I should tell you right away that a lion did not eat any Earthwatchers as far as I know. At least not on my watch. But the title is appropriate for the absurdity of it all. And there were Earthwatchers and there were lions.
An Earthwatcher is a person, usually an American, who signs up for an “Earthwatch Expedition.” Earthwatch is a commercial enterprise (linked to a nonprofit) that offers people the chance to go on a scientific expedition (at a reasonable cost for what you get, but it is not cheap). This year in the Semliki, we had three consecutive Earthwatch groups. Of the three groups, one — the first — was fairly large … about 11 people. Given the fact that that during their visit we moved camp to Kenyatsi (the home of Satan) and various other factors, it is rather remarkable that we sent none of the Earthwatchers home via medivac. Yes, if memory serves, the only one who went home via medivac was from a different group.
The group of 11 Earthwathers was diverse. It included a 90-year-old man with one eye and a 12-year-old boy (with two eyes). It included a late middle age couple and their “friend,” who woke everyone up every night with his loud orgasms. Or at least, I think that is what it was. Kept the hyenas away, anyhow. It included a few other people who were merely normal individuals who had saved for years to go on this trip and who contributed usefully to the scientific purposes of the expedition and otherwise caused no trouble. And it included Dr. Phil. Not the actual Dr. Phil, but a psychiatrist who looked exactly like Dr. Phil, though in those days there was no Dr. Phil, so we did not think that at the time.
So this story is about Peter, the evolutionary biologist who worked with Steven Jay Gould and on whom the entire Monty Python concept was built, and Dr. Phil.
The Earthwatchers arrived, somehow (thankfully, I was not involved in that logistical nightmare), and of course they were disoriented and exhausted. They came to Senga to work with us because our chief was not as powerful as the chief at Ishango (I’m speaking here of the expedition leaders). Or at least that is how it seemed: Nobody wanted the Eathwatchers around because it was thought they would cause too much trouble. As it was, between entertainment value and their actual work contributing to the project, it was quite nice to have them. For my part, I was happy they were there, because I knew some of the infighting among the big chiefs would be attenuated. Mom and Dad rarely fight in front of company.
So the Earthwatchers arrived and they were told to set up their tents in a particular location.
“Oh, we were told you would be supplying tents,” one of them said. Well, that was true, but the tents were still on The Truck and The Truck was still on the road from Kinshasa. And if you knew anything about Zaire, you would know that all the roads from Kinshasa to the Semliki valley cross at least two ferries over major rivers, and that all the ferries had sunk a long time ago. So, going from Kinshasa to the Semliki would involve driving out of the country, perhaps to the French Congo, then to the Central African Republic, then either south into Zaire or eastward to The Sudan, then to Uganda, then Zaire. No one had tried this yet, as far as we knew, ever. But Leo was out there in the truck, doing it. Leo would arrive eventually, we all believed, much like one believes that one will eventually win the Megabucks Lotto Game if one buys a lottery ticket every week.
In fact, we believed so firmly that Leo would eventually arrive … and when I say “we” I mean every scientist, every worker, everyone from every country … that we built a stick-model (a common Central and East African method for producing children’s toys) of The Truck and placed it in a shrine. Every few days, someone would hear a truck or a small plane going by (the truck was usually one of ours, as it would turn out) and everyone would drop what they were doing, face the shrine, and intone “Leo …. Leoooo….. Leeeeeooooh!!!!”
But day after day, there was no Leo and there was no Truck, and therefore, there were no tents and there was no dried chopped garlic. And in these early days, my trips to the market to get food required a caravan of three Land Rovers. It was complicated.
Anyway, it turned out that we could put about half of the Earthwatchers into existing tents. The graduate students all brought their own tents because we knew better. So single graduate students and scientists took on roomies. We will not discuss the details. A couple of Earthwatchers were put into the research tent (which was not on The Truck because it was brand new). And three of the Earthwatchers had gone ahead and brought their own tents. So we pointed to a patch of ground and said “Put your tents here. Right in the middle of camp. The camp is newly set up, so the lions and hyenas are still prowling around every night, so we want you in the middle.”
Now, of course, the lions and hyenas were never going to change their patterns, but the main thing was we didn’t want the Earthwatchers getting up in the middle of the night and wandering off in the wrong direction, falling off the cliff, or bumping into some large mammal.
So they set up their tents.
Just as the last stakes were being hammered into the rock hard ground, I wandered over to the Earthwatchers to see how they were doing. Dr. Phil was putting the finishing touches on his tent, as he stood up and said “So, how does this look?”
Just then I felt a presence to my left. It was Peter. Peter was just leaning into my shoulder, nudging me, and gazing thoughtfully at Dr. Phil’s tent. I could tell by his body language that Peter was up to something, but I didn’t know what yet. Clearly, Dr. Phil was the target and I was to play along.
“Oh, right. OK. I see. Well then … hmmm. Oh never mind; it’s probably nothing.”
