Breakdown Blues

14 July 2014:  Kampala, Uganda

I wish I could say that things improved after finding transportation out of Isiro, but the road continued to be bad for most of the long journey to Nia Nia, where it finally became good.  Shortly after dawn on the 5th of July we traveled perhaps 30 minutes south of Isiro when the driver pulled over to inspect a rattle coming from the front of the truck.  Some kind of shock absorber rod had broken, so we drove all the way back to Isiro to fix it.  Danny and I tried to avoid the sun and the nasty fumes from a noisy generator and welding machine for six hours as they fixed the broken part.  While we were sitting there impatiently waiting to move on, JeePay casually mentioned that he heard a bridge was out on the main road to Nia Nia.  When we finally drove some distance from Isiro some hours later, a policeman at a checkpoint confirmed that the bridge was out, but that we could take a long detour along another road to get around it.  Having no other choice, we drove on.

About an hour down the new road we passed through a particularly deep muddy hole, and the water flooded the engine, causing it to stall.  While we waited for them to get the engine started again, I took out my GPS and was shocked to discover that we happened to be on a small road leading to the town of Pawa.  Pawa isn’t of much interest from a biological standpoint, but I happened to have a book about the place with me, and I had originally planned to pass through Pawa so that I could give the book to the chief of the village.  Just after World War II, a Belgian man named Frank Lambrecht worked at Pawa as a medical officer for four years (along with his wife and two young daughters), treating the local people for leprosy and other diseases.  He also had an interest in entomology, and studied tsetse flies and their associated trypanosome parasites, which can cause sleeping sickness in humans.  After his stint at Pawa, Lambrecht worked at the scientific research center at Lwiro (about 1.5 hours north of Bukavu in South Kivu), where I had worked myself many times before.  As a biologist with an interest in Congo’s history, Lambrecht’s memoir In the Shade of an Acacia Tree (Lambrecht, 1991) was fascinating to read, and his subsequently published book Pawa (Lambrecht, 1994) provided a trove of photos of the village during his time there in the 1940’s.  Back then, the local MaBudu people bound the heads of girls to give them an attractive cone-shaped skull, the Belgians occasionally shot forest elephants to provide some protein for the people, and Lambrecht documented many other aspects of the tribe’s ceremonies, hunting weapons, crafts, and culture with his photos.  All of these wonderful cultural and wildlife aspects of Pawa have now vanished.  He eventually settled in the United States at the University of California at Santa Barbara, passing away about a decade ago.  Given my interest in Lambrecht and the book I had about Pawa, it was uncanny to end up there by accident.  I was able to see the hospital where he worked, several other colonial-era houses and buildings, and I gave the book to the chief of the village, hoping that he would appreciate and preserve the visual window into his town’s history.

As we were leaving town, I spotted a restaurant and sent Wandege to investigate whether food was available.  He said they had cassava leaves and rice.  Wonderful!  We hadn’t eaten anything except a little bread while waiting for the truck to be fixed, so Danny and I were delighted to share a large bowl of rice capped with cassava leaves.  The spicy sauce was delicious, and I was thoroughly enjoying my meal when Danny noticed a hunk of flesh hidden in the leaves.  What’s this?  Monkey once again.  This time we had both eaten the sauce.  We gave the leftover food back to the woman running the place, I reluctantly paid for it, and we left to seek food elsewhere.

We traveled on for another hour or so, stopping at the next town.  We drove past a more modern-looking hospital, where I was told a team of doctors from Fresno, California had spent the last week treating patients.  I was a little jealous when I heard they had chartered a private plane to fly in from Kampala for their work, but they had left just a few days before.  We managed to find a woman cooking rice and chicken, and all of us devoured the meal with relish.  I gave some money to a pygmy in rags who tried to talk to me a little in French, and then we passed the night in our tents behind a church at the edge of the town.

A few hours of driving through difficult roads that would have stymied Faustin occurred the next day, and in the middle of the afternoon we reached the Nepoko River.  We were shocked to see that the only way across the river was a wooden boat that was half sunk with water.  The locals were not concerned, and within an hour they had bailed nearly all of the water out of the wooden ferry.  With excellent skill, one of them guided our driver along two large wooden planks onto the craft, and we were pulled across the water with the aid of a long steel cable in place for that purpose.  Below is a photo of Danny and I disembarking ahead of the vehicle.  Aristote caught me in mid-air as I hopped off the front.

