Preston introduces us to Robin’s wife and business partner, Carrie MacDonald, who often travels along with him and brings their two sons. The party travels in two Land Rovers, and also includes three members of the MacDonalds’ safari staff: Katana Chege, Herman Adembe, and Morris Mulatya. Preston has also brought two Americans along with him: a childhood friend named Frederic Grant, and a woman named Jamy Buchanan. He has prepared and hidden a list of instructions in case he comes down with Marburg, including in it a list of symptoms and possible experimental treatments that he hopes might keep him from dying should he contract the virus. Robin drives haphazardly down the road, singing as he does so.
Preston’s description of his journey and his companions helps to make his trip seem vivid and present to his readers, even though it is a totally different setting and tone from the scenes in Reston. Preston’s note makes clear that he understands the risk he is taking, and has decided (either arrogantly or bravely) to go inside the cave anyway. Although Preston understands his own vulnerability to the virus, his very human urge to understand and explore outweighs his fear of a possible infection.
As sunset approaches, the party stops in the town of Kitale at the base of Mount Elgon to buy beer and charcoal. As they walk through the town they are swarmed by pimps, and Preston speculates that perhaps Charles Monet’s girlfriends lived around here. The air, he observes, is cold, heavy, and wet.
Preston’s mention of pimps is another reference to the spread of HIV/AIDS, which was greatly aided by unprotected sexual contact between prostitutes and their clients. Monet reminds us that Ebola, too, can spread through sexual contact.
As the group explores the roads around Mount Elgon, they see signs of the conflict between the Masai and the Bukusu. They make camp that night in “the same meadow where Charles Monet had camped.” They begin to cook dinner, and observe a Cape buffalo watching them. Robin wanders down to the stream with Preston and tells him a story about fishing for crocodiles. They observe an armed guard named Polycarp Okuku, and Robin asks if there are any lions nearby. The guard replies that there are no lions left. Preston explains that Ugandan poachers have infiltrated the mountain and shoot animals and people alike. In response the Kenyan government now requires that armed guards accompany visitors to the mountain.
Preston spends a great deal of time discussing the nature that surrounds him and his party in Mount Elgon. While this narration might seem like simple “filler” information, it actually serves to illustrate a crucial point: that the encroachment of humans has disturbed previously hidden diseases like HIV and Ebola while also having a detrimental effect on Mount Elgon’s environment. Yet despite the devastation that people have brought to the natural landscape, the animals and the plants of the mountain still retain their majesty and power.
The men continue exploring, observing many animals, including a rodent called a hyrax that Preston notes might be a carrier of Marburg. He describes the forest around the mountain—“one of the rarest and most endangered tropical forests on the planet.” He describes the different types of trees, some of which are massive and centuries old. Robin observes that there used to be elephants in this location, but that they’ve all been shot now.
It is important to remember that the same natural process that allows trees to live for centuries also allows viruses to mutate, shift, and survive. Although viruses and trees seem very different, both in fact are manifestations of nature’s power, representing something far older, stronger, and more mysterious than the human race.
The men approach the mouth of Kitum Cave, and the sound of a waterfall grows stronger, as does the smell of bats. Nettles sting their legs and insects fly in their faces. Preston observes that either nettles or insects could be the hosts. They stop by an elephant trail that leads into the cave, and Preston states that the 2,000 elephants that once lived in Mount Elgon’s forests have now been poached down to 70. Now the herd mainly stays out of sight, venturing to Kitum Cave about once every two weeks to eat its salt. There are many other kinds of animals that travel around Kitum Cave: monkeys, rodents, and even leopards. Preston compares the cave to the “Times Square subway station,” calling it the perfect “place for a virus to jump species.”
Preston continues to hammer home the terrible damage that humans have done to the landscape around Kitum Cave, here recounting the massive depopulation of elephants that has occurred over the past few decades. Despite the threat of human poachers, however, Kitum Cave still acts as a gathering place for animals, implying that nature will always continue on even in the face of human threats. This massive natural diversity offers its own threat as well, since it provides the virus with an ideal place to transfer from one species to another—as always, nature is both beautiful and dangerous.
At the mouth of the cave, Preston assembles his gear. He does not have the kind of pressurized spacesuit that USAMRIID uses—instead, he’s brought “a neutral-pressure whole-body suit with a hood and a full-face respirator.” He also has brought rubber gloves, rubber boots, tape, a shower cap, and a headlamp. A real spacesuit would require a full support team, and so Preston has Fred Grant help him to tape his gloves and boots to his suit. Polycarp Okuku asks Robin MacDonald who has died in the cave. Preston explains about Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal, and explains that he’s just being careful. Okuku states that he’s heard of the virus, and references the work that Gene Johnson and his team did at Kitum Cave. Preston puts his respirator on his head and tells the group to expect him back in an hour—and if not, to “call 911.”
