The trip to Ishango was long and harrowing. Everyone first traveled to Nairobi, Kenya. Biker and Bond (as in James Bond) went ahead to Rwanada and helped get the vehicles stored there the previous year out of mothballs. Later, the rest of us flew to Kigali, Rwanda, and as a group we traveled overland to Goma, Zaire. Adding supplies in Goma, it became impossible for all of us to travel in the field vehicles, so there we divided into two groups. One group drove by land around the big lake, coming down to Ishango by a windy road on the Western Rift wall, the other group (mine) crossing the lake by pirogue (a big canoe-like boat). Goma to Ishango was two days en route.
During the entire time, Big Red John, one of the three leaders of the expedition, exhibited the expected stress response and often reverted to his sheep herder background, where the students and others on the trip were the sheep. He barked at us a lot and became quite annoying. That is important background. Remember. Big Red John was annoying everyone. A lot.
Remarkably, the pirogues and the Land Rovers pitched up at Ishango at almost the same time… the boats arriving first by just a few minutes. So there we were at Ishango. The sign welcoming you to Ishango says that this is “the most beautiful spot on the Earth” and that is not an exaggeration. The high south facing cliff on which Ishango rests overlooks the wide outlet of the Big Lake, which is flanked by an island-dotted wetland which is the home to dozens of species of mostly flocking birds. The wetlands across the river give way, on the other side, to a slope covered with tree-dotted savanna, on which herds of antelope roam. The river, lined with lolling, lazy hippos, meanders off to the right, becoming narrower as it goes, and bends out of sight and to the north heading for Senga and beyond. To the left of the wetlands, the Big Lake opens up. The distant eastern shore is visible with low hills behind it. To the west and south west, in the distance, one sees the Western Rift wall rising abruptly from the lake margin.
So that is the view from Ishango. Ishango itself is a bit run down. The dirt road that runs north-south through the park turns here to the west, and navigates through numerous rutted puddles A guard gate on the north entrance (in the direction of Senga) is the point of control for movement through the park. Small mud huts located here are occupied by the park’s guards and their families. After the southerly road turns west, it plunges down the hill to the river, where a ferry … a big old African Queen style boat with all the upper parts removed and replaced with planks …. is waiting to take both pedestrians and vehicles (one vehicle at a time) back and forth across the river. Beyond, further west and north, the road swings back to the lake and stops in the Fishing Village where Zorba and his crew normally live. Beyond this, the road winds up the Western Rift wall, where it is widely know as The Most Dangerous Freakin’ Road In The World.
At Ishango, overlooking the confluence of the lake and the river, and the wetlands and the distant Rift Wall, are two identical castles. These are large concrete, stone, and wooden buildings built to house guests, but also to house King Leopold on his visits to the colony … the Belgian Free State …. which he personally owned. I believe the King never visited this place, but there it was ready for him in case he did.
During my time there, these buildings were derelict. The roofs were partly caved in, and the structures were occupied mainly by bats. There were a few rooms on the lower floors that were clean enough and sheltered from the weather to be used as storage or emergency sleeping quarters, but for the most part, if you were not a park employee living in a nearby hut, you wanted a tent.
Down on the river and lake were several hundred hippos, and a couple dozen of them viewed Ishango, and the paths that wound up the river to Ishango, as their own. So as evening fell, the hippos would come, one by one, onto the plain, wander for a while among the tents, parked vehicles, and picnic tables, then often move on to the hinterland. And later, back. At any given time from sun down to sun up, the chances of finding one or two or more (up to ten or so) hippos grazing on the Ishango parcel was about 100%. Although these hippos were very accustom to people, that did not mean that they liked people. Also, when the hippos would fight, well, there would be running, charging hippos all over the place. Eventually, later in this same year, one of the team would find out what THAT meant, the hard way (I’ll tell you that story some time if I get a chance).
Anyway, we arrived at Ishango by boat and by truck. The truck people got out of the trucks exhausted from the bouncy hot dusty ride, and wandered in little circles for a while and eventually sat down. The boat people, having spent several hours under the hot sun in the middle of the lake, went right for the shade and crashed. Big Red John, the expedition leader, stood looking over the cliffs for a minute, and started in on us.
“Look at you!” he began. “What a bunch of lazy bums. We haven’t got all summer, you know!” (Oh, you have to imagine this all with a New Zealand accent.) “Let’s get the show on the road. Time to Unpack! Senga people, unpack your tents, we’re staying here tonight. No, on second thought, keep your tents packed and sleep in the castle. That’ll save time in the morning. Let’s get going!” And so on and so forth… Annoying us.
The rest of the group grumbled a bit, but for the most part, ignored him.
“OK, well, I guess I’m going to have to lead by example!” was his response to the lethargy.
Big Red jumped to the hood of one of the Land Rovers, and untied a bit of rope, then he jumped to the roof of the same vehicle, and wrestled loose one of the spare tires. “Bond!” he yelled, “Take this tire into the store room!” as he threw the tire off the Land Rover.
