Quantcast
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

A Solana Beach man's African adventure

It was really quite hallucinogenic, somehow

Wheeler and Flagg decided to fly to Niamey (the capital of Niger) and find some other Tuareg nomad to guide them across the desert. - Image by Bill Wheeler
Wheeler and Flagg decided to fly to Niamey (the capital of Niger) and find some other Tuareg nomad to guide them across the desert.

In 1983 a San Diego County resident named Bill Wheeler began a 15,000-mile driving trip across Africa that eventually took him to the Mountains of the Moon, the mystical peaks just east of the Zairean rain forest. Tourists almost never climb those mountains; indeed, when Wheeler arrived at the base of one of them, even the park rangers hadn’t made the ascent for some time. They were afraid of Ugandan bandits, rumored to have killed and eaten a local man, who’d been sighted on the trails.

Wives of Masai elders. Masai elders spat out honey beer all over his bride.

But Wheeler wanted to see the pinnacle. He had to get there. His three American traveling companions stuck with him for one grueling uphill day but then refused to continue, and the African park ranger and porter in their company did likewise. Wheeler threatened the Africans with a rifle, and when even that didn’t move them, he finally won their cooperation by offering them double pay.

Masai women

The next evening, Wheeler and the two Africans reached a hut located above 10,000 feet, where they were shot at, at close range, by the Ugandans, who disappeared into the brush. After spending a miserable night in the freezing, smoke-filled shelter, Wheeler somehow bullied the ranger and porter into continuing the ascent. Many times the men fell as they struggled over muddy trails made slippery by the icy rain.

Camel market, Agadez, Niger

Somewhere above 12,000 feet, the Africans refused to go on, so for a while Wheeler, alone and unarmed, followed in the Ugandans’ fresh footsteps. Short of the peak, he stopped and gazed at the rain forest far below. “I could feel strange eyes upon me, hidden eyes that were hungry and filled with silent intent,” he would later write in an account of the trip. What had driven him on? He finally concluded,

Wheeler’s party spent six weeks crossing the rain forest.

“I... wanted just to be high up for once and get a clearer view, a wider view, of things not seen from down below.”

Then he went down the mountain, and not long afterward, he returned to Rancho Santa Fe and to his job as an anaesthesiologist. Today he lives in Solana Beach, though he has abandoned his medical career. It was a victim of the force that has drawn him back to Africa a dozen more times and has yielded a suitcaseful of anecdotes rivaling those about his journey up the mountain.

Wheeler at home in Solana Beach with his diaries

There was his marriage (to his second wife) in a traditional tribal ceremony in which Masai elders realistically spat out honey beer all over his bride. There was the time Wheeler escaped from a charging buffalo by leaping into a tree, only to watch helplessly as the animal broke the back of one companion and then tried again and again to drive his horns into the man. On another occasion, Wheeler and a Masai friend traveled for weeks on horseback through wild, open parts of Kenya and Tanzania, where Wheeler cracked a bullwhip to scare off lions and elephants.

His stories are so extreme that it’s almost hard to believe them. Or maybe they’re hard to believe for another reason. Remember the Africa of everyone’s childhood? Perhaps it only sprang out of a few paragraphs in a school book or the pictures in the National Geographic, but that Africa was a mysterious and beautiful land, a land of humid jungles and fathomless diamond mines, of camel caravans bearing salt over gigantic sand dunes. Smiling, bare-breasted natives and Pygmies and vast herds of galloping giraffes populated that Africa. But they gradually faded, didn’t they, giving way to images of Idi Amin and repressive Afrikaaners, to swollen-bellied famine victims and bloody elephant corpses. In Bill Wheeler’s mind, however, the gorgeous images never faded. And over the past dozen years, he has sought out, and found, the Africa of Livingston and Burton and, for short snatches of time, lived there.

Wheeler says at first he knew absolutely nothing about contemporary Africa. “I’d never met anybody who ever went there. I had no idea what I was getting into. I couldn’t even find a travel agent who could tell me anything about it.”

That was in 1979, the same year he moved to San Diego. Up to then, his medical career had consumed long hours and left little time for adventure travel. But Wheeler says he was haunted by his memories of childhood summers spent at a cabin in the South Carolina backwoods. He enjoyed an amazing freedom there — exploring the local swamp, catching turtles and hunting snakes and fishing on the river. He often fantasized about being Tarzan, deep in the African jungle, which he promised himself he would visit one day.

When, at age 35, he finally had the time, the inclination, and the money to keep that pledge, he learned that Zaire — the principal site of the African rain forests — was in the throes of a civil war. So Wheeler instead decided upon a six-week vacation in Kenya.

His account of that trip, colored by his still-strong South Carolina accent, could be subtitled “Gomer Pyle Meets the Dark Continent.”

Wheeler, now 47, scarcely looks like a macho adventurer. Tall and gangly, he blinks at the world from behind wire-frame glasses. His head is balding, but he has a disarming, childlike quality, by turns exuberant and shy. From the inception, he didn’t envision joining any herd of tourists; he wanted to experience the real Africa. He didn’t know if camping was allowed in the Kenyan game reserves, but he planned to spend his time that way. “I had no idea what to expect.

“I got off the plane, and they had machine guns and barbed wire around the airport,” he recalls, wide-eyed. In the streets of Nairobi, “people were carrying clubs and wearing helmets. The stores at night had guards that sat in front of fires out on the street.”

He checked into “a little two-bit African hotel,” where he was the only person with white skin, and he eventually found a car-rental agency owned by Indians, who told him he could indeed camp. “I got some maps out, and they showed me about where to go, and I remember, man, I was scared... to ... death!" He reached the game reserve about dusk, and some Africans told him where he could set up his tent. “It wasn’t like a campsite with a sign or anything. It was just sort of a place where you see an old fire.... I was really hungry, but I was too frightened to cook, ’cause I’d have to cook outside the tent. My image was, between the time you got from your car to the tent — WHAM! — the animals would just run out and nail you, you know what I mean?” He wasn’t too sure about his safety in the tent either, having seen a news photo of one hooked on a rhino’s horn. At the same time, he knew he’d never sleep in his car, “so I set up the tent right by the car, and I jumped out of the car and I jumped in the tent. I took a tranquilizer to put me to sleep and an aspirin so that if I got eaten during the night, I’d at least have some pain relief.”

He survived the night, and as he began to explore the reserve, the animals thrilled him. He says he wondered what it would be like to walk up to them. “Do they just come and eat you, or do they not? Do they run away? What do they do?” He figured “the only way I’m gonna know what it’s like is to just face it and see. So when he spotted a big herd of elephants, he stopped his car and walked right into the middle of them. Their lack of aggression encouraged Wheeler to saunter past a watchful buffalo. “I’m just walking along, saying, ‘Oh, they look like cows. They can’t hurt you.’ I saw some lions, and I got out and walked around them.... And I said, ‘This isn’t so bad, you know?’ ”

He was feeling pretty cocky when he ran into a writer from Los Angeles whose car had broken down. “Hey, man, I got the hang of it!” Wheeler shouted joyously. “I’ll take you!” He led the fellow into another herd of elephants, where the two snapped photos of each other. A while later, they saw a lion eating a wildebeest under a tree, so they parked expectantly, “and the minute this guy got out of the car and the door shut, this lion jumped in the air and just skidded to a stop at the guy’s feet and stood there and went ROOOAAARRR. The guy literally turned white. He was in the car — BAM — like that.” The man was so terrified, for a moment he couldn’t move. “The windows were rolled down and the lion just looked in the window ... face to face with the guy. I can remember looking at the lion’s eyeballs, and they looked about THAT big around, like big yellow agates. I’ll never forget that look. But the guy couldn’t roll the window up.” Finally, Bill and the other man started laughing hysterically, and the lion padded away.

