12: Zaire/Congo – The Real Africa?


Note: Previously called the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was known as Zaire between 1971 and 1997. European exploration of the area was first carried out by Henry Morton Stanley under Belgian sponsorship. King Leopold II of Belgium acquired rights to the Congo in 1885 and made the land his private property, naming it the Congo Free State. Under his rule the local people were forced to produce rubber and millions died between 1885 and 1908 as a result of disease and exploitation. King Leopold became extremely wealthy.

After some pressure Belgium reluctantly annexed the ‘Free State’ which became the Belgian Congo in 1908. It became independent in June 1960 and Patrice Lumumba was elected first president. Unfortunately Lumumba was seen to have communist sympathies and in September, with US and Belgian support, was arrested by forces loyal to army chief of staff Joseph-Désiré Mobutu. He was executed in January 1961 by Belgian-led troops.

Mobuto came into power in 1965, later renaming himself Mobutu Sese Seko and his country Zaire. He ran the country as dictator with considerable support from the United States. Despite this and the fact that the area is extremely rich in natural resources, continuing instability led to two civil wars and the deaths of millions of Congolese between 1996 and 2003. Laurent-Désiré Kabila changed the country’s name back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo on becoming president in 1997. He was assassinated by one of his bodyguards in January 2001 and was succeeded eight days later as President by his son Joseph.

Monday 29 January

Alindao — Ima Langandi Kongbo — Mobaye (ferry across R Ubangui) — ZAIRE — Mobayi-Mbongo — Gbadolite (wild camp near) [69 miles]

At the Zaire border post we undergo the most comprehensive customs check so far.

Brigid is a bit groggy again today, but does her bit with the interpreting. The Health Officer queries two of our vaccination certificates. On Richard’s the doctor’s pen ran out so the signature has been overwritten with a new pen. On A’s the doctor has Tippexed out an error. After some discussion the officer accepts Richard’s certificate but A has to pay 2000 Zaires for a replacement. At least they don’t insist on a re-vaccination with the sole well-used rusty syringe..

Seeing Brigid is a bit under the weather, one of the customs officers buys her a bottle of coke.

We have lunch while processing our paperwork. Small black pigs wait around at our feet for our banana skins. Finally, after searching both the vehicles, and advising us to keep our cameras out of sight in Gbadolite, the customs officers wave us on our way. A couple of them are wearing Pineapple T-shirts.

At first Zaire belies its reputation. There’s an excellent tarmac road from the border to Gbadolite. This is the President’s (then Mobuto) home town. There are office blocks, a big hotel and even street lights. The Mobil offices are closed.

We meet a guy from an overland truck, the ‘Dirty Cow’. Most of his fellow-passengers are at the hotel, using the swimming pool.

We drive out of town a little way and find a laterite quarry in which to camp for the night. As we’re setting up the tents the ‘Dirty Cow’ arrives. Four of them are quite ill with malaria.

After dark we see another set of headlights approaching us. It’s the Pineapple truck.

We all have a peaceful night with frogs piping us to sleep.

Tuesday 30 January

Gbadolite — (wild camp) [81 miles]

Back to Mobil’s offices in Gbadolite to check on the availability of fuel. They need to contact head office in Kinshasa. This isn’t so straightforward as it sounds. The ‘phones are dead and they can’t be raised on the radio. They take A to the post office, but the ‘phones there aren’t working either. Back to the radio again. While this is going on we take the opportunity to fill our water containers from a tap behind the offices.

In the market there are few vegetables. We buy onions and tomatoes. About the only other foodstuffs we see are dried beans, manioc and peanuts. We buy the first of a good many bottles of Primus beer at 500 Z a bottle. One stall is piled with jars of skin lightening cream.

In a shop selling school text books I buy a little booklet, The Story of Zaire. The usual group of children gather round the Land Rovers. One pushes a model car formed, skeleton like, from complex wire framework with a long wire steering extension extending from the front axle. Another small boy has a similar long wire with a steering wheel on one end, but on the other is an old cotton reel. He pushes along the dusty road, steering it around and between the other children who stand and stare at us.

By mid-day we still haven’t been able to contact Kinshasa. Six of us go the nearby hotel to use the pool for an hour, at a cost of 500 Z each. The water’s a bit green and many of the tiles are cracked, but it still seems very inviting. After a dip I sit at the poolside with a drink from the bar, catching up on these notes while watching swallows swoop on the pool, drinking on the wing.

A returns. They’ve managed to get through to Kinshasa and fuel collection points have been organised in Businga and Kisangani. We have a quick lunch and get on the road again.

A few kilometres out of town the tarmac stops.

A porcupine scampers off the road in front of us into the bush.

The huts we’re seeing now are of wattle and daub construction again, most of them circular, with the occasional rectangular one.

As we’re driving we always keep our eyes open for dead wood (at the side of the road; not in the vehicles). Today it is quite late in the afternoon by the time we find some. Three girls, basins balanced on their heads, giggle behind their hands as they watch Jason saw off a couple of hefty branches.

I notice for the first time in our journey through Africa what I assume are house numbers tacked to huts in one of the villages.

At around five o’clock we stop in another laterite quarry. The Pineapple group are already setting up camp here. Children gather bringing fruit for us to buy. We swap pens for papaya and eggs. Jason hands over a nicely packaged pen in exchange for one large fruit. Three children share this prize; the older one has the pen itself, another has the cardboard backing, and the third slips the clear plastic ‘bubble’ from the front of the pack into the pocket of his ragged trousers.

A small boy turns up with a stringed instrument — a hollow wooden sound-box covered with skin. Extending from the box is a long, curved neck drilled with ten holes. Each hole holds a peg with a string extending down to the sound box, knotted through holes in the skin covering. He starts to play. With his permission, we record him. An old woman dances.

His friends have borrowed one of our footballs and have organised a lively game. He ignores them, squats on the ground and continues to play.

A man arrives with a battered plastic oil container of palm wine. He wants 500 Z a cup for it. When we say this is too dear he doesn’t seem to mind. He pours some out for his companions and then gives us a cup to share anyway.

Another small boy turns up with a more traditionally shaped (to Western eyes anyway) stringed instrument: a guitar made from a piece of wood hollowed out and covered with flattened tin cans. I ask him to play too. He does, with his face shyly, firmly turned away from me. Several of the football players break off from their game and join us. When the first guitarist has finished they pass the instrument between them, each playing a piece.

When it gets too dark to play football the last few stalwarts return the ball to us with thanks and slip off into the night.

Wednesday 31 January

(wild camp) — Businga — Gumba — Liboko — (wild camp) [101 miles]

It’s Sue’s birthday today.

The kids are back early with more fruit, a couple of live chickens, and sweet potatoes. They play football again until the teacher arrives and drags most of them off to school.

At Businga, a dilapidated town full of faded colonial buildings, we go to the SEP depot for fuel. This is piped direct from large storage tanks. They normally load fuel tankers.

We are besieged by children again. “Donnez moi un Bic,” is the constant cry. Except from one hopeful young sophisticate who peers through the window of the Series III at Jason and myself and demands, “Donnez moi les Raybans.” An enormous yellow Caterpillar earth mover dwarfs two circular mud huts. The driver emerges from one of them, waves to the woman at the door and climbs into the cab.

By a dilapidated Dutch barn stand five tractors in various stages of decay. It looks as if none of them has moved for years.

We’re passing now through thick forest — the African jungle of everyone’s imagination. There is a constant electric hum of insects and brilliant black and blue butterflies rise in clouds from the dirt road as we drive along.

The road has narrowed and the trees often meet above us. The track road is rough, pot-holed and rutted and the vehicles lurch and bounce. I remember the comment of the overland driver we met before crossing the Ubangui: ‘like Blackpool’. Perhaps he was referring to the white knuckle rides. It seems the rougher the road gets the more Jason likes it. He positively relishes driving under these conditions.

There are even more butterflies now. Thousands drink around the edges of puddles in the road, wings fanning so that the ground becomes a shifting kaleidoscope of colour. Although ‘puddles’ seems such an inadequate word. Some of them are several yards across and we often have to stop so that Richard can test the depth with a stick before we proceed.

Several times when the vehicles stop I get out and walk slowly among the butterflies. They rise in clouds around you, some landing on exposed skin and delicately sipping the salt sweat. There are blue and black swallowtailed butterflies, tiny orange ones, black and white ones. Different varieties seem to congregate together in different areas.

Splashing through deep puddles is affecting the Series III. Being a petrol engine it is very susceptible to damp. After two hold-ups while we dry out the distributor Jason takes a rubber glove from one of our medical kits and fits this over the distributor cap. It seems to do the trick and we navigate the puddles without further problems.

The amount of water lying around is a bit worrying. We have timed our journey to avoid the rainy season in Zaire because many of the roads become impassable at such times.

Every few miles we pass small villages at the side of the road. Most of the huts have grass thatch but occasionally we see banana leaves used for this purpose.

Often as we pass through a village someone, usually a child, will rush to the side of the road offering something for sale: fruit, palm wine, a chicken snatched struggling from the ground, a basket of vegetables. One small boy holds up a small dead bird tied to a piece of string.

The road is getting steadily worse. We’re often reduced to a crawl.

At the morning lunch stop two men and several children join us. One man offers us marijuana (the famous ‘Congolese’) wrapped in a palm leaf. The other man has white spots daubed on his forehead and inner elbows. When we ask why he explains that this is because he had a son a few days ago.

Passing lorries is a little hazardous.

We stopped for bananas. S swaps one of our bidons for a piece of the old bangle type currency.

It’s not easy to find good water. We stop at a reasonably fast-moving stream in a rubber plantation and fill the bidons for washing. We should have enough drinking water for tonight. Camping places are not easy to find either, so we camp for the night on a grassy area in front of a colonial style plantation manager’s house.

There are hordes of kids around us as usual. There are a couple of unfortunate incidents, unusual in a village community. Richard’s T-shirt disappears off the front of one of the Land Rovers. While eating dinner we hear a noise at the back of the Series III. Jason went round to find two lads trying to drag his pack out. They drop it and run.

We check and find a large bidon and a washing bowl are missing. Several of us take torches and check the trees and bushes around the edge of the camp site. We find the missing items stashed away for later collection. We mention these incidents to the village leader. He apologises and insists on placing two guards on our camp throughout the night. We leave the light on too. There are no further problems.

After dinner, while sitting around the camp fire with Brigid, Lesley, Jason and Richard, a hunting party stops and greets us. There are three men. One of the men holds an ancient rifle and has a torch strapped to the side of his head. One of the others carries a dead monkey. Its tail has been made into a carrying handle by pushing the end through a hole in the back of the monkey’s neck and knotting it in its mouth. He offers to sell it to us for our supper. We explain that we have already eaten.

We fall asleep to the sound of the villagers dancing and singing. A group of men walk past our camp, chanting in time to the drums.

