September to November Part 3, and end of Congo

After spending about two and a half weeks away from Katopa around the southern savannas, I was surprised with a motorbike ride back to Katopa. I didn’t even know the Harts had a motorbike on this side of the river, let alone the ability to drive it along the trail (which was very open in some areas, but very closed in others). After a few bumpy and scratchy hours, I ended up back at Katopa on November 7th. It really is nice to have a solid roof over your head, even if it just means having a place to put your gear where you don’t have to worry about it getting rained on. I expected to find the Harts at the camp, but Gillan (the driver who’d just driven me to Katopa) said they were at a different camp and would be back in the evening. When everybody did get there, it was the first time I’d seen Jojo and Terese in almost two months! And, incidentally, the first time I’d seen any other white people or spoken English to anyone other that John in that timeframe as well. Although I appreciate the uniqueness of my remote circumstances, and think I learned a lot from it, being around everyone was a refreshing change of pace. The company was in part, however, short-lived, as John and Terese left for Kinshasa the next morning. Up until that morning, the plan was for me to travel along the river to a stretch of rapids, finishing up my bird surveys at this one last site. I decided, though—with some encouragement from Jojo—that it might be a good idea to change up my activities for the last week and a half I’d be in the forest. Remember, this was when I found out everyone was leaving the country on November 22nd, so I’d be leaving the forest earlier than I’d planned. Besides, I wanted to get as much out of this experience as possible, which included my initial desire to look for bonobos. So, for the next few days Jojo and I had a team that worked on cutting transects through the forest.

A portion of the proposed national park is set up with a transect grid system, with major transects every six kilometers and many now cut every 500 meters. I’ve attached a Google Earth image with the transects overlaid so you have a sense of what I’m talking about.

Google Earth Image of Katopa sector, overlaid with some of the park transects.

The Harts want to cut more transects in places where they think are higher densities of bonobos. The process of cutting the transects usually requires two people: one actually wielding the machete, and another as a navigator. I was the navigator, and it was my job to stand behind the cutter and tell him where to go. All of the transects go exactly north, south, east, or west, and the process requires use of a compass and GPS to make sure our heading is always correct. Usually, depending on how closed the forest we’re hacking through is, we can get about 1.5 kilometers cut in a day. My cutter was a 16 year-old who’d never done this before, so we tended to go a bit slower while both of us learned the ropes. Dino was nice enough to come with us on the first couple of days, to make sure we’d gotten the method down. Still, it’s a fairly rewarding procedure, since at the end of the trip you can load up all your track logs onto Google Earth and see exactly how straight your cuts are. Or very, very not straight.

Spending so much time whacking through the forest off-trail really allows you to examine things more closely, in part because you’re moving so slowly. But, since we’d often reach obstacles our line should go through, like huge fallen trees, dense liana entanglements, or swamps, we’d be forced to look at everything closely in order to find our way through. I never would have realized the diversity of lianas, for example, and see how many different colors of sap the different species had if we weren’t forced to cut through them. I never would have seen so many huge termite mounds we had to climb over, or had a close encounter with a mamba (apparently—I never saw it). It was also nice to spend a few days with Jojo, both because of her English and because of her Swahili. Although it was nice to converse in English, as I’ve said, her more superior Swahili abilities allowed me to find out more about the guys on our team than I would have otherwise. One night they had a long talk about the conflicting philosophies of religion and evolution; a few times they talked about the Congolese systems of polygamy and the tendency for men to beat their wives. Mostly I just listened and picked up what I could, but I was still glad to be hearing accounts of these sensitive and controversial issues from an invaluable primary source: our team members and friends. That being said, at times I had to force myself to spend time with everyone and not just hole-up in my tent: at this point, I had a tough time thinking about anything besides what I missed at home, and I needed to remember to take advantage of where I was and who I was with.

Further, spending a few days with Jojo, I learned some things about the forest I might not have picked up from John. For instance, I learned the difference between white water and black water, the former being the safer to drink. It turns out my team had been drinking almost entirely black water, including during my first several weeks before I was using iodine. I got lucky, I guess. I definitely couldn’t rely on the other members of my team to tell me things like what water is OK to drink, since they would drink mostly anything and just deal with the consequences (which can, I found out, include death). It was kind of funny, actually, in a weird way: on our walk back to Chombe Kilima, Jojo started pointing out some of the black water streams along the way, many of which we’d drank from earlier on.

We actually did the hike in one day, which was pretty tiring. We may not have made it if we didn’t have porters carrying most of our equipment. The terrain was also more difficult to navigate than on my trip out, since we were now deep into the rainy season, and many portions of the trail were flooded. Nevertheless we made it, and the next day, we took the motorbike ride back to Kindu; this time, I had one of the most experienced drivers, instead of a younger, new driver. Still not a Rolls Royce ride, but I could tell the difference.

We spent a couple full days in Kindu, eating plenty of homemade peanut butter and walking around. One morning, we came across a few boys along the river, who after trying to impress Jojo with their acrobatics, asked us lots of questions about the United States: “Are there cars?” “Is there hunger?” “Is there a sun?” They got progressively more general and surprising, things that it seems no human being could possibly reach the age of 10 without being aware of, but they were somehow heartbreakingly naive and genuine. As usual, we made our exit when the subject turned to asking for food. I got a nice shirt made for me, and I was happy to get a cold drink, finally, at a bar called Vero Beach right on the Congo River. It was here, sitting by the river and playing cards, that I started really thinking about the extent to which I had been isolated. It had been over two months since I’d had really been inside; two months since I could be productive after dark, with a mostly consistent supply of electricity; two months since I could do much of anything for fun outside of my work (I did start out with my fishing rod, but you’ll remember that activity ended pretty abruptly); two months since I didn’t have to worry about rationing a limited reading supply; two months since I had even seen any machinery other than my computer, a couple motorbikes, and a generator. There were also a great many things I no longer had to worry about, such as daily sanguinary hell streams of safari ants, or wearing my one pair of waterlogged boots which only exacerbated my many blisters.

My last few days in the Congo went by pretty quickly. After a frustratingly unorganized trip back to Kinshasa, courtesy of Congo’s only real airline, CAA, I reclaimed my room in the Harts’ office and collapsed into a raised mattress for the first time since leaving. The next morning I went to the doctor’s and found I had contracted trichinosis, a kind of intestinal worm, which I got antibiotics for. I spent awhile looking through John’s larger bird texts, building up reference information for the paper John and I will submit to a African bird journal shortly. One of the Harts’ neighbors, Minas, also took Jojo and me out on his motorboat on the Congo River for an afternoon. After a couple of farewell dinners with a few of the Harts’ friends in-country, we were off home the day before Thanksgiving.

So here I am, more than two months since leaving the Congo. A few of the blisters on my ankles and feet still haven’t completely healed, and I may not ever use that brand of anti-itch cream I mistook for toothpaste again. But, other than that, I don’t think I ended up any worse for the wear. I won’t soon forget most of what I saw and experienced, and I hope I’ve been able to convey that in some sense here. Maybe I’ve even convinced some of you to visit the Harts’ park, once it officially exists!

I’ve also added a new album with some more pictures from Kindu and Kinshasa.

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