September 23, 2005

filovirus filibuster

Jinja, Uganda

When Richard Preston, noted bestselling author of The Hot Zone, entered Mt. Elgon's Kitum Cave, on the trail of the world's most deadly disease, he wore a full-body Level IV biohazard containment suit. When I entered Kitum, a couple days ago, I dared to wear nothing more than hiking boots, slacks, and a T-shirt -

- although, in the interests of full disclosure, I should probably admit that the "I" there could be expanded into "I and everyone else who has ever been there." The locals must have thought Preston a total wackjob. But his fear was rational, if excessive; he believed Kitum cave to be the source of the Ebola Marburg virus.

The tusked salt miners of Kitum Cave
Getting to Kitum is easy. I took a taxi (there were no more matatus that day) to Delta Crescent Farms, a weird and sprawling lodge complex some 6km of dirt road down from Mount Elgon National Park. The dry season had begun only two days earlier, and I was the Delta Crescent's only guest, which is always a little unnerving, especially when you're in rural semi-wilderness, in a property dotted by haphazard buildings, all of which, like most buildings in East Africa, are incomplete or crumbling or both. But it was a nice enough place - nice people; decent beds in the round banda in which I stayed; hot water in the ablution block, if you give them time to burn some wood to heat it; decent food, and beers kept coldish in a bucket behind the bar, in their vast, cavernous restaurant room; a few giraffes and antelopes wandering the small on-property "wildlife preserve" - even if it did feel like I and all the staff were refugees from some global catastrophe of which we did not dare speak.

Come dawn I filled my pack with a day's worth of hiking/spelunking gear and hit the road. I tromped past hordes of schoolchildren in green and burgundy, going the other way. The older ones stared; the younger ones treated me with (semi-mock-) terror; many of them said "How are you?"; many of those followed it up with "Give me money." I think I prefer the children in remote villages in Nepal who stand on rope bridges and throw stones at passing foreign rafters. Men and a few women passed me, too, going in both directions, mostly on foot, but a few cyclists too; they smiled, greeted me briefly, moved on. The road wound through farmland, mostly corn ("maize" here), much of it already harvested. The dried remainder of the maize plants had been uprooted and collected into conical bundles, resting on the fields like ten thousand witches' hats.

It was an hour to the gate, where two Kenyan women in their early twenties, in khaki fatigues, greeted me and took my entrance fee. Many forms were filled out in carbon-copy triplicate. I was led to the park rangers' complex, some dozen buildings and vehicle sheds kept in extremely good order; mowed grass, newly painted walls, not a piece of litter in sight. It looked like a small military base, and indeed Pius, the (obligatory) park ranger/guide who greeted me, wore camo fatigues and a beret and carried an M-16, unslung, propped over his shoulder.

The military look isn't just for show. In Kenya, "park ranger" is a far more dangerous profession than "soldier". Mount Elgon is a wildlife park, and it straddles the Ugandan border; the rangers have to be vigilant against both poachers and smugglers. Many of the poachers come from Uganda, where, during Idi Amin's brutal rule, most of the wild animals were shot and eaten. Ugandan poachers, said Pius, generally come in small groups, and carry guns. They are usually after elephant tusks, which are worth $300 a kilogram on the open market. (That's a year's income for the average Ugandan.) Kenyan poachers are after bushmeat - antelope, monkey - and hunt with spears or bows and arrows. And Mount Elgon park is relatively quiet; it's Tsavo East, where the Somali poachers come, that is the real war zone. Rangers are murdered there every year.

Our trek to Kitum is uneventful. A herd of waterbuck makes way for us. Capuchin monkeys ook and scramble in the trees - thick, green, hardwood temperate forest (we're 2500 metres above sea level) dotted with granite outcroppings. The views beyond, when they appear through the greenery, are gorgeous. The dirt road, still muddy in patches, leads us to within 500m of Kitum; from there, a thin trail of mud leads up through the forest. We see rock hyraxes, the closest genetic relatives of the elephant1, perched on a rock in front of a large waterfall that tumbles down over a wide gap in a cliff. We continue past the waterfall, splashed by its spray, and when we pass it I realize that this wide gap is the entrance; behind, a huge, dome-shaped opening, more than a hundred feet wide, with a ceiling twenty to thirty feet high, extends into the cliff, and disappears into darkness. As we enter, a bushbuck bolts past us, out of the cave and into the forest. I loan my Maglite to Pius, strap on my head torch, and we descend into the dark.

