Well, OK, let’s move on and see if we can place the boat in the lake in the storm in some kind of context.
It started out as a perfectly warm, calm, sunny day with a cloudless blue sky running from horizon to horizon. Unfortunately, the horizon was restricted on all sides by high slopes, including the outer rim of the extinct volcano to the north and the wall of the rift valley to the west. Anyone would know that to the north, out of our range of sight as we left the beach on Pirate Island, exhausted and tense from a night of sleepless terror (except Peter, who could sleep through anything), the Rwenzori would be blanketed with clouds and that some time later that day, as always during the rainy season, she would drop a storm down her slopes. The storm would start as a cold air mass dislodged from the glaciers at 5,000 meters and slide down the slope pushed by the strengthening easterly winds, like a giant fluffy watering can sprinkling fog, mist, drizzle and an occasional torrent on the world’s most remote and unexplored rain forest. Then, the storm would cross the middle reach of the Semliki River, a part of the river not visited by any human of whom we were aware for decades, and across the valley to contact the western wall of the Great Western Rift. From there, the storm would careen back and forth against the rift wall and the lower slopes of the Rwenzori and eventually reach the lake at some point.
That morning, we had left quite early because we wanted to get clear before the Pirates found out how few we were in number and how poorly armed we were. The reason we were on Pirate Island to begin with was because we needed to escape the constant, prying inquisition of Lon Chaney’s African Double, a small, snarky man with a penchant for insisting on seeing our “papers,” by which he meant our nonexistent passports and visas. We had arrived at The Park to surreptitiously meet Dr. Kibombi a day earlier. At the moment we pulled the boat ashore, Lon Chaney was there, welcoming us to his humble country and asking to see our papers. We put him off, suggesting that we’d produce the papers after we were settled in.
After setting up our tents on the slope above the boat dock in a makeshift camping area not often occupied by actual campers in this country, which was essentially in the state of civil war at the time, we went to have lunch with Dr. Kibombi. Our aim was to discuss future research projects in The Park. The lunch was a nicely done, modest spread of the locally made lager (locally made as in some factory a hundred kilometers away … not the less drinkable “local” stuff made of plantain juice), ham and cheese, bread, the usual African salad (which is just like an “Israeli” salad but with some cabbage). Dinner was served, as it turns out, by the manager of the kitchen, who was none other than Mr. Lon Chaney himself. And he did not fail to ask for our papers, and again we put him off.
After lunch, the four of us visitors … Joan, Biker, Peter and me, took a walk around the compound and came across a gift shop that seemed open though no one was there to mind it. I picked out two spears that had been confiscated from poachers, and all of us selected postcards. The postcards were really just a joke, because we knew there was no way we could mail them from here (or our home base one country over). We would just take them home in our luggage and put them on our respective refrigerators.
Eventually, the shopkeeper came by to take our cash. And you will never believe who it was. Lon Chaney again.
Again, the request for papers. Again, an excuse to put it off for later. But I did ask him … by way of distraction … “So, where is the post office? Can we buy stamps here and get these postcards mailed?”
“Of course. Out the door, to the left, go past the animal clinic and there’ll be a building with a service window. Knock on the service window. In fact, you must bang on it. The man who works there is hard of hearing.”
So off we went thinking we’d get cool stamps from the Big Park Post Office (but never intending to actually use them). We walked down to the shed identified as the post office. And we knocked on the window. Nothing. Then we banged on the window. As we did this, we heard noise around back of the building. Then inside the building. Then the window opened.
Lon Chaney Again.
“Good afternoon. Peace be with you. May I see your passports please? Official postal business requires the passport…”
By this time, Biker was getting nervous. Biker was a graduate student here to study the effects of natural fire on sediments. Biker is his nickname (none of the names are real, by the way), but it fits him because he looks like a biker, acts like a biker, in real life, is in fact a biker. His first words in the local language, a phrase I taught him because he really wanted to know, was “I am a biker.” Anyway, Biker was getting nervous because bikers always get nervous when official-seeming people start popping up everywhere, like a preternatural Oscar the Grouch, asking for your papers.
Joan was getting nervous. Joan’s shtick was bones. She was here to study the bones of animals munched by lions and hyenas (and the occasional leopard). Joan was getting nervous because she had spent enough time in-country to know that these things never end unless somebody pays somebody something, and expedition money was getting short.
Peter was getting nervous. Peter was a Harvard junior prof and colleague of Steven Jay Gould. Peter is the man that Money Python is based on. Or, at least, one believes this after spending any time with him. Lon Chaney did not make Peter nervous. Peter was getting nervous because we were running low on ciggs and we were flat out of beer. We did, however, have a case of empties in the boat. So beer was not an impossibility. We just had to fill the empties. Still, Peter was nervous.
I was not nervous. Of the four of us, I had spent the most time in-country, and I was the only one who spoke the local languages well enough to negotiate. In fact, dealing with the local people was one of my main jobs on this particular expedition. My research area was hundreds of kilometers away. I was here in this region mainly to help out the other research being done, although I did have my own little side project or two. I was not nervous about Lon Chaney because I was, I admit, having fun with him. And besides, I had a plan.
So again, we put off producing our papers. We spend the rest of the day meeting with Dr. Kibombi and making plans for future research in The Park. We also made plans to smuggle fuel oil over the border and to smuggle a refrigerator in the other direction. (We had three refrigerators that we really had made little use of since the incident with the lions and hyenas in camp.)
So, now it was time to implement my plan. Dr. Kibombi was off to some evening rendezvous, and we had made it plain that we were going to “go down to our tents … make some dinner on our own” (saying this a little more loudly than necessary to each other, me repeating it in a couple of languages, so Mr. Lon Chaney would hear and understand) … “and get to bed nice and early so we could get up with the sun and straighten out our visas and passports and stuff … Yup … just going down to the tents …”
So off we trudged down the hill and out of sight. And we packed our stuff into the boat with no one seeing, taking the tents down last. And then we slipped the boat into the channel and luck was with us: The current was heading our way (it does not always do so, which is why it is called a channel) … out to the big lake.
A few hundred meters down stream, and we kicked on the motor and took off, giddy with our success. Along the way out, we had collected some very important fossils, we had a a couple of good meetings with Dr. Kibombi, and we never had to bribe Lon Chaney in relation to the missing visas. But our luck was only to get better, and worse at the same time. Because not far down the channel was a hidden village and beyond that a mysterious island.
There would be pirates. And beer. Not necessarily in that order.
And yes, yes, of course … a storm. I’ve not forgotten the storm.