… continued …
Lula and I had two choices. We could walk way inland on relatively flat grassy ground, crossing the two or three tree lines that cut the savanna into large rectangular parcels at a place where the terrain would be easy, or we could walk a shorter distance, hugging the lake, but instead of relatively benign tree lines there would be deep ravines flanked and filled with thorny brush, and treacherous slopes. The ravines probably had a few crossing points that were safer but we would never find them by the light of our flashlights, and at midnight with a thin crescent moon and spotty clouds, that is what we would have to do.
The long route sounded better to me, but Lula disagreed. Lula was an experienced bushwacker and killer of men. He had seen considerable action as a soldier, serving for years with the President’s Special Commandos in whatever conflict the US paid his country’s army to engage: Angola, Chad, various other places. His current job as Elite Park Ranger was a form of retirement wherein he was shot at far less often but could still kill people now and then, just to keep in shape. Poaching in this part of the park had been down lately. That may have been connected to certain body parts hung along one of the more commonly used hidden poacher trails not far from here shortly after Lula started his new job.
Or at least, that’s the story that was around. Which, of course I simply chose to not believe.
Lula seemed too unconcerned with the dangers of the short route, so once again, I asked him why not take the long route?
“They’ll be dead before we get there if we do not hurry…” that was with one finger sticking up in the air. Then another finger came up …. “Our flashlights will be dead before we get there if we take too long” … a third finger … “The way you are suggesting, bwana,” …snarky emphasis on the ‘bwana’ part … “will surely bring us to the lions.” Now holding up the Belgian automatic rifle instead of another finger… “I’ve got exactly one bullet for this thing and it will probably jam.”
Lula would not shoot a lion, of course. He was referring to the possibility of scaring the lions away by firing a round into the air. And he had a point.
“But what about the hyenas and the hippos… They’ll be wandering in and out of the ravines.”
Turning towards the bush, expecting me to follow, he noted calmly “There’s two of us. One of us will make it.”
So, this is how you get to be a decorated special forces soldier turned elite park ranger. You can do math with things like bullets and dead people. Right…
It turns out that Lula was absolutely correct, as usual. Crossing the ravines was hard but doable, and we made so much noise thrashing around in the thorn brush that we surely scared away more large dangerous mammals than we attracted. In less than an hour we broke through the last line of brush and could barely make out a large open area, sloping down from from the plateau to our left, and down to the lake on our right, with the lake separated from the grasslands by more thick brush.
In the middle of the field, not far from a small odd looking miniature hill about 3 meters high that in fact would be the focus of our attention for the next few weeks, we could make out a pile of containers and equipment, and near this pile, two human forms, one full sized human sitting on a crate, and one miniature human walking in circles and kicking rocks.
“They are alive,” one of us said. “Amazing,” said the other.
Lula yelled out something in Lingala, a language I did not know very well, which startled the two figures, causing the small one to stop moving and the large one to stand up and start swearing. Lula’s outburst was a tactic to ensure that those in the camp (such as it was) knew we were coming in order to allow time for a nice, calm reaction instead of a dangerous immediate reaction. It did not have the desired effect on Fritz, the adult, who continued to swear and yell at us, wondering where the bleepidy bleep we’d been, why the two of them … an 82 year old man with one eye and an 11 year old boy with a sense of adventure … had been abandoned here some 17 hours earlier, and what the bleepidy bleep were we supposed to do now, do you have any idea how many eyes are out there staring from the dark and where the bleepidy bleep are the flashlights, anyway, they’d been bleepin’ looking through every box and bag for a flashlight or a bleeping lantern or a bleepity bleep candle or anything! And so on and so forth.
Yes, it was true. The day before (or by now, really two days before) we had broken camp at Senga, having had enough of the rubble. Kenyatsi, this new location with the strange little 3 meter high hill, was previously reported to have yielded one or two possible artifacts in well preserved context roughly the same age as Senga. So, since we had all spent thousands in grant money to come all the way to the Western Rift to look for 2.5 million year old stone tools, well, we might as well try Kenyatsi, right?
So the Senga camp broke, and we spent the night at Ishango. It was a long hard night, because one of the Ishango cooks had an epileptic seizure (which totally freaked everyone out because even among the relatively well educated teacher-worker class we were hanging around with, epilepsy had so long been associated with witchcraft and/or daemonic possession, that fear overcame reason very easily) and two of our workers had bad malaria. And because nobody really had any place to sleep and we were all on edge about the move itself.
Then, in the morning, we loaded up the truck with a pile of gear and a subset of people, including Boaz, a guard, and two earth watchers (Fritz and The Boy) headed of to Kenyatsi. The plan was to drop the stuff off and come back for one more load and that would be it … we’d move camp to Kenyatsi. But nothing like that happened.
First, Boaz got lost on the way back to Ishango. Then, there was a big fight among the Principle Investigators. That was expected. There was always a big fight if the three of them got within the same square kilometer. That took all day. Then, the truck got loaded up, finally, for the second run, and we took off with a Land Rover, the big truck, our entire crew, and all of our stuff.
Then, led by the Eagle Scout himself, we spent the next three hours driving in circles until finally we found …. Ishango, from whence we had started. Hopelessly lost, we drove the convoy back into the camp to spend the night, figuring we’d start out again the next day.
