But first there must be lions and, later, some fish.
My own research in the Upper Semliki valley involved looking at the spatial relationships between animals and plants, and animals and other animals, to try to figure out what caused the apparently spontaneous formation of animal trails. To many people, this seems utterly obvious, but on closer examination, it is not. (Trust me. I’m not going into that here.) The point of bringing this up is simply to note that one of the things I did was regularly traverse the landscape, on foot and alone, to record the distribution of fresh animal tracks, other animal spoor, and animal trails.
One day I was doing this and came across a fairly fresh set of lion prints. Three lions, possibly a male and two females, were heading east from the river. So I followed them.
After a while I found myself also following tracks of a research crew that was traversing the landscape looking for bones. This would have been Joan and two or three local guys and maybe an Earthwatcher or two … probably a half dozen people in all. It was clear to me that the lions were following the humans. At one point, the lions lay down for a period of time, and it was obvious that this was during the time that the humans had settled in for lunch. I could see that the lions were watching the humans eat their lunch from a distance of about 10 meters. I assume the humans did not notice this.
Eventually, this got boring and I started to wander way off my originally intended area of data collection, so I changed my angle of attack and headed off in a different direction. Besides, I didn’t want to walk into the lions.
That’s when I found it.
It was the perfectly preserved skeleton of a fairly large (three-meter?) python. Inside the rib cage of the python was the remains of the snake’s last meal: the folded up skeleton of a juvenile Ugandan Kob (a kind of antelope). That afternoon, I reported the skeleton to Joan (got lots of brownie points for that!), and it became the big find of the day.
Well, moving on to other things, the next morning I was going to go out with Joan’s crew and protect them from the lions while they worked along a particularly bushy transect. As we were all preparing to leave, Lawrence, Zorba‘s main cook, asked whether he could join us. He said he was very interested in what we were doing out there in the bush.
That was a bit of a shock. Lawrence always kept to himself. He was always polite, said very little. Whatever he said was whatever we needed to know. If there was ever a problem, he would either present us with the problem and the solution at the same time, with zero fanfare, or if fanfare was needed, pass it on to Zorba, who added the necessary histrionics and urgency. Lawrence never once showed even the slightest interest in the research any of us were doing. So of course, we took his interest as a kind of personal enlightenment, expected to eventually happen for everyone (after all, our research was so fascinating!), and were delighted to bring him along for the morning.
The first place we went that morning was to the big snake skeleton. It was to be documented in situ and then collected. As Joan and her crew took pictures and mapped it in, I explained to Lawrence the basic idea of the research, why the bones on the landscape were important to know about in order to understand ancient early human archaeological sites that also had bones on them, and so on and so forth. Lawrence listened politely and quietly.
At one point, Joan and her crew were done, and it was apparent that it was time to bag the find. At this point, Lawrence walked over to the skeleton, picked up a vertebra from about the middle of the snake’s “back” (or whatever you call it), and headed directly back to camp on foot (we were only about a kilometer out) taking the armed guard with him because, well, it’s dangerous to walk around in lion territory.
That was interesting.
That evening I made it a point to spend a little time with Lawrence. We had a couple of beers and talked about stuff. That is when I learned that Lawrence was a minor shaman, and that he specialized in back pain. The backbone of a snake skeleton with an antelope in it would be especially powerful medicine if ground up and mixed with some other stuff. The antelope had defeated the snake as its last act, so the ground-up bone would be a powerful way of defeating back pain. He explained this to me in a manner that allowed me, a mere child in the ways of this medicine, to understand it, but without giving too much proprietary detail. Lawrence was, after all, the local equivalent of Big Pharm.
OK, next snake….
The Semliki River is actually a remarkable place to fish, because no one lives along its banks, no one visits its banks, and the fish just sit there and get big and dumb and tasty. There is a kind of fish called barbus, which looks like a cross between a carp and a Nile perch. They get pretty big. At that time, the barbus in the rapids to the north of camp fed between 9 and 10 a.m. They would hit on anything shiny. When they hit the lure, they would immediately take it downstream. So, you’ve got a 20-pound fish (or bigger) heading downstream in a very fast rapid. That means the line breaks. So you get a bigger line. Then the pole breaks. And so on.
