LuiKotale, the place where no one has died and no one was born

Last Friday I left Kinshasa in a little airplane after all formalities at the Ndolo airport were completed. Every piece of luggage had to be weighed while the police was keeping an eye on the process. One of the policemen asked which bags were mine and what I was bringing. When opening my first bag they immediately saw the two packages with several millions of Congolese francs I was transporting for the salaries of the project workers (920 francs = 1 USD). When we gave them the paper with the details concerning the sum of money, they asked for the two passports that were mentioned on that same paper. What followed was a long discussion about the legality of transporting someone else’s passport. I let my Congolese driver solve the situation and finally one of the policemen understood that some situations demand an exception to the rule. I’m glad they didn’t check my second bag containing the silica tubes.

The flight took less than three hours with a stop at a local airstrip. We crossed several rivers, including the Kasai, a very broad river and an important barrier for several primate species. The landscape in the first bit was dominated by a mosaic of forests and savanna. As we flew further into the Congobasin the forest expanded and suddenly became continuous. I was wondering which primates were living underneath us.
The Ipope airstrip is nothing more than a cleared stretch of land in the middle of the rain forest, close to Ipope village. From here it is a five kilometer walk to Lompole, the village that owns the forest of the LuiKotale study area. I was accompanied by Mara, who told me the last car dealt with this road in 1995. What remains now is a small path on which only a few motorbikes pass per month. After spending a night in Lompole one has to walk for 19km to LuiKotale. We did the hike in 4,5 hours at a speed of five, sometimes maybe six km/h. At this speed you don’t have time to look around much, as you constantly have to be careful not to fall over branches or logs. However, I immediately recognized the sounds of an African rain forest and I spotted some familiar fruit species on the ground. The hike crosses three savannas, several knee-deep rivers and ends by crossing the Lokoro River in a dug-out canoe. In Kinshasa I met a friendly Belgian guy working in Africa for more than twenty years in several development projects. He listened to my stories with a lot of interest, but when I told him about the conditions of life and work in the forest he didn’t say much, probably thinking I was crazy. It is crazy for western people to be so far from civilization we are so used to. However, once you are here, you don’t think much about that. Life in the forest has its advantages and disadvantages and coming here means accepting the risks associated with it.

LuiKotale was created on an abandoned village and literally means “the place where no one has died and no one was born”. The camp is a relatively small open area in the forest and consists of several huts and shelters made of natural roofing material. Each of the eight researchers and volunteers in camp have their own tent under a shelter. A solar panel provides the energy to charge batteries, run computers and send emails through a radio system. The toilet is a traditional latrine (a hole in the ground covered by logs and sand) and water to wash is limited to half a bucket per person per day. During the wet season, which is now, the camp is invaded by bees that are attracted by food remains and human sweat. Although annoying they don’t sting often and their sting is not that painful.

To be a bit more specific on my previous post, I didn’t leave all my chocolate at home. Food is typically a common subject to talk about in remote places like LuiKotale. Our diet is little varied. We basically eat rice, beans, green vegetables and chikwangue (a paste made of manioc roots) every day. Luckily there is a good supply of fresh fruits and vegetables from the village and I brought some flavourings as well. Several times a week porters bring in bananas, plantains, papayas and delicious pumpkins. Pineapples, lemons and avocados are grown in camp.

The forest is divided by the Bompusa River flowing north towards the Lokoro. To go to the east we have to cross this river on a fallen tree, as well as a lot of swampy areas at both sides of the river. As a precaution every new person in camp first has to walk and learn the major trails to become familiar with the forest. During these training walks I encountered four monkey species already. I have seen yellow-nosed red-tailed guenons (Cercopithecus ascanius whitesidei), black crested mangabeys (Lophocebus aterrimus), red colobus monkeys (Piliocolobus tholloni) and heard the calls of Wolf’s guenons (Cercopithecus wolfi). Actually, as I’m writing now at what is called the “forest office”, a nice place to chill out and to escape from the heat and the bees in camp, I can hear the shaking of branches characteristic of an approaching group of monkeys. How lucky can one be to live in such a place like this! I just saw a monkey silhouette to the right of me, so I have to stop writing to go a bit closer and check which species it is.

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Lieven in congo

At the moment Lieven Devreese is staying at LuiKotale, a bonobo research site of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in the vicinity of Salonga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. Lieven is a research assistant working on habituation of a second group of bonobos and he hopes to get to see some golden-bellied mangabeys as well. Here you can read more about his 10-month adventure.