One day I left Kenyatsi in The Zodiac on a mission. My mission was to pick up the head of the park, who lived at Ishango part time, and drive him to the fishing village for the purpose of picking up some important supplies (beer). So I motored in the overpowered rubber raft over to Ishango, navigated my way past the hippos to the shore, and asked a kid who was fishing along the base of the cliff to go get the big chief (as he called himself).
If a tourist were to ever come to Ishango (a truly rare event) kids like this one were ready to be hired to go down to the base of the cliff and throw a line for the purpose of catching a giant catfish. The local people did not eat these catfish, as it was considered not exactly kosher to eat an animal that primarily ate carrion, and these catfish lived off the hippos that would die, now and then, in the lake or the river. But the locals could catch the fish for the tourist, the giant catfish would make a great photo opportunity, and there was always someone available to cook it up for Bwana Mzungu (the tourist) for a modest fee.
Since there were no tourists for a thousand kilometers in any direction at this time, the kid was happy to help me out. For free, of course. And later I’d find a new fish hook and give it to him. For free, of course.
Eventually, the park head, an avid birdwatcher by the way, made his way down the cliff and joined me. We got in the Zodiac, and with a helpful push off from my fishing friend, I started up the motor and headed out towards the middle of the lake, thus avoiding any submerged hippos or shallow rocks. When I turned right, heading for the village, I noticed a strange cloud up ahead, like a fog lifting off the lake but also shaped a bit like a thunderhead, but a small one. A miniature gossamer thunderstorm cloud. Imagine what that would look like. That is what I was seeing. And, stranger still, I quickly realized that there were three or four of these clouds spread out across the lake.
The chief must have noticed me looking at something, because he turned around and looked off the bow of the boat.
“Ah! Wakati anaanza! (The season starts!)” he said, turning back to me with a knowing and somewhat embarrassed smile.
“Wakati gani? (What season?)” I started to say, just as we got to within about 500 meters of the nearest gossamer thundercloud. And suddenly, there were bugs everywhere. Flies, actually. Little lake flies. At first I did not connect the sudden appearance of the flies to the cloud still 200 meters away and closing, but as we headed in that direction, the density of the flies became greater and greater, and just then the chief said: “Fungisha motari, sasa hivi! (Turn off the motor … right now!)”
He sounded like he knew what he was talking about, so I pulled the emergency cord and cut the engine.
“Sasa, tunangoya hapa bore (Now, we wait),” he said, as he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and covered his face with it. And, almost by instinct, I raised the bandanna from around my neck, pulling it over my mouth and nose. By this time, the forward skidding boat boat and the wind-blown cloud had merged, and we were in the middle of the hatch. Each of these clouds was actually a hatch of lake flies. I could now see why I needed to cut the motor. The flies were dense enough that they would surely clog the air filter, or worse. We needed, simply, to wait for them to pass before we could start the motor up.
The flies did pass in a few minutes, and I got the motor started again, and for the rest of the trip — indeed, for the rest of the month! — drove around rather than through the clouds of lake flies that seemed to spring up almost daily.
It was lake fly season.
Now, you might think, “Oh, I’ve seen those before.” … In fact, if you live in Minnesota or anywhere like it, you know about the lake fly hatches. Very dense clouds of lake flies can suddenly form and get on everything, and this also affects the fishing for the next several days, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively, depending on where on a lake you are, currents, and winds.
But these lake flies are different in three ways. First, unlike the hatch here in Minnesota, the hatch in The Congo lasts for weeks. Second, there is not one species, but rather several, maybe a dozen, of totally different lake flies, some tiny some huge, some in between. Third, the density is much, much greater, even to the extent of the Congo lake flies being dangerous. Yes. These were the African Killer Lake Flies.
The first night time hatch occurred two days or so after the afore mentioned boat trip. Everything was fine and normal, a dark night, a couple hours after dinner, the air cooling down, a couple of camp fires lit, about a a dozen hurricane lamps distributed around the place. Then, suddenly, the flies showed up. Very very suddenly. The flies flew into the camp fires and put the fires out. Instantly. The flies flew into the charcoal burner the cooks were using to make tea, and put the charcoal out. The flies flew into the hurricane lamps and put the lamps out, leaving a ball of burned up flies inside the glass.
In just a few seconds, on a fairly dark night, the flies simply showed up and FSSST! Every fire was instantly extinguished by literally millions of little flies in dense clouds attracted to the light.
Moments after the lights went out, the flies flew into our noses and down our throats and people started to choke. We all headed for our tents, wiping the flies off our faces and out of our eyes, pulled open the tents, dove in, and closed them up. Then, everyone spent the next hour or so using precious flashlight battery power to round up the flies that had swarmed into the tent, mushing them into the corner of the tent to eventually sweep them out.
This happened a few more times, but usually, the night hatch would occur after everyone was in bed, and we’d see the residue of dead flies everywhere in the morning. After a few days, a given hatch would start to smell, as the bodies of a zillion lake flies rotted. The best efforts of army ants, little birds, geckos and all sorts of other creatures were insufficient to clear away the bodies. We simply lived, for a few weeks, on a landscape with an ever thickening layer of dead lake flies, like daily snow flurries slowly accumulating on a Minnesota winter landscape. Except it was hot and humid and all smelly dead flies and shit instead of crispy cold wintry snow.
This episode certainly underscored the general sense that Kenyatsi was an evil place. And it was a place that made people rather restless. This could be why, when we were visited by a man who had some very serious connections in Uganda, the Principle Investigators (the Three Who Sometimes Fight) decided to take off for a couple of days to visit the neighboring country, leaving no one in charge.
