Just north of the Mountains of the Moon, gazing down on the waters of Lake Albert, the Nile, and Africa’s Rift Valley, stands a Blue Mountain peak its head wreathed in cloud. Mt. Hoyo (1,450 m, 4,760 ft.) cloaks its flanks with the Ituri rainforest, sometime home of the Mbuti forest people. Neglect and civil strife have long held at bay the handful of savvy outsiders who might think to travel this far into the interior of the Congo (DRC) in search of the mountain’s caves, its waterfalls and the elusive okapi. That isolation has also largely kept from the view of scholars and amateurs alike what lies buried in those cave floors.
A volunteer assignment to teach in sub-Saharan Africa once brought my plucky wife, Mary Kay, and me to this very neighborhood during a brief respite in its story of struggle and suffering, made all the more pitiful by the wild beauty of its setting. Indeed, greed and ethnic hatred have been cruel masters of these decades in the mountains, forests, and savannas sewn with riches that induce madness.
That teaching assignment included a full palette of history courses – too many indulging the dramas of faraway countries: the European Renaissance and the agonies of the French Revolution come to mind. But at least prehistory brought us to Lake Tana, to Olduvai Gorge and to the cave of the Taung Child. And the curricula did include a polite curtesy to the likes of Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba.
But while many of my students could have given a respectable account of the stunning cave paintings of Lascaux in southern France, neither they nor I, nor the then-scholars of prehistory had the faintest inkling of what lay buried in the floors of those caves in Mt. Hoyo. A now 50 yr.-old exploratory dig in the Matupi cave brought to light a landmark find of microlith tools that reach back to 40,000 years before the present. Unbeknownst to us, a community of state-of-the-art tool makers once commanded those magnificent heights looking out over some of the most dramatic landscape on the planet. What other secrets lie in Mt Hoyo’s unexplored caves can only be the subject of guess work. All of that less than a day’s journey from our classroom door, while we winced at the excesses of Robespierre and the Faberge baubles of tsarist Russia! We should have shuttered the school for a week to tiptoe through the caves and feel the millennia stirring beneath our feet, should have strained to hear the echoes whispering back to us from the ancient darkness of those clefts in the mountain.
Despite ongoing disturbances, a small beginning has been made now to restore the infrastructure and tracks leading back to Mt. Hoyo and its caves but often under armed guards. A graceful waterfall, dubbed ‘The Staircase of Venus’ – which surely deserves a Congolese name – awaits those who gather the courage to venture into that uncertain forest. The full story of this tantalizing site remains mostly beyond reach.
The acclaimed Chinese artist-activist, Ai Weiwei, has turned his flair to articulating a series of questions for AI technology, questions which are mostly haunting and unanswerable. I have one to pose:
What riches of mind and spirit lie buried at hand
that I have, in vain, traveled far to find?