A routine had settled in. Every morning, Joan would go off with Zorba and the crew and look for bones. I would go off by myself and track the lions and antelope. Biker’s routine was a bit more difficult then ours. His research on fire required that go every four hours, night or day to check on his burning experimental tree stump. The stump was a kilometer north of camp not far from the river, which meant it was in a heavily vegetated transected by active hippo routes and inhabited by numerous hyenas and probably a leopard.
Then one morning it all went very badly.
It started in the late afternoon with Biker getting stung dead center in the middle of his forehead by a tiny wasp. Since he had an allergy to this sort of thing, his head swelled to nearly twice the normal volume, and his eyes more or less shut down. But he could still kinda see, so he kept on doing his work, intrepid scientist that he was.
Early the next morning, as the sun was rising, Biker, head and face still fully inflated, got in the truck and headed out for the stump to take measurements of the temperature of the soil next to the burning trunk and roots of this old dead tree. The temperature sensors were embedded at several depths along side of the tree. Later on, after the fire was mostly out and several days of data had been recorded, Biker would dig a perfect square hole (as archaeologists do) to expose the trunk, roots, and adjoining sediment for photography, the taking of samples, and magnetometry. These data would later be used to try to distinguish between sediments in ancient sites burned naturally (like by being next to a tree trunk and root system that burns for days following a brush fire) vs. in a controlled fire (like a camp fire made by early hominids to cook food).
So Biker was driving along, and to do so, he squinted out the front of the truck, through the dirty and glare-washed wind shield, carefully following the two parallel lines of long grass pushed down by the truck’s wheels from his last drive out to the stump, before the wasp bite had closed down his eyes. He figured that if he just followed the old tracks he’d be fine, even though he could barely see where he was going.
What he did not count on was that since his last time out, two hippos had walked through the grass in this area, making two perfectly parallel slightly curving lines that looked exactly like his old tire tracks. He accidentally started to follow these tracks into a line of trees that knew he had to drive through, but strated to notice that things did not look exactly right. Suddenly, he realized, but just a little too late, that he was in the wrong place. It was too late because just then the left two wheels of the truck slid off the plateau, the middle of the truck slammed down on the edge of the cliff, and the Land Rover started to gently sway side to side teetering on the edge of a very deep ravine.
Well, Biker made it back to camp on foot after climbing out of the teetering vehicle. After getting the basic outline of the problem, we all slogged out to see what the situation was and to figure out what needed to be done. It was pretty early in the morning, and I remember that we startled up two male hyenas who were messing around in a big swampy puddle we passed along the way. Sometimes hyenas put bits of an animal in a puddle or small pond to keep the cats from getting it, saving it for later. These two guys looked pretty suspicious, so we made note of this to go back later and check.
When we arrived at the scene, we found the Land Rover pretty much as Biker had described it to us, with the front left wheel hanging well over the cliff and the back left wheel right next to the cliff. So the straight line of the cliff ran from just center of the back left wheel to just center of front right wheel, with roughly half of the vehicle overhanging the abyss and half the vehicle sitting on or near the ground.
This was the first time in the Semliki that I had seen a vehicle in really bad trouble. During the previous years (and subsequent time) I had spent in the Ituri Forest, about 400 kilometers or so north and west of us, this sort of thing was kinda run of the mill, but here, with the open terrain, not much rain, relative flatness everywhere and thus the ability to drive around rather than through or over bad things, this sort of thing did not happen very often. Biker was, as was just, utterly mortified.
This Land Rover, by the way, was the Mavi Sahavi, which was the sister vehicle to the one Boaz had supposedly dumped off a cliff in Libya several years earlier. So the situation was especially poignant. We did not want to see Mavi Sahavi go the way of it’s sibling truck. This was especailly true because this was the only one of the vehicles that seemed to actually work of the three we had on site.
The first thing we did was to cut down four trees of about 12 to 20 cm in diameter at the base. We slipped the base of each tree underneath the specially built roof rack on the left (overhanging) side of the truck, and over the edge of the roof rack on the right (on solid ground) side of the truck. In this way, each tree hung like giant frying pan handles several meters out the right side of the vehicle. We used vines to tie the trees in place onto the right side of the roof rack. We then constructed counterweights using slabs of fossil-bearing rock and various bits of trees, vines and ropes, hanging out on the end of these trees some 3 to 4 meters away from the vehicle. Our objective was to counter balance the truck as much as we could so that it might stay in place as bits and pieces of the ground underneath the heavy vehicle were slowly and steadily breaking off and tumbling down the cliff. Ominously. Like on some cheap adventure TV show.
At this point, Zorba and his crew took over. We carefully got the whopping big jack out of the back of the truck (you always carry one of these whopping big jacks that can crank up anything) as well as the smaller hydraulic jack. Then, as the rest of us went around with machetes cutting up pieces of wood to Zorba’s specifications, he climbed down the cliff and made a big square excavation underneath where the back left wheel was hanging. On the solid and level base of this excavation, he placed several pieces of wood, and on top of this the in line hydraulic jack, then more wood. Then on top of this, the whopping big jack. What I’ve described so far took about five hours. Then, he tightened the whopping big jack up against the frame the truck, and then used the hydraulic jack to raise the whole deal up a little father, so the base of the truck, in the back, was no longer sitting on the ground. It was now suspended in mid air, with the back left wheel hanging over a construction of pieces of wood and jacks and stuff.
Now, Zorba added enough wood to fill the gap between his construction and the wheel, then jammed several wedge shaped pieces under the tire-bearing wood to raise the tire up as far as he could. That took another hour and a half or so.
At this point, Zorba climbed to the top of the cliff, gestured with an open palmed left hand at the truck as he wiped his brow with his right hand, and said “Wala! …. You can just back it out straight. Do not turn the steering wheel whatever you do! It should work.”
This is when Biker turned to Joan and said “Well, OK, you’re the lightest one. Maybe you should drive.”
OK, so then a little later we picked Biker up from where Joan knocked him down and put him in the Land Rover. We considered tying open the passenger side door and tying a rope between Biker and a medium size tree, so if the truck went down the cliff, he would probably be left hanging. He would not necessarily survive being pulled through the doorway of a falling two ton vehicle, but at least this would make it easier to recover the body. But Biker bravely (I think) refused this contrivance.
Once in the driver’s seat, Biker shifted all the gears to 4-wheel and very low range, and started her up with his foot on the clutch.
The Mavi Sahavi shuddered and bits and pieces of dirt from around Zorba’s construction fell away ominously, but for the most part everything held.
“Like you are tapping your foot on an egg,” I said to Biker. “Make double sure she’s in reverse. Then ever so slowly backwards. Hold the wheel tight, because it will jerk if this wood falls away. Then, if you feel the truck tilting HIT THE GAS like your life depended on it. Because it does!”
So biker did just that. There were six of us there besides biker, and we all grabbed the far ends of the counterweights and held on tight, but ready to let go if the truck slid off the cliff. Biker very gently hit the gas and the truck started to twist in the wrong direction. The front tires had shifted unexpectedly. So Biker pulled the wheel to the right and hit the gas, and we all let go and hit the dirt.
And the Mavi Sahavi backed it’s way onto the plateau like a minivan backing out of a suburban driveway. Zorba’s construction had held. In fact, the jacks did not even fall down the cliff and were easily recovered.
For the next several days I drove Biker to his stump.
The Congo Memoirs Continue ….