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A Journey Into a Wondrous World Hidden Deep in the Congo Forest

Six hours’ march brought us to a place where the trail disappeared underwater.

It was a river inside of the forest, a swamp with a current, and our final obstacle before reaching camp. We took off our shoes and waded into the Zoran River. The water cooled our ankles, then knees, then hips as we quietly immersed and moved in a line, feeling our way tentatively in the opaque coppery water. The bed was smooth and sandy in places, padded elsewhere by mats of leaves. Unseen roots and logs were navigated via a friendly system of hand-signaling to the next person in line. Before the wade, Dave Morgan had recounted crossing a similar river in the Goualougo Triangle one day when something in the dark water suddenly bolted through his legs. When it surfaced, he caught a glimpse of a water chevrotain, a striped and spotted dog-sized deer, known to hide from predators in the water.

After 20 minutes, we walked out of the swamp, a little sorry it was over. We laced up our shoes and after a few more minutes were ducking under an elephant fence—wires festooned with empty sardine cans—that forms the perimeter around the Goualougo Triangle research camp.

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  • Mike Austin April 5, 2022, 4:52 PM

    The is much more to the Congo River Basin than a bunch of addled Indiana Jones-type environmentalists taking their unrequited love for apes to a bizarre extreme. Though this basin itself is scarcely more than one-third the size of the Amazon River Basin, there are yet tens of thousands of square miles that remain uncharted. So what’s out there?

    You might start with Mokèlé-mbèmbé. Or with Emela-ntouka. Do I need to tell you that really weird shit happens in jungles?

    If the Congo interests you, research the explorations of Henry Morton Stanley (1841 – 1904), he of “Dr. Livingstone I presume?” fame. And read “Congo: The Epic History of a People” by David Van Reybrouck.

    Happy hunting.

  • OneGuy April 5, 2022, 6:41 PM

    The Heart of Darkness.

    • Mike Austin April 6, 2022, 2:08 AM

      And “Nostromo”. What “Heart of Darkness” did for the Congo “Nostromo” did for South America.

    • Jack April 6, 2022, 6:41 AM

      Heart of Darkness was based upon the story of the extermination of a pair of predatory lions that were encountered by the Brits when they were constructing The Lunatic Line, at the time a railroad to nowhere, in Brit East Africa, now known as Kenya. The movie was, as usual, a distorted account of the real events experienced by Col. J. H. Patterson.

      More accurate would probably be The Lost City of Z, the story of exploration of the jungles of the Matto Grosso by a Brit surveyor, also a Colonel, P. Harrison Fawcett who, along with a partner went into the jungle and never returned. Fawcett was looking for a lost city that had been referenced in an old 1700’s era manuscript. Obviously, he never found it.

      • Mike Austin April 6, 2022, 7:17 AM

        You are thinking of the film “The Ghost and the Darkness” about the Savo lions. I was writing about the Polish author Joseph Conrad.

        My interest in Fawcett and his “lost city of Z” goes back 35 years. As well as Fawcett’s own writings, there in an entire literature solely concerned with those adventurers who attempted to find Fawcett, who had disappeared in 1925 along with his son Jack and his friend Raleigh Rimell somewhere in the Brazilian jungle. “Brazilian Adventure”, by Peter Fleming—yes, the brother of the creator of James Bond—is one such, and is one of the most humorous books I have ever read.

        Fawcett was never found. What happened to him and his companions remains a mystery.

        David Grann’s book “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon” is an excellent read on the whole Fawcett story. Grann believes that Fawcett had indeed found Z, but did not know it.

        The beautiful film “The Lost City of Z” (2016) is more than worth your time.

        • Jack April 6, 2022, 3:43 PM

          You’re right, I was referring to ‘The Ghost and the Darkness’. I read of Patterson’s work on those lions when I was only a kid and I still revere him for exceptional bravery. I haven’t read Heart of Darkness.

          I’ve not read the Lost City of Z but I did watch the film. You are right though, it is excellent and from what I had heard it represents the truth of Fawcett’s adventures, far more so than The Ghost and the Darkness told Patterson’s tale.

