Sunday, July 31, 2011

What The...

I was on my way once again to Kipaka with 900 pounds of medical supplies for the hospital, cruising along at 10,500 feet when all of a sudden I heard a strange humming noise.  Hmmm....all the engine instruments are normal, but the sound seems to be getting louder and louder.  I go so far as to even take my helmet off, and then I see it, not 50 feet above me.  I'm dumbstruck with utter disbelief as the ugliest twin engine airplane I've ever seen flies directly overhead.  After a moment of gaining my composure, my next thought is to get a few incriminating photos, but it's too late for that.  I guess even deep in the jungle you have to watch out for other airplanes.

Saturday, July 9, 2011









We always have interesting happenings here, so I've been trying to document some of the experiences we have, so you can share in our life here.  I've numbered the pictures and will briefly explain what each one is belows:

#1--A photo I took in Epulu.  This little cluster was right on the edge of the jungle and I thought it very interesting.  It stood out like a sore thumb against all the shades of green.  It's no bigger than a nickel--God's attention to detail amazes me.

#2--Also in Epulu, I just happened to be standing on a bridge when I heard a familiar "mzungu" call from down below.  I turned and snapped a photo as the boy rowed by in his "canoe."

#3--belongs with #5.  You may wonder what a cylinder head is doing detached from the cylinder.  Well, it just so happens that when you think you give clear directions like, "I just drained the oil out of the generator, can you fill it with 1 liter of oil from this jug?" you'd think the message was received clearly.  Not so, my friends.  Oil did not make it's way into the oil pan, but instead was added from a small hole in the cylinder head that consequently flooded and hydraulic locked the cylinder, before spilling out the air intake.  The offending party now knows exactly where the oil is supposed to go.  And I have learned my lesson, after pondering how to be a better communicator for the better part of my Saturday.

#4--Yet another intriguing flower from the forests of Epulu.  You may wonder what all the recent photos are from Epulu.  Well, I had the privilege of taking 5 very hard working missionary ladies on a quick retreat to the Okapi Reserve for a day of well deserved R & R.  Most of them have worked in DRC longer than I've been alive, and have never gotten to see the okapis.  I got the lucky straw and only had to fly 2 hours.  The rest of the day was spent making new friends, improving my French, and visiting the Okapis once again.

#5--Is a nice dry cylinder that is again able to compress air.  Try though it did, it seems that the laws of the universe prevailed yet again, and vehemently reminded the poor generator that liquids are not compressible.

#6--Would be the cutest little girl ever, eating a mouthful of goldfish after "helping" daddy repair the generator by grabbing a push rod in each hand and using them as drum sticks on the concrete.

#7--Ah, the Okapi.  What more can I say?  Part horse, part giraffe, part zebra.  It lives to 40 years old, is almost never seen in the wild, and is an extremely picky eater.  It can reach just about every part of its body with a 12 inch tongue.  Its natural habitat, now only found in a very small part of DRC, is being illegally forested, and the animal suffers from poaching.

#8--Last, but certainly not least.  Epulu is a wonderful place to relax.  If you look hard enough, it is full of surprises and truly exotic sights.  I found this guy casually webbing 2 inches from my chest as I leaned in to take a photo of an Okapi.  I'm over the "scream like a girl" stage, but I have to admit, this one caught me off guard.  This is another one of those "fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand" spiders.  And when the pygmies say, "Back up, you don't want to touch that one,"  you listen.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Night in Bukavu...Part II

After unloading and securing the airplane in the rain, I realize that in Kipaka I had left my overnight bag, because the only room left to put it was on my lap.  I had packed things all the way to the ceiling, and the cargo pod was packed full.  Oh well, I have my survival kit I guess, that's better than nothing.

We take a "taxi" from the airport into town, almost an hour away.  The entire road is paved and it feels a little scary going so fast.  The weather is still terrible; it's even hard to see out the windshield...I can't believe I was flying in this stuff.  Our driver is Congolese, our old Toyota Corolla type with balled tires, a broken windshield, and very strange noises coming from the engine, tranny, and suspension.  I'm pretty sure the brake pads on at least one wheel are worn to just metal on metal.  It's a stick shift and there's not really a clutch to speak of; the driver just jams it in gear until it submits.