Now, you have to imagine Peter here. Medium height, medium build, aviator glasses, big bushy mustache, pasty blotchy British skin under bowl cut sandy hair, thick English accent, cigarette in one hand, drink in the other, never quite not moving, never quite in balance, never quite off balance, and when you see his eyes, you see a frighteningly intelligent person trapped in the body of an alcoholic. Brilliant wit hardly dulled in execution by his foggy state. The kind of guy where you know his wife must be a saint, and indeed she was up until his untimely death during surgery about two years after this expedition. Peter was my favorite co-author to ever work with, because when I jokingly suggested that in a particular spot in a particular paper we use the word “indubitably,” he typed it in without skipping a beat and made sure it stayed there through publication.
So Peter, standing there in his perpetual low-level stagger, had sent out his signal that we are in prank mode, and I responded, “Peter, what it is? Something has you worried.”
“Oh, well, it’s just…. Blimey, I don’t think I should say anything. Too much bother. Of course, on the other hand…”
“Peter, what is it? Come on….”
“Well, only if you think so,” pointing to the ground. “What about this?”
I looked down and saw an old abandoned hippo trail. The hippos make trails in and out of the river or lake and use this trail habitually. Trails can become ravines many meters deep and a meter or so wide where they traverse a bank, but in other places they are simply trampled flattened bare lines 35 to 40 cm wide crisscrossing favorite territorial marking spots or grazing grounds. This was the latter: a narrow, elongated bare spot on the rock-hard ground that ran from the hinterland towards the river and, at this point, just barely passed under one corner of the Earthwatcher’s tent. The trail was out of use and did not signal any kind of problem or danger.
“Oh … the trail. I seeee…,” I’m rubbing my chin and looking concerned. Peter is twirling his mustache with the same hand he’s holding the cigarette, shaking his head back and forth slowly. “Hmmmm….”
“What? What is the problem?” Dr Phil is starting to be concerned. “Is there some danger?”
I’ve had a lot of doctors in the field, as Earthwatchers or as tourists, and they are always extra concerned about danger. It’s like they signed something to do extra work to protect that extra expensive education.
“Well…,” Peter was about to play the gambit. “It’s just that this is a lion trail, and the lion may not like your tent being just there.”
Ha! This was very funny. There are no lion trails. Not in the wild, anyway. And certainly this was not one. Lions don’t really use or produce trails. But I tried very hard to not snortle.
“It’s probably nothing,” I joined in. “There is a good chance the lion will abandon the trail now that her territory has been threatened like this. Should not be a problem. I think.”
“… this is not sounding good,” worried Dr. Phil, brows knit, still holding the rock he had been using to pound in the last stake.
“Well, I don’t want to tell you what to do.” Peter intoned, taking off his aviators and pinning Dr. Phil with his sharp blue eyes. “But I do wonder if you could see your way clear to moving your tent. Six inches. That way.” (Gesturing with his glasses.)
So the Earthwatcher moved the tent six inches. The reason why this is extra funny is that the hardest part was putting in the stakes, which were essential because it was very windy there. Even funnier because the rest of us had abandoned the use of stakes by this time, and instead, we tied our tents down with medium size rocks. But the Earthwatchers had not learned that trick yet.
Now, that is all very funny, but what is really special–maybe funny, maybe not–is what happened the next morning.
Breakfast, at the big table at the edge of the cliff. Of course, the Earthwatchers are already seated and halfway through their egg and cabbage salad when the rest of us start to head over to grab a quick coffee and a piece of bread before heading down to the site. The sun is just coming up; it’s about ten minutes to six.
Good mornings all around. Then, Dr. Phil spots Peter.
“Oh, Dr. Williamson! I’m so glad you told me to move my tent yesterday!”
Oh, boy. What is this about, I’m thinking.
“Move your tent? Why did you do that?” Peter, not remembering or pretending to not remember (I never knew).
“Yes!” Dr. Phil , almost giddy, continued. “Right in the middle of the night, a lion stepped on my tent!”
This never happens. They might sniff your tent but they never step on it. They avoid the tents. So I started to say this to Dr. Phil.
But he would have nothing of it. “No, really, I heard something walking. I was reading with my flashlight on. I could hear breathing. Then something pressed down on the corner of the tent … on the end of the tent closest to the lion trail.”
… the lion trail?
“And its claws went right through the nylon!”
So I’m thinking this Dr. Phil is smarter than he looks. He’s very seriously, very effectively, pulling our legs right off! Peter is doing nothing but staring motionlessly, hung over, disbelief on his face. Not disbelief about the lion. More like disbelief that anyone is even awake this early in the morning.
“I’ll show you!” and with this Dr. Phil jumps up and head for his tent, which is not far away. So I follow him and Peter follows me, lighting a cigarette.
And sure enough, there are two holes and two scratch marks in the tent. Leading down the abandoned hippo trail, made visible in the dust by the obtuse angle of the early morning light, is a string of fresh prints. One of the resident lionesses. And there, she clearly stepped on the tent, did a little two step, and continued on right past the cook’s tent (boy, would that make THEM happy …. not!) and down to the river.
The joke, it turns out, was totally on us.
The big cats certainly made this an interesting field season. So did Peter. In fact, this whole incident reminds me of at least one Peter story.