Hopefully, at this point, some of you will be wondering what I actually did during the two months I spent in the forest; as to this point, I’ve neglected to touch on those details. Most of my time was spent surveying birds through mist-netting, observations (with binoculars and spotting scope), and making digital recordings. John and Terese Hart have done a lot of projects in the DRC, but the last few years they’re focusing on creating a new national park. They call the region “TL2,” which stands for the Tshuapa, Lomami, and Lualaba Rivers that border this incredible 25,000 square mile region of mostly undisturbed forest. The Harts would like to gather as much information about the region as possible, both to further legitimize this project with the DRC government and as advertisement for future visitors. They hadn’t really touched on the birds yet, so John wanted me to start surveying and cataloguing in earnest. If you’d like to learn more about TL2, I’d recommend visiting Terese’s blog: www.bonoboincongo.com. I also wrote a report about my bird research, which you can read if you’d like. It’s the post entitled “TL2’s Birds: 255 and Counting inCentral Congo.” There’s some specific information about my surveys I included in that report that I won’t go into now. But I’d recommend visiting the site just to learn about other things going on in TL2, such as the ceremonies villages hold to grant the Harts formal and spiritual access to the forests. It’s fascinating to read about.
So, most of the work I did was an effort to elongate the TL2 bird list as much as possible, which stood at 212 when I started. This list was an accumulation of 4 years’ opportunistic observation by John, just seeing what he could as he went along. Mine, however, was the first sincere long-term surveying effort. In addition, I’d be getting as many pictures and recordings of birds as possible, even if they were well-known, to supplement an ever-growing database of information about TL2. Now that you know what I was up to, I’ll give a general timeline of what I did once reaching Katopa Camp:
- Mid-September: a few days getting used to the environment, meeting my field assistants and training from John
- Late September-early October: My first of two long (2-3 weeks) surveying trips away from Katopa, this one back along the trail to Chombe Kilima. We walked back to one of the large savannas, and over several weeks stayed at different camps and worked our way back to Katopa.
- Mid-October: a few days starting to organize my data, and doing some surveying around Katopa. Then, I took another shorter trip along the Chombe Kilima trail.
- Late October-Mid November: My second long trip, this time to the savannas in the southern region.
- Mid-Late November: I spent my last couple of weeks in the forest doing transect cutting. I’ll talk about that in my next post.
Katopa was by far the most well-stocked, and most built-up, base I frequented. It’s where we kept all of the stuff we needed, but may not have wanted to take on the more remote trips. I use the word ‘remote’ here with a grain of salt, considering the relative inaccessibility of everywhere I was: at any given point, it would take at least a day (under ideal circumstances, with the best-case scenario transportation) to reach Kindu. It’s definitely a question the Harts are considering as they try to prepare this park for visitors; I can’t even imagine the waivers someone would have to sign. “In case of a medical emergency, I knowingly cannot be evacuated, since there’s no freakin’ place for a helicopter to land.” Earlier this year, the John and Terese went on a bike tour with the German Ambassador and his wife, and Terese was surprised they could even get permission to make the trip. But anyway, while we were at Katopa, our food was always well-stocked and there was always a roof over your head to get out of the rain.
During my trips away from Katopa, however, we often weren’t as pampered. Sorry to
break it to Gene Kelly fans, but heavy rain isn’t nearly as fun to dance in when there’s nowhere to dry off. At some of the camps there were covered shelters, but sometimes the only covered place I had was my tent. It was frustrating in these circumstances to have nowhere to put clothes to dry; sometimes I even opted out of a bath just because I didn’t have a dry towel to use. We could set up stakes over the fire, which is what we usually did, but this doesn’t really dry anything out. It just gets crusty on the outside, staying clammy and musty in places not exposed to direct heat. Needless to say, never again will I take for granted a good pair of dry socks.
The food away from Katopa also left much to be desired. To paint the picture, our meals at Katopa weren’t exactly on par with the Four Seasons, but it’s what I’ll use as the golden standard: there was always tea or coffee at breakfast, most of the time with fresh lemons, sugar, and powdered milk. Usually there would be cassava root and ndizi (a kind of banana they boiled) also. For lunch and dinner, we had a combination of three or four of the following: rice, beans, ndizi, greens (usually the cassava leaves), chicken, fish, and bugali. Jojo also gave me two chocolate bars that I managed to spread out over the first couple weeks. For the periods away from Katopa, at some point we had all of these foods, but they came in batches. For example, we’d eat nothing but rice and fish for several days, then nothing but rice and beans for a few days, then bugali and greens, etc. This got tough at times, particularly during my last big trip to the south when I was starting to miss any semblance of a balanced diet. For a couple days, we only had rice and honey. Then, they got a stock of fish and cassava, but the fish was already old so it tasted incredibly fishy. At one point we opened a can of sardines, and I was disgusted with myself that I ate them and kind of liked it. I’ll never forget how happy I was when Dino, bringing a stock of food to us from Kindu, gave me a little pack of stale sugar cookies since he heard I’d felt under the weather the day before.
The Congolese seemed immune to some of these difficulties I’m mentioning: they were never openly bothered about the condition of living, since that’s what they’re used to. In fact, most don’t know anything else. That being said, it was clear they were struggling, but they didn’t consider it a problem since it’s the level of treatment they’re used to. For example, my field assistants never seemed disappointed with the minimal food options, but almost everyone was visibly suffering from malnutrition. The porters would carry tremendously heavy loads, since they got paid for it, but sometimes on the trail they would just collapse under the weight. And, even when we were on a long walking trip, they hardly drank any water at all, and once my cook Brazzos collapsed from dehydration on a savanna. To us, it’s a lower standard of living, but to them, life just isn’t as kind.
As I’ve said, Katopa is right on the Lomami River, and as some of you may know I love to fish. I knew John liked to fish also, so I brought a fishing rod, hoping to spend many mornings and evenings casting for Congo’s legendary Goliath Tigerfish. After a few trips of bringing up nothing, finally I caught one! A small specimen, but nonetheless it had the
biggest teeth of any fish I’ve caught. I planned on releasing it, but the people who were watching me (I always had a crowd of people who were fascinated by what I was doing) wouldn’t allow it. Fishing for fun is nonexistent there, and to them every individual fish is worth its size to eat, no matter how small. It was still early in the morning, about 7:00, so I gave the fish to Brazzos to cook, assuming he’d make it for lunch. He served it to us about 15 minutes later.
Anyway, I was excited to get back to fishing after my success, and with the full moon that night I went back down to the bank. I saw a big fish roll out in the middle of the river, so I “oomphed” a cast a bit too much, casting the terminal piece of my rod right off. The line was still strung through the piece’s guide, so I could reel in the line and retrieve it. Of course, this was the cast my lure got hung up on the bottom, which snapped the line and allowed the current to whisk away that terminal piece of my rod. So much for catching my big tigerfish. Next trip I guess.
In no way are these posts describing all of what I was up to in the Congo: most stories I have I don’t have room to tell. But, I’ll write one more entry about the forest, and then wrap it up with my last few days in Kindu and Kinshasa. There are a bunch of pictures I added to the “Kindu and theForest” album, so take a look at those. As always, I’d love to hear from everyone. And Happy New Year! Too bad this is our last New Years’ Day before the end of the world.