Preston recounts the protective equipment that he intends to use within Kitum Cave for two opposing reasons: on one hand, it shows how seriously he takes the threat of infection. On the other hand, however, his description of the gear he has cobbled together emphasizes that it is nowhere near as advanced or protective as the spacesuits that researchers use at the Institute. Okuku’s comment that he has heard of the virus only underscores how ancient Ebola/Marburg really is—the stuff of myth, in some ways, as much as of reality.
Preston enters the huge mouth of Kitum Cave and walks across a floor covered in bat dung. He observes that in 1982, the roof of the cave fell in, meaning that the entrance to the cave is covered in fallen rock. He carries with him a map on a waterproof bag (so that he can decontaminate it) drawn by an Englishman named Iain Redmond who once lived in the cave for three months to study elephants. He wore no biohazard gear but never fell ill (and later Peter Jahrling would express an interest in testing his blood). Preston explains Iain Redmond’s theory that thousands of generations of elephants actually carved the cave as they pried out rocks in search of salt. Meanwhile Preston treks further and further into the cave, disturbing bats with his light and noting their wet droppings on the walls. Beyond the bat colonies the cave is dry and dusty—strange for a cave, since caves are usually wet. Preston states that viruses “like dry air and dust and darkness,” meaning that this kind of cave is the perfect place for one to hide.
Preston describes the interior of the cave in vivid detail, taking care to note its strange and mysterious features in order to give readers the sense of being somewhere otherworldly. His mention of Iain Redmond also remind us of how strange and fickle nature is—Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal fell ill after one visit to the cave, but Redmond survived after living within it for months. The bat droppings, while they may seem innocuous, actually carry hidden menace—since bats could be carriers of the virus, their droppings could easily be contaminated. The entire cave, in fact, is the perfect environment for a virus like Ebola/Marburg to thrive—a fact that only adds to the reader’s sense that something is lurking within the cave.
As a side note, Preston explains that Tom Geisbert once did an experiment on Marburg to see how long it could survive in water—it remained lethal after five days. By contrast, HIV only survives a few minutes when exposed to the open air. As long as a surface is free of sunlight (which breaks up a virus’s genetic material), Marburg or Ebola could most likely survive in a dry, dark place for a long time.
Ebola/Marburg, Preston takes care to explain to us, is exceptional among viruses because of its ability to survive in adverse conditions. Considering how much he has emphasized the power and deadliness of HIV/AIDS, the fact that Ebola/Marburg is a more resilient life form only adds to our understanding of its danger.
Preston reaches the top of a mound in Kitum Cave and puts his hand on the ceiling, which is made up of solidified ash and petrified trees. There are crystals too, which look very sharp. He speculates that perhaps Peter Cardinal cut himself on one. He continues along, disturbing another colony of bats, and finding a fossilized tooth of a crocodile in the rock, a remnant of the volcanic eruption of Mount Elgon. He sees an elephant dropping, followed by a wall that the elephants have dug into with their tusks. He finds a side tunnel and heads down it, abruptly slamming his head against a rock. He notes that had he not been wearing protective gear, the rock would have cut his scalp—yet another potential exposure to the virus. Deeper still, he finds spiders and insects—perhaps they bit Monet and Cardinal, transmitting Marburg that way. Preston acknowledges how little he understands about the cave and its inhabitants. He continues on, finding a crevice full of water. Further still he finds a giant room, hundreds of yards across. For a moment he turns off his lamp and stands in darkness, listening to his heart beat in his chest and his blood drum in his head.
Preston continues to create a portrait of the cave that emphasizes both beauty and danger. Everywhere he turns he sees evidence of the power of the natural world, from a fossilized crocodile tooth to petrified trees. At the same time, however, he must remain always on his guard from the dangers that the cave contains, as evidenced by the moment when he knocks his head against a sharp rock. Beyond these visible dangers, of course, lies the invisible but ever-present threat of Marburg virus, which Preston imagines lurks at every turn. In a larger sense, both the virus and the cave that contains it act as symbols for the mystery, power, and menace of nature. As he stands in the dark listening to his own heart beat, Preston implicitly compares his own human fragility and smallness with the massive scope and power of the natural world—which could extinguish him (and indeed the human race) at any time.
When Preston emerges from Kitum Cave, the afternoon rains have come. Fred Grant welcomes him back, and Preston fills a tub with bleach, washing his suit and then dropping all of his gear into the tub. Next he strips off his clothes and sneakers, double bagging them and washing the bags with bleach. He then puts on a clean set of clothing and double bags his biohazard gear as well. Robin MacDonald appears, and jokingly calls him “Sir Bat Shit.”
After his visit to the cave, Preston takes great precautions in order to ensure that nothing he touches is contaminated with Marburg virus. Once again, the sequence is an almost comical one, until we remember the deaths of Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal. While Robin MacDonald may poke fun, both readers and Preston understand how important and serious this process really is.
The group heads back to camp, bringing the bags of gear along with them. A downpour begins, filling the air with thunder and lightning. At camp they drink scotch and beer and play poker as night falls. Robin MacDonald playfully asks Preston if he’s experiencing any “mental symptoms.” Preston privately relates that he’s already begun to obsess about the bump on his head, obsessively wondering if he might have been exposed to Marburg that way, even though he knows that he’s probably fine.
