In a couple of more days, a DC-3 would be landing at the old airstrip near Ishango, loaded up with equipment and people, including all three principal investigators, and then fly away. Biker, Joan and I would be the only bazungu (foreigners) left behind, and Zorba and his crew and Kununzu, one of our guards, the only Zairois. Everyone else would leave. We would miss them, and we would celebrate. Mixed emotion would abound.
A DC-3 is a mid sized two engine prop plane that is really good at transporting heavy loads, and using difficult runways. It has a large cargo door near the back, and a robust, fat body that can contain lots of stuff. You may not know this, but it is said that every single DC 3 in existence at the time was used in the famous Berlin Air Lift in 1948 and 1949. At the time of our Congo expedition, it was also said that every single DC-3 ever built was still in service. A year later, however, I remember hearing that one was shot down over Western Morocco. Also, if you’ve seen the movie The Wild Geese
, Peter Williamson’s favorite movie, you saw one shot down there. But that was a movie.
So, my friend Katherine and I had the job of building the airstrip using selecte field excavators and Earth Watchers. We did it this way: We knocked down the concrete-hard termite mounds, and cut down trees, and a then used a couple of Land Rovers to drive up and down along the runway dragging some of those very same trees to mush down and churn up the vegetation. We considered burning off the grass, but that would actually attract game onto the runway (right after a burn, succulent green shoots tent to spring up right away).
The Earth Watchers included Fritz, the one eyed old guy who had earlier been left at Kenyatsi with The Kid. I remember this well because of what happened on the air strip.
Katherine and I were each on a different end of the air strip with our crews, working our way towards the middle. We were using the walkie-talkies to communicate as necessary. My crew and I were busy spreading out the detritus from a whacked-apart termite mound, when I heard the walkie-talkie buzz, so I picked it up.
“Greg here, what’s up, Katherine?” Is said as I focused my eyes on the distant group, quite far away. You never really realize how big an air strip is until you build one (this was my second one, by the way).
“Ah, Greg ….” Katherine’s voice clearly indicated consternation … “I think we’ve got a problem over here”
Just as Katherine was saying this, I could see that Fritz was lying on the ground motionless. “Oh shit, what happened?” I asked.
“I have no idea” I heard Katherine say as she was heading over tho the prone old guy. And as she got closer, I noticed that Fritz was not actually motionless. He was kind of convulsing around and bouncing a bit. Looked bad.
Without delay, I jumped in the Land Rover, where the medical supplies were, started it up and drove very quickly to the other end of the runway. The whole way, I could see Fritz bopping up and down on the ground, and Katherine standing near him, talking to him, not quite sure what to do. I pulled up next to the two of them and jumped out just in time to see Fritz sit up and put up his hand towards Katherine.
“Help me up, dearie, I don’t want to sit on this ant-covered ground any longer than necessary.”
Katherine reached down and gently helped Fritz, who was panting and moaning a bit, to his feet.
I inquired of Fritz what his problem was, asked if he was OK.
“That’s how I get my hernia back in” was his answer, pointing to his abdomen. “It’s not pretty but it works.”
Well, we finished the air strip except for one tree about 300 meters beyond the end of the cleared area. We had quite an argument among several of us as to whether or not we should clear this tree. It was one of the largest trees in the area, and I was reluctant to cut it down for one landing and takeoff. But one of the senior scientists who was visiting that week, and who would be leaving on the airplane came over to me and explained it to me this way.
” Look at me.” He said. So I looked at him. Straight in the eye.
“Why are you looking at my eyes,” he said, rather abruptly. “Look at this,” pointing to his gut.
Yeah, this guy was big. How big was he? He was so big, the previous year he gave one of his shirts to Zorba and his crew. This year, Zorba and his crew … all three of them … showed up with almost identical shirts, nice and new. They had made this guy’s shirt into three shirts. That’s how big he was.
“I’m going to be on that plane,” he was saying. “Therefore it is not going to get over that tree. Cut it down.”
He had a point. We cut it down.
A few days later, the DC-3 came in. One pass over the runway to scare away some waterbuck and warthogs, and then a nice smooth landing. We loaded it with stuff. We loaded it with visiting scientists. We loaded it with Principal Investigators. We wished everyone well and closed the door, and the engines started. The plane did a turn at the bottom of the runway, revved up with it’s brakes on, and then released for the roll down the air strip. Two thirds of the way down the airstrip she took off, slowly rose into the air, and flew exactly through where the canopy of that big tree was.
Good thing we cut it down.
And now, it was just us. We had about two months of free research time, three trucks that did not work, a fair supply of food including 37 jars of dried garlic, a few tents, and the entire park to ourselves. Now, we could get some work done…
And now a movie trailer for you … The Wild Geese … They fly like birds. They fight like jackels. Fighting is their business. Killing is their trade. DC-3 at about 2 minutes 50 seconds.