( … continued … )
It was near the end of the major field season in the Upper Semliki Valley, where dozens of Zairois workers (mostly off duty school teachers) and a dozen or so Zairois, Ethiopian, Tanzanian, Kenyan, Belgian, British and American scientists (including faculty and graduate students) were working side by side on about a dozen different paleontological and archaeological sites, and conducing ‘acutalistic’ archaeology or natural history field surveys. The group was still split in two: The Ishango group and the Senga/Kenyatsi group. The majority of school teachers and other Zairois would be leaving in a few days, and the scientists and much of their equipment would be lifted out by aircraft at about the same time.
But there was this small glitch for the Kenyatsi crew. The entire retinue of scientists and workers were at this moment standing in camp, specifically on the other side of the camp from where four mostly empty but still quite explosive 55 gallon drums of gasoline and diesel fuel was stored, with what appeared to be the largest brush fire we had seen this season bearing down on us, flames visible on the horizon beyond the crest of the hill, smoke wafting across the landscape, the breeze warmed by the heat of the fire, and Peter Williamson standing in front of us about to announce his plan for our rescue.
It really did seem like we would not be able to drive out, but it might be possible. So a strategy that involved the vehicles might be a good one. But, we had taken two trips with the large truck to move all of our supplies to this location, and we did not have that truck with us now. We had, in fact, only a single Land Rover. And it was a gasoline powered Land Rover, which measurably increased the chance of it exploding violently if it did get stuck in a brush fire. And there were about 35 of us.
“Put the personal goods on the Land Rover,” peter was saying. “Don’t pack up the tents and other materials, there is no time for that. Just untether the tents from the ground and drag them, with everything inside, and lay them on top of the truck. You you and you,” pointing to three graduate students “Move the scientific specimens to the inside of the truck. If we must,we’ll drive the Land Rover into the lake but for the present we may find a way to drive around this inferno.”
Quite an excellent plan, lucid, well stated. Peter was rising to the occasion.
But I still had a funny feeling that we were doing it wrong. I had been studying the savanna quite closely for months, and I had noted and mapped the locations of recent and older burns wherever possible. One thing I had noted is that the burns never seemed to go all the way down to the lake. I had not one record of such a burn. Furthermore, the vegetation along the lake, in a band ranging from two hundred meters or so up to a about a kilometer wide seemed to be different from the vegetation on the plateau (where the fire was now) in a way that I felt could be explained by reduced fire effects near the lake itself. The same could be said of the tree lines. The inland parts of the tree lines were clearly burned again and again. But the tree lines near the lake, where the ravines were deepest, seemed mostly unaffected by fire.
Of course, that might only be a generalization. It might be the case that fire hardly ever reaches the lake. It might be the case that the fire reached the lake once in fifty or a hundred years. By the looks of the fire bearing down on us, this might have been the “hundred year fire.”
Just as I was thinking these thoughts, Lula came over to talk to me.
“Lula….” in anticipation.
“Tutatembela jula kilima .. (Let’s take a walk up the hill.)”
“Kuona moto? (To have a look at the fire?)” I had been thinking the same thing.
He nodded in assent. “We can’t really see what is going on here. We need to go to the top of the ridge. Also, have you noticed something funny?”
“Kabisa (exactly). No hippos in the lake, no hippos running around here. The fire must be farther away than it looks or they’d be down here.”
Lula was right. There had to be a lot of unburned space between us and the fire. We needed to see what direction the fire was actually burning in, how far away it actually was, and try to predict what was really going to happen net.
“Gregoiri!” I heard Zorba shout from over by my tent. “Sidea! Leta Mukono! Peter says everything goes on the truck. I’ll carry your tent over there, give me a hand.”
Just then I made a crucial decision… “Zorba, no, that’s OK. Leave my tent right there. I’ll drag it into the lake if I need to.” And with that decision, the only tent that was not piled on top of the Land Rover for safe keeping was mine. By the time Lula and I had finished talking, every other tent was dragged on top of the truck or was on its way, and two of the grad students were stuffing the samples and some of the more expensive equipment inside the truck.
It was quite a site. Imagine a Land Rover with one Army Issue 40-person tent (like in M.A.S.H) and a dozen other tents ranging form two person to four person, most of the tents containing back packs full of clothing, sleeping bags, and other stuff, all draped and balanced on top. In the dark. With the orange red glow of an approaching fire providing the back light.
I told Peter and Joan, who were nearby, that Lula and I were going up the ridge to look at the fire. Protests. Protests ignored. And Lula and I started out at a jog.
We got about two thirds the way up the ridge and slowed to a walk. If there were to be prowling predators, the kind that like to take down running objects, it would be here at the “military crest” of the hill. One aardvark hole just about at this spot was occupied by a leopard, too. So we walked briskly to the top of the hill, and there we could finally see the fire perfectly well.
The fire did indeed extend from one end of the horizon to the other. It was not too far away, less than a kilometer along most of its length. As we watched we could clearly see trees catching on fire and virtually exploding. And, there was no doubt the fire was heading in our direction.
But we also saw something else, which we had not expected. Down by the lake, in camp, with the kerosene lamps and people’s flashlights shining everywhere, not to mention the headlights of the truck, we were somewhat night-blinded. But coming up the hill in the dark (we were not using flashlights) and seeing only the orange red glow of the fire, our eyes adjusted and we could see an important detail missed earlier.
Behind the smoke that was pouring off the fire we could see, rising well above, another cloud. This was not a cloud of smoke, and it was not a cloud of lake flies. It was just a regular cloud. A storm cloud. And inside the cloud, up towards the Rwenzori mountain from which the cloud was dropping, we could see lightning flashing about, letting us know that this storm was for real.
The slopes of the wind-dried lower slopes of the Ruwenzori had sent the fire our way, and now the glacier and forest clad peaks were sending down a storm.
Lula and I looked at each other. We looked back at the fire. And just at that moment, the cloud let loose. Like grasshopper eating sea gulls to the Mormons, the mana to the Israelites, and the Congressional Stimulus Package to the banking industry, the sudden downpour seemed destine to rescue we hapless paleontologists.
The cloud let loose and like a batch of lake flies snuffing out a kerosene lamp or a camp fire. The Great Brush Fire of Kenyatsi was doused.
Just like that. Fssssst… no fire. A torrent, a three-inch-an-hour rain storm, swept over us, soaking Lula and me instantly and spreading beyond down the hill to the camp. Where everyone’s tent and all their stuff was thrown hap hazard and topsy turvy on the top, not inside but on the top, of the truck.
Lula and I made our way in the torrent back to camp, and by the time we got there the rain had already let up, and the hapless campers were standing around staring at the truck, their wet sleeping bags, their wet tents, their wet candy bars, and at peter. Who was also quite wet. Rain dripping from his snuffed out cigarette and his mostly consumed 750 ml. beer and his untrimmed mustache and his aviator glasses.
I should mention that given the nature of the slope we were camped on, a heavy rain storm like this one resulted in a sheet of water flowing over the surface of most of the camp. So some of the people were actually standing there with water rushing over their shoes, making it hard to even stand up straight.
“What the blimey hell happened to the fire???” Peter demanded of us.
“We took care of it,” was Lula’s reply.