Gorillas in Zaire – Parc National des Virunga, Congo

Gorillas in Zaire
Parc National des Virunga, Zaire

Everybody in the hostel in Kisoro, western Uganda, said the photo was the spitting image, $10 was the asking price. The doors that it opened were 10% entrance fees to any national park in the what was then, in 1991, Zaire. So I came to own a resident I.D. pass. I don’t recall my alias but I was now a Norwegian missionary living and working in Kinshasa, Zaire. A French speaking country, my Norwegian or French weren’t up to much. But I did possess a white long sleeve shirt and Australian bush hat that I felt would convey the missionary angle nicely.

The black market was rife in these countries. Changing U.S. Dollars or Pound Sterling on the street, which was a lot less time consuming than in a bank, you could quite easily achieve three or even four times the bank rate. The more you changed the better the rate. But to do this you had to have undisclosed funds, as a currency declaration form was to be completed each time you crossed a border. This was endorsed when you changed money in a bank and cross checked when you left at the border, if things didn’t add up, bribes were payable. Situations arose where I had been in a country for a month and only spent $100 according to my declaration form. We all had cunning places to hide money. The girls would put it in their hair bands and I took to rolling it up in my shirt sleeves. But first I had to learn my lesson….

There were no buses to the border with Zaire, if there was a group of you or you were feeling flush you could hire a pick-up. I opted to walk the five or six miles out of Kisoro down a winding dusty track with the Rwenzori mountain range for a back drop, it wasn’t so bad. When the out of place red and white striped road barrier and customs house did appear, the warnings I had been told flooded back. I was ushered in to have my passport examined.

The customs officer was cross-eyed, I’d heard about him way back in Nairobi. His subordinate waited outside. One of his tricks was to get you to change money at a very poor rate. There were no banks in this town and you had to pay for the bus or truck to where there was one, so unless you brought Zaire’s with you…you were at his mercy. He rushed me to fill in the currency declaration form, mentally deducting $150 to change on the street, I declared and signed. Mistake.

Pointing at my money belt, he wanted conformation. With everything scattered across his desk, he didn’t even ask for an explanation to the I.D. pass in someone else’s name, not that I could have offered one. He just counted the money, it was $150 over. His eye’s lit up and focused somewhere over my left shoulder as he spoke to me. This was undeclared money, my form said so. No one but us two knew it existed. The cogs were working in his head. Pocketing $50 he gave me the rest back. Lesson learnt, I would roll the money up in my sleeves from now on.

Meeting back up with three Australians I’d traveled with in Uganda, the next day we were waiting at the edge of town for any vehicle going south to Goma. The roads in Zaire were positively the worst in Africa, I didn’t see a piece of tarmac for my whole visit. Once in Goma our plan was to take the ferry to Bukavu on Lake Kivu. But as best laid plans often are, it was scuppered. Each morning we would leave the Catholic missionary where we were staying (Goma didn’t have hostels) and be told at the lake shore that doubled as the ferry terminal to come back tomorrow. On the second day we were informed no ferries for two days. With little to do I decided to put my I.D. pass to the test.

Ten or fifteen miles out of town was the entrance to the national park: “Parc National des Virunga.” One of the last sanctuaries for the nearly extinct mountain gorillas. Taking just a camera, sleeping bag and a few packets of cigarettes with which to smooth over military check points, one of the Aussies and I headed out.

There was no gate or entrance to speak of, just a stone obelisk about twenty foot tall where the truck dropped us off. An armed park warden found us and took us to an administration hut. This was sparsely furnished, a few photos of the gorillas, maps and a large lady with a kid sat behind a desk at one end. Showing her my I.D. pass. It was make or break time, would she spot that it wasn’t me in the photo? Using high school French I did my best to make small talk with the youngster and fend off her questions. Not a problem, paying in local Zaire’s I was given my ticket. Must have been the long sleeved white shirt and hat that I had donned for the occasion.