Wheeler says a day or two later, while picnicking among another herd of elephants, he noticed a young woman parked in a Land Rover, watching him. He learned that she was the renowned zoologist Cynthia Moss, who told him that in the 13 years she’d been studying elephants, she never once had gotten out of her car to walk among them. As Wheeler talked to people and began to learn how dangerous the animals really were — and how lucky he was not to have been killed by them — he began staying in his car too.

He returned home well satisfied by the trip and three years later returned to show off Kenya to his nine-year-old daughter Emily. But Wheeler says he still harbored a nagging desire to go to the rain forest “and play like when I was a kid.” By 1983 the internal strife in Zaire had abated, but that country’s transportation network was reported to be so primitive that Wheeler became convinced the best way to visit the African jungle was to buy a Land Rover in Europe, ferry it across the Strait of Gibraltar, and drive the 3500 miles to the heart of the continent. Taking a leave of absence from the hospital, he began making arrangements. It was January of 1984 when, accompanied by Emily (then ten) and an adventurous young married couple from San Diego, Wheeler finally found himself on the trans-Saharan highway leading south from Morocco.

In the months that followed, Wheeler was to change in many ways, but none more than in his attitude toward the Sahara. When he left Morocco he knew nothing about it. “All I wanted was just to get to ... the rain forest. The Sahara was just an obstacle, one I really didn’t want to cross.” Wheeler says he hadn’t read much about the desert or its people, “and I didn’t expect to like it. I just wanted to get across it and... thank God that I had survived.”

The crossing started grimly. After a run-in with extortionate border guards, Wheeler’s party found the Algerian countryside to be an ugly, barren place inhabited by an indifferent people who had nothing either to sell or trade. After a few days, the Americans’ spirits sank further when they found themselves in a landscape so studded with jagged rocks that they couldn’t even set up their tent. Sunset approached, and as Wheeler resigned himself to driving through the night, his mind began to wander. He saw what looked like a scoop of orange ice cream begin to rise out of the asphalt far ahead of him. It “grew larger, taller, until it stood towering at the end of the road.” Wheeler has written about that moment:

  • Suddenly, I snapped back to reality. Stopping at the top of a narrow pass that led through the rocky plateau, Emily and I jumped out of the [Land Rover], hugging each other and shouting with excitement as we laughed and danced m the road. As far as we could see lay giant sand dunes ... that rose and fell like a rolling sea, gold in the setting sun.

Wheeler was overwhelmed by the beauty of those colossal dunes, and his group camped among them for days, frolicking like children. At one point, they left the highway and drove 60 miles through the wilderness to find an oasis they had heard about; there they were welcomed into the homes of people who had never before been visited by tourists. As Wheeler’s party drove south, they watched the dunes gradually flatten, and after nine days, the Land Rover finally came to the edge of the Tanezrouft, the so-called desert of thirst, "a desert within a desert.”

“Four-hundred and fifty miles across in the shortest direction, the Tanezrouft is the largest and most desolate, totally barren place on this planet,” Wheeler has written about it. It “sustains no life of any kind.... Alone in the center, a bird may be seen passing nonstop overhead on its seasonal migratory route between Europe and West Africa....” Otherwise it is empty.

  • I had been told that in recent times, Land Rovers have disappeared, yet to be found.... In this vast, empty space, a slight miscalculation in direction, a simple inattention to detail, and you could become lost, wandering 3000 miles to the Nile River, without seeing a soul. A simple mechanical failure, and you must fix it or wait and pray for a miracle, until your water is depleted. Radio contact is impossible, as the Algerian government forbids its use.

There’s no road across this place. The 100 or so motorists who cross it every year simply follow the previous travelers’ tire tracks in the sand. In the three days that Wheeler’s group spent driving through it, there were times when they became disoriented and frightened, yet Wheeler, more than anything, felt exhilarated. “It’s like being in Antarctica. You’re traveling on a blank piece of paper, and you’ve got to be totally self-sufficient.” In this great void, even the most insignificant details — rocks, the color of the sky — seemed immensely absorbing to him (though he says the Tanezrouft struck the others as boring and depressing). When they came to the end of it, Wheeler felt sad. “I knew the rest of the trip would be exciting, but I knew it would be nothing like that.”

A great deal did indeed lie before them. In the Sahel, the transition zone south of the Sahara, Wheeler gawked at the camel-riding, sword-wielding Tuareg nomads, dashing in their flowing robes but hard-pressed by years of drought. Wheeler slowly came to appreciate the Tuaregs’ profound religious faith, their anarchic independence, their intimate knowledge of the land.

He and his party began to move east, crossing Nigeria, where a coup one month earlier had left that country in a state of chaos. Wheeler heard rumors that in Lagos, the capital city, thieves were mobbing arrivals at the airport, pursuing them to their taxis and climbing inside the open windows. One traveler told of people being burned to death by vandals on the street, while another had witnessed public executions being held in a local stadium before cheering throngs.

Despite some harrowing moments, Wheeler’s group escaped into Cameroon and proceeded to the Central African Republic, where Wheeler came to a spot overlooking the Oubangui River near Bangassou. There, “The view was high up, and fresh, like from the cockpit of an open plane,” Wheeler has written; “the moist air was heavy with fertility.” His eyes wandered “among clouds of mist and over pink bougainvilleas suspended from giant lianas, before trailing down to the tannic waters of the river, where the view opened up to become immensely wide and green, a rain forest stretching unbroken to the Mountains of the Moon, a thousand miles away.”

Wheeler’s party spent six weeks crossing the rain forest. The jungle seemed crowded, dense with both unbelievable plant life and curious natives. Of the crossing, Wheeler wrote:

  • Seldom were we alone to eat, sleep, or even to carry out bodily functions. They were everywhere. Along the road their faces pressed against the windows of the [Land Rover], until nose and lip prints covered the dusty glass. At night they emerged from the forest, to stand in the shadows of our campsite, watching our every move.... And in the morning, when we unzipped the tent door, they were there again, as if they had waited all night.

When the others drove, he and Emily often perched on soft bed rolls tied to the roof rack, their feet dangling over the windshield as father and daughter savored the cool moist air and forest fragrances. Wheeler managed to leave the road and penetrate the forest on a few occasions, glimpsing what the natives’ lives were like. By this point in the trip, however, the Land Rover had developed engine trouble that limited its progress to only about 20 miles an hour. With the rainy season fast approaching, the party had to press westward.

Yet even as Wheeler drew close to the eastern perimeter of the rain forest, he’d gotten an inspiration. What he’d really like to do, he decided, would be to explore the rain forest on foot, seeing and smelling and feeling it as its native inhabitants had done for millennia. A similar vision had struck him in the Sahara; he had yearned to join a camel caravan. As things turned out, other trips (among them foot and horse safaris in East Africa) distracted him for half a dozen years. But early in 1990, he did finally return to Zaire with the aim of duplicating on foot Henry M. Stanley’s 1887-1889 trip through the Ituri Forest.

Wheeler says that journey was Stanley’s worst ever. More than 300 members of the explorer’s expeditionary team died (principally of starvation), and in Through the Dark Continent, Stanley later described (in Wheeler’s words) “a horrible, dark, damp, stinking, mosquito-infested forest, where the natives are always pinging you with arrows.” But Wheeler thought it sounded great. “It was the classical rain forest; the thing you dream about! The darkest heart of Africa.