Eventually, we were making virtual cables out of string and monofilament, and slinging them pole-less into the river with home made lures with giant hooks on them.
The other tricky part was that the only way to closely access the river was down the trails of unfriendly hippos. Most hippos are unfriendly, but these in particular were exceptionally nasty because this was not near any traditional camping place … these hippos may in fact have never seen a human before we showed up to fish that year. So we tended to fish from the bluff above the river, which of course made landing the fish tricky.
Well, one day, John (a visiting scientist who had really done an excellent job figuring out how to catch this type of fish) asked Renee and me to accompany him down to the rapids. So he and I and Renee (the egg-peeler on Zorba’s crew) went downstream across the gully, past the excavation, past the hyena dens, past the hippo wallows, into the mean hippo territory, and found a place up above the river by about five meters and started throwing in a line. John was casting. Renee and I were there to help carry the fish back.
So we caught a couple of small ones (ca. 3 kilos), and finally, John caught onto a really big sucker. Eventually, the fish was fifteen meters or so offshore, but we were way too far above the water to haul the thing in without breaking the line or having the hook tear out of the fish. So Renee, not extremely bright but always willing to help, grabbed the line and started to scramble part way down the cliff where he thought a branch sticking out of the side would hold him.
But it didn’t. Renee started to slide down the cliff.
Now, you have to understand that at the bottom of this cliff is a raging, rushing rapid that would carry any person right out to the middle of the river. Then you’d be carried down through the rapids to the beginning of the waterfalls. By this point, you’d be in a gorge. There is no way into or out of the river for 10 kilometers or so, then there is a bridge. If you weren’t rescued at the bridge, you’d be washed into the rainforest, and the next stop (a few tens of kilometers later) is the mouth of the Semliki where the really big crocodiles live. Renee was a goner.
My immediate instinct was to grab yet another branch and drop down the cliff to grab onto Renee. So now I was holding onto a bent sapling with one hand and holding on to Renee’s arm with another, and he was holding on to the fishing line. We were both also braced against the cliff with various other body parts, so we were actually able to hold this position for a while.
So we settled down, got ourselves oriented, and realized that we might actually be able to bring this fish in.
“Don’t let go of the line, John!” one of us shouted. “Start pulling it in slowly.”
So as John pulled in the line, Renee fed the line with one hand, and the line passed between Renee’s body and my body and the cliff, keeping the fish in close. This was working.
Then, out of nowhere, it appeared.
Right in the space between where the line, holding the struggling fish, entered the water (with Renee’s hand just above the waterline) and the cliff, so directly underneath the two of us, appeared the enormous head of a python. This was like something out of a horror movie. We could see its serpentine body squiggling back and forth, and in fact, it hit the fishing line and I think the fish itself as it moved. The head was about the size of a medium dinner plate. No, bigger. This was another 20-plus-footer. It was swimming along in the rapids as though the rapids were not there. I think it was reacting to Renee as a possible antelope coming down to drink, though no antelope could possibly be where we were.
Renee was not looking down at the time. He was looking up. He saw the expression on my face and knew. He turned, found himself face to face, touching distance from the monster, let out a scream. Renee and I were locked together. I held his wrist with my hand; he held my wrist with his. But as he screamed, he let go and slipped right out of my hand.
Still braced against the cliff, he stated to slide quickly down, and I grabbed the back of his pants. The snake, rather startled, disappeared as fast as it had originally materialized.
“The fish,” I yelled. Renee had let go of the fishing line. “The fish, yes.” he replied, grabbing the line.
With our renewed energy and a somewhat more tired out fish on the line, Renee and I were able to crab walk back up the cliff, with the fish, just about the time that the barbus stopped biting. So we were done fishing for the day.
When we got back to the camp, Zorba asked. “How was the fishing?”
“Ah, OK. A little boring,” I said.
Zorba looked at Renee, knowing I was full of it, with a look and a gesture imploring details. Renee, walking to his tent to take a rest, simply said, “You’re cleaning the fish, man.”
That is not the last big snake I saw that year. But I’m not going to tell you about the next one. Because you wouldn’t believe it anyway. Instead, I think it is time to tell you about The Lion That Ate the Earthwatcher.