Into the Forest

We enjoy dreams, sometimes in our sub-conscious and sometimes in reality.

Wally Byam, Airstream’s founder and creator for the Airstream Wally Byam Caravan, took 41 Airstream owners, 104 people, and three auxiliary vehicles to Africa. They traveled from Cape Town, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt.

How do you staff an African Caravan?

Wally Byam was the Caravan’s leader. He had to make several significant choices.

From the Airstream factory in Santa Fe Springs, California, he chose Arthur Ruiz to be the group’s mechanic. Through longtime media friends, Pete Turner was selected as the official photographer. Pete would go on to become a world-renowned photographer, most famous for his many tours of the African continent.

Finally, Wally selected two advance scouts for the Caravan. The first was 17-year-old Nick Charles, a recent high school graduate from Dayton, Ohio and the son of Andy Charles, President of Airstream in Jackson Center.

I was the second – Dale “Pee Wee” Schwamborn, a 20-year-old college student from Bakersfield, California, the son of Helen Byam Schwamborn. Helen was in charge of Airstream Wally Byam Caravans, as well as the Wally Byam Caravan Club headquarters.

Nick and I would introduce the Caravan to officials at government, provincial, and city levels. We evaluated road conditions, and in cities selected suitable campsites. To assist the Caravanners, we located markets, gas stations, and inquired about local points of interest.

Three times in Africa, the Scout Truck wasn’t ahead of the Caravan but remained with the travelers to provide assistance with hard road conditions. Through areas of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan, we overcame tough conditions to continue our journey.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we entered the Ituri Forest.

The Ituri Forest is a dense tropical rainforest with 170-foot trees reaching to the sky. When walking through the forest, scant light reaches the ground through the canopy.

Nick and I were on the road to establish our next campsite and to wait for the rest of the group. On the way, two interesting Congo events occurred.

First, we spotted an 18-inch mass winding along the road, from one side to the other. After leaving the cab, we approached a battalion of army ants, moving swiftly through the forest. They are capable of devouring any edible material that lingers in their path.

I was wearing Clark Desert Boots, which had neoprene soles. Several attached their mandibles to my soles. It was possible to break the bodies from the mandible, but the ants’ heads stayed attached to my boots.

The best comparison for the army ant is a horde of Monguls raiding and razing the countryside. When the ants move in mass, there are sometimes up to 50 million ants moving in the columns.

Nick and I traveled on, making one additional stop before reaching our destination. Down the road a few miles, we began to see pygmies along the roadside.

We stopped to barter for bows and arrows, and we acquired a small collection. One pygmy had a very special item, an elephant spear. I recognized it from an article I’d read earlier that year. I traded a new pair of Levi’s for the spear, which today is in the Baker Heritage Museum in Baker City, Oregon.

Pygmies definitely are short, yet the are nimble and capable of downing an elephant with spears. They crawl stealthily through tall grass. The elephant has tough hide, but a soft underbelly.

When they pygmies reach the elephant, they squat and thrust the spear into the elephant from underneath. When it dies, they butcher the animal for meat. Every animal has some delicacy – the pygmies eat the elephant’s warm internal organs. They crawl into the stomach cavity and gorge themselves on the “goodies.”

After bartering, the pygmies motioned for Nick and I to follow, and we did. At first the trail went through very tall grass, and then we reached bushes, which were grown over. There was a clearance just high enough for a pygmy to walk through. Nick and I stooped over low enough to clear the growth. After several hundred yards, we reached the pygmy encampment.

There’s a large clearing in the forest. In the circle, there are a dozen or more huts. They’re small, built with bent limbs and covered in plant leaves. The entire area has the smell that only green wood produces.

When you looked to the canopy, you would see a small opening in the sky, as the sunlight penetrating the encampment was minimal. They lived in semi-darkness, a very gentle and dear people. Their smiles were constant, their laughter was heard often.

Nick and I left this amazing opportunity and went on our way to our destination.

Fearless? Naïve? Let’s just say 17- and 20-year-old men have no fear going into the brush.

Dale “Pee Wee” Schwamborn has silver in his blood. Each week, Pee Wee shares one of his many stories, including his experiences on the iconic Airstream Caravans, his time spent working in the Airstream factory, and the many Airstreamers he’s befriended, far and wide.