It's 1:30pm on Saturday afternoon and I'm just settling in to some home projects when I get the call from our chief pilot. "We have a flight request for Epulu, can you do the flight? You need to leave right away." He goes on to explain that he was scheduled to do the flight early that morning, but both passengers were not feeling well, so they postponed until the afternoon. But, now he's not feeling well, and wants me to cover for him. The flight is an overnight for Solo and Owen, some visiting MAF-IT personnel working in the area installing VSAT systems for local internet clients. This trip is a little much deserved and much needed R&R. Epulu is a small town on the Epulu River about 45 minutes West of Bunia. It is home to the Wildlife Okapi Reserve; it's quiet; it's a great place to relax and soak in some Congo history, culture, wildlife.
Needless to say, I accept the flight one heartbeat later. I fly to Epulu often, and the only time I've actually stayed for more than 20 minutes has been due to terrible weather. So I jump at the opportunity to spend the night, and even bring Joy and Kaitlyn along for the experience. We pack, organize, and are ready to drive out to the airport in 30 minutes. After driving through a roadblock to pick up our passengers, we get to the airport and I begin directing the loading, while I complete my preflight checks and file a flight plan. Today there are no national workers, so I do all the paperwork myself. I personally hand in my flight plan to the lady in the control tower. It's always nice to have a face to go with the voice I talk to every day. Then I make my way to the tax people...yes, here in Congo there are many. I hand in my flight plan, fill out paperwork, and argue about the prices for MAF personnel. Almost an hour later, we are finally taxiing for departure. It's windier than usual; the airplane shifts a little in the changing gusts, and as I turn around into the wind at the end of the runway, my airspeed indicator is already "off the peg." We receive our takeoff clearance and I add full power. We liftoff and climb out to the East, right over Bunia. We want to go West so I gently bank the plane to the right and 30 seconds later our ground speed has jumped from a meager 60 knots to 110 knots. Looks like we're going to reach our destination in a hurry today.
Owen is up front with me, Joy and Solo are in the second row, and Kaitlyn sits in first class all by herself. After things settle down a little and the business end of flying is taken care of, I change hats and become tour guide, pointing out rivers, airstrips, interesting things in the jungle, etc. I like Owen up front, he seems like a curious guy and is always asking what this does, or what that's for. I like that. After 30 minutes of cruising at 8,500 feet, I descend for a closer look at the forest below for the last 15 minutes. We fly over rivers, around hills, and above endless trees that, as Owen puts it, "It makes me want to pour ranch dressing over the whole jungle and eat it like broccoli."
We circle overhead Epulu a few times so the folks there know we're landing, then I make my approach. I come in from the right side and gently bank the airplane through the right set of trees, aiming for one specific tree until I can see the airstrip. Then, it's a speed check at 60 knots and altitude of 3,000 feet. Everything looks good, and we touchdown on the grass. One thing is for sure, it's humid here, and it's hot. We unload, secure the airplane, and make our way through the village to the building we will stay in. It's 4pm and we take advantage of the remaining 2 hours of daylight to do some fishing, swimming, and relaxing. We use a local mix of manioc and palm oil for fish bait, and Kaitlyn for croc bait. I get a few good nibbles, but by the time it's dark, no fish and the crocs aren't hungry. We retire to our home and are served a traditional Congolese meal of white rice, sombe*, cooked vegetables with palm oil, and green beans.
After Kaitlyn is down, we have a nice evening of coffee, tea, and conversation by kerosene lamp. After talking for several hours, we all head to bed.
In the morning we are treated with a breakfast of mandazis (the Congo version of a doughnut hole), red bananas, pineapple, bread and eggs. After that, we organize a trek into the jungle to see the "bat tree" and a pygmie camp. It's already hot and oppressively humid, but the first step into the jungle and we instantly start dripping sweat. You would think it would be peaceful and quiet, but the jungle is full of life. Monkeys howl in the trees above, birds chirp all around us, crickets hum in the bushes. 100 meters into the jungle, our pygmie guide turns around and points something out to me on the ground. I don't speak Swahili, but what he points to, I immediately recognize as a thick line of Africa army ants right across the trail. I bend down to take a quick photo, but already some are starting to crawl up my pant leg and the guide urges me to continue. I take his advice, recounting the Discovery Channel episodes of grown men dying from army ant attacks.
The jungle is thick, but the trail is well-maintained, more so than I would think. I soon find evidence why. These are the same trails that forest elephants use. As we hike along, the guide points out chimp nests in the trees, and certain flowers and plants commonly used by the local people. I am also making my own mental notes of my surroundings, what trees look good for building shelters, where to find bamboo, tinder and other fire materials. And I take the opportunity to sharpen some other survival skills as well, like keeping track of our direction, estimating distances, and observing the topography. These are all skills I like to keep up, just in case I ever find myself in a situation where I need to use them. Seeing the jungle from the ground up is invaluable for a pilot who always sees it from the air.
We finally make it to the "bat tree," which is aptly named. It is a colossal tree, maybe 100 meters tall. It's center is hollow and it "stands" on its roots, towering over the already very tall canopy. A gentle hum can be heard, until our guide grabs a long tree branch and shoves it up the hole. The hum turns into a dull roar and bats start flying out one by one. Soon the surrounding forest is littered with bats. We rest for 10 minutes, filling up on water and taking some photos before continuing on towards the pygmie camp. We joke along the way that Joy is earning her "jungle mom" merit badge. Most of us have a light backpack and a camera; she has 25 pounds on her back and she's doing exceptionally well.
I'm struck by the beauty of the little things in the forest...the vivid butterflies floating along, tiny flowers, patches of bright pink foliage. I am reminded that all these things are here for me to enjoy and wonder how much more beautiful is the God who created them. Then, I feel a sharp stinging sensation around my waist. I stop and pull my shirt up to find an army ant who's pretty angry about something. He stings me with his abdomen, which feels a lot like a bee sting, and draws blood with his jaws at the same time. I pick him off quickly and think about thousands of those things all at the same time...ouch!
We come into the pygmie camp 30 minutes later. I greet everyone in Swahili and can tell they see "mzungu" quite often here. They quickly pull out trinkets, bows and arrows, spears, and necklaces they've made for us to buy. They show us how to use them and even do a traditional dance for us. Then, one man pulls out the biggest peace pipe I've ever seen. They hollowed out an entire 6 foot palm frond, interesting considering not one of them is over 3 feet tall. They begin smoking through this huge pipe and I recognize the smell as marijuana.
After many photos, dances, and purchasing many things from the "gift shop," we continue on our way back to Epulu station. I am always struck by the vastness, beauty, and wildness of the jungle. There is always something new to learn, experience, and see. And the best way to learn, experience, and see things is with the local people. Before I know it, we are back on the original trail and pop out of the jungle onto the main road. Just in time for lunch!
We are treated again to white rice, and beef and vegetables in palm oil. If you think vegetable oil is bad for you, try palm oil! After lunch we visit the Okapis with Rosie. The Okapi is quite a strange looking animal. It has the head, tongue and neck of a giraffe, the body of a horse, and the rear end of a zebra. Again, as Owen puts it, "It's kind of like these three animals ran into each other in the middle of the jungle." This part of DRC is the only place in the world the Okapi is found in the wild; that makes it quite a unique place. Rosie tells us all about them and the restoration work that goes on here as we walk and take pictures. The Okapi is illegally hunted and sold here; there are not many left. They take to Kaitlyn right away, and are curious about this little one. Kaitlyn is just as curious and sticks her hands through the fence, trying to pet them. They come within inches of her, but she doesn't even flinch.