Saturday, December 15, 2012

Albertine Riches

We’re flying south over Uganda, at an altitude of seven thousand metres, when our pilot starts to descend. Below us the River Nile snakes its way through lush green vegetation, shimmering in the equatorial morning sun as it churns up white froth around the scattered islets and cataracts that obstruct its course toward the Albertine Rift Valley. 
My clients, a veteran Hollywood producer and his son, are glued to their windows in anticipation of buzzing the legendary Murchison Falls. I have visited Murchison on many occasions, but this is the first time I’m seeing it from a bird’s eye view. Here the Victoria Nile forces three hundred cubic metres of water per second through an indestructible gap only seven metres wide, before flowing calmly westward into Lake Albert. Our Cessna 421 descends to less than a thousand metres over “Devil’s Cauldron” whereupon we’re able to pick out individual crocodiles on the banks, waiting patiently for the chance of a meal. Murchison never fails to deliver.

I am a gorillaphile (strictly platonic, I can assure you), the result of a career in gorilla conservation spanning two decades that took an immense toll on my life and steered me in directions I could never have foreseen. For the past six years I have been taking travellers over mountains and through jungles, trekking gorillas in the Albertine Rift.
Whether it’s organising a human caravan before setting off on expedition by foot into the jungle - enlisting the services of local porters, security guards, chefs and a priest - or making sure the helicopter arrives on time, I take care of it. And I have been fortunate enough to trek with some interesting people: celebrities, movie producers, company CEOs and polymaths. There’s no better time to get the benefit of a genius’s mind than after he or she has spent an hour with the gorillas. 
Uganda is a country very close to my heart. She is rich in culture and biodiversity, and has abundance of wildernesses within half a day’s drive of the capital: woodlands, acacia savannahs, vast dry grasslands, swamplands, high-altitude afro-montane forests, evergreen forests, lakes the size of countries, and lush, primordial rainforests where chimpanzees and gorillas have lived for eons. The bird life is second to none. More than 1,100 avian species range through Uganda, which is more than three quarters of all the birds ever recorded in sub-Saharan Africa.
I own and operate my own company in Kampala, Gorillaland Safaris, which holds no assets but a website, and incurs no overheads. Thus I have the freedom to scale my safaris up or down, according to my clients’ needs. I take tourists who want to visit Great Apes in their natural habitats, and experts who are searching for a rare sub-species in a remote habitat. 
Typically my safaris are with couples, sometimes groups of four, whom I accompany by car into the Albertine Rift for four or five days spent tracking primates in primordial forests, and staying in sublime eco-lodges. Spending long periods in remote locations with people you don’t know can be a stressful, especially if they’re passive aggressive types who blame every problem in Africa on their guide. Usually the combination of rare fauna and flora in far flung places, and my tireless wit, are enough to keep the road journey lively. “Name the ten countries with just four letters.” That can keep a car full of clients occupied for hours. “OK, now the five countries ending in ‘L.’” Few jobs offer more satisfaction.
But few are more disappointing. Like a soldier on the front line, I can go for months without seeing any action. During the lean times I try to relax with my mates at the Corner House in Ntinda, a suburb of Kampala. Ambition is a sore subject but the conversation is always stimulating. Then, as the funds diminish, my life partner Kigongo and I must find ever ingenious ways to survive, staying at home, eating just rice and beans and feeding the dogs fishmeal. Nevertheless, in times of drought I know I am still learning, yearning, going deeper, and that this will ultimately make me a better safari guide. And I am reassured by the fact that, however challenging, I live in the one place on earth I always yearned to be, the heart of Africa.

There is untold magic in these forests. I can remember once years back trekking through the Congo side of the Virungas, Africa’s oldest national park. My friends Popol and Gapira were taking me to see a gorilla group whose incumbent silverback had recently been shot and killed by soldiers.  These days this is a rare occurrence, and I point it out simply to show how unpredictable gorilla behaviour can be. Uniquely, after the death of the previous silverback, a wild, un-habituated, ex-lone silverback had subsequently assumed leadership of what was a group of habituated gorillas (those familiar to human presence). 
As we approached, he became quite agitated and refused to allow us any closer, yet he could not convince the other gorillas to flee. He screamed and beat his chest and thrashed about the vegetation like a demon. Eventually we gave up our pursuit and sat down in a dried-up riverbed, a sunny, meandering rift through the otherwise pristine afro-montane forest. All at once the gorillas began to emerge from the trees and cross the riverbed, just a few metres ahead of us: large, black, shaggy, charismatic mammals that moved silently and stoically like shadows. They wanted to see us. It was the very first time that I felt their kinship.
Following a 50% hike in the price of gorilla permits in Rwanda this summer to $750, trekking Mountain gorillas in the Congo, which costs only $400, has become popular again. The Rwandese were fond of saying Congolese gorillas emigrate across their border because they feel safer on their side of the volcanoes. Now gorilla tourists are headed in the other direction, for the cheaper tracking fees. While these do seem like high prices to pay for park permits, sadly there are just too few gorillas in the wild, and their habitats too fragile to charge any less. 

