“Excuse me, could you please ask him not to point the gun at my husband while we’re driving?” I asked, thinking of the numerous – and massive – potholes we were about to hit. I was referring to the Congolese rebel in the back of our truck.
Our friend translated. “No problem!” replied the rebel with a smile. Then he shifted the gun towards the other side, which ended up pointing at our friend instead…so we asked him to point it out the back, please. He then realized we didn’t want the gun pointed at anyone’s head, and smiled graciously as he proudly shifted the rifle out the back window.
It took a good week to get to the Congo after a short stop in Seattle and a nice overnight in Amsterdam, then a flight and night in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, then a long drive across the equator to our new home for the next month. The whole time the plan was to work at the same refugee camp, called Nakivale, that Thai had worked at 2 years ago. However, as soon as our driver picked us up in the 4-door Hilux (Africa’s diesel version of the Toyota Tacoma), our agency had changed plans and we were heading to a new transit refugee camp right on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Since June of this year, the rebels in Eastern Congo had taken over a large part of Eastern Congo north of the city of Goma. There had been a new influx of refugees, some 10,000 or so. A new transit refugee camp was set up in July in a town called Kisoro. Since then, waves of refugees have come across the border here. The camp, run by the UN High Commission for Refugees, was set up with the help of MSF, or “Doctors Without Borders.” After the first couple months, the medical portion was taken over by our agency, Medical Teams International, whom Thai and I work for.
The refugee camp is just down the road from our hotel. The road to this town of Kisoro crosses over high mountain passes and volcanic peaks, winding and twisting.
Our first weekend off, we planned to climb a volcano, a steep one called Sabinyo, meaning “old man’s teeth.” We hired a boda boda – a Ugandan motorcycle taxi. We gave the driver 10,000 Ugandan Shilling to use his motorcycle to scout out the access for the mountain on our Saturday off. We drove through beautiful terraced terrain. The base of the volcanoes were dotted with multiple volcanic cinder cones that were terraced for abundant agriculture dotted with small Ugandan villages.
After a nice ride and some views, we decided to take a look at the border crossing into Congo, where the refugees were coming from. Thai asked the border guard if we could go across to see the Congo side for an hour or two. To our surprise (especially because we didn’t have passports on us), he said yes and let us by. That was the most pleasant African border crossing I had ever experienced (I think at that point it was my 8th such crossing). I was surprised at how friendly and easy-going it was. Then I realized it was rebels that were manning the border crossing. These are some of the benefits of rebels at the border instead of government workers, I suppose. They’re more lax on the bureaucracy;)
We went onto the other side to check things out. To make a long story short, we met a French camera team and a photographer from Reuters who were heading into the Congo to film the mountain gorillas. Could we come along? Yes! We acted quickly, ditched the volcano plan, ran back to our place, grabbed gear and passports and went back across the border into Congo with the camera team. This time we got visas. We spent the night, and the next morning jumped into a two Land Cruiser convoy.
This is where I asked the armed guard with us to change the position of his AK-47. We headed on a two-hour, bumpy, muddy, 4-wheel drive adventure to the start of our walk to find the Mountain Gorillas in remote Congo.
The French film crew was putting a documentary together for France Deux, (France channel two) about the tourism industry returning to see the mountain gorillas in Congo. Ironically, no tourist had really returned to the Congo since the rebels had taken over the area in July. There hadn’t been any tourist in the last 6 weeks, the film director had been waiting for about 5 weeks to see if any were coming. He thought there might have literally been a handful in August and September, and none prior due to the insurgence of the rebels in July. So instead, they found two French guys working and living in Kampala to be their “tourists.” When we showed up at the border, they were pleasantly suprised to see us and happy for us to join in so that they had real tourists to film (I even landed a speaking part in the final cut!).
There was also a Ugandan photographer working for Reuters on a few projects in the DRC. He lived in Germany, but spent a lot of time shooting photos in southern Sudan and eastern Congo. He sat next to us in the Toyota, with the aforementioned soldier in the back.
“The last time I came through here, I didn’t come back the same way,” he said.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I was arrested by the Congolese military.” Suffice it to say, he favored the way the rebels treated him.
He was on assignment earlier in the year and was following a group of rebels for several days. On his way back, he passed a military check point and they nabbed him. This history explained the bullet proof vest and helmet he had along. Thai tried them on for fun, of course. It fit, of course;) This journalist was a great source of info on eastern Congo, and we riddled him with questions. His personal knowledge base was refreshing since first-hand information on the confusing “African World War” that has been tormenting this side of Congo is hard to come by.
