The Rwenzori Massif, a giant mountain indeed, the largest single mountain on the planet, rose to our north this one fine afternoon, gloriously visible for the first time in months; Visible in fact for the first time ever for many of the people on the expedition and for some of the children in the nearby village. The Rwenzori is normally covered in clouds and impossible to see from any direction. We were only a few kilometers south of it, and in fact, low hills just to our east on which we were conducting some of our research form the lowest and subtlest manifestation of this giant chunk of earth pressured so high into the sky by the conflicting tectonic forces that form the great Western Rift Valley of Central Africa.
Hardly ever seen but there it was, the five glaciers that blanket its summits glinting like enormous alien diamonds landing on a distant hillside, shades of green never before seen in these parts visible below the ice. It was deeply strange to see a mountain on the lowest slopes of which we lived for months but that we had never seen before, like it was just built that morning while we were paying attention to something else.
Actually, it was just built, in geological terms. The Western Rift itself is only less than five million years or so old, and the Rwenzori maybe less than two million. Before this mountain pushed up, the Big Lake just to our south and the Really Big Lake tens of kilometers to our north were one Really Freakin’ Gigunda Lake, now split by the massive massif.
So it was natural that if we could see the Rwenzori, that we would spend some extra time looking at it, and for this reason Bond, Biker and I set up the transit (a surveying tool with a telescope built into it) in a carefully chosen place in camp, a place with shade and a view, and took to sitting in absconded chairs, in a row (like in a movie theater) facing the mountain, and that is where we chose to have our evening beers for several days in a row. The glaciers gave quite a show as the sun set off to our left, the landscape fully darkening but the beams of solar light glowing off the peaks to our north. It was quite glorious.
Now, in this camp, during this week, were two visitors, Boaz and de Heinzelin. No use using fake names for these guys because they are both ultra famous. I’ve mentioned de Heinzelin before. Jean de Heinzelin was one of my favorite people in the world ever. He and I hit it off pretty well, and after this field season stayed in touch and got together when we could. It was he who, many years earlier, had come to the Western Rift and figured out such things as how rift valleys form, and how the Rwenzori, the mountain we spent that week beer-worshiping, initially formed, and so on.
Boaz was the leader of the whole expedition. While many great things happened on this expedition, Boaz was not having a good time. Well, it is true that he ended up meeting the love of his life on this trip, and they eventually took off to the Great Northwest to raise horses and live happily ever after. But up to that time, Boaz was involved in shall we say a somewhat spotty career. I give him full credit for making a number of contributions to palaeoanthropology including the organizing of the work in which were were presently engaged (when not mountain viewing), but by the time this particular equatorial summer week came along, Boaz had made a name for himself by making a few famous goofs. I’ll summarize them briefly. You can search on your own to verify the truth of each of these. This is the internet, after all, and you should never believe anything you read on the Internet without verification by looking somewhere else on the Internet.
Goof one: the Lybian Expedition. (This is the one I believe least.) The well funded expedition to a former sea in what is now Libya has just arrived on hills flanking this ancient sea. Three Land Rovers arrive (one of which, the Mavi Sahavi, would later be our main truck at Senga) full of scientists. Boaz, leading the expedition, waves the convoy to a stop, and the three vehicles spread out each facing the vast expanse of potential fossil bearing sediments in the lowlands well below their present location.
Now, part of this expedition is funded by the Boy Scouts, or the Explorer’s Club or somebody and there is a rule that says that at some point you must plant a flag and take a picture of it. (Don’t laugh. I’ve done that myself. Funding is funding. Oh, ok, laugh if you must.) So Boaz leads the others to a point at the edge of the steep bluff, perhaps to plant the flag, perhaps just to take a picture, perhaps to merely take in the magnificent view.
And as they stand there, the land rover Boaz was driving, for which he forgot to set the break, goes silently rolling past them and off the cliff.
Goof Two: Omo. I’ll keep this one simple. I heard it from a major figure in palaeoanthropology who is no longer with us. Boaz the graduate student was tasked with helping to piece together one of the most important early human skulls ever found, from southern Ethiopia (Omo), and accidentally glued a bit of cattle long bone to the base of the skull mistaking it for a mastoid process. But really, anyone could have done that.
Goof Three: Flipperpithicus. This one you can find in the literature because it is well documented. Again, really, just another goof anyone could have made. Really. Boaz identified a bone from the Libyan desert (found in the above mentioned expedition) as the clavicle of an early australopithecine (a human ancestor). But it was really the rib of a dolphin. Thus the term “Flipperpithecus.”
Honestly, these are all well within the range of possible mistakes. Everybody in the field makes these kinds of mistakes. But for other people, the land rover merely rolls into the curb or your lab partner notices the wrong bone and tells you or you realize the clavicle is a rib before, rather than after, publication. But if you are Boaz, you get the corrective part into the mix too late.
