Zaire, 1989

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psikottix
visitor

Zaire, 1989

Postby psikottix » Sat Dec 16, 2006 8:06 pm

There are many reasons I went to Africa, and maybe I'll get around to mentioning them all at some point. In the meanwhile, though, a tale from Kisangani, Zaire (Now the Democratic Republic of Congo)...

DRC, or Zaire as it was then, is a massive country - Nearly all of which is thick jungle. I prefer the term "jungle" to "rain forest". Even if the heavens DO open with an almost monotonous regularity! Kisingani is in the North of the country, and is the northernmost point of the mighty Congo river that can be navigated. It was formerly known as Stanleyville, after the explorer that found the falls (Stanley Falls, unsurprisingly). The same Stanley that found Dr Livingstone.

I was staying at the Hotel Olympia. It was the only hotel in the town, and was fairly safe. Zaire has always been unstable and dangerous and, despite massive natural wealth, extremely poor. The hotel had a few rooms, but most people camp in the enclosure - which is surrounded by high walls topped with broken bottles and razor wire, and patrolled by armed guards. It's not really safe, but it IS safer than anywhere else in the town. The hotel was owned and run by a Greek ex-pat couple. There are lots of Greek ex-pats in the area, which was slightly unusual i thought as it was formerly the BELGIAN congo. I never met any Belgians there.

I met a trio of fellow travellers in a bar in the town. Two Australians and a Kiwi, they were. Or possibly two Kiwis and an Australian. I'm not even sure I could remember it then! Still, they were good company.

We had been engaged in the usual traveller conversations; where we'd been, where we were heading, where we originally came from, that sort of thing. I'd explained i came from a small village near Reading, in England. One of the others perked up.
"Oh! I know someone from near Reading!" he said. I steeled myself for this one. He wasn't going to ask if i knew someone called <insert random name here>, was he? People seem to have a tendancy to say such things! "Whereabouts near Reading?"
"A place called Pangbourne" I replied.
"Oh yeah!" he said, a grin appearing on his face "you don't know a bloke called Dave ********, do you?". Bloody hell...not only DID I know Dave, he was my next door neighbour, and my oldest mate! Here i was in the middle of a jungle, the four of us about as far from home as we all could be, a thousand miles from any form of "civilisation" (although, actually, the locals were no less civilised in their own way), and this bloke knew him. Small bloody world, this one!

The four of us seemed to get on fairly well, and there is a certain amount of safety in numbers. Kisangani is a wild and practically lawless place, with its own unique problems. Life is very cheap there, even by African standards. We hung out together, exploring the place, drinking loads, that sort of thing. We devised the "Kisangani beer scam". But I'll get to that later.

A couple of days after we met, we met a bloke in the hotel bar. He, like the owners, was a Greek ex-pat. He ran barges up and down the Congo, floating tinned goods and other supplies from Kinshasa (the capital) up to Kisangani, and taking fruit, timber, and coffee back down again. The round trip takes three to four months. He was also the sponsor for the new contender for the Zaire National Wrestling title. Wrestling is BIG in Zaire, REALLY big. The contender was a mountain of a man, an albino African. I hadn't seen the champion yet. Anyway, we got on well with the Greek, buying each other drinks, playing cards, grabbing something to eat, and stuff. He invited the four of us to be his guests at the match the next day. Naturally, we agreed!

The following morning we went to the hotel reception, as per our instructions, and were met by a bloke in a suit and peaked cap. Having ascertained who we were, he led us out to our ride. Which turned out to be a very shiny and well-maintained vintage Rolls-Royce. The type that has a seperate cab in the front for the chauffeur. Absolutely definitely the most unlikely vehicle you would imagine seeing in this steaming, muddy, rotting shack of a town in the middle of the jungle in the middle of Africa! (Everything rots in a jungle...buildings, clothes, people, everything - it's just the way of things, and no sleight on the place!). Ushered into the plush interior of the Roller, we set off to the stadium. Four motorcycle outriders in front, and two behind. This was getting to be a surreal day!