My driver Patrice and I have made countless journeys across East Africa together. But our favourite direction out of Kampala was always due west. Few places can thrill like the Congo. On one occasion we took the journalist, Geoff Carr, to meet a tiny, isolated population of gorillas in the Congo, thought to be a unique sub-species. Once across the border the road took us up a steep, 900-metre incline, to one of the highest Rift Valley escarpments. There we parked the car and climbed to the highest, Mount Tshiaberimu. 
Camp Kalibina, at 3,000 metres, took two and half hours to reach. It was an arduous climb and at times the incline seemed too steep to overcome. The last of our expedition arrived after nightfall, and gathered around a blazing campfire. “Are they a unique sub-species,” asked Geoff, who was writing a piece about Great Apes.
“Whether they are or not,” I explained, “Mt Tshiaberimu is still a conservation area of great scientific importance. The relative isolation of this gorilla population makes it is a vital reserve in the gorilla gene pool.”
The next morning, with a light rain falling, we set off downhill on our gorilla trek. After an hour tramping through the forest, the scent of decay and fresh growth bursting from every footfall, we found them foraging in a bamboo forest, a small group consisting of a Silverback, mature female, adolescent female and infant male. Compared to the other sub-species I’d encountered, if indeed these are another sub-species, Tshiaberimu gorillas are somewhat diminutive.  
Typically, while the adults busied themselves elsewhere, the youngsters paid us their full attention. On this occasion, however, I noticed something quite odd. The female was more interested in Patrice than anything else, tugging at his clothing and looking him up and down. A ranger tried to discourage her, but every time she retreated she was accosted by her younger brother, a third her size, who goaded her to return. She would then apparently pleasure herself, before charging back to grab Patrice by his trousers. To cap it off, she tried to follow us when we left, and it took a good deal of effort to dissuade her. In my twenty years observing gorillas, I’d never seen anything quite like it. 
It is possible to visit the Mt Tshiaberimu gorillas by arrangement with the park authorities, the Institute Congolaise pour la Conservation du Nature (ICCN), though permits are rarely issued.  This has more to do with the lack of demand, than the fragility of the ecosystem. The Trek I did with Geoff is one that anyone can do and was well worth the physical effort.  However, if and when Tshiaberimu becomes a popular destination, ICCN would be wise to seriously limit the number of permits available – there are only 21 gorillas on that mountain.  

Some wildlife encounters no one wants to experience. The Tumbu fly, one of Africa’s few remaining man-eaters, is a case in point. It derives its scientific name Cordylobiaanthropophaga from the Greek word for ‘eater of men.’  Hardly a safari goes by when I don’t return scarred by this creature.   
Unbeknownst to you, as you sip sundowners on the lodge veranda, this insect is laying up to 300 eggs on your drying clothes in the service area out back. If not properly ironed (yes, that’s why they iron them), your smalls may have a nasty surprise in store for you when you next put them on. Once the eggs come into contact with your skin, the larvae hatch and burrow into your flesh where they feasts on you until adulthood, about three weeks later, after which they abandon you for the life of a Tumbu fly. 
One time on safari with John and Margot Paterson, an good-natured couple from Queensland, we were seated by the pool in a remote lodge in Serengeti when I noticed a boil-like contusion on John’s side. It was a Tumbu fly alright, nesting in his torso. No worries. I told him to apply some vaseline to it and the larva would soon wriggle out for air, whereupon he could remove it with a pair of tweezers. After he returned to Australia John wrote, “The most interest generated by far has been the tumbu fly story. I will dine out on it for many years.”
Whether it’s helping a client overcome the notion, let alone the experience, of an insect that lays her eggs in a human host, or the trauma of falling into a pit latrine, sense of humour is a big part of my job. Often locals have the last laugh. I once guided fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg and her husband Barry Diller into gorilla country. Their entourage included half a dozen male associates from the industry. After they had all arrived on the tranquil shores of Lake Kivu, and were safely in their hotel suites, the receptionist declared, “Never before have so many men checked into so few rooms!” 

Safaris are not always a laugh. Fortunately, mishaps tend to occur before the client arrives. Once in early 2008, Patrice and I found ourselves in a very tight situation. We had been lolling about Kampala between jobs, getting rusty, and I decided we needed to hit some big open country. Our plan was to drive a thousand kilometres to visit my schoolmate at his lodge in Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania. Once there, over a succession of sundowners, we’d pick his brains about quality safaris and the best wilderness experiences.
Our route would take us past Lake Victoria and through the Rift Valley in Kenya, stopping overnight in Nairobi before continuing to Tanzania. Now, I’ve always prided myself in staying abreast of local politics, yet somehow, as we set off at dawn on Wednesday January 16th, three weeks after the Kenyan elections, I failed to anticipate what we were heading into. 
It was an election strongly marked by tribalism, as the KANU Kikuyu incumbent Mwai Kibaki attempted to fight off Luo challenger Raila Odinga and his Orange Democratic Movement. At least 1,500 people were killed and 300,000 displaced during the rioting and bloodshed that followed.
The fact that we encountered only on-coming traffic along the typically busy thoroughfare should have been cause for concern. But we continued blithely on. The only other traveller we met, crossing the border at Busia, told us the road was passable but warned, “Up to and beyond Kisumu you should garland the car with leaves and branches, indicating your support for Odinga. But you had better throw them away before you reach the Rift Valley. That’s Kibaki country.”
Within a few kilometres we encountered a gang of surly Odinga supporters, gathered around a stack of burning tires in the middle of the road. We were travelling in the company’s brand new Land Rover Discovery III, Patrice’s pride and joy. As he tried to steer it through the gauntlet of angry youths, they began to beat and rock the vehicle, brandishing rocks over its shiny black flow-coat. 
In desperation, and with the zeal of an ODM activist, Patrice began to chant, “Kibaki must go! Kibaki must go!.” I too chanted, even louder: it was all we could do to stay alive, or at least save the Landy. Eventually they let us pass, but along this slow and treacherous road to Kisumu we would encounter a dozen more roadblocks, manned by increasingly drunken and ornery gangs of youths. Every one was a white-knuckle ride as we tried to determine the right speed and attitude needed to proceed. It was a wonder we made it to Nairobi alive that day.

