someone get a chicken!" Kwame instructed.
In the darkness, barely visible, was the outline of a thin old man hunched in the corner of the thatched hut. He was the village fetish priest. The Convict dumped the now motionless body at the feet of the priest.
"Quickly," the priest croaked, "bring the chicken here. The spirits must be pacified." The old man broke the chicken's neck and in a single motion pulled its head off. Blood spilled onto the clay floor in front of him, and splattered onto Ghepetto's lifeless form. The priest then produced a bottle of local Schnapps from a dirty rag. He poured the libation into the blood before him while chanting quietly, rocking back and forth on his haunches. He mixed the still-warm blood and the libation with his gnarly old hand, then rubbed the mixture on Ghepetto's forehead. Suddenly a lukewarm wind swirled within the hut; then as suddenly as it had started, died away.
Slowly Ghepetto opened first one twitching eye-lid, then the other. His breathing commenced, and became steady. Moments later he rolled onto his side, then onto an elbow. "Where's the Champagne?" he asked in a weak voice.