It’s still January 1993 in Zaire. In part two of his epic journey through what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Travel Africa’s Publications Manager Phil Clisby heads for a date with the mountain gorillas, with one or two strange encounters along the way
Walking round Kisangani, Den, Viv and I bumped into a real dude. He was wearing leather trousers with laces up the side, black cowboy boots, a leather jacket, a dagger necklace and a baseball cap. Anyone would have thought it was only 30°C. He looked like he was one of the Village People.
Stopping us, he asked: “What on Earth are you doing in this crazy, mucked-up place with a not very nice president who’s not doing very much for the country?” I’ve substituted a few ‘F’ words.
It transpired that he was born in Kisangani but had left 35 years previously to find fame and fortune in Germany and America. His accent was all over the pace, as if to prove the point. Switching from a Noo Yawk drawl to clipped Germanic to guttural African, all in the same sentence. He claimed to own a few diamond mines, a couple of recording studios and be the composer behind such groups as Boney M and Milli Vanilli. Thinking about it, perhaps that should have been diamond mimes.
Our Noo friend had come back to see his old country and check on his diamonds, and was completely devastated by the state of the place. To give some context, Zaire was experiencing a bit of turmoil at this time. In December 1992, the army had looted Kisangani, smashing up everything in sight, including people, because they hadn’t been paid. There were bullet holes in many of the buildings around town, bearing witness to this.
Lucky Martin (if you remember from part one of this tale, he’d had his passport stolen) had spent the morning at the Immigration Office, trying to sort out his passport situation. He was told to return at 2pm to collect a “more official” letter than the one he’d acquired in Lisala, but by 4pm there was still no sign of the immigration officer.
Unfortunately, we had to leave Kisangani that day, and the guy still had Martin’s original laissez-faire document. There was nothing else for it: we were going to have to smuggle him over the border into Uganda.
A bit of mud
We were driving in the direction of Jumba, en route to see the mountain gorillas. Bumping along dirt roads cut through forest, it was a long, boring driving day – that is until late afternoon, when we came across the first of many mudholes.
We got through the first couple okay and then we came to the big one, with a queue of a dozen goods trucks waiting to get across. Actually, ‘big’ is an understatement. The hole was about 150ft long and 10ft deep. Heavy rains that hadn’t drained away had caused a mudbath to develop, and, over the last couple of weeks, with trucks constantly driving along this route, the hole had just got longer and deeper.
We had 4WD, so managed to jump the queue in return for helping to pull a few trucks out of the mud. As we manoeuvred to the front we saw another four trucks on the other side of the hole and one stuck in the middle.
The Chief of Roads was at the scene but wouldn’t venture down to the hole itself in case he got his new shoes dirty. To be fair they looked sharp. But I did wonder if he might have been better off if he’d put on a nice pair of wellies.
We agreed with him that we would pull three trucks through and then we would be allowed to go. We clambered down into the hole and attached a rope to the stuck truck. After about two hours of revving engines, excessive exhaust smoke, spinning wheels, mud splattering everywhere and ropes snapping, we managed to haul the truck out. Immediately, the next truck off the rank ploughed into the hole and imbedded itself in the mud. A further hour’s fruitless attempts couldn’t shift this one.
We explained to the Chief that the truck was too heavy for us to pull. Nonetheless he wouldn’t let us through, so we had to camp down on the mud road, tired and hungry. I woke up in the night to find I’d rolled off my groundsheet, and my sleeping bag, and my face for that matter, was now caked in mud. Marvellous.
The next morning a truck on the other side of the abyss managed to haul the stuck truck back out the way it had come, and then it was all hands on deck to rebuild the road. Guys dug out the mud to try and level it, then dumped any rocks that were to hand on top to try and make a sturdier surface to drive across. Four hours later, we were ready. With trepidation all around, the same truck ventured back in… and promptly ground to a halt in pretty much the same place. Groundhog day.
We tried again to haul it out, but no joy. Another truck tried to pull it, failed and got stuck. Fortunately we managed to haul this one free. They then tried double-teaming – two trucks pulling together. More squealing wheels, flying mud and even more thick black exhaust smoke filled the air, and finally, the hapless truck crept up and over the lip of the chasm. Free at last. Perhaps, we should have christened it Willy.
It was now our turn. In we went, mud churning as we slid down the side of the hole, gunning the engine to try and get enough speed to get up and out the other side… but we hit the middle and stopped, stuck fast. Thankfully, with a little pull from a truck on the other side, we managed to get moving again and we were out – after a mere 22 hours at the hole face.
Just 8km down the road we came across another massive one, with more unfortunate trucks marooned. Luckily, we found a route through the trees to the right, and made our escape, circumnavigating the mud minefield.
It’s half giraffe, half zebra
We arrived in Epulu and camped by some ferocious-looking rapids. We spotted a croc basking in the sun on a rock close by, but luckily the raging water was between us. We then went off to see what Epulu was all about – the okapi. The strangest creature I have ever seen. It’s half-giraffe, half-zebra for gawd’s sake. How does that work? A long neck and relatively tiny head sitting on a horse-like body with black-and-white striped hindquarters and forelegs – it’s nature gone mad. Relatively rare to see, yet not endangered, thanks in good part to Epulu’s Okapi Wildlife Reserve, or Game Station as it was known then, this mystical creature is a most surreal sight. I stood and watched in awe for some time.
Here, we also saw plenty of dik-dik, one of the smallest antelopes in the world – the elf of the ungulate world, if you like. And, I have to say, it’s rather tasty with rice and sauce – a local delicacy.