Gorilla tracking is regularly listed as one of the “50 things to do before you die.” Spending time with your hairy mountain cousins is certainly a gratifying experience. I never tire of it. Having visited the easternmost (Bwindi) and the westernmost (Cross River) gorilla habitats before I was ten years old, I’ve made it my life’s ambition to trek through every one of them. I normally take clients to Bwindi in Uganda and Volcanoes in Rwanda, but if it’s safe we can visit any number of gorilla parks across Central Africa. For instance, I’ve just prepared a 10-day itinerary to trek gorillas in Dzanga-Sangha Reserve in the Central African Republic, which includes three days in the forest living and hunting with a community of Baka pygmies. 
Trekking gorillas in not an exact science. As they move around the forest at will, a trek can sometimes involve hours of arduous climbing in difficult conditions. When the movie producer and his son trekked up the steep slopes of Mt Karasimbe in Rwanda recently, they threatened to abandon the trek several times. They were however speechless when after a three-hour walk we finally found Suza Group. The gorillas were in a glade in the Hagania forest. It had begun to rain, which compelled them to hide under bushes and trees in order to avoid getting too wet, and remain stock still as we wandered between them. It took me a moment to notice that one female was nursing infant twins. Maybe it was the strain of the climb, but I was moved to tears when they both gazed up poignantly at me from her arms. No other animal looks at you that way.

When people ask me if I will ever go home, my usual response is, "And where exactly might that be?" Growing up as I did, at more than thirty different addresses on four different continents, ‘home’ is an abstract idea. A tenth-floor council flat in North London was once ‘home’ for twenty years. It had a breathtaking westerly view, and I would stare out the window and imagine a herd of wildebeest stampeding over the dark horizon to rescue me.
One gloomy winter's night in 1991, while I was riding the number thirteen home, a job ad in The Guardian caught my eye: "Digit Fund seeks UK director to set up a London office." The Digit Fund, the ad explained, had been established by the American anthropologist Dian Fossey for the protection of Rwanda’s Mountain gorillas. My heart skipped a beat. Could this be my ticket back to the Bright Continent?
I applied straight away. The fact that I’d already cut my teeth working as a fundraiser for a number of London charities, and had a background in Africa, worked in my favour, and I was called to interview. It was time to rent Gorillas in the Mist. Few prospective jobs come with a feature-length Hollywood movie. But I could not have known, as I watched a DC 3 descend between the majestic Virunga volcanoes with Dian Fossey (Sigourney Weaver) on board, that twenty years later I would arrive at the same airfield aboard a helicopter chartered by the movie’s producer. Time paints a bigger picture. 

Uganda, my adopted country, is experiencing a transformation at 50. So am I. We have much in common. An auspicious start squandered by decades of abuse, emancipation, then a long period of painstaking recovery, which ultimately led to the reemergence of new and exciting opportunities, have made us what we are today. 
Oil is this country’s greatest new opportunity, manifest by the platforms along the eastern shore of Lake Albert that I catch sight of as our Cessna climbs steadily towards the Mountains of the Moon. The pressure is on to harvest the Albertine Rift’s rich oil reserves. How long before the platforms number more than the species of large mammals?
Will the biodiversity survive the bonanza? Conservationists are working closely with the government and the oil companies to make sure it does. Certainly less reliance on charcoal could have a positive impact on a country that has seen its forest shrink dramatically over the past 40 years. 
Or will the nation succumb to the ‘resource curse’ that has frittered away the wealth of many other oil rich nations? The oil reserves are not predicted to last more than thirty years. What then? 
Uganda must handle all her natural resources with care. The livelihoods of many depend on it. The country has seen annual tourism revenues double in the past five years to $800 million, which is not far off what the oil will earn. No surprise there, as she offers a wealth of unique attractions, especially in the Albertine Rift Valley, one of Africa’s richest areas of biodiversity. A number of fabulous new lodges have been built and infrastructure is improving all the time. And she is a gentle, graceful nation, despite her troubled past. Her citizens are some of the friendliest and most hospitable people you will meet in Africa. 

A much shorter version of this article was first published in The Guardian

The Front Line of Conservation

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

One afternoon in June 2011 a black back mountain gorilla known as Mizano was engaged in battle with a pack of poachers’ dogs in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda ....

In an effort to save his hounds, the poacher thrust his spear into Mizano, killing him. A post mortem revealed the gorilla had died a brutal death after his lung was speared through the right shoulder, causing suffocation.

Bwindi hadn’t seen this kind of incident in 15 years and it sent shock waves through the conservation community. Three culprits were arrested the next day, but at the end of their trial two months later the presiding magistrate, citing a lack of evidence, let them off with light fines. Many were outraged by her decision. 

While stiffer sentences would certainly have sent a clearer message to the community, the incident did serve to highlight how local attitudes have undergone a paradigm shift in recent years.

Whereas in the past people reacted to reports of illegal poaching in the park with ambivalence, this time the response was one of outrage. The local community was quick to help police and the wildlife authority with their enquiries, which led to the arrests. After the trial the Uganda Wildlife Authority posted the following on their website;

Despite the light sentence given to the gorilla murderers, UWA will continue with her program of massive sensitization and increasing benefits from tourism for the communities to change their attitude and support mountain gorilla conservation as we believe that prevention is always better than cure. Our concern now is to prevent such incidents in the future rather than pursuing this one case further at the expense of deteriorating community-park relations.

The challenge is to mitigate human encroachment and maintain the integrity of protected areas without alienating the people who rely on those areas. Wildlife authorities and international organisations tend to favour top-down, revenue-sharing schemes that attempt to buy them off. But unless the people have a real stake in conservation, the issue will never gain traction. 
The Tarangire River at dawn

Take Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania for example, second only to Ngorongoro Crater for concentrations of wildlife during the driest months. Fed by the permanent waters of Tarangire River which runs through it, this unique ecosystem acts as a sort of sponge, attracting thirsty wildlife from an area ten times its size, including Serengeti and Lake Manyara. Swelling herds of wildebeest, zebras, eland, elephants and oryx gather on the river banks and stay until the onset of the rains. 

