Aside from being the Bane of the Earthwatchers, Peter Williamson was a paleontologist, protege of Stephen Jay Gould, of British birth and, as I think I’ve mentioned before, the personality on which Monty Python … the whole Monty, not just the Python part … was based. I’m sure of that.
Peter worked at Koobi Fora with Richard Leakey and at other human origin sites in East Africa. The idea was that every place with reasonable preservation would get Peter in to look at the freshwater snails. Peter was a snail man. He studied them, developed theories about their evolution, demonstrated major climatic changes in the Miocene through the early Pleistocene using their fossils, and he was always very good to his pet snails, of which he had many. Somewhat over a year after this expedition to Ishango and Senga, Peter moved from Cambridge to greener pastures, but then was taken ill and eventually died on the operating table under anesthesia while having surgery.
Peter was always annoying the rest of us for a particular reason that he could not really help. When we would go out searching for fossils on the geological exposures, we would arrive at some spot, and he would stoop over and pick up four or five hundred fossil snails, put them in a bag and sit down in the shade for a smoke and a beer while the rest of us wandered up and down the exposure trying to find the one tiny bit of a mammal or a bird or something that was not a snail among the uncountably abundant fossil snails. In other words, if we were searching for the needle in the haystack, Peter was searching for hay.
I’ve also previously mentioned beer. We were in a fairly remote area, but there was a “taxi” (= small green pickup truck … more about that truck later) that would pass through the area once or twice a week, and people would also bike down the rift wall with stuff to sell at local markets. Not far from us–ten kilometers south to Ishango, then across the ferry, then a couple of kilometers to the shore of the lake–was The Village, in which a few hundred people lived. The village had a weekly market which sold just enough food that if I went there and bought every single thing that was for sale, we could feed our expedition for three days but the village would starve. The village had a restaurant that made the best slow-cooked tilapia ever anywhere. Which is not surprising because this very spot is where this method of cooking this particular species of fish was probably invented five thousand years ago, right after the cosmopolitan tilapia fish returned following the great volcanic apocalypse.
And in a couple of the village homes, if you knew the right people and went at the right time, you could exchange your empties for fulls. A case of empty 750 ml Primus bottles would get you a case of room temperature and very tasty full 750 ml Primus bottles. Or Skol. Those were the two brands.
I’ll never forget the famous beer run the second or third week of our expedition. A whole bunch of us went down to Ishango in a Land Rover. We scored two cases of beer and headed back. There were six people inside the Land Rover and four of us on the roof. Sileshi was in the back left seat and Onus on the bacl right, with the beer in between them. Joan, Biker, Bond and I were on the roof.
As we were driving north to camp on the dirt road … and this was mid dry season so the road was in pretty good shape so we were driving fast (70 klicks per hour?), I reached down to Sileshi’s window and knocked. I gave him the secret “Give me a beer” hand signal. So he passed a beer up to me. I already had my opener out, so I popped the top. But then the strangest thing happened.
It turns out that an open beer in a slipstream of 70 kph plus extra wind from the seasonal northerlies causes an instant atomization of the beer, and it all comes out of the bottle as foam in a few seconds. Unless you put something over the opening of the bottle right away … which I did. My mouth.
And in this manner I shotgunned about a third of the beer, and that was all that was left because the rest was foam, poured all over myself and on the road trailing behind us.
So Bond gives me the secret “Get another beer” hand signal. So I give the signal to Sileshi as I pass the empty to Joan, who hands it down the right side of the vehicle to Onus, who places the empty in the case.
So I opened the second beer, get my mouth on it right way and shotgun about a fourth of the beer, and hand it on to Biker, who does the rest.
And this goes on a total of twelve times. The four of us consumed the case of 750s minus some loss to foam, which I guarantee reduced in amount with each iteration. Each beer was taken from the case by Sileshi, passed up, passed around among those of us on the roof of the moving vehicle, and then passed down to Onus who replaced the empty into its slot in the case.
I remember thinking, “Hmm … we just drank a lot of beer, but I don’t feel a thing ….” I think we were all thinking that. Then the next thought was, “How the fuck are we going to get down off this truck, which won’t stop spinning around and around even though it is stopped?”
Well, we got down eventually, but we had a problem. We had just drunk half the precious beer supply. This would mean that we’d have to go get more sooner than expected, giving the village a day or two to potentially recharge their supply.
So two days later, Peter had a brilliant idea. “Let’s go to The Village in the boat,” Peter said to me as we were finishing up lunch. “Nothing important happening in this dump anyway. Just Big Red’s staff meeting, and that’s an utter waste of everyone’s valuable time.”