“I had a lot of the problems [Stanley] had, but I had completely new solutions.” Instead of assembling a huge entourage, for instance, Wheeler traveled light, accompanied only by a friend from San Francisco and seven Pygmies familiar with the area the Americans wanted to cover. This group traveled together for five days, by which time Wheeler’s friend had enough of the jungle. But Wheeler hungered for more, so he and three new Pygmies made a separate week-long foray, tracing more of Stanley’s route. Although Wheeler carried ample food supplies with him, he says he could have learned the skills to survive in the forest as a hunter-gatherer, “whereas Stanley, living with all those people, was totally dependent upon getting the hell out of there.... You can’t forage enough to support a big mass of people.”

“Stanley came to something he feared and grew to hate, and I came to something I loved and got ecstatic about,” Wheeler says. Snakes and insects were unobtrusive, he says, and the impenetrable vegetation, which often terrifies even non-claustrophobes, rather than bothering Wheeler, evoked fond memories of his childhood. “It was exactly like the swamp where I grew up, but the trees were incredible!" Traveling with the Pygmies “was really like being in the forest with the Seven Dwarfs. It was magical,” Wheeler exclaims. Leaf-wrapped bundles of edible mushrooms would suddenly materialize, hanging from the Pygmies’ belts.

Next thing Wheeler knew, the Pygmies would be smoking wild marijuana that they’d harvested. “Then we’d stop for camp, and I’d be putting up my tent, and I would look around and a fire would be going. They don’t have any matches! So how’d they get that fire going? Next thing I know, I’m still putting my tent up and they’re lying on a fluffy deep bed of leaves. And then they’re pulling stuff out of the fire — balls of leaves containing food. It looks like nobody did anything. They’re just so fast.”

Wheeler didn’t speak any of the Pygmies’ languages, but he says, “You can begin to communicate just by pointing. You kind of get to know these guys. They got great personalities!” He recalls one day when rain was pouring and the Pygmies looked a little miserable, but Wheeler began singing and skipping through the rain water. “And the bushes started looking completely different. We just started grabbing bushes and feeling them, and everything felt different. So then the Pygmies started singing. We were all singing. It was thundering and lightning. We were just dancing through the forest. It was really quite hallucinogenic, somehow.”

The more he traveled with them, the more he realized to what extent they inhabited a spirit world. He says the highlight of the trip for him came one night in a camp inhabited by just one or two families. Excited by Wheeler’s presence, they began making music and dancing. “Their singing is incredible,” Wheeler comments; he says it’s an “auditory kaleidoscope,” in which weird tones and cascading sounds blend and resound. After hours of nonstop celebration, everyone finally went to sleep about midnight. But two or three hours later, Wheeler heard a quiet tap-tap on a drum. The taps built, and little tones began to pierce the darkness. “All of a sudden there was this big rustling, like wind was blowing the leaves, and all the people got up, and they didn’t start a fire.” Wheeler says they started singing and dancing again, but in a manner solemn and intense, totally different from before. This continued until dawn, then Wheeler heard voices trailing off. “It hadn’t been done for me. It was a communication with the spirits of the forest.”

With the rain forest trek completed early last year, ’Wheeler immediately began planning his camel trip — the final part of his quest to see Africa’s three great bioregions just as the early explorers saw them. He thought he had the perfect traveling companion. While on the Land Rover trip, Wheeler had met a nomad known as El Bechir in a little village not far from the city of Gao, in Mali. The two men had felt an instant rapport, and El Bechir spent a week traveling with Wheeler’s party around the countryside. Wheeler learned then that El Bechir and his camels annually covered a 1000-mile circuit that brought them to Gao every winter. In 1986 Wheeler had sent a letter to a mutual acquaintance in Gao, saying he wanted to meet El Bechir the following January (1987), when he planned to buy a camel and ride with the nomad for about 800 miles. Right on schedule, Wheeler arrived at the Atlantide Hotel in Gao. “It’s one of those old Humphrey Bogart hotels that you dream about with this little fan in the ceiling and people coming through in desert robes. There’s a little bar, and everyone celebrates there ’cause they’ve just crossed the Sahara.” As Wheeler checked in, he spotted a note pad on which was scribbled, “El Bechir meeting, January 1st.” Says Wheeler, “I felt like I was checking into a medical convention!”

But nothing else on that trip worked out well. Though Wheeler’s letter had reached El Bechir’s friend, El Bechir himself had already departed on his annual migration and consequently knew nothing about Wheeler’s travel plans. Wheeler searched for the nomad but finally returned to San Diego in defeat. Later, he learned that El Bechir had shown up just three days later. Wheeler then wrote, promising to return again that November, but he changed his plans and didn’t go. Much later he received an angry letter from El Bechir, telling how he had hung around Gao waiting for Wheeler for eight days in November of 1987.

Despite these fiascoes, Wheeler and El Bechir once again made tentative plans to meet in January of 1991. But last fall, political developments intervened. In September a group of Tuaregs raided a Niger government armory, and the authorities retaliated by slaughtering a group of Tuareg women and children. Fighting was breaking out sporadically in the countryside, and Wheeler was getting conflicting reports about the safety of travel in Niger and Mali. “You can’t get any information!” he said irritably. “You call the Mali embassy and they say, ‘Oh, everything’s wonderful! There’s no problem!’ And then you call the American government and they’ll always say, ‘Oh, it’s horrible!’ You actually have to go to Gao and give your passport to the police and see if they stamp it and give it back. And then you have to go out in the bushes and see how scared you feel. And if you feel too scared, you come back. And if it doesn’t bother you, you keep going until somebody shoots you!”

A week or so later, Wheeler heard that El Bechir himself had run afoul of the Mali government and had barely escaped from the country with his life. Then, just when it seemed as if the camel trip might never materialize, Wheeler found someone else willing to join him on his adventure, a Dartmouth undergraduate named Flagg Miller, who was specializing in Middle Eastern studies. The two decided to fly to Niamey (the capital of Niger) and find some other Tuareg nomad to guide them across the desert. Wheeler left San Diego this past January 10.

He returned two months later, emaciated but exultant. He and Flagg had decided to start in Agadez, a small, mud-walled adobe village where Wheeler knew a friend of a friend.

Through him, the Americans found a Tuareg named Belel, who agreed to help them buy four camels (one for each of the three men, plus a pack animal) and lead them through the Saharan wasteland. Almost immediately problems developed. First the nomad demanded $20 a day (instead of the standard daily wage of $3), and then he slyly registered some of the camels in his own name (until the Americans noticed and made him change the papers). He also balked at some of the jobs he had agreed to do.

As the men journeyed from one ancient, hand-dug well to another, tension built, and on the 23rd day of the odyssey, in the middle of nowhere, Belel declared open rebellion, refusing to take the Americans where they wanted to go and threatening to abandon them in the middle of the desert. Unruffled, Wheeler offered to pay the man off, but the guide backed down.

Wheeler had long sensed that Belel had a hidden agenda — that, one way or another, he was determined to acquire the Americans’ camels; and after 37 days of travel, just ten miles short of their final destination, Belel indeed demanded that he be given one of the animals. Wheeler, enraged, fired him. “Suddenly, he grabbed the hilt of his sword and whipped it out,” Wheeler recalls. “He looked at us and said, ‘Are you ready to die?’ That’s how Flagg translated it. And at that point, I felt really calm. I was happy. I said, ‘Flagg, he’s revealed himself to us now. Give him the camel.’ ” Belel went riding off into the dust, but later that afternoon, the two Americans reported him to the authorities.

