Don't Tell My Mom We Were in the Congo

Trip Start Jun 25, 2003
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Trip End Sep 2004


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Thursday, July 1, 2004

Leaving Tanzania we drove across the border into the capital of Kenya, Nairobi. Nairobi, often referred to as "Nairobbery," is known for its rampant street crime. Despite thinking of myself as pretty street smart after working in the Bronx for three years, I still felt fortunate that we would be spending only one night here before heading out on our next overland truck to see the mountain gorillas. Little did I realize that only a week later I would be longing for the "safety" of cosmopolitan Nairobi.

Joining our next overland truck I was initially surprised to see so many people tossing thier rucksacks below and climbing aboard. Our last truck had been relatively empty, about half capacity, this one was full making it feel a bit like a South African mininbus taxi. But the benefit of being squeezed into the truck like cattle with so many people is that it didn't take long for us to meet our 24 new friends. Chatting away and trying to remember everyone's name we headed down a long bumpy road toward our first destination, Masai Mara National Park. From our recent time in Tanzania, Jan and I thought we would be game park-ed out. But once we began our first game drive I found it just as interesting and exciting as before. We spent a full day driving around the beautiful Masai Mara, the highlight of which was spotting three male lions and one lioness lounging in the tall grass. They were actually easy to spot as all we had to do was look for the safari vehicles surrounding them. The lions sat peacefully in the grass, ignoring all of the commotion as literally 12-15 safari vehicles circled them taking photos. At times it seemed a fight would break out among the humans as one safari vehicle would push its way in front another and ruin a photo destined for the cover of National Geographic. Fortunately for my part, violence was limited to the use of a supersoaker water gun we had on the truck.

The night after the Masai Mara, our trip leader, a large Kenyan man nicknamed "Big Boy," informed us that in order to see the mountain gorillas we would have to alter our original plans and travel through Uganda and into the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire. The mountain gorillas inhabit a park shared by Uganda, Congo and Rwanda, moving unrestricted across the borders and were currently most easily found on the Congo side. Initially we were supposed to view the gorillas in Uganda and Big Boy's main concern was that we would have enough money for the expensive visas into and out of Congo. I was more concerned that crossing into the Congo would bring us into an encounter with not only gorillas spelled with an "o" but ones spelled with an "ue," rebel guerillas. The civil war that has been raging in Congo is only recently over and the country has been open to tourism for only the past six months. The dense jungle region that the mountain gorillas inhabit is also home to small groups of Rwandan Hutu rebels and bandits whom I really didn't want to meet. We asked Big Boy about the risk of running into guerillas to which he responded "Hakuna Matata" - Swahili for no worries. While everyone else seemed to be reassured by a song from the Lion King I remained a bit concerned but figured it best to just wait and see how things would play out.

Leaving the flat and dry Rift Valley of Kenya behind, we drove 12 hours a day for the next three days staring out the windows of the crowded truck and marveling at the outstanding beauty of Uganda. Uganda gradually becomes more and more vibrant green and lush as flat land turns to rolling hills which grow higher and higher until they abutt the jungle-covered volcanoes in Uganda's southwest corner that make up the parks that are home to the 600 remaining mountain gorillas. Finally arriving at Kisoro, the border town with Congo, we made camp for the night and got ready to see the mountain gorillas. For me this meant cleaning the dust from my cameras and constantly humming my new favorite song, the Lion King's "Hakuna Matata" over and over again.

As the gorillas are so endangered the visits are highly regulated. Only a small number of people are allowed into the parks each day and contact with the gorillas is not allowed to exceed one hour. Considering how expensive the transport, park fees and visas are, viewing the gorillas works out to about $400 an hour. Making a visit to the world's largest ape more expensive than a visit to the world's second largest, lawyers. So cash and camera in hand I headed across the border into Congo. Walking past all the heavily armed soldiers I just tried to act nonchalant as if I crossed into recent war zones to see enormous endangered primates all the time.

We met our guides and joined by six of our friends, Jan and I piled into a landrover for the two hour drive to the national park. Heading out onto the dirt road, our landrover immediately fell in behind a pickup truck with a group of heavily armed guards wearing camoflauge riding in the back - our escort. As we drove along entire villages would run out to the road to shout greetings, kids and adults alike. All over Africa little kids would wave and shout as we passed but Congo was different, men and women, young and old all seemed genuinely happy to see us. Some of the older generation would shout "Welcome, welcome" as we passed, I had never seen such genuine enthusiasm and excitement. We began to realize that our presence in thier country was a sign of stabilty for people who have known war for such a long time. Thier excitement wasn't at just the novelty of seeing the "mizungo" - white people, but also an expression of thier hope for a peaceful future which we we ushering in. We drove for two hours constantly waving out the windows as people flocked to the roads to wave, shout even dance. Some kids ran for miles behind our landrover shouting and waving, the more intrepid young boys would even jump onto the back of our landrover for a free ride waving and smiling. It was a really amazing and joyous experience as we drove through village after village on our way to the park, all the while under the watchful gaze of our armed escort in the pick up in front of us.

