The Last Straw
4 July 2014: Isiro, Democratic Republic of the Congo
A small miracle was pulled off when, a few hours after uploading the last post, the mechanics finished working on the destroyed clutch on our truck. They also patched up our tires as best as they could, and with time running out, I ordered the team to move on. We traveled exactly 1.5 kilometers before encountering our first challenge—an enormous muddy pit with only a small shelf running parallel (and much higher) to it to allow our truck to circumvent the problem. With little margin for error, we spent about an hour widening the shelf so that Faustin would have enough room to safely use it without falling into the pit, and everything was ready to go. The idea was for him to watch Chifundera for guidance on where to turn his wheels, proceed very slowly, and after two minutes of careful maneuvering, we should have been able to move on without any problems. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.
Instead of waiting for Chifundera for guidance, Faustin fired up the truck with his typical misguided confidence and started moving down the shelf on his own. We yelled at him to stop, but he just kept coming. When he reached a place dangerously close to the wall of the shelf, he decided to hit the gas, and literally drove up the side of the shelf’s wall and tipped the truck over. Luckily everyone had seen enough examples of Faustin’s ineptitude to watch from outside the truck, so he was the only one inside it when the accident happened. He was very lucky that the truck didn’t continue rolling into the pit, because that fall might have seriously injured or killed him. He was unhurt except for some shaken nerves and embarrassingly wet pants. See photo of the disaster below.
We all gave him evil glances when he climbed out of the passenger window, but he just shrugged his shoulders in a nonchalant “gee whiz” manner that angered us more. It was now clear to the entire team that we could not continue down this road with Faustin at the wheel, because he would either get us all killed or delay our journey indefinitely. Once again we had to enlist the help of nearby villagers, who used several liana “ropes” to pull the truck upright after an hour of digging to enlarge the shelf for this purpose. Because of the time lost for all this, we had to spend the night in the village, still 12 kilometers away from Boda.
The next morning as I sipped my morning coffee, I noticed one of the tires that had been repaired the previous day was low, so Faustin tried to inflate it with the tire pump I had bought a few days before. But it was broken. If I had known that the pump was not new, I would have refused the $15 pricetag for it. And so he switched it out with the spare.
As I contemplated our dire situation, Aristote pointed out that one of the village chickens had a very unusual baby. I noticed that her single chick wasn’t a chicken at all, but rather some kind of wild bird. It had mottled black, brown and orange pigmentation, and distinctive black stripes that ran down the neck. Aristote told me that someone had found an egg in the forest, brought it back to the village, and when it hatched, the youngster had imprinted on the nearest hen, thinking she was its mother. He said it was a Congo Peacock, which is a spectacularly colored bird in the adult male. The species wasn’t described to science until the 1930s, underscoring how poorly known the Congo Basin’s fauna was in the 20th century. The basin surely holds additional spectacular discoveries, and that is part of the reason for our expedition in the first place. UPDATE: I’d really like to know if this bird really is a young Congo peacock, so I’m including a photo here. Any ornithologists out there that can confirm the ID?
We decided to stage an intervention with Faustin at that point, and at first he said no way would he let someone else drive his truck. Eventually logic and common sense won the day, and Jeanne-Pierre was able to get behind the wheel. When we departed for Boda, we immediately noticed a difference in the quality of driving, and JeePay (Jeanne-Pierre’s nickname) was able to navigate the roads with considerably less difficulty. Nonetheless, we got stuck for two hours in a long stretch of mud that was riddled with random piles of bamboo. During these long and boring delays, Danny and I would help with the shoveling, swat at the annoying little black flies that leave itchy red patches from their bites, read a little, or wander around the forest flipping logs. These situations are frustrating and demoralizing, but one can’t help but appreciate the beauty of the forest along the way. As an example, I provide a photo of the underside of the umbrella tree’s canopy (according to Chifundera) from my vantage point some 30 meters lower on the ground.
