14 June 2014: Bombole, near Tele, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Mathias bought us a very nice breakfast of tshipati (dinner-plate sized discs of fried dough) and cow meat on our last morning in Uganda on the 5th of June, and he even picked up additional tshipati for us to take into Congo for lunch. We had enjoyed a cool shower and electricity to charge up our equipment, and I had warned Danny that all of this would be over once we crossed the border. Despite the warnings, I don’t think things began to sink in until Mathias crossed the border with us in the truck so that we wouldn’t have to carry our luggage over the border on our backs. For some odd reason, only the customs building was on the other side of the border. After a brief conversation with the officer in my broken French, I realized the actual immigration office was a further 8 km down the road. Mathias started driving toward the latter office, but he suddenly started to have a minor freak out.
The scenery had definitely changed. Instead of nice little buildings with attached power lines, we saw only mud and thatch huts now, the people looked battered and destitute, and the road was noticeably worse than the other side of the border. With the harsh reality of our surroundings sinking in, Mathias told us that he was afraid to go further because a colleague of his had recently done the same thing and been arrested on a trumped up charge. Mathias had come to his rescue with a lot of money to bail him out and take him home, and he didn’t want to go through the same traumatizing experience from the other side. Understanding his fear, we returned to the customs building at the border and waited for my Congolese team to show up with their truck.
About half an hour later they arrived, and we had a nice little reunion after the week-long hiatus since seeing each other at Bwindi. The baggage started moving from the Ugandan to Congolese vehicles, but the pleasantries were soon over. Even before Mathias had departed, I was bombarded with requests for salary advances, money to pay for food they had eaten en route, a spare tire that was needed for the truck, and various other miscellaneous things. Yep, I was definitely back in Congo. Danny and I said a fond farewell to Mathias, and told him that we would see him again in Kampala when we returned around the 11th of July.
It was a bit of a challenge to get all of our baggage and six men into the truck, and some of it had to go into the rack on the roof of the truck. Of course nobody had bothered to buy a tarp or rope just yet. Luckily nothing fell off during the short trip to the immigration office, where we spent at least an hour showing our passport, explaining the purpose of our visit, making photocopies of official invitation letters for the conference at Kisangani, and chatting with the officials. They made Danny pay a $25 immigration fee for some piece of paperwork I had never heard of, apparently because it was his first visit into the country. That settled, everyone piled into the truck only to have somebody at the nearby checkpoint create more headaches, and Chifundera left for a good half hour to talk to him about whatever objection had been made. They had passed through this checkpoint only minutes before and no problem had occurred, but now that a muzungu (Swahili for white man) was in the picture, difficulties ensued.
After addressing that issue, we traversed a hilly road that was pockmarked with innumerable potholes, slowing or progress to a crawl. Stopping at Mahagi to pick up our cook Paluku, pay more bills that had accumulated during the Congolese team’s journey from Goma, and arrange our baggage better, I noticed there was a tame Grey Crowned Crane (Balearica regulorum) walking around on a nearby hotel’s grounds. This threatened 1.1 meter tall animal is Uganda’s national bird; it is often associated with royalty and it even appears on the country’s flag. We had seen a glimpse or two of them in Uganda, and Mathias had told us that they call reliably around 5:30 in the morning and again at 9:30 at night, suggesting that some people use them as alarm clocks. It was certainly a stunning animal, and it was nice to get a photo of one from only a couple meters away (see photo below).
After all these delays and pitstops, it was late afternoon when we approached the small city of Bunia in the woodland/savannah landscape west of the Lendu Plateau. Five years before when I had worked in Orientale Province in Congo, there were occasional checkpoints manned by various officials, but most of the time they would just wave us through without any problem. This year there would be a dramatic change in the number of checkpoints and the hassles associated with them. After the people at one checkpoint focused on our driver Faustin outside of Bunia, it became apparent that he had not obtained all the proper licenses and documents to drive in this part of the country legally. We paid an exorbitant fine to pass through the checkpoint, and by a great stroke of luck, we were able to find the proper office in Bunia that issued the permits before it closed. It goes without saying that I had to pay for these permits, and it wasn’t cheap, but Faustin stoically acknowledged that the money would have to come out of his salary since it was his fault.