That is when someone remembered Fritz and The Boy. They had been tired of riding around in the truck, and had volunteered to stay with ‘the stuff’ while a second batch of supplies was fetched. That was this morning. It was now about a quarter to midnight.
So, as the PI’s began to fight once more, and it was clear that this was going to take a long time, Lula and I struck up our conversation and decided to go ourselves on foot to at least provide some cover to these two hapless stranded individuals. I had not been to Kenyatsi yet (hey, had I been there for the first run, I would have mutinied, taken over, and found it the second run, guaranteed). But Lula had been there several times because it was on his beat. In fact, Lula and a couple of other park guards, and the various poachers and pirates of the region, knew Kenyatsi as one of the places where there was a good beach to pull in a boat (especially handy for the pirates and fish poachers) and the tree lines nearby were good places to trap and hunt. There was no question that Lula could find Kenyatsi. Had Bwana Boaz asked around prior to the second ill fated caravan trip to this place, he might have managed to bring someone along who could have … oh never mind, water under the bridge.
So, anyway, there we were, the four of us, the moon dropping down towards the tree line, and only a few more hours before sun rise. This was the time that most of the hippos who had already passed into the grassy hinterland would start to return and pass our way again, and the lions would likely make their nightly kill, and the hyenas would be putting aside their social activities and looking for their final prey for the evening.
Lula and I made a couple of fires flanking the middle of the makeshift camp where we deposited the Earth Watchers, and gave them our over shirts for a little extra warmth. Then, Lula set up next to a tree just outside the camp to one side, and I set up next to a bush just outside the camp on the other side, and we spent the next few hours listening to the night sounds, getting chilled as the dew formed on us, dozing off now and then, and once in a while, sprinting.
Sprinting? Yes. I’m afraid so.
The first sprint was comical (to me). I heard Lula yell, and I could hear his boot-shod feet hitting gravel as he headed roughly in my direction. The moon backed him as he came my way, and I could see that he was holding his hat on his head with one hand and balancing his automatic rifle with the other. I just starting to get up out of a sitting position when I heard other footsteps much closer, and suddenly, emerging from the murky shadow with a kind of growling grunting sound came a pretty large she-hyena carrying something in it’s mouth.
“My t-shirt!!!!” Lula was yelling. My god. The hyena had taken Lula’s Billy Idol tee-shirt. He had been using it as a pillow as he slept. A nice sweat stained salty snack for any respectable hyena.
The animal was startled by me and turned sharp right, dropping the shirt and running down to the brush along the lake, where we later learned, it denned with its large hyena family. The shirt was slimed (with hyena spit) but safe.
The second sprint was probably comical too, but not to me, as the sprinter. The jaws of a hyena closing down on one’s head is a strange feeling, especially if the hyena is trying to be very gentle. It is being gentle because it is really after the hat … yet another salt stained treat … and not the head itself. I don’t think she was trying to not wake me up. I think she was just unsure what she was putting her mouth on and wanted to kind of taste it as she grabbed it. But grab it she did, and it took quite a chase to get my hat back. Which to this day I treasure as “the hat with the hyena tooth marks in it.” (Although you can barely see them, of course. As I said, she was gentle).
The animals never went near the sleeping Fritz and The Boy. That is why Lula and I positioned ourselves where we did … at the most likely passing or entry points for hyenas or hippos. And in so doing we saved them from … from getting any exercise for the rest of the night.
So eventually the sun came up and within an hour we could hear the trucks coming. Then we herd them going. Then coming. Then going. Boaz was driving in circles again. And again. And again. Finally Lula went up to the plateau and flagged them down, and the convoy drove triumphantly into the grassy tree-flanked vale known as Kenyatsi, the Place of Evil.
There really are not places of evil, but there are places where more of one kind of thing …. good or bad … seems to have happened, perhaps for random reasons. Kenyatsi is one of these places, and it was mostly bad stuff that happened there.
So for the next few weeks, we camped at Kenyatsi and the excavation crew investigated the 3 meter hill, an exposure of 2.5 million year old fossil bearing sediment sticking up out of the vale right near camp.
I did not. To be quite honest, I was by this point tired of helping Big Red with his work. He was not my advisor, I had no reason to take his abusive approach to management (the other graduate students had no choice) and I had better and more interesting things to do. Seriously, if my expertise or skills were needed with the Kenyatsi excavation, I would have provide them, but Bond, Biker, and Joan could barely fit themselves with a few workers onto this tiny area of preserved sediment. I was not needed so I focused on the work I had been doing on my own (which I can tell you a bit about later) and I spent some extra time helping Biker with his very interesting project. In which we lit things on fire. That was cool.
Having seen the ineptitude of my superiors in the basic task of driving back and forth in a straight line on the savanna, I resolved to mark out a road that even they could not miss. So I spent the first five or six days doing my animal trail survey and intermittently marking a road with flagging tape, and cutting grass here and there, so that a route could be followed even at night even by an eagle scout who (it turns out) lives by his compass even though compasses do not function on iron ore deposits (perhaps I have not mentioned: The fossil deposits here are rich iron ores. Funny that.)
And I’m very glad that I had the road marked out, cleared, and ready to go when that fateful night came along. The night the hippopotamus ran over Rudy. I’ll have to tell you about that some time soon.