Things had been quiet. The research had gone well. It was getting very near time to leave The Congo. Biker had driven one of the vehicles out and caught a plane home. Only Joan and I were left among the Wazungu, and even the workers had dropped in number so it was just Zorba and the guard Kununzu. But things were about to get a bit less quiet.
Ishango is on the east side of the Semliki River, and a small fishing village is on the West side (both are on the Big Lake). In the absence of a boat, to go between the two one must cross the river on small ferry. This ferry can take on a Land Rover or a Pickup truck.
The ferry is made out of the hull of a boat identical to the one used in the movie The African Queen. All the upper decking is removed, and there is no engine. The top of the ferry is covered by long planks. Two or three men operate the ferry by pushing it off shore into the river, then poling up stream for a while, then letting the river take the boat across as they pole it out into the current.
People on foot will stand around on one side of the river until a designated crossing time, or until a vehicle driven by someone willing to pay comes along. Then the people get on the ferry with the vehicle if there is room.
The hard part is driving the vehicle onto and off of the ferry. You have to drive so that the wheels stay on these planks. One plank per wheel. The planks have to be situated just right. One end of the plank is on a boat floating around in the current, the other end of the plank is sitting on the mud. When you start to drive onto the planks, the weight of the vehicle causes the boat to lurch, and the end of the plank on the shore starts to slide around in the mud. So, to do this you must get the front wheels on the planks and wait for a moment. This stabilizes everything. But you must not wait too long because the boat could move. Then, with the vehicle in the lowest possible gear, you gun it and crawl up the planks and onto the ferry. Getting off is similar, but you can’t see the planks at all. Not even a little. So some guy is telling you to move your tires this way, that way, no back a little this way, OK, now that way a little, then he holds up his hand and you stop. Stop dead. Then, he goes “Allez!!!” and you drive smoothly off, keeping your front wheels dead straight, and you do not move that steering wheel until you know your back wheels are totally off the planks and on the earth.
There were photographs floating around of various vehicles that didn’t quite make it on or off the ferry properly.
This is a park full of wild animals, but there are people who go back and forth between the village and Ishango for work related reasons or family related reasons. So it is common for there to be a number of people hanging around waiting for the ferry. The animals in the park are therefore used to people on the roads leading from the ferry to the village and Ishango. On either road, but mainly on the Ishango side, water buck, which are pretty big antelopes and which, in any other context I’ve observed them anywhere in Africa are very afraid of humans, stand there to the side of the road and watch you go by, less concerned than cattle might have been. I’m talking about humans walking by on foot here. Normally, the wild animals are especially wary of humans on foot (and visa versa). But these water buck just stand there and ignore you or look at you.
One day I was on foot coming back from the village and standing around with about 10 women three or four men and five or six children who were heading for Ishango for some reason. Suddenly a hippopotamus came tearing out of the river, followed by another hippopotamus in hot pursuit. The two of them ran back and forth in the crowd for about 20 seconds, then back into the water. People hardly noticed. A few people had to step out of the way to avoid getting their toes smashed. Had this happened in a different part of the park, people would have freaked out, and likely, the hippos would not have been so careful to avoid running anyone over.
Another day, I was coming down the river on The Zodiac, and I noticed that the ferry was pulling a truck across the river. Strangely enough, there were people still on the side that the ferry had left from, and hardly anybody on the ferry. It was like someone had paid to go across with their truck, but did not allow any free rides to the people waiting on the shore. How rude.
As I got closer, I started to have a strange feeling about this truck. I had a sufficiently strange feeling that when I passed the ferry with the truck on it, I did a 180 and circled the ferry.
Sure enough, this was the green pickup truck that had been used by the poachers … the guys from the Army on Army Day who had shot all those kob up by Senga. We had been told that this truck was confiscated, the driver arrested, and the soldiers shipped out of the area. But here was the truck, the driver, the officer and the shooter from the other night, and about six other soldiers. We had been lied to by the chief of the park. He had probably been paid off or threatened.
But I wanted to make sure. We had taken down the license plate of the truck. So I did another 180 around the ferry. The soldiers on the ferry were starting to get nervous about this military looking boat (The Zodiac) with this big scary white guy in it circling their ferry. They started to heft and finger their various weapons, and look at each other and to the officer, who was busy studiously ignoring me.
When I got to the side of the ferry with the back of the truck (where the license plate would be) I discovered that there was a soldier standing in front of the plate so I could not see it. He was not covering the plate on purpose. He happened to be standing there, smoking an Amabassade Cigarette, and his legs obscured the numbers I was looking for.
Standing in the Zodiac, using the tiller in tilted up position to stay exactly along side the ferry as it moved along (by this time I had essentially become one with this watercraft), I pointed at where the plate would be to get the man’s attention, and said “Hama ngombo, tafazali…” Which I think really confused him, because he was not accustom to a) Swahili coming out of white faces and b) someone speaking to him in such a polite manner.
So he moved to the side and I saw that the plate was the same. This was the poacher’s truck. On this ferry were the poachers. And a few of their friends.
A few people have seen me mad. A very very few have ever seen the likes of what happened next.