Local builder Jean Mbangi and his crew of four men built it in record time – eight days. This house is for the Etate guards and serves as another symbol of ICCN’s authority in the Salonga National Park. Jean has become a local hero at Etate for the construction of our two wooden buildings. House #2 now stands in Bunda’s pineapple plantation at the far end of the Etate clearing. It is a similar design but a bit smaller than our research building that Jean helped build last year. Both houses are elevated to withstand Etate’s periodic floods. Bunda, Etate’s chef de site, says that he wants to wait and move into it after we leave. He would like to take his time, arrange a depot, an office and his room, and carefully select the guards that will join him in his new domicile.
We bade Jean farewell around March 28 amid rousing cheers. He was perched in the center of his flotilla of three huge pirogues, sitting in a folding chair under a red and white garden umbrella that read “Yamaha.” We would miss his effervescence. Jean left but not without a classic Mbangi gesture – we found a dozen hot Heinekens hidden away for us in a cardboard box in our house. Raising a toast to Jean Mbangi, we lived up to his expectations as grateful recipients!
Dan, our visiting carpenter extraordinaire, has put many finishing touches onto our research house: a hefty staircase up to the front porch, a ceiling over the porch, flashing around the walls where they meet the floor boards (to prevent rain from rotting the wood), latches on doors and windows, additional siding, caulking and the final roofing to the ridge. He and Brigham have been living in the house, a virtual construction zone, since our arrival more than a month ago. Nearly everyone at camp has had a hand in the work either to yank out nails, mix cement, caulk, grind, drill, saw or hammer. Brigham is now the caulk king. Things are taking shape; the house will be tight and durable. Both Brigham and Dan have blended well into our Etate community, and they have adapted to the many bugs (or most of them), the heat and humidity (today it’s 95 degrees F in the shade) and our primitive setting. Both avid bird watchers, they have added many species to their life lists. A sunbird has boldly built her nest by Dan’s window - a fitting tribute!
Amid days of work, we’ve taken a few days to do some field tours. Hearing a rumor that elephant tracks had been spotted on the other side of the Salonga River – outside the park and upriver from Etate at a large expanse of marshland called Papa Baudouin – one morning we decided to check it out. This area was once an ancient elephant hangout, but it has not seen an elephant in over 50 years. Taking Dan and Brigham, we loaded into the small pirogue and our pilot Redo motored us up to PB. The guards showed us the trampled reeds where indeed elephants had hauled themselves out of the river and walked along the swampy shores. At least two, maybe four. We followed their massive tracks into the swamp forest bordering the river, but the water level had risen too high to follow their whole trail. We can’t say with certainty what their temporary visit means, but a small group has clearly gone on a searching expedition outside the park into what was an ancestral stronghold an elephant generation ago.
A few days after Jean left, we visited the Lotulo Patrol Post, another guard post that BCBI supports, on the Yenge River. Packed with new supplies, food, and materials, Patrick and I headed to Lotulo by pirogue while Dan and Brigham elected to go on foot so they could see the forests, bonobo nests and signs of other animals. Although Lotulo is only 14 km from Etate, it is a grueling walk; stepping over roots and going through swamps, it takes most of the day. Bunda and Magi, one of the guards at Etate, led them and showed them such forest pleasures as bonobo nests, bonobo food plants, signs of porcupines, huge trees (one that smells like garlic) and giant pangolin burrows. In the meantime, Patrick and I did the administrative part of our work with the Lotulo guards: paid them their merit bonuses, discussed patrols and laid plans for future work. Plagued by thousands of honey bees (searching for salt) at Lotulo, we retreated into the guard house to download GPS units, check Lotulo guard data, and gather accounts from Jules, Lotulo’s chef de site. A very tired Etate contingency arrived on foot around 4 in the afternoon. After a well-deserved bath in the creek and a meal of smoked fish and dried soup mix, we called it an early night and slept under a tarp in Lotulo’s courtyard. Before turning in I trained my headlamp on the Yenge River’s dark surface and watched the reflected red eyes of small crocodiles glide past the camp.
The next morning, we visited the elephant bai a few hours upriver from Lotulo. We walked through the forest in the rain and checked for signs of elephants until we came to large, secluded clearing – the bai called the “première piste.” This bai, unlike many others in Salonga, is still frequented by elephants. Dan and Brigham witnessed first-hand the uniqueness of this place. As we approached the bai, we walked through an extensive network of small creeks and mud holes pocked by elephant traffic. Just as we broke into the clearing, two huge woolly-necked storks that were foraging in the clearing took flight, gracefully spiraling up, up, circling over our heads and over the bai to catch an updraft and disappear across the Yenge. We saw the magnificent fishing eagle and the striking black and white vulturine palm eagle. We walked around and explored the clearing. A lovely shallow river runs through it, and in the tannin-tinted water, it is easy to see hundreds of elephant footprints still embedded in the sandy bottom of the clear stream. Nearby Brigham found an old thigh bone of a long departed elephant – the leftover from poachers that once nearly destroyed this sanctuary a few years ago. The Lotulo and Etate guards now regularly patrol the bai, and the poachers thus far have gone. More thunderclouds rolled in, and we reluctantly headed back to the pirogue and drove back to Etate in the light of a waxing moon.
Easter Sunday was as lovely as anyone can imagine. Following days of rain, the skies cleared to a brilliant blue, and Etate was bathed in rare sunshine. Finally we could wash and dry clothes, work on the pirogue repairs and recharge solar batteries. I asked our team if they would like to organize a church service for Easter – the group often does this for special occasions. Usually one of our guys from Mbandaka gives the “sermon.” This time they asked Bobo, our camp cook, to lead them. He was magnificent, more so because Bobo is naturally humble, and as the cook, he is cherished by all. The men formed a circle, and Bobo's voice rang out under the shade of the gently swaying palms. The Salonga River quietly slid past in the background. Bobo read Matthew from his tattered Lingala bible. He spoke of world peace and fellowship. In impressive harmony, his tiny ragtag congregation sang their hearts out to familiar hymns. Drumming and clapping in rhythm, we danced and passed Easter morning in the middle of nowhere.
Gay Edwards Reinartz