A night in the not-so-democratic-republic of the Congo

Most people know about the ludicrous gorilla wildlife tourism market in Uganda and Rwanda, but some may not realize those same gorilla groups wander passportless to the DRC and thus, also gorilla track in the Congo. The benefit is its cheaper and not sold out months in advance, but the pitfall include bad organization, unreliability and arguably more dangerous. I talked with a tour agent in Kampala, Uganda, who thought it may be hard to get a gorilla permit in any of the Ugandan parks, so connected me with a tour operator in Bunugana, the border town between Uganda and Congo.

His name was Jackson, aged about 30, portly and soft-spoken. He met me in Kisoro a few kilometers out of Bunagana. It took me 6 hrs on a bus the night before to get to Kabale, then 3 hours in a car taxi to get to Kisoro. You’d think the bus ride was worse, but atleast it was during the evening, since the car ride was intolerably hot, and involved the driver squishing 8 adults into a 5 seater sedan. I shared the front seat with another woman whose dress smelled like menstruation, and the driver shared his seat with a man whose legs cradled the stick shift. In the back, the four squeezed sardines looked slightly more comfortable.

If that doesn’t sound bad enough, imagine the entire dirt road under construction, with stop and go one-way traffic, semi-trucks spewing constant dust clouds on the air-conditionless car, and keeping our windows shut to avoid being coloured red by it and instead cooking in the 8 person sauna at high noon. It was fun.

Jackson making dinner while the laptop entertains us

When I finally met Jackson, he put both of us on one moto-taxi, and 3 people on an 8km ride with speed bumps the whole way to the Congo border was certainly an upgrade, but not necessarily luxurious. We sped to the border which he explained we needed to clear my Ugandan exit since it was almost 5 pm, and in the morning we wouldn’t have time to do anything but clear the Congo entry visa. The borders are only open during sunup, so we would have to wait from 6:30 am outside the congo border to get my $50 8-day visa available only at that border for that province of Congo (other entry points are more like $150-$250) and only because I had a letter of invitation by the gorilla park rangers.

We then walked over to Congo anyway, and with a head nod at the right guard, were free to refuge illegally in the Congo til the border reopened. There was a few metres of no mans land, where French, English, luganda and a Congolese dialect all mixed together, and then I enjoyed a coca cola on the patio of his Congolese family. We were to stay in their extra apartment, which was just one big room, no electricity, no running water, and a dingy mattress on the floor that he usually shared with his 3 sons.

prepping the coal stove

At this point I was kind of reconsidering my idea, but then the other Katrin whispered “you can totally do this, this is how everyone here lives.” So I stuck it out, and the apartment slowly got cosier and cosier. The boys lit some coals and a few candles to provide light and heat, Jackson brought out his laptop and played Ugandan reggaeton music videos, and he cooked chapatti over the coals in a pan much too dirty to eat out of. Then he paired it with warm beer, and all of this I pretended to take graciously since I couldn’t even leave if I wanted to – I was already exited out of Uganda and illegally in the Congo.

Sure enough, the night was sleepless, and Jackson wanted to confide in me his whole life story and feelings of loneliness. It was awkward, inappropriate, and perhaps my fault, but by 6 am the borders had opened and I tried to start the day anew with a goal to try and choose my tour guides more carefully. It turned out I wouldn’t get the Congolese visa the next morning, since the park rangers were not at the border in person to confirm I was tracking gorillas, so Jackson suggested I stay two nights and be patient.

I literally ran away back to Uganda at the crack of dawn. The problem was I was now illegally reentering Uganda, and I actually had to escape both the Congo and Uganda to hire a moto-taxi to take me the 14 km to the Rwandan border. Thank god no one noticed that I had been stamped out twice since I would have had to reenter and pay another $50 Ugandan visa. Even more thanks to God when I finally arrived on Rwandan soil and got issued a visa even though I wasn’t eligible for one since I dind’t have local papers and didn’t preapply for one online – perhaps another piece of useful information one could take from this blog.

The Pearl of Africa

To get from South Africa to Uganda, I had to change planes in Rwanda. At Kigali International airport, I waited on the tarmac for my next plane, and was issued a boarding pass for “Kategre Ndege.” Im still not sure if that was someone else or a rough Kinyarwanda translation of my name…

the shore of Lake Victoria in Entebbe

My east Africa trip started in Entebbe, the international airport town on Lake Victoria which has a huge UN presence. Couchsurfing with a couple of them made me feel like I wasn’t too far from home or that exotic but as soon as I traveled west, the word Mzungu greeted me everywhere I went. Mzungu means “foreigner” or “white person” and thank God we’re no longer seen as colonial devils since children run up excitedly to wave and yell mzungu. In earlier times, from the start of the slave trade and into about the 60’s, children would run away from any white people they saw since it was a common saying for mothers to warn their children, “behave or a muzungu will eat you!”

Its been a whirlwind since I arrived in this beautiful place. It borders magnificent Lake Victoria, boasts the start of the longest river in the world, has snowcapped mountains at the equator, has the highest concentration of primates in the world, and amazing bird watching. Some say Uganda is the pearl of Africa, squeezing in all the African attractions you’d ever want in one, very-safe country. Funnily enough, this hasn’t caught on with backpackers yet, as the infrastructure for traveling around the country alone is pretty minimal (and insanely cheap). There is usually a hostel with a couple other mzungus in the main cities and most touristy places, but most of the tourism is high-end tourism related to gorilla wildlife tracking.

DSC01250

the big boss walking past my gorilla-tracking friend Jon who took this great snap

Gorillas are the biggest driver of wildlife tourism in Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo has recently reopened their parks and begun hosting more gorilla tracking tours. They all cooperate on price (circa $500 for an hour with a group) and work together for conserving their natural habitat since it sits most of the gorilla groups live within the tri-national park. Since the gorillas are free to move between all three borders, its possible that the gorillas all slowly migrate to one or two countries, but so far, their numbers have only been increasing and many groups are totally habituated to human presence, so it looks like the gorilla tracking industry will just keep growing in all three countries. Im hoping it won’t only bring more international visitors to see these primates, but also allow travelers to discover the other hidden jewels in these sometimes misunderstood and underrepresented countries.