Hallelujah. I’ve escaped the unrelenting grime and corruption of Kinshasa, not without some difficulty. I've taken a ferry north across the river from Kinshasa and I’m in the Republic of Congo now. The immigration booths are rickety, but the service straightforward.
The Republic of the Congo, or RoC (not to be confused with Taiwan) is also known as Congo-Brazzaville (so as not to confuse it with the Democratic Republic of Congo).
The region is dominated by Bantu-speaking tribes from three kingdoms: Kongo (originating about 1000), the Loango (flourishing in the 17th century), and Tio.
85% of Congo’s sparse population (five million) lives in a few urban areas, mainly in Brazzaville, and Pointe-Noire, as about 80% of the entire country is covered in the dense Congo Rainforest.
The Portuguese located the Congo River in 1482, establishing commerce with the tribes-especially the slave trade.
The Frenchman Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza (hence Brazzaville) signed a treaty with Makoko, ruler of the Bateke people, in 1880,. This established French control. The country was then named French Congo, and after 1905 Middle Congo. Together with Gabon and Ubangi-Shari, it became the colony of French Equatorial Africa in 1910. The Congo proclaimed its independence without leaving the French Community in 1960, then calling itself the Republic of Congo.
French is the main language used. Very few people understand English.
Civil wars and militia conflicts have historically plagued the Republic of Congo. Nearly half the population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank, even though the Republic of Congo is one of sub-Saharan Africa's main oil producers.
Congo is considered to be one of Africa's safer countries, much better than the D.R.C. Brazzaville is one of Africa's safer cities, and certainly one of its safest capitals, considerably safer than Kinshasa..
I’m flying north to one of the national parks. and I’m going to visit the lowland gorillas at Odzala Camp. It's not cheap - these are special charter flights and the lodging is beautiful, run by knowledgeable and hard-working staff and guides. It's an amazing experience.
Bureaucracy is still alive and kicking this side of the Congo, though for the most part (not when it comes to the passport checking officer), with humour. I have pages of flight itineraries and the check-in clerk feels it necessary to photograph every single one of them, This includes the details of my accommodation in Zambia, my next stop. But they all (except the immigration officer) send me on my way with a cheery bon voyage.
So now I'm safely in Brazzaville, the capital of Congo, having arrived from Kinshasa. The streets of Brazzaville aren’t exactly pristine, but they are tranquil and there are recognisable houses and shops and pavement cafes. The taxis and buses are green and white and relatively disciplined. And my hotel - wow- my hotel. Proper cotton sheets and a working shower. I’m in heaven.
Carrying on my literary tradition I’ve brought William Boyd’s novel with me to re-read, but the beach, disappointingly, is just a patch of scrubby pebbles where the fishing boats land. (I think Boyd’s beach is imaginary even though the book is a satire on Congo as well as humankind in general).
The hotel has lent me their shuttlebus free, (this certainly isn’t Kinshasa) to explore the highlights of the capital of the Congo. I’m back in half an hour. Brazzaville's highlights include a cathedral, a memorial to its founder, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza and the modernist Basilique Sainte-Anne, with its serpent scaled roof. I have decided to avoid the ‘colourful traditional craft markets’. I have a pretty good view of everywhere I have visited, plus the Grand Mosque (also green) and the high rise Nabemba Tower (offices0 from my fifth floor window.
Today involves another flight in a small plane, this one is only a 12 seater. I’m off to Odzala National Park in the north west of this slice of the Congo basin. The plane is almost full and nearly everyone in the party is English, or American, and male.
Here there is real, green jungle. I’m greeted by gin and tonic when we land, presented by a line of uniformed staff, my own guide, Clem (he’s French) and my own safari vehicle to convey me to the camp. There’s even a space to rest my glass while we bump along (some things are not that different). As we lurch through the rainforest we’re lucky enough to spot a juvenile serval wandering up the path in front of us. None of the guides have ever seen one before.
The lodge serves up three course banquets, I’m told that I can have as many gin and tonics as I want. They are all included and I’m sleeping in a four poster bed in a stilt-house overlooking the forest. I've arrived in heaven.