He is driving really fast, the road is wet, and we can hardly see.  On more than one occasion I yell, "ATTENTION!!" in French so we don't ram into the back of another vehicle.  I thought maybe it was just the car, but all along the way are people standing on the side of the road, shaking their heads, and pointing to smashed taxis.

Bukavu is pretty surprising to me.  There are real hotels with bell boys, Mobil service stations, electricity, street lights, and very nice looking restaurants.  It sort of reminds me a little of Chicago.  I'll be staying with the missionary family I brought from Kipaka.  When we reach the house, I can see a really nice yard, a kid's play house, and even a garage.  We aren't here for long before heading out to dinner.

The family invited me to go with them to a friend's house, and I accepted.  We are heading to Bernard's house; he's been the purchaser for the hospital for many years.  They have a close relationship.  His house is just a small living room with 2 couches and a bedroom/kitchen.  The roof leaks a little, and candles are the only light we have.  Dinner is rice, chicken, carrots and peas, and a killer sauce.  Most of the talk is in Swahili, but I can tell from the tone of their voices and their expressions that they are saying goodbye, and it's not easy.  They remember old times, thank each other, and talk a little business.  I take a few photos of their families together and then it's back home.  I help them pack and prepare their things for tomorrow before heading to bed.

It's actually cold here and I'm thankful for the extra thick blankets on the bed.  At first I didn't think I'd use them, but boy did I ever.  In the morning, I could see my breath outside.  I got a later start than I wanted to, but oh well.  The drive back to the airport is even better this time, mostly because I can see now.  The drive reminds me of Hawaii.  The road meanders along the edge of a crystal clear lake, beautiful tropical flowers line the road.  Sunflowers, beautiful plants, strawberries growing in fields, it's a wonderful sight.  Towards the end of the drive, we move more into high plateaus with different pines and open fields of wild flowers.

I get a later start than I want to, but at 9:30am I take off again for Kipaka with almost 1000 more pounds of supplies for the hospital.  The weather is much, much better today.  On the ground in Kipaka I unload the cargo and move straight into loading things for Bukavu.  I'm hoping to go fast here, but there's no such thing as fast.  The government officials want to see my original passport, and my visa...neither of which I have with me.  I have photocopies, but that's not good enough, and I can't leave until I produce them.

So I go into discussions and conversations about why I don't have the originals, why I need my passport here, when all the other major cities in Congo accept my copies.  Why I can travel to Uganda without a passport, but deep in the Congo jungle, I need to have everything.  Finally, after everything is loaded and my passengers are in their seats, I pull the officials to the side and ask, "Are you congolese citizens?"  They both reply yes, of course.  "If you took a trip to a major city in Congo, would you need a passport?"  No, they both say.  In fact, I don't even have a passport.  "Well, guess what?  I'm a Congolese resident too.  So if you don't need one, then I don't need one.  My copies are good enough."  That seems to resonate a little better with them.  And with that, I hop in and shut the door.  Some people like to argue and yell about things, and maybe that's just the way they do it here.  But I like to help them understand just what it is they're asking of me, and why it's sometimes absurd.  That takes time, but I think the final result is better.  Plus, I get to know the person, not just the demanding official.

The flight back to Bukavu is uneventful.  On the ground, I expect to have maybe 100 kilos of baggage and a 55 gallon drum.  What I find are bags and bags for Bunia...for "free."  No one mentioned all these things when I left, and I fit almost everything, again packing things to the ceiling.  I have to leave the drum behind and a few small bags.  By this time, I'm getting pretty tired and missing my family.  The plane just can't go fast enough to get me back.

On the way, I descend to 500 feet above the ground and point out a gorgeous waterfall.  When you think of a tropical paradise, you would include waterfalls, but not "badlands."  But right here in Congo, you can find those too, right next to the waterfall, actually.  20 more minutes and we're landing in Bunia.  I can't wait to get home!

The Last Time...Part I

For some, anyway.  Today's flight takes me once again to Bukavu, and on to Kipaka, where I'll be spending the night.  Everything's supposed to be done already, so I can get an early departure, but when I get to the airport, I learn that the plane hasn't been fueled, the boxes of Bibles aren't prepared, and no one has a key for the MAF depot and office.  I quickly spring into action, giving people tasks while I complete my preflight.