They got their camel back, though Wheeler and Flagg wound up having to pay the guide his full fee. Wheeler was livid about that, though he doesn’t sound as if he really regrets any of the melodrama. Now he can add “Being Threatened by a Tuareg with a Sword” to his stock of stories. The camel journey also took Wheeler more deeply than ever into the starkly beautiful Tuareg culture. The trip showed him what it’s like to be caught in a storm where the sand blasts into you at up to 60 miles an hour.

At times Wheeler couldn’t even see the ground from his perch on his camel. It gave him an ironic perspective on California’s drought. He says on this trip he lived comfortably on a gallon and a half of water per day — which included enough for bathing. “One gallon is plenty for a bath. And if you’re really desperate, you can take a bath in a cupful. You end up with a really dirty wash rag. But you’re clean!”

It took Wheeler longer than usual to readjust to life back in San Diego. For weeks he ate voraciously, trying to regain the 20 pounds that had taken his six-foot one-inch frame down to a skeletal 135 pounds. Interruptions and quick shifts in conversation made him feel irritable and befuddled. “When people say the desert leaves its mark on you, that’s really what happens.”

Ride in it for (almost) 40 days, and it changes your consciousness, he says. To protect yourself from its harsh aridity, you have to veil your head and face so you’re only looking out through a cloth slit, and what you see is a bichromatic, almost two-dimensional world.

“You see the blue sky, and you see the sand, with no shadows. So what you really see is the line that separates the blue from the tan.” You see it for hour after hour, day after day. “And it does something to your brain. Things become extremely simple and peaceful.” Thought purifies, and “your mind becomes totally cleaned out of everything.” Wheeler says it’s like a meditation; something as simple as the line of the horizon “becomes a lot more interesting than a complicated thing, where there’s almost too much going on.”

Over the years, Wheeler has given a lot of thought to what he calls “the three faces of Africa” — the desert, the rain forest, and the grasslands. He claims that “each one attends a different part of your mind." Whereas the desert drains one of all complexity, "in the rain forest, it’s just the complete opposite. It’s more compressed. You can’t get any room. Something’s always touching you, and you turn into yourself. It’s a different religious experience from what you get in the desert. In the desert, you feel like you’re communing with some sort of spirit of the universe. In the forest, it feels like you’re communing with much more earthy spirits that live right here.” He says East Africa is something else again “because the landscape is much more varied. It’s much more a place for man.”

There’s yet a fourth face of Africa, of course — contemporary, urban Africa — dangerous cities jammed with refugees from the countryside and so devoid of any services that they make Tijuana look like a First World capital. Wheeler doesn’t talk much about this aspect of the continent, but his aversion to it is obvious. Dryly, he describes dealing with bureaucracies that seem intent upon doing everything possible to discourage tourism. “Like for example, you get your visa to Mali, and you’ve got to get into the country within three months. And then [the visa] only lasts a week.

If you’ve got to get visas for five countries, you can’t do it; by the time you get the fourth one, the first one’s already expired!” Once in a country, “the first thing you do is try to get the thing updated, and then they keep your passport for several days. When they finally give it back, it lasts only two weeks. And every village you go to, you’re supposed to go find the police and report in with your passport.”

He describes what it’s like to try to use airlines whose very existence is questionable. He thinks there’s an Air Mali, for instance, because he’s been in the Air Mali office in Gao. “But there’s nobody there.” Ever. Wheeler did hear that one Air Mali plane crashed about six years ago, trying to land in Timbuktu. “I don’t know if they’ve ever flown since. But then one day I actually met somebody who took an Air Mali flight. So it seems like they work on the principle of whenever they get enough people to fly, they scrounge up a pilot and see if the airplane will crank.” He grins. “And then they crash.”

Even harder to deal with are the street people of Africa. Wheeler paints this picture: “You’re driving through the dirt streets, and you’ve got about 50 kids running behind the Land Rover, screaming, just waiting for you to stop. They’re crawling up the back. They’re on the top. They’re undoing your shit. They’re throwing it off to the guys on the street. And you stop, and of course, you can’t even get out the door.

There are mobs and mobs. They’re screaming in French, ‘Donnez-moi un cadeau!’ The window’s down. Hands are in; their heads are in the car. They’re feeling your body! You’ve got to beat them back!”

After trying out responses to these and other assaults over the years, Wheeler says he’s settled upon aggressive hostility. “You knock them down. You bump into them, and they stand in front of you, and you walk right into them and step on their feet.” He says there are some situations where that won’t work. “I’ve had 50 of them ready to stone me, ’cause I threw a rock back at one of them. Next thing there were 50 more rocks coming at me. And I’ve had situations where they could just cut your throat.

“It seems cruel,” he says. “Like, my wife goes nuts when I do it. She’s embarrassed and she hates it. But that’s the way the local people do it. Otherwise you’re prey.”

He adds that “in all of these countries... you have to learn immediately how to assess who’s the street hustler and who’s the nice person. And the faster you can do it, the safer you are. The way we’re brought up in America, everything’s trustworthy and everyone’s innocent until proven guilty. Over there, everybody’s guilty until proven innocent. And that’s the way you’ve got to act. But once you’ve built a relationship with somebody and know they’re trustworthy, you’ve got a friend. What makes all these trips so intriguing is that you’ve got to learn how to assess people in a different culture, in a different world. And it’s so wonderful to learn that. It’s worth the whole trip just to learn it.”

Wheeler has offered various justifications for these trips, which have become his full-time preoccupation. After taking several extended professional leaves of absence, he finally retired from medicine four years ago (at the age of 43). An eye ailment contributed to that decision, but psychological and spiritual factors were most compelling. Family pressure had led Wheeler to medical school, rather than any strong personal desire to spend his life as a doctor. For a number of years, his anaesthesiology practice provided him with intellectual stimulation, but “it wasn’t something I really loved,” he says.

He says now he’s content to live off his savings. "Sometimes my wife says, ‘Well, gosh, so-and-so is working as an anaesthesiologist, and they’re making all this money. Why don’t you just go back to work for six months or a year?’ And I say, listen, it just isn't worth it. It would be like going back to jail. I’ve gotten all I can get out of that in terms of personal development. It’s not like being Albert Schweitzer and you’re helping people. It’s like slave work. I’m filling a slot, and if I don’t fill it, 20 other people are clamoring to fill it.”

Instead, he’s devoted much of his time between trips to working on two books, one a 570-page account of his Land Rover odyssey and the other a compilation of his most striking photographs of the desert, the rain forest, and East Africa. He’s seeking a publisher for both of them, and he believes if he can succeed and go on to do more writing and photography, that would give him a sense of mission.

“I feel like there should be a purpose in all this,” he says plaintively. Throughout college, and medical school, and his subsequent career, he always had goals — and now suddenly he has no clear direction. Despite that, he wants to devote the rest of his life to further African adventures. “I really enjoy these experiences. It’s not really for fun. It’s not really vacation, and I’m not making a living at it. So the category it has to fit in would be ... to develop my own self. It’s almost like the Indian people who spend their first 30 or 40 years building their estate and their family, and then they’ll give up everything and do a big pilgrimage for the rest of their life.”

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all

Previous article

Playboy.com rates SDSU worst party school in the nation after it narcs on Sturgis

NERDS!
Next Article

Mainly Mozart does drive-up at Del Mar Fairgrounds

Fiddle music, Billy Joel, and Purcell trumpet sonata
Wheeler and Flagg decided to fly to Niamey (the capital of Niger) and find some other Tuareg nomad to guide them across the desert. - Image by Bill Wheeler
Wheeler and Flagg decided to fly to Niamey (the capital of Niger) and find some other Tuareg nomad to guide them across the desert.