Preston now begins to understand the paranoia that comes with working closely with or being exposed to a deadly hot virus. He is experiencing the same fear and obsession as characters such as Nancy Jaax, Gene Johnson, and Peter Jahrling. The thunderstorm is yet another manifestation of the power of nature.
Preston asserts that “the emergence of AIDS, Ebola, and any number of other rain-forest agents appears to be a natural consequence of the ruin of the tropical biosphere.” As humans encroach further and further into rain forests and savannas, the deepest “reservoirs of life on the planet,” they are being exposed to new and deadly viruses. There are dozens of these diseases, the most prominent and widespread being HIV. He compares these viruses to “an immune response against the human species.” He calls the human race a “parasite,” an “infection,” which is threatening the Earth with “mass extinction.” Humans have caused an imbalance, and Nature, he notes, “has interesting ways of balancing itself.” He wonders if the “earth is attempting to rid itself of an infection by the human parasite. Perhaps AIDS is the first step in the natural clearance.”
Preston now arrives at one of the most important, powerful, and disturbing passages within the narrative, asserting that human destruction of the environment has directly produced deadly hot viruses such as HIV and Ebola—and implying that perhaps the Earth would be a better place if such a virus were to severely deplete the human race. As he has before, he essentially anthropomorphizes the natural world, asserting that viruses are its attempt to rid itself of the disastrously destructive human race. The sense of menace that has run through the book has all led to this passage, as Preston suggests that nature is essentially out to get us—and that, perhaps, we deserve it.
Preston calls AIDS “the worst environmental disaster of the twentieth century.” He explains that HIV most likely jumped to the human race from African primates, possibly when monkey hunters “touched bloody tissue.” He goes on to recount that HIV was first noticed in 1980 by a Los Angeles physician who observed that his gay male patients were dying of an unknown illness. At the time, of course, the idea that gay men in LA were dying of a disease from wild monkeys in Africa would have been absurd. Preston notes with interest that HIV jumped from apes, an endangered species, to humans, the fastest-growing species on the planet. He explains that HIV “is a fast mutator,” able to constantly alter its own genetic code. This means that it is extremely difficult to develop a vaccine for the disease, and that HIV has been able to survive despite the wreck of the tropical ecosphere. Preston speculates, however, that “AIDS might not be Nature’s preeminent display of power.” He wonders whether a worse virus is yet to come, one that will severely thin out the human race.
Returning once again to HIV/AIDS, Preston discusses how globalization and human innovation led directly to the spread of the virus. He goes on to speculate that HIV/AIDS began to prey on humans because we are so widespread, and then notes how easy it is for HIV (like Ebola) to change its own genetic code. While he does not specifically mention Ebola, we are clearly supposed to think of the virus when Preston suggests that a disease worse than AIDS may one day emerge to exterminate the human race. His many references to HIV/AIDS throughout the book, and his insistence that Ebola is in many ways the more powerful and dangerous virus (although far less prevalent), have all led to this menacing conclusion.
Preston remembers reassuring himself after leaving Kitum Cave, but also knows that there is an incubation period of eighteen days. He recalls Joe McCormick, who was almost exposed to Ebola and lived to tell the tale.
Despite his many precautions, Preston remains paranoid about his possible exposure to Ebola—a fact that reflects both his obsession with disease, and his fear of and respect for the power of the natural world.
On a warm day in autumn Preston drives out to visit the monkey house. The door is locked, with shreds of duct tape around it. Through the window he can see the floor marked with reddish brown stains, and the corridor that the Army used as an airlock. Nearby Preston sees a boy playing basketball, and hears children shouting in the daycare. Inside the building he sees a vine called Tartarian honeysuckle that grows in abandoned places. He walks around the window and sees a bucket that may be filled with monkey excrement and bleach. Near it is a spider that has been feeding on flies and yellow jackets. Life is flourishing in the monkey house where Ebola once reigned. The disease has now sunk back into the forest—but, Preston warns, “It will be back.”
In the book’s final moments, Preston uses the Reston monkey house—a far cry from the exotic, awe-inspiring Kitum Cave—as a symbol for nature’s resilience, power, and menace. In the midst of everyday suburban life, he sees the monkey house as a reminder of the outbreak that almost occurred. The signs of life within the building—which a short time ago was utterly devoid of any living thing—prove how quickly nature undoes human action and resists all our efforts to control it. Although at the moment the monkey house is peaceful, filled with plants and insects, it could just as easily have been filled with traces of Ebola. Despite humans’ best efforts, nature will always remain more powerful than we are—and the longer that we treat it with arrogance and cruelty, Preston implies, the more likely we are to face a species-wiping virus like Ebola. Preston’s ominous warnings in this last passage indeed seem to predict the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2013-2015, in which the disease has killed more than 11,000 people.