Thursday 1 February

(wild camp) — Lisala — Bumba — (wild camp) [152 miles]

I wake at 5.30 to the sound of our nightwatchmen talking loudly together. There are eggs for breakfast, obtained in exchange for empty bottles.

There’s a clinic in the village so Brigid makes up a small package of basic medicines and equipment to hand over in thanks for the village’s hospitality.

The plantation houses appeared not to be used, although sometimes cared for — we notice this throughout Central Africa. Perfectly serviceable buildings allowed to fall into ruin while those nearby lived in mud huts. (We are told later that in Zaire all ex-Belgian property now belongs to the President and cannot be used without his permission.)

We continue to Lisala and down to the old port on the River Zaire (ex Congo). the river here is wide and muddy looking. Women on the banks offer pieces of fried fish for sale.

Several of us would like to take the river boat to Kisangani, rejoining the Land Rovers there. Unfortunately the last boat left four days ago and there’s another week before the next. After discussion we decide we cannot afford to wait that long. We must be in Zambia by 28 March and we don’t know what delays lie ahead of us.

While we eat lunch, a funeral passes. The basket-weave coffin is open at the foot and covered with a cloth. It is carried, strapped to bamboo poles, by six mourners.

Jo is wearing a scarf wrapped around her head against the dust. A group of women stop and show her how to tie it in the African fashion.

A lone soldier with an automatic rifle slung on his back raises his right hand in greeting as we pass. In his left hand he is carrying a woman’s wig.

A man cycles unsteadily along the rough track. There are about thirty French-style loaves strapped to the back of his bike.

It’s getting late by the time we get to Bumba, upstream along the Zaire from Lisala. We fill up with water there. While doing this a group of youths approach us and offer a baby chimpanzee for sale. To try and clinch the deal they thrust it at Lesley. It clings to her, whimpering piteously. We refuse to buy. To have done so would only have encouraged the collection of other chimpanzee babies — usually captured by killing the mother.

We leave the town to try to find a camp site. There are no laterite quarries this time so we eventually pull into a village at the side of a church and ask permission to stay the night. There’s an unscreened but well-kept toilet pit in the bushes behind the church. No digging tonight then! At the moment this is a welcome touch of luxury.

Friday 2 February

(wild camp) — Aketi — (wild camp) [120 miles]

Drums call the villagers to church as we prepare breakfast. There’s a short morning service with beautiful singing. I record some of it.

A man with a sardine tin asks us for small amount of petrol to clean his watch.

Another man brings a baby to us. It seems healthy and well nourished, except for a cold. We have a good range of children’s medicines with us and treat the child for a cold, getting the father to assure us he will take the baby to the clinic at Bumba if there’s no improvement. He returns later with a live chicken in thanks. We try to refuse gracefully but he insists, so we accept with thanks.

A isn’t too happy with the idea of killing the chicken, and no-one else volunteers. Some miles along the road an old lady living apparently alone in a remote hut is surprised to receive the gift of a chicken.

A narrow gauge railway runs alongside the road for a while, then crosses it and veers off.

We pass a hut beautifully decorated in red-brown, white and black with various mythical looking figures, including a mermaid.

We stop to trade bottles and a water container for pineapples and bananas.

There’s a lovely smell as we pass through an area of trees laden with white blossom — coffee plants?

We pass a peddler on a cycle loaded with plastic sandals.

In most of the villages we’ve travelled through today there’s been a pile of sacks at the roadside, In one village these are being loaded onto a lorry. They contain coffee beans.

The road is deeply rutted and cracked, our vehicles lurch from side to side.

At a small market we are offered large white grubs, a good bowl full for 100 Zaires. We gather from the seller’s mime these make good eating, but no-one can bring themselves to try them. I forget to ask whether you cook them or eat them raw.

At our lunch stop we give a few sweets and pens to the children who gather. One man gives us an egg, another some limes. “Combien?” we ask. “Non,” they protest, “Un cadeau.”

Some sections of the road are sandy and steep, in places previous drivers have laid down palm fronds or branches. Judging by the frequent deep gullies left by water this road must be totally impassable in the rainy season.

In Aketi we stop for water from a village well — and beer too, in a bar with Pineapple and the Dirty Cow. Pineapple has an extra passenger, a girl from another overland group has joined them ‘for a break’. A group of youths try to sell us a baby monkey.

Out of town the road runs alongside a railway again. At one point we have to drive along the track itself where it crosses a bridge. It’s overcast so we find a camp site and erect our tents.

Our site is by a derelict, brick built house, with a verandah on three sides — left by departing Belgians in the Sixties. Seems strange it has not been used by people from the nearby village. On the wall of one room — a child’s bedroom? — I find a large drawing of Pinocchio. The door of the next room is locked. I wonder if the original occupiers ever return? There is an ornate grave among the long grass on the other side of the road.

We’ve just got the awning up between the two Land Rovers and a couple of the tents erected when the storm breaks. Jason moves the fire beneath the verandah so we’re able to cook a hot meal.

After about an hour and a half the rain stops. A man from the village brings his guitar and plays for us at great length.

At midnight A is woken by a prowler so a guard is mounted for the rest of the night. There are no further disturbances, though. Except for Jason who, sleeping on the verandah, hears a soft noise in the darkness. He shines his torch through his mosquito net and finds an enormous toad staring back at him from a few inches away. It croaks and hops off through the open door of the empty house.

Saturday 3 February

(wild camp) — Buta — (wild camp) [81 miles]

In the early hours of the morning the real storm breaks. Rain sheets down, thunder seems to shake the ground, lightning flashes horizontally across the sky.

By dawn the rain slows to a drizzle which stops by breakfast. We’ve all managed to keep fairly dry, but there’s lots of wet stuff to pack away and try to find time to dry later. We’re all concerned about the condition of the road. Clearly, some of the stretches we drove yesterday would be treacherous, if not impossible, in mud.

People gather and watch us pack up. It seems a poor area. We leave jumpers and shirts.

We pass a broken down lorry. It’s obviously been here all night. A woman and a child are still asleep underneath. Most of the engine seems to be spread out at the side of the road. But, unusually, the driver seems to have a reasonably adequate set of tools, so we leave him to it.

Just by the lorry is a tripod of branches lashed together supporting a grid of green twigs on which a meal has been cooked.

Luckily, after about 30 kilometres we get out of the storm area and onto a dry road again.

We pass two guys in a Renault 4 just before lunch. At the lunch stop Jason goes to help a stuck pick-up. While he’s there the Renault 4 passes us and gets stuck too. The pick-up, with the help of Jason and a group of locals, extricates itself, then gives the Renault a tow out of the mud.

There’s a hut decorated with what look like gorillas, scratched on the exterior mud walls. Some miles on a round thatched mud hut is painted with geometrical patterns in pastel shades.

Most Zairois seem friendly, it’s rare to find a raised fist or thrown stone. Certainly not a pointed rifle of which Jason was a target in C.A.R. And there have been no police checks, although we are supposed to register with the police in large towns.

We stop a while to watch a large wooden mill in action — an upright frame supports a vertical pole protruding from an old oil-drum. Four bars extend from the vertical pole and a man at each bar turn the pole. A fifth man pours hot water into the container. From time to time the men turning the mill stop and reverse direction.

Water and oil flows through a channel extending from beneath the mill into a pit. Every few minutes a woman skims bright orange palm oil from the top of the water in the pit. She pours it into a container which is being heated over a fire to boil off any remaining water.

Richard takes a closer look at the mechanism. The vertical spindle has two sticks fixed to it in X formation. These revolve over four more sticks protruding into the oil-drum. As they revolve the palm oil nuts are crushed between the two sets of sticks. The sticks feel hot because of the energy absorbed.

A hundred yards up the road is a bridge made up of several tree trunks. One of the trunks is missing so it must be negotiated with extreme care. We are carrying logs for our fire and use several of these to fill in some of the worst of the gaps between the tree trunks so we can cross safely without getting our wheels wedged.

Quite a few villages have excellent woven baskets and trays for sales at around 250 Zaires (800 Z = £1). Unfortunately they’re too large to carry easily.

We stop and buy a bottle of palm wine for 100 Z, plus a bottle in exchange. It proved to be a useful exchange; we get a local Primus beer bottle in exchange for a Mocar (C.A.R.) bottle that the local beer sellers won’t accept. The palm wine seller was less concerned, once he’d satisfied himself that the two bottles were of equal capacity. At a bar by the river we stop for water and a beer. Children are having their evening wash, a couple of returning fisherman paddle their dugouts up the river.

In Buta we buy bread and some fried plantain, yellow with palm oil.

A tiny mud hut bears the proud sign in whitewash, ‘Residence Opuma’. Chickens run along the road.

A few miles out of Buta we find a laterite quarry which will provide the site for tonight’s camp. We are surrounded by thick forest — plenty of night noises: hoots, crashings and the occasional unearthly screech. Our torches reveal nothing but the occasional reflection of a pair of eyes. Villagers watch us set up camp then bid us good night and leave.

There’s no rain, but the evening is damp and misty.

Sunday 4 February

(wild camp) — Banalia (ferry across R Aruwimi) — (wild camp) [132 miles]

Real eggs for breakfast — a rare treat. The villagers brought us more and were pleased to exchange them for empty plastic Mobil oil containers.

The dirt road seems much better today; we’re making reasonable speed, although, sitting in the back of the Series III my head hits the roof every few hundred yards. Kisangani tomorrow?

In several villages we see chairs simply but effectively constructed from two interlocking planks of wood. There are tables, too, made using the same technique.

During our mid-morning stop Richard tries to photograph two dung beetles, each trying to trundle the same ball of dung in different directions, like opposing scrums. A man stops by and gives us some apple mangoes.

Back on the road a cloud of powder blue butterflies rises as we splash through deep, water-filled ruts.


The road is particularly bad beneath the bamboo clumps, many of which meet in an arch above the road so that no sun gets through to dry out the muddy ruts and puddles.

At Banalia there’s a ferry crossing, theoretically free but we have to give the boatman ten litres of diesel. The ferry is on the right side of the river so we didn’t have to wait long. Sometimes passengers have to take a dug-out across the river with fuel and a battery to enable the ferry to start and make the journey back across the river to pick them up.

There are several musicians waiting to cross. There’s an impromptu performance going on the bank when we arrive. One plays a stringed instrument rather like a sitar, body like a large drum. Two others play drums and whistle.

On the ferry I feel something on my head and try to brush it off. I feel a bite like a pin-prick and a large black and yellow hornet flies off. I’m surprised that it’s not as painful as such bites are reputed to be. Then, seconds after the bite, the plain floods down like boiling water down the right side of my face and jaw. Brigid has some anti-histamine cream in her medical kit and this seems to ease the discomfort.

We meet Hassan, an Iranian living in Zaire, on the ferry. He tells us he has three wives, the latest, a shy, pretty Zairois girl, is travelling with him. He plans to marry his fourth wife in 1992. He must plan ahead as it is a point of honour with him to provide each wife, and each child, with a house. He tells us proudly of his nice house in Milan.

