Life in Missoula, Montana.
For Strange Hunting fans, here's an extra chapter. Berk Willis travels to Algeria where he finds warlords, witchcraft, and hungry hyenas. Here's the story, in his own words.
I went to Algeria in the fall of 1987. I’d been working for a few years in North Dakota, trapping problem animals for the Department of Game and Fish: problem coyotes, skunks, the occasional bear. It wasn’t what I really wanted to do, but it was a job. Before that I’d worked for several years in Europe as a professional bodyguard. I’d had the good fortune to travel all over Europe, to the Philippines, Africa, French Guyana.
Wiping out problem coyotes wasn’t doing it for me.
When a friend of a friend mentioned a job opening on a research trip in Algeria, my ears perked up. A professor of archaeology needed someone to provide security at a site he was investigating there. The area was frequented by warlords and pirates as well as wild boars, jackals, and the occasional leopard. I wanted in.
After pestering the professor by phone for a few days, I managed to meet with him and convince him of my qualifications. I was accustomed to the difficulties of third world travel, I spoke French, and I had a lot of experience in dealing with unruly animals. I also had been trained and certified in personal security by a well known school in Europe. He hired me that day.
A few months later, we stepped off the plane in Algeria into a wave of heat that rolled over the tarmac, blasting anything that got in its way. It was supposedly the cool season there, but the heat was relentless. There were four of us: Professor Ozolinsh, his two grad assistants, and me. Chris, the male grad assistant, was pale and freckly, slightly pudgy, with short red hair. He was not meant to work in the desert. The girl, Erin, was on the tall side, thin, with big, bright eyes and dark hair pulled back in a perpetual ponytail. They both worked like dogs, carrying equipment, tracking down bags, and generally doing whatever the professor asked. Not that he didn’t work as well, but professorship did have its advantages. The four of us managed to track down all the luggage and other equipment and get out to the street, where we and our stuff required two taxis.
We travelled the short distance to Algiers, the capitol, where coastal breezes kept things a little bit cooler.
Algiers is a city that is simultaneously cosmopolitan and ancient. It has big, modern buildings that are all curves and tinted glass. It also has buildings hundreds of years old. The various empires that have ruled here all left samples of their architecture: Byzantine, Roman, Christian, Arab. There are mosques, churches, monuments, a mixture of different styles all blended together. Everywhere you look there are minarets, domes, towers, columns. It makes the place seem ageless and a little bit mystical. I rode along in the taxi just marveling at the place.
At the hotel we met Hadnir, our local “fixer”. He was the man who made our local arrangements, procured local goods and services, and handled all our official dealings with Algerian officials. Hadnir was a big, hefty guy who looked like he could take care of himself. His hairline had retreated back from his forehead, but apparently he made up for it with longer hair in the back tied in a short pony tail.
Hadnir had secured an old, dark green Land Rover for our use, as well as some packaged food and enough cases of bottled water to form a small mountain. Chris and Erin began to wade through the mountain of new stuff. That left Hadnir and I to deal with the issue of weapons. I was, after all, here to provide security and I couldn’t very well do that unarmed.
While Arabic was the official language of the country, Hadnir also spoke French and some English, so communication was no problem. We climbed into his old white Mercedes sedan and rolled slowly into the traffic of Algiers. Hadnir was a slow driver, apparently oblivious to the swirl of cars around him. They honked and maneuvered, but Hadnir just rolled along slowly, talking all the while. He told me of his wife, his kids, his previous jobs. Hadnir was a talker. He also smoked nearly non-stop. I leaned toward my open window, watching the wonders of Algiers pass by and listening politely. Gold chains dangled from the rearview mirror, a compliment to the ones Hadnir wore, I’m sure. Drivers honked and gestured all around us while Hadnir pointed out mosques, financial centers, good restaurants and bad. Many of the buildings here were painted white. They looked stark and beautiful against the blue of the bay. I was starting to really like Algiers.
Hadnir pointed out the Berber men wearing their loose fitting clothes, some with head wraps which obscured all but their faces. There were also Arab women wearing traditional burkas, men in long robes. Business men strode the streets in light-colored suits and neck ties, while the occasional clump of tourists went by in their casual shirts and shorts. Algiers was an interesting compilation.
