It is always a pleasure to help my friend Emmanuel in Virunga National Park and this last week was no exception. I was asked to come down to help with a hippo survey around Lake Edward and the rivers throughout the park. Virunga is the oldest national park in Africa having been gazetted some months before Kruger National Park in South Africa. It has the most amazing biodiversity of any park in Africa and has very striking topography. Huge, otherworldly, pointy volcanoes in rows towering over valleys of old lava flows, African savannah of grass and acacia trees with elephant and buffalo roaming. Big lakes beside tall mountain ranges all around and rivers, both coffee-with-milk coloured by mud and clear un-natural blue green, all with hippos for us to find and count. At one point in the 70’s there were over 29,000 hippos in the park, but after years of turmoil in Congo and the free run of militia groups and armies the numbers have dwindled down as far as 750 now. But still there is great hope. Virunga is one of the very few places I see in Congo that is on a wonderful upswing. Each time I go, I see great improvements. This is due in large part to leadership. Emmanuel De Merode, the director, is a man of vision and is willing to make the hard decisions that must be made if every tree and animal is not to be destroyed. He is not alone. Many men and women including the warden of the southern section of the park, Innocent Mburanumwe, are doing a great job. Innocent flew with us one day and is going to train as a pilot in the future. It was fun to give him his start in the parks aircraft.
The survey was good fun. We went up the Ishasha River which is part of the border of Congo and Uganda. It is also the border between Virunga and Queen Elizabeth National Parks. During the recent war many Virunga animals crossed into Queen Elizabeth, where it was more peaceful. Now it appears that they are starting to feel confident to come back and that is good news. It is great to see elephant and big herds of buffalo in the tall green grass. But we were concentrating on Hippo this time. There are some large pods in front of the camp at Lulimbi. The airstrip on the floodplain made me want to get out of the plane and just walk among the animals. But work comes first. We counted hippo up the shoreline of Lake Edward to the Rwindi River and by this time we needed a bit of a break to sharpen our concentration so we landed at the station there and took a walk up to the camp where the Mai Mai attacked in October. Parks staff were improving their position so Emmanuel inspected the new installations and, after encouraging the guys there, we continued counting up the river until it got too narrow and rough to support hippo.
We then turned back to the lake. We flew the lakeshore to the Semliki River where there is another beautiful camp on the cliffs overlooking the river mouth. Emmanuel flew down the strip at 50 feet to chase the Kob off. As we got to the end I turned to him and said, “Well, that was a waste of time.” I think he was offended because he asked why. I said the Kob would still be there when we got back. We were not looking back, but bets were made. When we got back on final we could see I had won; there was still a group at the touchdown point and another ram at the far end of the strip. As we approached this time the Kob on the near end scattered and we touched down. The one at the far end held his position until the very last but finally thought we were more scary than he was. We taxied back and walked through the tall grass to the station on the cliff. I did not collect on the cold beer.
An elephant was swimming in the river below, going completely under water for a while with only a trunk like a snorkel sticking out to mark his position. With the pod of hippo at the mouth of the river and the huge mountains in the background it was quite a sight. We took off from there and continued around Lake Edward to the Congo border turning south to cross the lake then flying up the Rutshuru River. It is muddy at the mouth but there are lots of pools right up to the base of the mountains and a little stream that has its source somewhere up above. The water there is clear blue-green, looking more ‘tropic island’ than center of Africa. One place it seems to flow sideways through the forest to drop in a long series of waterfalls into the main Rutshuru River. It is such a beautiful sight it is hard to describe. The hippos were easy to see in this crystal clear area and seemed more whitish-pink than usual. Maybe it’s because they get more sun there than in other places, causing them to exude more of that odd reddish mucous their glands produce which dries like lacquer, protecting their thin epidermis against water loss and sunburn. It was remarkable in any case.
We were less than 10 miles from Katali airstrip by then and we cut for home. I did an oil change on the plane with some help and some maintenance that needed doing before we went back to Rumangabo Station. We put pictures of some of the bigger pods of hippos on the computer and tried to get the most accurate counts we could. It had been a long hard day but very rewarding and a shower was much appreciated. We had a nice meal and conversation in the mess tent and then we were all quite ready to get some rest back at our own tents.
