On expedition | Global Ideas | DW | 05.11.2014
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Global Ideas

On expedition

Before they are heading to the field scientists need to carefully think about what to take with them. Check out a field scientist's baggage in our interactive inventory.

To boldly go where no man has gone before - that is the desire for many researchers and to be able to do that, they must be well prepared, armed with whatever they might need as they set out to explore the hidden corners of the world - or in the case of Star Trek - the universe. Nobody really knows what could be lurking behind that next tree, beyond the next hill, or deep under the surface of a pool of water - it could be disease, bad weather, wild animals, or, as for reptile and amphibian researcher Dirk Embert, a political coup d’etat. A field report:

“From the city of Cochabamba, we flew by helicopter into the Corderilla de Mosetenes mountain range,” Dirk Embert recalls. The trip took Embert and 10 other scientists in September 2003 to one of the last undiscovered spots on the map - the region of Bolivia just before hitting the Andes mountains. The journey almost led to death for him and his research team.

“We set up our tents at 2,000 metres above sea level and began with the research,” explains the WWF employee. They wanted to discover new animals and plants, to start to fill in the blanks from the unexplored area. There was no room for home comforts during these four weeks. The only treats they had access to were some dried meat and one piece of chocolate per day.

At this point in time, there were no roads, neither were their any walking trails or maps of the mountain range. There was no cell phone, radio or television signal - the group was alone; there was no contact with the outside world. All they had was a date: After four weeks in the mountains, the helicopter was to come back and pick up the researchers. But the helicopter didn’t come.

“On the day the helicopter was supposed to come, we just made jokes,” says Embert. “Finally, we had time to enjoy the 25-degree tropical temperature and go swimming in the neighboring lagoon.”

But when the third day passed with no helicopter in sight, the expedition members started to lose their senses of humor. Their supplies were only supposed to last four weeks, maybe a little more. The rice and bean sacks were as good as empty. If the helicopter didn’t arrive, then the explorers would have to leave to find the next settlement. In such an unexplored region, this would be a real trek into the unknown: one, perhaps two weeks, of walking without food supplies, and only with a compass and machete in their rucksacks, relying on their intuition.

“Only when things remained unchanged on the fifth day and the situation was even more tense were we desperate enough to break camp and leave all our research material, including our scientific discoveries,” says Embert.

But just before the research team was about to take the difficult step of leaving the camp, the helicopter appeared on the horizon - clearly visible were several bullet holes - and the pilot on the verge of a nervous breakdown. What had happened?

While Embert and his colleagues had been on the hunt for snakes, salamanders and frogs in the jungle, only 200 kilometers away in Bolivia’s third biggest city, and seat of the country’s government, La Paz, a coup had taken place. President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada had triggered a civil uprising when he sold natural gas at rock bottom prices to US oil companies. The military overthrew the government and took over and at least 60 people died during the violence. The event was written into Bolivian history as “Octubre negro”, or Black October.

And the pilot? He was the only one in the entire country who could fly his helicopter into the highest seat of government in the world - La Paz is situated 3,000 meters above sea level. While the researchers had waited without news in the mountain, the pilot had had to fly one minister after another out of the danger zone. The rescue of the researchers would not have taken place, if it had not been for the white lie the pilot told to save their lives.

A major repair needed to be made to his machine, he told his superiors. And while they believed his helicopter was in the workshop, the pilot flew back to the meeting point and brought Dirk Embert and his researchers back to the valley.