Eventually, Hadnir pulled to the side of the road. I squeezed out alongside the metal guardrail, wondering why we stopped where we did. There didn’t seem to be anything here except some ratty palm trees. I wondered, briefly, about Hadnir’s intentions.
We stepped between some bushes and I found myself on a rough trail that led down a steep embankment. I followed Hadnir down the slope, over rocky piles of old dirt and stone, and down a wide set of very old stone steps. At the bottom stood two very large men holding very large guns. Hadnir spoke to the men in Arabic, motioning toward me from time to time. The men nodded, looking me over suspiciously. I assumed they were looking for the bulge of a concealed gun. They insisted on searching me. When they were satisfied that I was unarmed, they stood aside and we stepped between them.
We walked into a vast cave with high ceilings. It was lit with several large lights run by portable generators, and there were a number of long folding tables set about the place. I saw men in flowing robes and others in the loose, colorful garments favored by the local Berbers. There were several black men walking around dressed in combinations of tan, olive drab, and old style camouflage. A few white men wandered from table to table, dressed in fatigues or the latest in Eddie Bauer safari gear.
The tables held all manner of weapons: pistols, knives, swords, and automatic weapons. I followed Hadnir, casually surveying the wares. Sellers stood, watchful, behind their tables. One caught my eye and we exchanged brief nods. I sensed that anything more would be a breach of etiquette here. A man in blue robes and a dark purple turban stood behind a table of long, curved swords. Another table held nothing but knives, everything from pocket knives to some big choppers that could decapitate a person in one swing. I passed a table where a white man dressed in all black sat with his feet propped on a table. He sold big, Rambo-style knives, and heavy, long-barreled Colt pistols. To some of the customers browsing here, looking powerful was as good as being powerful.
Hadnir led me through the little gun bazaar. We stopped at a low table. The man who sat behind it was large, with a neck the size of my thigh, and skin the color of dark chocolate. He wore a thin jacket of woodland camouflage over a Bob Marley t-shirt and blue jeans. He watched me approach the table and I gave him a subtle upward nod of my chin. The table held weapons and some stacks of colorful patches. Flags of green, red, and gold, plus some others. I realized they were mostly countries with wars going on. Maybe they were souvenirs for mercenaries.
The table held a few beat up old pistols, sturdy knives, and some AK-47s that had seen better days. I motioned toward one of the assault rifles and the man nodded and handed it to me. It was pretty dinged up and there were some scratches on the stock, but the moving parts were well oiled and smooth. I knew that an AK-47 was known for being nearly indestructible, for being able to fire even after being submerged in mud. They were popular in Africa because any kid could be taught to use one. I guess that was a benefit to some, a horror to others. Anyway, this one looked to be used hard, but pretty well maintained. I set it back on the table. I would probably never have to fire whichever weapon I selected, but I got the feeling that appearance was a big deterrent here. The AK was definitely good in that regard.
After a little haggling, Hadnir and I left with the rifle, a big, double-edged knife, and the promise of ammunition to be delivered to my hotel. That was a safety measure employed by this crazy little mercenarys’ market, I think. A good idea anyway.
That evening Hadnir took us all out to a good French restaurant in the city. I always like to sample local food, but I guess that Hadnir thought we’d be impressed by a good French restaurant here in Algiers. Anyway the food was good and afterwards he showed us around to some of the major sites of the city. When we arrived back at our hotel, there was a package waiting for me. In my room I opened it to find the promised ammunition I’d bought.
I checked and re-checked my gear and packed everything in my pack. I was a little bit compulsive about my gear, but I always liked to know where everything was. If I needed something in a hurry, or in the dark, I couldn’t be fumbling around. I was in charge of everyone’s safety, and the next day we were headed for the mountains.
The Warlord Arrives
The professor, his students, and I squeezed into the old Land Rover. The roof rack was piled high with everything from gas cans to research equipment. It was a tight fit, but we had everything. We headed out of the city.
We drove through arid basins of sand and scrub brush, winding higher as we left the coast behind. Lonely, gnarled acacia trees gave way to groves of olive trees. Clumps of agave, palm, and cactus became hillsides covered with the bright greens of macchia shrub. On some hillsides, Berber tribesmen had created vast terraces of sorghum, or so I was told. To this day I’m not sure what sorghum is, though it looks like a tall, grassy grain crop.