After two hours, we came to a trail head and climbed up the edge of a remnant volcanic cinder cone through the terraced crops of bananas, corn, onion, millet and many other greens. We topped out and crossed a cow pasture that was the volcanic crater of the cone and reached the edge of the thick Congolese jungle. There were 6 in the group: 2 Congolese guides, the 2 of us, the Ugandan Reuters photographer, and we were accompanied by about 12 armed men, presumably part of the rebel army in control of the area.
We entered into the thick misty Congolese jungle. Bamboo forest intertwined with crazy thick African vegetation. The trackers were ahead and knew more or less where the gorillas had been. As we got closer, we found clues of recent gorilla activity, bamboo shoots freshly eaten, matted down vegetation, a gorilla “nest” where they had slept, and the occasional fresh pile of not-quite-steaming gorilla poo.
Unlike the fancy gorilla tracking in Rwanda or Uganda – where they use radios to let people know where the gorillas were – in the Congo, our guide followed hash marks made with a panga (aka machete) left in bamboo stalks by the trackers ahead, who slept near the gorillas and protected them from poachers. They kept them habituated to tourists by doing this, since with the lack of activity, they would have potentially grown wild again, and this valuable educational tool and source of income for a very poor country would have been lost as a consequence of a civil war.
Moments later… we came upon the famous Mountain gorillas
Here’s more photos from the Reuters photographer already on an Italian news site (they’re quite impressive!)
Isn’t that full on?! And that was just our first weekend off;) I can’t catch you up on the rest of the past month yet because Internet access has been hard to come by, and there is too much to tell via thumb-typing on my iPhone. Thanks for your patience!
Another note about this Congolese adventure: something I have learned is that the word “rebel” in warring countries means a lot of different things. It doesn’t always mean a pissed of armed person.
In the DRC there are 14 rebel groups at this time. Some are thuggish and violent (like the ones scaring our refugees over the border), some are just trying to keep themselves (and their families/villages) safe like gangs, others want to make money. Some want to save the gorillas and some want to poach them…you get the point.
Some people (not rebels;) that we spoke to even feel the Ugandan military is more aggressive than most rebel groups they have encountered. To confuse this further, rebel groups can even dress like the military, so it’s hard to visually tell them apart.
I am saying this because a lot was new information to me, and it reminded me – once again – to always question what you hear. Even from the UN. Even from CNN. Even from the BBC (I feel like pointing out Fox News as a dubious news source would be insulting to your intelligence, so I won’t). I’m not saying all I heard was the truth either. I’m just saying that it is valuable to ask real people who are experiencing it directly yourself when you can!
This whole adventure reminds me once again of the power of travel – not just to adventure and learn, but to UNDERSTAND, one layer deeper, about what others experience. I find that overall, travel keeps me more open-minded and less judgmental.
And this world could use a whole lot more of that, shugah!!!!
A quick synopsis of the rest of the month:
* motorcycle safari through Lake Mburo National Park, where zebras crossed our paths and cute little warthogs ran from us every time (yes, they really are cute!)
* lounging on a tropical island in massive Lake Victoria during an eight-hour electric storm (!!!!!)
* getting proposed to in three countries at the same time on the top of Sabyinyo volcano, whose peak borders Rwanda, Uganda, and the DRC (yes, we finally climbed it – and there were steep, rickety, wooden ladders for the entire last bit of the summit)
* a romantic evening at a lakeside eco-resort on Lake Bunyoni (the only lake in Uganda free of the disease bilharzia!)
* a trip to Queen Elizabeth National Park where I stared at a massive elephant as he trumpeted at us
* …and more goodies that I’ll share if we end up fireside with a glass of wine in hand at some point! Deal?
All in all, Uganda was epic. Now we are off to explore Southern Africa, where we will pass through Cape Town, then head into Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, and Malawi (that’s the short list, at least!).
I’m thinking about you, my fellow Freedom Junkies! And don’t worry- while I’m here, I am also loving creating the next adventures for YOU in 2013. In addition to awesome new Jedi Juice topics (for those of you that are new here, those are my free monthly calls), I’m also nailing down the details for the 2013 Freedom Sessions Mastermind group, which will rock the next year for a small group of lucky peeps! Stay tuned for more juiciness.
And lastly – but not leastly (new word!) – because I care about your freedom, I have to ask: What are you going to do differently today? As we know, doing things differently frees your mind, and that’s epic shizzle;) Shoot me an email. I’d love to hear from you!
To Your Freedom,