He makes a good living buying and selling goods and transporting them in his lorries between C.A.R., Zaire and Uganda.

He takes us to a bar on the other side of the river and insists on buying drinks for us all. He carries little money with him, but leaves some with the woman who owns the bar. When we try to buy him a drink in return he refuses, saying his business earns him many thousands of dollars a week so a round of drinks is no problem.

S and A remember a good shop next to the bar when they passed this way four years ago and ask Hassan what happened to it. He replies that, like everything in Zaire it was left to run down, no maintenance carried out on the building, and then when it was too far gone to be of use, it was simply closed down and left.

Hassan shrugs, takes another swig from his beer and leans back in the chair. His wife gives him a proud sidelong glance. In his scruffy blue shorts, white shirt and tatty sandals he doesn’t look much like an international entrepreneur. He’s obviously well respected in the area. A couple of us start to get water containers from the back of the Land Rovers to fill at the river. He insists that we sit down and enjoy our beers and with a wave of his hand gets some of the young boys hanging around the bar to fill our bidons.

It’s getting late and we need to find somewhere to stay for the night so, refusing more beers, we get back on the road. We’ve heard tales of a crashed Dakota in the area. Hassan has described its position, in the jungle just by the side of the road. “You can’t miss it,” he insists. We miss it.

My head feels much better now, just slightly numb. I’m not sure if this is the effect of the beers or the anti-histamine cream.

There’s no convenient laterite quarry tonight so we ask permission to pitch our tents in a village near a school. The jungle is so dense that quarries and villages are the only places with enough space to camp.

It’s a lovely clear night, but after our experience of the past few days I decide to use a tent anyway. Frogs are calling loudly nearby.

One of the villagers greets us with a cheery “Jambo”, a Swahili word used throughout East Africa. I’d heard Swahili was spoken in eastern Zaire, but hadn’t expected to come across it just yet. I tried out a couple of my few Swahili phrases, but Jambo seemed to be the limit of his knowledge of this language; he’d probably picked it up from other travellers. Seemed almost like a touch of home — something familiar.

Monday 5 February

(wild camp) — Kisangani — [101 miles]

At three in the morning we’re woken by a storm. Those sleeping on the ground and on the top of the Land Rover quickly find themselves and their bedding soaked through. We all help to get everything under cover.

Richard takes to a nearby disused schoolroom and Jason piles into the back of the Series III. A and Jo try to sleep sitting in the 110. S lies on the top of the table, covered in a couple of towels because his sleeping bag is soaking wet.

It’s still raining hard at dawn. We breakfast huddled under the awning between the vehicles after trying to find dry clothes.

The Kelly kettle comes into its own again for hot drinks. It’s usable in situations where lighting a fire would be virtually impossible. It’s quick too.

The rain shows no sign of abating so once again we pack up our wet things as best we can. If the road is still passable and we make it to Kisangani today perhaps we’ll be able get things dried out properly there.

The dry clothes I managed to find this morning are soon wet again.

There are lots of children around as usual as we breakfast and pack up. Jo spots a lad making off with Lesley’s torch. Several of us give chase but we soon lose him in the thick forest. Some of the children, embarrassed by the occurrence, fetch the school teacher and tell him what has happened. He knows the child and gathers half the village together to search for him.

After about twenty minutes they return empty-handed. The teacher says he must have gone home. He takes Lesley with him. The boy is back at his house. The teacher soon gets out of him that he has hidden the torch in the forest. His father makes him fetch it and return it to Lesley. The elders of the village are full of apologies.

We drive off, after leaving a supply of pens for the school with the teacher. It’s still raining.

We’re slipping and sliding along the muddy road, trying to avoid the deep water-filled ruts. Richard spends a lot of time squelching through the mud with a long stick checking the depth of the puddles before we drive through them.

Passing through a really bad patch the Series III, following the 110, lurches sideways into a rut and gets stuck at an alarming angle.

As many of us as possible hang onto the higher side of the vehicle as Jason tries to extricate the floundering vehicle. The wheels spin in the soft mud. We’re near a village and a crowd has gathered to watch our efforts. There is no shortage of advice. Richard attaches our tow rope to the 110, but this vehicle can’t get enough traction in the mud to be of any help, in fact it is in danger of digging itself in too.

It looks as if we’re in for some heavy digging. First we use the hi-lift jack to raise the lower rear wheel, which has dug itself axle-deep into the mud. Then we dig beneath this and place the sand ladders under the wheel.

We have a winch on the front of the Series III (part of the WWF specification for use in the rhino reserve). Unfortunately (and extremely unusually for this part of Zaire) there are no handy trees to attach the winch to. So we fasten it to the rear of the 110 and chock the latter’s wheels.

So with three of us hanging onto the side of the Series III to add weight, the winch taking up the slack, and half the village pushing from behind, we manage to extricate ourselves from the clinging mud. To loud cheers from all.

S distributes cigarettes to our helpers and makes a present of 1000 Zaires to the village chief.

Richard has been paddling around in the muddy puddles in his trainers. He dries his feet and puts his boots back on. This entails a considerable amount of hopping around on one foot and muttering under the breath. Some of the children begin to imitate him. One or two start a rhythmic song copied from Richard’s mutterings. Soon an impromptu dance has been developed around this incident. I wander what some future anthropologist might make of this strange hopping dance peculiar to one small area of Zaire.

Further on we encounter an unofficial road block. About fifteen men simultaneously try to explain that they want to us to carry a large drum and two of their number 15 kilometres down the road. We try to explain that we have no room. One man looks and realises the impossibility of their request. He points this out to the others and they wave us on.

We stop at a large village and go to buy bread. There’s none available so we settle for fried dough balls.

Walking along the road is a hawker with a long stick over his shoulder displaying ear-rings clipped along its length.

I’ve mentioned the problems caused by mud and puddles, but another road hazard we meet daily whatever the weather is the kamikaze chicken. The regularity with which we meet these had enabled us to carry out a little research, the results of which I’m sure will be invaluable to other travellers through Africa. The chickens fall into three basic types:

1 those which sit at the side of the road ready to make a mad dash in front of us at the last moment;

2 those which make it to one side then turn back across our path;

3 the ‘road runner’ which runs, flapping, along in front of you for 20 to 30 yards, finally turning into the side with a despairing (or triumphant?) squawk.

A few of the more creative members of the chicken world favour a combination of two or more of these approaches — zig-zagging frantically across the road in front of us. We haven’t hit one yet.

Pigs and goats are quite boring in comparison. (Not including the large pig who scored a double hit in Ghana.) No sporting instincts perhaps.

Approaching Kisangani we cross over a bridge by ‘chutes’ and a modern looking water treatment station. And an equally modern looking brewery. We have noticed the high priority given to beer in Zaire.

We pass a funeral procession, women singing, a pitifully small wooden coffin on a hand cart.

There are stalls at the side of the road on the edge of town. There seems to be a lot of ivory for sale.

We get to the centre of town and find ourselves parked opposite the Land Rover agent. It seems likely that they will know where the Mobil offices are. In fact the boss has heard of our arrival and knows the local Mobil boss, who is on holiday in Cyprus at the moment. He takes us to the house of the Mobil man’s daughter-in-law, Poppy.

They are expecting us, having been advised of our imminent arrival by their Kinshasa office. Unfortunately the date they had been given was the date of our entry into Zaire, not our planned arrival date in Kisangani. They’d booked us into the Hotel Zongia, the best in Kisangani, but had had to cancel when we didn’t arrive.

Poppy, who has now been joined by her husband Petros, who speaks excellent English, takes us to the hotel, luckily they have enough rooms free. What bliss after the last few days. Richard, Jason and I have the choice of one double and one single room. We toss for it and Jason wins, selecting the single room. As it happens, though, Richard and I get the best of that deal. We are in Apartment Lokuto with a bedroom each plus air-conditioning, a refrigerator (stocked with complimentary beers), and a shower with water on tap (including hot water). And everything works too! Except for the television, but we can live without that.

Jason has similar facilities but the air-conditioning doesn’t work and, as he discovers later, the mosquito nets don’t fit over the windows properly.

Having said that, the Hotel Zongia is otherwise of uniformly high standard and is a very welcome oasis of luxury after a somewhat uncomfortable few days. We all take advantage of this to get things clean (clothes, bedding and ourselves) and dry.

That evening we are invited to dinner at the restaurant in the Greek Community Centre. Kisangani seems virtually to be run by a few Greek families.

Poppy and Petros’ friend George joins us. George runs a thriving distribution business. The meal is excellent. Tzatziki to start, made with a mild creamy cheese instead of yoghurt. I have grilled Capitaine (Nile perch) to follow. All this is served with a good red wine, imported from South Africa, I notice.

Tuesday 6 February

Kisangani — Stanley Falls — Kisangani

A has telexes to send so she, S and Jo go to the Mobil offices. Brigid, Lesley, Jason, Richard and I go into town, first to the post restante to pick up much-anticipated mail, then to the Hotel Olympia, where we would have been staying if it wasn’t for Mobil.

If a few people had been staying at the Olympia it might have been OK. But it is packed with overlanders, many of whom we’d seen on the road over the past few months — Pineapple, Epulu (Mike), Encounter, etc., even the British Sahara wind-surfers we’d last seen in Meknes. They’d circumvented — literally — the Morocco/Algeria border problem by driving back to Marseilles then shipping their Land Rover across to Algiers. The ban on British still only applies to land border crossings.

There seems hardly room to move on the small camp site behind the hotel. And there is one toilet and one shower for all.

We are told of a cheap bar just round the corner from the Olympia, so we take our letters there to read. We have lunch there too; 250 Zaires for fish and rice. Not much fish but plenty of rice and a spicy sauce.

While there a man offers to take us to a fishing village across the river in a pirogue. He has a pocketful of well-worn letters from people he’d previously acted as guide for. His fee seems reasonable and we have a full day in front of us so we decide to take him up on his offer. We all pile back into the Land Rover, drive out of town and park near a bar.

We walk down to the river past an ornate mosque. There are several pirogues moored at the river’s edge. There is an argument between our guide and a couple of the boatmen, apparently over which pirogue is most suited to taking us across the river. Having settled this, we all climb into the longer of the two dug-outs. It sways alarmingly and lies very low in the water.


After our brief journey across the river we’re back on foot again. The guide takes us through an Islamic village to an area by some rapids where the fishermen have set up conical wicker traps strung on bamboo frames. They haul one up while we’re there — lots of weed and one small fish. This is where they catch the Capitaine, an excellent example of which some of us had last night.

By dugout across the river again to Stanley Falls. These are not as impressive as I’d imagined — scarcely more than a line of rapids stretched across the river. The guide dissuades us from jumping in for a swim by telling us of a European who, a few months previously, had succumbed to the same urge and was swept away through the rapids, never to be seen again. We continue our walk to a nearby village. There we are greeted by the chief wearing a leopard skin hat, who welcomes us with the ‘talking drum’ — a large hollowed out tree trunk with a slot along its length. As the chief drums out each phrase it is translated by our guide. As we leave the Chief mentions that he’ll be in the bar tonight if we’d care to join him for a few drinks.