The next day I rose early for the flight back to Bunia. Weather was great with the volcanoes visible around us. I was supposed to introduce Innocent to flying so I walked him through a pre-flight and the workings of the airplane while Emmanuel fueled the plane. We got all the way back to the Rwenzori Mountains before the weather deteriorated and we had to go back and around the weather to get through to Bunia. It was a good learning experience and I think Innocent will do alright at flying.
Cher met us at the airport and I must say that as much as I enjoy working in the bush, I love being with my wife even more. Next time she is coming with me!
Oh, my first night there, bandits attempting to rob a broken down truck on the road below the station got into a shootout with army and we had an interesting time seeing tracers and flares and listening to the little battle around us. I think all the army troops in the area thought they would join in support by shooting in the air. It made for a less than peaceful supper and a couple of the African guys there went quietly out into the dark rather than be in the mess tent and showing a silhouette of themselves to people with AK’s.
Tips on How to Get Animals Off the Runway
There is much to know about this and I have spent much of my life where this is an every day necessity, so I have some ideas on the matter. Animals are all different and think differently about airplanes. You can train them in some ways and you just have to learn their ways in others. Impala panic and go where you chase them but I have had an elephant stand up on his back legs and try to grab me out of the air when I went by.
- See what you have to work with from higher up and earn the right to go lower. But when you do go down, get right down close to the ground. 5 feet is nice but do miss the animals. Kob and Impala will run easily, but the males will have established a territory in that nice clear area on the strip and will come back soon. Don’t dawdle around after you have made your low pass. If the wind it right I will often do a teardrop around and land.
- Don’t split a group. If they are scared they want to be together so fly off to one side of the herd giving them all an easy choice to go one way, together. If you split them they just want to join up again after you have passed. I once went right down the center of a big herd of 250 buffalo making a nice wake through them and after 5 passes they were still on the strip. I think that all I achieved was to get them used to the plane.
- Don’t look back. Your first job is to fly. Pay attention to where you are going. Since you are low, climb above all obstacles before seeing how things are going behind you.
- Don’t fixate on the first obstacle you see. I have landed after chasing 3 impala rams off the runway only to taxi by an elephant that was in the scrub just off the side of the strip. If he had stepped out after I had landed and before I could stop it would have been very messy. He was covered in the dirt of the area which made him look like one of the big anthill all around. But, excuses aside, you do have to really look at the whole area and seeing an obstacle can distract you from looking further.
- Know animal behavior. You can buzz by a donkey all day and he will not move unless he wants to. If he is off to the side enough you can usually count on him to stay there. Goats on the other hand panic and rush off. I have heard it said that you can’t hit one if you try but I can say from experience that this is not true. They can be off on one side and decide to turn back and cross to the other. Knowing the habits of the animals in your area is helpful in making the decision to land or not.
- Know that if you do hit a large animal with your little aluminum plane you will not come out well. I have numbers of friends who have destroyed their aircraft running into animals. I am not kidding. One hit a giraffe that strolled onto the runway as he was taking off. He caught it with his right wing high on its’ neck and it pulled him right out of the air. So if you are not confident that you can stay clear of the animals and land on the available area, leave the strip for another day.
- That brings up the takeoff. You can convince a donkey, or other hard to move animal, to leave by turning the tail of the plane toward it and giving it a sudden change in the weather. The noise, hurricane force wind and blowing dust will usually shift them. Look well into the bush as you are taxiing to the takeoff point. If the wind is right for you but there is still reason for concern, taxi up and back to make sure it is clear. I once started a takeoff roll only to have an elephant stride across the strip in front of me. I stopped only 60 meters away from him, to which he took offense and charged straight for the plane! I revved the engine, stopping him only 10 meters in front of the prop. We scared each other and he took off into the bush. Good thing! Imagine a pile of round ele trunk steaks….and twisted metal. The people I was with asked if this was a normal occurrence to which I said, “Not really, once a week or so”. (Just kidding.)