29 June 2014: Bangale, ca. 15 km west of Boda, Democratic Republic of the Congo
I must start this blog post, unfortunately, with a bit of bad news. The last post burned up nearly 50% of the internet usage with my satellite modem, and so until I can get back to an internet café, I’m afraid there won’t be many pictures posted to accompany the story (with one notable exception- see below). I guess I’m still learning what I can and can’t do via satellite internet, which is much slower and super expensive compared to the amenities available in the US.
I’m not quite sure where to begin since the last post because so much has happened, but let me start with one more very interesting snake that popped up before we left the last site south of Buta (Bombole). Since we can’t have the benefit of a photo, I’ll spill the beans a little by saying it is a Polemon, but it had a body quite different from the species I’ve seen in the past. Most snakes in the genus have average bodies for a snake, but this one was distinguished by having the shape of a thick piece of spaghetti. It was 50 cm long (SVL), 2.2 cm tail length, 15 scale rows at midbody, 288 ventrals and 20 subcaudals. Like most other species in the genus, it has a distinct coloration around the neck, and this one was bright yellow. Perhaps the students can start working on this for the cybertaxonomy project, and I will post pictures when I can. UPDATE: Picture is now here.
The road north to Buta was good, as it had been for hundreds of kilometers to and from Kisangani. When we reached the city, we saw many Belgian buildings and houses that were still standing, and it was impressive to see that it must have once been a major commercial center, mainly for cotton. We stopped long enough to fill up our tank with fuel, grab some lunch, and by mid-afternoon we were on the road heading east toward our distant destination of Niangara. I wanted to sample the forests on the way, and then we hoped to see the forest/savanna transition zone at Niangara, which would harbor an interesting diversity of species from both habitats.
We soon noticed that the road heading east hadn’t been renovated like the one heading south from the city, and we stopped briefly to collect a few frogs that were hopping around in a small pool of water that had collected in a hole in the road. We also spotted a man who was carrying the decapitated remains of an enormous Jameson’s mamba, but in the typical African fashion, he had thrown the head away and would need a lot of time to go find it. We didn’t have time for that, so we moved on. Within an hour we reached a colonial-era bridge that still had the solid steel foundation, including two thick pieces down the middle (luckily at the same width as the truck’s tires), but the wooden structure on top of the frame was crumbling. Just as our driver Faustin was about to pull onto the bridge to try his luck at getting across, he got stuck in a hole just in front of the structure. Several people who happened to be passing by on bicycles and motorcycles sensed an opportunity to make a quick buck, and they dropped everything to help push us out of the hole. Faustin was then able to navigate the tires over the treacherous remains of the bridge without any problem, and we continued on. However, he stopped every time a small piece of bamboo was in our path, or to scrutinize tiny pools of water that were very easy to drive through, and we lost a lot of time from his overly cautious and inexperienced approach.
It was now late afternoon, and after weaving through several additional holes and eroded places in the road, we got stuck in one particularly muddy morass only a kilometer away from the village where we hoped to spend the night. More local people showed up to help push us out, but an argument broke out between Faustin and the people who were trying to help us. They tried to tell him that it was easier to drive the truck into the large holes with water instead of trying to drive around them into the mud as he was attempting. Again and again our driver ignored them, and repeatedly, he got stuck. After the 2nd or 3rd disaster, a thunderstorm rolled in and doused everyone with heavy sheets of rain. I looked over at Danny to see if he was freaking out, but despite the noise from the shouting, thunder, and engine revving, he simply said, “wow this is crazy!” We were completely soaked by the time we were able to set up our tents to go to sleep, which we had to do without the benefit of a meal. Whenever one enters an unknown village in this country, it takes time to get to know the people, figure out where to fetch some water, get firewood to start a fire, and after several hours, finally cook up some food. We simply didn’t have the time, so we had to go hungry until the following morning.
