Continued from here.
After slipping away from the dock in The Big Park, we motored down the channel a ways, and soon came across a boat heading the other direction. These were local fishermen heading back to the village in a typical pirogue, which is basically a very large canoe. But this was a bit of an odd sight, because according to our maps and information, there were no villages in the immediate area. As far as we knew, we were in a park, and specifically in the part of the park without villages. But then again, on both sides of the international border, flanked as many African borders are with parks of both nations, there were a number of tiny villages nestled in inaccessible places that sometimes grew up around ranger stations or other park-related facilities. Perhaps this was one of them.
The fishermen gravitated eagerly but cautiously towards us, because we were freaks, as bazunga (white people) in a green rubber boat would naturally be. This was a part of the country where outsiders rarely came and if they did, it was always by land transport from the direction of the big city to the east. They invited us to pull over, so we did. We pulled into a lonely beach with no sign of human habitation in any direction, and were suddenly surrounded by curious and bold children from a village hidden behind the dense vegetation that lined the channel.
Pretty soon we were able to ascertain that the village was in fact totally unauthorized, and inhabited by families of fisher folk who had been driven from some other area along the lake by pirates, who incessantly harassed them, took the catch from their boats, and if they ever scored a motor or some fuel, they took that too. The men from the boat eyed our motor and our gasoline containers and told us “You’d better lock that stuff up at the park [yes, the park from which we had just escaped] or the pirates will take it tonight. And they’ll cut your throats…”
Well, I inquired further about the pirates, to find out if there was any actual credible evidence that they existed or if they had actually ever taken anyone’s motor or cut anyone’s throat. Indeed, I had heard of these pirates before, but was never sure what to believe. In the end I ascertained that no one could name any of the victims, but they were convincingly (to me) sure that the pirates existed. So I assumed that the area had a few pirates, but that they were probably pretty tame relative to their reputation.
Even more importantly, we also discovered that this village had just scored two cases of beer. This was brought up by the villagers who noticed the empties we had stashed in the Zodiac. Beer costs money, and money can be used for other things. So there is always a tension between beer and money. Men will generally pick the beer over the money, women the money over the beer. I guessed that these two cases had been scored by the men, and I sensed that the women were a little peeved at them. It seemed very logical to me that if we exchanged the case of empties and some cash for a case of non-empties, domestic tranquility in this small village would be enhanced, Peter would relax about our dry spell, and international relations would be served all around. So money and beer exchanged hands.
So we cast off, warnings of pirates ahead on our minds, with the intention of camping out the night on an unnamed island that we had passed earlier in the week, which seemed to have good harbor and to be totally uninhabited. We motored down to the end of the channel, located the island and pulled in for the night.
When we pulled in, I have to say things looked a little different than I had expected. There was an old fire hearth in the very spot we had intended to camp out. That is not a surprise. Generally speaking, if you or I see a particular spot as a place to camp, or to merely hang out and have a break for lunch, chances are that over the eons many others have had the same thought. But there was more evidence of human activity here than I had expected.
So as my compatriots set up two tents and started a fire, I took one of the spears we had copped at The Big Park gift shop, and took a little walk around the island. What I discovered was rather astonishing.
There were no fewer than six different camp sites around the island, and one of them was already occupied by a pair of men who had pulled in their boat and were cooking themselves dinner. At one point, I sneaked carefully through the bush following a vague trail that seemed to ring the island’s hinterland. As I carefully pushed between two thick bushes, I came quite suddenly face to face with two men who had just come ashore and who appear to have been doing the about the same thing I was doing: Checking out the perimeter of their camp site. Cartoon like, we all let out a noise of surprise, turned the other way, and made tracks. There was no doubt in my mind, or anyone else’s, that this island was a hideout and since we were all hiding we were all supposed to ignore each other’s existence, or at the very least, remain suspicious. This was not a place where we would encounter the usual Central African hospitality and friendliness!
We had, it turned out, stumbled on Pirate Island. This is where the fish poachers, motor robbers, alleged throat cutters and smugglers would camp out en route from somewhere to somewhere else, or just spend some time on the lam. Drats!
I returned to camp and reported my findings to Biker, Joan and Peter. Joan’s instinct was to get off the island, but it was too late. Night was falling hard as it does on the equator (there are no long sunrises and sunsets there!). Peter’s instinct was to bury the beer, but the earth was too hard and his efforts were quickly thwarted. Biker’s instinct was to set up a schedule for a night watch. On further consideration, Biker and I decided to handle that ourselves, and take turns standing guard as the others slept.
Well, it turned out that there was no sleeping for either of us. Unfortunately, the night was lit with a strong, nearly full moon. The boat and the tents would be quite visible, though Biker and I could find places to sit or stand in the shadows. For the remainder of the night we stood in camp holding one spear and one flashlight each as one boat after another would come by the camp site. The boat would come close, and we would hear the same thing every time. One of the boat’s occupants would point out the motor. Someone would start to say “Quarante … quarante. Iko yangu, kabisa!” which roughly translates as “OMG, a forty horsepower motor! … want!!!!11!!”
Then, as they were just close enough that the man in the front of the boat would be about to jump out of the bow to pull in the large canoe-like craft, we would turn on our flashlights, brandish our spears, and yell something obnoxious like “We are the Hell’s Angels. Stand off” or “Avast ye maties, slabber down your hatches and turn about!” or, as the night progressed and we grew increasingly tired of this, just “booga booga booga!!!”
Which would cause great confusion, and an immediate retreat.
In the morning, we packed up and headed out. The sun was very low on the morning horizon, but already burning off a light night fog as we packed the tents, bags, and beer into the Zodiac. The jagged shoreline of the mainland trapped little pockets of mist, and accentuated the shape of the landscape in this part of the lake. This entire landscape, including the island we were on, the odd shoreline visible all around the large bay that harbored Pirate Island, and the hills visible to the north, is made up of a series of craters, ranging from small (hundreds of meters across) to large (up to 2,000 meters across). across. The largest and most recent of the craters is believed to have been formed about 6,000 years ago.
As I was contemplating this, gazing across the bay, I saw a log suddenly begin to move of its own accord, leaving a v-shaped wake behind, and submerge. A crocodile. The crater and the crocodile, juxtaposed, reminded me of a story that I absolutely have to tell you ….