Nepoko River Crossing

It took several more hours of driving along “roads” that were only as wide as bicycle paths to reach the main road leading to Nia Nia.  Vegetation scraped against the side of the truck, and insect inhabitants fell into my lap when I left the window open too far.  In this way, several beetles, a spider, and a large praying mantis fell into my lap until I decided to endure the heat instead of chancing something more unsavory falling on me.  We passed the night at another church and felt overjoyed when we linked up with the recently renovated good road heading east through the forest.  Along the way we spotted two enormous black monkeys crossing the road, but otherwise the journey was uneventful all the way to Beni, a major town in the northern part of North Kivu Province.  Everybody was able to enjoy the amenities of a decent hotel, including a bathroom to wash up, good food, and some badly needed beer.

Things went downhill again when we headed south the next day.  The repaired part on the truck broke again, and we had to hobble along at a snail’s pace for three hours to reach Butembo, the largest city in the area and the negotiated endpoint for our travel with the hired truck from Isiro.  We deposited our stuff in a house set up for park rangers from Virunga National Park who work at nearby Mt. Tshiaberimu.  When I first visited the area in 2008, Tshiaberimu had over 15 gorillas, but a recent disease outbreak cut the population in half, and it is now so small that it is not likely to survive without human intervention in the near future.  Such is the state of Virunga in general.  Since the war in Congo began in the late 1990’s, the animal populations in Virunga have nosedived, and scores of park rangers have lost their lives defending the park against armed militias who are trying to control the park’s resources to make a living.  In April of this year, the park’s Belgian chief warden Emmanuel de Merode made international headlines when he was shot four times on his way back to the park headquarters (  Apparently he had angered some of the militias by cracking down on their illegal activities, and they had taken their revenge.

Hoping to squeeze out one more day of fieldwork near Lubero, I gave Chifundera the impossible task of finding a replacement vehicle to take us south right away.  He showed up after an hour to say that he had found a truck nearly identical to the one we had been using, but it suffered from the same broken rod problem as the one we had just abandoned.  He promised to get it fixed in two hours, but a sudden thunderstorm delayed the repairs, and it was after dark when the vehicle finally rolled into the driveway of the house.  By then it was too late to leave.

The next day we started the very bad road that is full of hairpin turns and innumerable bumps and rocks on the Kabasha Escarpment.  Our new truck immediately had problems with flat tires, and we were delayed for hours while the driver switched out one flat with a spare, and then scrambled to patch up both tires when we passed through a town with a tiny little automobile spare parts shop.  During one of these unplanned pitstops north of Lubero, I brushed my boots through the damp leaf litter on the side of the road and found a tiny Arthroleptis frog hopping along the damp wall on the edge of the road.  Because of all the logistics problems and the long travel, it was the only herp we had seen since leaving Isiro, and it would prove to be the last herp we would see in Congo this year, so I am posting a photo of it here.  I’m not sure which species this is, but I’m confident my colleague David Blackburn will be able to figure it out if we can get him a DNA sample.


We had a good long stretch of travel without any problems until we reached the tiny outpost of Rwindi in the middle of Virunga.  It was already dark, and the rangers told us that it was unsafe to continue, so we wisely decided to pass the night with them.  We set up our tents near a trashed house that Chif said had been used by Mobutu and his entourage during one of his numerous hunting trips to the park in the late 20th century.  Curious, I took a walk around the house and saw that it must have been nice many years ago, because I could see the remnants of a car park, an outdoor kitchen, a very nice bathroom with an enormous tub, a fireplace, and several large rooms.  Somebody ransacked the place long ago, because everything was destroyed, including the glass on every window and door of the place.  Nonetheless, the roof was still intact, and several rangers were using the place as basic shelter.  They told us not to wander too far from our tents if we needed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, because leopard and lion frequent the area.

