Through Jungles and Deserts

A store of emotions

Leaving Milan to go to Africa, Mexico, Brazil. Discovering faraway lands and people. Sleeping under the stars in the Sahara or in the heart of a pluvial forest... Here’s how a publisher-storyteller could change into a "globe-trotter" without prejudices.

By Gianmaria Contro

Click on the opening picture for a gallery of images related to this story.

Luigi Boitani is a scientist, an academic and a first-class writer. Professor in Biology of Conservation and Animal Ecology at “La Sapienza” university in Rome, he’s been the creator of international research projects and wrote many specialist books, as well as popular informative writings. His "Dalla parte del lupo" (On the Wolf’s Side, 1987), published by Giorgio Mondadori, is his most popular book to date; in the 1980s, he also worked as a consultant, documentary film-maker and host for "Pan", a TV show about nature. We approached him because he was one of the inseparable “travel companions” of Sergio Bonelli’s, during his peregrinations through India, Africa, Europe, Middle East and the Americas, and one of the few people who can tell the “live” experience of our publisher-traveller. On a sunny summer afternoon, Luigi kindly answered our invitation, and from the thread of his memories we extracted this “testimony”.

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 IT ALL BEGINS, AS USUAL, WITH A PICTURE: THE SUBJECT IS A TOYOTA "LAND CRUISER", A POWERFUL AND RELIABLE CAR. At a certain point, “she” would become the leading character of our itinerary as tourists-travellers, as “casual” but curious explorers. But first – in the beginning, I’m tempted to say – there was the Land Rover. The Land Cruiser or rather, if you like, the "Ship of the Desert"...

It all began there, in a sense. I had bought it at the end of the 1960s, to crown what was a real life project that I had worked on, patiently saving for four years; I wanted to go to Australia or India – almost mandatory destinations for runaways and dreamers, at the time – and I wanted to do it in complete freedom, without having to rely on anybody or anything. The Land Rover was the perfect thing, a "romantic object" in a sense, full of that scent of adventure, lightness – of freedom, indeed – that my companions and I were looking for. How came that my... let’s call it recklessness, joined forces with Sergio’s? Easy. It was due to the convergence of mutual friends: the connection happened through a journalist, Silvia Dal Pozzo, who knew the “Roman group” – Gerardo Bamonte, myself and others – and Bonelli, as well. She introduced Sergio to Gerardo and he introduced him to me... We met for the first time in Milan, in via Ferruccio, where the HQ of his publishing house was at the time. I was on the sidewalk and he talked to me leaning from the window of the first floor...

Sergio Bonelli with his Land Rover.

WAS IT ALOOFNESS? COLDNESS? NOT AT ALL. IT RATHER WAS, I’D SAY, SOME SORT OF NATURAL “RESERVE”. It was a common trait for both of us, then. It’s hard to explain, but I think that the "leggendary” Land Rover is the best example I can use. Sergio Bonelli loved to move around, discover the world and travel through it, without any fear of getting his hands dirty and going into inhospitable places; but he liked to do that without “mingling” too much with his surroundings, and aimed to remain “invisible”, so to speak. A behavior that could be taken for snobbery—and maybe there was a modicum of snobbery in it, why deny it? Mainly, though, it concealed the desire to keep a clear-minded and conscious look on the things he met on his way, a vision cleansed from the many unforeseeable situations/distractions that one could meet.

That’s what the Land Rover was, in the end: a self-contained micro-universe, a "sanctuary of independence”, projected and built to be a four-wheeled home that could be used to move, eat, rest. A vehicle that contained almost all the aspects of everyday life inside his metal shell... I recall Sergio sleeping on the roof of the car, sometimes, under the incredibly clear sky of the African deserts. That was the gist of it, in fact: "Shall I drive ten miles more and get into a hotel, or will I spend the night here, in the middle of the sands? Well, I can choose as I please!".

THE DESERT – SAHARA, OF COURSE – WAS A STRIKING ENCOUNTER. At that time, the beginning of the 1970s, the tourist “caravans” crossed it only occasionally, while GPS navigators and satellitar phones still were science-fiction objects. Therefore, the only way not to get lost was using local guides. This way, though, you couldn’t handpick your travel mates... I remember one episode where Sergio unwillingly became the center of a situation that caused him many days of bad mood.

Sergio Bonelli during a visit at a Foreign Legion fort in Algerian Sahara.