After talking to the chief our guide says that there is to be a circumcision ceremony this weekend and it might be possible for him to arrange for us to attend. We thank him but say that we must leave before Saturday.

The village children, who stood respectfully back in the chief’s presence, gather round us after he returned to his hut. They demand that we take their photographs, wanting nothing in return but a chance to look through the camera.

The final stage of our journey is a trip through the rapids in a pirogue. I’m probably not the only one thinking of our guide’s story of the lost swimmer. Back to the bar for a drink before returning to our hotel.

That evening we are all back at the Greek restaurant to entertain our hosts of the previous night. The Capitaine tastes even better.

Wednesday 7 February


There’s a press conference called for this morning. Petros has organised for Jean Brenac, French Managing Director of a local plastics factory, to translate for us, which takes the pressure off Brigid who would otherwise have been thrust to the fore again.

Present are radio, television and representatives from the Zaire Press Agency. The television cameraman is armed with a standard domestic VHS video camera and one of the reporters carries an Instamatic style camera for photographs.

We are told afterwards that television news reports involving commercial organisations always lead to that organisation being presented with a bill for air time. In the event the television coverage isn’t used but we are able to view the tape on Petros’ video recorder at lunch the following day.

In town we’re often approached by men bearing a scruffy sheet of cardboard showing simple outline drawings of various items of attire — shorts, trousers, tops, waistcoats — which they’ll make up in flour bags for £2-3 a time. We see quite a few overland travellers wearing the distinctive off-white, blue-stencilled fabric.

Lesley and Jason both order items. Your measurements are taken there and then and the seller arranges a suitable meeting place. He returns with the finished clothes within a couple of hours. Jason’s shorts have a waistband of about double his waist measurement. “We have allowed for shrinkage,” says the seller.

Back at the hotel we find an invitation from Theophannis, the owner of a local soap and plastics factories, for a meal at his home. Roast Capitaine. Unfortunately we have already booked a meal at the hotel restaurant. (I’d tried to order a typical Zairois meal. But that required 24 hours notice.) “That’s OK,” he said, “Come round for drinks afterwards.”

We arrive at the house a little after ten o’clock. It’s like stepping back into the sixties. The ten people there have just finished their meal. A Bob Dylan record is playing on the stereo. Sheet music is lying around and there’s a piano, drums, tenor sax, three guitars and an electric violin standing by.

Someone mentions to Theo that I used to play the saxophone. I make excuses, saying that I haven’t played for over 15 years, and any way it was the clarinet and alto saxophone, not a tenor. He has a word with Michel, the saxophone player.

“No problem,” he says, “My wife will go home and fetch my clarinet.” Ndako, his beautiful Zairois wife, smiles and nods. “Please don’t bother,” I say. But he insists.

I spend the next 20 minutes wondering if I would remember the fingering. I look at the music. At least that looks fairly straightforward. The clarinet arrives. I try a couple of scales. Not too bad, if you ignore the squeaks. I should get by if I play quietly.

“OK,” says Michel, “unfortunately the music’s written for a C instrument; you’re OK to sight transpose, are you?” I nod with what I hope looks like competence. How does it go? One note up and two sharps extra? I’d better play very quietly.

We start. I have had a couple of Primus beers and now a glass of wine appears beside me and is kept topped up.

The first piece goes OK. I think it’s coming back to me. The second is a Latin American piece with lots of runs up and down the scale. So long as I get the first and last notes right I should scrape by.

A couple of glasses of wine later I’m really enjoying myself. Michel sticks the music for Sidney Bechet’s ‘Petite Fleur’ in front of me. Theo pushes the microphone in my direction and suggests I take the solo. This really takes me back. The incongruity hits me. Hard to believe that we’re in the middle of what is reputed to be one of the most under-developed countries in Africa.

The evening continues. Every one is having great fun. Even the listeners. Shortly after 1 a.m. the saxophonist, Michel, starts to pack away. I ask if I might have a go on his tenor. I try a scale or two and unconsciously fall into a half-remembered jazz riff. The bass guitarist’s eyes light up, “You play jazz? Let’s go!” He picks up on the riff, the other guitarist and the drummer join in and we play together for a while. The tenor sax fingering is not too dissimilar from the alto’s. But I decide to swap back to the clarinet. Michel has been prevailed upon to stay and I assume he would prefer to play the tenor anyway.

The jam session finally breaks up at around 3 a.m. Richard surprises us all by dancing to the music. “Don’t know what came over me,” he claims later. “I haven’t done that for twenty years.”

Before we leave the black bass guitarist switches to an acoustic guitar and plays and sings a couple of Swahili songs which remind me of Kenya.

Before we leave Theo invites us to another dinner party on the following Sunday. We decline with great regret as our schedule demands that we leave on Friday. So, ducking round the ‘micro-light’ aircraft parked by the front door, we return to our vehicles and our hotel.

Thursday 8 February


Jason and S take the vehicles to the Land Rover office to have them checked over. They are OK. We just get the cam belt replaced in the 110.

To lunch with Petros, Poppy and George. Poppy, who was born in Uganda but has lived in Zaire for most of her life, provides us with an excellent Zairois meal of chicken in peanut sauce, rice and spinach. Afterwards we watch the Zaire television company’s video of yesterday’s press conference. Jo plays backgammon with George.

A and S go to meet the British consul.

At the hotel that evening, in deference to our lunchtime banquet, I have just fish soup and crepe flambe.

Bonaventure Zongia and his wife take photographs of us all and we swap addresses. Bonaventure has fingers in many pies. He’s off to Italy soon to sell wood.

Friday 9 February

Kisangani — Madula — (wild camp) [40 miles]

Today the plan is that we visit a soap and plastics factory, collect food and fuel, and then continue our journey east. At breakfast, however, we have a ‘phone call from Petros to say that no-one is allowed on the roads in Kisangani. A government decree states that all factory and shop workers in the city should join together and tidy up the roads and streets in preparation for a Presidential visit. So we can’t move until one o’clock.

The factory visit is out, then. At one o’clock we go straight to George’s warehouse to fill up with fuel. A goes to buy food, including sausages and Goma cheese. Petros and Poppy give us a box of potatoes and carrots.

It’s late afternoon by the time we’re loaded and ready to go. We leave, determined to get a couple of hours down the road before nightfall.

A man cycles ahead of us with six dead monkeys strapped to the back of his bike.

At dusk we stop at a small village. We find a good spot to camp between two disused huts, with the owner’s permission.

Saturday 10 February

(wild camp) — Bafwaboli — Batama — Bafwabalinga — (wild camp) [120 miles]

After breakfast, as we pack away, an old man brings woven cane rattles to sell to us.

It’s good to be back on the road again. As we pull off our camp site a peddler passes pushing a bike piled high with an incredible variety of hardware and haberdashery.

Further on, two boys emerge from the long grass at the side of the road. They are wearing raffia tops and skirts and carry woven rattles. Their arms and legs are daubed with white paint. There are a lot of people on the road this morning. Many of them duck to the side and hide in the long grass or behind bushes as we pass.

In the next village we pass a witch doctor in full regalia. Next to him stands a young boy dressed in a kind of cane framework to which clumps of feathers have been tied.

Perhaps this was some kind of special day and the circumcision ceremony we’d been invited to in Kisangani was just one of many being held throughout the region.

Around mid-morning we stop by a large lorry loaded with logs. Behind it a great swathe has been cut into the forest. The man in charge of the logging operation gives us permission to follow the track and gives us a guide, who rides on the front of the 110.

We’re told that the actual logging work is being carried out about ten kilometres into the forest. We follow the broad track for almost twice that distant but there’s no sign of any felling work being carried out.

A few more kilometres in, a big yellow Caterpillar lorry is winching logs from the forest onto the track. All the way along are discarded, rotten tree trunks, and many small uprooted trees obviously rejected as being not worth moving.

About 18 kilometres in the track divides into two smaller ones. In a clearing there are two hemispherical palm-leaf huts and some broken, rusting machinery. The huts are home to two men working on the logging project. We stop and talk to them. They tell us that most of the wood they are cutting down is Afromosa, which they call first-class wood, plus some Sapele, which they refer to as second-class wood.

Our guide rummages among some discarded pieces of wood and found a piece of sapele which he presents to Lesley.

One of the workers is carrying a live tortoise by a piece of vine tied to its back legs. It is destined for the cooking pot. We examine it. It is a pregnant female. Although it is normally best not to buy animals in this way, in case it creates a market and encourages the trapping of more animals, we decide to buy the tortoise and release it. The man is happy with a price of 400 Zaires. We untie the vines from around its legs and release it into the forest well away from the encampment.

Back on the road again, a bright splash of colour catches my eye in the trees. As we get closer I see it is an old man wearing a brilliant green and yellow anorak.

That night, in our camp in a laterite quarry I tape the calls of the insects, birds and animals in the forest around us.

Sunday 11 February

(wild camp) — Bafwasende — Nia Nia — Adusa — Epulu (wild camp near) [151 miles]

The morning is overcast. There is distant thunder as we pack away quickly and get back on the road. At a checkpoint by a bridge the police are more interested in getting us to hand over a couple of pens than in checking our passports.

It starts to rain.

In Bafwasende Richard buys beers. Joyful singing in an open-air church. Many of the singers wield shakers.

At our mid-morning water break we exchange two small plastic water containers for ten avocados and three empty beer bottles for about 20 delicious small bananas.

Through Nia Nia. A man walks out of the forest and stands at the side of the road wearing a plumed head-dress and a grass skirt and anklets. His body is daubed with white paint.

There are crowds of people walking along the road. The rain has stopped.

We reach a village in which some kind of ceremony is taking place. There are drums, chanting and a line of dancing men. Several of the men and one young boy are wearing masks and straw costumes. Bundles of foliage are fixed to their upper arms which they hold behind them as they stamp in the dance. Their bodies too are daubed with white. The women dance separately in a circle.

We stop to watch. One of the masked men sees us and dances towards us. He welcomes us and asks for money for watching the dance. I would like to take photographs but our very presence seems intrusion enough. The man dances back to the others.

A young man asks us if we want to take photographs. He wants 1000 Zaires each. We say No, thanks.

An old man from the crowd surrounding the dancers, having seen us pay the masked man, decided he wants money as well. He leans through the open window of the Series III, breathing palm wine fumes over me. The vehicles are now surrounded by people, some are singing and stamping on the ground, others just stare at us.

We are beginning to feel uncomfortable. We signal our intention to move on. Jason starts to drive slowly away. The old man clings to the side of the Land Rover. He wants money, money. We continue to drive slowly along and after a few yards he scrambles off, standing unsteadily at the road-side shaking his fist as we accelerate away.

