The work for the week is complete, and it’s time to enjoy the weekend. The plan is to head to the Okapi reserve at Epulu for an overnight stay. Solo and I have been feeling ill for about a day, but we’re starting to feel better. Jon, who is supposed to pilot the plane for this trip, on the other hand is not feeling well at all. The weekend looks to be a loss, but Jon decides to call Chris Konop and see if he, Joy and Kaitlyn want to go instead. They agree, so we gather our things and head to the airport.
It’s Saturday, and the airport is not busy, but due to disagreement on taxes it is about an hour before the plane actually leaves the ground. We head almost due west and the landscape below us quickly turns to dense, green forest. The broccoli-like scene we’re witnessing is the Ituri Rain forest, the second largest rain forest in the world. It goes on in all directions as far as I can see interrupted only on occasion by a rare river, camp, or dirt road. It is really beautiful, and unlike anything I have ever seen.
The view flying over Epulu is awesome in and of itself. We will be meeting Rosie, a Swiss lady, who take care of the Okapi there. Chris circles over her place a few times to alert her that we’ve arrived. I can see the river cascading over large rocks and the roofs of the buildings and picnic shelters along the banks. We land and load our things in Rosie’s truck. Children chase us on foot through town, waving and smiling, until the speed of the vehicle is too much for them.
We arrive a few hours before sundown. After putting our things in the guest house, I walk down to the river to take a few pictures. As I pass a palm tree I see a monkey climbing through the branches. The river comes lazily from upstream to this point where rocks create a drop-off that forces the water to converge violently just before rushing under a red metal bridge lined with wood planks. Near the far bank I see someone standing in a long, narrow poling boat.
Leaving my shoes and socks on the bank, I roll up my pants and carefully step from rock to rock to a point where I can better view the rapids. I watch and listen for several minutes, hypnotized by the rushing water. I take a seat on a large bolder and dangle my feet in the stream. The water is a perfect temperature, and the experience is therapeutic. In a part of the world that is rife with conflict and unspeakable violence it is a wonderfully ironic experience to be sitting here enjoying such a peaceful part of God’s creation.
After putting my shoes back on, I walk around for awhile longer. Across the main bridge is a second, shorter bridge that spans a small lagoon opposite adjacent to the river. A few kids are playing on a large section of floating log and seem to be enjoying jumping and swimming in the water. As the sky turns shades of orange, pink, and purple we make our way to the guest house.
In the morning we eat a meal prepared by Maria Gabby, Rosie’s helper, and then it is time for our jungle hike. I set out with Solo, Chris and Joy (who has Kaitlyn tied to her back in true African style). A gentleman named Eric is also joining us. He works at the park and Solo has been talking to him about a potential VSAT installation that would serve his and Rosie’s offices. We meet a man named Jean Claude who takes us to meet our two pygmy guides.
We walk down the road a short distance and then turn off onto a dense jungle trail which makes a deer trail in an Iowa forest look like a four-lane highway. We do our best to avoid the line of busy army ants crossing in front of us. Leaves from trees and plants extend into the path. Sometimes I have to duck to avoid branches; other times I am climbing over them. My 1-liter bottle of water is being depleted faster than I’d like, so I decide to conserve what is left.
We walk for maybe 45 minutes and then stop at a large, hollow tree along the side of the trail. Through some translation I learn that this tree is home to several bats. Our guides proceed to stick leafy branches up the hollow trunk and bang on the side of the tree to provoke the bats. The flutter of of wings inside the tree creates a low hum and in minutes the winged creatures begin escaping from their lair.
We continue on, changing direction often and elevation frequently as we go. This is definitely a hike in the jungle, not a walk in the park, and the exercise is great! Eventually we come to a clearing and arrive at a small camp of leaf-lined huts. There are several pygmies, none of whom I guess to be over 5 feet tall. With Solo and I in their midst the size difference is even more pronounced, and I suppose we make a funny site.
We browse a selection of spears, bows and arrows, necklaces, and other items created by the skilled craftsman. I buy a bracelet, a few necklaces, and a couple of bows and arrows. The girls have mud smeared on their faces in various patterns. Chris tells me they do this because they believe it preserves their skin. The girls perform a dance for us while some of the others sing and drum on an empty plastic jug. A couple of the men pull out a pipe made of a palm branch, the length of which exceeds the height of either of them. The sweet smell of their weed fills the air, and Chris and I just look at each other in disbelief.
The hike back is much shorter and while it was fun, I think everyone is glad to be finished. Before we leave Rosie takes us to see the Okapi. They are strange animals found only here in Congo. If a zebra ran into a horse with a giraffe head it would be an Okapi. Some have been in captivity here for over 20 years. They are fed leaves twice a day which the pygmies are hired to gather.
After a brief rest we head back to the plane. It’s been a good trip, but we’re all tired and ready to get back to Bunia. I ride in the copilot seat again. As we’re flying, Solo asks Chris if the 206 has autopilot.
“Yeah, it works like this,” he says, “Owen, take the controls.” I do my best to keep the small plane on course and laugh at myself as I drift from where we want to be. Chris tells me to stop “chasing needles” on the instrument panel and to just look out the window and fly. I take the pilot’s advice and gradually bring us back to where we want to be (with a little help now and then). As Chris lands he explains everything he’s doing. There is so much to process, but I’m enjoying the lesson and appreciate Chris’ willingness to teach me something new.
Thanks God for a wonderful weekend in a wonderful place with wonderful people!
For another perspective, you can also read Chris’ blog post about the trip.