Just after noon we were able to move on, inching our way closer to Boda, when we encountered the last major obstacle (yet another big muddy hole) some five kilometers west of the town. As we got out of the truck to investigate how to get around it, we noticed that one of the tires was flat. We were able to pay a man passing by on a motorcycle to take Faustin to Boda to fix the spare while we dug a path around the hole, and we were even able to fill up the tire that had been low with a basketball pump that someone had nearby. Someone fiddled with the tire’s intake valve, the site of the slow leak, and miraculously, it was fixed. As the digging continued, a man approached Chifundera to tell him that a cobra had become ensnared in a rodent trap that he had set in the forest. Perhaps the trap had been successful, and the snake had taken advantage of an easy meal, only to become trapped itself. I had encountered the exact same situation a few years before, but there was no way to gauge exactly how far away the trap was, or how much time would be required to reach it, disentangle the snake, and return. All the man could say was, “the trap is just there,” gesturing awkwardly in a random direction. Danny was very enthusiastic to go on the wild goosechase (not to mention bored out of his mind), so I let him depart with Chifundera while the rest of the team dealt with the road obstacle.
It was late afternoon when JeePay felt comfortable enough to attempt a forceful push through the mud around the hole, and with a “bon chance” (good luck!), we sped off. He became temporarily trapped in a thick ooze of mud just before the hole, and I was confused for a moment when the rest of the team ran away from the truck instead of pushing it through the mess. I noticed one of them had his jacket over his head, as if he was trying to shield himself from rain, but there wasn’t any. I was just about to ask JeePay what was going on when I suddenly realized everyone had run away because we were under attack. I felt a painful sting on my hand and killed a skinny little black wasp that had entered the truck through the open windows. JeePay had the good sense to close all the windows as I killed more of the angry insects that were swarming around my seat—we must have wandered too close to their nest and now they were on the warpath. In my undergraduate Genetics class at UTEP, I teach my students that Hymenoptera (bees and wasps) have a sex determination system called haplodiploidy, where queens can mate with haploid males, resulting in sisters that share about 75% of their DNA with each other. Under normal diploid circumstances (like humans and other animals), siblings share about 50% of their DNA with each other. In general, the more closely related you are to someone, the more willing you are to die to protect them in an altruistic attack, which the wasps were conducting against us. Luckily, JeePay was able to put the truck in reverse and plow his way around the muddy mess past the angry wasps, but the pain of the sting lingered for an impressive 24 hours, leaving a marble-sized swelling for the same amount of time.
Dusk was approaching as we waited for Chifundera and Danny to return at the outskirts of Boda, and within 30 minutes, we could sense their approach by the loud clamor of people. Unfortunately, the enormous 2.8 meter-long forest cobra they had collected was dead, because a friend of the hunter thought he was doing him a favor by killing it. But the snake was an absolute monster, and I conceded it was worth the effort to go after it. Below is a photo of Chifundera, Aristote and some of the locals next to the enormous snake.
Given the continued dire condition of the roads, the conflicting reports regarding its condition on the long (ca. 250 km) way to Isiro, problems with the truck’s tires (and no replacements available), and a new problem with the battery (we had been kickstarting the truck for several days every time we turned it off), we were forced to come to the conclusion that we could not continue with the truck. However, because Boda is a big town, we could see that plenty of motorcycles (dirtbikes really) were available, and I told Chifundera to plan an extraction with a caravan of these “motos.” Danny and I needed to be in Goma in about a week, and we simply couldn’t stick around for the weeks necessary to get the truck out via the time consuming method we had been using up to that point. Not to mention the terrible stress and focus on logistics instead of the research. Faustin refused to leave the truck behind, even long enough to get parts in Isiro, so I was obliged to leave him a ton of money, and the assistance of Paluku. It was clear to everyone that it would not be possible to drive to Isiro, and eventually, they would either need to get towed out by a big lorry, or hire motorcycles to obtain parts and return for the slow slog to either Isiro or Niangara. They had plenty of money for both options, and with Faustin’s refusal to join us, there was nothing else I could do.