The next morning we were all set to continue the journey east, but the car wouldn’t start. Terrific. Faustin spent a couple hours taking apart the battery, checking wire connections, and generally making a racket as he experimented in an attempt to fix the problem. When I noticed that Aristote and Wandege had wandered off somewhere, I decided to go look for them. After walking about half a kilometer with no sign of them, I asked one of the villagers if she had seen my friends. She pointed to a large hut, and thinking I would catch them red-handed goofing around, I walked in to find the place was empty except for a handsome blue-faced monkey that was chained to the support beams. I guess something got lost in translation, but I took a photo of the animal (no mammal books handy so not sure of the species yet) to illustrate how beautiful it is.
Pet monkeys are common throughout Congo for an unfortunate reason. The adults are hunted for meat (so-called bushmeat, a very big conservation concern in Central Africa), and when a mother is killed, the baby is often taken as a pet. As we would see in the coming days, this species of monkey is commonly hunted in the area, as evidenced by the large number of poached individuals seen on the back of bicycles traveling between villages. They are hunted with crude homemade rifles, and on one occasion, I spotted something that looked like a colobus monkey as well.
When I returned to the site of the vehicle breakdown, the locals gave us the name of a mechanic at Buta, and Danny and I worked on some specimens we had picked up along the way while we waited. One of these was an interesting blind snake that someone had found crawling on the ground that morning (probably brought to the surface by the heavy rains the previous night), and it had a unique pink coloration that I had never seen before. Because only a couple species of blind snake are known from the Congo Basin and all of them are relatively rare, I was quite excited by this find. About two hours later after sending for him, the mechanic showed up and immediately got the truck started. Apparently Faustin didn’t have it in the right gear. At that moment I realized we were in trouble, because the roads were no longer in good condition, and our driver obviously didn’t know what he was doing. The mechanic passed along the bad news that the roads would get much worse for about 50 kilometers, but he would be willing to help us drive through the obstacles in exchange for a handsome salary. After that, he assured us, the roads would be good. We negotiated a reasonable price for his services and two assistants, and immediately took off heading east. The assistants were remarkable because they clung to the back of the truck, hopping off at problematic places in the road to cut back dangling bamboo or move obstacles in our way. One of them wore a black martial arts outfit, and he looked like a samurai as he wielded a large machete to clear a path for us.
At first our spirits soared because our new driver really knew how to navigate the problematic places in the road, and there were many of them. Enormous holes filled with water, places where half the road had eroded away with only a narrow and treacherous strip to allow passage, long cracks where decades of rain runoff had created streams in the middle of the road, fallen trees, and large stretches of mud as deep as the tires. We had entered an area dominated by bamboo stands that were 15 meters tall, and many places had accumulated huge pools of water, because the vegetation was so thick it didn’t allow the sunlight to penetrate the ground and “burn” the water away. As it sits for weeks on end, especially during the rainy season in the summer, it creates enormous quagmires of mud that resemble large bowls of chocolate mousse (can you tell I’m missing desserts?). He managed to pass all of these problems with ease, until we reached a place in the road where there was a very big problem. To illustrate how bad it was, and how bad the roads were in general, I am going to include one picture for now. The mechanic/driver can be seen with his head in his hands in despair to the left of the vehicle.
As usual, a bunch of local people dropped what they were doing to help us (with the promise of some cash of course), but the trap was strong. Usually in situations like this, I get out of the way because it is dangerous work trying to free a big truck from a muddy pit, and I can’t understand all the arguments in Lingala about what strategy to pursue anyway. I tried to convey this idea to Danny, but he insisted on helping and got splattered with mud in the process. I sat down on the side of the road, watched the transition of insect fauna from black butterflies with malachite blue stripes in the afternoon to fireflies in the evening, and held my breath every time the driver revved the engine in his multiple attempts to drive out of the hole. I got bored and depressed after several hours, so I went into the forest and found a stream, where Danny helped me catch a few treefrogs. In the end, it took nine terrible hours to free the truck from the huge pit in which we found ourselves, and in his enthusiasm to move on, our driver immediately drove the truck off the road, and the vehicle teetered dangerously over the edge as everyone scrambled to keep it from tipping over. That little mistake took another hour to fix, and we finally got to bed (again without any food) at 3 AM.