But the migration cycle is threatened by land acquisition. Large agro-foresty companies are buying up traditional Masai grazing land along the perimeter of the park and converting it for food production, which has led to the loss of five of the nine main migration corridors into Tarangire. If the trend continues the wildlife will go elsewhere, ultimately destroying the park.

Jon Simonson, who owns Tarangire Safari Lodge, is involved in a campaign aimed at turning the situation around. He negotiates contracts with villages outside the park to allow easement across their land for the migrating wildlife. 

The author (left) with Jon Simonson at his lodge in 2003
It’s no easy task convincing the Masai to forgo the large sums on offer but Jon, a naturalised American who’s lived his entire life in Tanzania and speaks fluent Swahili and Masai, uses only his powers of persuasion. He lets them know the true extent of the loss they will incur by selling their land: not just wildlife, but also Masai heritage. 

“Do you really want to trade evenings by the fire, under the stars, with your elders,” he asks a council of men seated in the shade of a large baobab tree, “for shanty dwellings in town? The money you get from selling your land will soon be spent. And then what? Have any of you been to Arusha to see how your tribespeople are living?” 

Two villages have so far signed contracts. More are in the offing. Easement for Tarangire’s wildlife will help ensure the integrity of the park’s remaining migration corridors. The project also empowers the Masai to make their own choices about resource management. Like the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the Tarangire campaign takes an enlightened, holistic approach to conservation, putting community relations at the top of the agenda. 

Africa now has a billion people. In recent decades there has been a major decline of the large mammal populations in it’s protected areas. Human pressure is the underlying reason, as communities adjacent to protected areas have grown substantially in the last fifty years.

Something must be done.

The real challenge remains finding the money. Paul Scholte, writing in the November 2011 issue of Tropical Conservation Science, suggests “a three to ten fold increase in the operational budget of African protected areas is required.” 

As a conservationist who spent 17 years trying to raise funds for gorilla protection, I know it isn’t easy finding the cash. Political instability and corruption discourages donors. What is easier is cutting back on costs. Community-based conservation makes that possible. Consider the savings when communities become your front line of protection. 

But instead of targeting communities, many conservationists would still rather make target practice of them, unconcerned if their actions lead to social injustice.

“Racist vision lets down life” is not simply an anagram of “wildlife conservationists” - it’s a warning to the cause. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.

Disregard African people in favour of their wildlife and you will only defeat your own objectives, because the future of the continent’s protected areas is entirely in their hands. 

This article was first published on The Ecologist website and We Said Go Travel's website

Thursday, September 13, 2012

My Clan and Other Animals

"Robert Burce and John Comyn stood across from one another, eyes locked, burning with aggression. Around them, the circular hall of Peebles Castle was filled to the timber walls with men, the atmosphere charged and volatile. Rain pounded on the thatched roof and thunder snarled between the snap of lightning, flaring white through gaps in the shuttered windows. The air was saturated with sweat and hot breath, and the reek of damp fur from the men's sodden coats."

So wrote Robyn Young in Insurrection her fictional account of the Scottish Wars of Independence. John Comyn was my ancestor. Being of Scots ancestry, in particular of Clan Comyn from the Scottish Highlands, I am by nature tribal. This suits my adopted home, Uganda, a nation of no less than 17 tribes belonging to the Bantu and Nilotic groups, many with centuries-old kingdoms.

The Fall of Na Cuimeanaich (Clan Comyn)

From 1080 to 1330 Clan Comyn flourished under the earls of Buchan. Their base was Lochindorb Castle on a loch island in the wild, bleak moorlands of Inverness-shire. The clan animal was a lion and insignia, the cumin plant.

In 1296, following the Battle of Dunbar, Red Comyn, the last Lord of Badenoch, was confined as a prisoner of war in the Tower of London. Pledging to fight for the English in Flanders, he was released, though he quickly deserted and sailed for Scotland. There he joined the war for Scottish independence, under William Wallace, the hero of the movie Braveheart.

When Wallace resigned as guardian of Scotland, Red Comyn took up the title, alongside Robert the Bruce. In the heady times that followed, the two engaged in a public squabble over who should take the Scottish crown. Eventually, they agreed to meet in Greyfriars Kirk, Dumfries, on 10 February 1306, to try and resolve it. Red Comyn must have had his doubts knowing Bruce had a violent temper.

There were no witnesses, but it‘s said Bruce offered Comyn all of his English and Scottish estates if he would support his claim for the crown. When Comyn rejected his offer Bruce lost it, drew a concealed dagger and stabbed Comyn to death at the high alter. Bruce went on to become king, but murder in a church was an excommunicatory crime, a fact that tormented the Scottish monarch for the rest of his life.

Clan Comyn’s fortunes declined after that, in particular following the Battle of Culbleau in 1335, when a number of the Comyn nobles were slain.

I have recently discovered I am also related to Roualeyn George Gordon-Cumming, a 19th Century Scottish explorer and safari guide, known as the "lion hunter" for his exploits in the African interior. I guess that too runs in my blood.