Shortly after dawn, we traveled about 9 kilometers east of Rwindi before getting another flat tire.  We were fortunate that the mishap occurred near an outpost with soldiers, and two of them came over to stand guard just in case lion made an appearance.  Our driver quickly replaced the flat with a spare, but the repair job was bad and that tire was flat too.  A passing lorry kindly stopped to help us, but the intake valve on the tire was no good and the air from their compressor failed to inflate the tire.  So our driver hitched a ride with them back to Rwindi, and he returned over 2 hours later with a replacement tire that was the wrong size, and it wouldn’t fit.  We used a teenaged kid on a motorcycle to send him all the way to Rutchuru some 40 kilometers away to fix the flat tire, and it took him over 4 hours to return.  By the time we were able to move on, the heat and boredom were getting the best of us.  It was especially frustrating when, just one kilometer later, he hit the brakes to avoid a motorcycle that was fishtailing through a sandy patch and we heard a large bang and a rattle emanating from the front of the truck.  This time a rod controlling the vehicle’s 4X4 setting had broken, and we had to move along again at 10 kilometers an hour.   We caught up to a bush taxi that was repairing its own problems on the side of the road a few minutes later, and one of the men traveling with the vehicle was able to use some rope to temporarily patch up the broken rod so that we could continue at a normal pace.  Although it had taken most of the day, we managed to drive out of the park without further incident.  During the many hours we spent stranded, I was struck by the large number of vehicles that passed us, including numerous large trucks.  Because this is the only major road through this part of Congo, there is too much traffic passing through the national park, and it is no wonder that the animals are disappearing under the circumstances.

We stopped at Rumangabo as dusk fell to see if we could get any information about the status of de Merode and we were in luck.  Amazingly, he was back at work, and he greeted me with a friendly British accent.  I told him I had read his edited book on Virunga (Languy and de Merode, 2009), and that I regretted there wasn’t more time to chat with him about Africa’s first national park in more detail.  He went out of his way to assist us, and we were even able to take a brief look at an absolutely gorgeous hotel that was set up for tourists.  Because of the park’s intermittent instability there wasn’t a tourist in sight, but the view of the forest from the hotel’s open air bar was truly impressive.  Someday I hope to return and enjoy the park when better conditions can finally prevail.

We traveled the short distance to Goma and stayed at Chifundera’s daughter’s house. After collecting some baggage I had stashed there the following morning, Danny and I were eager to double back to Rutchuru, take the road east to the border at Uganda, and find transportation to Kampala.  All the baggage was loaded into the truck, everything seemed fine, and then the unthinkable happened.  The driver basically quit.  The maddening conversation went something like this:

Chifundera:  the driver says the truck needs to be repaired before he can go on.

Me:  but Danny and I MUST reach the Uganda border today, because we have a lot of work to do in Kampala before we go home.  The tires are ok and the repaired 4X4 rod is ok for a couple hours of driving, so why can’t he go?

Chifundera:  the driver refuses to leave.

Me:  does the driver understand he is not going to get paid if he doesn’t work today as promised?

Chifundera:  yes he doesn’t care about that.

Me:  but how is he going to repair the truck with no money?  The advance we gave him in Butembo is gone, and after all the money I spent fixing flat tires along the way, we’re now even unless he works today.

Chifundera:  no he refuses.

Me:  but doesn’t he have to go back at least to Rutchuru anyway on his way back to Butembo?  It’s only two hours away, I can pay him for taking us that far, and then he will have some money to fix the truck.

Chifundera:  he refuses.  I’m going to look for a bush taxi.

Exasperated, I had all the baggage unloaded from the truck and waited around for an hour for Chifundera to find a replacement.  Realizing his situation was precarious, the driver tried to argue that I owed him more money, but nobody listed to his impossible logic.  When the bush taxi showed up and we started loading our baggage into it, the driver then started asking if we could help him out with some money to pay for his way back to Butembo.  What universe was he living in?

We all had a good laugh when I asked our new bush taxi driver what his name was.  Faustin!  We briefly stopped in downtown Goma to collect some money a kind soul had wired to me from the US, and I spotted a street hawker selling some perfume.  One of the brands was quite a coincidence, and I provide a photo of it below.

El Paso Perfume

We didn’t have any trouble on the 3.5 hour drive to the border, and after customs delayed us with questions about our specimens for a couple hours, we were able to find a driver who got us to Kampala after many hours of driving the following day.  Having a nice bed, hot shower, and good food was like heaven, and Danny and I are both looking forward to returning home tomorrow.  Permits for Uganda are still being finalized, and fingers crossed that we will soon be identifying everything with DNA analyses in the lab at UTEP.

This expedition (the Congo part) was one of the most difficult I’ve ever endured, and I’m delighted that Danny took it all in stride.  Citations mentioned in this post are below.


Languy, M., and E. de Merode (Eds.). 2009. Virunga: The Survival of Africa’s First National Park. Lannoo, Tielt, Belgium.

Lambrecht, F. L. 1991. In the Shade of an Acacia Tree: Memoirs of a Health Officer in Africa, 1945-1959. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 194, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.

Lambrecht, F. L. 1994. Pawa: A Memoir from the Belgian Congo, 1945-49. (No publisher details available at the moment because I gave my copy of the book away).

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