This part would have been eerie even without the added frisson of alleged Ebola virus. There are bats in Kitum, tens of thousands of them, and we have disturbed their rest; their warbled chitters echo off the rocks and ceilings, growing louder and louder as we continue, into something near an ambient scream. When I look up, I see them clustered on the ceiling, dozens of groups of hundreds. Their bodies are invisible, but their tiny eyes glitter bright and alien in the light. Hundreds of them begin to fly about in tight circles, wings beating the air into a frenzy, it sounds like a gale-force wind is blowing.

(Edit, Nov 30 2009: It's worth noting that Preston wasn't entirely wrong about Kitum as a source of the Marburg virus. It has now been established that African fruit bats can carry the live virus, and in one cave in Uganda, some 5% did.)

We continue. The way is uneven but smooth, broad, and high. At the end of the cave, 200 metres into the mountain, the pale, granulated wall is crisscrossed everywhere with grooves left by the tusks of the salt miners. Elephants come to Kitum most evenings, to dig and eat salt from its soft walls; the cave grows deeper every year as they gouge away at the veins of salt here.

We leave Kitum and follow a wide trail of solid mud, cratered by elephant prints, to another cave, this one guarded by a waterfall a good hundred feet high, and twice as high as Kitum, though not as deep. The skull of a buffalo stands guard behind the waterfall. We eat lunch: bread, a can of baked beans, a Snickers bar. Then back to the road. I had hoped to continue on to Endebess Bluff, but it turns out the map of the park I purchased in Nairobi is not even remotely to scale, and it's too far. Back to the gate, and back to Delta Crescent, slightly disappointed at first that I got in only eight hours of hiking rather than twelve. Then increasingly relieved, as hotspots begin to erupt all over my feet. By the time I have collected by things at Delta Crescent, hiked with full pack another five K to Endebess village, and caught a crowded pickup matatu back to Kitale town, my feet are covered with incipient blisters. (But they're fine today; I luckily seem to have stopped just in time.)

I'll have pictures, at some point. eta: grrrrr. no, I won't, as my crappy Kenya-purchased camera utterly failed to actually expose the film. from here on in it's disposables.

1This is amazingly counterintuitive, as the rock hyrax is furry, tuskless, trunkless, and the size of a basketball; it looks like a wombat, not an elephant.

Cringing Jinja

Preston went to Kitum because, iirc, it was the only place known to have been visited by both of the first two documented victims of Ebola Marburg. His theory was that the elephants, or the bats, had unearthed some viral source in the cave walls. Since then, hundreds if not thousands of people have visited Kitum every year without dying, and Pius mentioned to me that a tribe actually lived in the cave during rainy seasons until the 1950s. So I figure the odds of my catching Ebola are pretty slim. I'll keep you posted.

From Kitale, the next day, I took a pair of matatus to the border at Malaba. I got lucky both times, showing up just before departure: matatus (here and in West Africa, where they're called tro-tros)leave only when full, an economically puzzling policy. Sometimes they'll wait an hour to fill the empty seat. Since they make most of their money picking people up and dropping them off along the way, rather than carrying people from start to destination, you'd think it'd be more sensible to leave when mostly full, or even - dare I say it - on a schedule, since there's enough roadside traffic to almost guarantee you'll have a full house within a few tens of klicks anyhow - but no. That's Not The Way Things Are Done.

Anyhow. Through towns of pounded reddish dirt, one-story concrete tin-roofed buildings, teeming matatu parks where women (and some men) flocked to every arriving vehicle to hawk watches, clothes, green oranges, mangos, bananas, peanuts, pineapples, combs, and in one case, a bowlful of live locusts (intended as a snack). At Malaba, the AAAAAAA I'M BLEEDING FROM EVERY PORE IN MY BODY AAAAAAAAAAAA --

heh. little Ebola humour for you there. heh heh. never mind. heh.

anyway, the Malaba poda-poda (bicycle-taxi; normal bicycles with a padded seat behind the pedaller) drivers seemed astonished that I actually chose to walk the two kilometres to Uganda. After four hours crammed into the corner of a matatu, believe me, you would too.

