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

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