We were – if my memory’s right – in Mauritania. Our guides had already given Sergio plenty of reasons to get mad: knowing the terrain, they were whizzing away like thunder, while we barely managed to keep up. "Where are they running?", he said time and again, in an annoyed mumble... The worst was yet to come. Soon, indeed, the two guys began chasing a gazelle, and it didn’t take long for us to realize they weren’t urged by an ecologist curiosity. So, when the exhausted creature fell to the ground, they didn’t think twice about crushing its head with a rock, skin it and cook it, completely ignoring our remonstrations. Sergio was livid, to say the least. I really don’t know how it could have ended, if Gerardo and I wouldn’t have stopped him, employing all the diplomacy we had. We were in the middle of the desert, after all... What if we were left there, on our own? 

I STILL HAVE THE SKULL AND HORNS OF THAT GAZELLE AND WHEN I WATCH THEM I CAN’T AVOID THINKING THAT – during our many trips – the only truly dangerous moments (luckily very few) were never originated by the "nature forces” – wild animals or "ruthless predators", like in the tradition of the literary Adventure – but only by the most common and casual accidents or the boorish touchiness of human beings.

Sergio Bonelli in Agadès.

I recall yet another situation – in Egypt, this time – when we barely avoided a road rage brawl, just because we told off a car driver who insisted in tooting his deafening horn. Well, nothing that couldn’t be experienced in any Italian city. The most bitter – and maybe riskier – of our experiences is still the one at the Cameroonian-Nigerian border…

We wanted to cross as soon as we could, so we took a back road that led to a small and isolated border post. If only we hadn’t! An apparently drunken soldier came out from the guards’ office: he first seized our passports and then began to play cat and mouse with us, joined by his colleagues. They kept us there for a day and a half, while they dismantled our car, opened our bags, verified our medicines one jar after another. It was a terrible war of nerves; especially if you think that we were in the middle of nowhere, at the mercy of a gang of drunken soldiers who were armed to the teeth. In moments like that you learn to keep yourself in check, if you know what I mean... Then, Nigeria left a deep and painful mark in all of us: an extremely degraded country, whose main traits were poverty, environmental devastation, corruption and violence.

HAVING SAID THAT, THE THINGS I TREASURE THE MOST ABOUT MY TRAVELS WITH SERGIO AND GERARDO IS THE PICTURE AND THE EMOTION OF THE ENDLESS DISCOVERIES WE MADE ON THE ROAD—small but hugely important wonders that allow me to lessen the memories of the problems – and we had a lot of them! – that we overcame together, day by day. We hadn’t fixed roles, but each of us naturally carved a space for himself, a (so to speak) prevailing function in our group’s workings. Gerardo was a natural-born organizer and he could change a complete stranger in a friend in a matter of moments, thanks to his extraordinary gift of the gab. I was the designated driver – I’ve always loved driving – and the "expedition’s repairman", while Sergio... Well, Sergio was a sort of a “jack of all trades”. He didn’t back down in front of anything; physically, he was the strongest of all three and if there was some sweating involved in an action you could count on him. Above all, though, he was our guide. We were all spurred to these “enterprises” of ours by one fundamental force: curiosity. And he didn’t have rivals in that field. Every place, city or monument propted him to share observations and memories that were clearly the fruit of readings, reflections and studies he had cultivated with great passion...

DID HE TALK ABOUT HIS WORK? YES, AND NO: I’VE NEVER BEEN A GREAT FAN OF COMICS, BUT I WAS AND STILL AM DEEPLY FASCINATED BY THE “MATERIAL” AND CRAFTSMANLIKE ASPECT OF THIS PROFESSION, just as Sergio was curious about my zoological studies. There was a frequent and fervent exchange of information between us... But I saw him taking notes or sketching pictures only sparingly.

Jerry Drake against a carnivorous mega-critter.

I think that somehow he used to take “mental notes” of all the ideas that came into his mind... We were in Mexico, near the pool of a hotel, when he began drafting the plot for a Mister No album [I giorni del terrore, November 1978, editor’s note]; the curious aspect of it was that the “leading characters” in the story were some sort of giant roaches and that’s why, in the months following our return to Italy, Sergio wouldn’t stop calling me to ask some explanation: "Is it conceivable for a roach to act like this or like that?". Even when he was telling the most uncanny stories, Sergio always wanted to have a support, a scientific basis to it. In the heart of the Amazon jungle – a place not lacking in excitement in this respect, surely – he wouldn’ t stop asking me about all the life forms we met: at every turn, worms, parasites, and bugs of every conceivable shape and dimension unleashed that uncanny curiosity of his.