In the next village several large drums lay in a circle around a fire, skins towards the heat.

Late afternoon it starts to rain again. Perhaps we should try for Epulu? A column of safari ants splits into fifteen lines crossing the road in front of us. We stop and get out for a closer look. Soldier ants with large pincers protect the columns. For once Jason, who seems to have a special attraction for ants, is not the victim. A lets out a yell and brushes off a soldier ant which has bitten her. The head and pincers are left, clamped firmly into the flesh.

The road is not too good. At times we slow to a crawl over lengths of track covered with small rocks like cobblestones.

It’s getting late, but we’re not far from the camp-site at Epulu. The road is narrow, however, and we come up against a stuck lorry. Getting out to investigate, we discover that it is one of three that have been bogged down in the mud here since this morning. It is now about seven o’clock in the evening. The drivers are digging out, gaining a few feet, then getting stuck again. It’s about three hours before we’re able to get past them.

Although only a few miles from Epulu, rather than arrive at the site late, we decide to camp off the road. We’re wet and muddy. My hair is thick with dust from riding in the Series III. The single bowl of water I’m using to wash in is soon as red as the soil of the laterite road. As usual, most of the dust seems to end up on the towel. I’ll be able to wash it in Epulu.

Monday 12 February

(wild camp) — Epulu [3 miles]

We pack up and make the 20 minute journey down the road to Epulu. It’s an idyllic spot by the river. We pitch camp overlooking a series of rapids. There are real flush toilets too! There are no washing facilities, though. You use the river for that.


We rinse through the muddy clothes we’ve been wearing the past couple of days then jump in ourselves. The more adventurous leap off a rock into a sort of funnel formed by the rapids and are swept down about 12 yards into an area of calmer water. It looks very exhilarating.

We’re not the only overlanders here. We meet up with several other groups we’ve encountered previously on the road — Okapi, Guerba, Pineapple. And a new one — Snafu. It turns out this latter was a north-bound truck run by one of the well-known commercial overland operators that had run into problems. The co-driver had absconded with the visa money in Nairobi. There’d been a mix-up over booking dates and many passengers were held up waiting for everyone to turn up. And the truck itself was on its last legs.

The passengers eventually mutinied and took over the truck and have been running their own trip ever since. They’re weeks behind schedule already, though, because of the delays in Nairobi and the need to make regular stops for repairs.

Someone on another overland truck bought a couple of African Grey parrots in C.A.R. and has been keeping them in a cage in the back of the vehicle ever since. Several of the other passengers are unhappy about this and report him to the conservation workers here. The parrots have been confiscated and he was fined $100.

During the afternoon we watch Rosemary Ruf, the Swedish conservation worker, release them. She wasn’t going to let them go straight away, hoping to check them for injuries or illness first. One flies off as she is moving it to a larger cage, frightened by a curious chimp. The other seems perfectly OK, so she allows it to join its mate, perched in a nearby tree.

We walk along the river bank to an area where Rosemary and her husband Carl have five chimpanzees in a group of large cages. The chimps were brought here by travellers who bought them from trappers in the forest. One has been confiscated from a hotel in Kisangani.

We were offered a baby chimp in a bar a few days ago, but refused to buy, on the grounds that to do so would only help create the market.

She lets a couple of them out. They seem very tame. One climbs a tree. I hold my arms out. It jumps down, clambers down me onto the ground and reaches up to hold my hand. It tugs my hand and we walk around. It rolls on the ground at my feet and I scratch it for a while until the other one jumps onto my back and they both scramble off into the trees again.


We are aware of an eerie intelligence. One suddenly stops and stares searchingly into my eyes for quite some time, like an attempt at communication. It then reaches out, pats my hand and goes off again.

I hear thunder and lightning around us during the evening, but apart from a few drops of rain around eight o’clock, the threatened storm doesn’t materialise. The overcast sky later clears.

That night I walk along the river bank, there’s an almost full moon reflected in the water. Frogs croak above the roar of water over the falls.

Tuesday 13 February


I wake early after a pleasantly cool night. Epulu is quite high, which means not too many mosquitoes either, although there seems just as many of those tiny, irritating flies around your ankles all the time.

Walking along the river bank, I meet an old pygmy man dressed in a baggy pair of tattered, once khaki shorts. He greets me in French.

I sit on the river bank writing my diary. After a while Richard gets up and starts his usual morning activity — getting the Kelly kettle going for tea. He claims he nearly always gets tea in bed at home.

One of the station workers is washing some clothes in the river a few yards upstream. There are said to be crocodiles in the river but we haven’t seen any yet. Presumably they avoid the actual camp site area.

There is a hut by the entrance to the camping area. A tyreless truck wheel hangs outside it. A truck draws up and about ten men climb inside it. Painted on the side are the words ‘Survival/Root’, followed by a Nairobi address.

Some kind of large hawk circles above me. I can see its spread tail feathers changing angle as it controls its effortless flight.

Richard is joined by A and Jason. They all sit looking out at the falls drinking tea.

The sun has found a space in the clouds and is reflecting off the rapids and the morning-wet grass.

It clouds over again after breakfast and we have a burst of heavy rain at about half past nine. It has almost stopped now and I can see mist evaporating off the thickly forested hills across the river from us.

Later on, Rosemary collects us to show us around Epulu and tell us a little of its history. The camp was founded by American anthropologist Patrick Putnam in 1928 as a capture station, where wild okapis were captured and sent to American and European zoos. (See: Patrick Putnam in Epulu, by ‘Madami’ Anne Eisne Putnam, published by Prentice Hall. Putnam died of emphysema and is buried in Mambasa.) Its role changed to a research station and reserve in the early 1950s. There are few restrictions within the reserve on mining, logging and hunting, although this should change if they manage to obtain the hoped-for National Park status. Anti-poaching patrols aren’t effective as word of their presence soon gets around.

She shows us a large enclosure containing several duikers. It also holds a black civet cat which moves constantly around the enclosure. It shouldn’t be there. It got in about a week ago but they hope that it will find its way out again soon.


The station was actually set up to study the rare okapi. Several are kept there. At first glance it looks a little like a cross between a zebra and an antelope. then you notice the giraffe-like head and legs. It has two small horns, too, like a giraffe, and a long, prehensile tongue.

The project is funded by an American millionaire with a private zoo in Florida. There he breeds rare animals — cheetah, bongo, gerenuk. He started with Florida cougar and plans to add rhinos soon. Part of the agreement is that they send okapi from time to time to zoos in U.S.A. and Europe. I get the impression that the researchers aren’t too keen on this, but accept it as part of the price for the funding.

The project includes a successful breeding programme. We see a young okapi, born on November 21. It is kept alone. In the wild mother and child spend little time together except when the animal is suckling. It spends most of its time lying down in its ‘nest’, coming out only if the mother calls. The call is low, soft grunt.

The okapi is a solitary animal, so more pens are planned so that more females can be housed and the breeding programme extended. It takes time for them to adapt to captivity. The young are normally ready to breed after about a year — when on solid food.

The project has a contract with the Zaire government. Fresh okapi bloodline needed for zoos. There are  65 in captivity at the moment. One okapi is sent out per every $100 000 of funding in. It takes about $250 000 a year to run the station. Okapis are being sent to US zoos only at the time of writing, but they hope to extend to European zoos later. The gestation period in cativity is 410 days, although research in the wild has shown that this can extend to 420 to 430, even 450 days. They suggest that the additives being given to ensure the animals’ health might affect the gestation period. Their food is otherwise completely natural, collected every day from the forest by pygmies from the nearby village.

The new baby is under observation by three people 12 hours a day. They record food preferences, amount, movement, ruminating, drinking water — all activities are rigorously monitored.

The Harts, sponsored by the New York Zoological Society, are studying the okapi in the wild. Rosemary and her husband study those on the station.

This area has the last surviving population of okapi in the wild. They are not hunted for their skin as it’s seen as useless once the animal is dead. The okapi produce a skin secretion, an oil which gives the coat its sheen. Although some poaching for food does go on, the okapi is not considered seriously endangered at the moment.

I’m told that they are very aggressive when first caught until they get used to humans. They’re normally gentle with each other, although adult males can cause problems if penned together. The size of a male’s territory in the wild ranges from 3-5 sq km to 8-12 sq km.

One of the animals is limping from being caught in a hunter’s snare.

Update 2018: In June 2012, the Epulu Conservation and Research Centre was attacked, looted and burned by a group of Mai-Mai rebels, mainly elephant poachers and illegal miners, lead by Paul Sadala (alias Morgan). During the attack six people, including two wildlife rangers, were killed as were all 14 of the captive okapis. Many other locals, some minors, were abducted, but all were released later. In early August, the security situation had improved due to Congolese army troops and guards from the Congolese Wildlife Authority, and preparations for repairs began. Following donations from around the world, it was rebuilt a year after the attack.

In July 2017, there was a further attack in the section of the reserve near Mambasa, likely by Mai-Mai rebels. Foreign journalists (two British and an American) and several local park rangers escaped unharmed, but five local reserve employees (four wardens and a tracker) were killed. Several of the attackers were also killed.

Further lives were lost in more recent attacks, the latest in February of this year (2018). Nevertheless research and conservation work continues. Lack of funding due to the poor political and economic conditions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo also continues to be a problem. It is hoped that security can be improved and eco-tourism to the area can be developed, leading to both increased funding and improved public awareness.


I’m escorted to the nearby pygmy village. Sitting in one of  the leaf-covered shelters is an old man smoking a long pipe. Another man sits in the doorway scraping the scales off dried fish. A third is splitting arrow shafts and inserting flights cut to shape from leaves. A younger man is hammering 6 in. nails flat and filing them down to make arrow heads.

There aren’t many people in the village. I saw no women at all. And most of the men were off in the forest hunting duikers, a favourite food. There were a few babies around, which seemed to be of normal size.

I am given a small woven palm leaf stool to sit on, which isn’t easy as they’re not too stable and have a tendency to tip you off backwards.

There are several children around. One is brandishing a toy machine gun carved from wood.

Some of the huts are traditional pygmy style dome-shaped huts made from curved branches covered with palm leaves. Others are the standard mud huts we’ve seen elsewhere in the area. These pygmies are no longer nomadic.

We gave them some 6 in. nails, woollen clothing for children and cigarettes for the head man. The men try on the brightly coloured woollies before passing them on to the children. A boy is cooking a meal — fish with some green vegetable looking like leaves of spinach, cooked in palm oil. The man on my left is eating from a metal ashtray.

Walking back to our camp, a bright blue/green and orange lizard snaps up ants from the tree bark.

There seems quite a collection of fireflies around our fire tonight. Perhaps they mistake the sparks for a potential mate?

Wednesday 14 February

Epulu — Mambasa — (wild camp) [104 miles]

I’m up before 6.00 and take a walk along the river bank, moon on my left, the sun shining dimly through the mist which covers the opposite river bank on my right. Wagtails peck along the shore.