Normally, under these circumstances, having no one in charge was at worst neutral, at best a good thing. We were all to some extent semi-autonomous researchers. In fact, every one of us (especially me) were here on independent funding to some degree. While we were all working on the excavations together, we each also had our own research projects. With the bosses gone, that would mean that we would get more of our own work done for a couple of days.
But it didn’t quite work out that way. No. On the first full day that the big chiefs were away, something new and different happened.
Early that morning, as we got up with the sun and rather happily started to go about our business, we noticed three things. First, no one was yelling at anybody either in person or over the walkie talkies that never worked but that the bosses would still yell into. The bosses were gone! Second, no lake flies! It was going to be a less smelly day! And third, we could see smoke on the horizon to the north, towards the Rwenzoris. There was a brush fire or two in the distance, as there often was. The one thing that was a bit unusual, though, is that instead of the wind coming from the northeast or the northwest as it usually did, it was coming straight from the north. So the smoke was more noticeable, and gave the place a nice camp-fire feeling all morning.
As the day progressed, the smoke got thicker, and we sensed that the fires were getting closer. Biker and I discussed the possibility of diving up to have a look and take some photos, but we never got around to it. On my walk inland to collect data on animal activity, I noticed that the fire was actually one single continuous burn, fairly far to the north, but covering much of the horizon.
Then evening arrived, and the glow of the fire was clearly visible at the horizon. As per usual, we set out our carefully curated chairs and rather than sitting around the camp fire, we sat ‘around’ the horizon, chatting and drinking tea or beer, watching the distant burn.
It was just then that we started to see something change. The fire was no longer a glow on the horizon. It was now a bright glow punctuated here and there by the sight of visible columns of flames, which would rise up, burn for a while, then die down. As time progressed this became more common, and eventually most of the horizon was visibly on fire … we were no longer seeing the glow of a distant phenomenon. We were now seeing the fire itself, burning down the savanna in our direction.
As the fire progressed we could see that the columns of flame were probably groups of trees or bushes what were reaching a sudden explosive combustive state as the searing brush fire surrounded them. The trees were literally exploding, or so it seemed.
So we started to get worried. The brush fire was no longer a distant item of interest. It appeared that the fire was bearing down on our camp. We started to discuss the apparently very real possibility that this fire was going to burn right down to the lake. As we discussed this, we could see that the outer edges of the fire were just now joining the tree lines that we were camped between. These tree lines encompassed deep ravines that ran inland from the lake. In other words, in order to drive out of this place, you had to first drive straight inland (towards the fire) in order to get around the ravines. What was happening now is that the tree lines that flanked the ravines but also ran farther inland were catching on fire. We were being surrounded, and surrounded in such a way that there would be no escape by vehicle.
We all remembered, and discussed, the fate of the Owens. Have you read Cry of the Kalahari? This is a chronicle of Cordelia and Mark Owens’ work in the Kalahari. One dry season, they were watching the brush fires just like we were on a regular basis. Then one day they were watching a particularly large brush fire. And they watched it over a couple of days as it got closer and closer and closer. Then it engulfed them and burned their camp up. They escaped but their stuff did not escape. That was a close call.
Now, we were looking at a situation where we had very few good options for escape. The fire was in front of us. to the north. Our escape to the east or west was hampered by deep ravines. We might be able to walk through them, but not drive, and if we did walk into the tree lines to cross the ravines with the fire bearing down on us, we might be engulfed in flames. The lake was behind us to the south. The lake with the hippos and the crocs.
The situation seemed dire. It was a true emergency.
Just as we came to the general realization that this was for real, Peter stepped out in front of our gaggle, positioning himself between the five or six of us who were discussing the fire and the fire itself, taking a place on a higher spot of ground. He stood there with his dark aviator glasses (which he wore at night), his fishing cap, quasi military surplus shirt and Bermuda shorts, cigarette in one hand and a 750 ml beer in the other. This is a man who could stagger while standing still if he was half drunk (as he was) but still hold your attention in a lucid conversation even though you could never see his eyes (because of the aviators). And his Monty Python British Accent underscored the important speech he felt compelled to make.
“Excuse me … excuse me fellow travelers and scientists….”
We momentarily stopped looking around Peter, at the fire, and refocused our attention on Peter.
“I understand that we are having an emergency. Indeed, the situation, indubitably, could be described as dire.”
A puff on the cigarette.
“Quite dire, I dare say.”
A toke on the bottle.
“Indeed, I implore us to act in the memory of the Owens Family of the Kalahari …. Oh, did I ever tell you that I met them once in Botswana …. ”
“Peter?” one of us interrupted. “What’s your point?”
Another drag on the smoke…
“Right, no time for digressions right now, no matter how interesting. I’ve made a decision, mates! In the absence of all three of our fearless leaders,” pause for a drink “who are utterly useless and tirelessly annoying anyway” pause for effect “I have calculated that , like it or not, I am at present the senior member of this expedition and thus in charge.”
He had our attention. We all paused and thought. All of our eyes shifted to a non-focused position gazing to the upper left as one does while adding up numbers or doing other calculations, while Peter watched and waited. Staggering in place.
He was right. Of everyone present, he held the highest degrees, was the oldest individual, had the most years of field experience.
OMG, Peter was in charge and we were all about to die. What could go wrong now????
Well, obviously this: Pete regained our attention once more…
“Ladies and gentlemen….”
…off came the glasses and he engaged each of us with uncharacteristically bright eyes lit by a kerosene lamp sitting between us, with the fire closing in on us visible and growing behind him. On cue another bunch of trees exploded, but this time it was close enough that we could hear the explosion. Indeed, we were by this time feeling the heat of the fire as the northerly breeze became palpably warmer with the inferno’s approach.
“…. Ladies and gentlemen, I have a plan…..”
[the Congo Memoires are to be read to the tune of Dreams of Freedom: Ambient Translations of Bob Marley in Dub]