Friday, November 20, 2009

A quiet couple of days at Kapalagulu

So what does a quiet 28 hours at Kapalagulu look like?  Well, scorpions, snakes, wildlife, 4WD'ing and mountains of unmarked bills are some highlights...

I watch while Macarani loads 5 rounds of 12 gauge into the Mossberg.  He does it with the easy skill of someone with years of experience.  Fire extinguisher is positioned close at hand and our vehicle is strategically reverse parked to see and be seen. He and I stand in the shade. Waiting… For ten minutes or more we make small talk about life in general and exchange good natured jokes at each others expense...

A few hours earlier I’d been minding my own business, having 4WD fun at ‘the obstacle’ on my way back to camp in the drizzle while rivers of mud ooze down the rutted red clay hillside that we’ve affectionately and accurately named ‘the obstacle’. Third gear, low range, both diffs locked and engine racing as I bounce the landcruiser ungracefully to the top of the hill. The bald tyres alternately bite deep and spin wildly as the trayback bounces and skids from one side of the track to the other while I trade speed for altitude up the hill. We make it, just. Which is the best way to do it after all - no energy wasted on over-revving nor on having to take a second stab at it. I’m on my way back after escorting Pete to the Lubalisi River as a precaution in case the water was too deep and we needed a winch point to pull him back out. When we get there, the water has gone down to about 1.2m so Pete makes it across without any trouble and I head back while he continues to Mwese to collect supplies and pick up Vallerian after his friends funeral.

On the way back, I cruise by the airfield where I come face to face with an elder and his clan. There’s a quiet strength behind those eyes and the grey in his whiskers gives him dignity. He’s confident of his place at the head of his clan but he’s not too sure of me. He stares at me as I stop the car. I stare back and we lock eyes. Eventually I wave. We’re still 20 metres apart and no response from him, other than the slightest tilt of the head. It could mean anything but I take it to mean curiosity and no more. We stare at each other for a minute or more. The rest of the clan have moved behind him and I can’t tell how many there are because they’re mostly out of sight in the bushes. One of the youngsters who has climbed a tree to get a better look at me until a branch bends and they scrabble to avoid falling. Meanwhile, the elder has climbed atop a 1.5m ant hill. He’s partly hidden by foliage now but for the first time we’re eye level with each other. I wave again but no reaction so I dismount but they bolt. It’s the closest I’ve been to the local Baboon troop and they’re a shy bunch. Definitely not like the game park animals who are used to people and that’s probably a good thing. There are no humans out here hunting poachers and it’s a subsistence lifestyle for the locals. Still this short encounter in the morning has made my day already and I’m smiling on the inside as I continue down the airstrip. I’m really here to check out the ant hills that have popped up in the runway and find several that are already 30cm high. The mattock makes short work of them but I know they’ll grow again with every rainy day that passes.

Back at camp, the rain has stopped so I grab a backpack and load it up with 20kg of soil to get some exercise and get in shape for the walk out of here next year. I tell the security guys that I’m walking to the airfield and they look incredulous. “Why not driving?” they ask. “For exercise” I say, then add “Too much computer work is making me fat” and pat my belly which they think is hilarious. I’m sure they think I’m crazy. Nice but crazy. No-one exercises deliberately here. When not doing hard yakka to feed themselves, they do their best to conserve energy. For me it’s the opposite. When not working hard I go out to try and expend energy in the form of recreational exercise, aka exploring the area.

In any case, I’m not going to the airfield and have no idea which track I’ll take, but security have to record our destinations when we head out so I oblige by giving them one. I head off to at a good pace while trying to adjust the pack straps. It’s one of the camp backpacks that the guys use for carrying soil samples and is still in decent condition. I take the first turn to the left which is an old and overgrown 4WD track from the days of drilling here some 3 years ago. The jungle is reclaiming it but it’s pleasant walking under the canopy and much better underfoot than the slippery main tracks. I drag a couple of deadfall logs of the track as I progress, just in case we want to use the track again one day. On about the third one, I bend to grab a log and with fingers an inch above the log, a scorpion crawls out from the spot where my hand was about to grab underneath the log. “Good reminder” I think to myself. The scorpion goes on his way but as a precaution I kick the underside of the log to clear it but I only manage to disturb a colony of fire ants who overrun the log. I laugh and decide that this is one log that can stay right where it is. The walk is uneventful (except to my shoulders which haven’t carried a pack for a while now) but pleasantly full of birds, lizards and sights until after 40 mins I reach a junction where it’s time to turn back to camp.