Jan and Terese Hart are studying the okapi in their natural environment. The study area is 20 k from Epulu, They have a team of 20 locals, including 10 pygmies. They are monitoring 14 animals with radio collars. They had 30 but lost 16 to leopards. The okapis are captured in a pit trap and collared.

Okapis have range of about 10 sq km. To carry out the monitoring there are 500 k of trails criss-crossing the study area. There’s a film crew from Nairobi with them at the moment — Alan Root making a programme for ‘Survival’.

A snake is spotted by the river — a harmless olive water snake, from the description. I discover that one was seen yesterday too. It is killed by one of the overlanders who claims it was chasing him in the river. Since at the time he was swimming down the ‘chutes’ at the time ‘chasing’ seems a bit of an exaggeration.

We leave Epulu at 11.30, over the bridge and on the road towards Mount Hoyo. The staff at the Epulu gate house insist on a group photograph with us before we leave. They wouldn’t have charged us for camping if we hadn’t insisted. I’m sorry to leave; this is a real gem of a place.

We pass over a series of little bridges where streams cross the road, constructed by the simple expediency of half-burying a large pipe in the road. It’s a bit like driving over a switchback.

A large brown and orange insect drops into my lap, brushed off a branch as we pass along the narrow road. I throw it hastily out through the window.

We pass through the main town of the area, Mambasa. There are old brick buildings and a hospital. Police relaxing under a tree wave us by. Signs advertise ‘The Church of Christ via the Prophet Simon Kibangu’.

A few years later this area became the haunt of the Simba militia who as recently as 2016 attacked and kidnapped researchers from Epulu as well as workers and others from the Mambasa itself.

Charcoal is offered for sale at the side of the road, packed into cylindrical woven baskets.

Several Ugandan registered lorries edge past on the narrow road, heading west.

We pass through a village in which three men sit playing drums in a furious, complex rhythm.

In every village children run towards us as we drive through, holding up things for sale — perhaps fruit or vegetables, or a carved stick, or a bow and arrows. In one village a line of children hold out a selection of pipes and bead necklaces. A naked toddler scrambles from a hut to join them, grabbing a stick from the ground which he holds out in the same hopeful manner.

Eight pygmies shuffle in a dancing line along the road, all playing bamboo flutes in a simple repetitive rhythm.

In a circle of children an old man points at a picture in a tattered book. What story is he telling? He loses their attention a moment as they turn and wave as we pass.

Suitable camp sites are few and far between again. Eventually we find a clearing near a small village. To sleep to the sound of drums and singing again.

Thursday 15 February

(wild camp) — Komanda — Atunukwe — Oysha — Beni — (wild camp) [103 miles]

The road doesn’t get any better. There are some very badly rutted sections.

We buy bananas in Komanda where we turn left towards Beni. We pass a track signposted to Mount Hoyo. Pity there’s no time to stop.

I buy a stringed musical instrument from a man at the side of the road. I wonder if he was disappointed that I didn’t haggle. It seemed hardly worth it at the asking price of 500 Zaires (about 60p).

A ragged boy wears a pendant made from a Primus beer cap.

A young woman bends under an enormous load of palm leaves. She has a baby strapped to her front and leads a toddler by one hand. Her other hand steadies the strap around her forehead which holds her heavy load.

Between Atunukwe and Oysha we stop to talk to a guy on a cycle, a guitar strapped to his rear wheel. He has a WWF sticker on his helmet, a Greenpeace sticker on his guitar. He’s from Germany. He left home in July, travelling via Egypt, Sudan and Central African Republic. He hopes to reach South Africa by October.

He too is promoting the interests of WWF, and has called in on several WWF projects en route. He left Epulu a couple of days before we arrived there.

We stop at Oysha for beers and tonics. Three girls sitting outside the bar are hitching from Nairobi. They ask us about Epulu, intending to stop for a few days before continuing to Kisangani to try to pick up a boat along the Zaire.

We spend the night outside a Catholic church between Beni and Butembo. The last few miles of our journey have been through rolling hills. The high altitude means a pleasantly cool night and no mosquitoes.

Friday 16 February

(wild camp) — Butembo — Musienene — Lubero — Alimbongo — (wild camp) [75 miles]

Early mass is sung while we breakfast. We make a donation to church funds and then we’re off into a cool morning and the mist in the hills.

There are rectangular patches of cultivation on the steep hill-sides, and occasional smudges of smoke from tiny groups of huts.

There seem more vegetables around than we’ve seen for a long time, especially tomatoes and onions. We trade a couple of small water containers and some bottles for tomatoes, passion fruit, plums and pineapples. A woman walks down the hill towards us, a rolled umbrella balanced on her head.

The rough, rocky road continues to twist and climb into the mountains. Men ride bicycles loaded with leeks down the road. Three men push cycles with containers of cooking oil strapped either side of the front and rear wheels.

A woman half-jogs down the road, a large tartan suitcase balanced on her head.

From time to time we pass a hut with a stick planted in the ground outside, an empty cigarette packet stuck on top — a sign advertising cigarettes sold here? Outside one hut there’s an empty beer bottle upturned on a stick.

From time to time there’s the smell of eucalyptus.

I hear the ring of iron on an anvil. Round the next corner a blacksmith fashions a panga, beating an edge into the hot metal.

Three men sit with hammers at the road-side, breaking stones.

In Butembo where we stop to try to buy potatoes, there’s an arcade on the main road full of women sorting coffee beans. They sit on one pile, scooping beans towards them from another pile in front of them, sorting them one by one. The occasional one is thrown into a reject pile.

Leaving the town, I notice a white sheet hanging outside a building. Block capitals in black paint advertise a magician who will perform miracles tomorrow.

It starts to rain after we leave Butembo — a steady drizzle at first, then increasing.

Over the past couple of days we’ve seen scooters constructed from rough-hewn wood. At first I thought they are simply children’s playthings. Perhaps some of the time they are. But many are clearly gainfully employed in transporting goods around and between villages.

We continue climbing. The rain stops. We pass a tea plantation. The road seems a little better at the moment with fewer ruts.

There are hundreds of children running down the road towards us. Some wear blue and white uniforms, some are in tattered hand-me-downs. All carry a bowl or basin of some kind. These are followed by groups of older children, similarly dressed, carrying pangas or mattocks.

The road has levelled out. There are more tea plantations. The road surface is still quite good. Much of the vegetation now is quite alpine. There are giant ferns.

We stop at a sign marking the equator for the obligatory photos.

The road follows a river for a way. Men are digging. Some have pans. We stop and talk. They claim at first that they are digging for water. Digging for gold by anyone other than an official government body is illegal. As we continue to chat they relax and confess that they are looking for gold. They offer us a gram for 9000 Zaires.

We meet several women carrying sacks of bark — for quinine, perhaps?

We stop for lunch in a shaded spot overlooking a valley. Volcanic hills fade to blue beyond.

I take a walk and find a hairy black spider-like creature with a single white band around its middle. It has black antennae with orange ‘bobbles’ at the ends.

The road runs alongside a river. I can hear a waterfall.

In Lubero we exchange a few empty bottles for potatoes. Jason has some gilt chains. He swaps one for a small woven basket of Cape gooseberries which we pass around as we travel.

We can look out over hills and valleys like a rumpled quilt of a million greens. It’s difficult sometimes to get a sense of scale. There are giant bracken fronds as big as some trees.

The road skirts one side of a hill, then the other, the track often crumbling at the edge.

We pass a muddy pool black with enormous tadpoles. Giant groundsel grows nearby and sheep graze on the hillside behind.

Between Lubero and Alimbongo we stop at a farm for cheese. Camping facilities are available here, for 100 Zaires each. We’d like to stop but it’s early and we want to make a few more miles by nightfall.

A white man in a Japanese four-wheel drive vehicle stops to talk. It turns out he is an American missionary A and S met in Butembo on their last trip. At the moment he is working on a translation of the Bible into one of the local languages. He tells us of a mission ahead where we can stay the night.

Some miles further on, however, we haven’t found the place, but we have found a laterite quarry. So we turn off and set up camp.

There are tadpoles in a puddle. It’s the coldest night for a long time. I am lying in my tent, inside my sleeping bag for a change, listening to frogs calling.

In the middle of the night something wakes me, It sounds like an animal of some kind moving about the camp. After a while I poke my head cautiously through the tent flap. The sounds have stopped and there’s no sign of anything — just imagined movements in the moon’s shadows.

Saturday 17 February

(wild camp) — Kayna-Bayonga — Rwindi Lodge — Virunga National Park — Rwindi Lodge [95 miles]

It’s a cool morning. There’s mist on the hills around us. I’m wearing a jacket for the first time since our desert nights.

The road continues to wind through the hills. Its quite good in most places, with just the occasional section that needs to be negotiated with care.

We’re high still. At times there are clouds in the valleys below us.

After about an hour we start to drop, the road winding down now. We stop for a mid-morning break. Lesley and I walk on ahead a while. It’s exhilarating striding down the steep road in the cool air. Everyone we pass greets us with a friendly wave and smile. This would be a great place for a walking holiday. The Land Rovers stop and pick us up too soon.

There’s a lad on a wooden scooter in front of us. He panics and drops his scooter and runs when he sees us. I call him back but he runs even faster down the road.

Jason stops and I get out and pick up the discarded scooter. I’d like to ride it down the hill but content myself with pushing it towards the boy. He steps behind a tree, watching me warily. I smile at him and after a moment’s hesitation he grins back.

I continue down the hill and hand back his scooter. He is happy to be photographed in exchange for a pen.

At the next village we stop to fill our water containers. At the pump we are surrounded by small boys pushing scooters with water carriers strapped to them.

A little further on we buy vegetables. A policeman strolls through the market. In front of him walk two men, one’s right arm is linked to the other’s left by a short length of chain.

The countryside is becoming more densely populated as we descend. Now the villages run virtually into one. We pass a small shop called ‘Maridadi’. The word means smart or elegant in Swahili. A couple of years ago my wife and I had spent part of a very enjoyable holiday in Malindi, Kenya, in a banda in a tropical garden. The name above the door of the banda read ‘Maridadi’. A very different Africa.

This part of Zaire seems relatively wealthy in comparison with much of the country. Or perhaps I should say there is less obvious poverty. We stop at a market in Kayna-Bayonga. Many of the stalls have beautiful fabric lengths for sale. There are the striking green and purple tie-dyes we’ve seen worn by many women in the area, and bright wax prints. Some of the fabrics are printed in Zaire, others are specially produced in Holland for the African market. It’s raining a little.

After Kayna-Bayonga the road starts to climb again. We drive into clouds. The valleys below us are lined with mist, which also wreathes the huts on the hillside to our left.