The wrestling match was being held in the local football stadium. There was a grandstand on one side, the other three sides were a tall wall topped with the usual assortment of anti-social weaponary. Spikes, glass, barbed- and razor-wire, that sort of thing. The ring had been set up close to the grandstand. Our seats were definitely the best in the house, the rest of the grandstand almost groaning at the weight of the people squished into it. Our VIP area was barricaded off, with armed police (well, all the police are armed there, i was just making the point!) protecting us. there was a big crowd around the ring, with much pushing and shoving to get the best views. The whole stadium was patrolled by crowdlets of police and army, armed with heavy knotted lengths of rope and club-like long sticks. These were used to smash the hell out of anyone that tried to make it over the wall. There was no shortage of those willing to run the gauntlet. As i said, wrestling is big in Zaire! (And life is cheap!)

Every now and then, some brave (and swift) wrestling fan would actually make it past the soldiers or policemen, and get to the crowd. Most were dragged out of the crowd. One that I saw DID make it...he rolled under an army truck parked near the ring, and managed to sit down in the pack before a posse of soldiers came running round the otherside. They knew he was there, but didn't know which he was. Some poor bugger was selected at random by the uniformed thugs, dragged out, and had the proverbial kicked and thrashed out of him.

The early bouts of the wrestling were young kids...their matches clearly choreagraphed. Each successive match was a higher age group, and the wrestling, at the very least, better performed. After about an hour, it came to the final match. The current champion was a beast of a man. Huge. Resembling, above all else, a shaved gorilla. The contender, an albino as i said earlier, stripped of his suit, looked like a shaved orangutan. The crowd went wild!

The wrestlers seemed evenly matched, and they clearly weren't acting. This was real wrestling, a struggle between goliaths - not the nasty fake stuff that us westerners have come to see the sport as. I swear you could feel the thuds of some of the throws even up in the grandstand where we were!

Halfway through round three the police and the army fell out with each other. Soldiers and coppers were laying into each other with fists, and ropes, and sticks. Everyone forgot the wrestling, this was far more entertaining! Officers ran around, firing their guns in the air (where do those bullets end up?), trying to get their men apart. Due to the brutal treatment most people suffer at the hands of the police and army, this was definitely something they wanted to see!

I don't think anyone knows who won that match. By the time order was restored, the wrestlers had gone. Still, most people appeared to have had a good time!

Our VIP status at the match proved quite handy a few days later.

The four of us were out in a bar, playing the Kisangani Beer Scam. There are two brands of beer available in Kisangani. Skol international recipe (!), and the local stuff - Primus (pronounced pree-mus). Primus is actually a damn good beer, and the workers in the local brewery get it free. The scam is simple - you buy a bottle of Skol, and leave it on your table. Within minutes, a local comes along and says "Don't drink that! Our beer is better!" and gives you one. (Don't forget, the employees of the brewery get it free....we weren't ripping them off!). You then hide your Skol under your chair until you have finished your Primus, put the Skol back on the table, repeat until paralytic! A fine way to spend an evening.

As we were sat at the table, chatting and laughing, and talking with the locals, a nasty little man walked past carrying a framed picture of the President of the time - one Sese Seko Mobuto, a highly unpleasant tyrant. The nasty little man smacked the picture against the foot of one of my friends, who was sitting with one leg crossed high on the other.
"You kicked the President in the face!" he screamed. He turns to the rest of the bar and tells them they must defend the Presidents honour, threatening them with all sorts unless they comply and attack us. I can't specify the threats, my Lingala was not up to translating that!

The four of us found ourselves standing back to back in the middle of crowd, windmilling our fists and fighting back. Fortunately, the locals are completely dumbfounded by the idea of using fists. Our only advantage. You'd just have to punch them in the face, that one would drop away, another would replace them. To be fair, their hearts weren't really in it. Their actions were only because the consequences of refusing the orders of the agent provocateur were worse than a bloody nose. Eventually (i have no idea how long...all was a blur) some policemen turned up, recognised us from the wrestling match, and dragged us out.

I loved Zaire, and i adored Kisangani. I am very sad that it is now too unsafe to travel to.