By late afternoon we were passing through sparse forests of pine, oak and juniper. I saw stubby, brown mountain sheep on the high slopes. Small groups of Barbary Deer looked up from their grazing to watch as we sped past. We were at an elevation of around five thousand feet now, where the air was much cooler and high peaks stood tall in every direction. I watched them as we drove, trying to remember what I’d read in the guidebook. These were the Aures Mountains, where the Berbers made stand after stand throughout history. In its history, Algeria had been invaded by the Romans, the Vandals, the Turks, and the Arabs, but the Berbers of the Aures Mountains had always resisted. This was their stronghold, their refuge. The war against the French was waged from these very mountains just thirty years before. It was a wild, rugged place and I liked it right away.
Professor Ozolinsh was searching for the tomb of the Vandal prince, Derasic, who had apparently died here during the Vandal invasion around 430 AD. In fact the professor had been searching these high valleys for the past three years. This year, he thought he had the location narrowed down.
The area had a few different warlords who were constantly vying for control over the area. That’s where I came in. While he and his students searched for the tomb, I was responsible for keeping the people, the camp, and the equipment safe. Mostly I was to be a heavily armed, visible presence. Warlords generally preyed on people they saw as defenseless and weak, and my job was to make sure we didn’t seem to be in that category.
Late in the day we finally pulled off a remote dirt road into a wide, sandy field. Apparently we had arrived. The gradasses began to unload the gear, and the professor and I started setting up the big hunters’ wall tents we would use while we were here.
It was dark by the time the tents were up. I took my new rifle and walked the perimeter of our little campsite, listening for any odd sound. We were in a large field dotted with low shrubs with a few trees spread around the edges. I studied the terrain, trying to determine the most likely source of attacking marauders. Strategically, we were vulnerable. If several armed men came at us at once, there was no way of stopping them. I had my work cut out for me.
The professor came out and said I should turn in for the night. Probably nothing would happen tonight, he said. It was likely that no one even knew we were there yet. Best to get some sleep and be fresh in the morning.
I eventually slept, but not very well.
The next morning, everyone was busy setting up the equipment and getting things situated. I patrolled around the area, getting a sense of the land around us. Insects buzzed from the shadows of the shrubs, and a big barbary stag wandered across a nearby hillside. There were small slopes and ridges not too far from our camp and higher mountains in the distance.
The others decided to hike a little bit, to get a sense of where they wanted to work. I offered to go along, but the professor said I should guard the camp, so I had a little while to enjoy the quiet solitude of the place. It was peaceful and beautiful.
The warlord showed up a little while later.
I heard a vehicle coming up the road. Here in the middle of nowhere, that was a red flag.
I ran to the tents and stood there with my rifle as an old Toyota pickup truck turned off the main road and roared up to our site. The truck skidded to a stop and men got out. Armed men. Two men climbed out of the bed of the pickup and another got out of the passenger side. They carried assault rifles, casually, like they were just another accessory. The two men from the back of the truck flanked the other man, who walked straight toward me. I clicked the safety off on my rifle and kept it pointed off to the side. I could swing the barrel toward the men quickly if I had to.
The man in the middle was probably six feet tall, broad shouldered and built like a bull. He had olive skin and a thick, dark beard below bright, piercing eyes. He walked right up to me and began speaking in Arabic. I held up one hand and shook my head. I didn’t understand.
He eyed me suspiciously, then his eyes darted to the tents. He turned and looked over the Land Rover, saying something to his comrades in Arabic. The other two men kept their eyes on me. They didn’t point their guns at me, but they didn’t make an effort of pointing them away, either. I tried to think of something to do.
I asked the leader, in French, if he spoke French.
He nodded. At least we could communicate.
I asked if he would come inside and have some tea. The man hesitated, then he nodded quickly. I had stumbled onto a strategy, but I was making it up as I went. I had been all over the planet and I had learned one thing: no matter where you are, if someone invites you into their dwelling for a beverage, you had better say yes. Anything else is very insulting to people who are trying to be hospitable. I took two steps toward our kitchen tent and stopped at the entrance. The warlord and his men followed. I set my rifle against the outside of the tent wall.
