Submitted by Andy Stuart-Hill
Crossing the Equator – chapter 5
Apart from the muddy roads in the race against the rains, the Congo gave us a very good impression of the scenery magnificent. Skirting the western edge of scenic Lake Kivu (part of the Great Rift Valley of Africa), driving through the towns of Kalehe and Rutshuru, we approached the magnificent Virunga Mountains(home of the endangered Eastern Gorilla) and the Albert National Park (later named Virunga National Park).
This is located in the Semliki River Valley, and they range from 2,000 ft. to 16,762 (Mt. Ruwenzori) in height. There are two active volcanos located in the park Mt. Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira. They have significantly shaped the national parks’ diverse habitats and wildlife. More than 300 faunal and floral species have been recorded. We saw a lot of game. Giraffe, Rhino, Hippo, and a variety of ungulates but not many elephant or buffalo, possibly due to poaching.
We all viewed the amazing spectacle at night of molten lava oozing out the side of these volcanoes. We then approached the Equator (a beat-up piece of tin with a” 0” painted thereon). A few of us ‘marked’ the occasion by having a piddle from the Southern Hemisphere over the imaginary line to the northern hemisphere.
Pygmies – chapter 6
Immediately after Beni, we found the jungle was a thick rainforest and realized we had encountered Pygmy country. The first, nomadic village, was very eerie – not one person about -yet there was a small cooking fire. I was on the roof of the truck with two others – I told them to raise their hands, smile, and yelled at the driver to keep going. My reasoning being that they were hiding in the jungle, possibly armed with primitive bows and arrows – one wrong move on our part could mean trouble. However, a few miles north, we encountered an amazing sight. Some 100+ pygmies gathered at a mission station.
The Head of the Mission in this Ituri Forest location was a delightful Belgian Nun. She indicated to us that the reason for the gathering of some 100+ Bayaka pygmies being that the “drum talk” had advised them that a “White God” would be visiting their Mission Station. It should be noted that she spokeFlemish which is almost identical to South African Afrikaans, both of which could be classed as ‘low Dutch’ – so we understood each other perfectly.
This lady then informed me that, as I was somewhat tall, male and had platinum-blond hair that I must be the ‘God’!? That was being expected. She asked me to come to the gathering then bend down on my knees in order to be the same face-to-face height as these tiny people.
This I did, one of the most fascinating experiences of my young life. They lined up in front of me; I turned, smiled at them, and spoke a few words with a little laughter. They were fascinated by my blond hair and kept looking at it. Noticing their curiosity, I took the hands of one of these curious people and placed them on my head- well, that started the whole process with very many of them feeling my hair in turn. The Head Nun said they were absolutely enthralled as many had not seen a tall, blond male before. I know I was a ‘hit’ as they did not see me as “Andy” but rather some figure of their imagination (think Santa Claus). I had particular fun with the children tickling their tummies to indicate that I was a normal human being, after all. After some 80 plus had patted my hair (with encouragement from my placing their hands on my head), I stood up to my full height. Their eyes went wide.
Later one of the Pygmy leaders was so taken with my awful green t-shirt that he kept admiring. As it was old and only used for grungy jobs on the bus, I took it off and gave it to him. He promptly put it on (of course, the hem was dragging on the ground) and strutted around. He then took my hand and led me to his little abode. Being nomadic, this comprised large leaves over a canopy of entwined branches uncovered one leaf to display a tiny quiver and some short arrows. He picked this up, and by sign language, presented me with this quiver and bow set in exchange for the t-shirt. I must have appeared concerned about taking his set because he lifted another leaf and showed me two more identical sets. The end result being I thanked him (on my knees), I placed this set under my pillow on the bus. Later, as we were forced to leave the bus at the Algerian border, I had to leave the arrows behind.
After I had arrived in London, I made a point to visit the British Museum to enquire more about Pygmy arrows in general. The curator informed me that their Research Department had ascertained that normally these arrow tips are coated with a local homemade nerve poison for which there was no known antidote. I was very fortunate not to have nicked myself with the arrows; otherwise, I would have been in serious trouble.
To read previous chapters, search ‘Cape to Cairo Overland Expedition’ on columbiavalleypioneer.com
To be continued in another Pioneer…