All the above is absolutely true, with no exageration or fiction. I like travelling!

©Psikottix, 2006
Last edited by psikottix on Sun Dec 17, 2006 5:25 am, edited 1 time in total.

psikottix
visitor

Postby psikottix » Sun Dec 17, 2006 4:51 am

I had entered Zaire from the neighbouring country of Central African Republic, crossing the Ubangi river from Bangui (the capital of CAR) to Zongo, in Zaire. Several of us whities crossed at the same time...it's much safer to travel in packs in this part of the world. Bangui is considered one of the most unsafe (if not THE most unsafe) cities in the world, due to the huge number of coup attempts and rebel attacks that go on there. It's not a place for the faint of heart. Travellers gather in a compound shared with US marines (whose task is principally to guard the US embassy in Bangui), and leave en masse. The crossing is on a small hand-pulled ferry in between some rapids just to the North of the city.

I was first off the ferry, having spotted a vendor selling bottles of soft drinks. The humidity and heat in this part of the world is almost paralysing, and I was dehydrated - mostly from getting pissed with the US marines the night before. The USMC definitely had the coldest beers I came across in Africa, and they were happy to hand them out. Anyway, my sights were set on the two crates of fizzy pop next to the aforementioned vendor. I bought them both, happy to share them with my travelling companions, but intent on ensuring I had my fill!

The river is the boundary between the two countries, and the Customs house, a single storey concrete block building with palm thatch roof, was fifty metres from the landing. The vendor was encamped next to the building. We gathered by the Customs Post, glugging on warm pop, and waiting to be "processed" into Zaire. The first person to enter the place was an English girl. She came out again after ten minutes, crying. She was being refused entry due to the lack of a Yellowfever innoculation. She was allergic to eggs, and the jab was incubated in them. Fortunately, one of our group had a printing set - and they set about faking a stamp for her. The chief Customs bloke came out, spotted me, and beckoned me over. It was the vendor that I had bought the fizzy stuff from.

He told me to follow him into the building.
"Big problem!" he said to me. "No one may come in now!". My heart sank. My visa for CAR expired that day, there was no way that they would let me back. But this was Africa.
"My friend!" I said, a smile on my face, "surely there is some way that we can sort this out?"
"It is very difficult. Your friend has tried to cheat her way in. This very serious!". I offered him a cigarette, took out one for myself, gave him a light before sparking my own. I had my eye on the guys outside. The bloke with the printing kit had just stamped something in the girl's documents, and was asking the others if anyone else needed a quick update. I turned my attention back to the official.
"My good friend," I said, still smiling, "I'm sure that her papers are really in order. Maybe the poor light in here made you miss something?"
"It is possible that I made a mistake. But there are so many of you, it will all take so much time! And she will have to be seen again...I have to work here on my own, there is no money to pay anyone else!"
"I wish I could help you out", I smiled, "But I only have this five dollar bill, and a great and important man such as you would need more!". He smiled back at me, and took the American bill from my fingers.
"You are a good man", he told me, "You may come into my fine country. Please fill out this form." I did as requested, and noticed his eye watching my biro. When i signed the bottom of the form, I handed him the pen. It was only a Pental, but it was better than he had seen before. I was in the country!

The others, curious as to why I had been gone so long, and anxious that it would take the group a couple of days to get processed at that rate, came over to me when I finally emerged, blinking, into the strong sunlight outside.
"Ok," I said, "All sorted!" I explained quickly what had happened. Everyone had been filling out the various forms whilst waiting for me. They took it in turns to enter the Post, emerging seconds later with beaming smiles and the appropriate stamps on their paperwork.

I got everyone through the border, including the English girl with the now-faked documents, for five dollars US and a cheap biro. And not one of the bastards even bought me a drink for it!

Not much further into Zaire was a campsite. We all arrived there in the late afternoon, tired, sweaty, and drenched from several of those things that gives rain forests their name. A campsite is a good place to spend your first day in a country. It gives you a much quicker introduction to the locality, and the ways of interacting with it, than a hotel - and is infinitely safer than roughing it somewhere. We all set about making camp, getting washed, changing into dry clothes, preparing food, and, in my case, heading for the bar.