“No guns in the tent,” I said matter-of-factly.
The warlord shrugged and set his rifle next to mine. His men did the same. When someone invites you in for tea, you are obligated to follow the house rules, even if they serve you roasted insects. I’d learned that, too.
The four of us went into the tent and I had the guests sit on little camp chairs while I started one of the stoves. I got the water started then came back to sit with my new friends. They sat there awkwardly, trapped by custom into being polite.
The four of us had tea and chatted amiably. I asked the warlord (his name was Affan) questions and paid him compliments. Stroking his ego got us headed in the right direction. We had a mutual interest in weapons, especially knives and swords. I told him about some of the weapons I owned back in the states and of some that I had seen on my travels. We were actually talking, though I wasn’t sure what would happen when the conversation ran out. Would they come back later to steal our stuff, or worse?
I showed the warlord around our camp including the equipment, the tents, and the Land Rover. Just about then, the professor and the two assistants came back. They were startled to find the warlord and his men in our camp, their weapons resting against one of the tents. I introduced them all around. The warlord smiled then, and his eyes sparkled. I could feel the last of the tension ebbing away. The man had seen our whole operation and knew now that we were not a threat in any way. One armed man, a professor, and two kids? I could practically see the relief on his face.
By the time he left, the warlord Affan shook my hand and walked to his truck. He and his men climbed in. The driver, who had sat in the car the whole time, swung the car in a slow circle through the brush and drove up onto the road. I waved goodbye and Affan raised his hand in a half wave, half salute. Their truck disappeared down the road.
The Warlord came to visit about once a week after that. He would stop by for tea or to show me a favorite knife or just stop and chat. I told him about some of my hunting trips to Africa and he was always very interested.
One day he brought a backgammon set and after that we would play a game or two when he visited. Here I was in the remote, rugged mountains of Algeria, playing a board game with a warlord.
We had no problems from him or from anyone else - being friends with a local warlord had definite advantages.
The researchers did their thing, day in and day out. They had located the prince’s tomb and were very busy with tools and screens and all manner of equipment, doing whatever it is that they did. As far as security, I didn’t have much to do. Being friends with the warlord meant we were safe from local thieves and thugs. I still had to be concerned about wild animals, but that was mostly a nighttime problem.
A few days before we were supposed to be done there, the warlord invited me to his camp. He and one of his men took me hunting where I saw a lot of the beautiful Aures Mountains and Affan took down a gazelle.
When we were in their camp, preparing the gazelle, one of Affan’s men came by and told us that a man-eating hyena had killed two people in a nearby village. Apparently a killer hyena was not unheard of in these mountains. They were mean, aggressive animals who fed on roadkill and corpses and weren’t averse to dragging a child off into the brush, never to be seen alive again.
I didn’t know much about hyenas. I had always though they were scavengers but, from what the men said, they killed most of what they ate. They were fierce enough to chase a leopard off a kill and they weren’t afraid of humans. Their jaws were strong enough to crush bones. It was even suggested that once a hyena got a taste for human flesh it would want to eat nothing else. One of the men, a refugee from a warring country to the south, claimed that in his country witches were known to ride hyenas as pets. Everyone agreed that a bad hyena was bad news.
Affan announced that he and I would hunt for the man-eating hyena. I was surprised, but I couldn’t exactly refuse.
I know there are people who think pretty much all predators should be eradicated, people so insecure about their place on the food chain that they think every creature that’s even close should be eliminated. Any animal with intelligence and power, anything that hunts, is threatening to them. I don’t believe that way.
I like to know that there are wild, noble creatures out in the woods, that our wild places are much wilder because of creatures like that. I’m not threatened by a little competition from a puma or whatever, but this hyena was a different story. It had eaten goats and had killed several humans, and it’s possible that it now associated people with an easy food source. The people of these mountains were in danger. We had to find that hyena.
The next day I was ready to go, nice and early. The night before I had disassembled, cleaned and oiled the AK. It wasn’t a good weapon for hunting, but it was all I had. I had packed water, some food, first aid: all the essentials. I sat near the warlord’s tent, waiting.
The warlord was not a morning person.