Considering such a pedigree of tribalism and cutthroat adventure, it would seem my aspiration to be a successful writer in the African bush is actually quite tame.
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, September 7, 2012

Horror Has A Face

"We went with this crazy hippy guy. He was working for the Dian Fossey Fund. We were trying to find this mine, and we needed him because apparently there are soldiers. And... basically he's Dennis Hopper out of Apocalypse Now! And I thought, oh what are we doing? Eventually, yes, we ran out of water.”
- Steve McQueen CBE 

I can’t sleep. But, as I toss and turn, it’s not the usual nocturnal hubbub keeping me awake. I survey my surroundings, which lack the traditional safari lodge trappings. No hot-water bottle between the sheets here. No rainfall shower with rainforest view. No cricket-serenaded verandah, lit only by flickering hurricane lamps. My sleeping arrangement is a Yucatan hammock suspended beneath a thatch-roofed hut to which mud has yet to be applied.

I’m in the middle of the jungle, but the sound of the forest is completely imperceptible. It's being drowned out by the din of a dozen transistor radios playing half a dozen different rhumbas, over the chatter of young men bragging and old men haranguing, and the shrill laughter of prostitutes resounding through the high canopy, like the cries of mating tree hyraxes. Smoke pervades everything; there's no shortage of fuelwood.

I’m guiding a British film crew through the jungle to shoot 35mm film of a coltan mine. And we’re spending the night in a remote mining camp, a hamlet of ragtag thatch huts and lean-to’s spread out across a two-acre forest clearing, about 35 kilometers southeast of Walikale in Congo’s South Kivu province. 

As a gorilla safari guide, my usual stomping ground is the Albertine Rift, a massive longitudinal cluster of volcanoes, lakes and forests that forms Congo’s eastern border with Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania. Lush, mountainous, and rich in biodiversity, this dangling string of emeralds and pearls is where most of the primate habitats in East and Central Africa are situated. No less than ten Albertine national parks and reserves offer permits to track chimpanzees and gorillas.  

Hence, I’m feeling somewhat anxious in this dissonant corner of the Congo River Basin. It’s not my usual habitat. And, despite the racket, there are no other people for miles in any direction beyond our camp. People we know about, that is. It’s easy to imagine unseen forces moving through the tangled darkness, taking up positions, planning their next move.

The director, camera operator and cinematographer are all fast asleep now, each in their own pup tent, having been zipped up since dusk. Not me. I’m wide awake in the midnight hour, eyes darting in every direction. And, as the restless miners move around their camp, casting phantasmagoric shadows about my wooden cage with their torchlights, I begin to wonder if maybe I really am Denis Hopper out of Apocalypse Now!!


There is probably a company of rebel soldiers nearby, remnants of the Interahamwe perhaps, or Congolese Mai Mai rebels. I know they’re out there somewhere. Before we set out on our expedition, we visited a UN peacekeeping base on a hillside above Walikale, and met the base commander, a Brahmin wearing his tennis whites who’s name I've forgotten. “Things are really going well here now,” he told us, “we patrol the Kisangani Highway on a daily basis.”  The paved bit, which is barely 50 kilometers long, in a jungle as vast as Afghanistan. 

Much preparation had gone into the trip. As the director of a gorilla conservation organisation, with an office in Goma, I was able to start in poll position. Two decades of traveling through the region, and a childhood spent living in various African countries also helped keep things on track. Nonetheless, one can never know enough about the next safari destination.

To understand Congo’s current problems, I read about its colonial history, in particular the period of King Leopold’s Congo Free State, 1885-1908. No one recounts this time more concisely than Thomas Pakenham in his seminal tome, The Scramble for Africa. Dogeared copies turn up in the libraries of some of the remotest lodges, and anyone who’s travelled through Africa will have likely read a chapter or two. It's a dizzying account of the period of rapid colonisation, between 1884 and 1904, when European powers jostled to carve up Africa for themselves.  

In the chapter entitled “An Ivory War,” Pakenham chronicles the little-known military campaign between the Belgians and Arabs, involving “cannibal armies,” which was fought on Congo’s Lualaba and Lomami rivers, not far from our present location.

Arthur Hodister, an eccentric Belgian trader in the Congo, emerges as the chapter’s most colourful character. He’s believed to be one of the real-life personalities on whom Joseph Conrad based his villain Mr Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness, which is set in turn-of-the-century Congo. Hodister, who was known for his sybaritic tastes and compassion for the natives, was a remarkably successful ivory trader. “He did not bully or beat the stuff out of the natives, like most of the international riff-raff employed as traders on the Congo,” writes Pakenham, “He charmed the ivory out of them.”

Charm couldn’t save him in the end though when, like so many foreigners who tried to make their fortunes in the Congo, he came to a grisly end:

“He was shot or speared with his companions, and the four heads were sent Nserara. Their bodies were eaten. Then the same fate was dealt out to the last of Hodister’s agents in the field, Pierret, at his base in Lomo, on the upper Lomami. The survivors fled down the Lualaba in a nightmare flight back towards the Falls, losing two more men from fever. Another agent went mad and drowned himself. By the end of May, nothing was left of Hodisgter’s expedition but his prancing Arab horse and some scattered human bones.”

The site of Hodister’s assassination, on 15 May 1890, an act that triggered the Belgian Arab War, is about two hundred and fifty kilometres south west of our mining camp. Four hundred kilometres south east of us is Kigali, where a little over a century later, on 6 April 1994, the plane carrying Rwandese President Habyarimana was shot down, triggering the Rwandan Genocide, which led to the current instabilities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

“Can we meet a rebel group?” asked Steve McQueen, sipping his tea. He is a large, buttoned-down man, in his late-thirties, with boyish charm and a preference for a Brideshead style that somewhat belies his West Indian heritage. We met to discuss the filming expedition on a cold January morning over breakfast at the American Hotel, near his home in Amsterdam.