          Maybe it was early subjection to Tarzan movies or some other thing but as much as I enjoy the deeps woods, camping, hunting big game and taking chances…well, I did when I was young….I have never had the slightest urge to wander around in a South American jungle.

          • Mike Austin April 6, 2022, 3:59 PM

            Big game hunting is something I don’t understand. Not that I know anything about it; nor do I have anything at all against it. It is that I am entirely uncomfortable around animals bigger than I am. The lands south of the Rio Grande offer no such beasts. The tapir is the largest, and he is slow and stupid. 1987 in Ecuador:


            I am a fan of Jim Corbett’s tales of hunting man eating tigers in India, and have been since I was 6 years old.

            It is not the big things in the jungle that will take your life, but the smallest things. A coral snake; a mosquito; a sand fly; spores of a fungus. Deadly killers all.

  • hooodathunkit April 5, 2022, 7:34 PM

    The account might be …. sorta accurate, but he’s also lying too.
    He doesn’t mention the endemic swarms of leeches in that area.

    It’s a ‘tell’.

    [recalling a 1963-ish National Geographic account of another explorer into the area, complete with photos of rotted-off sneakers and his lower legs so leech-covered you couldn’t see his bare skin.]

    • Mike Austin April 6, 2022, 2:11 AM

      Agreed. The account read like one of those “eco-tours” favored by environmentalist types. I write this as one who has spent 14 years traversing the jungles of Central and South America. The diseases I got. The worms that infected me. The damn Pemon Indians.

  • ThisIsNotNutella April 5, 2022, 9:06 PM

    There’s also Bilharzia and other nasty water-borne diseases which make wading around in Sub-Saharan rivers not the smartest thing to do. There’s a reason Whitey didn’t get into the interior of much of the joint until latter half of C19 — took the germ theory and the invention of antiseptics to make a jungle jaunt make any kind of actuarial sense even for the toughest cookies.

    Even India was pretty awful. I read somewhere once that 30% of British East India Company cadets (in the sense of apprentice clerks, tax collectors, factors, etc.) didn’t survive their first three years in country.

    • Mike Austin April 6, 2022, 2:26 AM

      Your assessment is spot on. The jungle is not the beautiful Arcadia beloved by the weak-brained and soft-gutted environmentalist fools. It is a place of death: death flies, death slithers, death crawls, death walks, death waits. There are 1000 ways to die every day. The most terrifying diseases known to man come from the jungle.

      During the great age of African exploration in the 18th and 19th centuries every explorer came down with multiple cases of malaria.

      The British Empire lost most of its soldiers not through combat but by disease, usually malaria and yellow fever. The diseases in Ghana, India and the Caribbean mowed them down like wheat. You gave them a 3 year life span there, which sounds about right.

      One result of bilharzia is bloody urine. When Napoleon went to Egypt (1798 – 1799) he found the entire populace infected with that disease. He called Egypt “the land of the menstruating men”.

  • Dirk April 6, 2022, 4:56 PM

    Mike is this something you penned in your past travels?

    • Mike Austin April 6, 2022, 5:31 PM

      It is done from memory and remembered posts at a blog I once had and from my website. And the more I write about my time in “wild, weird climes lying most sublime, out of space, out of time” the more I remember details that might otherwise fade away.

      I have always matched research—lots and lots of it—with my travels. I once hauled two huge duffel bags across all of South America for a full year. They were filled with 37 volumes of History and Theology and Literature and travel commentaries—as well as tents, food, stove, machetes, medicines, jungle boots and so on. I wandered alone in the jungles and grasslands and mountains, encountering weird beasts and weirder Natives, and some national militaries that really did not like me too much. And I remember really weird stuff. But it is all true, although when I reread it, it seems as if written by a stranger, some man who was careless—if not frivolous—with his life.

  • BillH April 7, 2022, 8:42 AM

    When you encounter tropical submerged land think crocodiles (or sharks if it’s salt water). That’s all you need to know.

    • Mike Austin April 7, 2022, 10:52 AM

      Jungle rivers in Central America that empty into the ocean—and there are lots of these—offer both sharks and crocodiles: crocodiles at low tide and sharks at high tide. I figured this out on my own.