The Democratic Republic of the Congo seemed to lure me into its vast ocean of green like a mermaid. This country filled with conflict, corruption, natural beauty and perilous places needed exploring. It was up there on my list with Antarctica and Siberia.
With my job as an overland safari guide I was able to visit places I dreamt of as a child. But this mysterious central African country did not fit into any overlanding itinerary anymore. And to travel the Congo one needed to be the Congo. At the beginning of 2011 I found myself in Uganda’s Queen Elisabeth National Park. The Ishasha River is a twenty metre divide between Uganda and the DRC in wild country. Apparently a group of international tourists were abducted from a campsite right on the river’s edge by rebels from across the river. Some of them were killed. But right now I was staring at the Congo and this story just acted as a prod in the wrong direction.
We are camping with our group of tourists at the alternative site in the Ishasha section of the park more than a kilometre from the river where we are being watched by armed guards. Not too closely though. As the sun sets over the Congo our thoughts were at the crocodiles and hippos that guard the dark country, the lion and hyena challenging their eternal enemies, elephants, rebels, armed guards and strict bosses back home. And the mermaid in the murky water.
It was overcast and there was lightning in the sky. In the light of the fire the adventure in my colleague’s eyes was bright. My stomach was belying my outer courage. We were going to the DRC and I was going bare feet. We had to be quiet. First we had to make our way around the armed guard at the camp. We skirted the buildings and the staff village. We only had the lightning in the distance to guide us. After fifty metres we got into our stride walking on tip toes. Suddenly there was a racket as we disturbed a francolin family at sleep on the ground. We froze and listened. All we heard were our hearts coming out of our mouths. Nothing moved at the camp.
It was probably one of the most irresponsible things I would do in my life and yet nothing could rid me from the ear to ear grin on my face. And as we continued to ghost through the Ugandan veld I knew Gerard felt the same. We reached the road that went down to the river without any further incident. At this point the road narrows and is besieged with thick riverine bush. As we got to the clearing under the huge trees that served as the old campsite on the water’s edge, we heard a loud crack. We drew to attention. The atmosphere was explosive. Our first thought was an elephant. We took the unprecedented step to have a quick glance around with my headlamp. We were met with darkness and silence. We turned downriver where we knew a log was lying halfway across the river. First we had to jump from the riverbank onto a small island. It started to rain lightly while I was perched on this uncomfortable and exposed spot. I moved onto the log. It was only just protruding from the water and covered with thorns. Gerard followed but misjudged his jump and slid into the water. Luckily it was not too deep and he pulled himself up. There was no movement on the other bank. We crept forward slowly skirting the branches. We waded the last two metres to the dark land through the water. I reached the Democratic Republic of the Congo and sat down on my haunches. I grabbed a hand full of soil and pushed it into my pocket. Gerard arrived and we shook hands. I protested vehemently against him lighting a cigarette. We were crouched in a hippo path and were not prepared to move any further into the dark land.
Illegally leaving an illegally entered country was the most nerve-wrecking of the whole operation. Especially when a branch in a nearby tree broke while I was perched on the little island waiting to jump back onto Ugandan soil. Fifty metres before we reached the welcome of the campfire, there was a silhouette of a buffalo against the skyline right in front of us. It turned out to be a harmless topi.
Back at camp our guests were sound asleep. We went to bed. It would not have been possible without the irrepressible character of Gerard. It was a Friday night to remember.
(Article appeared in the Sunday Times)
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