Once I'm ready to go, I hop in and call the control tower, but they won't clear me to taxi because my flight plan hasn't been submitted.  "But it was there last night, how could it not be there now?" I replied.  Another 10 minutes and everything is squared away.  The engine checks out, oil temperature is climbing, and I check my watch against the clock in the airplane and on the GPS.  I mark down the time, and smoothly add full power.  Climbing out to the East, I gently bank to the right and look down to see Joy and Kaitlyn waving goodbye.

The weather seems good enough and I climb to 10,500 feet before cracking open my breakfast.  I can't make out the Rwenzori mountains, so I make sure to steer straight down the middle of the valley.  Then, I start to make out the unmistakable jagged peaks through the haze and clouds.  I snap a few photos...what a great opportunity to share with you one of the best reasons we don't fly in the clouds here.  Don't get me wrong, it can be done, and done safely and efficiently, but not in a 206, and not with 14,000' peaks looming around.  This is exactly why we treat clouds as if they were mountains, because more often than not, there are mountains hiding somewhere in there.  And while an airplane can fly just fine through a cloud, I don't think they've yet developed an airplane that's aerodynamic enough to fly through granite.

The weather actually improves all the way to my destination of Bukavu...I guess there's a first time for everything.  In Bukavu, I unload a 55 gallon drum and 5 jerry cans of avgas, along with 200 pounds of Bibles, and trade it all for almost 1,000 pounds of medicines and supplies for the hospital in Kipaka.  After an hour, I'm off, and the weather continues to improve, a little puzzling to me since I saw quite a bit of rain on the satellite picture earlier in the morning.  Oh well, take it while you can get it.

1:30 minutes later, I'm circling over Kipaka, checking the airstrip and setting up for my approach.  I'm just about to touch down when something on the right side catches my eye.  It's a make that 20.  I hesitate for a second to see which way they're gonna go, but as usual they run in terror directly down the airstrip.  I waste no time in aborting the landing, and come around for a second try.  On the ground, I unload the hospital freight, and load belongings for a missionary family that has been in Kipaka for more than 20 years.  They are "retiring" after starting from scratch and maintaining the hospital for so long.  Now it's their turn to hand over the job to a trained national.

Leaving a place...leaving home after more than 20 years would be hard on anyone.  And I can tell it's hard for these folks to say goodbye to their "family," but they get in the airplane with resolve, knowing the Lord has something else for them to do.  It's been my pleasure to fly many things down to them, everything from toilet paper to car parts.  They are truly cut off from the rest of the world.  The roads and bridges in every direction are all washed out and too dangerous to travel by car.  The airplane is the only lifeline, the only link for these people.

The hour and a half back to Bukavu is heart-wrenching for them, but with 50 miles to go, my attention is diverted to the task at hand.  Somehow the weather has turned horrible.  Low clouds, rain, fog, smoke, and mountains aren't a pleasant mix.  The mountains surrounding Bukavu is the only place in Congo that I've actually had to do real "ridge crossings."  We sometimes perform this maneuver to get from one valley to the next when there's a low layer of clouds.  These are to be done in a very certain way, at 100' minimum, so as to maintain the highest degree of safety...and I've been very close to that 100 feet before.

My original plan of going direct to Bukavu is quickly abandoned and I make my way over to the South pass.  I'm now 500 feet above the ground, working my way through rain showers, ever vigilant of that mountain goat hanging around in the clouds.  The South pass turns out to be so clogged with rain and clouds that I start to make my way even further south into my last option.  I'm pushing weather and my fuel reserves, so I am very cautious.

I see a break in the clouds and cross over one ridge and into a little bowl about 1/2 mile round.  My escape route is behind me, where I came from.  As I enter the "bowl" I realize it's just not going to work, so I add power and make a quick 180 degree turn.  But as I do, I realize my out is now gone, vanished, swallowed up by clouds.  I'm now stuck in this bowl, with the wind blowing the clouds, and me, closer and closer to a very large peak.  I say a quick prayer, and no sooner do I see a small hole open up in front of me.  I can see well enough on the other side to know that it's more open  and will provide more options than where I'm currently at.

So long bowl, nice knowing you.  I'm now in a small pass south of the South pass, and I pop out of the mountains over the town of Bukavu.  The familiar sights and less terra firma to hit ease my nerves a little.  As I head back north towards the airport, I look back up the South pass to see if it's even possible to get back to Kipaka today.  Nope, decision made, I'm staying in Bukavu, no way I'm doing that again.