Big Red John had thrown the tire off the Land Rover in ‘anatomically correct’ orientation, so that when it hit the ground, it hit the ground running, so to speak. The tire bounced as tires are supposed to, and flew about 10 feet horizontally through the air in the general direction of the cliff. This got the attention of the lethargic crew, some of whom instantly sat up to watch. After the first bounce, the tire made three or four smaller bounces, each bringing the object a couple/few feet closer to the cliff. Finally, the spare tire settled into a straight, rapid roll towards the steepest part of the cliff. While the tire was running along the dusty, gravelly barely vegetated surface, it made the usual crunchy-poppy noises a tire on the loose makes. But after it winged off the top of the steep cliff, it only made a light whooshing noise that none of us could hear but we could all imagine, as it plummeted four a hundred feet from the Great Semliki Plain to the beach below.
A little more silence….
Then, a distant “Thwak” as the tire hit the water, followed by the quieter sound of water spray falling all around.
The nearest dozen hippos, alarmed, started in with their sardonic guffawing … “Mwahuh Huh Huh Huh uh uh uh…..Mwahu huh huh huh huh huh…” And this got the nearest 100 or so hippos to join in, and within three or four seconds all of the hippos in ear shot, about three hundred of them, either let out a round of sardonic laughter or made a big splash as they dove into the river. Then they all fell silent.
Three more seconds passed, and the entire human crew erupted in laughter, as Big Red John stood akimbo, hands on hips, lower jaw thrusting his beard in horizontal attitude, blinking, looking, scowling at the cliff.
Then one of us yelled out “We’ll be with you in a minute, Red. We just need a minute. To compose ourselves…”
Well, eventually, we all go to work unloading, packing up, checking the inventory, setting up tents, and so on. But during that time, one of the geologists, Jacques, noticed that across the river, in the wetlands, was a large male waterbuck chest deep in a mud hole. The waterbuck was thrashing it’s head back and forth, and rocking its body. The animal seemed very badly stuck in the mud.
Over the next couple of hours, as we set up camp and wrangled supplies, the poor beast remained in the mud hole, sometimes thrashing about, sometimes resting. The bone taphonomists started to get a little giddy … thinking this might be an interesting research opportunity, but in the end, several people decided that the best thing to do was to go in and rescue the beast.
Now, before I go any further, I want you to understand what a waterbuck is. It is an antelope with long, straight horns. It is one of the larger antelopes; The body of a waterbuck is about the size of an elk. This is one of only two species of African antelope that is famous for hunting down and killing human hunters. Now, I quickly add that my own personal experience with waterbuck is that they are quite docile, usually run away, and when the don’t run away it is only because they are so used to humans that they will allow a close approach. Indeed, I would eventually learn that the females and young males that lived on the Ishango side of the river would allow a quiet slow moving human within two feet of them. But this individual was a large male, and not a member of the friendly herd that lived on our side of the river.
Eventually, Jacques the geologist and Big Red decided to go and pull the beast out of the mud. They would need to cross the lake using the small, beat up old boat that had been left there the prior year … the Zodiac was not yet available (it would arrive a few days later). And the motor was not likely to work, so they’d have to pole and paddle across the river. Given the hippos and currents, it was decided that they would form a rope line to allow the boat and the rescuers back across the river after they were done. Paul, the other geologist and a trained EMT, would be standing by with splints and IV’s for when one or both of the rescuers was gored and trampled by the ungrateful animal.
Organizing this all took a couple of more hours, and the sun was nudging the horizon when Jacques and Big Red finally got themselves across the river, as the rest of us watched from high above on the bluff. They were armed with sticks and quite a bit of rope. The idea was to lasso the antelope, and pull it out of the mud.
So they attempted to approach the animal from down wind, and from behind its field of vision. Of course in broad daylight, with eyes on the side of its head and all, this was never going to work. But they tried anyway.
Slowly they crept, inch by inch, closer and closer, crouched down as if that would make some kind of difference.
And when Jacquie and John got about 15 meters from the waterbuck, the animal hopped out of the mud and ran away.
And every day for the next two weeks, the same waterbuck spent every afternoon wallowing in its favorite hole. Thrashing around and resting. But never, ever stuck yet somehow always looking stuck. Because that is what Wally the wallowing waterbuck like to do. And that’s. OK.
This is exactly the kind of thing one expects the Bazungu to do. I always laugh when I watch those old movies about the American cowboys in Africa. There is always a scene where the Muzungu (the white guy) and the African find themselves hiding behind a log in the middle of a wildebeest stampede. The African guy can’t contain himself, so ignoring the exhortations of the Muzungu, he runs out into the stampede and is killed. In real live, it is the Africans who know what to do and not do, and the visiting Bazungu who are the clowns.
And speaking of the consummate, competent African, I think you probably need to know about Zorba and his crew. I’ll tell you that story soon. But I warn you. There will be more snakes.