Because driving on roads in Congo can be dangerous after dark (poor visibility of potholes, bandits, etc.), we were forced to spend the night in Bunia, a dusty and hot place with relatively expensive hotels that benefit from foreign travelers in the oil industry, smugglers, humanitarian organizations, and the UN. The rooms were spacious with a nice desk, but the toilet seats were long gone (a puzzlingly common occurrence everywhere in Congo), everything was dusty and full of cobwebs, and a disconcerting notice on the wall asked “lovers” to clean up after themselves. There was a small and slimy porcelain square with a drain on the floor to facilitate showers, but of course the shower didn’t work, and one would be marauded by mosquitoes after dusk if an attempt at a splash bath were made. The mosquito net on my bed was destroyed, and when I tried to close my door, the handle easily broke off and dropped to the floor with a ringing clang.
We encountered three checkpoints in a row as we were leaving Bunia, delaying us for at least an hour as Chifundera explained our business in Congo to the “chef de poste” at each one. It was frustrating to be flagged to pull over each and every time as we approached flimsy tree branch road barriers with grimy little flags. Between Bunia and Nia Nia, the place where we stopped for the night hundreds of kilometers to the west, I counted 10 checkpoints with interminable delays in the heat at each one. We were allowed to pass through only one of these with a quick hand motion when a fistfight happened to break out between two cops just as we approached. None of this stuff had been present five years before, and any thoughts of ecotourism potential (as seen at its best in neighboring Uganda) were dashed by these annoyances. There is no way tourists would put up with this.
We briefly stopped at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve where I had visited in 2009 to see how their captive population of okapi were doing (see photo of one of these okapi on the DR Congo page of the Fieldwork tab on my homepage). Back then they had at least 14 animals for captive breeding, public outreach, and conservation purposes, with great potential for tourism. Unfortunately a militia known for elephant poaching attacked Epulu a couple years ago, killing several people and almost all of the okapi in retaliation for a completely justified crackdown on their poaching activities. Aristote told me that eventually all the men in the militia were killed, and the new warden at Epulu said that they were preparing to restart the okapi program in 2015. We wished them well as we pushed on in our hurry to reach Kisangani before the 1st International Conference on Congo Basin Biodiversity got underway. We lost more time with a flat tire that took forever to change with the antiquated car jack our driver used, but we had some enticing glimpses of monkeys and impressive hornbill birds. We also stopped frequently to inspect road-killed snakes, and I picked up a couple of the salvageable ones for DNA analyses. In this way we were able to sample a Jameson’s mamba (Dendroaspis jamesoni), several olive house snakes (Boaedon olivaceus), a completely flattened stiletto snake (Atractaspis sp.), two species of vipers (Causus), a red-and-black striped snake (Bothrophthalmus lineatus), two species of rough-scaled green snakes (Hapsidophrys), and the commonly encountered file snake species Gonionotophis poensis.
At one point during the slow and bumpy ride west, we heard a large bang under the truck. When Faustin looked to investigate, he discovered that the entire muffler had fallen off the undercarriage, no doubt from the constant shaking and jarring of the vehicle in the unavoidable potholes. He was able to repair it temporarily with some wire, but we had driven only a kilometer before we were entangled in yet another checkpoint. We stopped briefly at Batama, a key type locality for the poorly known frog Amietia chapini, which was found by American biologists during an expedition lead by the American Museum of Natural History a century ago. We found a handful of interesting Ptychadena rocket frogs, a single Hylarana albolabris, two reddish Amietophrynus toads, and some aquatic Xenopus frogs in the 30 minutes we spent with the local villagers in the forest, but our target remained elusive. I decided to send Wandege and Aristote back the following day so that they could look for the Amietia at night when they are most active, and we thanked the enthusiastic people of Batama for their help.
The roads were very dusty, and because the heat was intense (about 95°F in the shade), we were soon covered in a mixture of sweat and reddish dust when we approached Nia Nia at dusk. We could see some impressive remnants of old colonial-era buildings that must have served as regional governmental offices half a century ago. Our hotel was only $10 per room, but they had their drawbacks. About 2 x 3 meters in dimension, they had a single door and only one small window, both of which had been closed all day, trapping the heat from the tropical sun in the room like an oven. The twin-sized bed had a good mosquito net, but there was only a single orange-pink mood light illuminating it from the ceiling above, and there was no switch to turn it off. I simply had to wait until they turned the generators off for it to go out, but Danny had the good sense to unscrew his before retiring. The bathroom was a common-use pit for the entire hotel, and the tiny shack allocated for bathing was rejected as unusable by everyone. There was a bar next door with a loud soccer game from France (satellite dishes are popular in Congo if you have the money), and on the opposite side of the street, they blared rumba dance music until 3 AM. Nobody got much sleep, and when we piled into the truck to continue the journey the following morning, the air was thick with a plethora of nasty odors. Danny commented that he wished he didn’t have a nose, but I told him he would get used to it.