Finally arriving at the park we left the joyful villagers behind and flanked by an armed escort headed into the jungle in search of the gorillas. The family we would be tracking was named Ruganda - "fast walker" in the local dialect, so we would have to move quickly to catch up to them. Our guides headed off at a fast walk to where the gorillas were known to have spent the night. After half an hour's exertion the head guide got a radio call from a forward scout informing him the gorillas were close and we could reach them after a forty minute fast march. I thought we already were going fast, I was wrong. We practically ran up the side of a steep hill and into dense jungle following a trail left by the gorillas and widened by the lead guard with his machete. A little over an hour after setting off we were rewarded with an awesome sight the dominant male, the silverback, sitting just off the path pulling down small trees and eating leaves. Looking around I spotted two or three other large black shapes in the dense foiliage. Our whole group was dumbstruck and froze on the spot as our guides tried to prod us forward for a better look. The gorillas moved forward a bit to a small clearing and spread out. We then saw the whole family, about eight in all including two babies, moving about the clearing eating leaves and grooming each other. From my vantage point I could see pretty well and wasn't much in the mood to get closer, the word enormous doesn't do them justice. But our lead guide came up behind me, whispered "don't be afraid" and pushed me forward. I found myself five meters (fifteen feet) from the enormous silverback with a perfect angle to take pictures. As I stood there I tried to clear my mind of 500 lbs gorilla jokes in case he could sense sarcasm the way dogs can sense fear. I guess I didn't clear my mind enough, or it may have been the sight of my zoom lens pointed straight at his face, or nothing at all but something I did aggitated him and before I knew it he swiftly rose and charged right at me. Crashing through the dense undergrowth, swinging his massive arms and bellowing menacingly at the top of his lungs he came rushing toward me. Now being accustomed to stressful situations I calmly fell back on my training, lowered my head, began to whimper like a little girl and turned to run for it, when something stopped me. Our guide was right behind me, with his hand on my back he whispered in his heavily accented English "Don't run". The silver back came within one meter of me, bellowed once more then walked back to his original spot and resumed eating like nothing had happened. So I survived being charged by a silverback, which is nice.

We stayed and watched the gorillas for the next hour becoming gradually more and more comfortable around such formidible wild animals. Throughout our visit I experienced a constant sense of fear from the realization that despite the machine guns our guards carried if the gorillas wanted to open up a can of whoop ass there was nothing I could do about it. But my fear was balanced by a sense of saftey their apparent humanity provided me with that I never could have felt next to a wild lion. The whole encounter felt like more of a visit than a safari, and I came away absolutely awe struck.

Leaving the gorillas we had a two hour hard march out of the jungle and back to the landrover. We piled in and began our drive back through the villages toward the border. Once again the villagers all came out to cheer making us feel like rock stars. After seeing us earlier that morning word had spread among the young boys about the chance to ride on the back of the landrover and we found ourselves being constantly chased by groups of up to thirty 8 to 12 year old boys fighting for a ride. Our driver not wanting them to get hurt would constantly stop to chase them away or get villagers to chase them away with anything from a stick to a machete. At one point, determined to chase the boys away, our army escort drove ahead of us to lay a trap in the surrounding cornfields. As we drove past, the soldiers jumped out to ambush the troublesome boys and chased them away while waving machine guns menacingly over their heads. I think we were as shocked by the ambush as the boys and once we realized the soldiers were our own, we all started laughing to the point of crying. It was defnitely time to leave the Congo.

After an easy border crossing, we were back in Kisoro having dinner, excited from seeing the gorillas and no longer fearing for our safety. Despite this, Janice was emphatic, "Don't tell my mom we were in the Congo." To which I replied, "That's right, Nairobi is much better."

