“Where did he go?” Jan asked offhandedly, searching only briefly for Oliver before giving up to take another photo. Perhaps we should have been more worried that we had lost our guide. Or that we were on a deserted island in the middle of a gaseous lake that sometimes bubbles up toxic methane gas killing naive tourists. Maybe the fact that at any moment Congolese pirates could come out of the shrubs and attack us with all they’ve got should have made us nervous. Or those cows. They looked so docile, but apparently the other month there was a killer cow on the loose in Austria that killed a German tourist, which didn’t bode well for me, since I was traveling with a group of three German medical students. Who knows what cows have against them, I wasn’t about to get in the way of that. But honestly, none of these things really seemed to matter, as we all stood on what had been deemed “Napoleon Island,” by our guide Oliver, before he ran away. As he clapped loudly in the distance suddenly I heard a swift noise, or rather noises, as if a million wings were flapping to the squeal of tiny mice. I guess bats are similar creatures, soaring over us in an army of perhaps 1,000 strong or more.
Now I know that many of you readers are not pleased to hear that that is the subject of my blog, but I feel it is almost my duty to defend my winged friends, especially since they have been getting such a bad rap from the Ebola crisis, having spread the disease to humans and all. Nevertheless, these flying mammals have always been a fascination of mine, even as a child. Deciding to be unique and rebellious at the age of 8, I chose the most off the wall mammal for my school report that I could think of, after the porcupine (my report from the previous year). Thus I chose the bat. Although they come in all sorts of cool shapes and sizes, and have pretty interesting characteristics, such as the vampire bat, which probably would have given those cows a run for their money, I will always love fruit bats best. This may be in part thanks to one of my favorite children’s books, Stellaluna (http://www.storylineonline.net/stellaluna/). Despite a few scientific errors (such as bats use echolocation to get around, not night vision), the idea behind the story is great, and it seeks to provide better appreciation for bats amongst kids and hopefully their parents and teachers too. Not only are the illustrations of a really cute bat, but the message is about appreciating differences in those you care about as well as yourself, and that being different isn’t a bad thing.
And this swarm of bats was anything but normal. Never had I seen such a frenzy of wings, in such a huge amount, at just the sound of a clap. Completely startled by Oliver’s hand, these bats soared high above our heads, circling perhaps the entire island looking for a safe distance far from where they had perched upside down in the trees near to our path. The sound was almost mystical and memorizing, as if we had accidentally awakened the gods of the islands. So much for a nice day’s rest, I imagined the bats thinking as they squealed above our heads as we climbed higher. We finally we reached the summit of “Napoleon Island,” just to see the view below of Lake Kivu, that methane bubbly, pirate and microbe infested lake. And I couldn’t help myself. Despite the inherent dangers it was just so pretty, so peaceful, so inspirational, that I couldn’t help but love it there. I blame it on the bats.
*Although the methane gas trapped beneath the lake does bubble to the top, it happens very rarely, almost as rarely as the Congolese kidnap tourists. In other words, this should not ruin a great opportunity to visit Lake Kivu, not on my account.
**The “killer cow of Austria” is based on a secondhand recounting of the news story told to me by an Austrian physical therapist. She claims the German tourist had a dog that had barked and thus scared the cow, which then retaliated. Fair enough.