In 1983 a San Diego County resident named Bill Wheeler began a 15,000-mile driving trip across Africa that eventually took him to the Mountains of the Moon, the mystical peaks just east of the Zairean rain forest. Tourists almost never climb those mountains; indeed, when Wheeler arrived at the base of one of them, even the park rangers hadn’t made the ascent for some time. They were afraid of Ugandan bandits, rumored to have killed and eaten a local man, who’d been sighted on the trails.

Wives of Masai elders. Masai elders spat out honey beer all over his bride.

But Wheeler wanted to see the pinnacle. He had to get there. His three American traveling companions stuck with him for one grueling uphill day but then refused to continue, and the African park ranger and porter in their company did likewise. Wheeler threatened the Africans with a rifle, and when even that didn’t move them, he finally won their cooperation by offering them double pay.

Masai women

The next evening, Wheeler and the two Africans reached a hut located above 10,000 feet, where they were shot at, at close range, by the Ugandans, who disappeared into the brush. After spending a miserable night in the freezing, smoke-filled shelter, Wheeler somehow bullied the ranger and porter into continuing the ascent. Many times the men fell as they struggled over muddy trails made slippery by the icy rain.

Camel market, Agadez, Niger

Somewhere above 12,000 feet, the Africans refused to go on, so for a while Wheeler, alone and unarmed, followed in the Ugandans’ fresh footsteps. Short of the peak, he stopped and gazed at the rain forest far below. “I could feel strange eyes upon me, hidden eyes that were hungry and filled with silent intent,” he would later write in an account of the trip. What had driven him on? He finally concluded,

Wheeler’s party spent six weeks crossing the rain forest.

“I... wanted just to be high up for once and get a clearer view, a wider view, of things not seen from down below.”

Then he went down the mountain, and not long afterward, he returned to Rancho Santa Fe and to his job as an anaesthesiologist. Today he lives in Solana Beach, though he has abandoned his medical career. It was a victim of the force that has drawn him back to Africa a dozen more times and has yielded a suitcaseful of anecdotes rivaling those about his journey up the mountain.

Wheeler at home in Solana Beach with his diaries

There was his marriage (to his second wife) in a traditional tribal ceremony in which Masai elders realistically spat out honey beer all over his bride. There was the time Wheeler escaped from a charging buffalo by leaping into a tree, only to watch helplessly as the animal broke the back of one companion and then tried again and again to drive his horns into the man. On another occasion, Wheeler and a Masai friend traveled for weeks on horseback through wild, open parts of Kenya and Tanzania, where Wheeler cracked a bullwhip to scare off lions and elephants.

His stories are so extreme that it’s almost hard to believe them. Or maybe they’re hard to believe for another reason. Remember the Africa of everyone’s childhood? Perhaps it only sprang out of a few paragraphs in a school book or the pictures in the National Geographic, but that Africa was a mysterious and beautiful land, a land of humid jungles and fathomless diamond mines, of camel caravans bearing salt over gigantic sand dunes. Smiling, bare-breasted natives and Pygmies and vast herds of galloping giraffes populated that Africa. But they gradually faded, didn’t they, giving way to images of Idi Amin and repressive Afrikaaners, to swollen-bellied famine victims and bloody elephant corpses. In Bill Wheeler’s mind, however, the gorgeous images never faded. And over the past dozen years, he has sought out, and found, the Africa of Livingston and Burton and, for short snatches of time, lived there.

Wheeler says at first he knew absolutely nothing about contemporary Africa. “I’d never met anybody who ever went there. I had no idea what I was getting into. I couldn’t even find a travel agent who could tell me anything about it.”

That was in 1979, the same year he moved to San Diego. Up to then, his medical career had consumed long hours and left little time for adventure travel. But Wheeler says he was haunted by his memories of childhood summers spent at a cabin in the South Carolina backwoods. He enjoyed an amazing freedom there — exploring the local swamp, catching turtles and hunting snakes and fishing on the river. He often fantasized about being Tarzan, deep in the African jungle, which he promised himself he would visit one day.

When, at age 35, he finally had the time, the inclination, and the money to keep that pledge, he learned that Zaire — the principal site of the African rain forests — was in the throes of a civil war. So Wheeler instead decided upon a six-week vacation in Kenya.

His account of that trip, colored by his still-strong South Carolina accent, could be subtitled “Gomer Pyle Meets the Dark Continent.”

Wheeler, now 47, scarcely looks like a macho adventurer. Tall and gangly, he blinks at the world from behind wire-frame glasses. His head is balding, but he has a disarming, childlike quality, by turns exuberant and shy. From the inception, he didn’t envision joining any herd of tourists; he wanted to experience the real Africa. He didn’t know if camping was allowed in the Kenyan game reserves, but he planned to spend his time that way. “I had no idea what to expect.

“I got off the plane, and they had machine guns and barbed wire around the airport,” he recalls, wide-eyed. In the streets of Nairobi, “people were carrying clubs and wearing helmets. The stores at night had guards that sat in front of fires out on the street.”

He checked into “a little two-bit African hotel,” where he was the only person with white skin, and he eventually found a car-rental agency owned by Indians, who told him he could indeed camp. “I got some maps out, and they showed me about where to go, and I remember, man, I was scared... to ... death!" He reached the game reserve about dusk, and some Africans told him where he could set up his tent. “It wasn’t like a campsite with a sign or anything. It was just sort of a place where you see an old fire.... I was really hungry, but I was too frightened to cook, ’cause I’d have to cook outside the tent. My image was, between the time you got from your car to the tent — WHAM! — the animals would just run out and nail you, you know what I mean?” He wasn’t too sure about his safety in the tent either, having seen a news photo of one hooked on a rhino’s horn. At the same time, he knew he’d never sleep in his car, “so I set up the tent right by the car, and I jumped out of the car and I jumped in the tent. I took a tranquilizer to put me to sleep and an aspirin so that if I got eaten during the night, I’d at least have some pain relief.”

He survived the night, and as he began to explore the reserve, the animals thrilled him. He says he wondered what it would be like to walk up to them. “Do they just come and eat you, or do they not? Do they run away? What do they do?” He figured “the only way I’m gonna know what it’s like is to just face it and see. So when he spotted a big herd of elephants, he stopped his car and walked right into the middle of them. Their lack of aggression encouraged Wheeler to saunter past a watchful buffalo. “I’m just walking along, saying, ‘Oh, they look like cows. They can’t hurt you.’ I saw some lions, and I got out and walked around them.... And I said, ‘This isn’t so bad, you know?’ ”

He was feeling pretty cocky when he ran into a writer from Los Angeles whose car had broken down. “Hey, man, I got the hang of it!” Wheeler shouted joyously. “I’ll take you!” He led the fellow into another herd of elephants, where the two snapped photos of each other. A while later, they saw a lion eating a wildebeest under a tree, so they parked expectantly, “and the minute this guy got out of the car and the door shut, this lion jumped in the air and just skidded to a stop at the guy’s feet and stood there and went ROOOAAARRR. The guy literally turned white. He was in the car — BAM — like that.” The man was so terrified, for a moment he couldn’t move. “The windows were rolled down and the lion just looked in the window ... face to face with the guy. I can remember looking at the lion’s eyeballs, and they looked about THAT big around, like big yellow agates. I’ll never forget that look. But the guy couldn’t roll the window up.” Finally, Bill and the other man started laughing hysterically, and the lion padded away.

