Oh right, the crater and the crocodile. This is a long story. Six thousand years long. And it’s pretty gruesome. Everybody dies. Twice.
So let’s go back in time almost to the beginning of the expedition’s season.
The Semliki River flows north out of the Big Lake. That alone is strange to a North American, where mostly rivers flow into, not out of, lakes. (Not to mention that they usually flow south!) The River flows from a place called Ishango, past dozens of long abandoned villages now known only as place names used to label geological or archaeological sites, and marked with the occasional mass grave or scatter of pottery shards. The river flows north past the Rwenzori Massif, the largest single mountain on the planet earth at this time, transected by the equator but sporting five glaciers. And usually invisible behind a mantle of cloud. Eventually, the river empties into another big lake far to the north, and then, the Nile.
Senga is one of these old villages located ten kilometers as the vulture soars north of Ishango. This is one of the three main locations being investigated during this expedition. Though I only briefly visited the site in the second year of work, I’ll have a lot to do with this excavation in this, the third and final year.
So on the first day of the third field season, we find the old track leading from the park road, which itself is a little used dirt track running north and south from Ishango up towards the Rwenzori, and intersecting a road that goes up to the Western Rift wall, and another road that crosses the border, where a large market is held inside ‘no man’s land’ between the two somewhat unfriendly but not at war countries. We find the old track leading from the park road and follow it three klicks down to Senga, where we’ll build tents, set up refrigerators that will never work, figure out a “water filtering” system, locate the old ‘grid’ for the archaeological site, and once settled in (hopefully in one day or maybe two) start excavating with the help of some twenty local school teachers and others, most of whom have worked on this excavation before.
The camp will be maintained, food acquired and cooked, tents put up and installed, by a core group of key individuals, whom I’ll call Zorba and his crew: Zorba, Ollie and Rene. Perhaps I’ll tell you more about them in the future. We became good friends.
Anyway, on this day we drove down to Senga. We drove into what would be the main camp area, and all the Americans and Europeans got out of the Land Rovers and started milling around rather aimlessly, seemingly tethered to the vehicles by short invisible ropes. The Africans — both locals and the foreign (but still African) scientists headed immediately to the nearest shade, fully knowing that the Bazungu (white men and women) would need some time to orient and decide on the next move.
I, however, headed straight to the cliff overlooking the river. I wanted to see the hippos, and to scope out the river for fishing opportunities. Down below the cliff was a beach that widened northwards, and that was accessed by a gully to the north of the the camp area, the gully separating our living area from the site we would excavate. So, daily, we would cross the gully to get to the excavation, and every morning or evening (depending on one’s proclivities and issues of modesty, etc.) the gully would serve as the route down to the riverside, for a bath. During the day, Zorba and his crew would be carrying water up and empty carboys down, dirty laundry down and clean wet laundry up, and occasionally try to catch a fish.
I wanted to look at the river and the beach, and down on the cliff, knowing I was the first person to be walking here since the previous August. I had a sense that there might be something interesting … perhaps leopard tracks or a leopard kill hanging in a tree, perhaps vervet monkeys were hanging out on the cliff, perhaps the local pod of hippos had grown in number. It was exciting to consider what new thing might be there.
But the new thing that I saw there was, in fact, not merely exiting. It was utterly shocking … breathtaking, and even a little frightening. I let out an audible gasp, as I recall.
As I gazed down on the beach (where we would later swim and bathe, and fetch our water) I saw a two meter long crocodile sunning itself.
That is a little shocking, but not for reasons you might think. Frankly, a six foot long croc is a baby. The lower Semliki (down by the other big lake) has much much larger crocks. My friend Bwana Ndege (Mr. Bird) had visited the mouth of the Semliki the year before, from his home in Isiro. I saw him after the trip. He told me he saw some mighty big crocs where the Semliki emptied into the lake.
“How big were they?” I said.
“About this big,” he replied, squinching his right eye down on his monocle, cigarette holder erect in the left corner of his mouth, his safari hat tilted back, his riding pants pressed and motorcycle boots shined, and his hands about 90 cm. apart. “… yes, I’d say about zeez big,” playing up his native German accent a bit.
“Not even a meter long!?” I inquired inquisitively, knowing he was somehow pulling my leg, but not yet knowing what direction he was pulling it in.
“Absolutely. That much. About ninety centimeters distance I would say. … (pause) … BETWEEN ZEE EYES!!! … Ha ha.”
Anyway, this two meter long baby was not size-impressive, but it was existentially impressive, because three years ago, and according to the fossil record, going back to about 6,000 years ago, there was not a single crocodile to be found in the upper Semliki or on the Big lake, anywhere. Crocodiles were locally extinct here. The reason? Because of that big crater by Pirate Island. Six thousand years ago that crater blew, and dumped between five and 50 meters or so of ash on the entire valley. Everything was killed. Certainly, people were living here then. They were killed. All the animals were wiped out. All the plants were wiped out. All the fish in the lake were wiped out.