Up at six for my first gorilla trek. The gorilla species here is the western lowland, slightly smaller (mainly because they have a lot less fur) than their mountain gorilla relations. Procedures are taken even more seriously in Congo than in Rwanda. We march in silence (partly because the tracker doesn’t speak any English) and we have to wear face masks as we approach. I hadn’t realised how uncomfortable these are – like having a sauna on your nose. Our tracker is wielding a machete, but this seems to be mainly for effect. Most of the jungle bashing is done with a large orange pair of secateurs. Fortunately, there are plenty of primates in the vicinity and we don’t have to walk too far. We beat our way through oceans of marantaceae stems (gorilla food), to find viewpoints.
Unlike their mountain counterparts these lowland gorillas are mainly arboreal and lively, keeping their distance,. They skip around more like chimpanzees, tearing off branches, chewing and fanning or shinning down lianas. Every so often they settle on the ground, peeking out from the undergrowth and scurrying away when my fellow trekkers approach too closely. I’m with four men, all taller than me and all indulging in one of those ‘My lens is bigger than your lens’ competitions. Suffice it to say that I’m the one at the back struggling to find a space with a view in our tracker’s clearings. I’m also the one who gets attacked by fire ants. But I always am - they love me.
I spend the morning on the deck of my cabin, listening to the bird calls, cicadas and odd spurts of crashing in the undergrowth and watching the butterflies dart around. There’s always a house guest or two in these places. I’m battling with a couple of cockroaches who are attracted to the inside of my suitcase. Clem takes a few of us for a forest walk in the afternoon. He leaps about manically trying to catch lacewing beetles for us to admire. We end in a stream, literally, Chairs and a table have been set out in the water. Tiny fish nibble our feet, pedicure style, and we sample forest gin and tonic, made with fresh ginger.
Another day, another gorilla trek, more pushing and jostling for the best camera positions. Today we’re visiting silver-back Neptune’s group. The gorillas are very socially aware. Neptune keeps a close eye on proceedings, peering through the marantaceae, which is frustrating, as it’s difficult to keep him in focus. He ventures out occasionally, to give any overly boisterous youngsters a stern glance. They respond immediately. The females sit together and the little ones play-fight, watched over by a larger male on the verge of maturity. The guide says that groups of gorillas sometimes combine in this way, with a silver-back supervising each section. It sounds much more organised than a school playground.
A village visit in the afternoon. We sit in a circle while the chief shows us their prized possessions: a blue glass necklace, a beaded belt, a calabash water carrier, a one stringed guitar and a cross bow. Most of the village turns out to watch and their pygmy goats gambol behind us. The mud and wood houses are crumbling, but the village is neat and tidy.
Sundowners today in a forest clearing, before a night drive with searchlights picking out small nocturnal mammals who are just waking from their day’s slumber. Galagos and pottos are both spotted. I’d never heard of either of these tiny primates before until I looked them up and saw that a galago is the official name for a bush baby. The potto is an odd looking plump creature, pop-eyed as he struggles lethargically into action.
A final trek and today the gorillas excel themselves. They are in a marantaceae root clearing, so we have an unobstructed view and a circus performance unfolds. The babies swing on the liana trapezes, leaping from one to the other, acting the clown as they knock each other to the floor and then tumbling on the ground. The females burrow round the roots. The males wait till the females have done all the digging and then swoop in, shoving them out of the way to take the food. The silver-back, who has been devouring roots in the background makes a grand entrance, like a ring master, surveys the scene, greets some of his offspring, quells some rough and tumble amongst the adolescents and then departs for a snooze stage right.
Then, into the transport for a jolting ride to Mboko camp. Here the savannah is scattered with huge termite mounds, a natural Bagan. Next, a river trip. It’s a sub, sub tributary of the Congo and I’ve been warned there are swarms of tsetse flies (it’s all right there’s no sleeping sickness here). So I’m swaddled in two blouses, trousers tucked into socks, all soaked in copious amounts of insect repellent. Ted and Josh are in the bow. They’re filming videos for the World Wildlife Fund. (Ted holds the world record for the fastest crossing of Loch Ness in a kayak.).