With perfect timing, I arrive back in time to fire up the generator, start the laptop and find an email to say that Tim’s flight will be 45 minutes early. That after all, was why I was at the airport this morning meeting Baboons, er I mean checking the strip, and indeed why ten minutes later Macarani and I find ourselves on the strip. Soon enough we hear the drone of a plane and see the fly speck in the sky. The plane is a Cessna 4 seater taking a passenger out to Mahale National Park and stops in here to drop Tim (a geo) back at camp after 3 weeks away. Tim flew out on the charter flight that I came in on and he’s brought all sorts of goodies for resupply but most importantly brings my Macbook from Dar where it was being repaired and an MSR Dragonfly stove for cooking on during the wet season. Sadly he was too laden up to bring red wine but such are the hardships of camp life that we have to celebrate his return that night with just local beer.

We set up the MSR stove that evening. Bit of a test really but Pete who gets before the cooks have had time to boil water, has been drinking tepid coffee in the mornings so we create the mandatory fireball while learning how to light the stove. This little miracle of modern technology will burn just about anything. Petrol, diesel, Jet At, kerosene or white spirit are all fair game for it and we have lashings of the first 4 here at camp. The instructions say to light up half a teaspoon of fuel on the wick in a ‘football sized flame’ which preheats the jet to vapourise the rest of the pressurized fuel. We survive the first couple of attempts without burning down the recreation hut and it turns out that it’s pretty easy when you know how (but then again what isn’t?).

The rains bring out the flying ants flocking round the lights that night and they are truly pestilent. They buzz and flap like a World War I dogfight around any and every light that is on. We turn on a light in the next hut and put a candle in the recreation hut which distracts them for the most part but eventually we decide to retreat to the office which is flyscreened. Great idea but we forgot about the gaping sections between the timber planks. In the end we call it an early night after being batted around the head by flying ants a couple of hundred times too many.

I’m awake myself at 5am and out on the verandah just in time to see the glow of the proverbial football across the compound as Pete brews up. I listen for the explosion but am disappointingly rewarded with the quiet hiss of the burner boiling water. Later this morning around first light we can see the ground littered with wings of he flying ants. Job done they drop the wings like tear shaped confetti and start building ant mounds under and around our camp. First light today is a grey affair though. From a starlit night last night, we have an overcast start to the day and then – it rains… I don’t know how much we had but in the hour that it took us to eat our breakfast of pancakes, papaya and plunger coffee the rain gauge overflowed at the maximum 25mm. Perhaps not the ideal choice of rain gauge for this part of the world...

The sun is out at the moment though which is nice. Pete’s just come back from checking the Lubalisi again and it is 1.4m which is 1m up from 10 days ago.

With luck it will come down a bit overnight if the rain holds off and we'll be able to park one of the vehicles in the village on the other side of the river tomorrow. Eventually at some point in each wet season it reaches about 3m and long before that, any chance to get a vehicle across will have faded. At which point, the only way across is by dugout canoe followed by a 50km walk to Mwese, so strong incentive for Tim and Pete to park vehicle on the other side now.

The dappled sunlight stays out for lunch and we enjoy sausage pizza (which tastes better than it sounds) washed down by locally roasted plunger coffee as we gaze out over the valley to the Kapalagulu Intrusion. Life is good.

The rain has flushed out a few critters along the way and the boys in the sample shed kill another snake that crawls into their midst from under a sample bag. We have no idea what it is but the lads tell us that it is lethal. Even without local knowledge, the balance of probability supports their view so I’m inclined to trust them on this.

We spend the afternoon in camp doing emails and odd jobs such as fixing the water pump.  The lads manage to break the off switch on our only water pump leaving it permanently off and after 15 minutes of doing their best they admit defeat.  Pete and I eventually fix it with a trusty Leatherman and some baling wire but it's a 5 way pow-wow pluss rummaging for chewing gum, o-rings, packing tape and sundry repair options which lasts for 20 minutes before we get it going.  I'm reminded that there's 'no hurry in Africa'.  Later that afternoon we end up looking like a bunch of African arms dealers as we count out  4,000,000 in low denomination unmarked bills. It’s fun playing with bricks of money but I wouldn’t be racing out here to rob the place just yet. It’s all but gone already in wages, supplies and slashing contracts etc. In any case (30cm pile of cash though it may be) it wouldn’t be enough to pay a charter flight to get here and it's a long walk to anywhere.  We've had no problems out here other than some petty theft but even so, it’s a lot of money for this part of the world.  Few people have change for $10 - which is why it is mostly in low denominations. For security and common sense reasons, none of the locals know which flights have money on them and which don’t, but you may have guessed by now why the shotgun comes along to meet each and every flight. We’ve never needed the shotgun nor the fire extinguisher and that suits me just fine…

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