SERGIO BONELLI LIVED CONSTANTLY IMMERSED IN A SWARM OF HIS READERS, SURROUNDED BY COLLABORATORS, ARTISTS, JOURNALISTS... Inevitably, a sort of a “Bonellian mythology” formed around his person, made of idiosyncrasies, personal tastes, various and sparse anecdotes. According to the legend, for instance, Sergio was very “selective” regarding food, and was very difficult to satisfy.

Bonelli shows a "ghirba" with the supply of fresh water,
while crossing the Sahara.

It was true but, ironically, this could be a strong point for a traveller: he survived on cheese and crackers, with some canned meat here and there—the perfect choice for someone who has to make do with rationed supplies! In this area, an episode that unfailingly raises a smile is the so-called “porridge accident”. Gerardo – as I mentioned above, our organizational “manager” – would pack our provisions in several sealed packs, that we were to consume following a strict weekly plan. One of these weeks should be dedicated to porridge, a food that Sergio heartily disliked and also needed a lot of water to be prepared. You can easily imagine Sergio’s face – and curses! – in front of the waste of “precious liquid", right in the middle of the desert! But we can find other gems, in this Bonellian anectodes’ “trove”... One of the experiences he liked to tell, and I can confirm it in full, was the "meeting with the Tuareg", that happened during one of our Saharian crossings. That solemn figure, standing tall on his camel, was really impressive; then the man, clad in the deep blue of his garments, asked some drinking water from us with a peremptory gesture...

I ALSO CAN CONFIRM THE FACT THAT THERE REALLY WAS A MAD “AMAZONIAN PILOT" CALLED BORIS KAMINSKY... A CHARACTER THAT COULD HAVE BEEN TAKEN FROM A NOVEL: he flew over the green apron of the forest with a two-engined plane that had a very small operating range; before reaching the point of no return (risking therefore to run out of fuel, without being able to come back), he landed wherever he could, in tiny clearings in the middle of the jungle! He concretely allowed us to meet the Yanomami Indians, but our – so to speak – "spiritual" instruction had been guaranteed by Gerardo. Resourceful as usual, he was able to go around the strict prohibitions that at the time burdened the southern regions of Venezuela. No tourists were allowed there, but Gerardo persuaded the prelates of Caracas to have us pass as three of their brothers: officially, we were priests! Once we landed, we rowed in a canoe for a while and then we crossed the Green Hell on foot, before managing to communicate with Kaminsky, using the radio that the missionary had lent us...

Sergio Bonelli after a landing in the Namibian desert.

The connection between Sergio and the Amazonas is hard to examine thoroughly in a few words; this, in fact, is also due to the fact that he never expressed it in a completely clear way, except in the saga of his Mister No. The deep nature of that connection is a little mystery, concealed in the heart of the “natural reserve” I mentioned above. All the same, we can try to grasp it intuitevely, inferring from a few, essential objective data. Curiosity, as I was saying, was the fuel of our “interior engine” during these travels, and Amazonas was like a lighted match next to this “psychological gasoline”. You must always be on the look-out, in that jungle, where you cannot take a step, turn a corner or take a look without happening to find something surprising: the uncanny variety of living creatures, as well as the "human types” that populate it (missionaries, traffickers, Indians, as well as dropouts from every nationality, each with their own "unmentionable past" and their "extraordinary adventures"). Everything concurs to create a larger-than-life picture, a knot of primal and inexpressible emotions that would inevitably have a sensational effect on a vivid imagination like Sergio Bonelli’s.

BUT SERGIO ALWAYS CROWNED THIS EMOTION WITH HIS IRONY. I remember when, on one of the many air flight we took together, one of the engines caught fire all of a sudden, and he lightened the situation with these words: "Well, I got you, all the same. I lived 14 years more than you!". That was the age difference between the two of us... Sergio was like that: he was suspicious of the people who laugh too much, but he was far more suspicious of those who are not able to laugh at all, about themselves and the entire world. In fact – was it a professional bias? – being suspicious of almost everything was at the same time his drawback (an insecurity) and his main virtue, his weakness and his strong point. But I completely agreed with him on one thing: he didn’t trust the people who feign too much self-assurance. We were alike, in that and for other aspects, but one thing in particular united us: just like me, he didn’t like to dwell upon the past too much, and he’d rather look always forward.