Standing there chest deep in the waves, my first thought was “I am so glad the bottom of The Big Lake is sandy and not muddy” When we abandoned ship, I knew shallow water was nearby, but I thought it might be mud, maybe something like quicksand. I thought this because the nearest ‘dry’ land was a snake infested swamp and those are usually muddy.
But no, it was nice and sandy.
My second thought was that I was glad that the terrain behind the shoreline, towards which we were struggling, was jungle rather than grassland. The Jungle would be impenetrable here, but we didn’t need to pull up on land. We only needed to keep the boat upright, to empty the water, to get the engine dry and working again. We could do that in knee deep water. The important thing was this: Without the grasslands nearby, there would be fewer hippos defending their territories in the knee deep water. Snake infested jungle is good. This time.
On dry land, an angry hippo runs quite a bit faster than a frightened human, but the hippos can’t climb trees like a human being chased by a hippo can. In knee deep water, the hippo runs as fast as it does on land while the human slogs along in a dream-run. Like in one of those nightmares, no matter how hard you try you just don’t get anywhere, while the monster bears down on you. And there are no trees in the lake.
My third thought was that it was OK that we had been blown off course into a country for which we didn’t have visas, because the storm that had come up out of nowhere (nowhere, in this case, being the south slopes of the Rwenzori Mountains) could be used as an excuse if we got caught. You see, we actually hadn’t been blown off course. We were investigating across the border and technically we were not supposed to be where we were. The fact that we had met officials of the foreign land in question, and they knew we were illegals, would not matter if we were nabbed by a patrol in the bush. We would have to pay fines on the spot, be yelled at by drunk soldiers, promise to bring watches on our next illegal trip, and so on. So there was solace in the fact that we had been washed ashore in a place too remote to be patrolled by land, and that this storm would have driven away any boat patrols or, for that matter, pirates.
(I know… pirates. You must think I’m joking. But having spent the night before on Pirate Island, which it turns out is loaded with actual Pirates, I assure you that I am not making this up. I can tell you, though, that by this time I had learned to intimidate the Pirates I didn’t know, and have a good time with the ones I did know. But no matter what, you don’t really want to run into pirates when you are at a disadvantage, and trudging across the shallows with a half-sunk boat full of geological specimens and empty beer bottles was not ideal.)
My fourth thought was that the decision to jump overboard instead of throwing the cases of empties overboard was a good idea. The four of us would survive after all … the storm was abating, the waves calming, and we were getting into shallower and shallower water. Having saved the empties, we could be assured of getting more beer later in the week. Without empty bottles, there would be no beer, the empties being as important as the money one uses to buy the brew. Indeed, the empties have an intrinsic value, the money in these parts does not.
You can use the bottles as containers for all manner of substance, and very small people can use them as chairs. If you know how to, you can use them as coffee grinders (a little trick I picked up while visiting the Buda people near Kisingani). But you can’t use the money for anything. It is so old, beat up and grimy it won’t even work as kindling.
This ill-fated jaunt was the first long distance trip I had taken in the Zodiac. The guy who had organized the expedition I was on to the Western Rift Valley of Eastern Zaire (now DR Congo) had made a lot of crazy, lame-ass decisions. Like shipping several cases of minced dried garlic to a region of Africa where garlic is one of the few locally grown crops. Or buying 200 kilos of prime meat (at premium prices) before properly installing the kerosene powered refrigerators, causing great difficulties when the meat went bad and the smell wafted across the savanna that, at the time, had the highest super-predator density of any place in the world. Talk about tempting fate… But I have to say that the Zodiac was brilliant. This inflatable boat with a 40 hp motor could reach just under 40 knots when I was the only one in it, and I pumped the keel to maximum stiffness. Going down the Semliki river … which was already flowing at about 8 to 12 knots, was like snowmobiling on a slick highway.
A highway of hippos. This area also had, at the time, the largest concentration in the world of Hippopotamus. The 10 kilometer stretch of river from our bush camp to the base camp where the River left The Big Lake was occupied by about 300 hippos, with the actual junction of lake and river, and nearby areas of the lake, home to another 400 or so. That meant that traveling up or down the narrow river required driving next to and often through ‘pods’ (herds) of hippos. Each such group consisted of several females who were dangerous but generally stayed visible and off to the side, and one large aggressive very uptight male who would charge, or display violently, or worst of all, sink out of site and ‘run’ back and forth or up and down the river, invisibly. So you never knew where he would surface, jaw open 90 degrees, tusks outward, ready to eat the boat.
After a while I learned that these males almost always did move perpendicular to my direction of movement after submerging, so the best place to aim the boat was where the beast was last seen. But to avoid hitting the animal, I’d also have to slow down and stand up, so I could see in time to swerve. This always made the passengers, often uniformed and armed guards who were supposed to be protecting me, weep in fear.
Hippos can laugh. They normally make a noise that has been described as “sardonic laughter.” But that alone is not what I mean. A 40 horsepower motor uses a fair amount of gas. So now and then you are going along and suddenly you run out of gas. We did not have quick change hoses and multiple tanks. What we had was a big plastic jug with more gas in it. So when you run out of gas, you open the cap on the gas tank, open the cap on the jug, get a funnel in there, and carefully pour the gasoline, while yelling at Peter “No, I do NOT have a light for your cigarette, you twit” … then you cap everything off, pump the bulb, take the motor out of gear, adjust the throttle, and start pulling the cord.
So, if you drive the boat downstream past the hippos they watch you go by, the big male feints attack a few times, you get past them, and everybody gets over it. Up ahead, the next pod of hippos has observed this, and they are waiting for your arrival. The male is just starting to flail around, and the females are moving to safer water.
Then the motor dies.
Since this is basically a rubber raft, and the current is strong, the boat immediately turns engine-downstream. Of course, you can pull the engine out of the water real quick, but if you do that at just the right time, the boat will simply spin in circles. Better to leave it in and run backwards for a while. Now, I know the hippos don’t actually get ‘backwards’ with boats (or at least, I did not get the impression that they cared) but one does feel utterly stupid, having skillfully navigated through one herd of hippos without them damaging us or us damaging them, to be streaming backwards, fiddling with containers of gasoline, swearing at each other, knowing we are totally at the mercy of the currents for this next pod.
That’s when the hippos laugh at you. They see you going by, and some let out their sardonic laugh as others snort. The big male stands up in shallow water and considers charging, but forgets why he wanted to do that … you see, what had really upset him was not the boat, or the people in the boat, but rather, the sound of the motor. And without gas, the motor is a LOT quieter. So he just watches you go by as the ladies continue to chortle and guffaw….
…. well, that was quite a digression from a story about nearly sinking the boat in The Big Lake. You may be wondering why we had to abandon ship to begin with. Well, it was the storm. Clearly, I’ll have to tell you that story soon.
This is a repost of the first of the Congo Memoirs. Click here to see the full list (remember, they are listed backwards because everything in blog land is backwards).