Frank Westerman – Choke Valley 



Myth busters

On December 7, 2010 I had an appointment that didn’t go through. I had come to Paris specially in the hope and expectation that it would serve as the start of this story.

In the train heading south, shooting across the plains of northern France, I opened the newspaper. For a while I stared at a close-up of the sun, released that day by the NASA. Spurting up out of the fireball was a solar flame of yellowish-orange wisps, “a flaming eruption that could disrupt data communication on Earth”, but which – as usual – created not a ripple on a cosmic scale.

Outside, the day was sunless. The reports called for snow, and it came. When I stepped out onto the platform at Gare du Nord, the first flakes began falling – the tail of the high-speed Thalys was too long to fit beneath the station roof. By the time I reached my hotel, Paris had been transformed into a snowy Christmas backdrop, enchantingly lit but with shabby fringes. On the sidewalks and metro steps lay wet dregs that shone white as dusk settled in. Everyone on the street was in a hurry. The whirlpool of red taillights and yellowish-white headlights on the Place de la Concorde had twisted itself into a knot. I passed an office of the BNP Paribas and saw no special activity, with the exception of a handful of visitors seeking shelter from the snow. That was striking, seeing as December 7, 2010 was to have been the day of the long-awaited “bank run”. Under the motto The Second French Revolution!, tens of thousands of Facebook friends had announced that today they would rock the international banking community to the core by all withdrawing money at the same time. It was not the Bastille they planned to storm, but the city’s ATM machines.

I had nothing against street-corner activism, but that wasn’t what I had come to Paris for. What I’d come for were the mountain lakes of Cameroon and their propensity for sowing death and destruction. Years ago, in 1992, I’d made a radio reportage about the phenomenon. The result, forty-five minutes of sounds, songs and conversations, was a snapshot in time. Or, the way I saw it these days, a preliminary sketch. The explosion had died out, the bodies were buried, but a conclusive explanation was still lacking. Eighteen kilometers of the deadly Nyos valley were still off-limits, under military guard – as a result, for twenty-five years the stories about what had happened in 1986 had been able to branch and multiply at will.

On the way to my dinner appointment I stopped at a cash machine. I would recognize the restaurant where I was to be at eight that evening by the wooden sheep at the entrance. It was on a square right beside the Basilica of St. Clotilda, and it was called Le Basilic.

The sheep was there.

This was what I already knew:

On Monday morning, August 25, 1986, Haroun Tazieff turns on the radio. He listens to the early morning news. Since the 1 a.m. bulletin the announcer has been reporting “a few hundred

casualties” in a valley in western Cameroon. The victims seem to have been overtaken in their sleep on the night of August 21 by a poisonous fog that escaped from a mountain lake – “le lac Nyos”.

A little later, the phone rings. Haroun Tazieff takes the call in his study and finds himself speaking with Agence France Presse. The wire-service reporter asks him to comment on the mysterious calamity. An explosion had been heard, a lake had changed color and there had been a sudden, mass annihilation of human and animal life.

Without hesitating, Tazieff tells him that the valley population was suffocated by a cloud of carbon dioxide, the gas we normally exhale.

Le gaz toxique est du gaz carbonique”, selon le vulcanologue français Haroun Tazieff. »

That is what the AFP report says when it circles the globe at 08:49 hours that same Monday morning. It’s a scoop. Reuters and AP, the wire-service competition, are still busy collecting the sparse facts: AFP is already reporting on the cause of the disaster.

Carbon dioxide, Haroun Tazieff explains, is one and a half times as heavy as air. When released in pure form it flows across the ground like water, searching also for the lowest spot. During an expedition in Congo he himself had once been hit by such a CO2 wave and was “literally knocked out”. Anyone failing to get away immediately dies of suffocation; the only comfort is that such a death is painless.

See here the opening move of the world’s most illustrious volcanologist. Seventy-three-year-old Haroun Tazieff taps the clock: the game of lightning chess with his confreres has begun.

Eight time zones east of the Paris meridian, Haraldur Sigurdsson tunes his short-wave receiver to the frequency of BBC World. From a height of 2,800 meters he looks out across the Java Sea. Sigurdsson, 47, flaxen-haired, is sitting in front of his tent on the ridge of the Tambora on the Indonesian archipelago – an Icelander in the tropics. As soon as he hears the news from Cameroon he becomes highly agitated. Sigurdsson is on the verge of ordering his porters to pack up all the equipment and descend to the coast. Darkness is already falling. On Wednesday, August 27 at the earliest he might be able to catch a boat to Bali. From Bali there are flights out. He calculates that he will need one week to reach the disaster area. But it’s wasted adrenaline racing through his body – he is tied hand and foot by his contract with Rhode Island University.

In the course of the evening his excitement makes way for rage, and when the rage ebbs away, irritation rises. Haraldur Sigurdsson, the only Western scientist who believes he can explain the deadly vagaries of Cameroon’s lakes, is stuck in Sumbawa, Indonesia.

After Haroun Tazieff speaks to the AFP reporter, he shaves with hot water and soap. This daily moment before the mirror is part of his morning ritual. Until only four months earlier Tazieff had been part of the French government – as secretary of state for disaster management – so the lines of communication to the seats of power are still short for him. Immediately after shaving he calls the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Quai d’Orsay, along the south bank of the Seine.

Ever since the weekend French diplomacy has been on the move. On Saturday, August 23, General Roger Vanni of the Cameroon army informed the military attaché at the French embassy in Yaoundé about the annihilation of all life in a valley in the northwest of the country. A coded message marked immediate is sent out only 24 hours later, because the French ambassador is on

leave. The entire French nation is on vacation. As from Sunday, August 24, however, things start rolling along the various Parisian quais.