We finally pulled into Kisangani in the middle of the afternoon. I had registered for the conference months before, with many of the details about accommodation, transportation, and other key aspects of the meeting left nebulous at best from the information on the conference website, and I couldn’t recall any of the details. When we entered the room to register for the conference at the university, two wide-eyed Belgian women stared at us. I didn’t have a mirror to look at myself, but Danny looked like he had stared down a nuclear blast. Reddish dust, sweat and unknown particulate matter were caked all over his face and hair, and he reminded me of a famous bearded singer from the 1980’s, because all of his hair was darker as a result. I could see that all of our clothes were splashed with tiny bits of plant material, mud, and dust from the bit of fieldwork we did at Batama. They looked at us as if we had just landed from Mars, and compared to all the other foreign visitors who had flown to Kisangani from nice hotels in Kampala, we had certainly taken an unorthodox route of travel with accompanying consequences to our appearance.
After a few more snags (the hotel with our reservations was full!) we found a suitable replacement on the edge of town at a place with the regrettable name of Hotel Bout du Monde (End of the World Hotel). The rooms weren’t too expensive, they were clean, the toilets had seats, and they were even able to provide some delicious meals when we asked for them. We managed to clean up, catch up on some rest, and attend the conference. Several people failed to follow the instructions to give their talks in French and Powerpoints in English (or vice versa as we did), so some of the presentations were difficult to follow, but overall the quality of the talks were very good, and we all enjoyed meeting other people working in the Congo Basin.
Meanwhile, Wandege and Aristote had traveled about 175 kilometers back east to Batama to look for the desired Amietia. Unfortunately, one of Batama’s chiefs refused to let the local people participate in the search without permission from some territorial governmental official, who was located another 100 kilometers away. With no time for such nonsense, Aristote and Wandege grabbed what they could from the forest just outside the village, including some Afrixalus treefrogs and more of the interesting toads, but no Amietia turned up. The residents of Batama were very disappointed that they couldn’t earn a few bucks by helping with the frog search, but they had to respect the decision of their chief. Not much happened when Wandege and Aristote returned to Kisangani on the 9th, but Wandege wandered off to meet a friend about 20 km north of the city, and picked up a small road-killed snake along the way. I was in a hurry to preserve it when he presented it to me at 10:30 that evening, but I didn’t immediately recognize what it was. The mystery snakes are always fun to figure out, but I usually require the benefit of my library in the USA, a dissecting microscope to examine the tiny scales around the head, and/or a little DNA sequence data to narrow down the possibilities.
We decided to skip the formalities of the last day of the conference on the 10th of June to take off for the field early, but the repairs on our truck took much longer than anticipated (and shockingly, more money too). We planned to be joined by our Congolese colleague Jean-Pierre Mokanse from Kinshasa on the same day, but we discovered the flights to Kisangani don’t come on Tuesdays and we simply had to wait. Such is the pace of progress in Africa—one must be infinitely patient to work here, but from my view, the benefits from the biodiversity discovery outweigh the annoying drawbacks.
We were finally able to leave Kisangani in the mid-afternoon on the 11th, and we picked up several more snakes that had been killed on the road leading north from the city. We blew another flat tire in the late afternoon, and we were obliged to spend the night in a tiny village less than 100 km north of the city. While I preserved the snakes, Danny and the team searched the nearby forest for a couple hours and came up with a few interesting frogs, including a rather handsome and colorful Leptopelis treefrog I had never seen before. After I had set up my tent, I discovered four large holes in the bottom of my brand-new tent. Upon questioning Wandege, who had loaded the tent onto the top of the truck, I received only shrugs of “I don’t know.” The same response was given when I enquired to the whereabouts of a second new tent. And so before the really remote work in the forest had really begun, one tent gone and another already damaged. Luckily I was able to use some glue and a repair kit to patch up the holes, but it wasn’t a very auspicious start to the work in Congo.
The next day was wickedly hot and didn’t go so well. When we reached the town of Banalia, we had to wait three hours for a river ferry, and nearly missed it while we were waiting for our driver and a local mechanic to fix our spare tire. During the wait, Danny got a lesson in Congolese hospitality. A local man who knew a little English struck up a conversation with him, asked the basic questions about where he was from etc., and once he felt they were on friendly terms, told Danny he was hungry and wanted $1,000. Danny gracefully bowed out of the encounter in a slightly depressed mood. I told him that unfortunately, a stranger striking up a conversation in Congo is sometimes going to make a request for money. It is indeed a bummer, because it would be nice to chat simply for the sake of getting to know someone, and often that does happen. After many uncomfortable experiences like Danny’s, I’ve become hardened to these outrageous requests for money, and am reluctant to start conversations with random people when we haven’t been introduced.