We were now both lead on a hike by the warden, my French didn’t extend to: “Where are we going?” or “How far?” “How long?” Just enjoy the view. This area is surrounded by volcanoes and quite spectacular. One was actually erupting off in the distance, the entire cone and much of the sky was engulfed in cloud. At the top of our hike a good few hours later we came across a wooden chalet and some tents. We were to spend the night here. Another warden, a French guy, was surprised to see us. “No tourists have come for ages.” There was rioting going on in Kinshasa and the foreign office had advised against travel in Zaire. But we were way out west and this was a large jungle-filled country. The discord hadn’t reached this part yet, although you could sense at the many military check points something was coming.

There was first and second class accommodation, the brand new wooden chalet or the army surplus green tents. We made ourselves comfortable in the latter, they were large with two double beds fully made-up inside. At night you could make out the erupting volcano, it was maybe five or six miles away and was actually in another national park, cunningly named: “Volcanoes National Park”. I got the feeling that an erupting volcano was nothing new here.

I was the only one allowed to view the gorillas the following morning. I was the only one with a ticket. My Aussie companion had come along for the ride, with thoughts of possibly giving the wardens his Levi jeans in lieu of a ticket. To their upstanding incorruptibility they declined, maybe they were the wrong colour?

The armed warden was joined by another with a machete. These guys visit the gorillas every day, so even though they are nomadic animals they knew where they where yesterday so tracking them today shouldn’t be a problem. Looking out for broken plants or dung that would betray they proximity it took a good hour to locate them. Photos were allowed but under no circumstances were you to make any attempt to touch them. They are f**king wild gorillas, what was I going to do, try to shake hands?

Each day they moved to a new feeding area, flattening out an area the size of a tennis court and munched away. In this group there were perhaps eight to ten with one dominate, unfeasibly large silver back. Who’s the daddy? The three of us plopped ourselves down in the middle of the clearing while the gorillas played around us. Thumping their chests and charging at each other. The wardens made gorilla grunts, imitating their sounds, whilst the gorillas retorted by farting. Must be all that carbohydrate they were eating. My time was up and camera empty, it was home time.

Standing at the stone obelisk again, no wonder the country was in disarray. There was little or, in this part, no infrastructure at all. When it came to transport you just waited at the side of the road until something was going your way. Today, tomorrow, no-one knew. The president at the time, Mobutu Sese Seko, when he wasn’t in Switzerland having private medical examinations, held court in Kinshasa. In his skewed politics, views could only be expressed when he lifted his cane. To silence someone he simply banged the cane on the floor.

A big old truck with a canvas back pulled over. It traveled at a snail’s pace whilst the driver ground the teeth off the gears. Each time we went up an incline, the driver’s mate would jump out, pick up a huge rock and run alongside. In case he missed a gear, it was his job to chuck the wheels to prevent us rolling backwards.

After an hour or so we stopped at a roadside market, back on the truck everyone was chatting away and eating, glad of the break. No-one noticed the incline, least of all the driver’s mate. First thing we heard was the driver grinding the gears as he down changed from second to first. Then we were rolling backwards. Doesn’t take long for a three ton truck to pick up momentum. We all pushed to the front or vaulted over the side, abandon ship! Daringly, rocks were pushed in the truck’s path, to no-avail it just bounced over them.

There wasn’t anything really to hit, this was the middle of the jungle and we weren’t breaking any speed limits, rolling backwards at maybe five or ten mph. But that wasn’t the problem, once off the hardened dirt road the truck was consumed by mud. Sunk up to the axles, we finished, stalled with one of the back wheels invisible beneath mud and one of the front wheels off the ground. The passengers cracked beers and carried on eating, while the driver and his mate tried to dig the truck out. Wood and rocks, everything was thrown under the wheels to try to make them grip. The engine was gunned and the drive shaft strained to snapping point. Half an hour we gave them, looking like we were going no-where, to jeering, we turn-coated and jumped on the next passing truck. Only to travel a few miles before that too broke down, passed moments later to more jeering by our original truck that they had somehow extracted from the mud.

In darkness and to the announcement of rain we arrived back at the military check point on the road into Goma. Smoothing things over with cigarettes, the sunglass wearing, AK-47 toting soldier let us pass.

“Hope the ferry leaves tomorrow!”

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