An expression of sympathy has to be drafted for the victims’ survivors in the former colony.

A concrete offer of assistance must be made – both in French francs and in needed goods and equipment (gasmasks, Yaoundé has informed Paris, or in the words of General Vanni: “equipment to allow access to the territory”).

The ambassador has to be called back from his vacation address in Aurillac.

From its post in the Central African Republic, the army command immediately dispatches personnel (an engineering unit with a tank truck filled with diesel, as well as a few liaison officers) to the scene of the disaster in Cameroon, some 750 kilometers away.

Meanwhile, Haroun Tazieff sees to it that his most loyal and dependable assistant, a volcanic-gas expert who goes by the nickname “Fanfan”, is aboard the same plane that takes the ambassador back to his post in Africa. They leave that very same day in an 8-person military aircraft, a Mystère 20.

To listen to the cassette tapes of my radio report from 1992 (I had kept two of them: one with the rough edit of the material and one of the final broadcast itself), I first had to have them digitalized. Only then did clear, 20th century voices emerge from my 21st century audio equipment. The singing of a class of orphans from one of the Nyos refugee camps sent shivers down my spine. I remembered how they had lined up in choir formation, the littlest children up in front. What had become of them?

At minute 18 I heard myself talking to “Hasan the Immortal”, a merchant in unrefrigerated meat. No man can kill me, Hasan says, pounding his chest to illustrate how bulletproof he is. Hasan tells me that he survived the Biafran war in Nigeria and, as a refugee, the Nyos calamity in Cameroon. “Hasan is immortal,” the onlookers at the street market shout.

The excerpt is punctuated with a lamentation from one of the scientists: “A coherent eyewitness account is almost impossible to find.” For the foreign experts who have come to take soil and water samples, Africa is a coincidental backdrop; the survivors’ stories are, to them, couleur locale.

Massa,” a woman hawking vegetables says. “This is the vengeance of Mawes.” She tells us that the god Mawes rules over the kingdom of the dead at the bottom of the lake, where he guards a python egg that must always remain wet. But, enraged by the dearth of sacrifices made to him, he broke the egg – which is why that unbearably foul cloud suffocated everything that breathed: the snake’s egg was rotten!

“The little lake we’re driving past now, it didn’t use to be here,” I hear the fledgling driver of a minivan say at minute 38. “It moved.”


“Yes, it used to be down in the valley. But it climbed up here.”


“That’s what people say.”

“How can that be?”

“How should I know?”

I love stories. Real-life, wild and fantastical. As a writer, from time to time I plant a new story in the forest of those that already exist. The idea for this book was kindled in the Darwin Year of 2009, when the Teylers Museum in Haarlem asked me to take part in an exhibit dealing with two legendary ships: Noah’s Ark and Darwin’s Beagle. The former was a symbol of the myths from the Holy Writ, the latter of scientific verity.

“In the last room the people come into, we go for the big effect”, the curator promised. “We’re going to have the Ark rammed amidships and sunk by the Beagle. What do you reckon?”

I could envision the breach in the hull already. Later, though, I realized: Noah’s Ark never incurred even the slightest damage from Darwin’s discoveries during his voyage aboard the Beagle. The impossible tale of how man and beast survived on that rolling, globe-encompassing sea simply appeals more to the imagination than does young Darwin’s study tour. Before a child has evolutionary theory explained to it, it has already seen long processions of Noah’s Arks pass by – in books, in movies or as Lego or PlayMobil kits. Figments of the imagination can nestle so deeply in reality that they become a part of it. The missing room number 13 in the hotel. The Dutch stock exchange closing on Ascension Day. The horoscope in the newspaper.

All over the world, people raise their children on food, drink and fairytales.

When I was little I was told time and again, packaged as part of the Genesis legend, that the serpent had brought injustice into the world, and had done so by tempting Eve into eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Later, as a grownup, I began to see all religions as mythic stories using Thou shalts and Thou shalt nots to encroach upon the lives of billions – up to and including the mortification of one’s own flesh.

What kind of animal would do something like that? When it comes to the vital questions, the bulk of the world population would rather rely on fiction than on facts. People are animals that tell each other stories; we are constantly foisting upon each other made-up histories to which, if we do not literally believe in them, we at least attach significance. As though we voluntarily cage ourselves within the latticework of self-invented stories.

What could be the origins of myths powerful enough to blend in with reality, I asked myself. Did they start off as something smaller? And how did they get started at all?

Then came the flash. I thought back to the deadly valley of Cameroon and realized that it formed the ideal laboratory conditions for what I wanted to know. In almost gruesomely perfect fashion, the setup lent itself to an investigation of how stories budded and blossomed forth. Just think about it. The Nyos Valley is a clearly delimited little section of the earth’s crust. Between 9 and 10 p.m. on August 21, 1986, beneath a new moon, an explosion is heard. That is my zero hour, the big bang with which everything begins. At sunrise, the Nyos is stiller than still – even the crickets have stopped their chirping. Not a sign of life from the valley floor. Only after that does the sound of human voices swell once more; in the days, months and years that follow people talk about, lament, debate, speculate and fabricate about the valley of death.

My aim was to take everything – or most everything – that has been said or written about it and dissect it into separate fragments. By unraveling that tangle thread by thread, I hoped to find out which words have become attached to the facts, and how they have been woven into sentences, metaphors and stories.

A quarter of a century may not be enough time; I don’t expect a full-blown, well-rounded “legend of the valley of death” to have arisen within twenty-five years. But this much at least had to be possible: to observe the germination of new strands of mythical narrative.


Translated by Sam Garrett