“It would be risky,” I replied, “but we may encounter Mai Mai rebels whether we like it or not. A Channel 4 crew were recently held hostage by an errant general in South Kivu for three days. I think it would be better if we try to set something up on the hop, rather than alert anyone to our imminent arrival. ”

It was while researching his next film that McQueen came across a reference to me, as I had been leading a campaign to mitigate the impact coltan mining was having on the endangered Eastern lowland gorillas in South Kivu. I was contacted by his assistant Pinky Ghundale, who arranged our meeting in Amsterdam.

With this next film, the Turner prize-winning film director said he wanted to show the striking parallels between the 21st Century “coltan rush,” fueled by increased demand for consumer electronics, and the 19th Century rubber boom, when the Congo was similarly exploited to feed industrial demand in Europe and America, by forcing destitute Congolese to work under brutal conditions and in primordial surroundings. This was the stuff that inspired Joseph Conrad to write Heart of Darkness.

In Apocalypse Now!, Francis Ford Coppola’s movie about the Vietnam War based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a brooding Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), having just accepted his mission to assassinate Colonel Kurtz (Marlin Brando), rasps, “Shit... charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500.”

The same could be said of the arrest warrants issued to Congolese warlords by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It's difficult to find a military officer from any of the many sides of this conflict who hasn't at some point recruited child soldiers, intimidated the innocent, or been involved in dodgy mineral dealings.  

Like Kurtz, the warlords’ methods may be unsound, but their modus operandi is hardly original. Central African warfare has always been brutal. The Jagas, a band ferocious 16th Century mercenary warriors who attacked the Kingdom of Kongo during the reign of Alvaro I, actively sought people to capture and sell into slavery. And the 19th Century warlord Ngongo Lutete led an army of cannibals who devoured the entire battlefield, not only the dead but the wounded too.

Ngongo Lutete was himself a slave, having fallen into the hands of the Arabs as a child. But, impressed by his bravado during raiding expeditions, the Arab slaver Tippu Tip granted him his freedom when he was eighteen. Soon afterward Lutete amassed himself an army of brigands, whom he ruled with an iron fist. Establishing himself on the Lomami River, he steadily extended his influence westward. This brought him into constant conflict with the Belgians, compelling him to eventually switch sides and fight against his former Arab masters.

I came across a description of Lutete in The Fall of the Congo Arabs by Dr Sydney Hinde, a British military medical officer and captain in the Congo Free State forces: “He was a well-built intelligent- looking man of about 5 ft. 9 in. in height, with a brown skin, large brown eyes with very long lashes, a small mouth with thin lips, and a straight, comparatively narrow nose. His hands were his most remarkable characteristic; they were curiously supple, with long narrow fingers, which when outstretched had always the top joint slightly turned back.”

Hinde’s book reads like a contemporary account of jungle warfare. And for anyone in doubt about how long Congo’s children have been caught up in its conflicts, his description of how the Belgians enlisted boy-soldiers is quite telling: 

“The Commandant instituted a very good system which we afterwards often felt the benefit of, namely, the supplying of every white man, at the State expense, with as many boy-servants as he chose to employ. These were generally savage little rascals, lately -freed slaves, and either the children of prisoners of war, or presents sent from native chiefs. Their business being to attend to the personal comfort of the whites, they rapidly acquired a certain amount of civilisation, and an absolute confidence in white men. While still quite small, they acted as interpreters in the ordinary business with natives. As soon as they were old enough and sufficiently strong— often, with good feeding, a matter of only a few months — they were given guns, and taught how to use them; thus forming a sort of bodyguard for their masters when visiting friendly native chiefs. Very quickly after having arms in their hands they asked to be allowed to become soldiers, and were then drafted into the regular force. Eventually, what was called a "boy company" was formed, and it became the smartest set of soldiers we had. ” 

Seven months and one postponement later Steve McQueen and I finally reunited in the jungle, at Walikale. Accompanying him was director of photography Sean Bobbit, and camera assistant Gordon Segrove. I brought along Henri Cirhuza to be my fixer and keep the rest of the expedition on point.

Henri’s first job when we arrived in Walikale was to organise letters of permission from the local administrator, armed guards, porters, a cook, and a priest. We needed the priest to negotiate a spot where we might pitch our tents at the end of each day, and provisions of poultry, meat and vegetables. 

Our last night of civilization was spent in the Walikale Guest House, a spartan, raw-cement, six-roomed house, with a bent nail in the doorframe of every room for security. It’s odd how the standard of sleeping arrangements, which decline the farther into the jungle you go, seem so much more luxurious on the way back. From where I’m lying, in my unfinished thatch hut, the Walikale Guest House is the bloody Hilton. 

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast of Spanish omelets and boiled potatoes, we all piled into the back of a pick-up truck and drove out of Walikale Town. No one knew quite what to expect. But we didn't think our first surprise would come so soon. After just twelve kilometers, the road completely disintegrated, forcing us to abandon our vehicle. In the confines of the equatorial forest the temperature was a sultry 35º Celsius, and it was stifling and windless.

As our human caravan of twenty-one continued on foot, the path ahead looked unpromising. Though little more than a mud track now, our route had once been the main highway between Kisangani on the banks of the Congo River, and Bukavu on the shores of Lake Kivu. The German road builders had cleared enough jungle that there was scant shelter from the oppressive, mid-morning sun. But we had little choice but to stick to this “road,” despite impassable swathes of mud and hobbling deep ruts, as the jungle beyond it was otherwise impenetrable. 

The porters ran shifts carrying the two 35mm cameras, and kept their spirits up with a medley of marching songs that they sang throughout the day. Every one we met along the way was courteous and good-natured. Children cried, “Monique! Monique!” because the only other outsiders they had ever encountered were UN peacekeepers, known locally by their mission acronym, MONUC. In every village we passed we were greeted like liberators. 