There’s little to see other than reflections in the water. The resident pygmy crocodile has abandoned his post, a lone and distant forest elephant raises his trunk (maybe he can smell all that repellent?) and retreats. We fruitlessly follow his foot prints in the mud (they’re huge), are scratched remorselessly by clinging mimosa thorns and ford a side channel before coming across some skittish forest buffalo.
I sleep at Lando camp, facing vast green open stretches round the river. Judging by the noise there’s plenty of action at night, but come dawn all the elephants and hunting hyenas have departed again. Flocks of grey parrots amass aloft, for their morning mineral feast in the mud and then swoop off too. However, we do encounter a very sleepy female spotted hyena, guarding her cubs in their den beneath a Disney Castle termite mound, on my way back to the airstrip.
There’s only me on the plane this journey, so they’ve filled up most of the seats with cargo. They still make all the announcements ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we will be flying at...’ and I doze quietly upfront. It’s still very cloudy. Clem says the dry season is always overcast.
My hotel is on the banks of the Congo, so I can laze on a sunbed and peer across to Kinshasa, a world away. It seems quite benign in the sun. A stroll along the corniche, where the aristocracy of Brazzaville parade in their finery – mainly designer jeans and tee shirts. There are photographers waiting by the benches with laptops and a printer. We have a good discussion about the comparative merits of Canon and Nikon and they admire my lens. In front, are some sand banks permanently exposed in the dry season. They’ve set up a marquee and tables and chairs ready to host some events. Ahead, is a modern suspension bridge, built by the Chinese and confusingly named for Independence Day in 1960. Beneath, there is a patchwork of industriously tended tomb-shaped allotments. The channels allow drainage without too much damage in the torrential rains.
Next stop Zambia, in search of leopards.
Rwanda is at the heart of Africa. It’s also known as Africa’s Switzerland: small, green, mountainous and very neat, surprisingly clean and manicured, with little hedges and brickwork lining the roads. Rwanda is deliciously warm and pretty, with refreshing alpine air. Most of the roads are good - Chinese built like most of the roads in Africa it seems - though steep and irritatingly blocked by slow trucks at times. Two thirds of the terraced land over which they swoop is devoted to agriculture, mostly tea and coffee. Much of it was devastated during the very recent civil wars.
Memorials to the genocide line every road; on Sunday the memorials are crammed with relations remembering their dead. There is a school where all the children were murdered because they refused to divide into Tutsi and Hutu - ‘We are all Rwandans'. Around another corner the remains of a huge church where the priest locked in ten thousand of his congregation, nailed up the doors, lobbed grenades into the windows and then blew up the entire building.
It all now seems remarkably peaceful. Tourism is up and coming, though it has suffered again this year with the fear of Ebola (despite the distance to West Africa) and unrest in neighbouring Congo and Burundi. Palaces have been reconstructed (above) and museums built. My driver, Arthur, and most of the locals are smiley and eager to please. This hasn’t stopped Arthur handing me a punishing schedule that breaks every law relating to happiness on holiday. I am expected to get up before six a.m. nearly every day - sometimes well before. There are also two tickets entitling me to an emergency ambulance airlift should it be required. I wonder if they would give me a ride home if I fall asleep on my treks?
My very swish lodge is surrounded by forest and very scenically nestled in the middle of a tea plantation. There are numerous crackling log fires to take off the evening chill. I meander through rolling tiers of lime green tea bushes to my bungalow on stilts at the edge of the forest. My guide book says this is the nicest hotel in Rwanda. I’ll buy that. Naturally, it serves its own tea.
I am not allowed into the forest alone so have to pay extortionate prices for a somewhat idiosyncratically drawn up list of activities, all accompanied by rangers. Very clever tourism tactics and commercially successful, as they have trackers permanently following the most popular attractions - mainly primates. (Most of the Big Five safari mammals have been poached out). Number one attraction is chimpanzee trekking, despite the necessity for the silly o’clock (4.15 a.m.) wake up call. My group is comprised mainly of Swiss. They are a fit bunch, determined to be first on the scene if there is any likelihood of a photo alert and set off at marathon runners’ pace, not bothering to check if anyone has been left behind.