In an African village it’s impossible to sleep in much past dawn because the chickens start “cock-a-doodle-doing” at dawn around 6. We managed to make some time for coffee and set off again, thinking that the worst was behind us, but after navigating the increasingly bad roads for several hours, we got stuck again at 4:30. Unfortunately, the scene from the previous night repeated itself, and this time Danny had trouble keeping his eyes open from the sidelines as a group of people shouted at each other in vain efforts to extract our vehicle from another muddy mess. I decided to call a halt to the effort at 11, and we made camp at a nearby village. By the middle of the morning the process started again, the vehicle was soon free, and we were able to continue. We kept asking the driver when the terrible state of the road would end, and invariably his response was, “just a few more kilometers.”
We had driven for a couple hours, starving at this point, when he stopped at a small village to get something to eat. Goats and chickens were everywhere, and perhaps, I thought, they would be on the menu. Overjoyed that there was a little hut serving as a restaurant, Danny and I jumped out of the truck and were the first in line to look at the food. My mouth started watering when a woman appeared with a large steaming pot full of meat in a red sauce. She showed it to me and it was my favorite—goat meat. I ordered two large pieces with some cassava, and dipped the latter into the sauce. It was delicious and a little spicy, but at last our terrible hunger would be satiated. And then Chif showed up just as I was about to try the meat, and said, “you’re going to eat THAT?” “Yes, it’s goat meat, my favorite!” “That is bad meat,” he said matter-of-factly. Then it dawned on me that the meat portions were unusually large for goat. I could feel the nausea starting when I asked what the meat was. Monkey. Danny started laughing as he asked if I had tried some. Oh no big mistake! I dropped my bowl and walked out of the restaurant. Visions of monkey pox (imagine chicken pox on steroids) and other zoonotic diseases swirled in my head as I tried not to throw up. Despite my protests, our driver and his assistants had a full breakfast, and guess who had to pay for it?
We were able to buy a few bananas along the road as we continued east, and eventually we reached a village where our driver said the good road was starting. Relieved that the worst was over, we got a full meal and a good night’s sleep. The next day we drove into a small village as we continued on our journey east, and Faustin stopped to buy some motor oil. With all the engine revving to get us out of the muddy holes, the truck had taken a beating and needed a little TLC. We were chatting with some of the locals when the assistant in the kung fu outfit showed up out of nowhere, and in a ridiculous display of anger and poorly choreographed martial arts moves, he scattered the crowd away from the truck and faced us with an angry look. He didn’t have his machete, but he certainly looked menacing. Apparently Faustin had made some kind of deal with him, and he didn’t pay up. A big argument broke out over the equivalent of $5 (at least a week’s income for the average Congolese person), so to keep the peace, I paid Faustin’s debt, but told him it would be withheld from his salary.
Thinking the drama was over, we continued on our way, but soon discovered that the road was not getting any better, and Faustin hadn’t learned a thing from the more experienced driver who had taken us to this point. We tried to reason with him and have someone else try to drive (ANYONE would be better), but he adamantly refused. It was his truck, he said, and he wouldn’t let anyone else drive it. Again and again he got stuck in muddy holes, which took hours of digging, yelling, and stress to rectify. In some places the road was impassable and we had to drive through the middle of neighboring villages to get around the problem. When we reached bridges that were destroyed, we had to move discarded logs into place to drive over them. And then the flat tires started. A few days ago we got two flats in a row, and with no more spares, we had to take our baggage to the nearest village and figure out a way to fix the flats in the middle of nowhere. I made the mistake of sending Aristote on a motorcycle to Dingila, the nearest major town down the road, to find someone who could help. He didn’t show up for nearly 24 hours (I suspect beer had a key role in his tardiness).
We relished the one-day break from the road problems, and managed to find several more interesting snakes, including some blind snakes, a 1.7 meter-long forest cobra that somebody had killed with a machete, and many different kinds of frogs. As a little bonus, I'm throwing in a photo of a crazy spider I photographed in the forest (I couldn't resist collecting it too).