A little before mid-day we pass the Hotel Italia, which the American missionary had said we should look out for as the church where we could find a safe camp-site is nearby. It’s a good job we decided to camp in the quarry last night. Nearly everyone we ask directions of overestimates by quite a wide margin the speed at which we can travel. Although we have given away quite an amount of the clothing and other items we’d brought to distribute on the way, the vehicles are still very overweight and top heavy, so our progress has to be fairly steady. To try to even things out in the Series III several of our personal packs are being carried inside instead of on top. Which doesn’t improve matters for whoever’s turn it is to ride in the back of this vehicle.

We turn a corner and a flat plain stretches before us. Somebody points. Four baboons cross the road in front of us. The muddy road continues down towards the plain.

We stop at a pull-in overlooking the plain. There’s a plaque commemorating the setting up of the Virunga National Park. I scan the scenery below us with the small binoculars I carry in my camera bag, There’s something moving. Suddenly I realise I’m looking at a herd of elephants, about thirty of them. To their right buffalo graze by acacia thorns.

We continue, past the herd of buffalo we’d observed from the escarpment. It’s still raining. There are buck, wart hogs and hartebeest too. Four bright yellow weaver birds dart around a tree bearing about twenty of their nests, tear-drop shaped at the ends of branches.

A big male lion crosses the road in front of us. There’s another one right at the side of the road, a few feet from us. We stop. After a while it yawns, gets up and walks a few yards over to where a female and a young male lie. He greets the female with a lick and a rumbling purr and then the three animals sit and watch us.

The first male has disappeared. We can see two more females a few yards away from the first group.

Just a few hundred yards further on is the park headquarters. We arrive to find that the guard on the gate has a note and is expecting us. This is a surprise to us as this isn’t one of our planned stops. In fact it turns out that they aren’t expecting us after all and we’ve been confused with someone else.

We park outside the headquarters and eat our lunchtime sandwiches. A baboon climbs onto the front of the 110 and helps itself to a couple of large, juicy onions that were to have been a vital part of that evening’s meal. A has to be restrained from chasing the animal in an attempt to retrieve them.


There’s a river in front of us and through the binoculars I can see two large hippos tussling in the muddy water. They alternately submerge and rise out of the water, jaws gaping and sparring together.

Camping is, understandably, not allowed in the park area, so we set off, hoping to make it through before nightfall. From a bridge over the River Rwindi we stop for a while and watch the hippos we’d seen from Rwindi Lodge. The two males are still sparring in the water, although apparently without serious intent. Several of the animals are grazing on the banks. Although I’ve seen hippos in the wild before, in Kenya, they’ve always kept to the water. I always thought they only came out after dark.

Out of the water they look faintly comical — their vast pinkish-brown bodies and those absurd little tails. It’s hard to accept their reputation as one of Africa’s most dangerous animals.

The bigger of the two sparring males clambers out of the river. Two smaller hippos greet him. We can see twelve here in all, including a baby about the size of a large dog.

While we’ve been watching the hippos a troop of baboons, led by a big male who bares stained fangs at us in threat, has crept up around the sides of the vehicles. Not wishing to lose any more onions, we wind up the windows and move on.

A couple of miles further on there’s another group of hippos, near some hot springs. There’s a smell of sulphur in the drifting steam. Boiling hot water bubbles up from cracks in the black volcanic rock. A stream of water runs into the river near where the hippos have gathered, like fat old men enjoying a steam bath.

Not far from here there’s a memorial, erected in 1970, to 23 park guards killed in the course of their conservation duties.

An African fish eagle sits on a tree overlooking the river. Below us another fifteen hippos lie around the outflow from one of the hot springs.

The road is getting very muddy. We pass two stuck lorries. In one the driver and assorted passengers are bedding down for the night (officially forbidden in the national park). They have a fire lit and ask us if we have any food. We give them a bunch of bananas. There’s a park ranger with them. He asks for a lift to the other side of the park.

The road is getting even muddier. Two kilometres from the National Park gate we’re heading for we find three stuck lorries in front of us. They’re skewed across the road and there’s no chance of us getting past them. We get out to investigate, slurping through the glutinous mud. One of them is an overland group we’ve met before. They’re driving an old Mercedes four-wheel drive fire engine.

It’s dark now.

After much digging the first two trucks get clear. The last one tries, makes a few feet then lurches sideways into mud over its axles. It’ll obviously be some time before it gets out.

We have a problem. Do we wait and see if the truck makes it, then try ourselves with the almost certain possibility of having to dig ourselves out in the dark? Even if we manage to do that we’ve still to find a camp-site.

We decide to turn back and retrace the twenty miles to Rwindi Lodge on the other side of the national park. The warden we’d given a lift to thanks us and sets off to walk to the park entrance.

We pass more stuck vehicles on the way back. One truck is slewed right across the road, blocking it. Luckily the gully on one side isn’t too deep and we manage to inch past. Back near the bridge from which we watched the hippos we meet up with another road hazard. A large hippo is ambling along the road. We crawl along for about 50 yards behind it until it decides to leave the track and return to the bush, without deigning to give a single glance in our direction.

Back at the lodge we discover that they no longer allow camping. And they charge 33 500 Zaires for a double room! The Chief Warden of the park seems somewhat surprised that such a charge is totally outside our budget. He does offer to write a note to the manager of a small fish farm seven kilometres back down the road, asking permission for us to camp there. By now, though, none of us relish the idea of spending a night with the baboons and hippos. So we decide to try to find the lodge manager to see if the room rates might be negotiable. Not surprisingly, the place seems hardly packed out. In fact the sole occupants seem to be a German couple sitting alone in the restaurant, a waiter standing behind each of their chairs.

The lodge manager is temporarily unavailable so we retire to the bar to wait for him. Beers are double the price of anywhere else in Zaire so Richard and I share one. When the manager arrives he agrees to let us have three rondavels to be shared between eight people for the price of six. As the quoted price doesn’t include breakfast this doesn’t seem much of a concession. But the desire for a hot bath and bed overcomes any thoughts of haggling further.

The paraffin stove we brought with us has never worked properly, but tonight it manages to produce enough heat to warm up some soup.

Later, bathed and comfortable, I lie in bed listening to lions roaring and a hippo scrunching along the path outside our rondavels. I’d been looking forward to reading in bed with a proper light but the electricity had been turned off while I was having my bath. So it’s back to my torch which has to be beaten against the ground every thirty seconds in order to resuscitate its fitful glow.

Sunday 18 February

Rwindi Lodge — Kabraza Station — Rutshuru — Goma [84 miles]

Off again on the same familiar road. Several lorries pass us so it must be clear now.

At the hot springs S stops and rinses out last night’s soup saucepan.

We reach the point at which we turned back about twelve hours ago to find another truck stuck. Two men are digging it out. The mud has dried out a lot in the sun so it isn’t long before the truck is free and away.

We follow it with care. Both Land Rovers lurch and slide but we get through without getting bogged down. So the shovels stayed on board once more.

Kabraza Station marks the border of the National Park. We celebrate our escape from the slough which temporarily claimed most of our fellow travellers along this road by handing out a few woollies to children at the Station.

There are large woven baskets at the side of the road, measuring perhaps six feet deep by four feet across. We are still travelling over a plain, although there are mountains ahead of us. The countryside here is a mixture of savannah and occasional woodland.

We stop in Rutshuru for bananas and beer. We’re paying 600 Zaires a bottle for beer now, compared with around 350 in Kisangani. Still, they brew the stuff in Kisangani and you’d expect to have to pay something for transporting it along these atrocious roads. But at 600 Zaires it’s still a lot cheaper than the 1000 they were charging at Rwindi Lodge.

An old woman cleaning out the gully at the side of the road stops to wave as we pass. She is puffing at a long pipe. There are still lots of the home-made wooden scooters around, In Rutshuru it seems to be the fashion to fix a cardboard propeller on the front of your scooter. Most are otherwise fairly plainly constructed and undecorated. Although we did see one whose owner had brightened it up with smiling black faces cut from Omo soap powder packets.

There’s a group of small boys huddled around a fallen scooter at the road-side. One of the wheels has fallen off. We stop and Richard repairs it.

A rare signpost points left to Jomba. We follow it heading for the Virunga Mountains and the gorillas.

Before long we’re climbing again. Ahead of us a volcanic cone towers improbably high through clouds which seem to cling to its sides.

We stop for lunch in a coffee plantation below the mountains. Several families pass us, all wearing their Sunday best.

Turning a corner, we suddenly come across a blaze of yellow and orange flowers. They are part of a rock garden someone has lovingly created at the side of a fast-running stream.

The road skirts the mountains. On our left two peaks are mirrored by two smaller conical hills in the foreground. The former are dark and clouded, the latter patchworked with cultivation.

Just outside Goma we meet up with Pineapple, one of the overland trucks, we’ve seen several times previously. The driver directs us to a good camping spot in the town. As we get into town several small boys offer to direct us to the same spot — the Sportsman. They offer to undertake washing or any other small chores we may wish to offer them.

A and S take the 110 to try to find our contact. The office is closed, but is due to re-open at 9 a.m. tomorrow.

At the Sportsman we park next to the lawn and pitch our tents there. The facilities aren’t bad, but everything has the usual run-down air. The toilets have no seats and have long ceased to flush. A tap and a tin can are provided.

Monday 19 February


A, S and Jo leave to find our WWF contact. The rest of us stay in camp and catch up on our chores.

Musicians arrive with a marimba, drums and shakers. They are followed by about a hundred women. They start playing and dancing in the basket ball court. They stop and re-start frequently, obviously being rehearsed in something by a man in a dark suit.

After a while uniformed men arrive, check round the area, then usher in an important looking man in a brown suit and a sash in Zaire national colours. He is accompanied by another man in a lime green uniform. They walk around the grounds and chase off all the small boys.

One of the men explains to me that an important man is arriving soon. The women are still rehearsing their songs and dances.

Cars arrive and men in suits carrying briefcases get out, in the company of yet more security officers. The women begin ululating in greeting and the music starts in earnest. The singing and dancing go on for some time. Then the men go for a meeting with another group of women, sitting around a table covered in typed sheets of paper, just outside the bar. After about ten minutes discussion with these women the men leave. The singing and dancing continues for some time afterwards.

A and S return. They haven’t been able to organise a visit for us to the gorilla sanctuary as the WWF are no longer directly involved in this project, which has now been taken over by Frankfurt Zoo. WWF is now responsible solely for education work with the local communities around the reserves.

The local WWF representative, Jaap Schoor, calls and tells us a little about the WWF’s present role.

The present project with the mountain gorillas was started by Konrad and Ross Aveling. Four groups have now been habituated, although one spends part of the year on the other side of the border in Uganda. Visits to the groups are strictly regulated, with a maximum of six people per group per day.

The European staff pulled out of the project once things were running smoothly. A small team now acts as consultants to the Zaire National Parks staff.

There are believed to be between 300 and 350 mountain gorillas left in the world. Each gorilla family has 14-18 members — a dominant silverback, three or four younger males, and between three and six females, the rest being sub-adults.

Once habituated, the gorillas accept the presence of humans, although the silverback will occasionally make a bluff charge if he feels that a female or baby is being threatened.

