Wrong Turn


Force Bendera, 19 January 2018

We departed Fizi on the 13th of January, heading south through the rolling hills toward the town of Lulimba, which sits at a convenient crossroads for Itombwe to the west, Masisi to the east, and the route south to Kabobo.  En route we stopped at an interesting woodland that was full of spongy moss, where I found a young Leptopelis forest treefrog sheltering under the edge of a termite nest.  Like many young Leptopelis, it is lime green with white elbows and knees, and it’s anyone’s guess which species it might be—time will tell with genetic analyses.  In addition, the team also spotted over half a dozen tiny Arthroleptis squeaker frogs hopping among the moss, none of which was larger than the fingernail on my pinky finger.

Beautiful scenery with trees in full bloom passed us by (see photo) as we slowly descended the highlands into the warm and humid valley below.  Shortly thereafter, we reached Lulimba, where we were able to find reasonably comfortable lodging and good food at a modest cost.

On the morning of the 14th, we were ready to depart for Nyange, a rough-and-tumble gold miner’s town west of Kabobo, where we hoped to negotiate for porters to climb into the plateau.  But just as we were leaving, our driver Faustin announced that he didn’t think our spare tire was in good shape, even though Chifundera had inquired about its status several times while we were in Uvira, where multiple garages are available for such minor repairs.  We would have to divert to Masisi to get it repaired, and I would use the opportunity to change some money into Congolese francs.  We missed the turn to the town, instead continuing along the main road toward Kabobo for about an hour before realizing the mistake, and spent hours going back, negotiating a very muddy and poorly maintained road, dealing with another checkpoint at the edge of town, getting the tire repaired, changing money, and returning to the main route.  When we passed through a checkpoint from South Kivu into Maniema province, another half hour passed as the authorities scrutinized my passport, and the small mountain of paperwork Faustin had accumulated for the truck’s permits and taxes.  This experience was repeated when we passed through another checkpoint that led to a poorly maintained road leading to Kyange, and after spending about an hour pushing our truck free from a muddy quagmire near a swamp, it was getting dark.  Just as we negotiated one last troublesome ditch, the rack on the roof of our truck broke loose and hundreds of pounds of equipment, food and supplies tumbled upside down into the grass.  Luckily nothing was broken, but we had to pile everything into the truck, and most of the team had to walk the remaining few kilometers into town.  Yet another checkpoint and long delays awaited us as we reached the outskirts of Nyange, because the authorities are always suspicious when a group of men arrives in the night.

At last we were allowed to pass into the town, which consisted of a main thoroughfare with dozens of shack-like storefronts, each one hawking cheap imports from China and India, food, and supplies to dig for gold in Kabobo’s rugged mountains.  An enormous tree that must have been 150 feet tall served as the town’s most prominent landmark, and we ate a meal of fish, cassava greens, and cassava with warm water in one of the restaurants before retiring for the evening.  I was given a room at the BBK Hotel, where a prominent mural noted that Jesus was the boss of the hotel, and another sign warned patrons to refrain from smoking and lovemaking.

A teenage boy named Roderick showed me to the presidential suite, which consisted of a small twin bed with a mosquito net in a tiny and spider-infested room with no windows (see photo).  It was adjacent to the bar, where loud rumba music and television shows blared night and day whenever the town’s power was working for a few hours in the morning, and several hours from the late afternoon into the evening.  I was grateful for the foam earplugs I had brought along to drown out the noise and afford some sleep.

It took the entire next day to find a mechanic to weld on a reinforced luggage rack onto the roof of the car, but meanwhile we were given the bad news that it would not be possible to negotiate with the locals to climb into Kabobo.  Thinking that we would be leaving the next day, I asked the team to refrain from collecting so that we could keep our luggage organized and take off without delay.  I would have to find another way to Kabobo, or give it up altogether and head back the way we had come.

Bright and early the next morning, we packed up everything, which took considerable “Tetris” skills to fit everything into and top of the Land Cruiser, including eight men!  Faustin was in the driver seat, I was in the passenger one, four people crowded into the back seat (Wandege, Aristote, Franck and Gaby), Chifundera tucked into a tiny niche in the rear of the truck with a seat that folded down from the wall, and our cook Paluku positioned himself backwards on a small pillow to sit on the center console.  The engine fired to life, Faustin put it into gear, we traveled about 100 feet down the road out of Nyange, when suddenly we heard the horrible sound of grating metal and something dragging along the ground.  A series of metal plates that support the right rear tired had broken, and now we had a new mechanical problem to deal with.  Congo’s punishing roads had done their damage.  The silver lining was that we were close to town, and for several hours, Faustin disassembled the parts from below the vehicle, and then he and Wandege balanced them on their heads to carry them into town for the mechanic to make repairs.  I returned to BBK, greeted, Roderick, and started a new 437-page book (T. C. Boyle’s Water Music– highly recommended).