The scenery was also beautiful. The way the tall stands of bamboo form nearly continuous arches over the road seems like something from a dream, and the diversity of butterflies, birds, trees, and other life is impressive. At night, the haunting calls of the hyrax can be heard almost everywhere, giving the forest a prehistoric feel. If you haven’t heard the call of this rabbit-like mammal before, you can hear it on the video from the 2011 expedition on the fieldwork tab of my main website. Below is a photo of the bamboo arches over the road.
The headaches and terrible loss of time and morale (except for Danny who always seems to be in good spirits) from the roads continued for several days as we passed through Titule, where we saw an impressive colonial-era church. When we reached Dingila, we saw quaint Belgian houses near an old cotton factory, which must have been a major operation with hundreds of workers in the colonial era. And this brings me to an explanation for the terrible state of the roads. Towards the beginning of the colonial venture to benefit from cotton farming in 1921, 900 kilometers of roads for extracting cotton (known specifically as routes cotonnières) were in place. But towards the height of the colonial era in the 1950’s, over 200 million franks were used to maintain thousands of kilometers of roads, build new ones, and maintain bridges and other crucial infrastructure (Likaka, 2009). A lot of the labor used to build and maintain the roads was by forceful conscription of the Congolese people, many of whom resented the roads and didn’t benefit from them. And now that colonialism has been in the past for over half a century, time wreaked havoc with the roads and they are nearly impassible, except for very large lorries (that create many problematic ruts) and motorcycles.
Realizing Niangara was unattainable with the devastated roads and rapidly diminishing time, I decided to take a small detour at Bambili a few days ago. Suspecting the Uele River is a major biogeographic barrier, I had hoped to sample the northern side of it at Niangara, but this would be our only chance under the circumstances. We had to cross the river by pirogue at great time and expense, but the collecting was fantastic, and for three wonderful days we forgot about the road problems. Once again the locals assured us that the road to Isiro wasn’t too bad. When we returned to the road to head east, we encountered a stretch of disasters that were the worst we had encountered yet. Because of our growing experience with the obstacles, we were able to get around four very deep muddy pits in only 12 hours, and one of the people who dug us out even found a very rare Hemisus frog (mentioned earlier in the blog from Murchison). I will try to post a photo when I have better internet access because it is quite impressive. UPDATE: photo appears below.
Last night as we drove into the village at Bangale after the umpteenth million time stuck in the mud with another flat tire (we keep patching the holes as best we could), we started smelling a smoky odor from the engine. Faustin had finally burned up the clutch. I collected some small Arthroleptis in the bamboo near my tent before taking out my BGAN (dual satellite phone and modem) to call a mechanic in Dingila to ask for the part we needed. He confirmed he was sending two mechanics this morning, and they finally showed up at 4 PM. Fingers crossed they have the right parts and can fix our battered truck, because Danny and I have only 10 days or so left to reach Goma, where we hope to find transport back to Kampala and the flight home on the 15th of July. Everybody says the road will improve the closer we get to Isiro, but that city is still at least 200 kilometers away. In the end if we run out of time, we can always hire some motorcycles to get us out of here faster, but that will cost a lot of money and I hope to avoid that option.
What’s the good news? The collecting has been very very good. At the Uele River crossing, Chifundera found a blind snake thicker than a garden hose, and at 72 cm long, it is larger than any known species from the region. I can’t wait to do the research at UTEP to figure out what it is. We also found at least two species of frogs that haven’t been recorded for over a century. Given the isolation here, one can understand why. Other good news? With the exception of painful ear aches for Wandege and Paluku (medication we bought locally hasn’t worked so they will have to wait for Isiro), everyone is in good health. That is no small matter in Congo!
Finally, let me mention that the solar charger I am using to power the computer and BGAN hasn’t performed as well as I had hoped, because it takes all day in the partly cloudy skies (typical during the rainy season) to charge about 50% of the battery. At that level, I can get enough power for the computer for about two hours, but I need several hours to write these posts, arrange the photos, etc. Please excuse any lag between now and the next post. I hope to be less isolated and more mobile at that time. Below is the citation for the information I provided about roads and cotton in the colonial era.
Likaka, O. 2009. Naming Colonialism: History and Collective Memory in the Congo, 1870-1960. The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin, USA.