Zairois grass is supposedly one of the best smokes in the world. Due to the "problems" and location of the country, though, not much of it gets out. I was quickly approached by a local as i sat at the bar. He asked me if I wanted to buy some marijuana. I'm not sure if he decided i was the type, or if he just picked on me as the only person being friendly to the locals (I always try and be friendly with the locals...after all, it's their country and i'm their guest!). I asked him the price. He told me it was 1000 Zaires (local currency). I hand him the money, and he disappeared.

An hour later, and most the way down my third bottle of Primus, I was reflecting on the mistakes i had just made. Firstly, I didn't haggle. EVERYONE haggles, it's part of "the game". Your ability to haggle is the measure of the respect you will be shown. Secondly, I really shouldn't have paid until I had my hands on the stuff. Stupid stupid stupid! I finished my beer, and ordered another. As I was paying for it, the cheeky little monkey that had offered me the smoke re-appeared.

He was carrying a tree.

Well, to be fair, it wasn't actually a tree - but it WAS the biggest cannabis plant i had ever seen. It must have been carefully tended, it was beautifully formed, with buds on it the size of a forearm. I was assuming that he was going to break one off for me, maybe giving me the choice of which. I was wrong. I had bought the entire shrub! i was so pleased, i bought him a beer as well.

That evening I carefully removed the very best buds, removed all traces of stalk from them, and threw the rest of the plant away. Even then, I still had about ten ounces of prime weed. It was time to have a smoke of it!

No cigarette papers.

Nowhere to buy cigarette papers. No one sold them.

Carefully, i emptied a cigarette, made a mix of bud, tobacco, and the weavils that inhabit the local fags (they make an interesting pop when you smoke 'em!), and tried to re-stuff the tube. A hard job, as the tube is fragile from humidity and weavil-burrowed holes. Still, it worked...and it was one of the tastiest spliffs i had ever smoked. The local ganja was every bit as good as I had heard!

The next day, just outside the campsite, I found a man selling carved pipes. It was obviously no coincidence!!! I selected a pipe that had three faces carved on it. The first was a traditional African carved face, the next the same face, but with huge eyes. The final face was some strange outlandish gargoyle of the previous face. I bought it on the spot!

Later on, I discovered that this bloke called Gideon leaves bibles all over the place. The paper of the pages is just the right thickness for rolling with....

That aside, I spent every day of the month i was in that country getting stoned. I got everyone I met stoned. And when it was time to leave the country, I gave the last two ounces to someone entering Zaire so that I didn't have to carry it over the border. After all, it is illegal there too - and African gaols are not nice places! (I know, I ended up in one once - I'll get to THAT tale later!)

Oh yeah. "How much is 1000 Zaires?", I hear you ask! It's about two and a half US dollars. Or one pound fifty. Not too bad a price for ten ounces of some of the best weed I have ever come across!

©Psikottix,2006

psikottix
visitor

Postby psikottix » Wed Dec 20, 2006 3:19 am

Leaving Kisangani was an adventure in itself too.

I planned to meet up with some people in Goma, also in Zaire. You may have heard of Goma. It's where the greater number of refugees from neighbouring Rwanda ended up after the hideous genocide there. It was before the genocide that i was there. I mention the terrible events that happened after because it is why the town hit the headlines, and the genocide of Rwanda should not be forgotten.

Anyway....

There are two ways of getting from Kisangani to Goma. Firstly, you can drive. The road is tortuous, a mud track through thick jungle. Frequently the road is washed away, bridges have disappeared, whatever. This is the state of all the major roads through the jungle. Even getting to Kisangani was difficult. One bridge we crossed had just enough timbers for a vehicle and a half. So you drove on as far as you could, got out, balanced your way on a girder to the back, hefted a huge wooden sleeper onto your shoulder, balanced your way back to the front (I should probably mention the 70 foot drop into a crocodile infested river below!) laid the sleeper, drove onto it, repeat until across! Also, I came across a man standing in the middle of a road in a puddle once. Stopped, as you do, tried to see if he was alright. Turns out he is standing on the roof of his truck...the puddle was deeper than you'd have thought. Certainly deeper than HE had thought! Anyway, I've distracted myself! The road trip from Kisangani to Goma would take about 2 weeks.