Immigration formalities on both sideswere pretty painless for an overland African border. At the Kenyan exit-stamp post, it was all dust, old desks in old buildings, forms, bureaucracy. The Ugandan post had Dell and Toshiba computers in clean, new-painted buildings. A two-hour wait in a Ugandan matatu followed (hence my rant above) before we drove down the bad-but-improving - we passed a few road crews - road to Kampala.

Uganda is green. Very green. Palm trees and sugar cane, along with maize fields and stands of trees. Near the border, most buildings are clay, bamboo, and thatch; as we proceed, though, concrete and brick become more frequent. A young man three rows in front of me read a photocopied version of Juliasi Kazari: Shakespeare in Swahili. Various passengers spoke or read texts on their mobile phones. My knees ached from being cramped in tiny matatu seats for so much of the day. Eventually they deposited me at a gas station in Jinja, a town an hour from Kampala, from where a motorcycle taxi took me on a slightly death-defying journey to the Sunset Hotel, which is sort of a splurge (US $35). I checked in and made it down to the terrace in time to sit and have a Bell lager while watching a truly magnificent sunset over the Nile.

Yes, the Nile: Jinja is at the source of the Nile, where it emerges from Lake Victoria and begins its 6700-km/4200-mile journey to the Mediterranean (by comparison, the I-90 from Seattle to Boston is about 5000km. Africa looks smaller than North America on world maps because of misleading 3D>2D projections; it's actually considerably larger.) Jinja is a spread-out town of wide streets, big colonial houses, spacious overgrown properties, very leafy and relaxed, not much to do. Which suits my mood today. I did manage to find a gym, and I'm going to pay a surprise visit this afternoon on a couple I haven't seen in seven years, who now run a quad-biking camp about ten klicks away from here. Then, Kampala.

King Leopold's Ghost, The Shadow Of The Sun

I picked up two books about Africa in Nairobi: King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hothschild, and The Shadow Of The Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski.

King Leopold's Ghost is about the Congo between 1885 and 1910, when it was a colony owned by one man, King Leopold of Belgium. And it was one of the worst times places in the long, sad history of Africa. I knew that Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness was not just symbolism, but just this side of journalism; what I didn't realize, before reading this absolutely riveting history, was that Conrad went there before things got really bad - before the rubber years, when the entire Congo, an area the size of the USA east of the Mississippi, became a slave-labour camp of Holocaust-like proportions, replete with mass murder, mass rape, concentration camps, and institutionalized torture, maimings, and starvation, depleting its population by an estimated 10 million people (ie 50%).

It's not as depressing a read as it sounds; it's full of fascinating substories about extraordinary characters like Henry Morton Stanley, the legendary explorer ("Dr. Livingstone, I presume?") who built the colony for Leopold, and E. D. Morel, the shipping clerk who eventually brought it down. (Though that didn't do much good, in the end; the place was only marginally better under Belgium and during the Second World War, during which, incidentally, it produced 80% of the uranium used in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.) The really depressing thing is that Leopold's neighbours - the French, the Portuguese, the Germans - weren't much better.

(I was going to add "say what you like about the British colonists, and there's much to say, at least they didn't exterminate half or more of the people they colonized", and then I though of Tasmania. Righto, never mind then.)

It's a very good book, and I recommend it, but it suffers slightly next to The Shadow Of The Sun, which is an out-and-out masterpiece. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone even slightly interested in Africa. No, that's faint praise; to anyone even slightly interested in humanity. Kapuscinski, recently voted Poland's "journalist of the century", (him and Conrad - what is it with Polish writers and Africa?) spent many years as a journalist in various African nations, avoiding white-privilege bubble enclaves, watching with a compassionate, piercing, and unflinching eye, and describing what he saw in sparse, incisive, lyrical prose. In this book, a couple of dozen short memoirs/essays, each one a perfect gem, and each one better than the last, he speaks of what he saw and learned (and, several times, only barely survived.) Absolutely spellbinding. I was disappointed in it only once, at the end - because I wanted it to be a thousand pages longer. Obviously I'm part of its target audience, I was in Africa as I read it, and I've been to a number of the places he writes about - but I think this book is required reading for everyone, even if you've never left the First World.


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