Anyway, so Jean de Heinzelin, the master of African geology, a Belgian Count, a senior member of the academy, and the oft’ hapless Boaz are staying in our camp for a few days being, respectively, utterly charming and somewhat annoying.
And there we are one night, Bond, Biker and I, having our evening beer and watching the mountain grow (ever so slowly). When suddenly, something unusual happens.
We see a light that is not sunlight down below the peaks. It is a brush fire. As we watch, it grows with startling speed, spreading down one of the mountain’s convoluted ridges, roughly in our direction. This is the fire season, so we are not surprised to see fire. Also, if the mountain at that elevation is usually in cloud, and then sits in the sun for a few days, perhaps there is a lot of extra dry fuel for a fire to get going and spread rather quickly.
It was truly a spectacular sight, especially when viewed through the transit scope. As the brush fire continued down the slopes, it would encounter what must have been dried patches of brush (which often form around a dead tree) which would heat up and then suddenly burst explosively into flame. I’d seen this up close in other wild fires, but on the mountain it had a different look. Because the fire was so far away, you could not see that the fire was in contact with anything in particular. All you would see is spreading red color and at the edge the occasional violent explosion.
The brush fire looked, for all the world, like a lava flow coming down the mountain.
So that must be why what happened next happened. I don’t think I’ve ever apologized to Boaz for this. Hey, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. Really.
Anyway, Biker, Bond and I are sitting there watching this spectacular and highly unusual event, taking turns looking through our makeshift telescope (where the whole thing looked even more like a lava flow than it did when viewed with the naked eye). And along comes Boaz.
“So, what are you all up to this evening, Whatcha lookin’ at?” trying to make friends with the peons.
“Oh, Hi Dr. Boaz,” I replied as Biker leaned into the scope, making adjustments so we could track the leading edge of the firestorm. “Actually, we’re watching the lava flow on the Rwenzori.”
“Lava flow? ” Boaz, choking on the beer he had just opened. “Lava flow????”
(Ah… I should point out. The Rwenzori massif is totally, utterly, non-volcanic. A lava flow on the upper slopes of the Rwenzori is less likely than a lava flow almost anywhere on the planet.)
“Yea, it’s unbelievable! You should have a look!” said Bond, encouragingly. “Biker’s scoping in the edge of the lava field right now. See the trees exploding?” … pointing to the mountain. A tree explodes on cue.
So Biker pulls back from the scope, “Here, this should be in focus.” and Boaz leans over and stares, wide eyed, at what for all intents and purposes appears to be a major lava flow coming down the mountain in our direction.
“Oh my god!”
Before we could stop him and tell him we were only kidding and that it was only a brush fire, Boaz was off and running towards de Heinzelin’s tent, to which Jean had retired an hour earlier for his much needed nightly eight hours of sleep. From which he should not be disturbed. Under any circumstances.
“Jean, Jean! Wake up! Come out here, you must see this!” shaking on de Heinzelin’s tent.
Now, let me pause for a moment and ask you something. Have you ever been to a zoo and seen the tigers, which are almost always sleeping, and then one of the tigers wakes up, and catlike, still in a trance, kind of stretches and yawns, and slowly comes to a standing position, transforming from a big orange rug to a cute kitty (that’s the stretchy, yawning phase) to an enormous fanged and clawed powerful beast that could instantly kill and consume any human being it happened to get a hankering for? Have you ever seen, again at the zoo or even in the wild, a polar bear (or a brown bear, for that matter) waking up from inside some shaded place, trance like, waddling a bit unsteadily into the light, yawning and blinking it’s eyes and flicking its ears, and suddenly becoming awake and alert and fully, undeniably deadly?
OK, back to the story. So big Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt, count of the Low Countries, figurer-outer of African Geology, discoverer of Ishango, declarer of Holocene Rubble, and at that moment senior academic scholar on the Continent of Africa comes out of his tent like the lion or the bear or whatever you wish to imagine.
He staggers, then walks, waking, yawning, rubbing his eyes, not wearing his happy face, towards the group of us, muttering … “Boaz, what are you talking about … let me see this.”
And he looks into transit scope. For one half of a second.
It is a roar, not a word, but we get it.
Two roars is better than one.
“Boaz!!!! This is a BRUSH FIRE!!!! There is no LAVA in the RWENZORI!!!!”
And back to his tent the lion-bear-man goes. And Biker, Bond and I feel a little bad that we caused Jean to be woken up. But to this day, I am sure, if you see any of the three of us sitting by ourselves chuckling and wearing a silly grin, there is a better than one in ten chance that we are remembering that moment.