Secondly, you can fly. Now, there were two ways of flying. Air Zaire, at a cost of about US$300, or Scibe (pronounced skee-bee) Airlift at US$50.

Obviously, being a tight bastard, I decided to fly Scibe.

My first warning that I may have made a mistake came as I made my way to the airport. When I say "airport" i may be giving an inflated evaluation of the field with a big hut in it, but trust me, this was an airport! At most airports/airfields there is a plane fuselage that the fire crews practice on. They are at nearly all airports, and so much a part of the scenery you probably don't even notice them. They NEVER have the name of an airline on them, for obvious PR reasons. So you may understand my surprise to see one such fuselage with the word "Scibe" marked along it. But this was Africa, and so I didn't think too much of it. Until I saw the next one. And the next. And the next. All with "Scibe" emblazoned in smoke-scarred letters upon them. Ah well!

The "Terminal" (an apt name, I was beginning to think) was an enormous hanger, divided internally with ten-foot wooden walls. There was only two check-ins, one for Air Zaire (looking fairly respectable), and the other a desk with a little "Scibe" sign sitting on it. I checked in.

Upon checking in, I was approached by a man in a smart suit and sunglasses. This is never good, but in Africa it's more-than-slightly worrying. He introduced himself as "Head of Airport Security", and bade me follow him. He took me on a convoluted route through the building to an office standing on its own in the middle of a large space.

I was asked all the usual questions, the where am I going, where have I been, my reason for being in the country. Then I was asked the "other" questions. Was I a mercenary, who was I working for, what was my REAL reason for being there, which country or company did I represent, why was I lying. As it happened, I really was there for completely innocent purposes. The country really IS amazingly interesting. Finally I managed to convince him that I was a mere humble tourist, and he told me I could go. I left the office, and was standing there in the big empty space trying to work out which way I had come, when two soldiers came up to me, shouting and pointing guns, telling me I was in a restricted area and was under arrest. Great! I was shitting myself! A set-up! All I bloody needed. Visions of African Gaols swam before my vision. I had been in one quite recently (honestly, I WILL get around to telling that tale!), the British Embassy was days away, even assuming that they even heard I'd been locked up.

Fortunately, the intelligence officer (because that's what he really was. Head of Airport Security was his ruse for compliance, he explained to me) came out of his office and explained my presence, ordering the squaddies to take me back to the main bit of the terminal. I nearly kissed him in my joy! Which would probably have gotten me shot, so it's a good job I didn't.

They got me to the gate as the plane was boarding. This involved a walk across the tarmac (hence airport rather than airfield, despite all other appearances). I'd love to tell you the plane type, but I'm not much of a spotter - so I'll just describe it. Jet plane, three engines (one on each wing, one on the tail), and you get in through stairs in the arse of the plane.

My seat was next to the port wing. It was a bit disconcerting looking out of the window. Rivet, rivet, hole, rivet, hole, hole, rivet rivet, rivet, hole....you get the picture. The wing was held on by faith, gaffer tape, and chewing gum. Probably. At least, hopefully. The passengers were the usual mix of colourfully clad peoples, goats, chickens, bundles of assorted "stuff", badly tied parcels - I'm sure you can imagine. Probably not believe, despite the truth, nor would you believe that people were having barbecues in the aisle after take-off. Yet they were.

The plane flew about 500 feet above the forest canopy the entire way. Possibly lower. My theory is that the pilots thought the plane was likely to fall to pieces, and they didn't want to have far to fall.

I'm not a nervous flier (even less so after surviving that flight!), so I spent the hour or so we were in the air chatting to the other passengers. Not many white people make it to the middle of the jungle, so I was the centre of attention, and was kept entertained and fed by my fellow passengers. Which is always nice. A volcano was erupting just outside Goma. I'd never really seen one outside of TV before. Spectacular in reality, and I promised myself I would go for a closer look on landing.