The trail is precipitous and overgrown with hidden booby trap lianas, waiting to trip me up. Tarzan managed them with much more élan than I do. The chimps are elusive. We can hear them whooping as they crash through the undergrowth but they don’t want to be caught even more than we would like to see them and a wild chase ensues. Eventfully they clamber up the tall fig trees to eat and pelt us with fruit. (I'm told we are lucky as sometimes you get peed on.)
Using the camera is not easy. It’s too easy to overbalance on the steep slopes - and I do. The branch I cling onto invariably snaps. And the Swiss don’t baulk at barging you out of the way if there is good photo to be had - I have some huge bruises on my back. Nevertheless, there are identifiable chimps in my pictures, some of which look remarkably like shots from Planet of the Apes.
I have paid 70 dollars to go in search of black and white colobus monkeys on my next morning expedition in Rwanda. However, there was no need. The monkeys have pre-empted me and visited my hotel after lunch. I can see them, in line, swinging through the trees and landing, trampoline-like, in the bushes in front of my bungalow balcony. The tree bounces back up again and the next monkey follows suit. It’s like a circus act performed by wizened little old men with extraordinary white whiskers. Their tracker is sitting by the pool snoozing. I trade my colobus trip for after lunch bird watching, but all the birds are sensibly having their afternoon nap too. The flowers are luxuriant however, and it’s a peaceful scenic walk. And there’s the added benefit of at least one lie in.
Later, more entertainment is provided by bearded mountain monkeys who creep right under my veranda, squatting in the bushes and gorging themselves as they chatter away. The only thing I haven’t seen are the common blue monkeys who are supposed to frequent the hotel grounds. Maybe no-one has told them.
The road from the forest alongside and above the long strip of Lake Kivu and then up to the Virunga Mountains is not as good. In fact that’s an understatement. It’s still being constructed. Weary Chinese engineers in huge straw hats stand wearily smoking and issuing directions to JCB drivers and labourers wielding pick axes. It’s dusty and rutted and it’s very slow going. Thank goodness it’s the dry season. I have been warned that gorilla trekking in Rwanda is arduous and very steep (at altitude), climbing up the volcanoes, and that the undergrowth is full of tenacious stinging nettles. The rangers will hack their way through these and the bamboo that the gorillas love to eat, using machetes.
At the mustering point I spy the Swiss group and stay well away. There are ten groups of eight people allocated to each gorilla family. Fortunately, I manage to talk my way into the dodderers’ group and we get the easy trek. My gorilla group, named Hirwa (aptly meaning lucky), has been good enough to settle right by the forest boundary today. So, a forty-five minute walk, slightly uphill and we are there. Much easier than the chimps. And what can I say -? It is amazing.
A gaggle of sleepy females with children who are clearly a handful. The indulgent mothers hug their pop eyed babies, their fur standing up in black haloes whilst they cling on. Other adults fold their arms and watch tenderly as the slightly larger siblings totter around break off sticks, chew them, poke their parents and then hurl them. Even naughtier twin youngsters put on a gymnastics exhibition, turning head over heels, doing headstands and swinging on the trees. Two adolescents wrestle for a good ten minutes, sliding down the slope towards us, lying exhausted, intermittently beating their chests to bluff that they are the strongest, then starting again. The giant silverback surveys the whole scene laconically from his sunny nest. Picture perfect.
This lodge is not as plush as Nyungwe, but there are beautiful gardens, views of the volcanoes and birds galore and I have my own crackling log fire.
Another trip into the rainforest, fortunately not too arduous to see the the rare golden monkeys. I'm told they are habituated - though they are not nearly as nonchalant as the gorillas. They don’t run away, but they keep a wary distance and startle easily. Nevertheless, they look angelic in their little caps as the sun patterns their burnished fur.
Then back to Kigali, the capital, founded in the early twentieth century. I have completed my clockwise journey round Rwanda. I'm staying in the Hotel Rwanda of the film (actually it's called Mille Collines - One Thousand Hills). Based on the Rwandan genocide, which occurred during the spring of 1994, The film documents hotelier Paul Rusesabagina's efforts to save the lives of his family and more than 1,000 other refugees by providing them with shelter in the besieged hotel at the time of the genocide in 1994.So, it's an interesting place to stay and it has a very good bar.
Next stop Madagascar.
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