That was a nasty thing to say about Big Red, and I assure you that Peter would never had said it if Red was not there to hear it. So in characteristic form, Red growled at Peter, “Go ahead, you’re not needed here. Just make sure you replenish the gas supply for the boat, or don’t come back! Oh, and get me a pack of cigarettes.”
“But you told your wife you’d quit smoking, Red,” snarked Peter.
“I did quit. Just don’t come back without cigarettes.”
As I gazed off at the Semliki River, contemplating the logistics of the upcoming trip, I thought, “Hmmm … De Nile is not so far downstream after all ….”
“And bring these two across the river … they want to survey the other side. Pick them up on your way back,” Red said, jerking his fat thumb in the general direction of Genie and Tutsani, American and Zaireois plant researchers who were running cross-country transects.
So off we went. We dropped the two plant people across the river and headed upstream, against the flow and through the territories of some one thousand hippos, around the bend in the river at Ishango, and along the lake shore, to The Village.
We were instantly surrounded by the obligatory flock of Children From Nowhere, all of whom wanted to touch the green rubber boat. We exhorted the help of a local Gendarme to stand as Zamu (guard) for our boat, promising him some cash and lunch, and off we went in search of the three hardest to find commodities in the region: Beer, Gasoline and Cigarettes.
Now, I really have very little to say about this part of the story, other than to blame it all on Peter. Really. No matter what sort of thing there was to do, other than analyze snails, Peter always made the thing take longer. This was where the Monty Python bit came in. Everything was protracted in time and complicated in detail, because everything had to be worked into the ongoing Monty Python skit. It was like going to Best Buy with a group of total geeky gear heads when all you wanted to do was pick up a small package of blank CDs. It was like going to the Farmers’ Market with Lynne Rossetto Kasper when all you wanted to do was to pick up a bag of potatoes. It was like going to Iraq with George W. Bush when all you wanted to do was to have your guy in the field put a .22 in Saddam Hussein’s limbic system. But to make matter worse, we were, as I have said, seeking the three most difficult to find commodities in the region: Beer, Gasoline and Cigarettes.
So we did it, but what could have taken two hours (plus an hour travel time) took four and a half hours (plus the hour travel time). In the Equatorial region, the sun comes up at 6:00 plus or minus a few minutes, and it goes down at 6:00 plus or minus a few minutes. Just before sundown is when the hippos and hyenas start to come out of their respective daytime refuges and wander. A bit later, the lions come out. The snakes are always out. So when we traveled, finally, back down the river towards Senga, realizing that we would be arriving a few minutes after dark, we were a little worried, but not too worried. We would not accidentally drive by Senga, and the last five minutes of the trip was through a sort of no-hippo zone, so we’d be OK.
Indeed, we pulled around the bend to see the part of the river that we knew so well because it could be seen across the river as we dined three times a day at the top of the cliff or gazed across the river while working on the site ….
… but wait, what was that we could see across the river, in the dark? We could see movement. We could see lights! There were people across the river!!!!
I think it took Peter a few seconds longer than me to realize what we had done. We had dropped Genie and Tutsani on the other side of the river, and of course they were still there, boatless, no way to get back, and night had fallen!!!! They were left alone in the bush!!!!
So I gunned the engine and veered away from Senga and headed straight to where we had dropped them. And as we got in close to the shoreline, Peter started to keen and yell apologies. “We’re so sorry! We hope the lions have not eaten you! Or at least that the lions have not eaten most of you! Or if they did, we hope I can find that nice pocket knife of yours, Genie …. You did say I could have that if anything happened to you, didn’t you?” And so on and so forth, adding insult to injury. And making me laugh.
But when we got to the other side, we found something even more surprising than we expected. Genie and Tutsami were there, uneaten. But they were not alone.
Also on the other side of the river, wet as a rat, chilled to the bone and redder than ever, was Big Red himself. He was wearing a makeshift harness tied to a rope that ran across the swiftly moving river to the Senga side, where we could just barely make out in the light of a kerosene lamp the form of Paul the EMT-Geologist, also wearing a homemade harness. Paul, an expert and well-equipped climber, had belayed Big Red across the current, presumably from upstream somewhere, and was now prepared to belay the three of them back across the river before something ate them.
Well, you never know. The last one left on the other side would likely be eaten by something. But whatever.
So, of course, the first thing Big Red said was … oh, never mind; you can imagine. But the first thing Peter said was rather funny. “Oh, I see you’ve got it all arranged then. No need for a lift. Okay, Laden, cast off, our work here is done! Back to Senga, just you and me and our beer!”
A little more roaring from Big Red, very, very stern looks from Genie and Tutsani. (Genie has never forgiven me. Tutsani is presumed dead in the Rwandan Massacre.) And we gave them a lift across the Semliki and never heard the end of it.
I don’t know why everyone was so scared. This was no where near as scary as the time Biker and Greg got eaten by lions….