Wheeler says a day or two later, while picnicking among another herd of elephants, he noticed a young woman parked in a Land Rover, watching him. He learned that she was the renowned zoologist Cynthia Moss, who told him that in the 13 years she’d been studying elephants, she never once had gotten out of her car to walk among them. As Wheeler talked to people and began to learn how dangerous the animals really were — and how lucky he was not to have been killed by them — he began staying in his car too.

He returned home well satisfied by the trip and three years later returned to show off Kenya to his nine-year-old daughter Emily. But Wheeler says he still harbored a nagging desire to go to the rain forest “and play like when I was a kid.” By 1983 the internal strife in Zaire had abated, but that country’s transportation network was reported to be so primitive that Wheeler became convinced the best way to visit the African jungle was to buy a Land Rover in Europe, ferry it across the Strait of Gibraltar, and drive the 3500 miles to the heart of the continent. Taking a leave of absence from the hospital, he began making arrangements. It was January of 1984 when, accompanied by Emily (then ten) and an adventurous young married couple from San Diego, Wheeler finally found himself on the trans-Saharan highway leading south from Morocco.

In the months that followed, Wheeler was to change in many ways, but none more than in his attitude toward the Sahara. When he left Morocco he knew nothing about it. “All I wanted was just to get to ... the rain forest. The Sahara was just an obstacle, one I really didn’t want to cross.” Wheeler says he hadn’t read much about the desert or its people, “and I didn’t expect to like it. I just wanted to get across it and... thank God that I had survived.”

The crossing started grimly. After a run-in with extortionate border guards, Wheeler’s party found the Algerian countryside to be an ugly, barren place inhabited by an indifferent people who had nothing either to sell or trade. After a few days, the Americans’ spirits sank further when they found themselves in a landscape so studded with jagged rocks that they couldn’t even set up their tent. Sunset approached, and as Wheeler resigned himself to driving through the night, his mind began to wander. He saw what looked like a scoop of orange ice cream begin to rise out of the asphalt far ahead of him. It “grew larger, taller, until it stood towering at the end of the road.” Wheeler has written about that moment:

  • Suddenly, I snapped back to reality. Stopping at the top of a narrow pass that led through the rocky plateau, Emily and I jumped out of the [Land Rover], hugging each other and shouting with excitement as we laughed and danced m the road. As far as we could see lay giant sand dunes ... that rose and fell like a rolling sea, gold in the setting sun.

Wheeler was overwhelmed by the beauty of those colossal dunes, and his group camped among them for days, frolicking like children. At one point, they left the highway and drove 60 miles through the wilderness to find an oasis they had heard about; there they were welcomed into the homes of people who had never before been visited by tourists. As Wheeler’s party drove south, they watched the dunes gradually flatten, and after nine days, the Land Rover finally came to the edge of the Tanezrouft, the so-called desert of thirst, "a desert within a desert.”

“Four-hundred and fifty miles across in the shortest direction, the Tanezrouft is the largest and most desolate, totally barren place on this planet,” Wheeler has written about it. It “sustains no life of any kind.... Alone in the center, a bird may be seen passing nonstop overhead on its seasonal migratory route between Europe and West Africa....” Otherwise it is empty.

  • I had been told that in recent times, Land Rovers have disappeared, yet to be found.... In this vast, empty space, a slight miscalculation in direction, a simple inattention to detail, and you could become lost, wandering 3000 miles to the Nile River, without seeing a soul. A simple mechanical failure, and you must fix it or wait and pray for a miracle, until your water is depleted. Radio contact is impossible, as the Algerian government forbids its use.

There’s no road across this place. The 100 or so motorists who cross it every year simply follow the previous travelers’ tire tracks in the sand. In the three days that Wheeler’s group spent driving through it, there were times when they became disoriented and frightened, yet Wheeler, more than anything, felt exhilarated. “It’s like being in Antarctica. You’re traveling on a blank piece of paper, and you’ve got to be totally self-sufficient.” In this great void, even the most insignificant details — rocks, the color of the sky — seemed immensely absorbing to him (though he says the Tanezrouft struck the others as boring and depressing). When they came to the end of it, Wheeler felt sad. “I knew the rest of the trip would be exciting, but I knew it would be nothing like that.”

A great deal did indeed lie before them. In the Sahel, the transition zone south of the Sahara, Wheeler gawked at the camel-riding, sword-wielding Tuareg nomads, dashing in their flowing robes but hard-pressed by years of drought. Wheeler slowly came to appreciate the Tuaregs’ profound religious faith, their anarchic independence, their intimate knowledge of the land.

He and his party began to move east, crossing Nigeria, where a coup one month earlier had left that country in a state of chaos. Wheeler heard rumors that in Lagos, the capital city, thieves were mobbing arrivals at the airport, pursuing them to their taxis and climbing inside the open windows. One traveler told of people being burned to death by vandals on the street, while another had witnessed public executions being held in a local stadium before cheering throngs.

Despite some harrowing moments, Wheeler’s group escaped into Cameroon and proceeded to the Central African Republic, where Wheeler came to a spot overlooking the Oubangui River near Bangassou. There, “The view was high up, and fresh, like from the cockpit of an open plane,” Wheeler has written; “the moist air was heavy with fertility.” His eyes wandered “among clouds of mist and over pink bougainvilleas suspended from giant lianas, before trailing down to the tannic waters of the river, where the view opened up to become immensely wide and green, a rain forest stretching unbroken to the Mountains of the Moon, a thousand miles away.”

Wheeler’s party spent six weeks crossing the rain forest. The jungle seemed crowded, dense with both unbelievable plant life and curious natives. Of the crossing, Wheeler wrote:

  • Seldom were we alone to eat, sleep, or even to carry out bodily functions. They were everywhere. Along the road their faces pressed against the windows of the [Land Rover], until nose and lip prints covered the dusty glass. At night they emerged from the forest, to stand in the shadows of our campsite, watching our every move.... And in the morning, when we unzipped the tent door, they were there again, as if they had waited all night.

When the others drove, he and Emily often perched on soft bed rolls tied to the roof rack, their feet dangling over the windshield as father and daughter savored the cool moist air and forest fragrances. Wheeler managed to leave the road and penetrate the forest on a few occasions, glimpsing what the natives’ lives were like. By this point in the trip, however, the Land Rover had developed engine trouble that limited its progress to only about 20 miles an hour. With the rainy season fast approaching, the party had to press westward.

Yet even as Wheeler drew close to the eastern perimeter of the rain forest, he’d gotten an inspiration. What he’d really like to do, he decided, would be to explore the rain forest on foot, seeing and smelling and feeling it as its native inhabitants had done for millennia. A similar vision had struck him in the Sahara; he had yearned to join a camel caravan. As things turned out, other trips (among them foot and horse safaris in East Africa) distracted him for half a dozen years. But early in 1990, he did finally return to Zaire with the aim of duplicating on foot Henry M. Stanley’s 1887-1889 trip through the Ituri Forest.

Wheeler says that journey was Stanley’s worst ever. More than 300 members of the explorer’s expeditionary team died (principally of starvation), and in Through the Dark Continent, Stanley later described (in Wheeler’s words) “a horrible, dark, damp, stinking, mosquito-infested forest, where the natives are always pinging you with arrows.” But Wheeler thought it sounded great. “It was the classical rain forest; the thing you dream about! The darkest heart of Africa.

“I had a lot of the problems [Stanley] had, but I had completely new solutions.” Instead of assembling a huge entourage, for instance, Wheeler traveled light, accompanied only by a friend from San Francisco and seven Pygmies familiar with the area the Americans wanted to cover. This group traveled together for five days, by which time Wheeler’s friend had enough of the jungle. But Wheeler hungered for more, so he and three new Pygmies made a separate week-long foray, tracing more of Stanley’s route. Although Wheeler carried ample food supplies with him, he says he could have learned the skills to survive in the forest as a hunter-gatherer, “whereas Stanley, living with all those people, was totally dependent upon getting the hell out of there.... You can’t forage enough to support a big mass of people.”