In fact, this valley, north to at least the Semliki rapids that ran through the Rwenzori rain forest, and south to the big volcanoes on the south side of the Big Lake, is now pretty much occupied by what are called the “cosmopolitan” species. These are plants or animals that manage to disperse easily and are common enough to begin with that they will have lots of places to come FROM when a newly wiped out landscape presents itself. Quite a bit more of Africa works this way than many people realize. Dry decades and fire, volcanoes, extremely destructive elephant herds, and other things will have huge impacts (in the case of this volcano, total impact) on a very large piece of landscape. Then, over a few thousand years things occupy that landscape. It is not that things come back, or that the ecology returns, or that nature rebalances itself. Rather, opportunism happens, and after a period of time, there is lots of stuff living where before there was nothing, and the new landscape has a flora and fauna that may be entirely different from that of the pre-disaster landscape.
Indeed, a less complete but rather impressive event of this nature had happened during the beginning of the 20th century. This valley was full of people, tilling the land made rich by the volcanic ash, keeping cattle who grazed on the extensive grasslands, hunting the wild game and fishing from this very productive river. A river that flows out of a lake full of hippos will have many fish, with the poorly digested grass supplied by the hippos serving as the trophic base for the tilapia, and the tilapia for the larger, predatory fish. The hippos themselves, when they die, are the mainstay of the giant catfish.
Indeed, the name of the river comes from the abundance of fish in it, in a way. When Henry Morton Stanley’s army came here in the 19th century, they asked the people here (not far from Senga) if the river had any fish. The answer: “No, nothing. Nothing to fish for in this river. Don’t even bother. Totally useless. Just move along now, nothing here for you.”
You see, Stanley had a reputation, and ultimately it would come to pass that every young child who grew up in this area, or the adjoining Ituri forest, would learn of Stanley. All would learn that if any of Stanley’s descendants were to come there to visit, the would be killed in vengeance for the thousands he killed in the starvation camps he created. To the people of this region, Stanly and another chap by the name of King Leopold were the equivalent of Hitler to the Jews and many others of Europe. Except Hitler knew how to make the trains run on time. These Europeans in the Congo did not.
Stanly was obnoxious in another way. He initially reported, after visiting the Semliki, that the”natives” were deluded, and worshiped a mountain that did not exist, which they called the “Mountains of the moon,” said to be to the north of their settlements. Stanley or his people spent over a year wandering around back and forth in sight of the Rwenzori, but never once did they lay eyes on the massif until much later in time. The mountains remain shrouded in clouds, invisible to all, almost all the time. Indeed, the average native in those days may well have not believed in the mountain, thinking it a delusion of the elders and the shamans, until one day the clouds would break and the Mountains of the Moon would come into view, sporting its shining glaciers and green and gray clad slopes.
So, Stanley’s people asked about the fish in the river, and the story goes that they were told “nothing in this river” which in KiNande (the local language) is, roughly, “Semuliki” which became “Semliki” river. And I must tell you, the fishing in this river is excellent (I could tell you stories….).
But alas, the villages that lived here and the people who lived in them were ultimately wiped out. It appears that sleeping sickness killed the cattle and many of the people, many killed directly by the disease, the rest by the starvation that followed. The few remaining dug a number of mass graves, but others were probably left where they fell. The valley, unoccupied, was relegated to parkland status by the Belgian colonial administration, and in the center of the park, at Ishango, King Leopold built himself a sort of castle. So, the land of farmers and cattle keepers was transformed by a widespread disaster into wild bush, a milder form of transformation compared to the volcano of millennia earlier, but transformed nonetheless.
So on this day that I looked down on the crocodile, I was looking at the first generation … now just a couple/few years old (these suckers can grow very very quickly when there is no competition whatsoever) of this species returned to this valley after six thousand years absence. Somehow.
But this crocodile, while interesting and impressive, is not what took my breath away. No, no, not at all. What took my breath aways was the python sneaking up on the crocodile, a python easily large enough to capture and scarf down a crocodile this size.
My presence …. my audible gasp, perhaps, or maybe just the shadow I cast or a stone I turned (I’ll never know) … alerted the crocodile, who slithered off the beach into the river. I stood perfectly still and for ten minutes watched the snake move off into the bush to the south of my line of sight.
Later that afternoon, a couple of my colleagues said they were going down for a bath. “Anyone like to join us?”
“Ah, no, that’s ok. You guys go now. I’ll bathe later….. depending”
But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. To put Senga in context, you need to know about Ishango. I did not spend a lot of time at Ishango, but almost every time I visited there something out of the ordinary happened. And the first time for this season actually presents a story worth telling. When I get a chance, I’ll tell you about Jacques and John and their efforts to rescue Wally the Waterbuck.