The priest did his thing and the cook his, and each day ended with a generous meal, of goat or chicken stew, potatoes, and the chef’s special: tuna fish mixed with mayonnaise and tinned spaghetti. 

I have been somewhat disappointed by the lack of chums to share my bottle of Johnny Walker Green Label, although last night Steve joined me for a wee dram. 

Every morning, as soon as we unzipped our tents, we looked upon dozens of childish faces, eagerly awaiting their chance to catch a first glimpse of the bazungu who spent the night in their village. 

It’s taken us three days, walking an average of ten kilometers a day, to reach this mining village in the middle of the jungle. We’re not in very good shape, though all our problems are self-inflicted. The cinematographer has developed a raft of horrifying blisters on his feet, the result of trudging through swamps in boots that aren’t waterproof. And we’re already down to a third of our water supply. Believing the three cubic metres that flew in with us from Goma would be enough for this expedition, I hadn’t banked on the film crew practically bathing themselves in the stuff for the first couple of days. 

I suspect Steve thinks I’m out of my depth. And truth be told, he’s not wrong. This is not my patch. Still, he came to me, and I did everything I could to prepare for this trip. Now that I find myself in these strange and unnerving surroundings, I’m beginning to have doubts. Nonetheless, I’m keen to turn the experience into a safari I can market to more conventional clients. 

A 10-DAY journey through THE CONGO BASIN JUNGLE - includes AIR CHARTERS, PERMIT FEES, ACCOMMODATION, SUPPLIES, EXPERT GUIDE, PORTERS, COOK, and PRIEST... Here you can find some of the largest swathes of undisturbed tropical rainforest on the planet. The shrill resonance of it is unrelenting and it stinks of rot and decay, but there’s no where else like it on Earth. As we progress through the jungle we will seek permission in villages to pitch our tents in their locality, and camp for the night, as well as barter for chickens and goats (all other supplies will be brought with us from Goma). All our hydration needs must be shipped in with us, as the rivers and streams we cross are by no means potable. 

A good safari is always about ease of access, coupled with the thrill of the experience. Whatever the mode of transport, be it pirogue, motorcycle, or on foot, the important thing is to ensure that the client is always comfortable. If the journey is relaxed the experience will be enjoyable, regardless of whether or not they spot that rare, endemic species they wish to shoot. If they have to fly on an Antanov sitting on sacks of potatoes, light a couple of joss sticks and toss a few throw cousins around the cabin. And stay away from the horror stories, let them find out those for themselves. 

I begin to wonder whether guiding safaris is really what I want to do for the rest of my life. Having already invested two decades in a career in gorilla conservation, I feel I’ve paid my debt to nature. I always wanted to try my hand at writing novels, but never found a decent enough storyline. Lately though, I’d been meeting some pretty strange characters and unearthing their malicious plots. Ideas were beginning to form in my head.

Day 1: Transfer (2 hrs) by chartered aircraft to Walikale. This is your first glimpse of the real jungle, and it goes on for ever. After arriving at the airport (which doubles as the main road), transfer (30 min) by car to Walikale Town. The Kisangani Highway is among only a handful of roads surviving in this vast jungle, and only patches of it remain intact. When the Belgians ruled the Congo, there were more than 100,000 kilometres of paved road. Today, there are less than 300 km. This unexpected stretch, from nowhere to nowhere, holds back a wall of ravenous vegetation ready to reclaim it in an instant. Overnight at the Walikale Guest House.

I see Henri approaching, and ask “Vipi?,” (Swahili for “What’s up?”).

“Isn’t this a bizarre place?” he answers in French. He is surprisingly quiet and unassuming for a Congolese, though a stalwart in the campaign to save Africa’s endangered gorillas. And he’s always been a reliable barometer for the security of any given destination in the Kivus. A Bashi, born and raised on the shores of Lake Kivu, he knows the territory well. Every expedition into the Congo should have its own Henri. Still, I suspect he too feels a little out of his depth.

“We should do this kind of safari more often,” I tell him.

Henri smiles. “You think you can convince others to come?”

“Probably only adventuresome types. But you don’t need to be a soldier to stay this course. Sure, you will have to endure wading through swamps, trudging through mud, plenty of bush-whacking, and swarms of insects. Portable mosquito nets and waterproof footwear are a must. There’ll be nowhere to plug in your gadgets. Everything will be basic, just as it is now. On this circuit there’ll be no safari chic, only the thrill of knowing you’re the first one to follow it.”

“The Kivus could certainly use some tourist dollars,” sighed Henri. "Right now, it's only minerals, minerals, minerals."

“Of course we’ll need some interesting activities for them do...” I throw a few ideas at him.

Day 6: Transfer (3 hrs) by inflatable raft to Amasunga, where the river drops 22 meters over 60 kilometers, for a spot of white water rafting on the Luhuho. The thrills and spills of half a dozen cataracts, in such a remote wilderness, will make this a river run to remember. Overnight in Amasunga village.

Day 7: Transfer (4 hrs) on foot, to the village of Bikule, then (2 hrs) by car to Lobutu, a crossroads in the jungle. This is your chance to connect with the primordial forests. Over millions of years, dry and wet periods have alternated in the Congo River Basin, leading to the containment of several species in very specific habitats with distinct climates. The basin contains a major share of Africa’s biodiversity, and some of the world’s most spectacular and endangered wildlife. The high number of plant species found nowhere else on Earth makes these forests vital repositories of biodiversity. 11,000 forest plant species have been described in the Congo Basin, of which over 1,100 are found nowhere else, and about 70 species are threatened. Overnight in Lobutu town.

