Congo story by Steve McHardy

My Favourite Day of the Tour… The early 90’s was still a time when you could operate tours in Zaire, but only just. Our tours began in Uganda. Groups arrived at Entebbe Airport not only with their own luggage, but also with a pallet of assorted tinned and dried food put together by the ever hard working and multi-talented operations managers back in the UK.

uganda-map

Resources were still scarce in Central Africa in those days. Getting the passengers through customs was the easy part. The food often took hours and the pallet usually ended up a little lighter than when it began its journey in London, Ugandan customs officials having acquired a taste for spam.

The passengers were put to work immediately, helping to load the antiquated four ton Bedford truck that was our transport for the next three weeks, and then it was off to our campsite on the shores of Lake Victoria.

Here I introduced our crew; myself the tour leader and only person that stood between them and certain death in deepest, darkest Africa, our Kenyan driver Nelson, who resembled the lead character in The Green Mile, and Damba, our teenage Zairian cook, who believed that cabbage was an essential main ingredient in all meals and who was more laid back than Tommy Chong.

Despite all the tour information materials explicitly stating the trip was a tent based adventure, and all participants would be expected to assist in camp chores, it was often still necessary to explain to some people that tent based actually meant there would be no hotels along the way, and peeling potatoes and washing dishes would be chores shared equally.

Once thoroughly disabused of the notion that this was a five-star, lodge based, luxury safari, we began our journey north through Uganda, one of the most beautiful countries in Africa, once described by Churchill as Africa’s pearl.

Our first stop was Kabalega Falls, a sight to rival any waterfall on the planet, where the entire Nile River is squeezed into a rock chasm some twenty metres wide. The ground can be felt trembling more than five miles away, and like Victoria Falls, its more famous cousin many miles to our south, it produces a cloud of spray that can be seen from a long way off. Our rustic campsite facilities included cold water showers and pit toilets, and with no town close by, felt as remote a place as one could get to.

Before leaving the UK to operate four of these trips, I was told that the advertised route was not going to be possible due to the border crossing to the north of Lake Edward being closed. Tour operators were required by European law to inform passengers of any major changes like this to their itineraries, but it was deemed best in this case not to bother with such trivialities, and I was told to “work something out when you get there”.

So I came up with an ingenious plan. Nelson would walk towards the ranger station where there was a radio. He would wait ten minutes and breathlessly run into the camping area informing me that I had an urgent radio call from Kampala. I then ran off to the ranger station looking very concerned and serious. Once there, I chatted with the rangers while we smoked cigarettes for half an hour, before returning to the campsite and gathering the group together for an important piece of information.

The road across the border was closed (which was true; we just knew about it long before all these theatrics). We would have to reroute. I then opened and studied the map while the group watched with baited breath, and I made a spontaneous decision to drive into Zaire by a more southerly route, visiting the little-known Kibali National Park along the way. I was now the bona fide saviour of our entire adventure. As luck would have it, Kibale turned out to be a much better alternative than we had ever imagined, giving us the opportunity to see chimpanzees in the wild, and some of the best primary rainforest I have ever experienced.

We then crossed the border into Zaire on the Kisoro/ Bunagana road border crossing. Camping the night before at the Ugandan customs post, the payment for which was a few paperbacks and a playboy magazine, I briefed the group on the procedures for getting into Zaire, a border notorious for its corruption.

To begin with, everyone had to be in possession of a vaccination card with stamps for yellow fever, cholera, typhoid and hepatitis A. A cholera vaccination was not really necessary, but the border officials knew that some people wouldn’t have it, and it would be an easy way to make some money.

In order to ensure that everyone had the necessary stamps, I had previously had some rubber stamps made on the street in Kampala – “London Vaccination Clinic” and “Sydney Health Centre”. I stamped any cards that were lacking, wrote “cholera 20mg” and signed the card “Dr Seuss”.

 

Steve McHardy preparing for a refreshing dip
Steve McHardy preparing for a refreshing dip

 

I wanted everyone in clean clothes and the men had to shave. All valuable items like cameras, jewellery and cash had to be stowed at the bottom of any bags and put under the seats. I was personally carrying more than five thousand US dollars in cash to buy fuel and supplies along the way, and this was stowed, aside from a few loose bills, in a lock box welded to the underside of the truck. This box was the covered in grease and mud and would never be found unless one really searched closely. And so with a wave to our friends at Ugandan customs, we crossed the rickety bridge over the river onto the Zaire side of the border.