“Stanley came to something he feared and grew to hate, and I came to something I loved and got ecstatic about,” Wheeler says. Snakes and insects were unobtrusive, he says, and the impenetrable vegetation, which often terrifies even non-claustrophobes, rather than bothering Wheeler, evoked fond memories of his childhood. “It was exactly like the swamp where I grew up, but the trees were incredible!" Traveling with the Pygmies “was really like being in the forest with the Seven Dwarfs. It was magical,” Wheeler exclaims. Leaf-wrapped bundles of edible mushrooms would suddenly materialize, hanging from the Pygmies’ belts.

Next thing Wheeler knew, the Pygmies would be smoking wild marijuana that they’d harvested. “Then we’d stop for camp, and I’d be putting up my tent, and I would look around and a fire would be going. They don’t have any matches! So how’d they get that fire going? Next thing I know, I’m still putting my tent up and they’re lying on a fluffy deep bed of leaves. And then they’re pulling stuff out of the fire — balls of leaves containing food. It looks like nobody did anything. They’re just so fast.”

Wheeler didn’t speak any of the Pygmies’ languages, but he says, “You can begin to communicate just by pointing. You kind of get to know these guys. They got great personalities!” He recalls one day when rain was pouring and the Pygmies looked a little miserable, but Wheeler began singing and skipping through the rain water. “And the bushes started looking completely different. We just started grabbing bushes and feeling them, and everything felt different. So then the Pygmies started singing. We were all singing. It was thundering and lightning. We were just dancing through the forest. It was really quite hallucinogenic, somehow.”

The more he traveled with them, the more he realized to what extent they inhabited a spirit world. He says the highlight of the trip for him came one night in a camp inhabited by just one or two families. Excited by Wheeler’s presence, they began making music and dancing. “Their singing is incredible,” Wheeler comments; he says it’s an “auditory kaleidoscope,” in which weird tones and cascading sounds blend and resound. After hours of nonstop celebration, everyone finally went to sleep about midnight. But two or three hours later, Wheeler heard a quiet tap-tap on a drum. The taps built, and little tones began to pierce the darkness. “All of a sudden there was this big rustling, like wind was blowing the leaves, and all the people got up, and they didn’t start a fire.” Wheeler says they started singing and dancing again, but in a manner solemn and intense, totally different from before. This continued until dawn, then Wheeler heard voices trailing off. “It hadn’t been done for me. It was a communication with the spirits of the forest.”

With the rain forest trek completed early last year, ’Wheeler immediately began planning his camel trip — the final part of his quest to see Africa’s three great bioregions just as the early explorers saw them. He thought he had the perfect traveling companion. While on the Land Rover trip, Wheeler had met a nomad known as El Bechir in a little village not far from the city of Gao, in Mali. The two men had felt an instant rapport, and El Bechir spent a week traveling with Wheeler’s party around the countryside. Wheeler learned then that El Bechir and his camels annually covered a 1000-mile circuit that brought them to Gao every winter. In 1986 Wheeler had sent a letter to a mutual acquaintance in Gao, saying he wanted to meet El Bechir the following January (1987), when he planned to buy a camel and ride with the nomad for about 800 miles. Right on schedule, Wheeler arrived at the Atlantide Hotel in Gao. “It’s one of those old Humphrey Bogart hotels that you dream about with this little fan in the ceiling and people coming through in desert robes. There’s a little bar, and everyone celebrates there ’cause they’ve just crossed the Sahara.” As Wheeler checked in, he spotted a note pad on which was scribbled, “El Bechir meeting, January 1st.” Says Wheeler, “I felt like I was checking into a medical convention!”

But nothing else on that trip worked out well. Though Wheeler’s letter had reached El Bechir’s friend, El Bechir himself had already departed on his annual migration and consequently knew nothing about Wheeler’s travel plans. Wheeler searched for the nomad but finally returned to San Diego in defeat. Later, he learned that El Bechir had shown up just three days later. Wheeler then wrote, promising to return again that November, but he changed his plans and didn’t go. Much later he received an angry letter from El Bechir, telling how he had hung around Gao waiting for Wheeler for eight days in November of 1987.

Despite these fiascoes, Wheeler and El Bechir once again made tentative plans to meet in January of 1991. But last fall, political developments intervened. In September a group of Tuaregs raided a Niger government armory, and the authorities retaliated by slaughtering a group of Tuareg women and children. Fighting was breaking out sporadically in the countryside, and Wheeler was getting conflicting reports about the safety of travel in Niger and Mali. “You can’t get any information!” he said irritably. “You call the Mali embassy and they say, ‘Oh, everything’s wonderful! There’s no problem!’ And then you call the American government and they’ll always say, ‘Oh, it’s horrible!’ You actually have to go to Gao and give your passport to the police and see if they stamp it and give it back. And then you have to go out in the bushes and see how scared you feel. And if you feel too scared, you come back. And if it doesn’t bother you, you keep going until somebody shoots you!”

A week or so later, Wheeler heard that El Bechir himself had run afoul of the Mali government and had barely escaped from the country with his life. Then, just when it seemed as if the camel trip might never materialize, Wheeler found someone else willing to join him on his adventure, a Dartmouth undergraduate named Flagg Miller, who was specializing in Middle Eastern studies. The two decided to fly to Niamey (the capital of Niger) and find some other Tuareg nomad to guide them across the desert. Wheeler left San Diego this past January 10.

He returned two months later, emaciated but exultant. He and Flagg had decided to start in Agadez, a small, mud-walled adobe village where Wheeler knew a friend of a friend.

Through him, the Americans found a Tuareg named Belel, who agreed to help them buy four camels (one for each of the three men, plus a pack animal) and lead them through the Saharan wasteland. Almost immediately problems developed. First the nomad demanded $20 a day (instead of the standard daily wage of $3), and then he slyly registered some of the camels in his own name (until the Americans noticed and made him change the papers). He also balked at some of the jobs he had agreed to do.

As the men journeyed from one ancient, hand-dug well to another, tension built, and on the 23rd day of the odyssey, in the middle of nowhere, Belel declared open rebellion, refusing to take the Americans where they wanted to go and threatening to abandon them in the middle of the desert. Unruffled, Wheeler offered to pay the man off, but the guide backed down.

Wheeler had long sensed that Belel had a hidden agenda — that, one way or another, he was determined to acquire the Americans’ camels; and after 37 days of travel, just ten miles short of their final destination, Belel indeed demanded that he be given one of the animals. Wheeler, enraged, fired him. “Suddenly, he grabbed the hilt of his sword and whipped it out,” Wheeler recalls. “He looked at us and said, ‘Are you ready to die?’ That’s how Flagg translated it. And at that point, I felt really calm. I was happy. I said, ‘Flagg, he’s revealed himself to us now. Give him the camel.’ ” Belel went riding off into the dust, but later that afternoon, the two Americans reported him to the authorities.

They got their camel back, though Wheeler and Flagg wound up having to pay the guide his full fee. Wheeler was livid about that, though he doesn’t sound as if he really regrets any of the melodrama. Now he can add “Being Threatened by a Tuareg with a Sword” to his stock of stories. The camel journey also took Wheeler more deeply than ever into the starkly beautiful Tuareg culture. The trip showed him what it’s like to be caught in a storm where the sand blasts into you at up to 60 miles an hour.