Day 8: Transfer (3 hrs) by motorcycle up Axe Maiko, leading north to Maiko National Park, for gorilla and chimpanzee trekking in this vast park. Maiko is one of the most remote forest areas of the Congo, covering 10,900 square kilometres and spanning the Oso and Lindi rivers. Dense equatorial forest characterizes the park, and three of the country's spectacular endemic animals occur here: the Eastern Lowland Gorilla, the Okapi, and the Congo Peacock. We will trek for 4 hours. Transfer (3 hrs) by motorcycle down Axe Maiko to Lobutu. Overnight in Lobutu town.

“It’s a safi itinerary,” says Henri, using the Swahili word for “proper”, while nodding his his head in approval. “Do you think insecurity will allow? Things are calm now. But you know the situation in the Kivus.”

“Security issues are always screwing with my safari plans," I gasp, kissing my teeth. "People think I have a jones for war zones, but it's these damn apes. They tend to live in scary places. Do you know the number of clients who have canceled their trips because of insecurity, or worse, Ebola?”

“These are problems we live with every day.” In the first light of day, Henri's furrowed brow resembles a Rift Valley escarpment.

“I need a drink, and another line of work.” I look east to try and coax the first rays of sunlight through the trees. And then one strikes me between the eyes, like a molten golden spear. I begin to break it down in my head. Steve’s only here because I helped him find the way. And the only reason he could afford to hire someone like me is that he owns original content, which has earned him a tidy sum. And being in an unlikely location with a powerful story to tell, he's about to create more original content, and earn more money. It’s a smooth racket. 


In the end Steve McQueen shot only twenty minutes of footage in the coltan mine. Plans to go elsewhere were scrapped, and we returned to Walikale forthwith. Sean Bobbitt’s blisters were becoming worse and worse, opening up like rift valleys in his heel and between his toes. He needed immediate medical attention. 

When we reached Walikale Town, we rushed him to the local hospital, run by Medicine Sans Frontier (MSF), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) with farther penetration into these sorts of red zones than any other. The doctor told Sean he needed to be airlifted out straight away. At the same time I learned the Antanov I’d chartered had been held up in Bukavu with a flat tire.

Being that Walikale airport was the only place with telephone network, we decamped there to see if we could hitch a ride on one of the many daily flights flying supplies in and flew minerals out. When I say airport, I mean a short stretch of the Kisangani Highway that gets cordoned off to allow the planes to land. Sean could no longer walk, so we sat in the departures lounge, a pokey wooden gazebo on the soft shoulder of the highway, and waited. 

The first plane to land was an Antanov 12-seater, its wings nearly clipping our lounge as it raced down the runway. It came to a standstill only a few metres from where the barrier had been lowered to keep travelers off the road. Using a tiller which they fastened to the plane's front tire, the ground crew of quickly rotated the aircraft one hundred and eighty degrees, then unloaded and loaded again. We explained our predicament to the Russian pilot, who just shrugged and said, "I've maxed my load already with minerals." 

"We'll pay you $2,000 to take the four of us and our equipment to Goma," I pleaded. 

"I couldn't even take one of you," he replied, adding with a chuckle, "You'll never get those cameras out of here." As he started up his engines, my heart sank. I began to wonder if we would ever leave the jungle.

An hour later a white 4x4, festooned with MSF logos and flags and towing an empty trailer, pulled up to the airport. It had obviously come to pick up a load from an in-coming flight. I figured it was unlikely these people would be flying any minerals out. As the plane approached the runway another MSF 4x4 pulled up, and a white woman got out. I accosted her in the hope I might appeal to her better nature. "My client is in a bad way, and needs immediate medical attention," I said. "May we please hitch a ride on your plane?"

"I don't know who you are," she snapped. "You could be anyone. There are all kinds of negative forces operating in this area." 

"I'm a Canadian safari guide," I said, calmly handing her my card, "and gorilla conservationist." 

She told me her name was Dr Leslie Shanks and that she was also Canadian. "I am currently acting head of MSF in the Congo," she added. "And our policy is to never give lifts to strangers. Why don't I have a look at your client's wounds."

"We've already seen a doctor," I explained in exasperation, "this morning, in your hospital, and he told us to airlift the hell out of here as fast as we could."

As she deliberated, the MSF plane pulled up behind her, and the ground crew began unloading boxes of medical supplies. It was then I noticed the co-pilot was someone I knew, another fellow-Canadian. We had met some months earlier in Butembo. He greeted me warmly, and promised to have a word with the Belgian pilot. But shortly after he returned to the cockpit, the propellers began to whine. This was not a good sign. 

"I suppose I could call head office," said Leslie, looking at her mobile phone. "Let me see if I can reach..." But her words were drowned out by the sound of her plane taking off, empty. She looked up in astonishment. Then, realising she had been trumped by the pilot, simply turned on her heals and began to walk away.

Steve McQueen, a mountain of a man, rose up to follow her. “Shame!” he cried. The sight of him striding loftily down the runway after her, while thrusting an indignant hand in the air, is one I shall never forget. "Shame, madam! Shame on you!" Spoken like a true gentleman. She hurried to her car and quickly drove away. It was indeed shameful behaviour for a person in her position. 

Later that afternoon our own plane arrived, and we were able to get Sean the medical attention he so urgently needed. Steve's film Gravesend was released a year later, to mixed reviews.

Day 9: Transfer (2 hrs) by chartered aircraft back to Goma, then (1 ½ hrs, incl. border crossing) by safari vehicle to Gisenyi, Rwanda. Relax by the lake, and enjoy a beachfront barbeque with sundowners, as you reflect upon your once-in-a-lifetime experience in the Congo Basin. Overnight at Lake Kivu Serena Hotel.

Day 10:  Transfer (3 hrs) by safari vehicle to Kigali Airport, and head for home, with the timeless memories of your safari of a lifetime.

You can follow this expedition on Panaromio