Unfortunately some people in Zaire see the National Parks as wasted resources. The fact that they bring in money from tourism is not enough. Hence the work of the WWF here in trying to do something about the relationship between the National Parks and the people living in the area who are more concerned with immediate problems like the lack of land, wood and water. And as the population grows the pressure on the land increases.

So rural development projects have been set up. Forestry projects, planting trees, teaching villagers about the importance of trees and the natural forest as financial and ecological resources. They try to demonstrate that those operating the National Parks understand their problems and wish to help.

They organise educations visits for schools and publish a magazine for secondary school children.

The people’s problems revolve around land, food, water and fuel (wood). The projects seeks to tackle these problems as well as putting across the conservation message.

The reafforestation project is going particularly well with 23 nurseries producing between 250 and 300 thousand trees a year. And new nurseries are being set up all the time.

A new EEC project is helping provide the infrastructure for this work. They also fund 25% of the reafforestation project.

Tuesday 20 February

Goma — Lake Kivu — (wild camp) [65 miles]

After a rainy night a dry but overcast morning. Children outside the school opposite are playing a complicated hopping game that is almost a dance. They all wear neat blue and white uniforms. the whistle blows and they line up and march, arms swinging to shoulder height, to their classes.

We go into town to buy food before heading north again. We haven’t booked a visit to the gorillas as we’re told that there’s a long waiting list. But we’ve decided to call in at the reserve headquarters to see if there’s a possibility of fitting some of us in.

Before leaving Goma we drive down to Lake Kivu and follow the shore a little way. In the background a row of mountains with a line of clouds below their peaks. Several big, impressive houses overlook the lake.

We drive north again out of town, past the airport. In front of us is Mount Nyragongo, a flat-topped cone with a ring of clouds.

We stop by the airport and buy fruit from a road-side stall. A boy walks past pushing a scooter with a cow’s head strapped to it. Its mouth flaps open obscenely as the scooter bounces over the rough road.

The road ahead is blocked by large rocks. An army officer stops us and asks us where we’re going. We tell him and he waves us around the road block.

The road here, surfaced with sharp, black volcanic rocks, runs through banana plantations. There’s much cultivation in evidence, even on steep hillsides.

There are lots of butterflies around again. I wonder what makes butterflies congregate in one patch of muddy ground rather than another. Some kind of mineral in the soil?

As we pass through a stretch of forest, a large eagle erupts out of the undergrowth just in front of us and flies up into the top of a tree. There is an electric hum of insects on the air.

We’re driving along in bright sunshine. On our left flashes of lightning illuminate dark thunderclouds over the mountains.

Suddenly Spencer stops the Land Rover and disappears into the woods. We sit and wait for a while. Janet goes to investigate and discovers him having a wash in a stream. While we’re waiting for him we hand out some woollies to some passing children.

Just before Rutshuru we turn left onto a narrow track. A sign reads 23 kilometres to Jumba.

About 10 kilometres along the track we hear the roar of water. A river meets the road at this point and runs over a series of rapids.

It’s a rough road, making it a long 23 kilometres. The official camp-site (a patch of grass without facilities) at the foot of the hill where the rangers’ huts are is full. Doesn’t bode well for us getting to see the gorillas. But Jason, Jo and I intend to head up the mountain at 6.30 tomorrow morning to see if they can find a place for us.

We drive back along the track a little way and camp near a ruined building. There’s thunder and lightning in the hills around.

It costs $100 to join a trekking party to see the gorillas. The villages along the track on the way up here must be among the poorest we’ve seen in this part of Zaire. I hope a good proportion of this money goes to help the locals.

Wednesday 21 February

(wild camp) — Rutshuru — [56 miles]

There is torrential rain for most of the night. Jason, Jo and I leave early in the morning and follow the narrow, steep track up the mountain to the ranger’s hut. We’re early. A couple of the rangers are still asleep on the floor. We wait outside while they dress and put away their sleeping mats.

The chief arrives. We explain that we haven’t booked. He says to wait and he’ll see if he can fit us in. I read the notices while we wait.

The Zaire Gorilla Conservation Project is a joint effort between IZCN (Institut Zairois pour la Conservation de la Nature), FCZS and WWF/IUCN. There are three aspects to the project:

1 Provision of equipment (vehicles, radio network, uniforms, rations for patrol).

2 Tourism development through controlled gorilla viewing.

3 Environment education in the area surrounding the reserve.

Out of the estimated world population of 300-350 mountain gorillas almost half are in Zaire. Mountain gorillas now occur only in the Virunga volcanoes (divided between Zaire, Ruanda and Uganda) and in the Bwindi Forest 25 kilometres to the north in Uganda.

A census of the Virunga population in 1986 showed 279 gorillas in 29 families, and ten solitary adult males. This is an increase of 40 since the previous census in 1981 and the first recorded increase in the gorilla population since 1973.

It’s nearly 7.30. We understand that there are three gorilla groups that might be visited today, which means place for 18 people. I’ve counted everyone in as they arrived. There are fourteen people waiting, apart from us, so perhaps we’ll be able to join a group after all. I carry on reading the notices and posters on the walls, keeping an eye open for any additions to the waiting groups.

A poster outlines the work of the rangers in habituating the gorillas to human contact. Nervous at first, the dominant male (the silverback) attempts to intimidate the habituator by chest beating and repeated bluff charges while other members of the family hide.

Slowly curiosity overcomes fear over many months of patient work, until one day a single visitor accompanies the rangers. The number of visitors is gradually increased until eventually the maximum of six is reached.

Another sign states the rules all visitors must follow. Apparently we must position ourselves so that the dominant male can see us at all times. It is important that the silverback knows where we are so we must remain with the group. If we are subjected to a mock charge we mustn’t back off. However tempting it might be to hightail it back down the mountain we must stay where we are, crouching submissively. I reckon if we can stand our ground, the submissive posture should follow fairly naturally.

I look around. No-one else seems to have arrived yet. All the people here are from the camp-site at the foot of the mountain. We’d passed a small lodge by the track on the way up. If there’s anyone staying there there’ll certainly be no chance of us joining a group today. And we can’t afford to lose another day waiting.

Around quarter past eight we notice three more people climbing up the track. Looks like we’re going to be out of luck.

When they arrive, however, it turns out that only one of them is actually joining a trek. The other two went up yesterday and have just come along for walk as far as the rangers’ hut.

We set off at 8.30 along a track leading at first up past cultivated plots. Soon we reach the forest. We are accompanied by two trackers, one with a machete and one with a rifle. I can’t help feeling that the rifle is of psychological value more than anything else. With an earning power of $600 dollars a day, I reckon a gorilla is much more valuable to the Zaire economy than we are, and if one attacks us they aren’t going to use a rifle against it. Mind you, I suppose there are other animals around in the forest.

For the first ten minutes in the forest we are following a narrow track through the trees. Then we turn off, the man with the machete leading and cutting a path for us through the dripping undergrowth. We are soon soaking wet, muddy and scratched.

After three-quarters of an hour we get to the area in which the family we are tracking was seen yesterday. After a moment’s hesitation the tracker points ahead. We continue. The tracker indicates gorilla dung on the forest floor.

Another fifteen minutes and we come across the nests the family had used last night.

Ten minutes later we cut our way into a small clearing. I notice a small, furry wet bundle on the ground, like a discarded scrap of black fur. It moves and a pair of dark eyes look up at me. It is a young gorilla.

Then the leading tracker waves us down and points just ahead of us. Then about twelve feet in front of us a large head lifts from the ground — the silverback. The big male observes our approach then returns to his rest. Rugabo is a magnificent animal, about 25 years old.

The ranger edges cautiously forward and beckons us to follow and squat down. We are within six feet of the silverback. From time to time he looks up and stares disconcertingly straight into my eyes.

We sit with Rugabo for about 40 minutes. There are females and young around, a couple of them crawling about in the trees. A sub-adult comes over and starts to groom the silverback. he enjoys this for a few minutes then stretches, stands and stretches again, then turns and ambles off. At the edge of the clearing he turns towards us, stands erect, beats his chest and disappears from view.

We move further into the clearing, the family all around us. We sit for quite a while with a mother and three young. One of them approaches to within a foot as if about to touch one of us, then turns and somersaults back to his mother.

Young males play around us. The mother picks at an occasional shoot and nibbles at it delicately.

After a while Jason asks the tracker if we can follow the silverback for a last look before we return. He leads us across the clearing to the point at which we’d last seen the big male. It isn’t difficult to track him and we soon find him deep in dense undergrowth, feeding. He allows us to approach and watch for a while.

After too short a time the chief tracker beckons us back and we move away, walking slowly backwards as if leaving the presence of a great king.

We spent about one-and-a-quarter hours with the gorilla family — one of the most incredible experience of my life, and one that will always be with me. Then we walk back down the mountain, trying to think of some adequate comments for the visitor’s book in the guide’s hut.

The atmosphere is icy back at camp. Apparently there’s been an argument and Spencer has set off down the track towards the road on foot. We pack up and set off. It is raining again. The track is very muddy and wet and has to be negotiated with care. We pick up Spencer a couple of miles down the road.

An old woman smoking a pipe holds a large banana leaf over her head to ward off the rain. Near her three small boys — two to three years old — stand solemnly beneath a large black umbrella held by the tallest.

Clay pots under the eaves catch water channelled off by bamboo guttering edging the corrugated iron roofs.

We stop and watch two men cutting planks from an enormous tree trunk. The trunk is supported on a trestle. One man stands on the trunk itself holding one end of the large saw. The other end is operated by a second man in a trench beneath the trunk.

In Rutshuru again we buy vegetables and beer and head for the Uganda border at Ishasha. On the road we pass a forest (spitting) cobra dead on the road, a circle of men stand well clear of it. Watching.

It isn’t easy to find an overnight camp. We arrive at a village and get permission to camp on land next to a small mud-built church, with permission of the local schoolteacher.

He tells us there are no thieves in his village, but to look out for wild animals. Apparently lions and elephants visit the area from time to time, especially after rain. It has just stopped raining. He advises us to have nothing attractive in our tents overnight . . . “Chance would be a fine thing,” someone mutters.

Thursday 22 February

(wild camp) — Ishasha — UGANDA — Queen Elizabeth National Park — Bwambara (wild camp near) [97 miles]

After a peaceful night we set off early for the Zaire/Uganda border. Hundreds of marabou storks flap and peck around the customs offices, which are closed. When they open we take in our papers. They ask us for our currency declaration forms but don’t seem too bothered when I say that they are no longer necessary.

I wait in the customs chief’s office while our vehicles are searched. There is a pack of cards on his desk. While we are waiting I show him a card trick. As soon as I finish he waves us through, although his men have only just started on our Land Rover. I’m not sure if this is because he’s so impressed with the trick or perhaps he’s afraid that if he holds us up I’ll show him another one.

There’s an American woman at the border who needs to get to Nairobi by next Wednesday so we give her a lift.


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