At times Wheeler couldn’t even see the ground from his perch on his camel. It gave him an ironic perspective on California’s drought. He says on this trip he lived comfortably on a gallon and a half of water per day — which included enough for bathing. “One gallon is plenty for a bath. And if you’re really desperate, you can take a bath in a cupful. You end up with a really dirty wash rag. But you’re clean!”

It took Wheeler longer than usual to readjust to life back in San Diego. For weeks he ate voraciously, trying to regain the 20 pounds that had taken his six-foot one-inch frame down to a skeletal 135 pounds. Interruptions and quick shifts in conversation made him feel irritable and befuddled. “When people say the desert leaves its mark on you, that’s really what happens.”

Ride in it for (almost) 40 days, and it changes your consciousness, he says. To protect yourself from its harsh aridity, you have to veil your head and face so you’re only looking out through a cloth slit, and what you see is a bichromatic, almost two-dimensional world.

“You see the blue sky, and you see the sand, with no shadows. So what you really see is the line that separates the blue from the tan.” You see it for hour after hour, day after day. “And it does something to your brain. Things become extremely simple and peaceful.” Thought purifies, and “your mind becomes totally cleaned out of everything.” Wheeler says it’s like a meditation; something as simple as the line of the horizon “becomes a lot more interesting than a complicated thing, where there’s almost too much going on.”

Over the years, Wheeler has given a lot of thought to what he calls “the three faces of Africa” — the desert, the rain forest, and the grasslands. He claims that “each one attends a different part of your mind." Whereas the desert drains one of all complexity, "in the rain forest, it’s just the complete opposite. It’s more compressed. You can’t get any room. Something’s always touching you, and you turn into yourself. It’s a different religious experience from what you get in the desert. In the desert, you feel like you’re communing with some sort of spirit of the universe. In the forest, it feels like you’re communing with much more earthy spirits that live right here.” He says East Africa is something else again “because the landscape is much more varied. It’s much more a place for man.”

There’s yet a fourth face of Africa, of course — contemporary, urban Africa — dangerous cities jammed with refugees from the countryside and so devoid of any services that they make Tijuana look like a First World capital. Wheeler doesn’t talk much about this aspect of the continent, but his aversion to it is obvious. Dryly, he describes dealing with bureaucracies that seem intent upon doing everything possible to discourage tourism. “Like for example, you get your visa to Mali, and you’ve got to get into the country within three months. And then [the visa] only lasts a week.

If you’ve got to get visas for five countries, you can’t do it; by the time you get the fourth one, the first one’s already expired!” Once in a country, “the first thing you do is try to get the thing updated, and then they keep your passport for several days. When they finally give it back, it lasts only two weeks. And every village you go to, you’re supposed to go find the police and report in with your passport.”

He describes what it’s like to try to use airlines whose very existence is questionable. He thinks there’s an Air Mali, for instance, because he’s been in the Air Mali office in Gao. “But there’s nobody there.” Ever. Wheeler did hear that one Air Mali plane crashed about six years ago, trying to land in Timbuktu. “I don’t know if they’ve ever flown since. But then one day I actually met somebody who took an Air Mali flight. So it seems like they work on the principle of whenever they get enough people to fly, they scrounge up a pilot and see if the airplane will crank.” He grins. “And then they crash.”

Even harder to deal with are the street people of Africa. Wheeler paints this picture: “You’re driving through the dirt streets, and you’ve got about 50 kids running behind the Land Rover, screaming, just waiting for you to stop. They’re crawling up the back. They’re on the top. They’re undoing your shit. They’re throwing it off to the guys on the street. And you stop, and of course, you can’t even get out the door.

There are mobs and mobs. They’re screaming in French, ‘Donnez-moi un cadeau!’ The window’s down. Hands are in; their heads are in the car. They’re feeling your body! You’ve got to beat them back!”

After trying out responses to these and other assaults over the years, Wheeler says he’s settled upon aggressive hostility. “You knock them down. You bump into them, and they stand in front of you, and you walk right into them and step on their feet.” He says there are some situations where that won’t work. “I’ve had 50 of them ready to stone me, ’cause I threw a rock back at one of them. Next thing there were 50 more rocks coming at me. And I’ve had situations where they could just cut your throat.

“It seems cruel,” he says. “Like, my wife goes nuts when I do it. She’s embarrassed and she hates it. But that’s the way the local people do it. Otherwise you’re prey.”

He adds that “in all of these countries... you have to learn immediately how to assess who’s the street hustler and who’s the nice person. And the faster you can do it, the safer you are. The way we’re brought up in America, everything’s trustworthy and everyone’s innocent until proven guilty. Over there, everybody’s guilty until proven innocent. And that’s the way you’ve got to act. But once you’ve built a relationship with somebody and know they’re trustworthy, you’ve got a friend. What makes all these trips so intriguing is that you’ve got to learn how to assess people in a different culture, in a different world. And it’s so wonderful to learn that. It’s worth the whole trip just to learn it.”

Wheeler has offered various justifications for these trips, which have become his full-time preoccupation. After taking several extended professional leaves of absence, he finally retired from medicine four years ago (at the age of 43). An eye ailment contributed to that decision, but psychological and spiritual factors were most compelling. Family pressure had led Wheeler to medical school, rather than any strong personal desire to spend his life as a doctor. For a number of years, his anaesthesiology practice provided him with intellectual stimulation, but “it wasn’t something I really loved,” he says.

He says now he’s content to live off his savings. "Sometimes my wife says, ‘Well, gosh, so-and-so is working as an anaesthesiologist, and they’re making all this money. Why don’t you just go back to work for six months or a year?’ And I say, listen, it just isn't worth it. It would be like going back to jail. I’ve gotten all I can get out of that in terms of personal development. It’s not like being Albert Schweitzer and you’re helping people. It’s like slave work. I’m filling a slot, and if I don’t fill it, 20 other people are clamoring to fill it.”

Instead, he’s devoted much of his time between trips to working on two books, one a 570-page account of his Land Rover odyssey and the other a compilation of his most striking photographs of the desert, the rain forest, and East Africa. He’s seeking a publisher for both of them, and he believes if he can succeed and go on to do more writing and photography, that would give him a sense of mission.

“I feel like there should be a purpose in all this,” he says plaintively. Throughout college, and medical school, and his subsequent career, he always had goals — and now suddenly he has no clear direction. Despite that, he wants to devote the rest of his life to further African adventures. “I really enjoy these experiences. It’s not really for fun. It’s not really vacation, and I’m not making a living at it. So the category it has to fit in would be ... to develop my own self. It’s almost like the Indian people who spend their first 30 or 40 years building their estate and their family, and then they’ll give up everything and do a big pilgrimage for the rest of their life.”

Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

Unexpendable Rambo

The first and fourth foray
Next Article

SinShip Spirits is putting tiki cocktails in a can

Peat-smoked rum maker will have Zombies ready to drink by October
Comments
0

Be the first to leave a comment.

Sign in to comment

Sign in

Art Reviews — W.S. Di Piero's eye on exhibits Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Best Buys — San Diego shopping Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits City Lights — News and politics Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Famous Former Neighbors — Next-door celebs Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town Here's the Deal — Chad Deal's watering holes Just Announced — The scoop on shows Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Of Note — Concert picks Out & About — What's Happening Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Pour Over — Grab a cup Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Set 'em Up Joe — Bartenders' drink recipes Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Sports — Athletics without gush Street Style — San Diego streets have style Suit Up — Fashion tips for dudes Theater Reviews — Local productions Theater antireviews — Narrow your search Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Waterfront — All things ocean Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close