From Darkwood to Manaus

Together, on the road

Together, on the road

Alfredo Coppa is a tenured professor of Anthropology at “La Sapienza” in Rome and works for the Department of Environmental Biology. We met him with the hope of hearing some “behind the scenes” details about his many journeys with Sergio Bonelli and several other friends.

When did you meet our publisher for the first time? In the 1970s, in Rome, through a mutual friend, Gerardo Bamonte, who shared my passion for photography. Gerardo frequently talked to me about the trips he made with Sergio Bonelli, to Congo and South Africa. At the time, though, I hadn’t the chance for a closer relationship with Sergio. Our first real meeting happened in 1977, in Sudan. Sergio was travelling with Gerardo and Luigi Boitani, and they came to Sudan, on their way towards Uganda. I was working at Geili, at an archaeological site of the University of Rome.

Sergio Bonelli at the salt mines in Bilma (Niger).

We were together for a few days, and when they left I promised to join them later in Juba, now capital city of South Sudan: Luigi had to go back to Italy, so I could take his place. But after a series of unfortunate events, I couldn’t obtain the permits required to move around the area and I had to forfeit the trip. Since that year, though, Sergio and I began to travel together on a fairly regular basis.

Did you know him already for his work as a publisher? As a kid, just like many of my peers, I used to read "Tex". But, growing up, I stopped reading comics; I knew about his work and the successful characters he created and published. We also took a couple of trips on our own, to Africa and Amazonas.

Is there one of your journeys that you remember more vividly? My fondest memory is from the late 1970s, when we planned to go to Chad and, after that, to Sudan. We met a lot of people during that trip—it was our most touching journey, since we stumbled upon the reality of war, but also our hardest. We left with a plan that should take us to N'Djamena, Chad, but we were forced to change our itinerary, because of the outbreak of one of the many episodes of the civil war. We almost vanished into thin air, without any chance of being in touch with our friends in Italy. They were worried sick, because newspapers and TVs were spreading far from reassuring news... We had planned to move from Cameroon to Chad, where we knew there was a lot of internal tension. We were travelling through Waza National Park, but just before we could leave, the French president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, came to Cameroon on an official visit. Everything was brought to a standstill. We were stuck in Cameroon for several days until, one night, we met a few businessmen who were coming back from Chad, and they reassured us.

Sergio Bonelli in the Erg, Téneré Desert.

We left early, the morning after. Our car had some problems with the exhaust system and we knew we had to take it to a garage, sooner or later, but we believed it could last the trip. Along the way, we stopped at a market for an hour and a half. When we hit the road again, we didn’t met anybody else. We reached the Ubangi River, at the Cameroon-Chad border, in the afternoon. N'Djamena stood on the other side of the river; our plan was to stop there, fix the car, go on towards Sudan and finally reach the Nuba Mountains. While we were getting closer to the border, we saw whirls of smoke rising in the distance and the Cameroon flag flying over the closed crossbar of the customs office.

The customs was empty, but some 200 yards away a couple of dozens of Cameroonian soldiers were sitting on a fence that looked towards the city beyond the river. Eager to go, we tooted our horn to claim their attention: seeing us, some of them ran towards the car. With a puzzled look, they asked us what we were doing there. When we told them that we wanted to cross the border, we were met with a loud guffaw. They told us that an hour and a half before, a civil war broke out in Chad. Meanwhile, we saw an airplane passing over our heads; it proceeded to drop some bombs. We stood there, frozen, for a couple of hours, watching the bombing of N'Djamena. The border guards gave us a pass: we had to go back.

Were you ever robbed or attacked? No, but we had some other unpleasant episodes. At the borders, especially in Africa, we frequently met none too agreeable officers: there was always some kind of problem with our visas, the revenue stamps or whatever else. We usually travelled without encountering big problems, but at the time the situation was very different from now. During our last travels, in the early 1990s, we realized that things had changed, largely not because of the fundamentalists, but for other reasons—for instance, the mammoth trafficking of stolen cars from France to the African countries. Dozens of groups of adventurers crossed Algeria, taking a shortcut to Agadès, carrying the cars...