The next night we camped at a Pygmy school – a hut on some wasteground. The villagers turned up to flog us bows and arrows, machetes, bongs and the like.
Lucky Martin and I were invited back to one of the guy’s houses to meet his family and continue negotiations for a maholo (a curved knife used for cutting maize). We walked with Louis and his friends in pitch black for about a mile before reaching a little mud hut and sat down outside it next to a roaring fire.
Louis’ typical day, he told us, consisted of playing dice, drinking coffee and preparing his gear for hunting. In the evening he would chat to friends around the fire, drink banana beer and then go hunting. We showed them our battery-operated torch and they reciprocated with an “authentic African torch” – a burning piece of wood. Much laughter followed.
Negotiations complete, they walked us back to our camp, telling us there were lots of black mambas in the area. Now, I don’t like snakes at the best of times. But in the dark, knowing one of the world’s most dangerous snakes was slithering around freaked me out completely. I was now on high alert. Sweating palms and a racing heartbeat. I subtly moved into the middle of the group, reasoning that I was safe from a mamba attack there. Thankfully none came. But I made damn sure the zip on my tent was well and truly done up when I went to bed.
As we crossed the Equator the roads got worse again, and the going was slow and bumpy. Struggling to find a suitable camping spot we continued on until we came to the closed gates of a national park. After a two-beer bribe the guard opened up the gates and let us through, and we sped on, on luxurious tarred road.
Halfway we found another ranger, and another beer passed hands. Soon, we were through the other side, and back onto dirt track. But there was still nowhere to camp and the roads were deteriorating into mudslides and potholes. After a treacherous further 25km of road slithering we finally reached Jumba.
And so to an hour spent within inches of the mountain gorillas… Hold a picture of one at arm’s length and that is how close I got to them.
We arose at 6am to walk the 4km from our camp to the starting point for the gorilla trek in Virunga National Park. It might not sound far, but it was one hell of a steep climb up a rugged mountain path.
There were eight of us with three guides (one with a machine gun, presumably for our protection or more likely the gorillas’, and one with a machete to hack his way through the undergrowth). We quickly came upon the spot where they had found the gorillas the day before and then followed their tracks, stepping over large mounds of their poo (the gorillas’, not the guides’) and fighting our way through the bush. After half an hour we found where they had slept the previous night, an area of bush that had been flattened as if made into beds; then, shortly afterwards, we came across them.
The next hour was simply incredible. It’s impossible to describe my feelings. We were so close to them. They seemed to be constantly on the move, albeit slowly. As we quietly followed them, creeping through the undergrowth, the big silverback, Marcel, who weighed in at a massive 250kg, came into view. He was sitting in a bush eating a kilo of the 30kg of leaves he ate every day. We were just six feet from him.
Then he got up and ambled towards us – I shat myself (not literally, I hasten to add, more a feeling of slight panic) – but our guide just coolly said, “Sit down, take photos.” That was easy for him to say. But he was right: old Marcel just walked past us, barely giving us a second look.
Later, we were crouched in a line watching, when Marcel wandered back in our general direction. He pushed one girl out of his way and she went flying creating a domino effect of the voyeurs, ending with the lad at the end of the line falling into a bush. “Don’t worry, you were just in his way,” said our guide.
We continued to follow the group, about a dozen of them, through the bush. There were three young ones, who were continually play-acting – showing off to the crowd – swinging from trees and falling off. Appearing momentarily dazed, before getting back up and on with the next trick. One stood up, beat its chest and toppled backwards. Another even stood on his head for a while. Hilarious. Let it also be known that gorillas fart very loudly and for a considerable length of time.
After our allotted hour was up we trekked back to basecamp, still too awestruck to speak. So we just stuffed our faces with beans and spuds before embarking on the long walk back to the camp.
We were just 7km from the Ugandan border – a very slidey, muddy 7km mind you. The Indian influence in this area began to increase as we neared the border crossing, as the Zaire doughball gave way to the samosa as the street food of choice. Eager, smiling faces running alongside the truck to sell us this triangular delight. After a diet consisting mainly of rice and beans, and the odd plantain, for the preceding month, this was a very welcome treat. We gorged ourselves. Samosas have never tasted so good. Nor will they again. In fact, I spoke with Lucky Martin just prior to writing this blog (some 23 years after the event), and the first thing he said about the Ugandan border was not the fact that he didn’t have a passport, but: “Do you remember the samosas?”
We exited Zaire with “pas de problème”, deciding not to declare Martin’s existence, hiding him in the back of the truck. But this proved somewhat awkward on the Ugandan side. They required all of us to get off the truck to conduct a headcount and they also wanted to see all the exit stamps from Zaire. Martin, of course, didn’t have one. He didn’t have anything for them to stamp, after all.
Reasoning that he couldn’t remain hidden and also wanting to enter Uganda legitimately, Martin broke cover. A non-too-pleased border guard marched him back to Zaire to acquire a stamp. A very relieved Martin returned a while later, like Neville Chamberlain, clutching a piece of paper. Apparently a huge argument had ensued between the Ugandan and Zairean border guards. The Zaire guards were very unhappy about it, but ultimately there was nothing they could do. The Ugandan officer then marched Martin back, stamped the piece of paper and allowed him to enter Uganda. It was never in doubt.
Our Zaire adventure was over. At times it was hard, at others it was unbeatable; we saw the best and the worst of Africa. But I’d like to think that 20-plus years on, the situation in the DRC has moved on, that life is better for its people. And that the roads have improved; then again, a part of me hopes they haven’t – it’s half the fun of travelling in Africa, after all.