From Kisoro we had a short drive to Lake Bunyoni, a pretty freshwater lake surrounded by the beautiful green rolling hills. We picked a nice spot for our tent and spent the rest of the day relaxing by the lake. After a night of drinking beers with friends, Janice headed back to the tent only to come find me ten minutes later with a serious look on her face and the words, "There are ants everywhere, get down here now!" Heading down to where we pitched the tent, we found the area swarming with fire ants, some as large as a half inch long. In the process of trying to move the tent, we all were attacked by the painful biting ants and had to spend the next ten minutes or so pulling them off and squishing them. Then one our friends screamed, "The ants are in the tents!" As Janice went off to see about upgrading to a lodge room that night, I found myself pulling each item out of the tent one by one in order to inspect them and remove any ants. As Janice was returning to tell me that lodge rooms were too expensive and that once the ants were out of the tent she would be ok to sleep in it for the night, I pulled out her towel to check for ants and a two foot worm fell out of it at my feet with an audible, wet thud. As Janice sprinted off, I heard her say, "I don't care how much they charge we are NOT staying in this tent!"

The next morning, after a pleasant night in the lodge, we headed off for a village visit with pygmies. As we drove in a boat across the lake towards their village, I envisioned smurf-sized dwellings around which small people would be going about their small business cheerily greeting each other in high pitched voices. With a smile on my face, I couldn't help but think what a wonderful part of the world I was in. Not only were there monkeys everywhere, but midgets to boot. We got to the village and I have to admit it wasn't exactly as I had pictured. Due to intermarriage, the pygmies aren't what they used to be.

After another relaxing night in the lodge, Janice still refused to sleep in the tent, we headed off to Kampala where we would make a visit to Ngamba Island, an island competely covered in chimpanzees. Despite my disappointment with the pygmies, I was convinced an island full of chimps wouldn't let me down. Though I tried not to get my hopes up that they would be dressed in tuxedos and riding unicycles. We crossed Lake Victoria and landed on the small island where we received our orientation including instructions on how to evacuate the island in case of chimp attack - this was going to be good. We went to see the chimps, to my disappointment I found we were separated from them by an electric fence. After surviving a charge by a silverback, I figured a chimp would be nothing. Little did I know that the dominant male was very into exerting his dominance. We viewed the chimps at feeding time watching them eat, play, and groom each other as we took pictures. The dominant male, not interested in these pastimes and thwarted by the electric fence, took it upon himself to hurl large stones in attempt to break our cameras and prove who's boss. As we would take pictures, someone would shout, "Look out, here he comes!" Looking up I would see a large dark shape running towards the fence at full speed, rock in hand. Once he was in range, he would hurl the rock at us as hard as he could. Fortunately, his aim was not very good. He only managed to knock out one of us. The only other problem was that in my excitement of seeing the chimps, I often forgot about the electified fence. Let me just say it was a memorable experience.

Sadly, leaving the chimps and Uganda behind, we crossed the border back into Kenya and headed into Lake Nakuru National Park for our final game drives. The one animal Jan and I hadn't seen much of was the rhino. Rhino are endangered as they have often been poached in the past for their horns which are considered aphrodisiacs in the Far East. Fortunately for the rhino, since the advent of Viagra, the amount of poaching has gone down, an unexpected side effect - usually things don't go down with Viagra. As Lake Nakuru is known for its rhino, we were lucky enough to spend two long game drives excitedly spotting both black and white rhinos almost everywhere we turned. Which proved an excellent end to all of our safaris.

After the safari was over, we drove back to Nairobi (which now seemed quite safe in comparison)for one last dinner with our friends from the overland truck. We went to a famous restaurant in Nairobi called Carnivores, which is known to serve all of the game meat we had been seeing on our safaris. I have to admit, there were several times during our safaris when seeing the impala frolick in the grass made me hungry. Many hartebeest meatballs and ostrich steaks later, we were all clutching our stomachs unable to move from an Atkins-diet overdose of too much meat.

To recover from our meat-induced comas and six weeks of camping out in tents both with and without 2ft worms, Jan and I boarded a small plane and flew out to a tiny island off of Kenya's northern coast, called Lamu. Similar to Zanzibar, the island is known for its rich Swahili culture and architecture. We spent four days wandering the narrow streets dodging donkeys, aka Lamu taxis (there are no cars on the island), laying on the beach and eating some of the best mangoes and avacados we've had in addition to all of the amazing Swahili food.

But all good things must come to an end. We have left the beach and are now back in Nairobi. Tonight we get a plane to take us out of Africa and up into Europe. I know I'll be sad to leave the monkeys, midgets and minibuses of Africa behind, but I know Jan is quite excited for the comforts, cafes and clothes of Europe. All day she's been polishing her credit card and practicing her signature.
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Comments

Davis Odwuor on

Wow, what a lovely trip. Am in Nairobi and am yet to visit such beautiful places.

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