And land we did, without incident. As we were taxi-ing to the shed at Goma, however, I discovered something that I didn't know was possible. Jet engines can backfire. The whole plane shuddered incredibly violently, caged chickens flying off shelves, goats panicking, standing passengers momentarily flying again, the massive BOOM of the backfire echoing in our ears. An enormous black ball of smoke and soot came belting out of the engine that I could see from my window, tinged with hell-red flame. There was much kissing of the tarmac from all of us when we finally disembarked.

Sometimes it doesn't pay to be a tight arse!

I spent the night at the mission in Goma. I don't like missionaries. They lie a lot (well, I don't believe in a god, or God, so they are on a sticky wicket in the first place!). They do, though, often have rooms they rent out to travellers. I avoided the usual lectures on the "brilliance" of a deity by going out for a mooch about town.

Goma is surrounded by mountains and volcanos. The current eruption was lighting the sky with an eerie glow. Several parts of the town still showed evidence of previous eruptions. Old lava flows blocked some streets, the remains of peoples homes protruding from them. I wonder why people choose to live in the paths of such unstoppable natural forces? I suppose that it's often for the increased fertility in the soil. Some coffee is grown on the slopes, and a fair amount of tea. Is the profit in beverage ingredients worth that kind of risk, though?

Early the next morning I set out for the volcano. It was a couple of miles out of town, and the weather was wonderful. Being up in the mountains a bit, the humidity had dropped...and this seemed to have slowed the onset of the regular drenchings you get in the jungle. The landscape around the area was more "bush" than jungle. Thick bush, granted, but no massive trees or bamboos as I had become used to. The road was mainly crushed volcanic rock and dried mud. It sloped upwards slightly towards the smoking mountain, but was an easy and pleasant walk.

After about forty minutes, I came to a roadblock manned by a small group of soldiers. They were relaxed, draping themselves across the wooden barrier and the attendant Land Rover. Not so relaxed, however, as to let me past. I tried bribing them with cigarettes, which they happily took and lit, but they were still insistent that it was too dangerous to go up the road. I could see the brush burning a few hundred yards ahead. I tried pleading with them, but to no avail. This was as close as I managed to get. One day, though...

Back in town again, I wandered to the market for some rice and beans. A big bowl is very inexpensive, and a good dollop of pili-pili (an incredible chilli sauce) made it tasty. I ate a lot of rice and beans in Africa. It made up for the massive amounts of meat that I stuffed down my gullet at all the other meals. The fact that it was cheaper was the real reason, but hey! Feeling nicely well-fed, I headed down to the ferry on the lake.

Goma is on the Northern shore of Lake Kivu, a large freshwater lake about 60 miles long and 25 miles wide. Actually, that is something I found odd about the first reports of the Rwandan refugee crisis a few years later.., the supposed lack of fresh water in the region. I assume that such a massive influx of people poisoned the lake. A shame, but, compared to the genocide the Rwandans were fleeing, understandable I suppose.

I took the ferry across the lake from Goma to Bukavu. I was on my way to fulfil a long held dream. It was easy to get from Bukavu up the mountain to the Kahuzi-Biega National Park. This area (now on the World Heritage Danger List) is on the sides of two extinct volcanoes - Kahuzi, and Biega. It is the home of one of the last groups of Mountain Gorillas in the world, consisting of less than 250 of them. My dream? To sit and interact with gorillas in the wild.

I reached the campsite in the park mid-afternoon, two days after leaving Goma. I set camp, and wandered to the rangers office to book up. It cost US$100 to go and see the great apes. Expensive by the standards of everything else in Zaire, but cheap compared to what i would have gladly paid! I was to be met by a ranger and a couple of trackers at 0600hrs the next day. That night I could barely sleep. I was up, washed, dressed, fed, and ready by the time the guides appeared. They were early, but the half dozen of us who had gathered for the trip were still impatient.

