Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Don't Try This At Home
One of our more gung-ho guests has just got back from the DRC.
He'd been asking us about the prospect of gorilla tracking in the Congo, which is just starting to open up again. I'd been in touch with a French woman working with the gorillas in a NP near Bukavu, who was introduced to me via some mineral mining guys we know who work over there but evacuated their Landrovers to Red Chilli when the trouble flared up last year....
The mineral guys had told us that Congolese gorilla permits were rumoured to be $150 (an attractive price when compared to the $500 permit fee you'd pay in Uganda and Rwanda). The French lady corrected this and said that in Bukavu, they charge $300.
Noone recommended driving in via Goma. The week before, a western woman who'd been driving down the Beni-Goma road was taken into Goma with a bullet in the leg so the fighting is still pretty active in the area. Both of our contacts suggested going to Kigali in Rwanda and then flying or driving in to Bukavu.
This would have been enough to put most people off, but clearly this guy is either mad or made of sterner stuff. He went to Kigali, and asked around. Everyone there still quoted $150 per permit but a congolese guy told him that the road to Bukavu had fighting on it so the only safe way to the park there was to fly in. And anyway, the gorillas at that park are not as good as the mountain gorillas in the Virungas near Goma.
So does the guy fly in? Nope. Given he's on a budget, he decided that if he was going to get public transport through an area of civil war, he may as well go to the Parc des Virungas near Goma. So he gets on a bus to Goma and shits his pants all the way.
The roads are in ruins and the buildings (what's left of them) unrecognisable. Everything that is still standing has coils of barbed wire at every angle. The only other vehicles on the road seem to be white UN landcruisers.
Our intrepid friend got to his hotel and fell gratefully asleep, glad to have made it alive. He wakes at 3am to screaming and gunfire nearby. When he asks the hotel staff where the shooting is, it's just down the road. At this point, he says, he started to wonder if coming to Goma had been a good idea.
The next day he finds a travel agency and negotiates for a gorilla tour. The permits appear to be $400 pp however, so he's not biting. The guys won't come down - apparently that is now the going rate for gorilla tracking in the DRC (which makes me wonder what on earth their business plan is based on).
So he goes for a $30 taxi tour of the town. He doesn't wind down the windows or get out of the car at any point, until they're out of town and near a crater lake. He said it was just too dangerours to walk around the town. That said, he apparently went to a club one night - with a Congolese guy from his hotel - only to witness the apparently regular sight of UN aid workers circling the local prostitutes. Or was it the other way round? Ladies of the night can be pretty predatory in these parts - R always hates it when I leave him alone in a bar for long as when I get back he's invariably covered in prostitutes, looking mildly petrified.
He was the first tourist in town for months and months. His hotel had last had a Spanish couple stay four months before. And the tour guide hadn't seen anyone for a year. He bought some masks, and the sellers bargained hard. But then again, that sale probably had to feed them for the next four months.
Anyway, this mad tourist got back to tell the tale. And you could tell he now feels pretty invincible. But I couldn't help thinking he was a very lucky, lucky man and it could have gone either way.