I waited and waited. When the warlord did wake up, he was slow-moving and belligerent. He shouted at his henchmen, ordering them to and fro. The level of activity eventually ramped up: men were loading the truck, running errands, cooking food.
I waited, and waited.
By noon we were finally on the road, with the warlord driving the old pickup himself. In the passenger seat, I hung on to the handle above my window as the truck bucked and skidded on the soft dirt of the road. Affan drove as aggressively as he did everything else.
We soon arrived at the nearby village which had only a few permanent buildings. Many others were the type of temporary shelters built by Berber families who spent half the year in the lower valleys, tending to their animals. The few permanent buildings were the same dusty tan as the earth around it.
The village, what there was of it, was quiet. Most people were tending to their fields or otherwise busy. The noon sun rose high in the clear blue sky. It was feeling more like fall now than summer, the temperature topping out in the mid-seventies.
Warlord Affan wore a tan shirt with epaulets, a sidearm and curved sword on his belt, for show. He held his assault rifle in one hand as he strode from house to house. The warlord stalked from place to place, questioning people and demanding answers. I was seeing his dark side, his temper and impatience. People were afraid of him.
We heard many stories of the hyena and its nighttime raids. One man showed us the pens where three of his goats had been killed. Another told us the tearful story of how one of his children had been dragged off. By my count the hyena had killed at least half a dozen people over the course of the last few weeks. The hyena was described as a huge specimen with eyes that shone in the darkness with a light of pure evil. It had sharp teeth and a perpetual snarl. The hyena was definitely not afraid of anything, they said.
There was genuine fear among the people. The warlord did not allow the locals to keep weapons, so the men had been patrolling at night with torches and farm implements, but they’d had no luck. The hyena was sly, they said. It watched and waited until it was very late, until all the men went to bed, then it attacked.
I was trying to find out exactly where people had seen the hyena, where it might live or hunt. The warlord was more interested in making a big show of how powerful he was. He wanted to be seen as the peoples’ protector. The more scared people were, the more he thumped his chest.
We had to hunt the hyena at night, since they were nocturnal. When the warlord announced that we would stay for dinner, the villagers scattered quickly to appease him. We were led to a small garden restaurant and seated at their biggest table. We sat for a long time while various local men came by to pay their respects. They had dark, weather-worn faces and proud Berber eyes that darted toward me but never stopped. From time to time, one of the warlord’s men would show up, speak with him for a brief moment, and then hurry away. We passed the time eating various types of local bread and snacking on bowls of dates and figs. They poured us water from tall, glass carafes. I didn’t know if it was safe for me to drink, but in the presence of the warlord, a person ate what was put in front of him and didn’t complain.
The afternoon wore on and the steady stream of local men began to dwindle. The smell of exotic spices wafted out of the kitchen. The warlord and I struggled to find subjects to talk about.
We were eventually served some local sausage and a dish of long, flat noodles. I tasted garlic and onions and little bits of chicken. After that there was some fresh flatbread which we tore up and ate with a tomato dish that had lamb and chickpeas. It was the best meal I’d had in weeks. There were pastries afterwards that I later learned were brought in from a larger town. Nothing was spared for the warlord, though he seemed unimpressed.
When all the plates had been cleared, I thought the meal was done. Three local men came in and sat with us, greeting the warlord with great gusto. They all sat and chatted in what I assumed was Berber. I sat and nodded politely when anyone looked my way; I think the warlord got bonus points for having a foreign warrior accompanying him. The men talked fast and loud but I was mostly thinking about bone crushing hyenas ridden by dark witches. The stories I’d heard were running through my head as I sat there, pretending to listen. Then more dishes were brought out. I was about ready to split open, I was so full, but I had to make a showing of eating again. I don’t even remember all the types of food we ate but there were a lot of chickpeas and potatoes.
After the meal, the men began to smoke. I was beginning to think we would never leave, but eventually the other men got up, shook hands, and excused themselves. Warlord Affan was calmer now, happy. People had been fawning over him all day and he reveled in it.
We went outside and watched the sun sink behind the mountains. The streets were empty. The town appeared deserted, though I knew people were just huddled in the safety of their homes. Shadows grew and darkness surrounded the little village.
We had a date with a man-eater. It was time to hunt.