Another day went by, we repeated the process of packing up our truck, traveled about 10 feet, and the part broke again.  Once again, I returned to a sympathetic Roderick, said hello to the spiders in my room, and settled in for a long wait, because it wasn’t clear where we could obtain a new part for the truck.  At first, one of the other people staying at the hotel said he had one in Baraka, but this would take two days of waiting just to reach us.  In the end, Chifundera found one at Force Bendera, an old colonial-era town where Che Guevara’s team of Cuban soldiers had collaborated with Congolese rebels in the 1960s (for more about the town and Che’s campaign, see the “Congolization” chapter in Emerald Labyrinth).  However, because Force Bendera is located about 15 km (by road) from Nyange, it was a time-consuming process to send Faustin by motorbike there to replace the part, and I finished my book and started another one by the time a new part was obtained.

During each 11-hour day of reading, I frequently looked up from my seat in the bar area to look at Kabobo, which was often shrouded in mist and rain—perfect conditions for Callixalus and other frogs to be active if only we could reach it.  For many hours I fantasized about a helicopter and the small amount of time it would take to fly to the summit of Kabobo from Nyange.  I also spent a lot of time admiring the beautiful colors of several species of butterfly, which frequented the courtyard of the hotel in their search for mates.

On the 18th of January, I was waiting for Faustin to make the final repairs to the truck, when Gaby showed up with a small Arthroleptis he had found at his hotel.  He also managed to catch, with tail intact I might add, a small brown Lygodactylus day gecko with a tangerine orange tail.  Shortly after that, Gaby showed up with a soldier, both of whom had deeply emotional looks on their faces.  The soldier was Gaby’s brother Pepe, he explained, and they hadn’t seen each other in four long years.  In fact, because Pepe had lost his cell phone with the contact numbers for the entire family during a battle years ago, they had given him up for dead.  All of us were very happy for him and his family, who apparently rejoiced when they received news that Pepe was alive and well.

Aristote disappeared, as he often does, right at noon when the repairs were completed and we were ready to go.  He finally showed up around 2, and following some choice words from me, we departed Nyange, this time for good.  Despite some recent rain and very muddy roads, we were able to return to the main road without too much difficulty, and en route Chifundera captured a pink Letheobia blind snake (see photo), a very rare find indeed.  It is only the 2nd example of this genus we have found in a decade of fieldwork in Congo (see 2014 blog for the first one we found near Buta), and I promised to buy him a beer to show my appreciation.

Unfortunately, as we idled at another checkpoint on the road south, Faustin had a worrying look on his face as he checked the state of the new part.  He shook his head and noted that it was already beginning to crack and would have to be repaired yet again.  And so we drove only a few kilometers to Force Bendera, and as I write these words, he is fixing the vehicle again, but this time the mechanic has the benefit of having the entire truck, and not just a piece of it, in his garage.  I am assured that this time, pinky swear, they will fix it for good.  The down time and rare luxury of nearly constant power in Force Bendera has allowed me to write an especially detailed blog post, which I hope you will enjoy.

Of course, all the mechanical delays have been very frustrating and demoralizing, not only for myself, but for the entire team.  However, if we can only make the 140 km drive to Kalemie tomorrow, we should be home free.  From there, we hope to rent a speedboat to reach the eastern side of Kabobo, and spend a few days exploring its beautiful and nearly pristine forests and grasslands.  After that, we hope to load the truck onto a boat to Uvira, so that we can avoid more breakdowns on the long return north.  Given the sorry state of the truck, I am not going to risk an 11-hour drive to Itombwe’s southern forests, as I had hoped to do at the beginning of the expedition.  We will instead return to Itombwe’s northwestern forests, which we explored briefly during two previous expeditions, and with luck will find many exciting things.  If, heaven forbid, the truck breaks down again in that area, there are plenty of sizable towns where it can fixed rapidly.  Given all the trouble we’ve had recently, remote wishes for good luck and much appreciated!

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