Stopping a short distance from the check-point, I left everyone on the truck with instruction not to go anywhere, and I carried all the passports and vaccination cards to the grass hut that was the office and home to the staff that worked there. Warm greetings were exchanged and I handed over all the documents.

I could see a flash of annoyance in the health official’s face as he realised he would have to come up with something better than a necessity for a cholera vaccination this time. I asked him if he had enough tea to keep him going. Tea was a standard euphemism for cash, and his eyes lit up as I opened one of the vaccination cards and discreetly showed him the twenty dollar bill that was inside.

Next was immigration, and although all the passports had official visas and all the correct stamps, it was the de rigueur to produce some more “tea” for these officials, and as they considered themselves more important than the health officials, a fifty dollar bill was more appropriate. Finally, and usually with much more difficulty, came the customs officials. Standing by the truck as I returned, the customs man had a smile on his face that was more of a leer.

It wasn’t me he fancied though, it was my wallet. “You know”, he said, “it would take me two days to take this truck apart, and it would take you three days to put it back together”. His smile never faltered. “No need for anything so time-consuming” says I, and I walked him to the back of the truck where I handed over another fifty.

Unfortunately his hand remained where it was and did not put the note into his pocket. “We are very short of tea here”, he said, and I ended up handing over a hundred in total. I would later get into some trouble with the company’s accountants, as they didn’t like my accounts stating “$170 – bribes”. They were later corrected to “$170 – 2 goats, 2 chickens and assorted vegetables”.

Border out of the way, we made our way down the dirt road to the little town of Rutshuru, Masi and I in the cab of the truck armed with about ten cricket ball sized rocks that we had collected earlier. The kids in this area enjoyed nothing more than throwing small stones at the trucks as they went by, and as the truck was open-sided, the passengers often had to take cover as we passed the small villages along the way. As Nelson drove, Damba and I would heave our rocks in the general direction of the stone-throwing kids as a kind of covering fire. Judging from the smiles on the faces of the children, they enjoyed the give and take of the game.

Once in Rutshuru, I would give the group an hour to explore while I went to change money at the local garage, the town’s bank having been without cash for more than a year. Zaire’s economy was in the toilet and the exchange rate was roughly six million Zaires to the dollar. The smallest note was one hundred thousand and the largest was a million. Not surprisingly I ended up with a large box full of almost worthless notes, and with handfuls of bills I bought bread, milk and vegetables.

Steve-on-the-equator
Steve on the equator

Unfortunately, the Rutshuru police and military were not as easily accommodated as the border guards, and seeing their opportunity, they would jump into their jeeps and drive a few miles up the road and lay in wait.

A few minutes after leaving the town we would encounter a road block. I knew these guys were army or police, but they had discarded their uniforms for this particular operation, and they stopped the truck with an AK47 strategically pointed at my head.

Nelson and I were ordered from the cab and stood at the side of the road, in full view of our terrified passengers, and told to place our hands on our heads. They asked me how much money I had, and I opened my money belt to show them it was just a matter of maybe a hundred dollars. Not satisfied with this amount, one of the “bandits” began to climb onto the truck, scaring the passengers even more than before.

I asked the man who was clearly in charge to get his man from off the truck, and I would see if I could find some more cash. Searching the front of the cab, I miraculously managed to find another hundred dollars, and this seemed to satisfy their greed. I don’t think they really wanted to hang around very long. As we started the truck, the leader tapped on my side window with the barrel of his AK47.

I wound the window down an inch or so and he leaned in and asked me if I had a pen for his son who didn’t have one for school! As frightening as this encounter was, it has to be remembered that none of these people, who were all employed by the government, had been paid in more than a year by the Mobutu regime. They were just doing what they needed to do to survive.

Another hour or so along the dirt road we began to climb into the Virunga Mountains, travelling toward our ultimate goal of seeing the mountain gorillas. At this point we encountered two soldiers, in uniform, staggering along the road, clearly very intoxicated.

As we neared, they stepped into the road and waved at us to stop. Having had enough of being fleeced for one day, I looked at Nelson and told him to keep driving. He smiled and put his foot on the accelerator. The soldiers dived for the cover of the roadside and we continued our journey with a small sense of satisfaction that we had at least managed to avoid one corrupt payment that day.  

All this turmoil was worth it of course, as we all got to see the Mountain Gorillas over the next two days, an experience that no-one ever forgets.

 

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