Against the Current

Aboard the “Super Bus” somewhere on Lake Tanganyika, 27 January 2018

As we approached Kalemie from the north several days ago, thankfully with no more mechanical issues, I could see prominent cell phone towers, large houses and buildings, and other clues that it is a relatively large city.  We welcomed the opportunity to enjoy restaurants, internet cafes, a hotel with running water, and other amenities that such a city can afford.  As we drove into the center of town, we passed several colonial-era churches, some of them quite large, as well as the ruins of an old post office, movie theater, department store, and an enormous train station that surely brought many goods and visitors from other areas of Congo and Africa in the 20th century.  Shortly after our arrival and a heavy cloudburst, Chifundera stumbled across another pink Letheobia crossing the ground at the entrance to our hotel!

It took a couple of days and a relatively large sum of money to arrange for a fishing boat to take us to the eastern side of the Kabobo Plateau, where we hoped to retrace the steps of Italian herpetologist Michele Menegon, who along with a team of other scientists and journalists, successfully climbed into Kabobo about a year ago.  Along the way, we passed by endless miles of beautiful scenery, including lime-green hills covered in grass that swayed in the wind, glimpses of the highest part of the plateau, obscured by swirling grayish clouds, and large patches of forest that covered many areas of Kabobo’s hills all the way to the edge of Lake Tanganyika.  Picturesque scenes of lone fishermen on the bluish-green water, small fishing villages, and far-off glimpses of mountains on the Tanzanian side of the lake (including Mahale Mountains National Park, famous for its chimpanzees) complimented the peaceful and natural ambience of the lake.  Small birds resembling seagulls divebombed the water in search of small fish, and lone black-and-white butterflies, perhaps blown off course, struggled to maintain their flight in the steady wind that paralleled the shore.  We had plenty of time to take all of this in, because our boat hummed along at the blistering pace of about 7 miles per hour.

At dusk on the first night, we reached the small fishing village of Mizimwe (see photo), where the American-based Wildlife Conservation Society had a simple, four-room building for visiting rangers and scientists.  We traveled north about two hours the following day, trying to reach the village of Kunanwa, where Aristote said we could find porters and easily climb into the mountains.  When we were only about two miles from the place, a boat with soldiers approached us to ask about our business.  They curtly informed us that we had to go back to the nearest settlement, which turned out to a be a relatively large fishing called Wimbi Nefu, where the local commander informed us that we would have to wait several hours before we could continue on our way.  Apparently, a general was coming to review the troops at Kunanwa, and as a standard security precaution, all boats in the area had to return to shore and wait for him to leave.  Because it was costing a small fortune to rent the boat, and we had already lost several days with the truck repairs on the road from Lulimba, I had planned for only three days in Kabobo, and we were quickly losing time.  Adding to our extraordinarily bad luck, I became aware of the tell-tale signs of giardia in my body, a very common gastrointestinal infection that afflicts millions of people in the tropics worldwide (to learn more about giardia see Chapter 5 in Emerald Labyrinth).  Although giardia is not deadly, it is very annoying and exhausting, and I realized it would slow me down on the tough climb up the plateau.

We had waited around for most of the day and there was no end in sight to the general’s visit, but eventually, the local commander allowed us to go back the way we came, and we returned to Mizimwe at dusk to regroup and come up with a plan.  With only two days left to explore the plateau, and considering my illness and a shortage of porters to carry our supplies, food and equipment, we decided it would be best if I stayed behind with Gaby to work around Lake Tanganyika, while the rest of the team could do a quick visit to the mountains and return within 48 hours.

While waiting for the team to return, we found several interesting frogs near a stream in the forest close to the village, including some Amietia (river frogs) and brightly colored Hyperolius reed frogs.  A man who had killed a snake two days prior to our visit was able to track it down in the bush, and somebody else brought our attention to a Gonionotophis file snake as well.  The latter snake, quite rare, was too small to count scales without the aid of a dissecting microscope, and I will have to wait until I return to El Paso to assign an identification.  Depending on what species it turns out to be, it might belong to one of the new genera of file snakes I am describing in a future (hopefully 2018) paper with the late Donald Broadley and several other prominent African herpetologists in African Journal of Herpetology.

Aristote descended Kabobo first from the place where the rest of the team had spent the night along a forested stream at about 1,300 meters.  He had some more Amietia, but they looked smaller than the ones from Lake Tanganyika, and they had many tubercles on their dorsum.  He also had an interesting Hyperolius reed frog with a yellow belly that I did not recognize, and some small Leptopelis forest treefrogs (see photo), all of which will be very helpful to understand treefrog diversity along elevational gradients of Kabobo, the main focus of the National Geographic grant.  But the best he saved for last.

Crawling along the trunk of a tree, just above eye level, Aristote found a spectacular gecko (see photo).  About six inches long, the color pattern resembles Hemidactylus ituriensis, which pops up from time to time in the lowland rainforests of eastern Congo, especially in the northeastern Ituri region, where the species was first discovered over 100 years ago during the American Museum of Natural History’s Congo expedition.  Our team has found them in a handful of places before, and indeed I included a photo of a subadult to illustrate one of my student’s projects with this group (Samantha Stewart).  But unlike H. ituriensis, the gecko that was found at Kabobo was at a relatively high elevation, and the color pattern has more of an irregular and mottled look to it.  I suspect it is a new species, and I am absolutely certain that it is the most amazing gecko I have ever seen in Congo.

It was like waiting for Christmas the next day when the rest of the team descended Kabobo, and they had found some more interesting animals.  Unfortunately, in the part of the plateau where they climbed, the forest ended at about 1,800 meters, a little too low to find Callixalus.  However, they found more of the interesting Leptopelis, a 2nd species of Amietia, and a Cnemaspis gecko with a yellow belly.  The latter genus of gecko can be found throughout Congo, but we have seen them only rarely, and even then they are not easy to catch, especially with their tails intact (many geckos have evolved the ability to easily break off their tails if they are being attacked by a predator).

Although it was certainly disappointing that we were so close and yet so far from the haunt of Callixalus, we found many things we were not expecting, and these surprises are the joy of biodiversity fieldwork.  During our return to Kalemie, we ran into a squall as we approached the city, which created some choppy water and lots of spray over the bow.  Aristote had a creative way of avoiding the water (see photo) that made us all laugh.  Poor Faustin got soaked so much that he joked he no longer needed a shower.

After enduring a 25-hour boat ride on the “Super Bus” with around 100 fellow passengers, we returned to Uvira, but not with our truck.  The special boat that will carry it to Uvira leaves on Thursday, and in the mean time we plan to take a “bush taxi” (Chinese minibus) to Mwenga to explore the area around northwestern Itombwe.  With only 10 days or so left in the expedition before we must turn our attention to permits and packing, there is no time to lose.

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