We set off into the forest. It was steep climbing, and the undergrowth was thick. Altitude brought the humidity down, but the exertion counteracted that. The two trackers led the way, slashing their way through the thick brush, the park ranger bringing up the rear of our party. Whilst most larger mammals had fled before we got to see them, there was still plenty of nature to observe. Beautiful colourful spiders sat like precious jewels in their webs, a bright green snake hung from a twig by the very tip of its tail, monkeys chattered somewhere above, out of sight. Nearly three hours later, we detected an unpleasant smell. Gorilla! Their diet, high in fruit, leads to sloppy oddly-sweet-smelling faeces. We were getting close. Half an hour later, the trackers stopped and pointed. Peering out from the cleft of a tree twenty yards ahead was the face of a baby gorilla, it's coal-black eyes watching us. Another baby swung out from behind the tree, using a convenient vine. We moved up the slope, skirting the youngsters, looking for the main group.

We had been lectured before leaving camp on how things would proceed when we found these beautiful and massive apes. The dominant male silverback would perform a mock charge...all flailing arms and gnashing teeth. We were to sit down, avoid eye-contact, and wait it out. We would not be attacked if we appeared docile, and the silverback would then accept us into the group and we could interact with them. Adrenalin was running through my body in anticipation of this. As the main group came into view, the silverback looked over at us - and completely ignored us! I wasn't really disappointed, as i was already making my way carefully and slowly towards a big female sitting near a bush and watching us. Gingerly, I sat down beside her...overawed by her size and beauty. She shuffled towards me, and reached out a huge leathery-looking hand to me, touching my hair. How could a beast as big as this be so gentle? She started going through my hair, looking for ticks and such-like. I reached out to her, and copied. Time lost all meaning.

Eventually, the ranger came over and whispered that it was time to go back down. I was loathe to leave...I wanted to join these gentle giants and live amongst them. But the gorillas were moving off, the silverback already a couple of hundred yards away, leading his charges to new feeding grounds. As we moved to head in the opposite direction, one of the trackers accidently trod on a cow gorilla hiding in a bush. She bellowed in surprise, and the silverback turned and charged. He closed that two hundred yards in seconds, huge ground-swallowing bounds, and this was no mock charge! He was livid. The ranger quickly ordered us to sit, taking the rifle off his shoulder and chambering a round. The first round is always a blank, he had previously told us, as the bang was often enough to make a rampaging ape think twice. And, obviously, a live round may accidently kill one of the beasts they were trying to protect. We dropped to the ground, and the two trackers grabbed big branches. The teeth on a gorilla are huge, the beasts themselves are massive. Trying to avoid eye contact, but keeping an eye on the action, was hard. Fending off the enraged ape, the first tracker swung his branch. It shattered into a billion pieces against the mighty arm of the animal, barely slowing him. The second tracker prepared to swing his branch, as the ape reared up in front of him, bellowing in rage. But he didn't attack further. The cow had retreated to the rest of the group, his job was done. We made our escape.

On the way back down the mountain, we passed through a tea plantation. The workers were just making a brew, and invited us to join them. Fresh picked tips, boiled in water and sweetened condensed milk. Absolutely and without a doubt the best cup of tea I have ever had! And the day was the best use I have ever made from US$100. Bar none!

I have been very concerned about the fates of those gorillas since the appalling events in Rwanda caused millions of people to flee through the mountains they inhabit. There is a double tragedy here. Man's inhumanity to man, and the innocent and rare Mountain Gorilla losing its habitat to them. The final paragraphs here are from The World Heritage site:

Grave concern that portions of the park had been deforested and that hunting had been reported there, as well as war and civil strife ravaging the country, led the World Heritage Committee to inscribe the site on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

The site has been much affected by the influx of refugees. Park facilities had been looted and destroyed, and most of the park staff have fled the area. The park may also be serving as a hideout for large militia groups, as well as for illegal settlers. This has led to fires, increased poaching and the illegal removal and burning of timber. IUCN has received several pleas from the staff of the Park for international aid to rebuild both park-infrastructure and staff morale.

©Psikottix,2006


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