When we got across the river, we used an air compressor from a truck to inflate the repaired tire, but we heard air hissing through a leak as soon as the driver placed it into the back of the truck. The inflatable portion of the tire obviously damaged beyond repair, we were very fortunate to be able to send Aristote and Jean Pierre in a pirogue back over the river to look for a replacement in the town, which was found and put into working order about 4 hours later. All of this, obviously, took up the better part of the day.
It was late afternoon when we were passing through a desolate stretch of forest between villages as we headed north, and Chifundera suddenly ordered a halt. Paluku had seen a man running away from us with a red backpack that looked suspiciously similar to one of ours, and he thought maybe it had fallen off the roof of the truck during the incessant jarring on the bad roads. Danny and I got out of the truck to investigate, but saw that our luggage bundle seemed to be perfectly intact. Without warning, the driver Faustin put the truck in reverse and sped off towards the man with the backpack, leaving Danny and I to enjoy the sights and sounds of the forest while we waited. Everyone was laughing when they returned a few minutes later. Apparently a woman had seen us passing along the road and thought the muzungu (white man) had come to drink her blood. You read that right—white man vampires. She believed this so seriously that she had sat down on the side of the road to accept her fate, wailing “I’m dying!” Her companion, also thoroughly convinced of his impending doom from the blood suckers in the truck, had taken off running, and by coincidence, happened to have a red backpack like ours. I know this seems ridiculous and indeed it is, but there are well documented cases of this belief elsewhere in Africa (White, 2000). As I explain in detail in a book I am writing about my work in Congo, some kids are even taught this nonsense in school!
We reached the village of Tele close to dusk, and had I decided to work there because several species of frogs had been described decades ago from the major town of Watsa to the north, but satellite photos proved the forest surrounding the town was now gone. In an effort to find the frogs close to the Watsa type locality, we stopped at Tele, which seemed to be surrounded by healthy forest, including enormous clumps of bamboo at least 10 meters high. The local people were friendly, but when we sought out the village chief to ask for permission to stay and work there, we found him at a mourning ceremony for a child who had passed away that morning, which was a shocking reminder of the terrible lack of health services in this country. Forgiving our intrusion, he gave his blessing to our work, and even allowed us to set up camp near his house in the village, an encouraging public endorsement that would guarantee the security of the camp.
The vampire myth was present in this village too, and only after working around the watchful eye of the people for several hours did they publicly declare that Danny and I were not vampires. When I asked Chifundera what vampires look like here, he said that he wasn’t sure, but they must have very long nails. We all had a good laugh when it occurred to us that Aristote must be a vampire. For some unknown quirk of personal preference, he has very elongated nails on his right middle, ring and pinky fingers. However, we weren’t let off the hook as easily as we thought. When I handled a harmless Natriciteres water snake for a photo, the locals, as they have elsewhere in Congo, declared that I must be a wizard to handle such a snake without being killed.
We found several interesting frogs in the nearby forest, and due to a thunderstorm that never seemed to end yesterday, I was able to write up this long report while waiting for the rain to clear. We plan to stay here until tomorrow, and then head north to Buta and east to Niangara, near another key type locality at Mauda.
Two things for the cybertaxonomy project today. First is a gecko that is quite distinct. My colleague Adam Leachè will be pleased to see it, as he’s been asking me to find one for years now.
Next is a snake, which is another challenging one for Frank, but this is his dissertation focus. The dorsum is light gray, but much darker slate gray on the head and continuing (as seen in ventral view) to at least the most anterior scales on the venter. Interestingly, the ventral side of the tail is darker than the rest of the venter, except the most distal 10 subcaudals (white) with the exception of the black tail tip—never saw that pattern before. Scale counts are approximate because the thing is only about 25 cm long, ca. 27 smooth scale rows at midbody, 1 preocular, 1 postocular, temporal formula 0 + 3, 5 supralabials (3,4 enter orbit), 7 infralabials, 2nd infralabial strange because it is generally the same size and shape as the anterior chin shields and seems to occupy that position, ca. 208 ventrals, anal plate entire, 1st 17 subcaudals (after anal plate) single, but six remaining subcaudals close to tail tip paired. I don’t have a good idea what species this is, so any thoughts to help ID the thing will be great. I can confirm it has two very large and long fangs (laterally displaced) in the front of the mouth.
Because I have a draft of my book handy, I was able to find the African vampire citation for interested readers:
White, L. 2000. Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London.