And thus the next afternoon after paying a king’s ransom to Faustin and the motocycle crew, we left Boda with 10 motorcycles, traveling at the astonishing rate of 25 kilometers per hour. The scenery transitioned to a mosaic of forest and savanna as we headed east at noon, and we stopped at the large town of Poko just before dark to get some minor repairs done, including the installation of a headlamp on the moto I was using. I suddenly detected the telltale sign of giardia (I’ll spare you the details) and started some medication to treat it. Someone had recently captured a chameleon as a pet, and Danny was delighted to see his first one in Congo. As explained in my previous blog post O Kameleo, Where Art Thou? from last year, forest chameleons seem to be extremely rare in the Congo Basin. This one happened to turn up because we had passed into the savanna, where they are much more common, and indeed it turned out to be a savanna species. Because of security concerns in the town we passed through, the motorcycle team insisted that we continue on in the dark, and it took us 2.5 hours of dangerous driving to reach Neru, where we tried to get some rest in the middle of a noisy village.
The chickens woke us up at 4, and by 7 we were on the road again. Because of the endless hours of driving on the terrible roads, Danny and I were starting to walk like cowboys, and the pain was becoming intense. Both of us were sandwiched between baggage on the back of the bike and a Congolese driver on the front, and even though I was paired with the smallest (and unfortunately youngest and most reckless) driver, the space was so limited that he effectively had to sit in my lap for the entire journey. He was easily distracted and felt compelled to drive dangerously fast on the stretches of road with no bumps, keeping a distance of only three meters between himself and the bike ahead of us. He wasn’t very good on the slippery areas in the mud, and more than once I had to stabilize the bike with my feet to prevent us from tipping over into a puddle of mud. For some reason he preferred to drive through the middle of large puddles of water instead of driving around them, and by the end of the trip my clothes and baggage were caked with mud, and my boots were full of water that had splashed inside.
Despite our comparatively rapid progress, we still had to wait for the entire caravan to catch up every few kilometers to ensure that nobody had fallen behind. Several times we had to send someone back several kilometers to find out why one of the bikes hadn’t shown up with the rest of the group. Because Aristote had decided to indulge in a bit too much pombe (alcohol) before we left, he was having trouble staying balanced and awake on his moto on the way out of Boda, which delayed us by at least an hour. On the second day, several flat tires and a broken gear caused several hours of delays. Between the uncomfortable bumpy ride, the hot temperatures, lack of sleep, and almost complete lack of food, the trip was quite miserable, but everyone was glad to be emerging from the hellish road. We also had to be grateful that it didn’t rain during the journey, because that would have added an additional peril to the equation. We finally arrived at Isiro at about 2 PM on the 2nd day of driving, and everyone noticed that the road had not improved until about 30 km west of the city. A few hours before reaching town, we had passed an enormous lorry, and Chifundera convinced the driver to help tow Faustin and his vehicle out to Niangara, where good roads started. Based on the long and bad road we had passed through, this seemed like the only sensible option.
As I sit here homesick for fireworks and barbeque on our country’s birthday, we are having a little trouble finding transportation to take us to Nia Nia and on to Butembo, where we hope to have enough time for a brief detour to Lutunguru for two final days of work before we end the trip (in Congo) at Goma. Keeping the team at a hotel in a big town like this is expensive (ca. $300/day), and we really need to leave tomorrow to keep our tight schedule, but with luck we can find a pickup truck or something to get us to the main road at Nia Nia, where several transportation options should be available for the rest of the journey. The internet connection at Isiro is very slow, so additional photos and updates of the last post will have to wait. When I post again, I hope it will be either in Goma or Kampala as we wrap up the expedition and prepare to come home.
UPDATE: here is another picture for the cybertaxonomy project. Students should keep in mind that this species is endemic to the Congo Basin and not the Albertine Rift. Give it a shot!